Reviewed by Christopher Richards
Margaret Atwood’s book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, is fascinating. Her list of glittering prizes is long. The reader is treated to a mature voice; a voice of wisdom and playfulness. In other words, she knows how to tell a good story.
Debt and credit are two weights on opposite sides of a scale. They’re always in balance. The debtor and creditor are joined at the hip. One gains: the other loses.
Our sense of fairness is ingrained in our cells. This attribute is shared by primates. Their communities, like ours, are hierarchical and cooperative. Atwood cites a study where when one monkey gets a prized grape, the others don’t. Pandemonium ensues. The monkeys throw stones at the grape recipient. Atwood imagines them as trades’ union workers carrying a sign: Management Grape Dispensing Unfair.
Her wit and wisdom illuminate this delightfully meandering story. For story it is. We visit ancient Egyptian culture. These people were early spiritual accountants. After death the soul is weighed against the feather. Debt and credit must balance the scales. Debts must be paid. And for those who have transgressed, rather nasty things are in store.
Christianity, she says, rests upon spiritual debts and what must be done to repay them. Human sacrifice figures largely throughout human existence. In biblical times, the first-born was seen as belonging to God, and that is why Abraham shows no surprise on being asked to kill his only son.
Debt is sin. Sin Eaters, the poor and desperate, eat food passed to them over the coffin of an unrepentant sinner. This practice has gone on in living memory. Sins can be traded. The Sin Eater trades food for a debt.
This is a scrupulously researched book. The Antinomian Heresy is where some people identify themselves as “elect.” Normal moral conduct does not apply. According to Atwood, George Bush and Tony Blair saw themselves as outside normal moral behavior.
And then there is the Devil in his kaleidoscopic incarnations. He is in charge of the ultimate debt collections agency. Just last Sunday I saw a production of Goethe’s Faust in Berkeley. The Devil delivers benefits today, just as the deity in many religions offers consolation for suffering in this life with the promise of later reward.
The bargain with the Devil has been a recurring theme throughout history. It may not be surprising that the Devil is a lawyer. Atwood considers the uneducated who are afraid of learning and contracts which rob them of their land. Grimm’s fairy tales show the cultural disapprobation of the miller: He who produces neither grain nor bread but takes his profit as a middleman.
Genghis Khan wasn’t the kindest of men. When he invaded, he killed the rich, but saved the scribes needed to run the bureaucracy of his empire. The accounts must be kept in balance.
We visit plague-ridden Europe and learn how this disease was instrumental in destroying the feudal system. Populations have been kept in balance by war, famine, and disease. When the population dwindles, labor becomes more valued: wages rise. People eat better and have more surviving children. The survivors multiply and drive down the price of labor beyond the level of sustainability. Famine again culls the population and the cycle starts over. Life comes into balance.
You might think the prognostications of the Club of Rome and scientists from MIT on the coming collapse of the world economy is too gloomy to make good reading, but Margaret Atwood tells her story with wit and imagination.
This book is a glowing example of how to write with humor about a serious subject.
Disclaimer: Christopher Richards is a business book ghostwriter and has no affiliation with the author or publisher of this book.