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Challenging Borders: Politics and Genealogies of Debt

Panel 022, 2018 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 16 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel will focus on the politics and genealogies of debt, particularly as it relates to the question of government, colonialism and coloniality. It posits that focusing on debt (and/or forms of finance) provides an important vantage point through which to consider transformations operating beyond national or even imperial boundaries, particularly in the 19th century. This is all the more important since the productivist bias of economic theory has often precluded careful attention to the role of debt. In fact, debt has often been regarded as lubricant of the economic process, rather than at the heart of key transformations. Moreover, it has been treated as a "blackbox", and thus insufficiently understood and theorised. This panel will attempt to open this blackbox, assembling the different meanings of debt across time and place, exploring its multiple politics and genealogies in colonial contexts. The panel will focus on four historical moments and four different, but interconnected, historical locations: the Ottoman Empire, Khedival Egypt, Sudan and Pakistan
  • Prof. Timothy Mitchell -- Discussant, Chair
  • Mr. Daniel Stolz -- Presenter
  • Sohaib Khan -- Presenter
  • Dr. Hengameh Ziai -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Ibrahim Elhoudaiby -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Ibrahim Elhoudaiby
    The rise of modern corporations was at the heart of the transformation of debt relations in the middle decades of nineteenth century Egypt. In the first half of the century, debt was primarily a means of sociality and not an economic category; it established social obligations between individuals and therefore constituted the basis of social bonds and structures. The basis of social relations and not necessarily a means of trade and commerce, it was not clearly delineated from gifts, nor was it necessarily quantified. Islamic legal works of the period (both fiqh manuals and the fatawa literature) are a case in point. Discussions of hiba (grant), to take one example, blur the distinction between ‘ariyya (loan-for-use) and hadiyya (gift), rendering the appearance of a distinct economic sphere impossible. Discussions of qard (monetary loans), to take another, are largely limited to simultaneously stressing the prohibition of contractual agreements to interest rates, and encouraging paying back over and above the amount borrowed. Moreover, qards are treated as part of the ‘doors of benevolence’ (abwab al-ihsan). The rise of Corporations in the second half of the century, of which the Suez Canal Company was the paradigmatic example, contributed to the redefinition of debt and its consignment to the economic. Debt, in other words, became quantifiable and distinct from other social relations, thanks to the corporations outlook being at once impersonal, a legal person, and sanctioned by the Sovereign. Debt consequently became integral to government, and a means of both extraction and subjectivation. At the heart of this transformation was the shift from Islamic institutions of debt to ‘modern’ institutions, notably shares and bonds. My paper explores this shift in instruments and institutions of debt central to its transformation. It traces both the emergence and proliferation of these new instruments, highlights the interplay between modern and sharia instruments, and explores the ways in which the old continued to shape the new
  • Dr. Hengameh Ziai
    This paper aims to explore the transformation in concepts and practices of debt existing in northern Sudan in the mid to late 19th century, focusing on the decades that led to the Mahdist uprising—a spectacular revolt which shook the Ottoman Empire and European colonial metropoles. From Muhammad Ali’s invasion of Sudan in 1820 until the Mahdist uprising, Sudan was formally under Ottoman-Egyptian rule. Whether this rule constituted “colonialism” in the European sense of the term has been subject to much debate. Such debates have largely focused on questions around Egyptian approaches to “race” in Sudan and, in particular, the issue of slavery. Building on this, my paper will consider how tracing changes in debt relations (and, relatedly, land) could contribute to our understanding of the nature of Ottoman-Egyptian colonialism in Sudan. It argues that Ottoman-Egyptian rule in Sudan changed over time, as the century progressed, particularly as Egypt found itself increasingly in debt to and subject to pressure by European financiers. Thus, my paper explores the ways in which Ottoman-Egypt’s indebtedness, particularly under the rule of Khedive Isma’il, influenced and arguably transformed its methods of governing and extracting resources from its “colony,” Sudan. This will be done in through focusing on two factors: first, changes in the ways in which taxes were extracted from the population (increasingly extracted in money and not in kind); second, the effect of the increasing alienability of land—leading to land dispossession when people fell in debt to the state for failure to pay taxes. In sum, my paper considers the extent to which the Mahdist uprising arose in the context of large-scale indebtedness and loss of land in northern Sudan—a change which served to undermine the “Islamic” legitimacy of Ottoman imperial or Egyptian rule in Sudan. In doing so, it seeks to foreground the role that debt plays across territorial boundaries—here, debt owed by Ottoman-Egypt to European creditors—focusing on its colonial nature and the forms of political-economic reorganisation, and resistance, it engenders.
