JULY 9, 2017
THE WORD “mortgage” originates from the Old French expression mort gage, or “dead pledge.” Today, the word’s origins seem eerily prophetic. Ten years ago, the mortgage crisis laid bare the dead pledges underpinning the orgiastic speculation of global finance. In the biggest economic shock since the Great Depression, millions of the mortgages traded in the financialized consumer credit economy were suddenly defaulted on and rendered into dead pledges of payment. These dead pledges quickly multiplied into delinquent loans, unpaid interests, and undistributed dividends that jammed the entire engine of global finance to a screeching halt.
Capitalist crises have a way of throwing the invisible mechanisms of the economy into startling relief. The 2008 crisis did just this when it unearthed the decaying undergrowth of neoliberalism’s exuberant financialization. In Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis and Twenty-First-Century American Culture, Annie McClanahan uncovers how cultural production after 2008 registers a new “crisis subjectivity” in the wake of the mortgage meltdown’s shattering revelations. The novels, poems, films, and photography she explores express what few politicians, reporters, or economists have the courage to say: that we are in a “‘terminal crisis’ in which no renewal of capital profitability is possible.” Despite repeated assurances of a strong GDP, increased consumer spending, and robust stock markets, the American economy remains tormented by risky speculation, low wages, a shrinking middle class, and a growing population of forgotten citizens who have given up on looking for work.
As old narratives about the supreme wisdom of the free market and privatization are finding less and less traction, new narratives are emerging in a struggle for dominance over the representation of our reality. In this “interregnum” — Gramsci’s term for a period in which an old order is dying and new world is struggling to be born — narratives from the left and the right vie for power, from Brexit and Trump on the right to Sanders or Corbyn on the left.
Culture, a more imaginative and figurative form than pure economic or political discourse, is uniquely capable of capturing this inchoate present moment. In McClanahan’s words, cultural production can “grapple with history as it happens” and “acquire a politics as it slowly emerges out of history’s mist.” She places herself in the Marxist literary tradition of critics such as Raymond Williams, who defines cultural production as a “structure of feeling” that captures “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt” before they have been fully articulated and defined by social consciousness.
McClanahan calls her cultural texts her “literary laboratories,” wherein she distills and deconstructs these competing narratives about capitalism, crisis, and debt. As a work of cultural critique, Dead Pledges is uniquely capable of deconstructing the literary and aesthetic devices that structure these competing narratives in a way that political economy cannot. The affordances of cultural critique are immediately made apparent in part one of the book, which analyzes how characterization constructs our economic understanding of society and the place of the individual within it. The first chapter explores novelistic representations of individuals in the credit-crisis, including Martha McPhee’s Dear Money, Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges, and Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic. Each of these novels probes the personal lives of the economy’s major players — an MBS trader, an investment banker, a hedge fund manager — and their financial misconducts. McClanahan argues the psychological intensity of these books reflects the rise in behavioral economics, a school of micro-economic thought that understands the economy as driven by individual behavior motivated by personal passions, feelings, and morals. Behavioral economics surged in popularity after the credit crisis and informed many moralizing accounts of it, from Bernie Sanders’s condemnation of Wall Street’s “worshipping of greed,” to Rick Santelli’s rant against the moral hazard of irresponsible borrowers living beyond their means, to Barack Obama’s lamentation of the “erosion of our common values.”
Jonathan Dee’s novel The Privileges best expresses this behavioral economic ethos. The novel takes its readers into the inner lives of Adam and Cynthia Morey, a couple whose marriage, as the title intimates, is touched by exceptional economic privilege. Dee invites his readers to enter their beautiful Manhattan apartment and allows them to follow Adam to work, where he holds a prestigious career in private equity as a Morgan Stanley broker. This pristine picture is eventually shattered when Adam engages in insider trading in an effort to vivify his marriage, justifying to himself that “maybe life needed to better resemble the fantasy.” This turning point is often interpreted as a moral dilemma that casts Adam as either a sympathetic victim or a greedy villain. Writing for The New York Times, Roxana Robinson reviews The Privileges as a morality tale about the dangers of greed and the necessity of the family for maintaining our social values. Meanwhile, Marco Roth argues that Dee is “challeng[ing] readers to experience sympathy” with Adam and “a sense that the very rich are, for the most part, moral agents like you and me.”
McClanahan refuses both interpretations. While The Privileges plays on the desire of behavioral economics to understand the moral psychology driving these money barons, it offers nothing more than “flat, mindless, economic calculation.” Its cool and ironic free indirect discourse allows no intimacy with its characters. In fact, each instance of focalization reveals individuals who are utterly inscrutable, even to themselves. The novel’s only omniscient voice is capital itself: “It is money that makes things happen and money that propels the novel’s human subjects to acquire more money,” McClanahan writes. Adam, the seeming master of the universe, is nothing more than “the animation or ventriloquization of value itself.” After enticing his readers with the promise of beholding the economy’s puppet masters, Dee, in a brilliant sleight of hand, reveals these men to be puppets themselves.
