Everywhere you look, all you see are debts. They are in your pockets, your purse, your education, your car, home, dreams. I honestly have this nightmare regularly: A Bank of America credit card that has somehow completely slipped from the sphere of my attention suddenly reappears. It has been unpaid for months and months, and lots of fees have been stuffed into the incredible amount that's now owed. We wake up from such bad dreams to this bad reality: No matter how hard you try, you can't get rid of debts or even clear a small path that will lead you to the very heaven of debtlessness. Your debts only know how to grow and grow.
But why do we owe so much? How did we get here? "For wealthier households," writes Richard Dienst in his new book, The Bonds of Debt, "more debt is associated with greater ability to borrow for houses, durable goods, education, and so on. For everybody else, increased debt should be seen in the context of the persistent stagnation of wages, where borrowing against a house became the easiest and perhaps the only way to support consumption." And exactly what percentage of the American population is this "everybody else"—those who have not seen their real wages rise since the 1970s? Dienst, an associate professor in the Department of English at Rutgers University, offers the answer in another part of the smart and easily understood book: 90 percent of the population.
You must also picture the other 10 percent loaning money to this 90 percent for their contributions (labor, entertainment, cultural, intellectual, scientific productions) to this society. We often hear clichés like "life and debt" and "first you live, and then you are debt." People are quick to see and hear the word death in the word debt because both are generally recognized as bad things. And if not compared to the "Absolute Master," debt is compared to prison, a loss of personal freedom, a kind of slavery. But Dienst has a new and thrilling idea. From his perspective, debt is exactly what bonds us and makes our kind of sociality possible.
"A collective must always be indebted to itself in order to carry out any kind of production." With this insight, we can now understand what is at the heart of capitalism itself: It appropriates a given fact, our indebtedness, and transforms it into an economic machine that benefits a few people. "What characterizes capitalist societies, then, is the way that this collective indebtedness gets expressed in the generalized form of credit which shapes and mediates relations between individuals, states, and markets... What indebtedness makes possible, credit makes profitable."
The first three chapters of the book, which flesh out this concept, are brilliant. The later chapters, one of which is on Bono and his pathetic effort to save the world from poverty, are interesting. Late in the book, we are introduced to the fictionality of credit. The stunning success of this particular fiction resulted in what the Italian economist Christian Marazzi calls, in his book The Violence of Financial Capitalism, the "financialization of society." As we fell deeper and deeper into debt, and our wages refused to pull us up, more and more of our lives became tied up with banks and securities. In short, our world became the kingdom of Wall Street.
Marazzi is part of a great Italian intellectual, political, and cultural movement, the Italian autonomists, that has Antonio Negri (Empire) as its most visible figure. What distinguishes this Marxist movement from others is that it fully recognizes and develops theories that correspond with a capitalism organized around services, telecommunication systems, and computer processing. The factory order is an older capitalism. The new capitalism makes us not only work at work but also work when we are not working.
In Marazzi's dazzling little book (Marazzi is an economist by training and not a philosopher), an aspect of this "working when you are not working" is described as "coproduction." He writes: "Coproduction [is] where the individual is the coproducer of what he consumes." An example of this: "Ikea [delegates] to a client a whole series of functions (individuation of the code of the desired item, location of the object, removal of it from shelves, loading it into the car, etc.)." Along with coproduction, you also have to rent your "social rights." Again, because real wages have been flat, and the only extra money you can get comes in the form of debt, you in a way rent your wage increase. You also rent the right to have a place to live and the right to retire.
This system of debt, renting, and increased financialization is called neoliberalism. And the most sober and entertaining critic of this system is Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean who teaches economics at the University of Cambridge and has authored and coauthored several books, the newest of which is 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.
If you don't know Chang's work, then start with 23. It is all of his ideas and arguments compressed into a clear and delightful crystal. But before reading this book, I highly recommend that you watch him lecture on YouTube. This way, you'll have his manner of speech and comic timing in your head as you read his writing. Chang essentially believes that neoliberalism is a system that is ideal for those who have financial assets. Hence the rise of Wall Street (and hence the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street). But more than that, neoliberalism has distorted everything: It wants us to believe markets are free, when they are not; it wants us to believe that government planning is bad, when this is hardly the case; it wants us to believe that inflation is horrible, when often this is not so.
What does controlling inflation do? It keeps prices stable. But this stability is of first importance only to those who have extra money (low inflation maintains the real returns on their financial assets); those who have to work to make a living are more concerned about job stability—a stability that's dismissed by neoliberal policy makers. "The most destabilizing events in most people's lives are things like losing a job," writes Chang, "not rising prices, unless they are of a hyperinflationary magnitude."
In sum, 23 and the other two books present the reader with strong and new tools to cut the "mind-forg'd manacles" of our times.