Unpayable Debt: Capital, Violence, and the New Global Economy
An interview with Frances Negrón-Muntaner
Unpayable Debt: Capital, Violence, and the New Global Economy
An interview with Frances Negrón-Muntaner
by Vanessa Pérez-Rosario
What is debt?
Etymologically the word debt derives from the Latin “debitum” through the Old French “dette,” which means, “something owed.” Debt is also entangled with the notion of “obligation” or “the condition of being morally or legally bound to do something." Not surprisingly, the idea of debt is invoked in multiple contexts as captured in expressions such as “debt to society,” “debt of gratitude” and “be in someone’s debt.” Yet, across sites, debt is not a natural or social fact but the effect of articulated forms of power — politico-economic, legal, and moral— that materialize specific relationships.
In our work, we are focused on capitalist debt, which is often defined as an enforceable obligation that requires a person or entity to pay a creditor with money. Given our interest in the Caribbean, we likewise view debt as a mode of imperialist and colonial politics. A key location to think about the various dimensions of debt is Haiti. From 1791 to 1804, enslaved people there took up arms against France to end slavery. In the process, Haitians emancipated themselves and founded a new republic. Yet, although enslavement and colonialism can be considered theft in every single way, in 1825 the French government legally redefined emancipation and national independence as a debt to colonists and the state, and demanded compensation. Under threat by the French military, Haiti opted to pay in order to avoid further war and possible re-enslavement. Scandalously, the Haitian government paid the last interest on this debt of 90 million gold francs—about 40 billion dollars today—in 1947, more than 120 years after France banned the slave trade and over 150 years following the abolition of slavery in Haiti.
And the debt is not over. In many ways, the people of Haiti continue to pay, as the country has never been able to invest these financial resources in healthcare, education or infrastructure. For legitimate and illegitimate reasons, several governments have also borrowed millions of dollars from international banks while Haitians are expected to be “grateful” for foreign aid, assistance, and occasional debt forgiveness.
Why a project on debt? Why now?
Our trigger was the so-called debt crisis in Puerto Rico, another example of colonial debt in the Caribbean. Specifically, we came together after the governor, Alejandro García Padilla, declared in 2015 that the island had accumulated a staggering 72-billion-dollar debt largely held by US financial investment firms and hedge funds that was “unpayable.” I say “so-called” because while Puerto Ricans were increasingly suffering from poverty and other forms of colonial-capitalist dispossession, the debt was not considered a crisis. It became one when creditors believed that the local government, despite a constitutional guarantee to service public debt above all else, would not be able to pay.
Initially, we just wanted to understand how and why this happened. In the process, the group realized that one of the major political challenges of this juncture was how difficult it was to grasp and communicate the intricate workings of finance capitalism, particularly in the absence of in-depth reporting by the mainstream media. Then, in 2016, when the US government passed a federal law known as the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) that created an unelected “control board” to guarantee payment, it became clear that the debt crisis was going to have an even more devastating impact than we thought. Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s population was already living below the poverty line and the board was promoting cuts on all of life’s fundamentals such as health, education, infrastructure, and pensions. Left unchallenged, the outcome from these policies could only be even more hardship and less democracy.
Equally important, as we thought about Puerto Rico alongside other cities and nations affected by debt such as Argentina, Detroit and Spain, it became clear that present debt crises are not solely about collecting. They are also political opportunities for capital to reorient state policies toward privatization, deregulation, and austerity that change more than what we think of as “the economy.” These policies similarly affect family relations, health, and ways of being. So, we started to work on developing a conceptual vocabulary, and sharing information and analysis on the crisis. We felt that understanding debt and how it can be challenged is essential to politics in the twenty-first century. Which is why we adopted the neologism of “unpayable” for the group’s name. This type of debt is not only impossible to pay; it must not be paid.
What and who is the Unpayable Debt project?
The project is a working group supported by Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference (CCSD) under its “Imagining Justice” rubric.* Our core members and affiliates are scholars, journalists, artists, activists, and students. Our goal is to support and enable critical thought and collective action against the imposition of debt as an extractive regime. With this in mind, the group offers public programming such as workshops and conferences; curates art exhibits and syllabi; and produces print and media resources to engage diverse publics about the workings and impact of debt. Some of the questions that drive us include: What is a “debt regime”? How is it assembled, reproduced, and legalized? What is the relationship between debt, violence, and migration? How does debt further gender, colonial, and racial inequality? What kind of social movements and narratives emerge to contest debt? What are the roles of information, education, and the arts in disrupting debt regimes?
What have you learned about the ways that people and groups have grappled with and against various forms of indebtedness?
Our research is still ongoing yet one note is that communities respond differently to debt crisis and these differences do not strictly correlate with severity. Responses also depend on historical context, available information and conceptual frameworks, the extent of collective power and organizational capacity, insertion in the global economy, and possibility to “escape” the crisis through migration, among other practices. In Spain, for instance, a nation-state that is relatively wealthy and part of the European Union, the debt crisis that began in 2008 was most notably followed by the founding of radical democratic spaces such as camps and popular assemblies, and various political parties including Podemos, which is currently the nation’s second largest. In Puerto Rico, a modern colony of the United States with high levels of poverty, practices of autogestión, mass migration, and the mobilization of diasporic networks have predominated.
Significantly, despite the gravity of the island’s situation—some economists have stated that Puerto Rico has the world’s worst economic outlook at the moment—coordinated mass efforts have not taken place. Many are concentrated on what activist Giovanni Roberto has described as “remontar el tejido social” (to reconstitute the social tissue) which has been frayed not only by over a decade of debt crisis but also hundreds of years of colonial rule, first by Spain and then the United States.
What are the politics of debt?
It depends on context. Debt is not a new phenomenon and has existed in all economies with credit. Finance capital and credit have also been an important part of capitalism for centuries. What makes the present juncture particular and constitutive of what we could call a “debt regime” is that finance capital now rules over other sectors of capital and states, colonizing practices and sites where it was absent or restrained before. For instance, production cycles now tend to begin by borrowing rather than reinvesting; banks mediate the production and consumption of the same commodities; lenders decide which sectors of production will be supported; and finance capital increasingly generates staggering profits through debt that is transformed into globalized “financial instruments” or derivatives. Moreover, lending organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have an increasingly significant role in global governance and frequently demand that indebted countries adopt neoliberal austerity measures, among other policies that benefit finance capital.
In general, one could say that the politics of the current debt regime is to convert everyone into indebted subjects (and entities) and in a sense devour them, while the politics against debt regimes are to disrupt this logic and take life back. One of the best examples of this conflict involves student debt. In various parts of the world, including in Puerto Rico, Chile, and the United States, students have mobilized against debt in education, which renders the purpose of a young person’s life to pay debt rather than to live, create, and grow.
You have referred to the debt crisis in Puerto Rico as a humanitarian crisis. Why should more people think of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis as a humanitarian crisis?
Yes, I used the phrase in an op-ed that appeared in Pacific Standard, even if I find the term somewhat problematic. The complication is that under most definitions, the disasters brought about by capitalism are not included or recognized as “humanitarian crises.” But given how difficult it had been to communicate the devastating impact of debt in Puerto Rico, the expansion of the term to include such circumstances became an effective way to argue that what was already taking place and was exacerbated by Maria had many of the same characteristics associated with a humanitarian crisis. These included hunger, internal displacement, destruction of the environment, and mass migration. The critical point was that there was and there still is inflicted suffering in Puerto Rico that requires both immediate relief and political contestation.
While the debt crisis seemed to draw little attention from the mainstream media in the United States, hurricane Maria has brought Puerto Rico into focus. Has the nature of the Unpayable Debt project changed in the aftermath of hurricane Maria?
Yes and no. We took a few months to precisely consider this question. First we concluded that in some ways, there is a before and after Maria. For instance, in one of our ongoing projects, we follow American media coverage about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. We found that prior to Maria, mainstream journalists tended to use technocratic and detached language that did not allude to questions of political power or responsibility. Subsequently, this changed. While coverage on Maria’s impact was less than that of hurricanes Harvey and Irma that hit Texas and Florida, it is no less true that attention to Puerto Rico increased in Maria’s wake.
In addition to scale, we also found a difference in vocabulary with words such as “colony” and “our fellow Americans” entering US mainstream discourse as never before. I actually wrote an essay regarding this shift titled “Our Fellow Americans” for Dissent magazine. I argued that the phrase became widely used by invested journalists like CBS’s David Begnaud as a strategy to pressure the U.S. government into providing more resources for a fast and fair recovery.
Yet, although the new rhetoric had some effect among the public, it did not translate into adequate federal support nor significantly curb the predatory forces of capital. On the contrary: Despite greater attention, American political and capitalist elites stepped up their treatment of Puerto Rico as exploitable “property” and Puerto Ricans as a disposable colonial population. Ultimately, the main way that Maria changed our work is that it gave us a renewed sense of urgency and motivation to expand and intensify our efforts.
What kinds of new political and cultural identities have emerged in the wake of extreme, crippling, and catastrophic debt?
In my view, the complete blackout that followed Maria was terribly illuminating. It brought greater awareness about the politics of debt, demolished the idea of American largesse in Puerto Rico, and buried the colonial myth that Puerto Ricans are lazy and incapable of self-governance. This ushered communities to enact and expand alternative political vocabularies and forms of organization to those imposed by capital and the state.
For example, before status politics still dominated much of the conversation on the debt crisis in and out of Puerto Rico. After the hurricane, however, a growing number of people started to prioritize and identify other matters as politically urgent, including energy, food, water, housing, climate change, and the environment. There is also a sprouting of organizations and groups engaged in horizontal governance that are, in practice, piloting “another country” into existence. Which is not to say that dislodging colonial-capitalist logics will be easy or likely in the short-term. Yet, current political activity suggests that many people have understood the catastrophes of debt and hurricane not exactly as “disasters,” but in the sense of “kata-strophe,” which in Greek, as scholar Aleksandra Perisic reminds us, means to “overturn” and in Greek tragedy refers to the moment preceding resolution when the protagonist can still shape the story’s end.
