On Debt and Accountability

Irina Wang, Prateek Shankar
Version 0.5

In this exchange of asynchronous letters, Irina and Prateek question whether the language of debt can adequately address the systemic imbalances and historical injustices that plague our world. They question the adequacy of repayment as a form of justice, suggesting that a deeper, relational understanding may offer a more equitable path forward.

Irina to Prateek (08 Sept, 2023)

Do you remember when you sent me a couple minutes of voice message updates during pre-Berlin framework printing sprint? You apologized for the “long” recording, and we quickly discovered that both of us actually love asynchronous longform dialogue. So although we could've done this essay as two anonymous zoo animals chasing each other’s commas in a live Google Doc, it feels right that we’re here at the opposite end of the co-writing spectrum.

This way we’re less likely to end up averaging out our perspectives, doing disservice to a topic that’s inherently filtered through layers of lineage, luck, positionality; it would seem that the way we think and feel about accountability is unavoidably shaped by whether we owe a debt or we’re looking to collect.

But positionality also takes into account change over time, and lately I’m conflicted about using debt as a metaphorical mechanism for seeking the more expansive sense of justice and accountability that perhaps we’re really trying to get at.

I dug up some of my older thinking on this stuff from 2020, written amidst pandemic lockdown, George Floyd protests, and Zoom thesis defence. I was holed up in a near-windowless room, disinfecting my groceries and prodding at the relationship between economic growth and climate change mitigation:

The glaring discrepancy in emissions footprints mirrors that of economic distribution: the world’s richest 7% are responsible for 50% of greenhouse gas emissions, while the poorest 50% emit close to nothing and often lack basic needs. A “small is beautiful” mantra is often the proud philosophical choice made by well-to-do-farm-to-table elites, while smallness as a symptom of lacking continues to be a straining default reality of the Majority World. Many must grow economically towards stability and security, but the paradigmatic precedent of profit does not aim at sufficiency […] So who says stop, and when? Whose growth are the climate-conscious tempering as a sacrifice for the greater good? Which moral values are we retrospectively assigning to size? What sneaking forms of coloniality emerge out of the Global North’s post-industrial atonement? Addressing carbon debt goes beyond paying offsets; it requires rebalancing societal and political power in the process of doing so.

Feeling powerless yet complicit, I simulated action by holding myself and others accountable in the form of “design principles”:

Understand (re)distribution as payback of overdue debt to the Majority World rather than an act of charity to the Third World. Present alternative models of reparation that address both historical and ongoing carbon debt between the Global North and South. Extend them to every municipal microcosm of disparity.

Do I still think it's elementally unfair, and does it still make me feel angry as hell? Absolutely. But these days I’m also troubled by the long-term psychic effect of understanding equity as product of repayment rather than reciprocity. Whenever I’m tempted to think of debt settlement as a prerequisite to “the real work,” I remember how much I hate the common sentiment that “the end justifies the means.” I believe that the end is actively shaped by the means, but that belief feels increasingly at odds with striving for a culture of accountability using the language of debt.

Repayment only works in the context of a power imbalance between debtor/creditor, hero/victim, upright/wronged. It’s only as healing as the gap is wide. Establishing accountability within that framework suggests that there is, on one side, an arbiter of justice or righteous do-gooder balancing the equation. It seems like transformative progress is snagging on yet another false dichotomy, though I can’t say that this one has (yet) ceased being more useful than not! Do you reckon it’s naive to argue for reciprocity when there is so much damage that has yet to be acknowledged, much less repaid?

A fluffier suspicion of mine—which I hope you can help me either dissolve or sharpen—is that debt is such a trite, petty, financialized expression of justice in all its relative glory, bigness, and joy. I know that’s rich to say in the face of all the very real suffering that could be meaningfully relieved with even the most marginal of reparations. My positionality betrays me.

Most days, the indignant utilitarian in me celebrates any whiff of debt-conscious climate action/inaction, and considers it the only reasonable starting point in a more radical transition. On other days, I end up writing long emails like this.

Prateek to Irina (13 Sept, 2023)

I do remember! And as much as I enjoy the idea of being an anonymous zoo animal, I appreciate your summarizing the value of our asynchronous, meandering musings.

