Called to Account

The author of Debt to Society discusses how subjectivity is constituted by financial relations

Put simply, Miranda Joseph’s Debt to Society argues that we are made by capitalist accounting practices. Talking about the book’s power, though, requires looking closer at how it engages with those terms. Joseph’s “we” isn’t a 99-percent monolith but people who find themselves thrown into intimate relation because of the ways capital differentiates them by race, class, and gender. She examines an unusual range of accounting practices—financial, legal, epistemological, social—with an eye for the complex ways they’re intertwined. And her solution to violent quantification entails not the familiar lefty line of refusing abstraction altogether but rather appropriating quantitative practices toward more reparative ends, whether by hijacking evaluative metrics or reworking neoliberal discourses of personal responsibility.

Debt to Society’s dedication to careful elaboration makes it an ideal tool for critics, artists, and activists searching for ways to articulate connections between current movements for racial, economic, and climate justice without reverting to reductive populisms. Since its release in 2014, I have seen it taken up to historicize the co-construction of race and debt, explain capitalist waste in an eco-geographical context, and analyze the nascent solidarities suggested by Papas Fritas’s burnt art offerings.

That Joseph and I didn’t get to all of Debt to Society’s resonances when we talked recently illustrates one of the book’s implicit points: Accounting for the ways that accounting makes us is slow work. You start with one question, step sideways into others, get interrupted, circle back, and, above all, resist the quick gloss.

In Debt to Society, you write about accounting in a bunch of senses of the word. Each of the book’s five chapters takes a different angle: Accounting for Debt, for Justice, for Time, for Gender, for Interdisciplinarity.

It’s true, I use the term accounting to refer to a range of practices of representation: quantitative financial and managerial accounting, such as budgets, financial statements, and performance metrics, but also social accounting through statistics and narratives. Some people might say I’m using the term so broadly it becomes meaningless. For me, the point is that accounting is persuasive, performative, and socially constitutive, and we’re more likely to see that’s the case with some kinds of account-giving than others. So I move across and note connections between the different kinds of accounting to help illuminate the ways they all make social relations and hierarchies.

The book was originally intended as a more specifically anti-prison project. So the material in “Accounting for Justice” was the seed?

Yeah, I first focused in on the phrase a debt to society because I had a Ph.D. student (now Dr. Zoe Hammer of Prescott College) who was working on a prison-related project. The phrase jumped out at me: Why is time in prison considered debt-paying? My research ended up going in all sorts of different directions, but thinking through the relationship between accounting for crime and financial accounting, between economic processes and incarceration, continued to be my motivation for the project. Race is a central factor here; the intertwined histories of financial and criminal debt are inextricably tied to the history of race in the U.S. At the crucial moment of emancipation and reconstruction, all kinds of social and legal and financial apparatuses were mobilized to re-subordinate former slaves, to oblige them into forced labor again.

Saidiya Hartmann has done important work in Scenes of Subjection on the elaboration of the social presumption of indebtedness. Guidebooks were written for former slaves by white people; they clearly demonstrate that white people wanted former slaves to see themselves as indebted for their emancipation and therefore owing voluntary re-subordination. Legally, the Black Codes and other laws helped realize this vision of always already indebtedness. There were criminal surety laws that allowed white people to pay fines for convicts who then had to work off the debt to the individual white person. And sharecropping was another system of re-­enslaving African-Americans through financial debts. The post-Emancipation period set up dynamics that we still see today, where African-Americans are treated as always already indebted socially, financially, and juridically. That continues to play out through racially targeted predatory lending, and, of course, the killings of Black people by police.

You also point out that this history is connected to the development of bankruptcy law. Because we used to have debtors’ prisons, right? But then certain debts get redefined as something to be dealt with outside criminal law. The book quotes testimony of businesspeople in early bankruptcy proceedings, and there’s this language of, “We’re not slaves, we’re not criminals, we deserve different treatment.”

Wealthy businesspeople and their corporations are the ones who are most often allowed to declare bankruptcy. Who gets a clean slate, and who is held responsible financially and criminally for their past? In the history of laws dealing with debt, a distinction gets drawn between innocent debtors who have just fallen on hard times and allegedly fraudulent debtors. The difference is supposed to be discernible through financial accounting; but social accountings—measures of who’s deemed trustworthy ahead of time—become a key factor in whether someone is subjected to criminal laws or to civil bankruptcy laws.

You start the first chapter with the Strike Debt slogan “You are not a loan,” calling it an example of credit and debt getting written into the “romantic discourse of community.” Can you explain what you mean?

In my first book, Against the Romance of Community, I look at the assumption that community is opposed to capitalism—that it’s prior to, destroyed, or damaged by capitalism and, as a result, a force of resistance to it. I insist, by contrast, that interpersonal social relationships based on identity or tradition are always implicated in, shaped by, and enabling of economic processes.

So, the Strike Debt epigraph. Subjectivity, like community, is not independent of capitalism. When Strike Debt says you are not a loan, I hear them denying the constitutive relationship between finance capital and subjectivity. They’re calling on a romantic notion of the person and interpersonal relationships as outside of capitalism. Of course, they do that to prompt people to question their belief that their self and self-worth depends on being a responsible debt payer. That’s an entirely worthwhile endeavor in the context of an exploitative capitalist economic system. And in general it’s clear that Strike Debt understands that the problem is precisely that subjectivity is constituted by financial relations.

