Christopher Harker, Spacing Debt: Obligations, Violence and Endurance in Ramallah, Palestine (Duke University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Christopher Harker (CH): In 2010 I started a research project that examined the relationship between families and cities. Urban studies has often thought about cities as spaces that (crudely put) destroy family life. My previous research in Palestine suggested this approach was too simplistic, reflecting a narrow range of experiences in Euro-American cities. When we started asking people who lived in Ramallah-Al Bireh [hereafter Ramallah] about the role of their families in migration, urban life, and everyday politics, what we heard instead was a lot of stories about private debt. Unpacking the growth of debt in Palestine since 2007-8 became necessary to understand urban and political change in the West Bank’s central conurbation. Residents were trying to process and understand these changes too. While there were a few academic accounts of post-second intifada political-economic change and Ramallah’s place—both literal and figurative—in such processes, there was nothing about how ordinary people were engaging with such dynamics. I was also dissatisfied with over-deterministic accounts of finance—both in Palestine and elsewhere—that make assumptions about how indebtedness plays out in people’s lives.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CH: The book draws on ethnographic research conducted in the Al Bireh neighborhood of Um al Sharayet over a two-year period, particularly repeat interviews with twenty-four families and individuals. I conducted this research with two research assistants, Dareen Sayyad (a former resident of Um al Sharayet) and Reema Shebeitah, who both graduated from the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University. The detailed, nuanced, and socially grounded data we collected, combined with existing statistical data, enable the book to make three main arguments.
First, the book approaches debt from a geographical perspective, offering a spatial theorization to complement the temporal and social conceptualizations that underpin most social science research on this topic. This opens up new ways of thinking about debt in relation to the city, the subject, work (both paid and unpaid), and practices of endurance.
Second, the book seeks to provide an ethnographic guide to the emergence, present organization, and experiences of the debt ecology in Palestine. I introduce the term debt ecology to describe the specific entanglement of spatio-temporal practices that constitute debt. While such entanglements are always dynamic, they can acquire a significant degree of consistency. The book refers to and focuses on the Ramallah debt ecology because that is where debt was centered politically, economically, and socially when the field research was conducted in 2013 to 2015. It is worth noting that this ecology has subsequently expanded across the West Bank.
Third, the book challenges accounts of finance that focus on financial centers and everyday life in global North—particularly Euro-America. I argue that the Palestinian context teaches scholars working everywhere a great deal about the intersections of finance, social, and political life. In particular, the book explores the complex intersections between social obligations and debts, and the ways in which debt can be a form of slow violence and resonate with the violence of Israeli settler-colonialism, but also capacitate forms of endurance.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CH: There are three long-standing and interconnected interests that this book picks up on and develops. The first relates to the relational times, spaces, and micropolitics of intimate life. My doctoral research examines home, family, and place in Birzeit, a village just north of Ramallah. This thesis contributed to broader arguments about the interweaving of the global and the intimate that many feminist geographers have made in the last two decades. As noted earlier, Spacing Debt began with families, and ended up examining how social obligations enfolded various kinds of debts. I think it is possible to think about debt and obligations as another form of the global and intimate.
Second, my research has always been driven by a curiosity about the power and agency so-called “ordinary” people exercise. My doctoral research in Palestine took place in the latter years of the second intifada. Most accounts in human geography at this time only told the geopolitical story, sometimes in problematic ways that erased Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. Living amidst Israeli settler-colonialism is clearly de-capacitating in all sorts of ways, which are well documented by critical social science. However, there are also attenuated forms of agency that have, historically, been less well recognized. In the present this is less of a problem, and now there are some excellent empirical and conceptual considerations of how people get by. This book contributes to such work through the discussion of endurance as a practice of continuing to continue.
Third, qualitative research enables people’s voices and perspectives to inform theorizing. The practice of such research is often deeply collaborative. I have always strived to co-produce knowledge, and this book draws extensively on the insights of both research participants and also of Dareen and Reema. While my funding did not cover the writing process and thus the book is sole authored, Dareen, Reema, and I produced a much shorter digest of the research for all our participants. We have also co-authored two journal articles. This collaborative approach is a crucial (but certainly not sufficient) step in decolonizing academic practice and knowledge.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CH: I hope the book will appeal to many different readers. First, many people who visit Jadaliyya will be interested in my account of recent social, economic, and political transformations connected to finance in Palestine, and how ordinary Palestinians are interpreting and dealing with them. It would be great if this book helps readers to think about this context in more nuanced and heterogeneous ways. Too many deployments of terms like neoliberal capitalism and settler-colonialism identify one aspect of a much more complex social picture and end up offering accounts that in their own way are (unintentionally) enamored with power. These accounts can also be pessimistic and politically debilitating, arguing for heroic forms of resistance that most people can never hope to perform. Tracing the ways people live with debt and other obligations presents a messy and ambivalent picture, but one that is the basis for grounded political struggle.
