Large outstanding personal debts – say a mortgage taken out during a housing bubble – can turn even the stoutest of us into ‘quivering insomniac jellies of hopeless indebtedness’ (as Margaret Atwood so accurately puts it). Debt is, we feel, whatever the rights or wrongs, ‘our own fault’.
We can’t help it, we are socialized to take such a moral view of debt.
A tiny creditor class is cornering untold riches for itself at the cost of global stagnation
But other moral views can also come into play. As a schoolchild in India in the 1970s, I remember many of the stories we read during Hindi lessons. A surprising number of the stories harkened back to feudal values and the need to change them and many featured the universally loathed figure of the moneylender.
One story that has remained in my mind tells of an impoverished paterfamilias who is forced by poverty into the clutches of a wealthy moneylender who extends credit at a scouring rate of interest (consider the pay-day loans offered by sharks to struggling families today). The poor man does everything to try to repay the loan while his family sinks ever deeper into the most abject want. Eventually he is reduced to suppressing notions of his honour and starts avoiding the creditor. The closing scene has the moneylender at the threshold of the family’s hovel. Getting no response from those cowering inside he yanks down a curtain to take as part payment of the debt – only to find the household’s women huddled together to conceal the flesh left bare by the rags they are dressed in. This finally shames the moneylender, who turns around and departs empty handed.