I recently worked a contract job writing web copy for an alternative banking app. Part of the research phase was surveying banking sites, traditional and otherwise, and I found an incredible amount of “you are not a loan”–type language. It illustrates your argument pretty pithily—that this sort of sentiment is not only congruent with but a constitutive part of capitalism.

That rhetoric is really powerful and effective. All kinds of people believe in and are moved by it even as, on another level, they are quite aware of the ways they’re constituted by financial relationships.

Along these lines, I’ve been thinking about this map of the shadow banking system. It was published by the Federal Reserve in 2010. In popular media circuits, I’ve seen it presented as evidence of how unfathomable the financial world is. The Wall Street Journal blogged about it with a headline about our “ridiculously convoluted” financial system. That seems like a cousin of “you are not a loan.” Like, all the banking’s happening way over there; it has nothing to do with you.

Yeah, I think that’s right. If there’s a romantic idea of people and communities as somehow prior to or outside of capitalism, then finance gets portrayed as abstract and distant and impenetrable, like it couldn’t actually be tied to people and their relationships.

But it is human, obviously. Financialized capitalism is the way we interact and are in relation with one another. It depends on and shapes racialization and class, gender, familial structures, kinship, sexuality. Randy Martin and Paul Langley have done key work here, on what Martin called “the financialization of everyday life,” as have feminists like Fiona Allon and Leigh Claire La Berge, who are making crucial interventions about how social relations and culture are shaped by financialization. 

There’s a lot of work out there about neoliberal discipline and how discourses about individual responsibility are tied to that, but what’s meant by responsibility isn’t always fully picked apart. It’s often treated as a generalized expectation that’s the same for everyone. I really appreciate that your book looks so closely at how people are shaped by differing narratives about what constitutes responsible and irresponsible financial behavior.

There are two main contexts in which this comes up in the book. One is the obvious, dramatic difference between the norms of responsibility for the consumer and the norms for corporations. There’s tremendous moralizing about consumers’ obligation to pay their debts. For businesses, the obligation is to maximize profit. They are expected to file for bankruptcy if that is the financially advantageous thing to do or to bail out of any contract that isn’t working for them.

There’s an important temporal dimension to this. Responsibility is often understood to be about obligations undertaken in the past. You don’t get to wake up each morning and figure out what’s the best thing to do today. You have to do the thing you said you were going to do yesterday, while somehow also planning for the future. Whereas, in finance, responsible behavior is all about the present. A corporation has to respond to financial markets and manage its own stock price and decide what’s the right financial decision for today. Who cares what they said they were going to do yesterday? And planning for the future tends to happen on a very short-term basis. What would be considered irresponsible for an individual is actually the correct business behavior.

And these structures are relational. The vast amounts of money circulating in the form of financial securities depend on regular people being variously dependable monthly payers of relatively tiny amounts of money. I say “variously” because financial securities based on assets like mortgages are split out into more and less reliable income streams—so-called tranches. But broadly speaking, the basic structure requires consumers committing to monthly payments.

The other obvious place where the meaning and implications of responsibility differ is in the ways people are supposed to manage their lives. On the surface, the description might seem the same; we are all subjected to a ramped-up, entrepreneurialized version of the old Protestant ethic: work hard and save for the future. But for the wealthy this means being financial entrepreneurs, exposing themselves to the vagaries of financial markets by borrowing for education (investing in their “human capital”) and investing for retirement, while poorer people are expected to labor, deprive themselves of things in the present, and save up to spend money later. The culture-of-poverty argument is still so prominently deployed to scold poor people of color for doing their lives wrong—for having babies too young, for not saving for the future, for not being willing to work their way up. In that atmosphere of scolding, the poor (and in certain moments, the entirety of the 99 percent) are offered high-cost loans that promise to be life-building but turn out to be life-destroying.

There’s a recurring thing with interruptions in Debt to Society, especially those that are both necessary and a hindrance to building a socially respectable life. You talk about them in your own life—­reading sort-of-work-related online news, buying a house, taking on administrative tasks at the University of Arizona—and say you’ve increasingly learned to tolerate them. Can such interruptions be more than tolerated? Can they make and enable new kinds of work?

Well, first, I’d say generally that interruptions in my own life- and career-building plans keep me real about the relationship of failure that most people have to all these entrepreneurial norms and the ways that daily life is about participating in reproducing exploitative systems.

More specifically, this book would never have happened if I hadn’t interrupted my work on it to engage in the administrative labor that’s increasingly expected of university faculty. I chaired the Strategic Branding and Budget Advisory Board at the University of Arizona, and that completely transformed my relationship to accounting, to budgets, to performance metrics.

One of my primary responsibilities in that role was for the performance metrics by which the university would be measured. I’m not trained in quantitative stuff, and my impulse as a critical theorist is to simply be negative about performance metrics of any kind. But being responsible for them and watching them being negotiated over years—seeing that they’re chaotic and always in play and being selected through political ­battles—completely changed my relationship to accounting practices. I became interested in engaging them at a much more granular level, to see if it’s possible to appropriate and transform them. While the book doesn’t offer much on that front in practical terms, I’m continuing to explore the idea and would love to hear from others who are engaged in different kinds of counter-­accounting.

This seems related to the way you write about what it means to be complicit in the violence of accounting systems. Complicity’s often talked about as a thing to be refused. You take a different tack.

To me, complicity is relationality. Complicity is connections. Yes, we usually say complicity to mean we are upholding a system that’s doing something bad. But we’re also complicit in the sense that we’re tied to all the other participants that have different roles in that system. Seeing those connections is also seeing the possibility of solidarity.