The Bonds of Debt:
Borrowing Against the Common Good
by Richard Dienst
Verso, 2011, 192 pp.
Anyone who has not yet encountered the sentence-by sentence brilliance of Richard Dienst’s reflections on capitalism’s material and media infrastructure, notably in his Marxist-Derridian take on television, Still Life in Real Time, is hereby recommended to read Chapter Six of The Bonds of Debt. The chapter is about the fairy tales Marx invented to amuse his children during long walks through London, fairy tales that as Dienst reads them offer a kind of magical, child’s-eye explanation of the commodity and, eventually, of existence in a state of debt. It will make you want to take walks, tell stories—and maybe even have children, despite the bills to pay.
For all its economic erudition and high intellectual power, The Bonds of Debt works in something of Marx’s familial-domestic mode. Rather than laying out a single consecutive argument about debt, it tells a series of intertwined but also divergent stories, all drawing us deeper into the mysteries of social life under capitalism but each gripping in its own distinct way. It’s not every writer in the Marxist tradition who has the courage to enter into mysteries he may not be able to elucidate, to tell stories that may not end by cohering as fully as he would like.
Chapter Three, which deals with debt and war, retells a modern fable by Alexander Kluge called “Strategy from Below.” A German schoolteacher is in a cellar with her three children as Allied bombs begin to fall. What can she do? Which buildings are least likely to burn? Does she have time to seek a more reliable shelter? The moral of the story, as Dienst paraphrases it, is that “it is too late. Her only chance to develop an effective strategy against the bombers did not occur that morning or even the night before, or in 1939, or in 1933…but in 1918, at the end of the previous war, when she would have had to join with thousands of other teachers, to organize and ‘teach hard,’ in order to build lasting social relationships that might have blocked the rise of Nazis. But Gerda learns the lesson of November 1918 in April 1945: Once upon a time, it would have been possible to turn history around.” In the readerly now, both Kluge’s story and Dienst’s retelling of it seem meant as encouragement not to put off til tomorrow political tasks that may not yet be defined today but are nonetheless peremptory. Still, that’s not the only meaning conveyed. The timelessness of the “once upon a time” formula also carries a darker, Brothers Grimm–like hint. Maybe it is always too late. Maybe the moment when it would have been possible to turn history around is always imaginary, a present that no one ever manages to occupy. Is it ever the right time for politics?
Activism around debt is one of Occupy’s most promising projects, and Dienst gets credit for predicting it.
On the subject of debt, which all of these essays engage more or less centrally, this question would not seem very pertinent. Debt has become a political slogan, indeed one of the most compelling to emerge from (and survive) Occupy Wall Street, which had not yet happened when this book was delivered to the publisher in 2010. The concept offers the prospect of gathering together the seemingly distant dilemmas of the unemployed and underemployed who cannot pay back their student loan debt, homeowners who have defaulted on their mortgages or are at risk of defaulting, the victims of austerity programs both in the United States and in nations like Greece and Spain who are suffering from long-standing sovereign debt crises. It’s not yet clear whether these constituencies can be forged into a single movement, but the project is one of Occupy’s most promising, and Dienst gets credit for predicting it.
Still, politics remains a question. As industrial capitalism has mutated into finance capitalism, a specifically anti-capitalist politics has tended to drop out or at least to become more confusing. After reminding us that the financial crisis of 2008 never turned into a genuine questioning of the financial system itself, the first chapter offers synopses of the theories of global capitalist crisis by Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, and David Harvey—and then declines to adjudicate among them. Nor does it engage with the rough commonsensical idea that if wages had been higher (that is, if unions had been able to throw more weight around), the system would not have had to squeeze so much profit out of lending, which is to say out of deceptive mortgages and student loans, consumerism and indebtedness.
Chapter Two expresses a preference for “a politics of the indebted” over the more familiar politics that targets inequality. Dienst does an excellent job pointing out the difficulties of measuring inequality (absolute versus relative, wealth versus income, the lack of a neutral standard that would work equally well for all cultures) and the difficulties of organizing around it. Then he concludes that “there is no way to ‘fix’ poverty without ‘fixing’ the process of accumulation.” In some ultimate sense this is no doubt true, and a fair rebuke to the just-buy-a-mosquito-net set. But couldn’t the all-or-nothing objection be raised with equal justice against any measures that could be taken against indebtedness?
