Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile

September 20, 2012

Debt. Every day we are exposed to media accounts of the crushing consequences of debt for nations, for families and for individuals. National economies require growth, and growth depends on citizens consuming. During times of global recession and high unemployment, many must rely on credit to acquire their most basic needs. And in this timely work, debt serves as the central theme.

Clara Han skilfully guides us on an ethnographic journey deep into the realities of what has been championed as Chile's neoliberal economic "miracle". Through her, we come to know the residents of La Pincoya, a community living in poverty and living in debt, on the margins of the country's capital, Santiago. She lives with families in the community and comes to know the intimate lives of those who are struggling to survive in a neoliberal economic system, in a society in which many of the social, economic and political policies implemented during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet remain in place.

Through narrative, Han illustrates how those living on the fiscal precipice are encouraged to live a "dignified life" by purchasing consumer goods with easily acquired credit. But they do so without reliable employment. As a result, they now find themselves living even more precariously under the weight of consumer debt they have few or no means to repay. The significance of this burden of debt cannot be understood outside the context of the social, moral and historical "debts" amassed during the Pinochet regime, and which reconciliation and restitution have failed to discharge.

As Han points out, the authoritarian control over individual lives during the dictatorship persists, but it is now restructured as economic control through debt.

For the state, the intent of reconciliation was to leave behind the damage of the authoritarian regime to create a new state - one of national unity. Yet Han finds that the past continues to embody the everyday lives of the residents in La Pincoya. Her use of narrative is particularly illustrative of the continuity between past and present.

Leticia, for example, was a political activist who fled to Argentina and into exile. She saw her exile as a reflection of her strong political convictions in support of a social cause, and an expression of care and sacrifice for a better future for her children. Her children, however, who were left behind, saw her exile as a lack of care and a selfish act of maternal abandonment. When Leticia returned to Chile, her family struggled, Han describes, to "reinhabit everyday life" and to overcome the "domestic damage" that resulted from Leticia's exile.

We also meet Lalo, whose violent childhood is linked to his parents' anger towards Pinochet. He turned to drug-dealing and enjoyed money and power until he decided to stop dealing to live an "ethical life". But his ethical life would be lived in abject poverty. When he defended his sister against a drug gang, an expression of care, he suffered an act of violence in return.

Han's exploration of how care and violence are constructed and lived through multiple levels of debt is thought-provoking, engaging, insightful, thoroughly researched and theoretically nuanced. Her portrayals of economic precariousness are emblematic not only of Chilean society, but of other societies involved in processes of socio-economic reform and democratic transitions.

In Life in Debt, she offers an invaluable perspective that makes a significant contribution to anthropology and Latin American studies, as well as to the expanding social science literature on neoliberalism, poverty, community, health and Chile's transition to democracy.

Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile

By Clara Han. University of California Press. 298pp, £44.95 and £18.95. ISBN 97805202095 and 2101. Published 3 July 2012

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