Burning The Book of Debt, Birmingham – photos.Leave a Comment
I had two very different Burning the Books sessions last week, opening The Book of Debts to both groups, in preparation for this weekends performance. In October, we tried to access a number of groups to whom the issues of this project might be specifically relevant, but it wasn’t always easy, given the subject matter, and our lack of knowledge and forthcoming contacts in Birmingham at that time. I am very grateful for these two invitations, both were thought and heart provoking encounters and I am hoping that many of the contributors present will be there on Saturday – it gives the event a meaning and fullness
My first, very small but intimate group, organized by effervescent actor, writer and storyteller Gavin Young, was at the Old Joint Stock Theatre (which used to be a bank, I like!) . They were full of curiosity, insightful and profound in their creative developing of the concept of debt and how it might influence their choice of story to add the project (still open for Birmingham contributions till this Saturday, 3.30pm).
My second, with around 30 young student writers, organized by Writers Bloc manager and creative producer Elisha Owen, took place in an art room at the top of Birmingham Uni. Just getting through the responses to the question:
What do you think about when you think about debt? Took most of the session, which was actually perfect as it (1). Always expands my own understanding of the subject (2). Felt like everyone had voiced themselves however briefly, and their written stories – of debts they were proud of/grateful for/frightened of/burdened by/ prepared to repay/may never repay/ share with others, went in written form, quietly, powerfully, into the book.
Although first thoughts go to money, it doesn’t take long for people to grasp, play around with and come up with what else debt can be about or bring up – and it quickly gets dramatic! Until someone points out that there is a solar side to debt too, then the debate gets interesting.
So here is the sweep of words and phrases that came up in response to
What do you think about when you think about debt?
Money, burden, loss, relationships, emotion, life – not speaking it, survival, pain, struggle, home, ancestry, duty, unreal, imbalance, power, chase and escape, suicide, responsibility, the diggers, immateriality, fear, born into slavery, feelings, powerlessness, actions, fluctuating, undead, a trap, cultural, anxiety, guilt, personal, community, a necessity, empowering, what we owe newton, Kentucky route zero ( a video game about debt!).
And the stories, well, they are in The Book of Debts and you are invited to add your own, come along to Cathedral Square to hear them being read aloud this Saturday . Event details on Facebook and here. We will be exploring the question of debt as part of an opening talk at 2.30 inside the Cathedral with myself, the Dean and John Nightingale of Jubilee Debt Campaign before we open up The Book for final contributions, prior to the recital and burning.
As I am going to be wandering around with The Book of Debts (and my firekeeper) on Friday 3.30-5pm and Saturday 11-12.30 in the Colmore District, I think these simple questions I asked of these groups may be all I need to open the conversation with strangers I encounter and businesses I approach (apart from assuring them I am not selling anything or trying to convert them to a cause). We will see!
Last week on my trip to Birmingham – which happened to fall on Ash Wednesday – I met some extraordinary people. Among them was Matthew, who had just set up a Hunger Hut with some in the grounds of the Cathedral, as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. I used to do the fast of Ramadan years ago and know the power of it as both a personal and political act. They are doing a fasting relay to protest against food poverty in the UK caused by political policy and one of the initiators, the inspiring and radical Rev Keith Hebden, is doing a 40 day total fast, you may have seen this in the news. There is a lot around on this subject at the moment in the news and on the street, as every single safety net is being slashed in the guise of necessary austerity (in contrast to the uncollected corporate taxes which could render this totally unnecessary) and I think it’s difficult to make one’s voice heard amidst all of it, this panic, this moral crisis, where economy and ethics seem to have been set to different rooms and told not to speak to each other by those feverishly dismantling the welfare state.
But ancient rituals and disciplines, that double up as both spiritual and political acts – whether fasting or burning debts – can capture the imagination in a more oblique way.
I asked Matthew to enter a debt into The Book of Debts (read all Birmingham contributions here, they are powerful – and remember you can add yours before 3.15 Saturday to have it be read and burned as part of the finale ) and also to talk a bit about fasting as a public act. Here is what he said.
