Debtors’ prisons

One of the tasks the book undertakes is to understand what we can learn from how contemporary attempts at ‘market attachment‘, as I call them, compare to their historical antecedents.

This leads one pretty quickly to the debtors’ prison, which until the late 19th/early 20th century, were widely used as a sanction for debtors unable or unwilling to repay the debts they owed.

I argue that contemporary debt collection practices can be understood as an ongoing response to the removal of incarceration as a viable sanction for the vast majority of debt collections work.  Previously, the physical body of the debtor could be targeted as a way to encourage/cajole repayment (indeed, in the US often the legal term ‘body attachment’ was used to describe the process of compelling a defaulting debtor to physically come to stand (in) for his or her debts). With prisons all but absent, debt collectors had to pursue a different approach. However, as I also argue, this does not mean that the body of the debtor becomes irrelevant to the work of debt collection. It is rather that the register shifts from the physical, material stuff of the body, to its feelings, to its emotional responses. To the affective, in other words.

Here’s a brief flavour of the argument, taken from Chapter 3 (the rest of the chapter unpicks exactly how this focus on the affective emerged):

I want to remain focused on the practical outcomes for the work of debt collection implied by the removal from the scene of that ultimate material guarantee that had, for so long, stood in for a debt if it was not repaid: the body. The principle result was to radically change the adverse future consequences that could be deployed by a creditor in the direction of the debtor in the form of a threat. Threat has long been the collector’s most potent weapon, even when prisons were available as a sanction. As Mann documents, many US creditors knew that prison would, on its own, do little to secure repayment, while legal action could drag on for years (Mann 2002, p.18). In the UK we see how supporters of imprisonment for defaulters drew attention to the importance of the “unerring ability of the threat of incarceration to distinguish between the industrious and the idle poor” (Finn 2003, p.216; emphasis added; see also: Peebles 2013, p.711). Such threats were no longer available to the twentieth century collector. At the same time, collectors were about to enter a world characterised by the explosion of consumer credit. Their response to this twin problematic, in a move that continues to shape the contemporary consumer collections industry, was to begin to better mobilise affect in the service of attempts to secure market attachment. What we will see is not a radical break, however, but rather the flowering of existing tendencies. Mann provides the eighteenth century example of Emphraim Kirby, a young Connecticut attorney who was trying to change the mind of a client determined to take legal action: it would, said Kirby, “be best in most cases to endeavour to secure the debts by friendly negotiations” (Mann 2002, p.20). Precisely what practices and approaches were covered by “friendly negotiations” we can only guess. However, already here we see the recognition of the need for collectors to connect with the debtor, to solicit their attachment, through registers not limited to the disciplinary or the juridical. In this sense, it is a foretaste of what is to come.


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