Debt as slavery?

Via Global Voices, I came across a post that got me thinking. At first I found myself agreeing with the sentiments, but then I began to reconsider.

The post, by Gil. C. Schmidt, was entitled Eager to Be Slaves, about Puerto Rican propensity for credit. The basic gist was that people buy too much on credit, and become economic units with scarcely more freedom than a beast in harness. I liked the excessive prose, such as Many people work, not to live, but to merely stay in the same place, running a daily treadmill of miserable despair, fearful that without this agony, their house of cards will collapse. Who owns their heart?, and Many people … consume to maintain “an image”? Who owns their mind?. The post didn’t really take the idea beyond the surface level that odious debt is enslaving.

However I began to disagree when it seemed to me that the notion of ownership was being portrayed as an unquestioned good. What is ownership? What is it to own something? All else being equal, it makes no difference if I own a car, or a car leasing company does. I get to use it. Buying into the blanket notion that success or independence means owning things is false – it’s part of the same enslavement mentioned above. Owning things is a responsibility, and in that sense is restricting of freedom. You either devote energy to protecting it from those who want to take it away, the wealthy imprisoned with and by their possessions in their gated communities, or devote energy to making sure its used properly, sharing it with those who could make better use of it at that time, or you shirk your responsibility and let the item go to waste, gathering dust in the garage. Either way, not owning it is easier.

The Cape Town community currency I’m involved with demonstrates the success of credit. Recognising that monopolistic, private ownership of the ability to grant credit is one of the factors behind poverty and inequality, it’s based upon the premise that the community grants credit. Everyone starts on zero, and can go into the negative, which I prefer not to call debt. Ideally, as long as the community recognises a person’s continuing contributions to the community, there is no problem with a negative balance. No one charges interest, further impoverishing those in the negative. No one earns interest on a positive balance, earning money without contributing, and rewarding hoarding. If there was no credit, there’d also be no one earning, and economic activity would come to a halt.

I’ve managed to ‘retire’ at 34. There’re a number of reasons I managed to do this. Mostly it’s luck, but it also helps that I don’t have any credit, and don’t spend very much. There’s no car to pay off, no house, no big bills. I don’t feel any sort of restriction on what I can or can’t do, but I also don’t tend to spend very much. A good day for me is walking in the mountain, not snorting R500 worth of cocaine after paying R100 entrance to an exclusive club. However, it was credit that allowed me to do this. I borrowed money from the private banks, helping to make them even richer, but it managed to help me to buy property I could never have afforded by saving. Now I rent these out, and that pays for my basics. Disregarding my qualms about property ownership (and that’s where, perhaps conveniently, it starts to get fuzzy if I try to get my head around everything), its credit that allowed me to do this.

So debt is not enslaving per se – it all depends how you use it.


  1. Thank you for picking up on my post. And indeed, I am guilty of “excessive prose.” What else would you expect from a guy who calls himself “Gil The Jenius”?

    However, I believe your analysis, though worthy, is flawed. Ownership is important, and it may lead to a different type of enslavement, but to give away your resources for the sole purpose of “using” items is wrong. Doing so repeatedly and beyond the level of your income is even worse.

    Your situation is to sidestep ownership and basically “live within your means.” How is that any different from my–overstated–“stop giving yourself away”? All I want is for my people to realize that who owns what, or really, who owns who, is a basic issue we must acknowledge and deal with properly.

    Once again, thank you. I wish you continued success.


  2. I agree with Ian about the burden of ownership. The bottom line is that you need a place to stay, transport and so on. It doesn’t really matter how you get them, as long as you can be reasonably sure that they won’t be arbitrarily taken away from you. This is security, and it’s not just about answering an emotional need, but also but allowing you to plan for the future. In our society, pretty much the only way you can have security of these necessities is to own them – if you get sick and can’t pay your rent, you’ll lose your house.
    Unfortunately, as soon as you own these things, you find that you’re one of the ‘haves’ – at least in a poor country like South Africa where owning a decent home is rare – and that it seems you interests are now no longer the same as the majority – i.e. you’re trying to protect what you have, and they are trying to get it – either by renting it from you, or through tax or theft.
    It seems like a no win situation, and is one of the conundrums capitalism creates.
    I think the community exchange model is a seed of how society could operate, and in fact did once operate before we decided to allow private property beyond need.

  3. Thanks Gil, Walton.

    Gil, you put my blogging to shame. I was trying to find your original post, and it had already scrolled off the bottom of your front page. And here I am just replying to some comments.

    Walton can put the sociological perspective a lot better than I can (what else would you expect from someone with Red Star in their blog title).

    Perhaps I tried to say too much, or too many things at the same time, as well as mixed up personal and structural observations about society.

    I’m not really trying to provide a solution, nor disagreeing with your advice. I don’t suggest anyone else should give away anything. If you had to reduce my rambling to one comment it’s simply to question the notion of ownership. And on top of that was a personal observation about owning many things.

  4. Greenman,

    I took no offense or even a hint of negativity about your comments. (I was too busy feeling flattered that you’d read my key-peckings…) I see you as having a different solution, probably due to circumstances, but also to personal choice. Keep moving forward!

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