'The Bonds of Debt' Constitute a Common Good by Binding Us Inextricably to One Another

The so-called credit crisis has seemingly pushed the world to the brink of disaster. But the problem according to Richard Dienst isn't that we owe too much -- but that we don't owe enough.

The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good

Publisher: Verso
Length: 200 pages
Author: Richard Dienst
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-04
"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

-- Matthew 6:12 (KJV)

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 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 more 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 narrowly conceived under the capitalist system has, in the current environment, been revealed as a tool of exploitation 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, with boom and bust cycles necessarily following one another. He places Brenner alongside Arrighi's application of the Kondratiev Curve in the modern world-system analysis of the development of capitalism since the 15th 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 as any regular reader of the alternative media would know.

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. (For an excellent study of the role of debt in the rise of consumer society, see Financing the American Dream: A Social History of Consumer Credit by Lendol Calder.) Instead, Dienst analyzes media images -- Bono's famous (or infamous in Dienst's view) 2002 photo op with George W. Bush on the issue of global poverty most notably -- 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 now promote austerity as the only viable solution to our economic and social travails, Dienst calls on the reader to consider what is truly owed by whom, to whom. Thought of in this way, debt becomes a medium for the expression of political consciousness. And from that perspective, breaking the bank doesn't sound like such a bad idea all.






Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.