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Projekt se zaměřuje na to jak veřejné a soukromé diskurzy dluhu stejně jako praktické využívání půjček ovlivňuje občanství těch, kteří jsou předlužení. K občanství přistupujeme jako k multidimenzionální, vnitřně hierarchizované legální a společenské instituci, která může být velmi nerovnoměrně přiznávána i nárokována. Skrze zkoumání reprezentace, aktérství a subjektivity lidí, kteří mají problémy se splácením půjček je naším cílem porozumět hierarchizaci, k níž ve spojitosti s dluhem dochází. Využíváme pojem "dluhové systémy" (debt circuits), abychom zdůraznili dynamickou a procesuální dimenzi dluhu, zahrnující nejen toky peněz, ale i významů a emocí, které proudí v sítích, které vznikají mezi dlužníky, věřiteli, veřejnými institucemi, technologiemi a objekty. V projektu budeme analyzovat (1) vývoj legislativního rámce a veřejné a policy diskurzy (2) lokální dluhové systémy a způsoby, jak se promítají do občanství skrze případové studie ve třech obcích (3) osobní narativy dlužníků a způsoby jak ve vztahu k dluhům utvářena jejich reprezentace, aktérství a subjektivita.

Grantový projekt je podpořen Grantovou agenturou ČR pod číslem 20-04863S. Jedná o standardní grantový projekt s datem zahájení řešení 1.1.2020 a datem ukončení řešení 31.12.2022. Hlavním řešitelem je Mgr. Tomáš Hoření Samec, Ph.D. a spoluřešitelé/spoluřešitelky jsou Mgr. Anja Decker, Mgr. Lucie Trlifajová, Ing. Mgr. Martin Lux Ph.D. a Ing. Petr Sunega.

Constructing and Performing Citizenship through Debt in the Czech Republic

State of the art

Debt as a complex socioeconomic relationship stands at the core of modern society, both as an institution enabling an economy to run based on credit and also as a technique of governance and discipline (Graeber, 2014; Lai, 2017; Peebles, 2010). States, enterprises, and households have become dependent on complex debt relationships and flows, and the growth of the economy is delivered through the financial industry, leading to what is called a debtfare state (Soederberg, 2014). At the same time, debts are not only economic and financial relationships but they also have an important social and cultural dimension. The debt relationship constitutes cultural meanings and social obligations, such as the responsibility to repay, resulting in the imposition of both moral and legal sanctions (Graeber, 2014; Polletta & Tufail, 2014). Debt can thus be understood also as a specific technology of power which enables the maintenance of the economic growth model by subduing subjects to its logic and politics (García-Lamarca & Kaika, 2016). These technologies of power are (re-)created through legal systems and legitimised through discourses set in specific cultural and historical settings (Trumbull, 2012). 

In this project, our aim is to inspect how these public and private discourses and practical usage of credit and loans influence the citizenship of those who are overindebted, uncovering the hierarchies based on the specific use of debt in contemporary society. We call complex debt systems debt circuits to highlight the dynamic and processual dimension of loans and credit. We understand debt circuits as flows of money, meanings, and emotions within networks of debtors, creditors, public institutions (banks, state), family members and friends, technologies, and material objects. These flows are performative in the sense that they construct certain subjectivities and the agency of debtors through practical, but also discursive actions, such as the legitimisation of debt (Hunter & Nixon, 1999; Peñaloza & Barnhart, 2011; Joseph, 2014; Soaita & Searle, 2015). The subjectivities which are constructed by the current financialised discourse (Clark, Thrift, & Tickell, 2004; Greenfield & Williams, 2007; Samec, 2019) are likely to be self-responsible, investor-like, and risk-taking (Langley, 2008; Rose & Miller, 2008; Lai, 2017). The social imperative of self-responsibility, creativity, and pro-activity shapes the representations of debtors, and produces particular patterns and gaps in their narrative self- representations, such as avoiding appearing as victims of structural conditions in cases of over- indebtedness (Meyer, 2018). 

