Payback: Debt And The Shadow Side Of Wealth.

Payback:  Debt And The Shadow Side Of Wealth.

Margaret Atwood

Bloomsbury Publishing – London, Berlin, New York,  2008.

ISBN 9780747598718 

Note:  This Review was written in 2010 – but Atwood’s writing is even more relevant now when you consider the rise of the Occupy movement and the near-revolutionary activity caused by debt in Greece, Spain and Portugal.

I like to imagine that baby Margaret Atwood’s first word was not “Mama” or “Dada”, but “Why?”

When novelist Atwood focuses her curiosity on our personal and societal relationship with debt she shifts the discussion into quite a different realm from the normal commentary on the financial crisis.

The timing of the publication of “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth” could not have been better, but this is clearly not the result of a opportunistic trip to the keyboard.  Her scope ranges from primatology to theology, with the classics, advertising and literature woven in, as she explores the “whys” of our relationship with debt.

It may be dense with information, but dry, it is not!  Those of us who love to find out “what lies behind….” will be constantly exclaiming “oh… that’s why!”, and those of us who relish a finely-turned phrase will be chuckling with delight at because of  throwaway lines like “Currency is called ‘currency’ because it must flow” (p99).

Atwood starts with the concept of balance, not just in the accounting books, but in our fundamental belief in fairness, and the evidence that this belief is hard-wired in humans.  Capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees display it, all ancient religions are based on it, and without it we’d never trade.   Trading requires recording – and number systems developed to support that.  So far so good  – fair exchange, with an expectation of fair payback, at a due date, and a way of accounting for it.

So how did the relationship between debt and sin evolve?  The ancient goddesses from the Egyptian Ma’at to the Greeks and Romans were involved in weighing up our behaviour and handing out retribution.  “The whole theology of Christianity”, as Atwood puts it, “rests on the notion of spiritual debts and what must be done to repay them.” (p67).  The “sin” has been attributed over time both to lender and borrower.

Having canvassed religion, Atwood turns her erudition to “debt as plot”, and indications of a paradigm shift in our attitude to debt that’s visible in the practically the whole of the 19th century novel genre. You’ll never read George Eliot and Jane Austen in the same way again.  Of course Dickens and Scrooge feature largely, and return later. Marlow’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s Shylock were forerunners in an exploration of debt and payback – and Atwood’s insights into both had me putting them back on my reading list.  For me, that is a true test of a book …  does it create those widening ripples of interest that has me re-discovering known books, and seeking out new ones?  “Payback” certainly does that.

And when the debt goes bad? When the cost is too high?  Atwood looks at debtors’ prisons, loan-sharks’ debt collectors – and more globally, the revolutions that have resulted from rulers and governments who have imposed heavy taxes to pay for wars.  She muses about how the world would be different if after Sept 11 2001 the President of the USA had opted for forgiveness instead of vengeance. “No ongoing Iraq war. No impasse in Afghanistan. And above all, no ballooning  and ruinous and nation-weakening and out-of-control big fat American debt”(p161).

Atwood is clear that the concept of balance, fairness and payback is about much more than money  – they are “moral debts, or debts having to do with imbalances in the right order of things. … The concept of balance is pivotal: debtor and creditor are two sides of a single entity … and exchanges between them  – in a healthy economy or society or eco-system – tend towards equilibrium.” (p 163)

To illustrate her last chapter, Atwood creates “Scrooge Nouveau” – a 21st C version of Dickens character, and takes him through similar journeys – with many more delights for the “why” addict. Scrooge is guided through the impacts of deforestation, over-fishing, over-farming, war and revolution, famine and disease…   the global evidence of the imbalances we have created.   What is the payback which is coming towards its due date?

It could all be very heavy going– or very preachy. But Atwood’s deft turn of phrase, her creative mind, and her wide canvas means that she can move from her “why?s” into her message without missing a beat.  If you only know her as a novelist… try this!  I was re-reading her “The Blind Assassin” at the same time as re-reading Payback for this review.  One genre enriched the other, and both enriched me.   That’s fine payback for the reading investment.


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