‘ A debt of socio-economic equality owed by the government to the poorest in society
End Hunger Fast is a national campaign to protest against recent policies by our government which are putting the rich before the poor . The government is saying that it’s ok for the richer to keep getting richer and the victims of that – the poorest people in our society – to be left at the bottom. We have got to a stage now in our society where we actually have – in the 21st century in Britain – people who are going hungry and can’t afford to eat – or who are reliant on charity. What we are saying is, we don’t think that’s right and we don’t think that is a just situation for our country. Already we have been here since 8.30 this morning and we have had a stream of people giving their own personal testimonies, their own stories of how they have been affected by the bedroom tax, by the benefit cuts, penalties to benefits.
There was one man who was here earlier talking about how he had gone to other countries in Europe and found short-term work and when he came back he was barred from the benefits system because he had been out of the country!
So even people who are making an effort to go and get a job, to find work are being penalised by the system. And really this is a way of us speaking up; using our voice to say that we are not happy with this situation and we want our government to take account of that and to think about the poorest people in society when they are making those decisions.
The act of fasting
Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline and I highly recommend it to anyone – so I would recommend it to David Cameron and it’s a very complex discipline. So it has the spiritual benefits but also something that has been used through history as a political tool, as a campaigning tool. Famously by Mahatma Gandhi. So, fasting in this context really is about our own spiritual experience of putting ourselves in the shoes of people who don’t have food. So we are not saying ‘o we have got plenty of food but we are going to campaign for people who haven’t got food, aren’t we good? We are saying, actually, part of this I understanding their experience. And it could be argued that there is an element of naivety about that as well, in that choosing to not have food is very different from being forced not to have food. But it’s about grounding the experience in something real, something physical – and something spiritual. And it’s about communicating how important this is to us. We are talking about realities that are difficult to articulate, difficult to explain in full, but there is a power to fasting, which can change things. And we do want to testify that we believe in that .’
We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, debtor and the keeper of The Book of Debts, which is currently touring the UK. One Volume per location, it is filling with human stories of debt – past and present, online and in public places. Its stories then form a public performance unique to that place. They are recited aloud before being burned – in an act of symbolic debt relief – followed by a celebratory ‘wake’.
The Book of Debts is now in Birmingham until March 15th and I invite you to get involved in any of the free events coming up, or you can read or contribute to The Book of Debts online and I will only know you through your words. The book is only as powerful as the contributions it contains…
So, what do you think about when you think about debt? Money, time, love, attention, gratitude? Shame, denial, regret, anger, injustice? Love, community, compassion, forgiveness? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid? How responsible are we for what family, our community, nation or we owe? Is there a story you would like to see an end to? From priests to market traders, activists to office workers, students to bankers, The Book of Debts is open to anyone who finds it, whether debtor or creditor – past or present. The debt can be owed by you or to you. Or it may be owed to or by a third party – individual or institution. It may be financial, social, emotional, ecological or spiritual – or all of the above. All entries are anonymous and you can add as many as you like.
I was at the Library of Birmingham, gathering stories this winter – take a look. Here are the next opportunities:
Please share –facebook event here or @burningthebooks. All events are free. To contact us mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, call Elizabeth on 0787 353232 – or just welcome me with an open mind when you see me with my Book..
I read with a combination of outrage and excitement the news that £900m of ‘ageing’ student debts have been sold on to a global private debt company. They were sold for £160m, what a bargain – Primark prices!. Phrases like ‘the private sector is well placed to maximize returns from a book (a book??) that has deteriorating value’ and this represents ‘good value for money’ (for who? not for the students obviously) made me my heart sink. My partner’s film school student debt will be one of those included in this ‘book’.
Having been subject to the manipulation of private debt companies in the past, I know the dark pressure they are capable of exerting on people and the impact this can have on one’s mental health, not to mention financial well-being.And we are talking about educational debts here, for a public service! not consumer debt.
