Financing Prosperity Network workshop review
18 May 2016
Blog by Dr Christopher Harker
The Financing Prosperity Network
The Financing Prosperity Network launched on 10th May 2016 with a workshop that brought together academics, practitioners and activists whose work explores alternatives to existing debt economies. The goal of the workshop was to establish the network by developing a better understanding of existing approaches and expertise, and by building ties between members. Participants provided short written submissions beforehand, and then shared their ideas and interests with each other by working through cases. The day ended with a group discussion that focused on the future scope and direction of the network. The workshop was made possible by a collaboration between UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP), Durham University’s Department of Geography, and Goldsmiths’ Political Economy Research Centre (PERC).
IGP director, Professor Henrietta Moore, welcomed participants with an overview of the Institute’s mission to rethink how prosperity is defined and achieved. Professor Moore noted that the rapid growth of financial forms of debt, and its centrality to many national and household economies, poses one of the most significant threats to more socially, politically and ecologically sustainable practices of prosperity. Rethinking prosperity as health, happiness, wellbeing, good work and positive social relationships means we urgently need forms of finance that work for everyone.
Participants’ contributions outlined a range of alternatives that might enable more prosperous futures for everyone. Specific alternatives to debt ranged from greater regulation of existing credit industries, including more education about the links between debt and mental health and a rebalancing of debt obligations towards creditors, to rights activism around the legal entitlements of debtors, and the creation of a credit commons that would help eliminate predatory lending and debt recovery practices. Other suggestions included lower interest rates and making interest an object of political concern, and rethinking the legal assumptions and responsibilities embodied in debt contracts (including more debt forgiveness and introducing something akin to the compassionate leave people are entitled to as part of employment contracts).
Alternatives practices discussed included everyday forms of resistance and disregard for repayment (and its enforcement), collective organisation of debtors (e.g. through internet forums that maintain anonymity), and using digital devices and apps to enable new forms of peer to peer lending. These practices might be entwined with complementary, community and digital currencies, multigenerational community-based credit and support networks, mutual credit clearing, community/alternative exchange systems and shared economies, forms of communal property ownership, and welfare programs that seek full unemployment (by rethinking the quality and distribution of work) and provide a universal basic income. Many of these approaches tie into explorations of degrowth, democratic participation in finance, greater provision of social funds for people in times of crisis, enhanced provision of state/social housing and rent controls, greater wealth redistribution through the tax system, higher wages at the lower end of the pay scale, and more state investment in education.
There are many challenges to pursuing, and developing synergies between, alternatives to financial debt. One important barrier is the power the financial sector has in a highly financialised world, which generates conflicts of interest at a local level, influences public service provision at a national/global level, and transforms (i.e. ‘financialises’) many existing alternatives such gift economies. The interests of established networks of credit and finance institutions, and the pressure they are able to exert on state and regulatory bodies, combine with policy makers who are perceived to lack interest in household debt, hold biases toward work-based and conditional payments of welfare, and often face severe fiscal and budgetary constraints. Furthermore, while financial relations span the globe, debt is entwined with forms of political change and conflict that take very different forms in places like South Africa or Palestine than in Anglo-America. These geographical differences however are rarely acknowledged in current discussions around alternatives.
Further barriers include existing debt advice practices that are moralistic and do not acknowledge that many people get away with not paying, and legal systems that are underpinned by assumptions that are far from the reality of household debt. This reality provides another set of barriers, as shame, guilt and anxiety about discussing personal finances, individualises and isolates debtors. Existing solutions are often individualistic too, although debt is distributed socially through kinship and friendship networks, potentially undermining relationships that are key to many people’s flourishing. Debt problems can often be caused by insecure relationships, and become wrapped up in other types of social and emotional problems. However, these become difficult to disentangle and consequently the role debt plays can elude critical attention. Debtors themselves may lack information about existing repayment infrastructures, the technological capacity to find and utilise online solutions, or the bodily capacity to pursue offline solutions. They may also struggle with normative assumptions around debt and repayment, and misconceptions of money as fixed and neutral, which are embedded in forms of political and economic ‘common sense’. In addition to little public engagement with finance, another barrier to challenging existing debt economies is that many people actively want to keep borrowing, as they remain attached to dominant models of prosperity, money and consumption.
Following a concluding discussion about how the Financing Prosperity Network can best address its mandate and the aspirations of its members, the network organisers will take the following steps:
· Develop an open-access repository of written work on alternatives to debt that enable socially inclusive, equitable, and sustainable prosperity.
· Cultivate ways for members to collaborate with each other, whether for the purposes of learning, event organisation, raising awareness and activism around specific issues, or discussing and nuturing emergent possibilities.
· Examine possibilities for collaborative (and potentially comparative) research and funding applications.
· Explore avenues for promoting cross-disciplinary and cross-contextual conversations that can engage policy-making and business audiences.
· Continue to engage with network participants about their aspirations and needs.
Image credit (top): David Hoffmann, Lensational