Household Debt in Post–Credit Boom Croatia

Croatia has experienced a rapid and pronounced expansion of household debt in the 2000s. Many loans were “indexed” to foreign currencies, of which the Swiss franc loans proved particularly problematic. Since 2008, in a setting of protracted economic crisis, falling incomes and jumps in exchange and interest rates hiked up the repayment burden for many debtors while banks cut lending. With personal bankruptcy being unavailable, enforced debt recovery and home repossessions became much more common. Indebtedness has become a key public issue addressed by civic associations, social movements, and political parties.

This project examines the boom and bust of household debt as integral to the peripheral financialisation of Croatia’s political economy: an increasing public and private debt, dependence on capital imports, euroisation, and supportive monetary policies. Financialisation fit into a broader pattern of Croatia’s postsocialist and postwar transformation marked by privatisation, transnational integration, deindustrialisation, and orientation to imports and consumption. In the recent decades, other parts of the (South) East European periphery experienced similar, though nationally refracted processes, hinting at a wider transnational logic.

I seek to apprehend this abstract process ethnographically through a focus on Croatian household debt. Household has a unique importance for the anthropological perspective on the economy as the primary site of social reproduction, a sphere of intimacy and sharing, and a base from which we all engage with markets. To understand how it mediates and is itself transformed by financialisation, I pursue the two following lines of enquiry:

1. How do various forms of household indebtedness reflect as well as shape class relations, representations and identifications?
Class is the key social relation under capitalism, but it has been notably absent from most of the anthropology of debt, money and finance and the literatures on cultural economy and social studies of finance. While constituting a distinct form of exploitation of labour, household debt depends on its continued exploitation in production. How does debt transform the class relation and its cultural embedding as reflected in public discourse and subjectivation? Do indebted households comy to occupy contradictory class positions in an ideological or material sense? How do the assets and credit assessments of debtors influence the properties and outcomes of their debts?

2. How do regulative frameworks, political practices and social institutions embed debt in moral economies of various kinds and scales?
Economic anthropology is centrally preoccupied with the social and moral embedding of all forms of economy. The financialisation of household reproduction in Croatia brings about an interplay of regulation and resistance. Emergent “technical” and individual forms of governmentality, such as financial literacy and advice, intersect with litigation and political, often collective practices, including advocacy, protests, and parliamentary politics. I attend to competing public and group-specific narratives about indebtedness, legal and institutional frameworks, the politics of debtors’ associations and related social movements, and familial and domestic relations.

My field site is Zagreb, Croatia’s capital and economic engine. Available data suggests that the level of personal indebtedness is probably above the national average, which seems likely also in relation to higher incomes and housing prices. I will focus primarily but not exclusively on debtors in new housing estates in Zagreb’s southwestern periphery. I hope to conduct participant observation on the activities of relevant associations and movements, practices of credit retail, and financial literacy programmes. I will talk with bankers, experts, debt recovery professionals, real estate agents, spatial planners, and government officials.

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