There is a public square in Sheffield about which I have previously written which has an abundance of gambling establishments (mostly bookmakers but also slot machines and a large bingo hall) as well as several payday loans shops.  This juxtaposition strikes me as demonstrative of the ways in which some groups are targeted by these businesses.

Recently advertising posters have been put up in this square encouraging people to shop benefit cheats (I did not get a picture of the poster but it was similar to this). I have not seen these posters anywhere else in the city centre (or anywhere else at all in fact). This seems to me to compound a situation in which often quite vulnerable people are used by corporations act in a way which allows money to be extracted from the community, these people are then blamed when they act in the ways in which they are encouraged to and then divided through fear and jealousy.

We might assume that debt and gambling have both been a problem for some people for centuries and there will always be some who fall victim to the predatory practices of those who want to make some money from those susceptible to temptation. But the present configuration of indebtedness and gambling is perhaps more peculiar than we might think.

In David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years he argued that contrary to what we often assume (that mass indebtedness is a relatively new phenomenon) at the birth of capitalism debt was prevalent in virtually all communities. This was because most everyday transactions were made on credit (indeed at most times there was not sufficient coinage in circulation for all transactions). The baker would be in debt to the butcher, the butcher to the tailor, and so forth.

But crucially this mutual indebtedness was not seen negatively or as a trap but as part of community relations. Indebtedness of this kind was very rarely backed up by law so was built mostly on trust. Indebtedness was a shared part of the community like common land which was collectively owned and the kind of extortionate interest rates imposed by payday lenders would not have been tolerated by the community. Indeed, anyone who tried to exploit their neighbour in such a fashion would no doubt be severely reprimanded by the community.

The way in which Graeber presents this situation debt, and trust, was part of the fundamental fabric of society. The key difference, as I see it, between this older form of indebtedness and that which can be seen in the more dilapidated areas of cities like Sheffield is that the debt which payday loans shops sell is expropriatory. It extracts money from the community. The extortionately high interest rates mean that the flow of money out of the community dwarfs any small trickle into it.

The same is true of contemporary gambling. On BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed Rebecca Cassidy discussed her research into contemporary gambling and suggested that illegal bookmakers (before their licensing in 1961) were a means for the circulation of money in the community whereas contemporary ones mostly extract. She even referred to accounts of bookmakers being seen as pillars of the community with many people vouching for their good character in court.

Gambling or debt are not necessarily themselves problematic, indeed they may in some circumstances help to build trust in communities, but the commercialised forms we have today only erode trust as there is no sense of mutual interdependence only the extraction of profits. The tactics used by the UK government which target those exploited by the loans and gambling industries and encourage them to shop their neighbours erodes this trust further.