BOOK REVIEW: Payback (Debt & the Shadow Side of Wealth) by Margaret Atwood

What happens when you teach a group of monkeys to trade pebbles for slices of cucumber and then give one monkey a grape instead? And why does it matter? Margaret Atwood – she of The Handmaid’s Tale – directs her remarkable intellect towards understanding debt, piercing what it is and what it means to the very heart in this slim book.

BOOK REVIEW: Payback (Debt & the Shadow Side of Wealth) by Margaret Atwood

Back in 2008 when we were slap bang in the middle of a financial crisis, the zeitgeist timing which recently propelled Margaret Atwood into the headlines with The Handmaid TV series in the era of Trump and @MeToo, saw her publish a non-fiction book on debt.

But this is Atwood, queen of speculative fiction with a vast imagination, so she doesn’t do what many financial crisis books do and close in to give a forensic account of what caused it (though she does call the crisis founded on sub prime mortgages a “pyramid scheme that most people didn’t grasp very well”) or discuss what the solutions should be to prevent it happening again. Instead, Atwood pulls back and takes an expansive view of debt – its role in society over thousands of years and around the globe: the forms it takes, the words we use to describe it, how it’s used by religion and governments, and why many novels are as much about debt as love.

Atwood’s starting point is to look at debt “as a human construct – … an imaginative construct – and how this construct mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear”. And if debt is a human, imaginative construct, why do we have it – is it something wired into us? Atwood posits that an innate sense of fairness supports the construct of credit and debit: that as social animals, humans depend on give and take to survive, and a system of borrowing and lending cannot exist without the principle of fairness, a way to weigh one thing against another (think of the balance of scales used to represent justice). Otherwise, unless we are desperate, we wouldn’t enter into contracts we considered unfair to us. Which is where the monkeys, pebbles and cucumber slices come in.

The first credit card was introduced in 1950

In an experiment, monkeys were taught to trade pebbles for slices of cucumber, which went well until one monkey was given a grape (considered better) for a pebble: there was outrage from the other monkeys. In fact they refused to continue trading. A sense of fairness then, Atwood concludes, may be wired into us and it is when things are disproportionately out of balance that things go awry. And from here she takes us on a tour of how debts and credits – financial and moral – have been managed, repaid and punished over the centuries.

The book is jam-packed with intriguing ideas, facts, literary analyses, sharp political remarks, insights and imaginative leaps. Did you know the first credit card was introduced in 1950? Or that when potatoes were imported to Europe from the “New World” they fuelled a population explosion? Or realise how tight is the relationship between war and taxes, with income tax introduced in England, the USA and Canada to finance wars (from Napoleonic to World War I) and many revolutions (such as the American and French) propelled by outrage against unjust taxation, with a prime aim being to destroy records because without memory there is no debt, and a written record is a form of memory”.

without memory there is no debt, and a written record is a form of memory”, Atwood

However, it’s in the final chapter that Atwood, famed for her dystopian world in The Handmaid’s Tale, pulls all the threads together and creates a truly terrifying future. She imagines an alternative to Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ where “Scrooge Noveau” (on his fifth wife – 22 yrs old, owner of a massive corporation) is visited by The Spirits of Earth Past, Present and Future and the hint that things are looking bad is when The Spirit of Earth Future appears as a cockroach.

What’s The Spirit of Earth warning about human environmental damage doing in a book about debt? This is about payback. Every debt, Atwood notes, comes with a date on which payment is due (just think of your mortgage) and we are heavily indebted to the earth we’ve been “killing” for decades: at some point there’s going to be a day of reckoning. The supply of food and materials is finite. Many countries where most destruction is going on are heavily in debt to the rich countries (Atwood points out the IMF and World Bank played a role in this), and as at 2008, the combined net wealth of the richest 25 million people equalled that of the poorest two billion. The debits and credits are not, is Atwood’s point, in balance.

It’s hard to cover the scope of this slim, five-chaptered, book in one review as it bursts at the seams with information and ideas, all written in a confidential, humorous, relaxed style. Worth reading: maybe even worth a second read to take it all in.

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