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Debt and Its Attachments: Collateral as an Object of Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Liberalism

  • Mischa Suter (a1)

This essay partakes in the dialogue between history, anthropology, and social theory on the topic of debt as a social relation. Drawing on sources from nineteenth-century Switzerland, it examines everyday routines of debt collection in liberalism by taking the seized collateral object to the center of historical analysis. It is shown how the attached goods in a debtor's household became an object of knowledge for nineteenth-century framers of law as well as for ordinary debtors. I make use of anthropological theory in order to describe the legal techniques of delineating and extracting collateral, and show how these legal techniques implied specific knowledge practices. I then look at two borderline cases of collateralization: the pawning of mobile goods and the imprisonment of insolvent debtors. Further, I discuss how, by the 1880s, the limits of debt collection were debated, when certain goods were exempt for seizure in a projected federal law. Overall, on an epistemological level, debt collection appears as a double movement: it provided basic tools to untangle property relationships, yet all the while it created new, unpredictable complications. Thus debt collection was a distinctive arena in which the uneasy conceptual relationship between people and things in nineteenth-century liberalism unfolded. From this conceptual node I propose a historical epistemology of the collateral object.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
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