I will give a personal example of this in my very next post, but let me explain why I used the word excitement. If there is a sector of society who are capable of drawing attention to and engaging in a movement of massive debt resistance, of arming themselves with the information need to question the morally reprehensible and still unregulated behaviour’s of the private debt sector, it is the student body. And this is has started, with the demonstrations last week .
I hope there is a connect between this sell-off –which happened today – and the attention recently and so powerfully drawn by the US-based Rolling Jubilee campaign via Strike Debt to the secondary debt market, which technically this ‘book’ will become part of. From what I understand, there is a legal case (in the US but not sure how it works here) for questioning the validity of the contract between the debtor and a company which has bought a debt like this, if the new contract is not acknowledged by the debtor as valid or the new creditor cannot supply the original version of the contract. I do not know the precise details but this must surely be worth looking into! Since student debt – and medical debt – has been a massive issue for a long time in the US, Occupy have devised ways to provide information for those who want to resist unjust debts, a lot of this is in the Debt Resistor’s Manual. I’m not endorsing everything in this manual, and some of it only applies to those in the US, but I know from experience that the more information you have as a debtor, the more power you have to draw a line between yourself and unacceptable but still legal behaviours in use within the debt collecting sector. Some debts we really want to pay – but some are blatantly unjust, particularly those sold on which then acquire the machinery of the manipulation and maximisation of ‘assets’ at the expense of the financial survival and mental well-being of the debtor -who is, after all, a human being. And those which are converted from public to private debt are ethically questionable to say the least – no student would have willingly entered into a borrowing agreement with a private company in the first place – although I have to say that my partner was sold a film school ‘student loan’ by Lloyds years back, which turned out to be a high interest bank loan , with PPI. He got the PPI cancelled and overturned by the ombudsman before this came to the headlines for millions of others, but was still liable to pay a front-loaded bank loan totalling more than his income every month – which tipped us over the edge initially -as opposed to the affordable monthly amount that comes off of wages once you start earning. So there have been some questionable banking practices already in relation to student borrowing and it dismays me to see how overt this move is in that direction.
During my recent stint in Birmingham Library with The Book of Debts Volume IV (which will be the next to meet a fiery end, on March 8th 2014, details to follow), I had conversations with quite a number of students about this and they put their debts in The Book. The total in student so far comes to £111,000. One of the students, who put in £36,000, also put this in the book:
‘That is the price tag of my degree, the fees only. I feel reckless about it at the moment, just enjoying my degree, and on top of that I want to do a PHD – at 6k a year, plus maintenance I am looking at owing up to the early 100k and that lasts 25 – 30 years. Does that mean I will die in debt! I heard that if you move abroad and become a citizen of another country, after three years your Uni debt in this country will be written off..?
I would not be without my education though, so…what to do!’
Taking this idea to its extreme, a mass exodus of educated young people from the UK is not what the government wants, but it cannot see beyond the delectable prospect of shaving hundreds of millions off its accounts book. And this is only step 1. The issue of how this sell-off will impact students lives in other ways are not even given a mention in its comments this last week. Perhaps because it isn’t considered by them to be an issue? But it is aligned with a lot of their other short term – goal oriented thinking on education generally so I do not know why I am surprised…
I look forward to seeing how this unfolds, I think there may be creative solutions to transforming this , based on what I have seen happening in the US.
All debts contributed so far –many of which are non-financial- can be browsed here. Volume IV is open for new contributions until March 7th 2014 before a finale event of talks, recitals and a ceremonial burning in the Centre of the City, host venue and details of related events tbc very soon!
As I posted this, I noticed that students are still in occupation at Birmingham University in protest at what has been happening.
I have been thinking a lot about indebtedness – the immeasurable step-sister of debt.
Many people, I am finding, if they have a clean credit record, think debt is something that does not apply to them, is to be feared and is all about finance. To some extent , on a socio-politcal level this is an accurate perception. However, broadening things out (as I like to do), although we may not always be personally in debt – in the external sense of the word, i.e. through finance or favour – there is always someone to whom we are indebted too.
