This text appeared in an online dossier on debt published by Social Text.
It responds to the essays assembled by Michael Denning’s study group. David Graeber also wrote a response.
It’s important to begin with a reminder of the reasons everybody is talking about debt these days. The threat of “debt crisis” hangs over the world economy. The United States “has been living beyond its means,” Greece “cannot pay its bills,” Spain has “unsustainable deficits,” and so on. When you hear it on the news, the term “debt crisis” usually refers to disturbances at the level of national economies (such as imbalances in government or trade financing) that become more or less urgent, more or less contagious. When the crisis reaches a certain fever pitch, debt itself can no longer be presented as a benign financial instrument and appears instead as a cancerous growth that must be quarantined and squeezed out, requiring retrenchment and austerity. In the process, illusions of sovereignty are stripped away and collective punishments are imposed on masses of people whose collectivity consists now in the fact that they are all being treated as deadbeats. From this perspective it begins to look as though we are living through multiple overlapping debt crises, stemming from systemic troubles in the operations of global capitalism and reaching deep into the intimate dimensions of social life. Moreover to speak of the current debt crisis as a punctual, localized event is to ignore the various ways in which the institutions of debt themselves have created a kind of perpetual crisis of sovereignty and collectivity, as well as the ways in which debtor-creditor relationships traverse the economy at every scale.
As the Introduction notes, the essays in the dossier largely bypass the current economic situation and explore instead the “cultural meanings of debt.” A first set of questions arises immediately: how are we to understand the relationship between economic forms of debt and the range of other kinds of “indebtedness” examined here, whether described as cultural, legal, sociological, or psychological? Should we assume that economic notions of credit and debt can express or encompass all kinds of obligation, responsibility, and belief? Or to put it the other way around, should we assume that the economic functioning of credit and debt is directly rooted in those “cultural” relationships and attitudes? How literally—or how metaphorically—do we want to draw the connection between finance and feelings, between calculation and social conduct?
Of course these questions can be (and have been) answered in many ways, requiring all kinds of historical and theoretical qualifications. I raise them here simply to outline the complexities of using “debt” as a broad keyword in our analyses of the contemporary situation. In the first place, where our purpose is to examine the ways in which capitalist logics (above all of equivalence and exchange, as Adorno argued) are spreading to spheres hitherto immune to them, we need to establish a distinctly economic conception of debt. Michael Denning’s very rich essay works in this direction, drawing a sharp line between the workings of the credit system and the fundamental experience of living in debt. Eli Jelly-Schapiro’s narrative fleshes out this distinction in a quite effective way, demonstrating the way economic structures of credit and the lived dimensions of indebtedness evolve along related but different tracks. The key issue for a historical materialist account of debt, then, concerns the ways in which these tracks now seem to be converging, so that debt, embedded in the commodification and reification of everything, acquires a new range of meanings and functions under full-blown capitalism that it did not have earlier, even in societies criss-crossed by markets. From this perspective, radical critique should be on guard against the expansion of the notion of debt, inasmuch as it naturalizes or accommodates the further colonization of everyday life by what André Gorz called “economic reason.” The spread of economic indebtedness would have to be seen as a historical tendency to be combated, for the same reasons that critical theory exposes commodity fetishism and pushes back against the reification of human relationships.
A second approach can be seen in the essays by Sigma Colón and Monica Muñoz Martinez, where the concept is debt is being asked to do new things. I read these arguments as a kind of thought experiment: what happens when we try to think about environmental destruction and state violence within the narrow framework of debts? In both cases, we want to see what happens when something that is ordinarily thought to stand outside the domain of economic calculation—“nature” and “justice”—is submitted to its logic. Sooner or later, we run up against a limit: there is no way that the real costs of resource extraction or state crime can be reckoned by the system. The point of the experiment is to not to wish that economic calculation could be tweaked to accommodate such considerations, but instead to take the next step and refuse to accept the various forms of remuneration and indemnity on offer as just so many ruses to preserve the authority of money as the ultimate measure of value.
The two essays by Van Truong and Hong Liang take up a third position within of the conceptual/metaphorical circuit. Here it is a matter of understanding debts as intangible relationships, as subjective dispositions or orientations grounded in memory or institutional practice. There is no doubt that the semantic range of “debt” includes such meanings, and virtually every conversation about economic debt will call upon analogies drawn from personal experience, family lore, and morally-tinged expressions of belonging. The transposition of feelings and rhetorics of existential indebtedness (whether inflected inwardly or cosmically) into the economic arena is not simply a mistake. Yet it calls for a certain degree of care if we want to avoid sacralizing the notion of debt, rendering it infinite and thus unpayable. (The best known critique of infinite indebtedness in contemporary theory can be found in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.) It is hard to think about debt without acknowledging an ethics of responsibility and fidelity, but such an ethics owes nothing to the capitalist regime of debt that faces us now.
Finally I think Andrew Hannon’s piece on education and debt manages to unite elements of the other essays, simultaneously highlighting the specifically economic dimensions of debt at work in the current restructuring of education as well as the ways in which indebtedness may or may not be a useful way to think of the intellectual environment. Readers of Social Text will already be aware of the important thinking being done on this question by people like Christopher Newfield, Fred Moten, Stefano Harney, and Jeff Williams. Here is it enough to emphasize that education is not only central to every battle over the current economics of debt, the processes of teaching and learning ought to provide exemplary practices of indebtedness.
These essays help us to think through these urgent issues. I want to thank Ashley Dawson and Social Text for assembling this dossier, as well as Michael Denning and his colleagues for writing these texts.