I’m thinking back to those first voice mails, to my immediate impulse to apologize for a possible social faux pas. One would assume that to apologize is to repay a social debt, to stabilize the imbalances generated by a perceived fault. However—I’ve been told I apologize too easily and too often, to the point that it sometimes loses value. Corollary: my apology to you offered me a clean conscience before it gave you any sense of resolution. So in honour of this conversation, and to restore the integrity of my remorse, I’d like to rescind my apology to you, and replace it with an unabashed excitement for what has turned out to be a very enjoyable co-writing process.

You’re right in naming debt a “trite, petty, financialized expression,” because we do not always owe what we choose to pay. To frame equity in transactional terms assumes that balance is actually possible. It presupposes a return. Would restoring imperial loot to its source repair the damage it caused? The land is already scarred; those bodies—mangled, misplaced, destroyed—will never be “normal” again, whatever that means; histories erased, futures made impossible. What even is the point of reparation? What ends does it make possible? Who does it serve? Arguably, to repay debt—in the expansive justice-oriented sense that we seek—makes no one whole again.

Of course, I can’t deny the material value that reparation would offer to those most in need. When enslavers are compensated for the loss of “their property” instead of the people they enslaved, our philosophical meanderings seem moot. Even so, repayment feels inadequate as a resolutionary mechanism; at best, it is a first step.

Now, to answer your question, I don’t think it’s naive to seek reciprocity in the face of (so much) unacknowledged damage. Reciprocal acknowledgment—of our personhood, if not our material lives—is a bare minimum, especially considering the centuries of dehumanization that colonialism subsisted on. But what is reciprocity when its participants exist in an imbalanced power differential? Neoliberalism is a parasitic model; it is extractive and deeply exploitative. The people of the global majority bearing the brunt of this violence (past and present). In such a system, reciprocity is fundamentally unfair.

So if not debt, if not reciprocity; if there is no going back, no balance; where does that leave us? I’m thinking here of Nelson Maldonado-Torres’ clarification of the “decolonial turn.” He argues that “[...] decolonization is less the end of colonialism wherever it has occurred and more the project of undoing and unlearning the coloniality of power, knowledge, and being and of creating a new sense of humanity and forms of interrelationality.” I wonder if this discussion of debt and accountability is incomplete without acknowledging the need to systematically reorganize how we choose to coexist.

I’d like to leave you with this provocation. Is this approach too expansive? Radical? Unreasonable? Given the enormity of the task ahead and the failures that precede us, I suspect reason is a wholly inadequate mental model. This demands all our senses.

In anticipation of your next long email.

Irina to Prateek (20 Sept, 2023)

Prateek, consider your rescinded apology officially (un)accepted 🙃

I find myself nodding vigorously as you ask: “What is reciprocity when its participants exist in an imbalanced power differential? [...] In such a system, reciprocity is fundamentally unfair.” I’m not quite ready to cross it off our list of working terms, because it’s useful to consider what it means to work towards reciprocity in alternative frameworks for mutual accountability. Still, you’re right to question whether we can even use the term meaningfully in today's socioeconomic systems, and what exactly we mean by it. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes reciprocity as the currency of a gift economy. In Braiding Sweetgrass, she introduces Lewis Hyde’s exploration of the term “Indian giver”:

This expression, used negatively today as a pejorative for someone who gives something and then wants to have it back, actually derives from a fascinating cross-cultural misinterpretation between an indigenous culture operating in a gift economy and a colonial culture predicated on the concept of private property. When gifts were given to the settlers by the Native inhabitants, the recipients understood that they were valuable and were intended to be retained. Giving them away would have been an affront. But the indigenous people understood the value of the gift to be based in reciprocity and would be affronted if the gifts did not circulate back to them. Many of our ancient teachings counsel that whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again. From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the “gift” is deemed to be “free” because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a “bundle of rights,” whereas in a gift economy property has a “bundle of responsibilities” attached.

This captures a lot of the ideas we’ve exchanged here and in other essays—that relationships are the fulcrum of reciprocity, that accountability goes beyond financial ledgers, that stewardship is incompatible with ownership, and that the necessary transition is one of decolonization, unlearning, and relearning.

