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The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good by Richard Dienst (review)
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This book has just the right title, for Dienst explores how debt both connects and constrains us. He argues that if we can reimagine and mobilize the bonds that join us we can free ourselves from those that bind us. But we must unmask those bonds for they are so tangled in our lives they are hard to see and understand. Capitalists buying and selling debt compete too much, impose their will unevenly, and privatize public resources, forcing global turbulence and imperial decline. In the current crisis, piles of obligations that can never be met have severed debt from all value. When debt is leveraged too far from value, it becomes either infinite or void of possibility.

Dienst centres each of his chapters on a compelling text, respectively: the Gini Index of inequality, the Harvard School of Design Guide to Shopping, New York’s Prada Store, the National Security Strategy documents of 2002 and 2010, a photograph of Bush with Bono, a magical story that Marx told his children. Each chapter can stand alone as an essay on an aspect of debt. The first takes on inequality, exploring how inequality is hard to measure and poverty is easy to misunderstand as a personal defect or bad culture rather than the price some pay so others can be rich. The bonds of debt might better measure misery. The regime of indebtedness functions like a pincer on the poor, exposing them to new complicated technical accountings of debt, and enclosing them in smaller worlds. The webs of debt make a few rich and many poor as capitalists disparage the poor so they can take their stuff.

Dienst’s chapter on war and peace begins with the national security documents that appear to claim that the whole world shares American values but nobody else can match us or judge us. Governments must tax and borrow to fight and in turn impose debts to keep the peace. We must all pay in advance for a market-state regime of violence that may turn against us anyway. His chapter on Bono tackles the chimera of debt relief politics and programs, which often ignore the history of how countries got into unpayable debt and pretend that debt relief is not just a way to bail out creditors. In another chapter Dienst tries to understand spaces of indebtedness disguised as something else. He argues we have moved away from a disciplinary society sporting spaces of confinement that shape individuals into docile subjects to a control society that does not concentrate but disperses us and leaves us on our own negotiating keycards and electronic tags. We believe we rule over our own personal shopping space although our instincts tell us that we do not belong in some of them. Like the Panopticon, the iconic enclosure architecture of the disciplinary society, Prada’s store design imposes an obligation to buy by implying that you belong there. Shopping has become a way to bear being in debt.

The chapter on Marx’s stories begins with his daughter Eleanor’s account of tramping through London with her father as he entertained them with stories of an indebted magician whose toys periodically left the shop to travel the world then eventually return. Dienst reads into these stories the importance of play and the imagination in seeing beyond debt that we think we must endure. He goes on in the next chapter to look at Marx’s arguments about credit and debt, which relate in contradictory ways. Credit extends the here and now by mobilizing vast untapped resources; credit thus deploys and transmits ever faster and more volatile forces of production. When credit works it lubricates and accelerates the forces that make an economy run, but when it freezes up it can paralyze those forces. Credit works dialectically with debt: one is always there inside the other, forcing tensions and change.

The Bonds of Debt is a rewarding if challenging read and along the way there are stunning insights, new ways to perceive the landscape of debt. Dienst helped me think about my city when he lamented that everything these days is zoned for mixed use in order to add a chunk...

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