Studies of the hopes that accompany personal debt have highlighted the aspirations it generates for upward mobility. Yet working-class debtors living on a housing estate in southern England expressed little faith that their socioeconomic situation could improve. The optimism accompanying their indebtedness was of avoiding legal enforcement despite being behind with repayments. This optimism involved a spatial politics of debt, where debtors expelled threats of enforcement from their immediate sensory environment. Home entertainment was another key source of repose for my interlocutors. The suspension of disbelief required for entertaining the on-screen fictions of video games and films relied on setting a scene free from distractions. Likewise, debtors' capacity to believe in the possibility of avoiding enforcement relied on crafting a sensory environment for their optimism, by focusing on desired sensory stimuli like their home, family and possessions and putting the portents of dispossession out of sight. Accordingly, I identify "mise en scène" as a description of over-indebted optimism. In spatial terms, it involved reasserting conventional Euclidean space in the face of creditors' topological power-plays. Its scenic quality derived from "make-believe" practices that could bring into being the possibility they simulated: debtors acted as if, by hanging up the phone on creditors and leaving their letters unopened, it were possible to stop enforcement from happening. Highlighting the spatial basis of over-indebted optimism, these scenes were spaces in which debtors could undertake a political struggle over the possibility or impossibility of avoiding enforcement.
The power asymmetries operating through debt include not only the domination of conduct and the extraction of wealth but also unequal struggles to define value. Long-term ethnographic fieldwork on a low-income housing estate in southern England revealed a 'suspensory' approach to debt, in which those who cannot afford to comply with their creditors' debt repayment demands suspend both the temporal point at which debts will end through repayment or enforcement and the dominant morality of repayment through amoral humour about being a bad debtor. This shows that the form of power asymmetry that debtors experience, if any, hinges on their relation to both the morality and temporality of repayment.
The potential for eviction is an ordinary condition of domestic life for many in Europe and North America. This poses a challenge to anthropological theories of the state's presence in ordinary homes, which have accounted for public housing and mass displacement, but not liberalized settings where the state has ostensibly withdrawn from the home. Studies of housing precarity identify state policy and capitalist transformation among its sources, but the consequences of housing precarity for domesticity itself have not been fully explored. Private renters on a housing estate in southern England responded to the bleak prospect of eviction with home-making pursuits that would instil a sense of optimism in their homes, including mortgage-based ownership and immersive home entertainment technology. By examining the interplay between fears of eviction and home-making aspirations, this article argues that the British state's organization of legitimate coercion has a subtle but significant influence on tenants' ethical visions of what constitutes a good home.
Taking the case of funding models for free debt advice in the UK, this article argues that the anthropology of austerity has much to gain by asking what survives, or even thrives, under conditions of austerity. Beginning in the 1990s, flows of money from the retail financial industry to free debt advice organizations proliferated, generally upon an identified mutuality of interests between the two. This culminated in the establishment by the UK government of a bank levy in 2012, said to operate on the principle of ‘polluter pays’, replacing general taxation as the main source of funding for public debt advice. Yet as it stands, the bank levy fails as a potential alternative to austerity because it taxes the institutions that issue debt to the poor at high rates of interest in order to provide the poor with advice that increasingly cannot solve their problems.
Debt advice, as a neoliberal variant of social welfare in the UK, highlights the introduction and repercussions of approaches to welfare that encourage, and/or rely on, financial speculation. Since the 1990s, senior managers in the debt advice sector have anticipated funding cuts by advocating cooperation with the financial industry, implying a financialised concept of social welfare that valorises the redistribution of opportunities to speculate, rather than that of wealth. Yet following cuts, 'front-line' debt advisers complain they are unable to provide the required level of care and compassion, leading to an increase in church-based, volunteer-run advice, aimed at the poorest and most vulnerable. Rather than some predetermined political modality, the ethical concepts of welfare that caught on, and the moral qualities consequently ascribed to its beneficiaries, emerged at the interface of managers' assessments of the viability of particular funding models with the political-economic conditions in which those models were implemented.
In Britain, especially in the 2010s, neoliberal reform involved an extension of legal coercion into the domestic and community lives of marginalized citizens. On two postindustrial housing estates in Britain, working-class residents experience this "everyday authoritarianism" in areas that the liberal state typically constructs as private and purports to leave alone: the home and the intimate relations that frame it. Residents engage this legal coercion by adopting responses that range from defensive avoidance to co-opting officials to acts of vigilantism. By doing so, they negotiate the presence of an authority that is often out of sync with their own expectations for protection, and in some cases actively undermines their efforts to remain safe. Their pluralism can be framed neither in terms of an acceptance of state authority nor as a straightforward refusal to be governed. Rather, it reveals the contradictory ways in which marginalized citizens define their relationship to the state under contemporary conditions of class fragmentation. By adding detail on everyday life to meta-narratives of an authoritarian turn, this article theorizes the political potential and limits of people's daily engagements with the state for contesting the latter's authority. [class, coercion, liberal governance] Despite its ambitions of universal freedom, liberal governance has historically featured limits where it interfaces with authoritarian forms of rule. This is especially the case for those people deemed to lack the capacity for self-governance (Bennett, Dodsworth, and Joyce 2007). In Britain, class marks one such limit, along with-and intersecting with-gender and race. Liberal democracy not only historically enfranchised the propertyowning classes but also monitored, policed, and controlled working-class people in ways not known to their middle-class counterparts (Joyce 2013). Our fieldwork was conducted in the 2010s, with our focus on the recent period of British governance known as neoliberalism. In Britain, neoliberalism is generally seen as commencing in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister and her policies of privatization, welfare retrenchment, and accumulation by dispossession. During this time, the state came to subject many working-class people to evermore open forms of coercion (
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