“Credit is a means of privatization and debt a means of socialisation. So long as they pair in the monogamous violence of the home, the pension, the government, or the university, debt can only feed credit, debt can only desire credit. And credit can only expand by means of debt. But debt is social and credit is asocial. Debt is mutual. Credit runs only one way. But debt runs in every direction, scatters, escapes, seeks refuge.” (Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The Undercommons, 61)

“We hear them say, what’s wrong with you is your bad debt. You’re not working. You fail to pay your debt to society. You have no credit, but that is to be expected. You have bad credit, and that is fine. But bad debt is a problem. Debt seeking only other debt, detached from creditors, fugitive from restructuring. Destructuring debt, now that’s wrong. But even still, what’s wrong with you can be fixed. First we give you a chance. That’s called governance, a chance to be interested, and a shot even at being disinterested. That’s policy. Or we give you policy, if you are still wrong, still bad. Bad debt is senseless, which is to say it cannot be perceived by the senses of capital. But there is therapy available. Governance wants to connect your debt again to the outside world. You are on the spectrum, the capitalist spectrum of interests. You are the wrong end. Your bad debt looks unconnected, autistic, in its own world. But you can be developed. You can get credit after all. The key is interests. Tell us what you want. Tell us what you want and we can help you get it, on credit. We can lower the rate so you can have interest. We can raise the rate so you will pay attention. But we can’t do it alone. Governance only works when you work, when you tell us your interests, when you invest your interests again in debt and credit. Governance is the therapy of your interests, and your interests will bring your credit back. You will have an investment, even in debt. And governance will gain new senses, new perceptions, new advances into the world of bad debt, new victories in the war on those without interests, those who will not speak for themselves, participate, identify their interests, invest, inform, demand credit.” (Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The Undercommons, 66)

There are a variety of ways in which one can understand blackness’ relation to value. As I’ve tried to set out in the two previous posts, within the system of global racial capitalism, the position of the black is one of permanent indebtedness. Blackness is the exclusion from the social relations of the credible. It is the inescapable nature of one’s debt, which is one’s blackness. This indebtedness is the means by which the credibility of those who can be creditors or debtors is maintained. The value of credibility requires the devaluation of indebtedness, which is to say, requires seeing debt as a threat. Seeing blackness as a threat.

Criminalization is the technique by which this devaluation of indebtedness is maintained. Criminalization is the process of seeing from within the capitalist field of vision. In this range of visibility, blackness is only recognizeable as the threat of indebtedness, which is the threat of poverty. To protect credibility from this threat is the role of the carceral, which says it seeks the rehabilitation of the criminal. This is true, as Moten and Harney show us. The carceral mode of governance is concerned with blackness – which is to say indebtedness, which is to say bad debt -because it is concerned with maintaining the value of credibility. The promise of value, of being recognized as valuable, is what is policed.

Do we see people going about their lives as if credibility isn’t valuable? Those are the criminal, the always indebted, the black. Do we see people who understand that the promise of value money offers is paid for with their flesh and blood? Those are the criminal, the poor, the threats.

Understanding criminality through racial capital must radical reorient our field of vision, where debt is the horizon, the limit of our thought. To transgress the limit of debt, to inhabit the space where the indebted have been living their non-credible criminal lives, is to make a move that reevaluates the value money promises.

This movement is to understand, with Moten, that credit runs only one way (which is toward whiteness and the aspiration for credibility), while debt runs in all directions, to the Ferguson protests, the striking fast food workers, the undocumented laborers, the precarious adjuncts, the disappeared Mexican students, and, and, and …

To understand blackness as debt, as criminal, is to understand the value of the double in black thought. That value, as it is given by the racialized economy of credit/debt, is not respected. The double does the work of inflating and undercutting the terms of respectability, the proper, the police. Indebtedness and criminality in black study, then, are ways of naming the fact that there is something happening over where the non-credible criminal lives are cohabitating. They are a way of understanding the value of credibility requires the governance of these non-credible criminal lives, or their destruction. In response to the violence that is the imposition of a violating indebtedness, the indebted criminal black violates property, propriety, and the credibility of whiteness, of the police which protect this credibility, and of the state which governs this credibility.

One thought

  1. Both in these posts and in our discussion at AAR, you lay out a few schematic points about the relation between blackness and value:
    “What it means to be white is to be included within relations that traffic in credibility.”
    “The property of being white is the demarcation of who is the owner of property rather than being owned by property.” And I take this to be a correlate of a statement you made at AAR, to the effect that what marks blackness in economic terms is its position as ‘property’ rather than ‘propertied;’ that blackness figures into white credit economies as an object for the accumulation of value.
    “The position of the black is one of permanent indebtedness.”
    “Blackness is the exclusion from the social relations of the credible.”
    These posts do a lot of work towards laying out the way blackness exceeds purely ‘economic’ (aka race-blind) analyses of credit, and are really pushing and reorienting my thinking on this. As you noted then, my tendency in trying to account for this structure was to reach for exteriority, to place blackness as damnation ‘outside’ the relations of credibility, whereas once you account for the way damnation functions for credit (grounding the credibility relation [1, 4]; functioning as an accumulative object [2]) it becomes clear that exteriority doesn’t work as a way to analyze the imposition of un-credibility–damnation. Where I’m still not sure if I follow you–and I’d love it if you could speak more to this–is (3), where you’ve grounded the distinction in terms of ‘having’ credit/debt (but ‘being’ credible) vs. ‘being’ debt/permanently indebted.

    It seems to me that there’s a difference worth attending to between debt (even infinite or permanent) and damnation as a refusal of credibility. In your AAR response, you note that the exploitation of black borrowers in the subprime crisis was premised on a lie: specifically, the lie that blacks could be credible. And I think this is key because what blackness isn’t given in white accounting isn’t specific credit but general trust; this isn’t an exteriority because white credit wouldn’t work without it, but it is a difference, and it seems to be a qualitative one that isn’t predicated on black folk ‘owing’ whites (indeed, the pretense of credit in the subprime crisis is exactly the farce) whether infinitely, permanently, or otherwise.

    To put it another way: does a slave ‘owe’ her master? Does a criminal ‘owe’ his prison, society? Or is it (it seems to me, but this is an honest question; I might be wrong!) that these are relations that figure into and accumulate white credit precisely insofar as blackness involves being figured in terms of damnation rather than sin?

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