There’s a bit of sleight of hand here: the politics of debt is kept very, very vague so that it can seem more transformative and less compromised than the practical, concrete steps proposed to “fix” or even alleviate poverty. Dienst is right when he declares roundly that “the goal of universal equality as such, which would abolish the autonomy of the economy, currently plays no role in politics anywhere.” He is on much shakier ground when he adds that this ideal is “honored precisely because there is no responsible authority or agency capable of realizing such a vision” (italics mine). He offers no evidence for this uncharacteristically mean-spirited attribution of motive. Why could not the same motive be attributed to his alternative? Where do I go to join the Party of the Indebted? If there exists some established collective agency capable of realizing the solidarity of those who hold different sorts of debt, he does not reveal its name or its coordinates. It seems to me that when it comes to the challenge of matching injustices with agencies, we are all taking things day by day.
Dienst is very good with numbers, and the reader will be grateful for it. One learns, for example, that while the burden of debt service has famously been rising in “peripheral” European countries like Greece and Spain, it has actually been falling in many low-income countries, like Chile and Malaysia. Debt is not one of those one-size-fits-all explanations, like “reification” or “the colonization of the life-world,” that repel all attempts at useful specification. We cannot even say of debt that the poorest suffer from it most. Perhaps for that reason, one thing we can say of debt is that you can be indebted and still have some leverage. In other words, debt is not an immovable object. It can become “effectively void—an empty command that will disappear like a wisp of smoke in the face of a determined act of refusal.” All this is politically encouraging. Yet how vulnerable to political pressure does Dienst himself think debt is? Chapter Three, which deals with debt from the perspective of war, presents a darkly totalizing view in which, at least as far as the military is concerned, politics has in effect disappeared, replaced by media spectacle. War-making, he suggests, is no longer subject to political accountability of any kind. “That is the crucial political point: media strategies now perform constitutional functions in absentia, producing ‘legitimation’ without recourse to legal processes.” At moments like this, the book sounds as if it thought the United States would live under the shadow of 9/11 forever. Whatever one thinks of the speed with which Obama has moved to close down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or his shameful policy on drones, that assumption has come to seem questionable.
There would indeed be no point in an anti-war politics if one also assumed, as Dienst appears to, that the use of “military force” is absolutely inseparable from the “market system”—not merely that the market system provides incentives to grab and protect resources and supply routes, as we know, but that the exercise of military force doesn’t even have relative autonomy from market imperatives. If I’m reading Dienst correctly, he is saying that the market, the military, and the media have now fused into a perfectly oppressive system, a system in the strong sense that it allows no possibility for successful resistance against any part. No meaningful political achievement of any kind is to be expected unless and until capitalism as a whole is overthrown. It’s all or nothing, all the time.
Dienst is a beautiful close reader of documents; I think for example of his rhetorical comparison of the National Security Strategy documents of 2002 and 2010 and how little difference there is between them. He also has a wonderful eye for the details of media spectacle. If we are planning an interdisciplinary Core Curriculum, his reading of Bono’s photo op on the White House lawn with George W. Bush, which makes up Chapter Four, should definitely be on the syllabus. But if it is assigned, I predict lively class discussion over whether a celebrity humanitarian who tries after his fashion to make things better must necessarily be self-aggrandizing and/or merely making things worse. Academics have to be careful about charges of self-interest that assume their own implicit claim to disinterestedness. In the humanities, blaming a mode or organ of discourse is always a way of claiming importance for discourse as such, hence also for those of us who study discourse. Dienst arguably succumbs to this temptation when he ascribes a quasi-theological omnipotence to electronic spectacle. The problem with this move is always the same: it saves the agency of the analysts of discourse only by denying any agency to a muted or small-market or merely partial politics. The action of criticizing discourse is the only political action that seems to count.
In what seems like a deliberate echo of Fredric Jameson’s classic account of postmodern disorientation in the Bonaventure Hotel, Chapter Five offers a sustained reflection on the architecture of Prada shopping displays. As with Jameson, Dienst too shifts subtly between steady denunciation of capitalist spectacle and occasional jolts of ambivalent, dialectical admiration for its sheer transformative power. But his most dialectical twist comes on the subject of debt itself. In Chapter Six, on Marx’s stories about the magic toy-maker who has “many debts” and therefore has to sell his toys to the devil, Dienst notes that the devil does not create the debts and that there is no suggestion that the debts will ever be paid off. The book seems to have been building towards a straightforward call for debt forgiveness or cancellation, but as it comes to a close it strikes a less activist, more philosophical note. In the abstract, Dienst argues, indebtedness is an ineradicable fact of social life. To be in debt is to be mutually dependent. This is not in itself a bad thing. The difficulty is to get people out from under the terrible and unjust suffering that results from the present structuring of debt under capitalism without pretending that debt as such can ever be done away with. (This distinguishes his book from the anarchism of David Graeber’s history, Debt: The First 5000 Years, which came out at roughly the same time.)
