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Chapter 7 anchors reputation and individual worth to the body. Debt transformed bodies, from able working bodies to corpses, into forms of transmutable value, placing middling people’s liberty at risk. Though being in debt was a ubiquitous feature of life for most individuals, debt became embodied especially at the moment of default. When a debtor failed to pay, British law gave creditors the power to arrest their debtors’ persons, and during that moment of arrest, the debtor’s body was substituted for the value of the debt owed, temporarily assigning it a cash value. Thus, the confinement of debtors created a conceptual slippage between persons and things, with significant implications for notions of selfhood and independence. The chapter explores the consequences of the embodiment of debt in terms of mobility within the British Atlantic world and argues that imprisonment was part of a much wider cultural transition in which selfhood and objecthood became confused.
Chapter 2 explains why middling people were so vulnerable to imprisonment through analysis of structures of credit and wealth. Drawing on debtors’ schedules, or inventories of wealth generated by the imprisonment process, the credit networks and patterns of wealth-holding of middling households are reconstructed. I argue that the portions of middle ranking wealth bound up in credit, changing structures of credit and middling people’s positions within credit networks rendered them vulnerable to failure. Analysis of how middling people held their wealth suggests that they did not lack assets, but rather faced problems of liquidity. Incarceration was the consequence of endemic structural insecurities.
The final section of the book turns to the debtor’s body. Experiences of insecurity were profoundly physical, borne out through the threat of confinement and the loss of liberty. Read through the lens of the prison, the life cycle of debt, from contracting credit, to insecurity, to default, was an embodied experience, and the ways in which debtors’ bodies were treated have important implications for the characterisation of economic culture during Britain’s transition to capitalism. Chapter 6 describes the body as a site for negotiated relations of power and obligation. By uncovering how creditors inflicted different forms of harm on debtors, from the denial of liberty to violent physical assault, it reveals the coercive nature of credit. Failure to abide by the rules of credit was dealt with by incarceration and physical punishment. In an era normally characterised by politeness and the decline of violence, the treatment of debtors instead reveals an economy tinged with aggression and even violence.
The second section of the book attends to how notions of worth and failure were articulated and mobilised in a precarious economy. Insecurity is the starting point for understanding how individuals accounted for themselves and judged the debts of others. Chapter 4 attends to how debtors framed their own sense of worth. In the eighteenth century, character was increasingly important in economic settings because a person’s financial credibility depended upon his or her social reputation. A good name constituted a kind of currency. This was an economy of circulating selves. Yet the trappings of selfhood were highly unstable. Default was a function of belief and perception. The chapter draws on defamation litigation from Edinburgh, making use of evidence generated by Scotland’s unique legal context to compare the components of credibility for men and women, and to explore the ways in which reputation was constructed and upheld. It highlights the importance of collective and interdependent notions of reputation and status within households. Strategies for mitigating risk and uncertainty involved the cooperation of husbands, wives and household dependents.
Chapter 5 focuses on constructions of occupational identity, which were central to notions of selfhood. Drawing on the diaries of three middle-rank tradespeople, and applying insights drawn from studies of female work to men’s productive activities, it considers the precariousness of work not only a function of maintenance, but as problem of identity. In an insecure economy, people took on multiple forms of employment in order to make ends meet. This complicated links between masculinity and work, because men were traditionally associated with a single occupation. The chapter investigates how men and their households established stable work identities. It considers the different forms that work took, and how words denoting labour such as ‘employment’ and ‘business’ were actually understood. Work was defined not only as monetised labour, but also as an activity that was productive or generated status and credit. Work’s value and contribution to identity and status changed over the course of the life cycle. It was carried out and understood in relation to others, especially men’s wives, rather than merely supporting notions of power and independence.
After surveying the existing historiography on credit, the social order and economic culture, this chapter proposes a new approach to the economic and social history of eighteenth-century Britain. It argues for the centrality of insecurity in its economic, social and corporeal forms to understanding the lives of individuals. It addresses especially the insecurities of the middling sorts, whose lives were intimately tied to processes of commercialisation. The chapter introduces the debtors’ prisons, which generated the records upon which the rest of the book is based.
Financial structures were not the only reason for middling insecurity. Imprisonment was also social and circumstantial. It was the result of decisions made by creditors, based upon perceptions of a debtor’s credibility and reputation. Chapter 3 turns to the perspectives of creditors. The positions and reasoning of those who used the prison as a tool are crucial to understanding insecurity. The chapter considers why creditors chose to send their debtors to prison and how it was in their interests to do so. Imprisonment depended upon how economic failure was perceived, as well as upon creditors’ entangled financial, social and emotional positions. While imprisonment could provide a useful tool for enforcing contracts within an economy that offered little protection to those who lent money, the importance of emotion and social perceptions of failure tempers the weight that we afford to ‘rational’ decision-making within the modernising economy. Like credit, debt was understood as part of a moral economy.
This concluding chapter considers the implications of insecurity for narratives of economic success and proletarianisation in eighteenth-century Britain. It argues that economic growth generated social inequality and was compatible with failure. Risk was built into the capitalist model. Credit was a tool that allowed for innovation and entrepreneurship, but it also brought people down. The assumption that periods of economic growth bring shared prosperity therefore requires revision. Furthermore, there was a much broader segment of society who were precarious in the eighteenth century than the proletariat, but they were precarious in different ways. Middling poverty was not built around their relationship to the means of production, their relationship to land tenure or their need to sell their labour. Instead, their insecurities were a result of their relationship to debt. A new vision of class formation is therefore necessary, which recognises these broader forms of insecurity.
Chapter 1 outlines the legal process of incarceration and the demographics of Britain’s debtors’ prisons, drawing on case studies from London, Edinburgh and Lancaster. It reveals that incarceration for debt was a routine practice rather than an exceptional experience. Britain was home to a substantial population of people living on a thin line between competency and failure. Middling people were especially vulnerable. A middling man in eighteenth-century England had a one in four chance of going to prison during his lifetime. Imprisonment affected their households, neighbourhoods and business networks, so that the impact of incarceration rippled through middling communities. The chapter argues that middling vulnerability was shaped by the legal system, which failed to protect individuals with middle levels of wealth and middle-size debts. While processes of bankruptcy and petty debt courts provided a means of negotiating the largest and the pettiest debts, the population of tradespeople with middle-sized debts, as both creditors and debtors, were underserved by the legal process. Arrest became the most expedient means for creditors to enforce simple debts.
Eighteenth-century Britain is often understood as a time of commercial success, economic growth, and improving living standards. Yet during this period, tens of thousands of men and women were imprisoned for failing to pay their debts. The Poverty of Disaster tells their stories, focusing on the experiences of the middle classes who enjoyed opportunities for success on one hand, but who also faced the prospect of downward social mobility. Tawny Paul examines the role that debt insecurity played within society and the fragility of the credit relations that underpinned commercial activity, livelihood, and social status. She demonstrates how, for the middle classes, insecurity took economic, social, and embodied forms. It shaped the work that people did, their social status, their sense of self, their bodily autonomy, and their relationships with others. In an era of growing debt and the squeeze of the middle class, The Poverty of Disaster offers a new history of capitalism and takes a long view of the financial insecurities that plague our own uncertain times.