Use of financial products and particularly the ability to handle debts thus needs to be understood as an important marker of participation in a society which also incorporates socially produced concepts of who is (un)deserving and who should be given voice in public engagement. However, it cannot be reduced to simple binaries of capable versus failing debtors. Rather, it creates a complex process of hierarchisation and contestation of power relations. As several authors have pointed out, this has an important impact on the claim of citizenship rights (Clarke, 2015; Kear, 2013). We understand citizenship as ‘both a legal and a social institution with multiple dimensions that can be conferred or claimed in partial and asymmetric ways ... [R]ights and practices can be at odds with formal citizenship status’ (Gonzales & Sigona, 2017: 9). Citizenship is a dynamic institution of both domination and empowerment (Isin, 2009). In this understanding, (legal) citizenship does not make a citizenry equal (Cohen, 2009), nor does it guarantee inclusion; it refers instead to hierarchies of belonging which are constantly performed and reiterated (Anderson & Hughes, 2015). While formal membership is critical, modern states often portray themselves as communities of value, comprised of people who share common ideals and (exemplary) patterns of behaviour (Anderson & Hughes, 2015). Good citizens are those ‘manifesting the values of the community and valued by the community’ (Anderson, 2013: 5)— only as such can they have full access to the rights and protections. In these approaches, good citizens are often defined in relation to those outside the community of value. A growing body of literature analyses not only the course of inclusion/exclusion of those who find themselves outside or on the verge of formal citizenship, but also the hierarchies inside the community, thus emphasising the processes through which membership in the community of value is defined and contested both from the outside and inside (Honig, 2009; Anderson & Hughes, 2015). Anderson uses the term failed citizen to describe citizens who are perceived as people that are ‘incapable of, or fail to live up to, liberal ideas’, and who consequently do ‘not have rights, because he does not have values and economic worth’ (Anderson, 2013: 5). The failed citizen is often personalised via the image of those who allegedly threaten social stability and order and endanger moral values (criminals, benefit scroungers, etc.), legitimising, therefore, the introduction of regimes of control and disciplination, in which society tends to be tolerant of transgression or abuses of the rule of law (Wacquant, 2009; Fassin, 2013). 

The moral economy of debt as well as the (re-)production and contestation of citizenship hierarchies through debt circuits are closely entangled with individual and collective agency. Describing the relationship of social structure and individual autonomy in regard to (human) action, the concept of agency is based on the idea that, while individual actors are constrained through their embeddedness in the social structure, they are never fully defined by their position in social space but possess the capacity to act within certain frames of alternative options (Rapport & Overing, 2000). In this regard, the production of agency is closely linked to human creativity and imagination (Rapport & Overing, 2000) and is produced in relation to different temporal dimensions, enabling ‘varying degrees of maneuverability, inventiveness, and reflective choice’ (Emirbayer & Mische 1998: 964). As Meyer (2018: 58) has argued, debtors can narratively produce agency by ‘pointing to the plurality of possible readings, by offering manifold evaluations, and thereby questioning dominant positions’. At the same time, in recent years, the moral economy of debt has been subject to renegotiations. While the moral obligation to repay formal debt continues to constitute a central norm, in certain cases, such as in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis in Spain (Sabaté, 2016) or the United States (Stout, 2016), it has been challenged by groups of actors including, but also going beyond, debtors experiencing foreclosures and repossessions. 

Relevance and Context of the Research Project 

The project aims to fill several gaps in the existing knowledge and literature. The normalisation of household debt (Graeber, 2014; Trumbull, 2012) and the financialisation of households (Beggs, Bryan, & Rafferty, 2014; Kear, 2013; Lai, 2017; Langley, 2008; Martin, 2002) have been described extensively in the Anglo-Saxon context. While exceptional study on financial citizenship provides a solid theoretical framework (Kear, 2013), there is lack of empirical research on the links between the performative effect of formal debts and the citizenship of debtors. Studies from the Central and Eastern European region have focused mostly on the role of mortgages in the everyday life of debtors (Halawa, 2015; Pellandini- Simányi, Hammer, & Vargha, 2015; Samec, 2018); thus, they are unable to unfold the complexity of various debt circuits which may overlap and interact. Our research thus brings an innovative approach in combining a sound theoretical framework and empirical material which includes a focus both on the discursive and practical construction of debt circuits. 

