Greetings! I’ll start by wishing those of you who celebrate a joyful Ramadan. May this time be one of reflection and celebration.
One of the so-called perks of being an academic is that you have any excuse to read books that aren’t normally consumed (or even known) by the general public. It’s why my daughter often refers to me as a "nerd." I truly expect that it will be one of the giant piles of books in my study that will eventually topple over and smother me to death.
Recently, thanks to a book group organized by Terri Friedline (UMichigan), I had the opportunity to dive into a fabulous book – "A Feminist Reading of Debt" by Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago. These two gifted social scientists use a feminist framework and their own activist experiences in Argentina, to craft an argument of how national debt disproportionately falls on the backs of women, LGBTQA+, and economically impoverished people. It is a book that I want to read again to more fully understand their insights.
Many of their points and observations have bearing on the world of human services and education. Essentially, neoliberalism is in a constant state of crisis, the resolution of which is primarily shouldered by the disenfranchised. We are seeing this now in the current debate on the U.S. budget; it isn’t the wealthy who will sacrifice. Caballero and Gago take this a step further by arguing that these crises don’t just happen – they are manufactured in ways to protect elite capital. It’s a giant Ponzi scheme with the debt burden pushed down on those who can least afford it. So, when we talk about sovereign (national) debt, we need to stop abstract analyses and instead, directly demonstrate how this negatively impacts the lives and livelihoods of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
A critical strategy in the reframing of the debt analysis is to recognize that work is not just formal wage work. It also is the informal work of household maintenance and providing care. Because this tends to be “women’s work,” it creates debt scenarios because it limits female employment options. Further, neoliberalism has hollowed out public assistance programs, which means that women essentially make up for this failure of the state. Their unpaid labor is extracted, and this results in household indebtedness. Families go into private debt to support and care for their members, which is exploited in ways to offset the public debt.
In one of the more power passages, Caballero and Gago argue that debt creates obedience. In essence, when one is in debt, one’s choices are limited. You take a job that will hopefully help pay down the debt, but it isn’t a job you want or desire. You take out a loan to pay off the debt, yet the conditions of the loan make that impossible. You get an education, that will hopefully lead to better job prospects, but the loan debt makes it unattainable. Debt is a form of labor control. Workers lose bargaining power when they are desperate for wages. It sets the stage for further exploitation. And it means that initiatives to empower students and workers, such as university DEI courses and programs, need to be stopped. The current debt-inflicting system cannot have "woke" laborers who think critically and are inspired to act collectively. Anti-DEI measures fit hand to glove with promoting a debt economy.
What this leads to, they suggest, is understanding debt as financial terrorism. But, it is a terrorism that has become normalized. Almost everyone carries some form of debt. Moreover, various credit card schemes that target teens make sure that one is introduced to, and entrapped in, debt early. Despite the ubiquitous nature of debt, we rarely talk about it. It’s seen as shameful. And when debt is raised for debate, such as the current attention to ameliorating student loan debt, the backlash is designed to blame the individual and not the system. This furthers the shaming. One way to begin to address debt, especially as it impacts vulnerable groups, is to bring it into the light and make the connection to larger economic forces that depend on the indebtedness of others to function.
It simply isn’t possible to do justice to the book in this space. Reading it, and participating in the book group discussion, reminded me of the importance of connecting the dots. There’s an old saying in the feminist movement that "the personal is political." In their dissection of debt, and the debt crisis, Caballero and Gago demonstrate the power behind that slogan.
If you’re a "nerd" like me, and are interested in reading and discussing this book, let me know. I’d love to delve further into their arguments. Or perhaps there’s another work that you’d like to tackle via group discussion. Let me know that as well – it could be fun and inspirational. And Happy Spring!