Moral Economies of Financial Self-Care: Credit Building Community in the San Francisco Bay Area

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
262 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Mark Kear, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ; University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Moral Economies of Financial Self-Care: Credit Building Community in the San Francisco Bay Area


Mark Kear, Assistant Professor

School of Geography and Development

University of Arizona

In the fall of 2012, Occupy Wall Street and an offshoot group calling itself Strike Debt, published a Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual. The first chapter of the Manual, dedicated to “Credit Scores and Credit Reporting Agencies,” is largely a do-it-yourself guide to credit-score repair.  The chapter explains to those with tarnished credit histories that even though “it can seem difficult and futile to investigate or repair your credit score[…]it isn’t” (4).  The Manualprescribes these would-be debt resistors a standard financial hygiene regime hardly distinguishable from those assigned by professional financial councilors across the United States – but, with a key exception. The resistor’s presumed radical intent transforms what would otherwise be financial ablutions to regain “validity in the eyes of the system” into subversive acts that challenge “an exclusionary and unjust surveillance machine” (8). In this paper I argue that the juxtaposition of credit repair advice with the collective register of the “99 percent” is an example of an emerging moral economy of financial self-care, in which individual acts of financial self-care are imagined to “scale up,” and together constitute a collective act of “self-protection” various forms of financial exploitation and misfortune.

To make this argument I draw on a variety of sources. These include media accounts and promotional literatures about financial education and various credit-building products and initiatives, but the heart of my account is based on participant observation and extended interviews with members of formalized, credit-building rotating savings and credit association (ROSCAs) operated by several non-profit organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. These “lending circles” (LCs) provide an excellent illustration of individual financial self-care being conflated with community building. Many of those who participated in or operated LCs believed that improving individual credit scores produced collective benefits for various “communities”. Contained in this vision of “community” benefit and self-protection through credit score appreciation are a number of tacit moral assumptions about the fair pricing of financial products and the proper functions and responsibilities of various financial service providers. Most simply, that payday lenders, cheque cashers, and other “fringe” financial services providers are bad actors because they take advantage of credit constrained populations by charging usurious prices.

Similar kinds of moral assumptions about just prices underpin E. P. Thompson’s notion of moral economy. For Thompson, 18thcentury bread riots were not merely a collective reaction to hunger and deprivation, but to the violation of moral assumptions about the legitimacy of certain practices in the marketing, milling and pricing of bread, and the social roles and responsibilities of certain economic actors. Implicit in credit building programs, like LCs, that aim to “financially empower” individuals and communities through improvements in measured creditworthiness, are a set of moral claims about the fair pricing of financial products and the proper functions and responsibilities of various financial service providers. However, the moral economy at the heart of initiatives like LCs, and others I discuss in my paper, is different from the one described by Thompson in two important ways.

First, the collective response to moral trespass does not take the form of an angry crowd. The “collective” is atomized, sifted into a multiplicity of private individuals. There is no group of people conferring with each other, sharing the same physical space nor organizing and leveraging their power as a group. Perhaps, then, the form of collectivity that underlies efforts to protect communities through credit score repair is a “serial crowd.” In his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre (1991[1960]) distinguishes between “groups” and “series.” Both are forms of social collectivity, but “unlike a group, which forms around actively shared objectives, a series is a social collective whose members are unified passively by the objects around which their actions are oriented or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the other” (Young 1994). Groups go on strike, storm the Bastille or chase the bakers out of town. People waiting for a bus, or listening to the radio, both examples of series used by Sartre, typically do not. The collective of radio listeners or, in our case, credit builders is constituted by their individual orientation toward certain objects (e.g. credit scores).  In a moral economy of financial self-care individuals form a serial collective wherein proximity or concentration within a particular territory produces effects that are imagined to be transformative and as effective as chasing the moneylenders out of town.

This leads to the second difference. In moral economies of financial self-care the collective does not enforce latter-day millers' and bakers' adherence to a set of social-cum-moral obligations: payday lenders and cheque cashers are mostly spared the wrath of the crowd. There is no need for the collective to impose price ceilings or otherwise interfere with the operation of the price mechanism. Instead, the obligation falls to the individuals in the crowd. The moral order is preserved, and cost of credit controlled by individuals’ internalization of the obligation to improve their credit scores for the sake of the group. Access to credit at affordable rates is constructed as a contingent outcome, its conditions of realization secured by private investments of time and effort to school oneself in the proper care of the financial self. This is financial self-care in the name of community.


“An Anonymous Collective of Resistors, Defaulters and Allies from Strike Debt and Occupy Wall Street” (2012). The Debt Resistors' Operations Manual. Occupy Wall Street and Strike Debt: pp. 1–132.

Sartre, J. (1991[1960]). Critique of Dialectial Reason. New York, NY: Verso.

Thompson, E.P. (2001). The Making of the English Working Class. In The Essential E.P. Thompson. New York, NY: The New Press.

Young, I. M. (1995). Gender as Seriality: Thinking about Women as a Social Collective. In L. Nicholson and S. Seidman (Eds.) Social Postmodernism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.