A Point of View: The meaning of debt

Lorenzo di Medici holding court
Image caption The Medici, among the earliest bankers, ploughed money back into charity work

There are different ways of looking at debt - including the debt owed to those who have been a force for change, writes Sarah Dunant.

As a child, I went through a bizarre phase when, to try and fall asleep at night, I counted. Obviously it started with sheep but quite soon the field behind the fence got hopelessly overcrowded, so I just continued counting for its own sake. At a certain point (probably when I started to feel tired) I would note down how far I had got - 5,223 5,224… so I could move on from there the night after.

It became strangely addictive. How big a number could I reach? The larger it got, the more determined I became. Eventually, of course, I realised how absurd it was. How meaningless to be lying in bed night after night counting. So I stopped. I'd be lying if I told you I remembered how far I got, but I do know it was in the region of 20,000. Looking back I wonder if I wasn't slightly deranged.

I - like others I suspect - have felt a similar element of the deranged over numbers this year as the digits and the noughts have piled one on top of another to bring home to us the parlous, perilous state of the global economy.

Image caption It was once believed that profit came from selling time - which belonged to God alone

You could count through your whole life (day and night) and never get to the billions, nay trillions, which are now owed by me, you, us, companies, governments, sovereign nations to - well, to whom exactly? That's the other thing that does one's head in. Not to mention what happens if we don't pay it all back. Because "obv" - as my children would say - it's just not going to happen. Are we really staring into the abyss? Is this the end of the world as we know it?

When I say this, I'm not trying to be funny or deliberately stupid. I, like you I am sure, have thought about it a lot. I have become a devotee of the economics pages. I've heard Robert Peston's voice so many times I think he is part of my family (though he didn't send me a Christmas card, so I may be mistaken).

But through all I have read and discussed, something of the absurdity of that child counting in the dark remains. Trying to hold onto the ramifications of this debt catastrophe makes one's mind shake - like imagining infinity. And along with the panic comes a simple question? How did we (and it has to be we, as well as the more obvious bad guys) manage to turn such a blind eye to the obvious.

So it was interesting when, working in Italy a few weeks ago, I came across an exhibition in the Strozzi palace in Florence which - in perfect serendipity of the moment - set out to examine the economic and moral birth pangs of banking 500 years ago.

Florence was where it all started, and one of the stars of the show is the reason why - in a case of its own, lit up like Damien Hirst's diamond skull, sits a single shining, golden florin - the currency which became the benchmark for all others in Europe at that time.

Much of the exhibition charts the dialogue between bankers and the church to find a way to make the whole idea of debt acceptable to a Christian society. Because, though it may sound mad to us now, lending money for profit - usury - was quite clearly a sin.

The thinking behind this was that the profit came not from selling any product but from selling time - between the moment you lent the money and the moment you recouped - and time was not man's to mess with. Time belonged to God alone.

It was a theological nicety that they managed to get over, of course - it helped that the papacy needed to borrow along with everyone else - but not without a spirited debate on how the pursuit of money for its own sake and lending it in particular could be a human as well as a spiritual catastrophe.

The paintings and contemporary images of money-lenders in the show, men whose faces have been grotesquely disfigured by a sort of leprosy of greed are not something you'd forget lightly.

Many of those who made fortunes through early banking - the obvious ones in Florence were the Medici - also ploughed a lot of money back into charity and civic works. While it doesn't amount to what we would see as social justice and may seem quaint to the amorality of the modern market, a fear of a judgement harsher than man's made an impact on people's behaviour.

The eye of the needle may have stretched during this time and hell was always going to be more crowded than heaven, but that moment of judgement, best expressed by the threat of the second coming, was always there.

Peering over the precipice of our own economic meltdown and the language of disaster that comes with it, I have begun to wonder whether some kind of threatened apocalypse isn't in some way necessary to keep human society from its worst excesses.

Image caption The notion of the apocalypse still has a hold over us

Step out of a time machine to most moments in the past and you'll find that people have played with - indeed seemed to need - the idea that it will all end, not just in tears, but in mayhem and destruction, and if not in one's own lifetime then very soon afterwards.

Of course, there is an element of displaced ego in this. Since it is well nigh impossible for us to imagine the world without you, it is easier to contemplate its death rather than your own. But whatever the reasons - from second comings to endless Hollywood disaster movies - the apocalypse has a hold on us.

It is almost Darwinianly protean in the way it changes shape - from the four horsemen, through fears of nuclear destruction after World War II, to the contemporary debate about the raping and over-heating of the planet.