Second, I hope my account of living with debt and other obligations will be read by social scientists working on these topics everywhere. Being indebted amidst Israeli settler-colonialism is a very specific experience. However, many of the practices through which my interlocutors live with finance resonate with experiences elsewhere and will inform those interested in finance as a lived experience. I love reading accounts of everyday economic life and hope some of my readers will be inspired to write their own, particularly those doing research in the Arab world. We need more ethnographies of finance as lived (and negotiated) experience, and how such experiences articulate with other aspects of social, economic and political life. They are deeply contextual, even as certain ideas and practices like financial inclusion are made to circulate widely and quickly.
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J: What other projects are you working on now?
CH: I am currently interested in financial inclusion in Palestine. This is largely an elite-led process, steered by the Palestine Monetary Authority, which adopts and adapts globally circulating discourses and puts them to work in the Palestinian context. For those interested, I have a journal article in Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, which traces its emergence. In that article, I argue that the financial inclusion process in Palestine enables the endurance of institutions like the PMA in the current post-Oslo malaise. What I hope to do next if I can secure funding is examine financial inclusion from the perspective of non-elites. This would entail tracing financial inclusion as lived experience and then utilizing a collaborative research process with both citizens and key institutions to “improve” this process. This would be done by developing metrics that measure what people actually value, and then trying to embed these metrics institutionally so they serve as targets for financial inclusion. In effect, the research seeks to find out whether the powerful promise of financial inclusion can be queered to improve people’s lives, rather than just serving capital.
I am also leading a collaboration between scholars and municipalities in Lebanon, Jordan, and the United Kingdom to examine municipal finance, debt crises and urban development. We lost funding for this project after the UK government cut its overseas development aid (ODA) budget last year, so more grant applications are necessary.
Finally, over the last three years I have been working with a community-based debt advice organization in east London called Money Advice + Education to explore how their service capacitates communities rather than just individuals.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 8: “Dealing with Debt?,” pp. 162 – 165)
8.1 “It’s not possible to dissolve any more sugar in the tea”
It’s not possible to dissolve any more sugar in the tea.
— Interview with Riyad Abu Shehadeh, 25th May 2014
We are living in a financial crisis, but people continue living their ordinary lives. They are used to it.
— Interview with Basma, 10th September 2013
When I interviewed Riyad Abu Shehadeh in May 2014, he was Director of the Supervision and Inspection Department at the Palestinian Monetary Authority (PMA). He was responsible for overseeing banks in Palestine. His sugary tea metaphor summarized the Palestinian debt economy at the time we spoke. It conveys the idea that Palestinians could not continue becoming more indebted to banks. There are limits. However, since our interview, the amount of private credit issued by banks in Palestine has continued to grow. Basma’s reflection that people “continue living their ordinary lives” because they are used to “financial crisis” helps us understand why this expansion of debt has continued (cf. Kelly 2008). In Ramallah, financial hardship has become normalized to the point where it is part of ordinary life. This may be true of the Occupied Territories more generally. Numerous economic indicators depict a situation that has barely improved - even during the so-called boom period after the second intifada (PMA 2015, 2016, 2017c) - as the Israeli Occupation continues to de-develop Palestinian economic lives. However, residents endure, drawing on a range of kinship and friendship networks, many of which expand beyond the topographic space of Ramallah itself. As this book has shown, for some endurance is enabled or capacitated by folding debt relations into broader ecologies of obligation. Since 2008, debt from banks has not only become far easier to obtain, but increasingly necessary as land prices have inflated and demand for the trappings of modernity has proliferated (Taraki 2008a).
In the introduction I argued that none of these changes can be adequately understood unless we conceptualize debt spatially. Debt is a topological spatial relation. It binds obligated subjects, sometimes across significant topographic distances, connecting families with banks, relatives, friends, employers and landlords. The resulting geographies stretch well beyond the Ramallah conurbation and even the West Bank in some cases. These topological relations are folded into a series of topographies that includes housing, consumer goods including cars, the physical infrastructure of occupation that marks the borders of Palestinian legislative and political influence (i.e. areas A and B), and communication networks that enable families to support and reproduce themselves without being physically co-present. I conceptualized topological and topographic entanglements that are orientated around debt as ecologies. Debt ecologies are forms of coherence – or practical achievements – that have dynamic, but nevertheless specific temporal durations and spatial extents. This book has tried to illustrate one such coherence, which I call the Ramallah debt ecology, from the perspective of Um al Sharayet’s residents. This debt ecology enfolds different aspects of urban space, including flows of money, cultures and imaginaries. It is co-produced through forms of obligated subjectivity, primarily the family but also friendship relations and “business” relations. It is threaded through forms of work, both paid and unpaid, and the geopolitics of colonial occupation.
