Neither a borrower, nor a lender be

Linked with Mark Vernon – England.

Published on his blog named Philosophy and LiFE blog, on Sept. 27, 2008. (First published on openDemocracy /Sept. 24).

Consumerism has boomed on debt. The huge profits of banks spring from massive borrowing too. In what are often referred to as “normal times”, this is only sensible and right, according to capitalist logic. However, these are now abnormal times. They throw the culture of debt into high relief, perhaps affording us the opportunity to think about how debt shapes and makes us. “Be not a beggar by banqueting on borrowing”, wrote the writer of Ecclesiasticus in the Hebrew bible. Has debt made us beggars, or at least undermined our power of self-possession? …

… For the whole logic of modern technology is that the gizmo itself doesn’t matter: the valuable stuff, the data, is stored in virtual space. The device itself should cost nothing to replace, financed in part by credit. Might this philosophy of technology be another thing that changes as we rethink our relationship to debt? “Borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”, wrote Shakespeare.

The same stanza contains the injunction: “Neither a borrower, nor a lender be.” The reason is that debt undermines relationships. This was something that the philosopher Jacques Derrida pondered when he wrote about gifts. In the modern world, he argued, it is not the giver who gives and the received who receives, but the converse: the giver receives and the receiver gives. This perverse logic arises because we think of gifts as putting the benefactors in our debt. If someone invites you for dinner, you owe them an invitation in return. Gift-giving in business is a means of purchasing special treatment.

That said, there are places in the world where gifts can still be given, in less commercially conscious environments. One is where I take my holidays, in south, rural France. Go when the farmer’s hens are laying, and every morning there will a box of eggs at the gate. We say thank you, slightly embarrassed, wondering what we might give back. The farmer thinks precisely nothing of it.

Back in this world, Derrida concluded: “A gift is something you cannot be thankful for.” What a depleted place it is.

Matt Barrett, when chief executive of Barclays Bank in 2003, made what became a notorious remark. “I don’t borrow on credit cards because it is too expensive”, he confessed. He was interpreted as implying that his own Barclaycard was a rip-off, and was derided in the press. Now, perhaps, we can hear his line in another sense. Are we learning that debt is not just financially but humanly too expensive? (full text).

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