Whitewashing and leg-bailing: on the spatiality of debt

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Abstract

This article contends that the anthropological analysis of ritual can shed light on our understanding of insolvency and bankruptcy practices. Societies without such legal rituals see a far higher incidence of what was known as ‘leg-bail’ in 19th-century Britain – that is, people disappear, becoming effectively dead to society. As Mann crisply puts it in his magisterial study of colonial American debt system, without a bankruptcy law in place, people ‘substituted distance for discharge’ by fleeing to the unknown territory of ‘Kentucke’ to start life afresh (Mann, B. 2002. Republic of debtors: bankruptcy in the age of American Independence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 128–9). Alternatively, prior to their eradication, debtors who had no bankruptcy rituals (known popularly as 'whitewashing') to turn to could also opt for another form of social death in one of the western world's many debtors’ prisons. Thus, by contrasting not only the 19th century to the 21st, but also leg-bailing to whitewashing, this article will ponder what has happened to today's leg-bailers. Having successfully instituted national whitewashing rituals across the western world, why does the global legal system still retain hidden and far-removed spaces that mimic old Kentucke? Who is still permitted, and indeed, encouraged, to disappear into social death, while others are ritually cleansed and returned to the social?

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