So: Do I think it’s too radical to demand that we fundamentally change the way we think about coexistence? Nope, I think it’s exactly radical enough to get us out of the relational mess we’re in. I should qualify what I mean by “radical” here: something that swims upstream against a torrent of behaviours/norms/expectations that dominant systems incentivize and multiply. What I don’t mean by radical is something loopy or irrational or even unlikely.

Because really, I think reconfiguring our relationality away from repayment and towards reciprocity is both moonshot radical and so palm-to-forehead obvious that it might just be banal. When I first read Kimmerer’s book and texted my mom about it, she was reminded of “living under grace” in the context of Christian theology. Grace resists the private property economy because it isn’t obtained by deserving it or earning it; so acting upon it looks more like paying it forward than paying it back. You’ve also described (correct me if I’m wrong) sewa in Sikhism as a moral duty of service for the betterment of community—not to reap rewards and recognition, but to reinforce mutuality and recognize each other as interconnectedly divine. Pockets of humanity have been touting and teaching riffs on reciprocity for centuries. Even smaller pockets have been living it.

But where does this put us now? What of debt and repayment today, in urgent response to both causes/effects of the polycrisis? In the context of global carbon emissions and daily inflicted inequities? How much integrity does a theory hold in the relational arenas—boardrooms, playgrounds, picket lines, courthouses—of practice? What can we say here about the poverty of debt repayment that we can also say with conviction and compassion to someone who lost their family last year in the Pakistan floods? I’m sympathetic with the kind of long-simmering anger that incubates over generations of injustice. I’m primed for it myself, even as I’m nervous about the means warping the ends. Maybe we have to talk about repayment not necessarily as a first step, but a detour in the longer decolonial arc towards relational reciprocity.

Here’s to hoping you have as many neat solutions as I do chaotic questions 😬

Prateek to Irina (21 Sept, 2023)

Chaotic questions for a chaotic time—perhaps a need of the hour! As for neat solutions, I would point to a lot of what you’ve just mentioned. In analyzing this issue of debt in relational terms, you may have unlocked multiple pathways towards some form of resolution.

First, relational reciprocity shifts the focus from the debt owed between parties (in monetary terms, or otherwise) to the connections between them instead. Seen this way, even if a complete return may not be possible, there may be ways to cultivate a new integrity in the connections and interrelationships between parties. Second, it allows us to expand what we consider debt, to encompass elements of affective breakdown—trust, respect, agency, justice, violence.

In some ways, to seek monetary reparations from imperialists (past and present) is seeking reconciliation within the terms of what is effectively a colonial economic construction. Borrowing from Audre Lorde, to earn a piece of the “master’s tools” may not restore the dignity of your own (now discontinued? tools). All of this is to say—the first step towards a shared ethic of reciprocity is the delicate establishment of the relationships themselves, with its attendant prerequisites of epistemic, moral, and material justice.

Even so, this approach functions within a longer arc of change and may not directly apply to your charge of responding to the now. Anger drives me as well, more often than not (personally, I find it to be a useful catalyst), especially when the world of former (and current) imperialists would much rather respond to a calamity within Europe than acknowledge the slow rupture of postcolonial and indigenous societies. I say this not to compare tragedies but to point to this hypocrisy, to the unapologetic hierarchy of trauma that exists within global society. I would like to believe that pain can neither be measured nor repaid but it would appear that the Global North thinks and acts otherwise. Some pains seems to be worth more than others.

I have to agree with you. Repayment is a detour, a necessary one. I would add that the urgency of the now might necessitate that this detour instead function as parallel (and sometimes intersecting) streams—repayment, relational reconstruction, and reciprocity existing and executed in tandem, as multiple micro-interventions slowly amalgamating towards a planetary scale solution. Perhaps there’s a framework here. These might also be opportunities to amplify existing relational community practices that you mention—gift economies, grace, and sewa (you’re right), and others. I am reminded here of my mother who, for years now, has been exchanging a tiffin box of food with our neighbour because neither believes in returning it empty. This cycle of debt is relational, felt and embodied and cannot be reduced to an act of balancing accounts.

So I guess you had the solutions all along! I knew I could trust you.