And this is the week when it is said, depending on your cultural / belief system – whether all Souls Day, Day of the Dead or Samhain that we are closest to those who have come before us, to that darkly poetic veil between the worlds… And there is the opportunity to reflect on and, where appropriate, symbolically honour, lay to rest or break bonds with, the actions of our ancestors and how they have or still do affect us, in the present. At least that is what I am proposing and have been looking at myself.
Debt or indebtedness? I intend for The Book of Debts to cover both of these and to look at the distinctions and connections between them. And the story I will tell here is personal and covers both concepts in one tale.
I am in debt to a number of external agencies – mortgage, credit card and loan companies etc. The expected payback is measured in a certain way and the circumstances of that payback shift over time, depending on both my capacity to pay, how I manage my finances and the revealing of information about how some of those agreements were sold or signed for (PPI, bank loans sold as student loans when in fact they were high interest bank loans after all, fraudulent information supplied on guarantor loans by a family member, hidden interest rates poorly explained in esoteric language). Yet, beyond the emotional stress that was caused when I went from defaulting to a debt management plan, there is no sense of a personal relationship that I need to repair or an emotional residue hanging over them. They are figures on a page, to be managed. (Not true of outstanding debts to friends but more of that in another post).
I am indebted to those who helped to save my family and I from going under in the chaotic wave of financial devastation, as we lost our home, credit rating and temporary self-esteem, not to mention the rocks which almost lured my marriage apon them in the fallout.
To some I am both in debt and indebted. I am indebted to those who did not judge us harshly for having screwed up, who were there to offer emotional support, straight talking or a compassionate ear. As well as offers of practical support to make sure we were not on the streets or unable to feed our children.
In thinking of these people – mainly close friends – some of them responded to my gratitude with an example of previous counter-indebtedness to me, which balanced the scales for them, for others there was/ is still a sense of something to pay for –whether in money or attention. But there is clearly a deeper bond with these people than there was before. They witnessed my often-uncomfortable vulnerability (I was so often before the one to treat, host or give generous gifts, in true Iranian tradition.). And now, as they see life and work starting to flow for me once again, they know what caused the suffering apon which it is drawn. They know me more.
I am also constantly drawn back to those I may be indebted to who came before us/me. My Iranian mother, Parvin Azadeh Rieu, who passed away in 2004 and was an example of extraordinary generosity and compassion, to whom I acknowledge the qualities of creativity and self-belief, social conscience and a love of poetry and interactions with the public…. this is an emotional debt owed via her biology and commitment.
And yet at times I see how this generosity of hers turned into over-protectiveness and financial co-dependency, bordering on control (confused with a passionate motherly love). Especially true in the case of my long lost brother, who was the catalyst for our family’s descent into a tidal wave of uncontrollable debt. (Strange I wrote that, she died in a tidal wave, more threateningly renamed a Tsunami at the time in 2004) This backstory of my fall from financial grace is told earlier on in this blog, reposted from my R+D blog .
It is a story about learning to draw a line with those you love and managing one’s ability to help another (whether financially or emotionally) on one hand and managing the risk to ones own financial, emotional and mental well being involved in doing this on the other.
Looking back, beyond my mother, to my ancestral line on the Iranian side, to North West Iran, I had always been aware of the story she told me of our charismatic, gambling, great, great grandfather who took the proceeds of the sale of my family’s land back to the state around 1900 (?) – in a beautiful metal box with a secret lock – which she gave me and I still possess. It had been filled with gold coins, I was told, and in the possession of my great, great grandmother, who was by her account the matriarch and in control of the land and the finances. One night, her husband took this chest with him over the border to Russia (where I imagine gambling was not illegal?) and sat up all night playing cards. He returned home the next morning with the chest completely empty, and my great, great grandmother banished him to Russia, never to be seen again.
