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The Debt Economy

Champaign , USA
Gregory Hall, Room 223

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This symposium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign brings together legal scholars, historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, and education theorists to explore the politics of debt and debt resistance.

As debt has moved from the margins of capitalism to its center, scholars across a range of disciplines have turned to the idea of a generalized debt economy and the figure of the indebted person to grapple with new forms of exploitation and subjectification within neoliberalism. Pointing to the growing ubiquity of indebtedness across social categories, across state boundaries, and across scales, theorists have sought to understand the mechanisms of control exercised through debt and its power to generate and multiply inequalities.

At the macro-level, the subordination of states to global financial markets has privileged the claims of creditors over citizens. Etienne Balibar characterizes this shift as “the privatization of profits and the socialization of losses.” Critics have also turned their attention to the production of new subjectivities in a debt economy. Arguing that “debt represents an economic relationship inseparable from the production of the debtor subject and his ‘morality,’” Maurizio Lazzarato and others have looked at how moral attributions of accountability, responsibility, and blame justify inequality and exact debt repayment from individuals and populations.

The difficulty of organizing around debt has challenged theorists of the debt economy. In response, calls for the cancellation of “odious debts” and for debt refusal have emerged from the World Social Forum and from Occupy Wall Street campaigns. Equally powerful have been calls for political and legislative struggles to regulate financial speculation and a recommitment to a political vision centered on public goods and the principle of the commons.

This symposium brings together legal scholars, historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, and education theorists to explore the politics of debt and debt resistance.

Co-Sponsored by the Dept. of History, Dept. of Sociology, and the Graduate College


9:00-9:20 am: Coffee and pastries

9:20 am: Opening remarks, Susan Koshy (Director, Unit for Criticism)

9:30—11:00 am: The Historiography of Debt

Louis Hyman (Labor and Industrial Relations, Cornell U), “From Personal Credit to Market Debt: How Loans Became Commodities”

Janet Roitman (Anthropology, New School), “From Debt Crisis to Anti-Crisis”

Chair: Emanuel Rota (French & Italian/History)

11:00-11:15 am: Coffee Break

11:15-12:45pm: Debt and the Radical Imagination

Richard Dienst (English, Rutgers U), "Debt and Utopia"

Hannah Appel (Anthropology, UCLA), "From Debtor's Prisons to Debtor's Unions: Direct Action Under Finance Capitalism"

Chair: Jessica Greenberg (Anthropology)

12:45-2:00 pm: LUNCH

2:00-3:30 pm: The Productivity of Debt

Martha Poon (Data & Society Research Institute), "Microsoft’s Pivot"

Miranda Joseph (Gender & Women’s Studies, U of Arizona), "Performative Accounting of Debt, Time, and Labor in the Financialized University"

Chair: Susan Koshy (English/Asian American Studies)

3:30-3:45 pm: Coffee Break

4:00-5:15 pm: Credit Karma: Student Debt and Bankruptcy

Chris Higgins (Education); Robert Lawless (Law); Gus Wood (History)

Moderator: Faranak Miraftab (Urban & Regional Planning)




Roman Friedman


Unit for Criticism