We may not see the graves open and pour forth the dead on judgement day, but our thoughtless consumer greed and neglect of husbandry (in themselves strangely biblical ideas) may cause the world to implode under our feet.

For those who passionately believe it, the difference between this scenario and apocalyptic fears of the past is that those were misguided, but this one is correct. In other words, the real McCoy. To which, of course, one might add that that is exactly what every apocalyptic moment thinks about itself and the one before.

But what has happened this year - which I think goes some way to explaining the confusion and despair that many of us have been feeling - is that we have basically experienced two potential apocalypses colliding.

While on the one hand we are being told that if we are to save our planet we simply cannot go on exploiting its resources and must drastically reduce our levels of consumption - we are also being told that in order to pull ourselves out of the nightmare of spiralling recession, we must have growth and that growth depends on continued spending and consuming, ie more credit and more debt.

I can't be the only one, who while listening to these two voices simultaneously, has experienced mental vertigo.

Maybe that is what it takes. Maybe such is the mess we are in now, that we need not one but two apocalypses to pull us into line.

Meanwhile, I would argue that we also need to do some work on this word debt - to rehabilitate it away from its obsession with money into something more positive.

Image caption Hats off to the women of Greenham Common

We used to have it. The idea that being in debt to someone was about things that money couldn't buy - from random acts of kindness to bigger stuff. Everyone could make out their own list. Mine would be - I don't know - the man on the Tube last September who, when I discovered I had lost my purse, gave me a £5 note to get home, with no wish to be paid back.

Or the family in India who befriended my teenage daughter travelling alone (grrrrr), and took her home to their village for a week, refusing anything in return. This kind of debt can only really be repaid by doing something similar for someone else at some point in your life. This kind of debt really does feel as if it could make the world go round.

You can expand it out of the personal. When I look back over the political landscape of the last 30 years, the words Greenham Common come to mind. In my early 20s, though, I certainly didn't want American cruise missiles on my shores. I didn't have time - or maybe I was too ambitious and driven - to give up my job and go and live in a tent for six months in order to draw attention to it.

I did, however, visit Greenham. My ears were ringing with snide jokes about hairy women and lesbian grandmothers (in the media's eyes, feminism was a dirty word even then). I was duly astonished by it - the collectivity, the humour, the energy, the intelligence and the power, the quiet - but determined - power of those women. I came back very clear that whatever happened at Greenham, I - we - were in their debt.

Image caption A huge debt has been chalked up to the protesters of the Arab Spring

Interesting then, that in this of all years, where there has been so much horror and meltdown, there have also been incidents of unprecedented sacrifice for some version of a greater good. Partly, of course, I am thinking about the Arab Spring.

The commitment and passion on the part of hundreds of thousands of people, from Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Syria to take a stand on issues of freedom, justice and human dignity - often in direct risk to their own lives. The debt chalked up there can never be repaid.

Which brings to me Occupy St Paul's. I am inadvertently indebted to Radio 4 here, since it was listening to an edition of Any Questions which got me there in the first place. Having heard the panellists - of all political hues - fall over themselves to condemn the protesters as unhygienic, unemployed, at best naive and at worst dangerous to the fabric of society, it began to sound suspiciously like another hairy, lesbian grandmother moment again.

So, now near on grandmother age (how did that happen?) I went to see for myself. What I found was a diverse mix of people, old and young, of all social classes, employed and unemployed, full time, or occasional, using forms of direct democracy (the tone and management of their meetings would put parliament to shame), lectures and conversation, to protest against the ways that the blind pursuit of growth and profit was corrupting our social and political systems and causing a dramatically increasing rift between haves and the have-nots.

Image caption Are we standing at the crossroads?

Two central messages have emerged from the Occupy movement around the world, and both have been used as a stick to beat it with. The first is that it does not offer direct solutions.

The second that it refuses to promote leaders to speak for it. Instead, what it is saying is that we need an altogether deeper, bigger conversation than we have yet to manage about how we change the direction of the world in which we live, and that it is not interested in throwing up spokespeople who can become minted as instant personalities, paraded and then discarded when celebrity culture has got through with them.

Far from being naive, I think these central planks are both culturally sophisticated and politically challenging.

Of course, it may come to nothing, dispersing with the dust after the last tents are abandoned or more likely forcibly removed. But if it doesn't… if we do find ourselves talking in more depth about where and how we go from here, examining the cracks as opposed to papering over them, then we will be in their debt. And, for once, the bigger the debt, the better for all of us.

The alternative - well, there are always those snorting four horseman waiting in the wings. For now though, I offer up a few old bon mots from Woody Allen.

"More than any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter helplessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

You are allowed to laugh.