books lifestyle

Payback: Debt and the shadow side of wealth, by Margaret Atwood

I read Margaret Atwood’s novel The Year of the Flood last month, and I was reminded that she had written this non-fiction book on debt. Since Atwood is one of my favourite writers, and debt is an important topic, I picked it up from the library. Payback is based on a series of lectures for Canadian radio in 2008, so it has quite an unusual, almost conversational style – personal, witty, and full of little diversions.

There are other books on the actual numbers, on how we get into and out of debt. Atwood is more interested in the philosophy, the psychology and the cultural understandings of it. She is interested in the words we use, that we get ‘into’ and ‘out of’ debt in the same way as we get into a hole, or get out of prison, as though debt were a physical thing. In reality, debt is a mental construct. It can feel like a heavy burden, but it can be written off with the strike of a pen – “debt exists because we imagine it”.

Debt isn’t a concrete thing, but nobody doubts that it is real, so where does the notion come from? It is the feelings of owing, or being owed, that particularly intrigue Atwood. A sense of fairness, she suggests, seems to be hardwired into the human brain, “the bright side of which is ‘one good turn deserves another'”. The dark side of it is unfairness, “gloating when you’ve got away with being unfair, or else guilt; and in rage and vengence, when the unfairness has been visited upon you.”

Much of the book chases this idea of fairness back through history and literature, from the ancient Egyptian and Greek myths, to Dante, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Dickens. She explores the idea of the deal with the devil, the original ‘buy now, pay later’, the Faustian pact. There are asides on usury and pawn shops. A chapter entitled ‘debt as plot’ notes that all debts come as a story – a reason for owing, and the paying back – and for some people, debt is a defining story of their lives.

Literature is full of wretched debtors, and evil lenders. At various times, both have been viewed as terrible sinners. In fact, whether it is financial or moral, a debt is a co-imagined thing. “Debtor and creditor are two sides of a single entity, one cannot exist without the other”, and in a healthy economy or society, those two sides “tend towards equilibrium”.

There is a book out at the moment called Whoops: why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay, which I intend to read. We all owe the banks billions between us, in mortgages and student loans and credit card spending. But the banks also owe us billions through taxpayer support. The power is of course all with the banks. We asked for the loan from them, we never offered them one in return. The debtor and creditor sides are out of balance. Atwood doesn’t go into all of this. It just hangs in the air for you to figure out yourself, and muse on further.

Where Atwood does finish up is somewhere else entirely. The last chapter retells the story of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, re-inventing Scrooge as a playboy tycoon. In a series of very funny encounters, he is visited by the spirits of Earth Day past, present and future. The past takes him through a series of cultures who have gone into ecological overdraft and collapsed, the present is a hippy spirit who shows him deforestation and bottom trawling. The spirit of Earth Day future appears as giant cockroach, but since the future isn’t written yet, is able to show him a choice of futures. One of them is a vision of a future city much like those low carbon, re-localized places dreamt up in the Transition Town visioning sessions. It’s a fitting place to end, with the biggest debt of them all – the one we owe to the land.


  1. “Democracy is, where everybody (except women of couse… and children… and slaves… and people of foreign extraction… and criminals… and people the government, for various reasons, doesn’t approve of… but other than that EVERYBODY) can vote who is going to be their tyrant for the next 5 years” Quoted freely after Terry Pratchett.

    I made a rough calculation. At the last UK general election approximately 12% of the population voted for Tony Blair. As for who voted for Gordon Brown…

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