The issue of debt, both public and private, has been a top news story ever since the financial collapse of 2008, but especially in recent weeks with all of the reporting on federal budget negotiations and the debt ceiling. (Another noteworthy item: The New York Times recently reported student loan debt has now exceeded credit card outstandings for the first time and is likely to top $1 trillion by the end of this year.) The problem cultural critic Richard Dienst claims in his new book The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good (Verso: 2011) isn’t that debt levels are too high; it’s that they aren’t high enough.
A critical and literary theorist, Dienst expands the concept of debt from its purely economic connotation to include social reciprocity broadly understood. The “magic” of debt, Dienst asserts toward the end of the book, is that it ultimately constitutes a common good by binding us inextricably to one another. Debt as conceived under the capitalist system has in the current environment been revealed as an apparatus of capture that has reached its penultimate “terminal crisis” to use Giovanni Arrighi’s term, opening the door to new world-historical possibilities of social interdependence and human understanding.
Dienst begins by reviewing the ideas of several key theorists of late capitalism. From Robert Brenner he takes the notion of global capitalism as a system in perpetual turbulence. He places Brenner alongside Arrighi’s application of the Kondratiev Curve in the modern world-system analysis of the development of capitalism since the fifteenth century, which essentially tracks that turbulence at a macrolevel. He finds further complement with David Harvey’s recent books on neoliberalism that extend the primarily economic arguments of Brenner and Arrighi into the realm of politics and ideology. And as Dienst notes, the recent financial crisis came as no surprise to any of them.
The question Dienst raises is: If we agree that these thinkers have aptly described the circumstances that have brought us to our present state, then where do we go from here? As he looks to the horizon, Dienst observes: “All roads to the future lead through an immense pile of debt.” How to negotiate that terrain is the central problem.
As previously noted, Dienst is a cultural and literary theorist not an economist or other social scientist. His book doesn’t specifically examine the economic and social foundations of the credit system and its role as the obverse of modern mass production, the mechanism that allows demand to absorb excess capacity over time. Instead he analyzes media images – most notably, Bono’s 2002 photo op with George W. Bush on the issue of global poverty showing a solemn Bono giving the “V” sign and striding alongside Bush whose raised outstretched hand reads as both a greeting and an imperial salute – and other aspects of culture, such as retail display design, that constitute the spectacle mystifying the true relationships of power that keep debt under the control of the world’s haves and have-mores.
More pragmatic readers may find this path less than satisfactory. But in deconstructing the hegemonic representations of debt that have been deployed to promote austerity as the only viable solution, Dienst calls on the reader to consider what is truly owed by whom to whom. In this way debt becomes a medium for the expression of political consciousness. From this perspective, breaking the bank doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.