  • Sohaib Khan
    Financial instruments are monetary devices that entail promises to make/receive payments between parties to a transaction. The Shari‘a views financial undertakings (mu‘amalat) as ethical commitments and therefore strictly forbids stipulating unjust contractual conditions, the most egregious of which is charging interest on a monetary loan. Adhering to this restriction, modern Islamic banks and insurance companies (Takaful) regularly substitute interest paid to a creditor with contractually enforced “gifts.” What are the conditions of possibility that enable the inscription of practices of gift-giving in debt relations? What are the similarities and differences in notions of indebtedness underlying gift exchange and the creditor-debtor relationship? What are the forms of ethical entanglement produced by reciprocal obligations of debt versus the gift? Finally, what kinds of ethical subjectivity are fashioned by regimes of exchange that perpetuate alienation and those that solidify social recognition? This paper attempts to answer these questions through a genealogy of two discursive concepts and the rules governing their practice in the Shari‘a: donation (tabarru‘) and compensation (‘iwad). In the Hanafite school of jurisprudence in South Asian Sunni Islam, gift giving was largely practiced in the form of bequests of property (wasiyya) as family endowments (waqf dhurriyya). This practice came under attack during British colonialism with the abolishment of family endowments and a reconfiguration of material relations and circulation of capital through technologies of colonial governance. Contemporary Hanafite jurists from the Deobandi tradition have resuscitated the Islamic endowment (waqf) on the model of the limited liability corporation. Ensuing practices of charitable and gift-giving in Islamic finance have thus radically altered the performativity of the donation (tabarru‘). While the Shari‘a recognized gifts and charities as unilateral and gratuitous forms of giving, Islamic banks discourage financial delinquency by contractually requiring their clients to pay “charity” in case of missed or late payments. Similarly, Islamic banks often compensate high profile clients for lower than expected returns on their investments by making payments in the form of a gift. Not only do these practices betray a bureaucratic rationalization of gift-giving, Islamic finance effectively repurposes gift-giving and its ethical function of creating bonds of social recognition into a market-based governance of financial obligations. The paper examines transformations in Islamic practices of gift-giving as guided by new forms of financial discipline. It pays specific attention to the justificatory discourses of Deobandi scholars, their internal contestations and shifting perspectives from the colonial to the contemporary era.
  • Mr. Daniel Stolz
    This paper examines the relationship between public debt and territory in the late Ottoman Empire. While credit is often conceptualized as an essentially transnational instrument, a motor of economic integration and globalization, one of the most significant aspects of the late Ottoman state’s reliance on foreign loans was a solidification of the empire’s borders. The paper makes this case through a study of the Ottoman salt monopoly from the 1890s to World War I. After the state’s default in 1875-1876, and the creation of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (OPDA) in 1881, the backbone of Ottoman state finance was the OPDA and Tobacco Régie’s administration of the so-called “indirect revenues” on behalf of the empire’s creditors. The largest of these revenues was derived from the salt monopoly. Although at first somewhat less than the revenue derived from the tobacco tax, salt consistently dwarfed other revenue sources (such as the stamps and spirits taxes) and overtook tobacco in the 1890s. By World War I, salt accounted for 57% of the revenue administered by the OPDA, and almost 40% of the revenue administered by the OPDA and Tobacco Régie combined (Owen 1981). The growth of Ottoman salt revenue flowed from a pair of strategies that the OPDA pursued vigorously beginning in the 1890s: the development of an export market, and a crackdown on smuggling, especially around the Black Sea but also in the Eastern Mediterranean (Birdal 2010). This paper focuses on the OPDA’s efforts to police the empire’s borders, including the relationship between anti-smuggling operations and sanitary cordons, the kinds of social activity that these efforts targeted, and the forms of resistance they engendered. Rather than thinking of debt as a transnational vehicle, I suggest we think of debt as an instrument that opened certain borders by closing others.