The New Inquiry interviews Miranda Joseph, author of the book Debt to Society: Accounting for Life under Capitalism, which argues that accounting practices of all types—financial accounting, but also “social accounting” through narratives and statistics—shape subjectivity to the very core. An excerpt:
The book was originally intended as a more specifically anti-prison project. So the material in “Accounting for Justice” was the seed?
Yeah, I first focused in on the phrase a debt to society because I had a Ph.D. student (now Dr. Zoe Hammer of Prescott College) who was working on a prison-related project. The phrase jumped out at me: Why is time in prison considered debt-paying? My research ended up going in all sorts of different directions, but thinking through the relationship between accounting for crime and financial accounting, between economic processes and incarceration, continued to be my motivation for the project. Race is a central factor here; the intertwined histories of financial and criminal debt are inextricably tied to the history of race in the U.S. At the crucial moment of emancipation and reconstruction, all kinds of social and legal and financial apparatuses were mobilized to re-subordinate former slaves, to oblige them into forced labor again.
Saidiya Hartmann has done important work in Scenes of Subjection on the elaboration of the social presumption of indebtedness. Guidebooks were written for former slaves by white people; they clearly demonstrate that white people wanted former slaves to see themselves as indebted for their emancipation and therefore owing voluntary re-subordination. Legally, the Black Codes and other laws helped realize this vision of always already indebtedness. There were criminal surety laws that allowed white people to pay fines for convicts who then had to work off the debt to the individual white person. And sharecropping was another system of re-enslaving African-Americans through financial debts. The post-Emancipation period set up dynamics that we still see today, where African-Americans are treated as always already indebted socially, financially, and juridically. That continues to play out through racially targeted predatory lending, and, of course, the killings of black people by police.
You also point out that this history is connected to the development of bankruptcy law. Because we used to have debtors’ prisons, right? But then certain debts get redefined as something to be dealt with outside criminal law. The book quotes testimony of businesspeople in early bankruptcy proceedings, and there’s this language of, “We’re not slaves, we’re not criminals, we deserve different treatment.”
Wealthy businesspeople and their corporations are the ones who are most often allowed to declare bankruptcy. Who gets a clean slate, and who is held responsible financially and criminally for their past? In the history of laws dealing with debt, a distinction gets drawn between innocent debtors who have just fallen on hard times and allegedly fraudulent debtors. The difference is supposed to be discernible through financial accounting; but social accountings—measures of who’s deemed trustworthy ahead of time—become a key factor in whether someone is subjected to criminal laws or to civil bankruptcy laws.
Image of debtors prison via Vice News.