We set up our research in the context of the Czech Republic, where the system of loan provision has gradually developed since the second half of the 1990s. However, the mortgage market has expanded recently, quadrupling in the past ten years. Currently, the level of formal household debt reaches 1,646 billion CZK (63 billion EUR) which exceeds the level of governmental yearly spending. According to a recent survey (CVVM, 2019), 43 percent of respondents answered that their households are repaying a loan at a moment. Although the level of Czech household debt does not reach comparatively to the level in Western Europe or the US, we have witnessed a rapid growth in private household debt and the formation and expansion of a legal system which has turned private household debt collection into an extremely profitable business for those representing creditors, offering limited protection of the rights of debtors. By 2017, roughly 863 thousand people (nearly ten percent of the adult population of the Czech Republic) were facing wage and property seizures (exekuce in Czech), a situation in which they lose the right to property ownership and their guarantee of a legal income is set below the poverty threshold and minimum standards within the system of social protection (Trlifajová et al., 2018). Existing data shows that the problem of over-indebtedness is more concentrated among low-income households, and many loans are taken to repay other obligations (that is, rent, utilities, or telecommunication bills). Recent research indicates that these people have got into a vicious ‘debt trap’, which often forces them outside the legal labour and housing market and into (semi-)illegal jobs and sub-standard housing (Median, 2018, Trlifajová at al., 2018, Trlifajová & Hurrle, 2018). 

Employing a certain simplification, these processes can be perceived as parallel debt circuits involving different groups of people: (1) a circuit of mortgage debt, aimed at what could be labelled as ‘middle- class’ and often framed in terms of individual responsibility and success (Samec, 2016), and (2) consumption and short-term loans, which are often related to poverty and social exclusion and financial (i)literacy. On one hand, this might indicate social divisions structured along specific uses of debt and according to wealth, which may be accumulated through, for instance, mortgages and homeownership (Sunega & Lux, 2018). On the other hand, existing research indicates that these divisions go beyond just economic stratification as they enable moral distinction and the constitution of a successful and independent individual through the ‘proper’ use of debt (Samec, 2018) while excluding others from access to a basic right and/or protection (such as a guaranteed minimum income). A recent quantitative survey indicates that these processes of both practically and symbolically excluding certain groups are paralleled by an increased level of distrust in democracy and state institutions from those being excluded (Median, 2018). All that indicates the increased importance of addressing the use of debt and the agency of debt circuits not as a mere technicality but as a multilayered and multidimensional process that shapes membership and citizenship statuses and rights—impacting the representation as well as the agency and subjectivity of those involved in this process. Our aim is not only to bring about new knowledge but to raise awareness that social, economic, and cultural divisions between various social groups might be on the rise. In other words, we assume that our research will help to highlight the potentially widening gaps between various social groups and geographical regions in the Czech Republic due to the specific debt circuits. This is especially relevant at the current moment, when certain groups of people might feel they are being pushed aside and excluded from society and the polity and react by turning their back on the institutions of liberal democracy. The project thus can also carve out if and under what circumstances some counter-narratives or counter-actions could be made possible. 

Research objectives and questions 

We aim to analyse the agency, subjectivity, and representation of struggling debtors in order to understand how practically and discursively enacted debt circuits shape their citizenship. We use the term struggling debtors to avoid a dichotomous distinction between failing and deserving debtors and to emphasise and acknowledge stages of in-betweenness, fluidity, and uncertainty, as well as the temporal dynamics of indebtedness, while still placing our focus on those debtors who experience difficulties repaying formal loans. ‘Struggling’ refers to a broad spectrum of conditions: It includes becoming the subject of debt enforcement (wage and property seizure) as well as opting to enter debt relief schemes. However, it also integrates situations in which the future ability to repay debt is highly uncertain/unpredictable due to precarious employment, low income, the absence of financial reserves, or rising rental costs, for instance. We assume that the debt discourse morally values certain types of behaviour and devalues others and thus creates potential social and political divides, marginalising certain groups of people—and, as such, become important markers of citizenship. As explained above, we understand citizenship as multilayered and multidimensional hierarchies of membership in the community of value. The project focuses on researching how these hierarchies and power relations are shaped and being shaped through particular debt circuits as related to the process of household financialisation. 

Our research objectives might be translated into the following main question: 

How do practically and discursively enacted debt circuits influence the citizenship of struggling debtors on the level of their subjectivity, agency, and representation? 