Dienst’s version of Marx makes room, a bit reluctantly, for a reverential sense that we are all beneficiaries of the dead labor of those who came before us. And this refusal to go all the way with a Nietzschean revolt against the debt/guilt of slave morality makes practical political sense. What effect would a cancellation of debt have on, say, pension funds like TIAA/CREF in which such a large percentage of American working people have invested their savings? We like to imagine all creditors in the plutocratic image of Mitt Romney, but the fact is that much of the money that has been loaned out to students, mortgage holders, and so on has come from people who are no better off than they are. If those debts were cancelled, it would not just be the bankers who suffered. More generally, the principle of indebtedness can’t be denounced as such by any leftist who’s interested in getting American consumers to consider the welfare of the distant people to whom we owe our commodified pleasures or, for that matter, who wants to secure proper reparations for the descendants of slavery and Native American genocide.
We are in a moment, Dienst declares in conclusion, when self-consciousness about the injustices behind debt has become acute and widespread enough for the rejection of debt to emerge as a feasible political program. “A new politics of indebtedness is emerging everywhere.” As Dienst describes this new politics, however, it comes to seem less and less promising. He reminds his readers that the retiring or cancellation of debts can actually serve the interest of creditors, that “Third World debt,” once viewed as the ticking bomb that might blow up the system, turned out to be a dud. The particular is true, but the generality seems somehow too foreordained. In Dienst’s world, do creditors who take a haircut ever actually lose money? They don’t seem to. Ever. There is none of that limited but real contingency in Dienst’s stacked deck that students of history have reason to anticipate. It’s as if finance capitalism has been set up in advance as a malevolent and omnipotent deity that always gets what it wants. But why should the financiers fight so hard against regulation if regulation, when and if it came, would only serve their interests?
Dienst is surely right that our practical and unending dependence on each other makes the cancellation of all debts utopian in the bad sense.
Turning a sort of dialectical pirouette, Dienst entertains the counterintuitive notion that there may be “a kind of revolt,” and a valuable one, in maintaining rather than canceling one’s debts. Going into debt in order to acquire a nicer house than you can afford translates into a demand that you and others should be able to afford nice houses. Why back down from that demand? It’s a good question, though one that would take some work to translate into a useful politics. (Home occupations, however, have turned into a real if limited project.) The book’s self-questioning ends, finally, with a French group named Tiqqun whose pamphlet The Coming Insurrection calls for a cancellation of all social bonds and obligations, debts included. To this Dienst responds, who will grow the carrots? The growing of carrots requires a collective investment in time. You cannot demand Jubilee, the cancellation of debts, without also affirming “the constructive and constitutive force of indebtedness.” About this he is surely right. Our practical and unending dependence on each other makes the cancellation of all debts utopian in the bad sense.
Does it follow, however, that the only alternative is utopian in some other sense? I hope not. Dienst also proposes toward the end that Marxism should ground itself in the memory of political defeats: “the only real leverage against the present conjuncture that Marxist thinking offers concerns its ability to declare defeat and to recognize failure in a way that puts every kind of accomplishment and aspiration in question.” I will not argue over whether this agenda for the analysis of successive failures deserves to be called Marxist, or whether it is dialectical (as Dienst, for all his attraction to Deleuze, elsewhere insists on being). The big advantage of placing defeat at the center of the frame is that it supplies left-wing academics with an unending supply of juicy thesis topics. The disadvantage is that it’s neither good history nor good politics. Its real disciplinary home is theology. The almost monastic asceticism that shuns all talk of accomplishment and success as unworthy and even profane, focusing exclusively on shortcomings and defeats, can justify its detachment only if, without saying so, it permits itself an absolute, unquestioned faith that in the end our side will be victorious. Only political theologians will want Marxism to proclaim that no actions or events are deserving of a nod of satisfaction or an effort at follow-up because all must be measured against the coming perfection of the much-prophesied revolutionary messiah. Why build imperfect coalitions and institutions if the end of the world is coming, when all such edifices will be swept away? Dienst seems personally delighted to see them rise, but it cannot be said that his perspective encourages their construction. For those of us who share his appreciation for Marxism as a source of long-term guidance but must say no to the authority of revelation, defeat cannot be our only scripture. In the stories Marx told his children, he was in debt to the devil, but things didn’t always work out as the devil wanted.
Bruce Robbins is the Old Dominion Foundation Professor of Humanities at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, of Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence.