Saturday, May 22, 2021

"The Art of Making Debts: Accounting for an Obsession in 19th-Century France"

From The Public Domain Review, May 12, 2021:

Being in debt was once an artful promenade — the process of eluding creditors through disguise and deceit. Erika Vause explores a forgotten financial history: the pervasive humor that once accompanied the literature and visual culture of debt. 

“Tell me what you borrow, and I’ll tell you who you are…”1
Physiologie de l’argent par un débiteur

“The art of making debts and not paying them back”, wrote French humorist Emile Marco de Saint-Hilaire, “is one of the bases of the social order”.2 This opening aphorism served as the guiding argument for Saint-Hilaire’s 1827 L’Art de payer ses dettes et de satisfaire ses créanciers sans débourser un sou [The art of paying debts and satisfying creditors without spending a dime]. Presented as the deathbed advice of a crafty aristocratic uncle who had survived the tumults of the 1789 Revolution while elegantly dodging his debts, Saint-Hilaire’s book preached the virtues of perennial indebtedness for individuals and nation-states alike. “The more debts one has”, Saint-Hilaire explained, “the more credit. The more creditors, the more resources”.3 Unfortunately, many creditors remained stubbornly unenlightened about the benefits of never receiving their money back. Hence, in his book, Saint-Hilaire encouraged debtors to mobilize an arsenal of techniques and tricks, ranging from mastery of disguise to an exacting knowledge of every legal loophole, to ensure the credit economy continued to function as it should.

Saint-Hilaire was not alone in his debt-shirking evangelism. The “art of making debts”, as Saint-Hilaire and others referred to it, spawned an entire genre of tongue-in-cheek how-to guides and occupied a central place in the whimsical illustrations of awkward encounters between creditors and debtors sketched by some of the era’s most famous artists. Even in our finance-obsessed present, it is difficult to understand just how fascinating, and how occasionally hilarious, nineteenth-century French society seemed to find debt. The most familiar reflection of this absorption lies in the era’s literature. In the novels of Balzac, Flaubert, and Dumas, debt served as a central plot device, and one almost inevitably associated with tragedy: it revealed secret appetites, ruined ancient families, and subjected the virtuous poor to the depredations of usurers. Yet the art of making debts, embodied in works like Saint-Hilaire’s, treated the relationship between creditors and debtors not as innately devastating but rather as a cat-and-mouse game at once humorous and deeply revealing of the contradictory nature of the democratic and industrial revolutions.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, France was a country held together by chains of credit and debt that bound workers to employers and producers to consumers. Peasants strained under hefty mortgages. Merchants relied on promissory notes and bills of exchange to buy and sell. Aristocrats ran up bills with their tailors and booters. Workers hocked their meager possessions at municipal pawnshops. Thousands of people were incarcerated each year when they couldn’t pay up, held at the private request of their creditors. Thousands more filed for bankruptcy before the nation’s commercial courts, undergoing a process fraught with social and legal dishonor. 

Historians of credit have argued that its logic was not entirely, or even primarily, financial. Laurence Fontaine, for instance, has described early modern credit as a “moral economy”, meaning that it relied on highly personal judgements of character.4 Relations of credit were relations of power. In French eighteenth-century aristocratic culture, as historian Clare Crowston has argued, credit operated according to an “economy of regard” in which the very word “credit” more frequently referred to status or reputation than it did to a monetary transaction.5 This meaning did not disappear with the dawn of the nineteenth century. By the middle of the century, Marx and Engels would famously describe capitalism in The Communist Manifesto as having “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’”, to leave “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’”.6 Yet, on the cusp of finance capitalism’s transformation into a complex system of almost staggering abstraction, debt and credit were vividly personal, and the reduction of relationships to monetary exchange was something still quite tangible....