In order to examine this question, we focus on the discourses and practices of different actors involved in formal debt circuits. We will be discussing what differences are made between debtors, and whether such differentiation has implications for their citizenship on the level of agency, subjectivity, and representation. We define three levels of analysis: 

The first level concerns public discourse on household debt and debtors, and the development of the legal framework (e.g., a system of foreclosures and wage seizures, debt relief, etc.).

The second level involves local debt networks and ways of defining the membership and citizenship of ‘struggling debtors’ at the local level in three particular municipalities.

Third level focus on the narratives of ‘struggling debtors’, examining what discourses they activate when describing their experience with debt and finance and inspecting how their subjectivity, agency, and self-representations are constructed in their private accounts. 

We further outline the specific research questions for each analytical level: 

  1. Public discourse on household debt and the development of the legal framework 
    1. How has the legislation and character of household (over-)indebtedness developed over the past two decades?
    2. How has the public discourse on household debt and debtors developed throughout the past two decades? How was it linked to the development of the legal framework? Which constructions of household debt and debtors dominate current public discourse in the Czech Republic? Which practices and subjectivities are perceived as legitimate? Which debtors are perceived as deserving of support and protection of their rights? And how is that legitimised?
    3. Are the dominant discourses challenged? Which counter-discourses emerge?
    4. What kind of data about debtors is collected? Does this data categorise and evaluate the debtors, and how? What technologies are employed in data collection and analysis? 
  2. Local debt networks and the citizenship of ‘struggling debtors’ at the local level 
    1. Which discourses and networks of relationships unfold around debt in the three studied cases? How is membership in the (local) community of value locally defined and practically enacted?
    2. What effect does debt have on the transformation and reproduction of (local) power relations? And how are local struggling debtors positioned within these relationship networks?
    3. In which respect are the identified local discourses and practices place-specific? Can we identify counter-discourses and forms of (collective) action at the local level? 
  3. Constructions of citizenship in the narrations of struggling debtors 
    1. How do struggling debtors frame their narrations on debt?
    2. Which subjectivities and modes of self-representation can be identified among struggling debtors? How do struggling debtors construct other agents of the debt circuit?
    3. Which fields of agency emerge through and within their narrations? Which temporalities become apparent? How are these constructions entangled with the dominant public/local discourse? 

Methodology

We have developed a specific research design in order to answer our research questions and meet our research objectives focusing on three main analytical categories: the agency, subjectivity, and representation of struggling debtors. We have sorted our methods of data gathering and analysis into three working packages. 

(WP1) Public Discourse and Legal Framework In this working package, we aim to analyse public and policy discourse on household debt and the development of the legal framework, focusing on the last two decades: In 2001, a new legal code of debt enforcement was enacted, and private bailiffs started to operate; the 2000s also marked the expansion of mortgage and consumption credit. We will focus on media discourse as performed across various platforms—newspapers, online media, and television. We aim to include mainstream media with high readership, including both tabloid (Blesk) and serious press (MF Dnes, Lidové noviny, Hospodářské noviny, Rozhlas.cz); alternative media (Deník Referendum, A2larm); media focusing on issues of finance (finance.cz, penize.cz, etc.); and local media in the selected localities. We will proceed by searching for selected keywords (e.g. debt, debt relief, debt enforcement, loans, exekuce, etc.) through media databases (e.g. Newton Media Search, Anopress IT), and we will construct a dataset of articles consisting from subdatasets for each year from 2000 on; we will randomly choose twenty articles per year to create this dataset. Further, we will work with the legal documents on the level of laws, local decrees, and policy documents related to the regulation of individual loans, debt collection, and debt relief. This will allow us to describe both the development of the legal and policy framework as well as the argumentation used in these documents. Based on the media article and policy documents datasets, we will create a timeline which will describe the main changes in the policies regulating household debts. Consequently, we will identify the main ‘points of rupture’; moments where the debt system had been under reconstruction (such as a law amendment or new law on insolvency). In the second step of our analysis, we will focus on the discourse used in debates within the timeframe of these ruptures, which will help us to better understand the current discourse on debt. The methods which we will employ in the study of relevant texts are inspired by work from the field of performativity studies, focusing on the role of specific speech acts, vocabulary, emotions, and material devices (Austin, 1975; Brassett & Clarke, 2012; Butler, 2010; Deville, 2015; Maesse, 2018; Samec, 2018, 2019; Szabo, 2016). These approaches are based on critical and interpretative work with the texts, understanding the text not only as a representation of the reality but as objects and acts which profoundly form the reality (Cooren, 2004). 