What have you learned about the kinds of debt that inhabit relations of intimacy, kinship, and everyday interaction?
One of the things that we have learned is that debt may tax relationships in different and contradictory ways. As project co-director Sarah Muir has noted, debt crisis can amplify gender inequalities in intimate relationships by tying them more directly to the state. At the same time, as I consider in the upcoming “The Emptying Island,” the debt crisis and inadequacy of federal response following Maria forced people to use their own resources for survival, specially kin and friends in the United States. This meant that prior waves of expelled Puerto Ricans, the majority of them with limited means, provided much of the support to weather the crisis. In some cases, this led to more economic hardship, homelessness, and other forms of violence.
Debt crisis may also bring profound despair. For instance, in Greece, suicide rates went dramatically up after the imposition of drastic austerity measures in 2010. The aftermath of Maria in Puerto Rico, which exacerbated poverty and debt, has similarly brought a sharp increase in suicide. For some people, the impossibility of freeing oneself from debt may make life itself unbearable.
But although debt imposes a suffocating temporality, captured in the idiom “drowning in debt,” it may similarly present the possibility of a new beginning. A compelling visualization of this complexity is artist ADÁL’s portrait series “Puerto Ricans Under Water,” where people are photographed in a tub filled with water. Some scream, appear terrified or in pain, including Bold Destrou, a young man wearing a red ski mask and black t-shirt that reads “Muerto Rico." Yet, others read, smoke, exercise, sleep, play the trumpet, take photographs, check their cell phones, and strike a pose. Even the “muerto rico” is far from dead. In addition to the bubbles in the water, the image is alive with signifying possibilities: Is this a photograph of a rich dead man, a dead man who is hot, or one being otherwise with the spectator’s complicity? This polysemy suggest that “the debt” can also be read in different ways, including that it is ridiculous—not only unpayable but a fiction created by selling debt upon debt, which is to say, nothing. Seen this way, the debt crisis may be an invitation for creative insurrections, political imaginings, and vice versa.
You’ve recently called for an end of the entire colonial apparatus in Puerto Rico. Based on what you have learned as part of the Unpayable Debt project, what do you see as the best way forward for Puerto Rico?
Given the complexity of the situation, I am not sure there is a single or best way forward. But I, as others, see a necessity in continuing participatory and networked political communities, capable of bringing “more life to life.” Due to Puerto Rico’s colonial context, the process of political constitution is often confused with resolving the island’s legal status. The difference, however, is significant. Status politics are largely about settling the legal relationships between territory and state, that is, should Puerto Rico become a separate nation state, an integral part of another nation state or remain its colonial possession. The question of political community is plural, never-ending, and always in our hands. It asks: “how and why do we come together, and what will we do with this power?” Which is not to say that status and state politics are irrelevant. The unincorporated territory doctrine needs to end and the state should be held accountable. But I am currently most interested in the question of political constitution, as I believe it is more critical and has more long-term potential for living otherwise.
The Puerto Rico and Caribbean syllabi have been described as a call to action against the imposition of even greater neoliberal austerity measures. What are three ways that people can get involved?
In short: think, share, and collaborate (in any order). Specifically, sending suggestions, curating sections, and disseminating materials can involve readers, which is how the syllabi themselves were created. The first, Puerto Rican Syllabus emerged from the working group’s first conference in association with the Oikos working group at New York University. Last 1 May, we released Caribbean Syllabus: Life and Debt in the Caribbean, a second digital resource focused on the politics of debt in the region over more than five hundred years. This syllabus’s main goal is to provide an entry point into how and why debt has played such a major role in the Caribbean, draining the region of its resources and attempting to undermine its political movements. Moreover, the syllabus questions the idea that the Caribbean owes anything to current or past imperial states or capital. As collaborator Mimi Sheller stated, “Against the framing of debt as something that Caribbean countries owe to others, the syllabus seeks to show how debt has been socially and politically constructed over several centuries.” Calling these debts into question is then part of an larger political project of transformation that is also challenging the normativity of “capitalism,” “economy,” and “development.”
What’s next for the Unpayable Debt project?
For the last two years, we have been focused on gaining a better understanding on debt politics in the Caribbean through study, conferences, curation, and writing. In the next academic year, we are planning publications, conferences, and a global syllabus on debt. But we will also participate in creative projects, listening practices, and convenings. This year’s main objective is to continue to share what we know, learn about what we don’t know, and do all we can to overturn colonial-capitalism and its unpayable debts.
The photos that appear in this blog post were taken at the opening exhibition of Puerto Rico Underwater: Five Artist Perspectives on Debt, by participating artist ADÁL. The exhibit will be open through 15 September 2018 at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. For more information please visit the CSER website for the show.
*If anyone is interested in joining the CSSD mailing list to stay up to date on upcoming projects and events they can join by visiting the website or writing to