Living in a debtors' prison

By Giles Fraser
January 14, 2009

Debt is a human tragedy. As the house prices against which the vast sums of money that have been borrowed in my neighbourhood continues to fall, and as many loose their jobs, my role as a parish priest gives me an unusual degree of access to the private misery that is the hidden face of the credit crunch.

But what is private is also political. In his New Year message, the Conservative leader David Cameron has accused the government of having 'lost its moral compass' because they are encouraging the country to borrow more and thus to get ever deeper into debt. The prime minister, on the other hand, has insisted that only by encouraging spending can we stimulate the economy thereby safeguarding the jobs and businesses upon which our prosperity depends.

Much of this debate is a technical one, bound up with the workings of global finance. Some of us who are not economists struggle to keep up. Indeed, this is itself is a real problem; for the complexity of much technical economic language makes it very tricky for the non-specialist to track the ways of the economy with a moral instinct. How can public moral reasoning be brought to bear on the financial world of derivatives and securitisations when most of us have little experience of what these things are or how they work? Perhaps this is why many worry that the ways of the market seems to have become less and less answerable to our sense of what is right and wrong.

It's worth remembering that it was not ever thus. In 1904, the great philosopher Max Weber published his monumental essay 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism". Weber noticed that capitalism seemed to flourish best in countries with a broadly Puritan heritage. In such places, the values of thrift and hard work, and the suspicion of self-indulgence, formed a moral platform enabling the market economy to do well. In such an environment, debt itself was viewed with some suspicion. Sure, credit helps people buy homes and start businesses. But alongside this recognition existed a deeply ingrained cultural instinct that it was morally suspect to allow debt to run ahead of one's ability to repay.

Somehow, over the last thirty years, we have lost sight of the idea that debt is a moral issue. Thrift and frugality seem such stingy and old-fashioned ideas. But my New Year prediction is that these virtues will make a comeback in 2009. For now we see more clearly how debt and easy money can ruin lives. It's an evasion of responsibility simply to blame the government or the bankers or the way the economy works. In truth, we've all been a part of the problem, all fooled by what the Archbishop of Canterbury called "fairy gold". And now, simply put, we all need to think again.

This came home to me even more powerfully when I recently visited he site of the dreaded Marshal­sea debtors’ prison, where from the mid-part of the 12th century to the mid-part of the 19th, those who were unable to pay their debts were locked away until they could settle up. Some never could.

The most famous resident of the Marshalsea was probably John Dick­ens, Charles Dickens’s father, who was banged up for owing £40 to a baker in Camden Town. The young Charles, then only 12, had to go and find a job in a blacking factory off the Strand. The experience of degrada­tion and humiliation stayed with Dickens all his life, and is the reason why his fiction is so obsessed with prisons, child poverty, and financial misdemeanours.

It is the Marshalsea that is the home and birthplace of the epony­mous Little Dorrit, the excellent dramatisation of whose story has been re-run on BBC4. Against the background of the current financial crisis, few bits of television can feel so real and contemporary. It is as if Dickens knew Bernard Madoff (it is even a Dickensian kind of name), when he penned the story of Mr Merdle and the collapse of his bank.

No doubt it was the financial crisis that made me get up from my desk last week and inform my puzzled holidaying family that I had to go wandering around the bottom of Borough High Street for an hour or so and spend some time in prayer. I say prayer, which I suppose it was, but to the outside observer it was just me pacing up and down Angel Place. Even inside my head it was less obviously an act of intercession — more an attempt to listen to the cries of what Dickens called “the crowding ghosts of many miserable years”.

I still do not know why I felt so strongly that I had to spend my morning at the Marshalsea. I do not know what I achieved. I suppose the answer has something to do with the fact that I have found it difficult to integrate the financial crisis into my prayer life. The raw material of stock-exchange figures and interest rates does not easily find a home in the meditative heart.

Pacing up and down Angel Place gave the credit crunch a frighteningly human scale. What Dickens under­stood so well is that the great themes of human existence are best exposed by sifting through the specifics of time and place. The same is true of prayer.


(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney, an author, former philosophy tutor, and regular media commentator.

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