(WP2) Local Debt Circuits and the Citizenship of Local Struggling Debtors The second working package deals in particular with research questions II and III. Using a mixed- method approach and focusing on three local municipalities, we examine the transformation, composition, and mechanisms of local debt networks and explore the construction of the citizenship of struggling debtors in the specific fields, at both the local and individual level. We will choose the municipalities according to the following criteria: the absolute and relative number of people facing wage and property seizures, the number of people entering debt relief, and the amount of seized individual debt. Additionally, we aim to incorporate various types of residential areas: a metropolitan area (such as a local municipality within Prague and/or surrounding area), a medium-sized town constituting a regional urban centre (for instance, Ústí nad Labem, Chomutov, or Most), and a small town in a peripheralised area (such as Nové Město pod Smrkem or Bor). 

Each local case study will be initiated by desk research (in other words, statistical data on local household debt, local media content, minutes from community meetings, websites of local institutions and businesses) and three to five days of exploratory ethnographic research in the field (i.e. informal interviews, perceptual walks, and participant observations.). This initial phase will provide us with an orientation of the field, enabling us to further contextualise the analysis, identify local key actors, make our first contacts with struggling debtors, and take the first steps towards an analytical reconstruction of the local debt networks. Following this phase, we expect to conduct, in each municipality, ten problem-oriented interviews with local public actors (such as representatives of the municipality, businesses, civil society, and NGOs working with debtors) and ten narrative interviews with struggling debtors as well as at least twelve days of ethnographic research taking place during (part of) the interviewing period. The problem-centred interviews will be structured according to a script, which will be informed by the preliminary results of the public discourse analysis as well as by the findings of the desk research and initial exploratory ethnographic field research. For the narrative interviews, an open question will be developed to stimulate narrative responses concerning the informants’ personal experience with debt. Pursuing a theoretical sampling approach, the growing local knowledge gained will be used to successively identify respondents for both the interviews with local public figures and narrative interviews with struggling debtors. All interviews will be tape-recorded and transcribed. The ethnographic research will be documented in the form of field notes specifically; however, other materials such as photo documentation and material provided by informants can be included in the collected field material. The analysis of interviews and fieldnotes will be multifaceted: It will employ the same theoretical framework as the public discourse analysis, but will also accentuate the site- specific, interactional aspect of the narrative interviews and participant observations (De Fina, 2009). 

(WP3) Statistical Data on Household Debt The third package concerns an analysis of the techniques employed in order to measure and evaluate debt and debtors in the Czech Republic. We will analyse different ways in which information about debt and debtors is collected and made available to others—through central administration, such as the Czech National Bank or Czech Statistical Office; professional organisations (Central Evidence of Executions of the Chamber of Executors); or private firms that do major business in this field (Solus, CRIF—Czech Credit Bureau). We will analyse the history of data collection, major changes undertaken recently as well as in the past, the types of data collected, and their categorisation, aggregation, and internal analysis provided by organisations undertaking data collection. We will focus especially on how data is used to evaluate debtors, and how these rough data results are made available to the third parties, such as media and the wider public. 

Moreover, we will use the Survey of Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC), the Family Budget Survey (FBS), the Household Finance and Consumption Survey (HFCS), the Czech Household Panel Survey (CHPS), and data presented on the seizures map (mapaexekuci.cz) and insolvenční rejstřík (the registrar of debt relief)—in other words, data provided by Exekutorská komora (the Chamber of Executors) of the Czech Republic or by the Ministry of Justice—to gain a more nuanced understanding of the debt circuits both on the national level as well as in the municipalities where we will be conducting field research. We will use data from the FBS, HFCS, and CHPS with data from the seizures map to select the municipalities for case studies. Insolvenční rejstřík can serve as an important source to identify local credit providers. The EU-SILC survey allows for the identification of households and individuals who have been in arrears (on mortgage or rent payments, utility bills, and hire purchases or other loan payments) or who are facing financial difficulties (i.e. who are possibly at risk of arrears).

 

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