What do you think about when you think about debt?
We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, debtor and keeper of The Book of Debts, which – one Volume per location – is being filled with entries, recited aloud and burned in symbolic acts of imaginary debt relief, as it travels the UK. To date over 1000 people have contributed to this project. The Book of Debts (IX) is currently open online, and will be launched in person at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning on March 12th 6.30pm – 9pm, where it will be for a week, then tour around Brixton until the finale on 29th.March.
I invite you to contribute to this Volume IX – whether you’re a borrower or lender, past or present. What is in your/our collective book of human accounts? Money, rights, time, love, attention? Shame, regret, anger, injustice, gratitude? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid? How do you repay a debt that is not financial? What would you have written off, call to account or want to draw attention to?
The project has been related to in different ways: as a provocation – an imaginary form of Jubilee (found in many Holy Books and the basis of debt cancellation activism) – or as a source of comfort and healing for past hurts, bordering on the therapeutic. Whatever you think it is, I offer it to you as a way of opening up what this poorly understood yet powerful construct can mean, a playful way of examining your beliefs, at a personal and societal level.
The debt entered can be owed by you – or to you. Or it may be owed to or by a third party. It may be financial, social, emotional, political, ecological or spiritual – or a combination of the above. All contributions are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself – and you can contribute as many debts as you like. We are inviting up to 10 local people to co –recite The Book with me on Sunday 29th March before it is committed to the flames, followed by a celebratory wake!
To contribute to The Book of Debts, IX, contribute online here or write in The Book in Brixton until the afternoon, Sunday 29th March, when it will be recited and burned in Central Brixton, full details of where The Book can be found and the finale location will be out by the end of February.
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.