Last weekend, in a rare reunion with my Iranian aunt, cousins, sister and nieces in London, I asked my aunt about this story, which I had become attached to as ‘true’ and part of a personal archaeology which explained why I seemed to always fall on hard times when I entered into financial relationships with men close to me, whether related or not…
She said that it there had been a chest of coins (silver, not gold) and it was indeed the chest in my possession. But that it was the dowry payment from my grandmother’s family to my grandfather’s family – so one generation closer. And that her father – my grandfather – was the gambler. He did indeed gamble the whole lot away, along with several properties in the village, and they – a family of 11 children (two wives) were then forced to rent a house, and later moved to the south of Iran, living out a much more modest lifestyle than could have unfolded, due to his habit. I know this grandfather was loved by my mother and her siblings, he was a handsome, charming, free-thinking man (a resistor of religious and social dogma, according to my mum) and he was the one, when the census was introduced and the family had to give itself a surname – to introduce ‘Azadeh (the free one) into the mix.
So where was the Russian connection? My aunt then told me that her fathers father HAD indeed vanished to Russia, but this was because his wife, her grandmother – was so dictatorial he could not bear to stay. It sounded like he also had a gambling streak but absconded before being held to account. So somewhere we do have Russian relatives…
This still ‘explains’ to me, in terms of the patterns following a family timeline, some of the behaviours of both my brother and other male members on that side of our family. Something in that story gives me the ‘proof ‘ that what has happened did so in a wider context, stretching back over time. But it is still a story. But I want to put it in The Book of Debts, to symbolically have it stop with me. A phrase from a book I am reading jumped out at me the other day: ‘The past is over, it can touch me not’. Yet sometimes the consequences of my actions have felt like they are part of a much longer backstory that I can ever know, and, I have fallen into fetishing them and giving them more power than may be helpful to determine . I want to play with the idea of writing them off..
There is a conversation around forgiveness here, which I have had with a few contributors in Birmingham at the Library where I have been with The Book of Debts recently. It is the difference between forgiveness and accountability. I can forgive my brother, and myself, and those errant male ancestors of mine, but I can still hold him/ myself to account for what needs to be cleared up, written off, paid up. This will be an on-going theme, and for now I invite you to think back and draw out any ancestral stories – whether personal or national – to add to The Book of Debt Volume III.
(Ps We will now be burning The Book of Debts, Volume III, Birmingham at the end of the winter, early March, details tbc. by mid November.)
Happy All Souls, Day of the Dead, Samhain – whichever or none you may be observing in whatever fashion..
A lot happened when I was with my Book of Debts at The Library of Birmingham last week. You can get the picture quite quickly from the contributions that are now in the book by clicking here , on ‘explore debts’. And please, do contribute as The Book is open to anyone to add to, at any time, whether in Birmingham or not. But first things first.
My very first encounter in the foyer area of the lovely Library, (so welcoming! Thankyou. esp to Cathy wade in the Carousel) was with John Nightingale, Birmingham –based campaigner for the Jubilee Debt Campaign (JDC) – a natural ally to this project from the perspective of financial and social debt.
Interestingly, last Thursday Oct 17th was officially UN Poverty Eradication Day – and I timed the start of my encounters to this as it seemed apt – but this event went totally unnoticed or marked in the media – or anywhere – poverty fatigue??, National Day marking fatigue? or , as one journalist friend told me she had heard her editor remark , ‘poverty is so…boring’. Let’s cover the prices of luxury branded art commodities at Frieze art fair instead then… Enough said. Or rather, too much to say.
But back to JDC, whose work I have been aware of over the years and is a very practical way that anyone can get involved with that affects poverty in a very real way, by campaigning for the cancellation of unjust debts globally. So, John began by explaining their aims in very accessible way, covering a lot of the moral questions which I have looked at over the last 18 months, which might be useful to hear here. He also put £58bn of unjust unpaid debt into The Book (!)– the foreign debt burden of Pakistan, more on that in the next post.
