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  • Neoliberalism in CrisisA review of The Politics of Debt: Essays and Interviews, edited by Sjoero Van Tuinen and Arjen Kleinherenbrink
  • Carey James Mickalites (bio)
Van Tuinen, Sjoero, and Arjen Kleinherenbrink, editors. The Politics of Debt: Essays and Interviews. Zero Books, 2020.

As I write this, governments the world over are calling boisterously for the "reopening" of global, national, and local markets in the face of the biggest pandemic since the 1918 influenza. The reasoning is familiar: work and consumption must return to recent levels of growth lest we slip into an unprecedented economic depression. Perhaps nowhere has this persistent and hysterical call been more pronounced than in the U.S., where sickly and irrational reactions to catastrophe have come to define the current regime. A healthy economy trumps public health. What we're witnessing is an insistence on the ultimate kind of debt: the demand for the sacrifice of countless human lives—particularly those lacking financial security of any kind—to prop up a fiction of economic and political credit. Of course, immediate history points to several indicators that make this fiction (and the burden it demands) both palpable and predictable. The dismantling of postwar public health protocols. The dangerous privatization of medical care. World leaders ignoring the advice of medical experts on the likelihood of a pandemic. Forced austerity. Gross polarization of wealth and access, such that the credit and health of the few are paid for by the debts and diseases of the many. All of this is deeply entrenched and familiar, its realities taking hold during the Reagan-Thatcher era and sticking while we collectively failed to consider structural change during and following the 2008 crash, instead letting our leaders bail out the culprits with public money. I could go on, but the point is that the "unprecedented" impact of COVID-19 is a symptom of the neoliberal policies that enslave governments and citizens to financial markets, in turn exacerbating one of the plainest contradictions of contemporary capitalism: the inevitability of the next crisis. At the risk of sounding like a historical (or hysterical) determinist, the current economic collapse was prepared for. If the coronavirus pandemic signifies the latest global crisis—and one in which finance markets and tech industries are ready to exploit threats to public health—then it also resoundingly affirms one of the key assertions running through van Tuinen and Kleinherenbrkink's The Politics of Debt: "more than a decade after the [2008] crisis, scholars, journalists and politicians alike agree that it is not a matter of if, but when the next crisis will hit" (11).

The volume, consisting of six essays and five interviews, brings together the work of philosophers, economists, political scientists, and politicians to create a chorus of multidisciplinary voices that addresses the effects of the 2008 crash ten years on. (The volume was first published in 2018, and reissued in January 2020.) With the political normalization of debt at center stage, the editors, authors, and interviewees address the perils and supposed necessity of debt and crisis through historical, theoretical, and political-economic lenses. At first sight, the texts that make up The Politics of Debt may appear a fairly loose compendium. Topics include ancient and Christian moral injunctions against enforced debt; Hobbes and other early theories of sovereignty based on power as credit; genealogies of debt and guilt or sin à la Nietzsche; and the precarious financialization of every aspect of our political economies, public and private. Yet the book appears more unified when considered as part of a general intellectual trend on the left and center- (or liberal-) left that seeks to intervene in the injustices and contradictions of our contemporary political economy through historical and theoretical analyses. The Politics of Debt returns to the works of Foucault and Deleuze from the late 1970s and offers commentary on recent influential work by David Harvey, Wolfgang Streeck, Philip Mirowski, and Thomas Picketty, among others. Most of the essays and interviews share a few important assumptions and argumentative threads, at times by implication. Foremost is the specific historical entrenchment of neoliberal policy beginning in the 1960s, whose tendency to produce bubbles, crashes, mass unemployment and the like became all-too-evident...

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