'After money, what is debt?': Indebted urban poor households in emerging cashless economies

New fiscal policies and anti-cash campaigns are being rapidly introduced both in the global North and South. They are eliminating cash transactions and replacing them with mobile and online payments, credit and debit cards, biometric payments, and virtual currencies. Poised at this significant juncture in global economic history, this project explores the impact of this financial turn towards cashlessness on the currently cash-reliant and indebted urban poor in middle and high income countries. Focusing on financial debt (or the condition of owing money), we analyse the ways in which poor households, across different cashless regimes, respond to the diminishing use of currency in modernising cities.

Building on the emerging anthropology of digital finance, this project aims to (a) empirically study how do cash-dependent urban poor households experience the drive towards cashlessness economically and socially; (b) explore the new skills, associations and competencies forged by the urban poor as a response to cashlessness; and (c) contribute theoretically to economic anthropology by analysing how the fading material value of coins and notes can influence localised debt relations in the city. “Before there was money, there was debt.” So argues Graeber (2011) in his book concerning the social and moral history of debt. He suggests that reciprocity and exchange determined the nature of social relations well before the circulation of coins and printed currency. This project poses the subsequent unexplored question: “After money, what is debt?”

A new theory of cre-debt

We will investigate the conceptual significance of economic transformations related to cashlessness in the larger context of theorizing money, as more and more communities are globally embraced as potential actors in digitalized credit economies. The project introduces the concept of ‘cre-debt’ to explore how the urban poor experience, utilise, and exploit cashless credit and debt (acquired through mortgages, credit cards, government subsidies for the poor etc) that have remained previously inaccessible to those at the periphery of the formal urban economy. We refer to the creative knowledge and skills that emerge and fizzle out around access, use and understanding of new and alternative forms of money as an in-between, transitional state between formal and informal, visible and invisible credit and debt. By highlighting the synergetic intersections between debt, urban poverty and cashlessness in various urban contexts, we explore how these interrelations can inform an important conceptual gap in economic anthropology on cre-debt and the ongoing ‘global war on cash’.

Cashlessness and urban poverty: Brazil, Denmark/Romania, and India

The project relies on ethnographic fieldwork among the urban poor in Denmark/Romania, Brazil and India. Field methods in all sites will also include studying state-led cashlessness through interviews with bank management, techdesigners and public officials (as expert interviewees) on offering formal credit to the urban poor.

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