Debt and money, two mainstays of human economies for many hundreds of years. Even without money people can still get in debt: with debt creating a two (or more) way relationship between a debtor and creditor, between the person owing something and the person who leant it. Without cash people might end up paying off their debt by giving hours of their labour, their property or their body. Money just facilitates this process, whether it’s cash in hand or digits on a screen. Because money and debt have been instrumental in human societies for so long it’s hardly surprising that their impacts have stretched far beyond the economic realm. They are also interwoven in our language and relationships.
Take the word ‘should’ for instance. “I really should go to the gym today,” “You really should be nicer to people,” etc. It’s used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness, often in moral situations which concern how we treat other people but also in more mundane situations like getting fit and eating less junk food. Etymologically speaking it relates to the Old English scyld which means ‘guilt’, the German schuld which means ‘guilt‘ and ‘debt’, and the Lithuanian skeleit ‘to be guilty’ and skilti ‘to get into debt’. Thus, a simple word such as should has origins in both finance and morality, in both debt and guilt. Similarly for the verb to owe which we use both financially (“you owe me £5”) and personally (“you owe me a favour”), its history can be found in the Sanskirt ise ‘he owns’ and isah ‘owner, lord, ruler’, and the Old English phrase agan to geldanne ‘to own to yield’ (or ‘to have to repay’). These are two instances of the fusion of the financial and personal. It seems money and relationships go hand in hand.
In a previous post I commented on the book Debt by David Graeber – he highlights the history of debt and also the violence that goes with it. In many instances debt is a threat because those who don’t pay their debts are threatened with so much, e.g. a jail sentence, physical violence, being shunned. Graeber also traces the history to some of the ultimate debtor/creditor relationships, namely masters and slaves, in which the latter owed everything to the former – namely, their lives. This is hardly a happy history and certainly not a peaceful one, and it continues today. Slavery might be abolished (yet still practiced widely) but we still have to give up our time to get money from people with much more of it than us so we can afford life’s necessities. Worse still, because wages can be so bad we often have to take out loans and get in debt to banks to actually be able to buy these things. And when the system stumbles (as it does at every economic crash) the bailiffs come knocking and the reckoning is upon us – we have to pay off our debts one way or another or face the consequences. Jessie J knows all about this as is evidenced in her song Price Tag
“Seems like everyone’s got a price” she sings, in a world where “the sale comes first and the truth comes second.” And isn’t that a shame, that even in non-economic spheres of life, such as friendships, relationships, socialising etc, the ‘logic’ and discourse of money are still so powerful, even though one hopes that these spheres shouldn’t be predicated on the implied threat of violence. Jessie J hopes for something different, a world that’s “not all about the money.” She thinks it’s high time money and economics were put back in their place – an ambitious stance given we have a lot of reconceputalising to do, what with the money discourse being everywhere. But she knows we can do it and she knows that our relationships will be better off for it. “Forget about the price tags,” she sings: “We’ll pay ’em with love tonight.” And I wonder what an economy of love would look like…tbc.