Reflecting on the Moral Economies of Debt and Punishment

By Chloe Peacock

The Value and Values symposium in December provided fascinating insight into a range of research on the relationships between value and values in the realms of the economy, politics and the digital. The symposium opened with a discussion of Bev Skeggs and Simon Yuill’s research on the new form of capitalist culture and new kinds of accumulation represented by Facebook. Through a wide-ranging series of talks, the symposium explored the ways in which monetisation, financialisation and indebtedness pervade every aspect of contemporary life and society.

Johnna Montgomerie and Alberto Toscano’s talks focused closely on the logic and language of debt; showing how the logic of credit and debt is so pervasive that it shapes not only our understanding of the economy and politics but our conception of human value, and our sense of our selves. Johnna Montgomerie’s talk, in particular, closely examined the role of highly normative ‘debt storytelling’ in the contemporary context, describing how a morally inflected narrative of indebtedness has served as the ideological buttress for the politics of austerity. The moral sanctity of the imperative to pay off our debts, Montgomerie argued, and the demonization of ‘the deficit’ has undergirded a harsh regime of public spending cuts.

This account of the prevalence of the logic of debt, and its moral power, prompted me to consider the work that ‘debt storytelling’ might do in other domains of social life. In my own research, I explore how political discourse works to legitimise an increasingly punitive criminal justice system. This is especially pertinent in the current moment, with the current UK prison population standing at over 85,000 (representing an increase of over 90 per cent between 1990 and 2015), and with a wealth of recent reports showing prison sentences are getting longer and prison conditions are worsening – 2016 saw a record number of suicides in UK prisons.

How does the logic and language of indebtedness play into this punitiveness? Debt and punishment have at least one thing in common: both have been identified as the primary defining characteristic of neoliberalism. While scholars like Maurizio Lazzarato and David Graeber have set out the fundamental role of debt and indebtedness in shaping contemporary social relations, others have argued that punishment plays a similarly vital role in animating neoliberal politics and economics. How might these two moral economies – debt and punishment – be intertwined? Where might we get to by tracing the connections between the two?

There is a wealth of writing on the structural connections between poverty and indebtedness, on the one hand, and criminalisation and punishment on the other. Debt and punishment might be seen as two sides of the same coin – that is, as two key strategies in the neoliberal project of disciplining the working classes. Will Davies, in an essay on ‘punitive neoliberalism’, describes how neoliberal statecraft in its post-2008 configuration is, like earlier assemblages, centred on debt and indebtedness, but is also organized around an ethos of punishment, or even vengeance. As Tayyab Mahmud puts it, ‘the neoliberal order did not leave the project of disciplining the working classes entirely to debt’: rather, ‘it complemented the “invisible hand” of the precarious labor market and burdens of debt with the “iron fist” of the penal state.’

We know that debt and poverty are intimately linked, and that those in poverty are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system. Debt and the prison, in particular, have a long shared history. While imprisonment as a form of punishment is a distinctly modern phenomenon, in pre-modern Europe the prison was largely used for holding people awaiting trial, and to enforce the payment of debts. As Genevieve LeBaron and Adrienne Roberts note, the US has seen the return of the debtors’ prison in the wake of the financial crisis. As Joe Deville shows, in the UK, too, practices of debt enforcement and collection are highly intrusive and punitive.

At the level of discourse, the language of criminal justice leans heavily on the moralising language of debt. Those who commit crimes, we are often told, must repay their debt to society. Perhaps most recently, this claim has been made by Liz Truss in her role as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor. Despite the emphasis on rehabilitation in contemporary political rhetoric on punishment, the continuing importance of retribution – rationally calculated in order to collect a penalty balanced with the offender’s ‘debt to society’ – is clear.

How might we explore how dominant moral discourses around both debt and punishment shape the subjectivities of those they target? How do people challenge the logic of debt that pervades dominant discourses of justice, and the conception of fairness that pervade discussions on debt? An arguably neoliberal dogma of individual responsibility, disconnected from social and structural context, underpins both the moral imperative to pay off our debts (regardless of the structural and economic inequalities that have led to such levels of indebtedness) and the imperative to punish (regardless of the stark inequalities in society and in the criminal justice system).

The fascinating work on indebtedness presented at the symposium, then, casts light on the complex relationship between debt and punishment, both in terms of the concrete and quotidian connections between the two, and the ways in which the logic and language of each reinforces the other. In this way, thinking through value and values provides an excellent framework for approaching a broad range of other sociological issues, and for tracing the multiple connections between the economic, the political and the moral.

Chloe Peacock is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths. Her research focuses on discourses of crime and punishment, particularly in relation to the 2011 English ‘riots’. Chloe can be contacted at; she tweets @chloepeacock87.

Originally posted 9th February 2017.

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