The following post is the first part of an article which was originally published as ‘Repo Man’ in The Idler 42: Smash the System.
It’s a frank look at why low-income families like mine can suddenly find themselves struggling with debt. It does however have a happy ending 😉
Meet the ‘Crunch Bunch’
(or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Recession)
I am – if judged by economists, bank managers or the media – a broken man; a victim of the global recession which is bringing hardship to the lives of millions of people around the world. My family are just one among the tens of thousands in the UK who have already had their home repossessed. We have learned first hand what it means to be threatened by creditors, debt collectors, the courts and bailiffs. For a while we fell victim to the fear, stress and despair that this system is designed to create, but we came to learn that every cloud really does have a silver lining.
I must confess that I have never understood money and I have never held wealth (or indeed the wealthy) in very high regard. At school I had one of those awful old-fashioned, no cane – no gain, teachers who seemed to sneer contemptuously at the world every time he opened his mouth; he actually laughed when he told us that the American Indians “gave up their lands for beads and blankets” (he chose to omit the part about ‘guns and disease’) and I remember thinking, even then, that money seemed so very much like ‘beads and blankets’ to me.
I live in one of South Yorkshire’s former mining communities. Since the pit closures this region has become officially one of the poorest in Europe. Almost 1 in 3 people live in ‘breadline’ poverty (breadline poverty is a level of poverty which excludes people from partaking in “the norms of society”). The childhood poverty rate of my eldest son’s comprehensive school is around 80% and the number of children from impoverished families that go on to attend university has not improved nationally since the early 1970s. This situation has led to a climate of low aspirations and some rather insular attitudes in our communities – on the bright side at least we still have some semblance of community.
Maybe my own complacency was due to my social background, or maybe I didn’t possess the tendency for greed that is so celebrated by the purveyors of the puritan work ethic; either way I was quite happy living on minimum wage in a council house with my young family. But today’s ex-mining towns are little more than housing estates set in semi-rural locations and they have all the problems usually associated with inner city estates; drug addiction being the biggest and most destructive problem of all.
Mrs J. was a one of the regions most successful drug dealers; so successful in fact that she actually used a small van to deliver her wares to neighbouring towns and villages; unfortunately Mrs J. moved onto the street where we lived. To be honest I don’t really care if people use drugs; but people who allow themselves to be used by drugs are a real pain in the arse. When we found needles on the lawn where our children played we knew we had to get away from the area if we could. When a friend of a friend said that they were selling a house for a price that even we could afford we jumped at the chance.
It took us some time to get a mortgage; due in part to the fact that we were low paid and high risk, but also because few mortgage lenders believed that it was possible to buy a house so cheaply! The mortgage rate was a little high, but we were too blinded by the light that had appeared at the end of our tunnel to worry about a little thing like interest; besides it’s a well established fact that the poorer you are the more things cost you.
A lot of people are surprised that poor families sign up for loans from companies which charge extortionately high interest rates. This situation is not just down to despair, ignorance a lack of alternatives; many people grow up with door-to-door loan companies and the person collecting the debt is usually well known to the family. Every week there’s a familiar knock at the door: “It’s Bill” – “Ask him if we skip today and can pay extra next week?” – “He says OK, but will you be needing another loan with Christmas coming up?” – etc. If Credit Unions called at people’s doors each week I’m sure the uptake would be much higher than it is.
When we finally got a ‘yes’ from the mortgage company we were thrilled; the kids would be safe from the recklessness of Mrs J’s clientèle. Unfortunately, in our haste, we had forgotten the old adage ‘you only get what pay for’ and it wasn’t long before the rot – quite literally – set in. We knew the house had old fashioned painted wooden windows, but it turned out that they were more paint than wood. Within days of moving in I opened the front window and the bottom of the frame fell off. It was closely followed by a pane of glass which dropped like a guillotine and embedded itself in the front lawn where, for a brief moment, it quivered like the sword of Damocles. This led to our first ‘home improvement’ loan. As with most things in life, the first time was awkward, embarrassing and over in a flash – I’d spent the equivalent of nearly two year’s wages on doors and windows, but not to worry, it was only £x-a-month for a decade or so.
One of the double glazing salesman’s favourite lines was ‘added value’; the logic being that you get into debt, but it’s debt that adds value to your house, so it isn’t really debt – except, of course, it really is debt.
Next we ‘added value’ by redecorating; then we ‘modernised’ the bathroom; then we landscaped the front garden. Holidays and Christmases came and went and we borrowed more because we were paying out too much to our creditors to save money the way we used to do. Then the boiler broke, but I don’t think the new boiler ‘added’ anything but another £1000 to our already spiralling problem. The situation was ridiculous, but as long as house prices were on the up and we were ‘home-owners’ (a nice little metaphor which disguised the fact that the banks and money-lenders were our absentee landlords) we were offered more and more ‘credit’.