A spatial approach significantly extends existing theoretical understandings of debt, which conceive debt through registers of temporality and power. The experiences and descriptions provided by ordinary residents of Um al Sharayet have been crucial in building this approach (cf. Bear 2015; James 2015; Kar 2018). Their insights demand a theoretical frame that can account for how debt is wrapped up in broader ecologies of obligation, the (geo)politics and economics of Israeli colonialism, and socio-cultural dynamics within Palestinian society in the central West Bank after the second intifada. The spatial approach that this book has built is therefore specific to the context through which it was developed. However, it also seeks to be “dislocated” (Roy 2009), speaking to, and with, other ways of thinking about debt elsewhere. This approach does not ignore “boundaries and nationalities” (cf. Lazzarato 2012, 162), while still recognizing the circulation of debt practices and theories beyond specific territories. It is important to state too that the circulation of both practices and theories follow and reproduce conduits of power rooted in deeply inequitable colonial histories and geographies (Chakrabarty 2000; Connell 2007; Comaroff and Comaroff 2012). While arguments about the epistemic and practical legacies of colonialism are now fairly widespread across some parts of the social sciences, this book puts them to work in relation to debt and finance, where postcolonial critique has yet to have a substantive and sustained effect.
A postcolonial critique of finance challenges existing epistemologies that produce debt as an object of knowledge without acknowledging the differences and heterogeneity that emerge if the analysis (and analyst) leaves global financial centers. Existing knowledge formations of debt, finance and economy are still largely grounded in colonial presences that persist, endure, recur and recede from the worlds we differently inhabit (Stoler 2016, 33; Mitchell 2002). Other scholars have begun to outline the sorts of detailed historical work necessary to understand “centers” in this way (Graeber 2011; Kish and Leroy 2015; Bourne et al. 2018). This book focuses on geography. It contributes to decolonizing knowledge about debt by foregrounding different practices, spaces and entanglements beyond EuroAmerica.
However, to think about postcolonizing debt as merely a process of challenging and broadening Eurocentric knowledge formations is inadequate. Such an approach ignores decolonial critique. In an important intervention, Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang (2012) argue that many projects that seek to decolonize something (e.g. school or university curricula, research methods), treat decolonization as a metaphor. This evacuates the term of its radical, critical potential. Following Fanon (2005, 9), they argue that decolonization is first and foremost a struggle by indigenous people for sovereignty and land. A partial conceptualization of decolonization focused only on knowledge production ignores this crucial dimension. This can also re-center the non-native theorist and their conceptual framework, and thus side-line indigenous scholars and scholarship too. One of the ways I have tried to address this concern is through coproducing knowledge with residents of Um al Sharayet, Dareen and Reema my research assistants, and the many other critical friends and conversation partners mentioned in the acknowledgements. The second response is to return this conceptual discussion of decolonization back to the connections between debt and Palestinian life and land amidst Israeli settler-colonialism. Here, life must not be understood as an abstraction or categorical frame, but as fleshy, excessive, and differently inhabited. In the context of this study, this means focusing on how Palestinians living in Ramallah are actually addressing the growth of debt.
8.2 Debt and Decolonial Struggles in Ramallah
In Palestine, struggles over and around debt must be, by necessity, de-colonial. However, beyond understandings that debt is a colonial strategy designed to de-capitate Palestinian resistance (Hass 2012; Hatuqa 2013), there are few signs that existing forms of anticolonial resistance are connected to debt relations and struggles. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to identify two links. The first is that the growth of debt can be a form of slow violence (see Chapter Six). It is causing harm, which is hard to capture because it is dispersed throughout everyday life and often displaced outside the topographic boundaries of Ramallah (and sometimes the West Bank). Debt doesn’t block or imprison people as such but creates an impasse in which people can still move without going anywhere in particular. The slow violence of debt is different from many other forms of violence inflicted by the Israeli Occupation, but it is also connected. As I argued in Chapter Two, the emergence of financial debt in the Occupied Territories is intimately entwinned with Israeli colonialism, even if this complex relationship isn’t one that is well described by simple accounts of causation.
Second, as I have argued in Chapter Seven, debt also capacitates forms of endurance that enable residents to stay on the land and craft better lives (even if such lives are never “good” as such, see Berlant 2011). Other forms of socio-economic provisioning would undoubtedly have had more positive outcomes had they been put in place. However, now that debt has become widespread in Palestine, what should be done? Is it possible to accentuate those aspects of debt that capacitate endurance, while downplaying those that cause harm? What combination of transformations and regulations might achieve this? Would it be better to simply pursue the abolition of financial debt entirely?
As noted in Chapter Six, debt is not exterior to social relations, but rather is itself a social relation, characterized by asymmetry. “The productivity of debt can also be understood in terms of a primary relation that puts debtor-creditor relations at the very base of social relations more generally, and hence at the heart of productive associations. This means positing debt as a fundamental social fact, as already there” (Roitman 2003, 212; original emphasis). Therefore, calling for the end of debt is tantamount to calling for the end of sociability. The more pertinent question is how does debt become a mode of affirming and denying particular kinds of sociability (Roitman 2005, 73)?