Since this project – and The Book of Debts itself – operates as a framework for a multiplicity of perspectives, whether spiritual, activist, utterly personal or totally pragmatic, I try to deliver what people bring to me in a simple way. The final recital is influenced by what i am given and how much impact those givings have on my own growing understanding of this often confusing phenomenom of debt as a human construct. So here is the transcript of what was said and brings the international perspective to this particular Volume, it was a long conversation so it will come in two parts:
‘ Jubilee Debt Campaign calls for the unjust and unpayable debts of poor countries and also a changing of the system so that sort of thing does not happen again. Not all debts are unjust – there can be some debts that are for good purposes, I mean you can lend some people some money, they buy some tools, they do some work, they repay you – that’s’ a good thing that could not have been done before.
With debt there is always a risk – it shouldn’t be just one party that bears the risk…. Risk should really be shared, that’s only fair and just. But anyway some debts can become unpayable, something can go wrong, there can be an accident like that and once you get 10% or more of your income going into debts, there is no way you can get round it. It is in everybody’s interest that something is done. As you will know from David Graeber’s book, this goes back to time immemorial. Primitive societies didn’t necessarily need to have money, all they needed was some way of reckoning obligations to one another, that at certain times becomes intolerable and either you get a new ruler or a revolution or something like that – and when you do, the first place they go to is the place where the record of the debt is kept and they destroy it.
So, in one sense there is a right sort of debt – because we are part of the human community you see and we are not isolated individuals, and we owe something to one another. That’s good – you know families don’t necessarily like one another but you do help one another, owe something to one another- we ought to be more like a family. But on the other hand you have got to keep up the relationships and when things become intolerable, things have to change.
A good thing did happen around the time of the millennium there was, with Jesus’s birthday, a question around how do you celebrate it ? etc., and one of the things that Jesus historically at this time said (which went back to the ancient Hebrew scriptures) was in terms of the cancellation of the debts and the idea of the ‘ jubilee’ every 7th year and returning to a level playing field again. So that was necessary because in his time there was the most terrible debt, I mean people were paying debts to the Romans several times over and to the temple several times over and they had to sell their land because they didn’t have enough money etc. they were becoming debt slaves. Jesus speaks about this (I’m a Christian myself but not all those involved in JDR campaign are Christians). Jesus speaks far more about money and debts than he ever speaks about sex or anything like that because it’s an absolutely crucial theme. And when you look at the followers of Jesus, when they got going on their own one of the things they were very concerned about was to help one another, and not to get into debts, into trouble.
So Jubilee Debt Campaign brings together those of all beliefs, faiths or none – and the great event which was here in Birmingham in 1998 was the human chain, when the leaders of G8 were surrounded by 60,000 people holding hands and as a result of that there were promises that something would be done about the unjust and unpayable debts. And since that time about $130bn of debt has been cancelled .It was done very carefully, so that the money that was released did not go into someone’s back pocket but would go towards health or education and we have many examples eg Tanzania and Zambia of the mortality rates of mothers and children going down as a result and the rates of people being educated going up. But if course things don’t stand still and you have to come up to a crisis and that in many ways, just as it’s worse for the poorer countries that it hits hard something has to be done again’…
We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, mother, southerner, human being and… debtor. I’m also the keeper and scribe of The Book of Debts which, one Volume per location, will be filled, read from and burned as it travels the UK, starting in the Library of Birmingham this Thursday 17th (UN Poverty Eradication Day ), Friday 18th and Saturday 19th October, meeting its fiery end on Saturday 2 November at Minerva Works, Digbeth hosted by Fierce Festival. (see details below).
We can meet to talk in person. Or you can contribute to The Book of Debts online and I will only know you through your words.
With the Book in hand, pen ready and ears open, I offer you a conversation about debt you might not expect to have. We are all debtors on some level. Here is a moment to listen to the experiences of others, be heard, and speak about or describe the lived experiences, issues and hopes of those who inhabit the same city as you – and further afield too. The Book of Debts is open to anyone who finds it and wishes to contribute, whether debtor or creditor – past or present. The debt can be owed by you or to you. Or it may be owed to or by a third party – individual or institution. It may be financial, social, emotional, ecological or spiritual – or all of the above. All contributions are anonymous and you can add as many debts as you like, one by one.
So, what do you think about when you think about debt ? Money, time, love, attention?
Shame, denial, regret, anger, injustice ? Love, community, compassion, forgiveness? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid? How responsible are we for what we, our family, community or nation owe? So far I have collected, recited and burned around £3.6 billion of unpaid financial debt, spanning unpaid corporate taxes, student loans, credit card bills and defaulted mortgages. But debt is a broader than finance. And there is no debt without story. Some of the immeasurable debts I have collected are tales of unrequited love, political repression, ecological damage, family feuds and missed opportunities. Sometimes they are a single word, name or figure of money. I have put many of my own debts into the book and if you want to know why and how I am doing this project, you can read my blog and find out.
I’ll be on the streets, in communities (some slots still open to invitation so do contact us if interested) and in the Library of Birmingham, beginning this Thursday October 17th 3-6pm in the ground-level foyer somewhere. I’ll also be there Friday 18th October (3-6pm) and Saturday 19th October (11-1pm) and Thursday 24th October (3-6pm). Come sit with me for 15 minutes – you can listen to existing debts and their stories from The Book of Debts (including my own) and – if you wish – you can tell me your own – or call another to account – and I will scribe it to the book.
Or you can browse existing contributions and add your own to reach The Book in absolute anonymity via www.burningthebooks.co.uk/contribute now or at anytime before Saturday 2 November, 3pm. The Book of Debts will then be recited in public and burned in a symbolic act of ritual destruction, at 5.30 – 7.00pm Minerva Works, Digbeth.
Please share with anyone who might find this interesting. All events are free.
#burningthebooks to follow me around the city or follow on facebook.
Supported by Arts Council England, Fierce Festival and the Library of Birmingham
Touring producer, community and press contact: Elizabeth Lynch
Burning the Books, in the words of one of the first contributors – is ‘a free public service’ for anyone who wishes to use it. It is an imaginary form of debt relief which all are welcome to be part of. It aims to challenge the social stigma around debt and also consider the alternative economies that communities are turning to as the mainstream economy is drying up for so many of us.
On friday I was up in Birmingham for a ‘Live arts Futures’ gathering as part of Fierce Festival, our project partner in Birmingham. I was asked, along with Brett Scott, author of ‘The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance’ (which I will be referring to as this blog and its pages unfold…) to contribute to a discussion on Alternative Economies. It was very deftly moderated by Lynn Goh of In Between Time Festival (if you don’t know about their work, you should…very inspired programming).
Such a complex and broad subject, it’s often after these events, when the question has been asked and you have responded, that you only start to understand the importance of the question. Along the timeline of the books I have referenced here and on my previous BTB blog, Brett’s book is the next, timely step in opening up an understanding of the esoteric world of finance in a humanly accessible way.
He speaks from personal experience, both as someone of sometime shaky economic means and from his previous persona as a derivatives broker in the city. I can very much relate to his sense of wanting to go beyond the strictly oppositional, right /wrong dichotomy that has (understandably) evolved out of current economic activism, i.e. within the Occupy movement. And yet at the same time highlighting social justice issues and in his case offering pragmatic ways to subvert or engage in alternatives to the mainstream economy that seems to be literally devouring people’s livelihoods, identities and sense of self worth on an accelerating basis.
Looking at links between us, as I am offering up a live, public service rooted in the arts but seeking to cut across sectors and social contexts, I liked what he had to say about alternative currencies (roughly quoted): ‘I currently partially think of experiments in alternative economies as quasi-artistic; they tend to be before their time, they exist within a society that does not support them. They are quite performative and an ‘acting out’ – using them (whether the Lewes/Brixton/Bristol pound, the bit coin or localized gift economy systems for example) takes you out of your current societal context and of course there is a big question as to whether alternative currencies or exchange systems are sustainable within the current economic system.’
This idea of a symbolic ‘acting out’ of alternative economies very much connects to the idea of The Book of Debts and how it can be instrumentalised by the public. One collective way of highlighting a contrast to the mainstream system. What might the uses of this acting out in this project (reciting, recounting, scribing, reciting and burning debts) actually be? How useful can such a seemingly futile series of acts be? A few responses to this came out of the Portslade burning:
“ I still feel burdened by a financial debt, but having had it included in the book gave it more air somehow. It exists, it is there and I will need to repay it. While I’m not able to do that now, I am not sinking into hopelessness around it, but it is as if there is a ‘placeholder’ – this acknowledgement also acknowledges my responsibility for the debt “ and ‘It was useful to have a structure within which to reflect on my debt. It is interesting to have a more positive and restorative conversation around debt, rather than the same old cyclical story’.
Brett also talked about technology driving change in this area and how money has been acting as an intermediary technology designed to ‘resolve trust problems between strangers in transactions, but in so doing it atomises human relationships. It has psychological feedback built into it, so perhaps it might achieve the aim of facilitating exchange but in so doing it breaks down societal cohesion. With internet –enabled monetary systems, they can become a new way of sharing both information and new ‘trust-metrics’ can start to develop alternative forms of exchange – eg gift platforms, time banking, peer-to-peer systems, open source economic systems etc.’.
The example of time banks came up at this point, and the tension in the idea that they take a lot of time (!) to administrate once scaled up. I gave the example of the closed system of childcare swaps I have set up with three other families at my children’s school. An example of a gift economy, instead of each paying for childcare we found enough of an affinity (children’s ages and existing friendships) for it to work on a weekly basis. With this, as well as time enabling us to work and work away more easily, have come other ‘relational resources’ that would not come with paid childcare, which arise out of putting oneself in a trust system to co-support each other – deepening friendship bonds, conflict resolution sharing if issues arise, last minute help more likely available since there is on-going communication etc.
There was a question at this point –in seeking to look at this as ‘system’ that could be used more widely – at the lack of diversity that this ‘system’ entails – i.e. It relies on an affinity with parents with perhaps similar values in order to work and is not open to all, it is exclusive (I think the word ‘pluto-facist was even mooted at one point. Well yes, it is an individually-initiated gift system within a small-scale community where affinity is an essential component to making it work. And children are humans with relational sensitivities not commodities..) Brett pointed out that there is a trade-off in any gift –based system like this where there can be an inherent conservatism and it raises the question of how to balance the two – i. e not wanting to get into a system where there you could be stuck in an oppressive set of relationships where you are bound to your community (more relevant I think to what happens within families over time, Brett gave the example of communities in the poorest areas of South Africa, where most systems of exchange are non-monetary) . But at the same time the other end of the scale is a situation of extreme alienation and no network of relationships at all.
‘The Gift that is not used is lost, while one that is passed along remains abundant’ (Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and The Artist in the Modern World).
One thing I omitted to say at this point about gift based systems – and which applies to the childcare swaps I am part of – is that it is not restricted to exchanges between two individuals, it is the needs of the group –which change over time (i.e. sometimes I or someone else are away working more often than someone else in the group and so need more support, but that might change the following month) which are the determining factor for how often a particular swap will occur. It is the idea of a transferable gift, on a more esoteric level this related to the idea of karma, that when we give it comes back to us, but not always from the same source to which we gave.
This is an inherent quality of the gift and also of debt, and the perversion of this in the current economic context is that financial debts can be sold on to companies with whom we did not choose to enter into a financial relationship, and who then are invested with a moral power to pursue and hound until a result is secured, regardless of changing circumstance. More on that next time, as I drill down into the focus of this current Volume of The Book of Debts, coming to the streets of Birmingham from next week –details to follow soon….