Ever noticed how the money men use language to disguise the reality of the situation. For instance, ‘credit’ is used when they really mean ‘debt’ and a ‘debit card’ describes a facility that ensures you cannot spend more than you already possess – which actually protects you from debt and keeps you in credit; it’s the same strategy that governments and generals use when they talk about ‘defence’ rather than ‘war’ – Orwell would have recognised the necessity of this.
A number of factors (that would double the length of this essay if I were to talk about them here) came together and we began to struggle to make ends meet. Bizarrely our first threatening letter came from General Electric (GE); which surprised me because I wasn’t even aware that they were one of my creditors – apparently they now owned one of the finance companies I had dealt with. GE are one of the largest corporations in the world, they make most of their immense fortune from the arms trade and through the reckless pollution of our planet’s seas and skies – and now they had their grubby little sights set on me. Not only were GE the first to threaten us, they would be the first to seek legal action. Within months of that first letter the Magistrate’s Court would grant GE a repossession order on our home (the same Magistrate’s Court would later side with the council when they chased us for council tax on a house that the magistrates had already allowed to be repossessed – which, of course, only added to our impoverishment).
Impoverishment is very stressful and the money men think the best thing they can do to help is add to your stress. First they add additional costs – how Kafkaesque the law remains, let’s punish the poor with financial penalties – and then they threaten to take your home from you. You end up getting a sick feeling in your stomach every time the letter box rattles. And they wonder why it is that you begin to ignore their letters.
Stress (internalised fear) is the weapon of choice for the capitalist system; a human being with raised levels of anxiety is far easier to control – and as an added bonus they tend to go shopping (which brings down their anxiety in the short term, but only adds to the problem as a whole). In a consumer world the threat of losing possessions can be very traumatic. The threat of losing your home – and all that the word ‘home’ implies – can be crippling.
Stress is the unsung epidemic of our times; what once saved our lives is now killing us in our millions. Where once we were threatened with becoming tomorrows sabre tooth tiger shit; we are now threatened with losing our possessions or our jobs (which equates to the same thing); this is what makes the mortgage such a reliable form of mental bondage. Where once we would either flee from a predator or hit it with a big stick; we now internalise the issue and allow a toxic cocktail of chemicals to course through our veins and poison our bodies every time we feel threatened. We act as if stress were purely psychological, but the more stress we endure the more physical the condition becomes; low level stress gives us headaches and symptoms similar to having a cold or flu, but over time stress will lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and other serious conditions.
The debt collection industry knows exactly which buttons to press to induce more stress and their daily threats – which, at the time, I perceived as threats against my family – came very close to having the desired effect. But then something clicked; first for my wife (who’s Barnsley blood seems always to choose ‘fight’ over ‘flight’) and then for my-more-cowardly-self; we began to ask questions – questions like “What are we really going to lose?”
I had convinced myself I was fighting for my family, but in truth I was fighting for things. All that the banks, money-lenders, collection-agencies and courts were really threatening to take from me – and all that I really had to ‘lose’ – were material possessions. I suddenly realised that I had allowed these things, these latter day ‘beads and blankets’, to become my manacles. Capitalism promises ‘freedom’ through private ownership, but in reality our possessions are the very thing that keep us from true liberty. Perhaps it’s time to let go?
The true value of an item lies not in it’s material existence, but in the knowledge and skills needed to create the object in question. Knowledge is tightly controlled in the same way that De beers controls the flow of Diamonds, OPEC controls the flow of oil or Guggenheim controlled the flow of copper (this ‘philanthropist’ was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in South America when he refused to sell ore from his mines – but never mind, their loss was art’s gain). The logic is simple; control supply and you control prices. This process leads to exploitation and the weakening of real democratic political processes. Unfortunately we seem only too happy to exasperate the problem; whenever we let other people produce our everyday items – food, clothing, shelter, etc. – we submit to them a portion of our independence – and we do so in the name of ‘convenience’.
The good news is that we live in the ‘communication age’, which means that it is harder than ever for power-mongers and profiteers to keep a lid on knowledge. A quick scan of the internet can provide cheap and effective solutions for most of our needs – and quite a few of our desires as well!
The second part of this essay focuses on how my family and I came to realise that you can live a much happier life when you refuse to be a slave to money. It looks at free/low-cost, practical, DIY solutions to the ongoing problems created by the credit crunch.