McClanahan never denies the possibility of personal agency. Capitalism does not fall from the sky but is perpetuated and remade by the actions of individual actors. Nor does she slip into the crude evasions of economists such as Andrew Lo, who argue that “all of us participated to some degree in the crisis.” Rather, she shows how, despite having considerable access to money and power, these financiers are also beholden to the laws of competition and profitability. These same laws dominate — although to a much different degree — the indebted middle-class immigrants living in New York City in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, another one of McClanahan’s literary laboratories. Super Sad’s use of heavy-handed caricature and stereotype conveys how credit relates to individuals not through a personal bond of moral obligation, but through a form of material coercion, that is both impersonal and racialized. In her analysis of Super Sad, McClanahan moves past Deidre Lynch’s argument that the 19th-century novel’s exploration of individual interiority taught us how to read the credibility of persons in the growing marketplace. For McClanahan, such reading practices cannot apply in our contemporary risk-seeking credit regime where individuals are no longer well-rounded persons but three-digit credit-scores.
Throughout her book, McClanahan shows how, despite its obsession with personal liberty, capitalism evacuates individuality. Subjectivity is social, not sui generis, and greed does not spring from the self, but from the laws of competition and profitability. It is the coercive force of these laws that fuels the riskier and riskiest forms of speculation — not personal avarice. By the same token, irresponsible borrowing cannot be reduced to immoral materialism, but decades of wage stagnation and the retraction of social provisioning which forced many Americans to indebt themselves to reproduce their existence, while the incomes of the top one percent sky-rocketed.
Dead Pledges’s structuralist account of subjectivity refuses the moralizing narratives of the crisis in works such as Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Runs the World, a documentary that condemns big hitters such as Lloyd Blankfein and Alan Greenspan, but never mentions capitalism. While seeming to critique the injustices of our economy, a movie like Goldman Sachs actually upholds the homo economicus at the heart of it by focusing exclusively on individuals and ignoring the larger economic structures determining those individuals. According to economist Michael Heinrich, such accounts of economic misbehavior attempt to personalize “an anonymous machine, without any foreman who steers the machine or can be made responsible for the destruction wrought by the machine.” All capitalists are obedient to the laws of this machine on pain of ruin, from large corporations and monopolies to small-business owners.
Philosopher György Lukács diagnoses the blindness to this larger structural reality as a consequence of alienation under capitalism and its “destruction of every image of the whole.” Dead Pledges exposes the ways in which totality stubbornly invades capitalism’s discrete categories of the private individual or, as she explores in the second half of her book, private property. In part two, “Home Economics,” McClanahan analyzes how capitalist ideology employs the literary device of setting to construct the private sphere of the home, and the ways in which the 2008 mortgage crisis exploded its boundaries.
Home ownership is a key part of American capitalism. As George W. Bush once pronounced, “Owning something is what America is all about. The ability to own a piece of property, regardless of who you are or how you were raised or where you’re from, is the thing that really has made America so unique and so different.” This fetishization of home-ownership as the bedrock of the American economy by economists such as Alan Greenspan justified the deregulation of mortgage lending and the lowering of interest rates to historic lows so that these loans could be traded as a salable commodity in the subprime mortgage market.
When the speculative housing bubble popped, the home — the supposed backbone of the United States — became completely susceptible to the volatility of the market. When credit tightened, and it became harder to refinance or sell one’s property, many Americans were stuck with mortgages they could no longer afford and homes worth much less than they anticipated. Much like The Privileges’s Adam Morey, the home was revealed to possess what Lukács calls “a phantom objectivity” — “an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” Rather than a haven in a heartless world, the home was beholden to a wider network of violent capitalist relations.
McClanahan reads the recent explosion of foreclosure photography as well as the horror films about home invasion as an expression of this profound anxiety about the sanctity of the home and the inescapable violence of capitalist relations. The uncanny or “unhomely” ontology of the home under global finance is encrypted in the various cultural works that McClanahan examines: Bruce Gilden and James Griffioen’s art photographs of abandoned homes reclaimed by nature, Anthony Suau and John Moore’s photo-journalism of homes turned inside out during eviction, and the haunted abodes of films such as Drag Me to Hell, Dream House, Mother’s Day, and Crawlspace. These works register the financial haunting of the home when mortgage-backed securities are traded back and forth across continents in nanoseconds, financing oil money and Middle Eastern wars. They express how late capitalism’s increased omnipresence with financializaion leaves no retreat — neither from inside our homes nor in our heads.
The rising “crisis subjectivity” that McClanahan tracks through Dead Pledges stares this totality in the face. This subjectivity is replacing the fraying narratives of the American Dream and liberal democracy, and it “glimpse[s] the mechanisms, motions, and limits of the capitalist totality that subsumes them.” While it recognizes capitalism’s totality, it also recognizes its unsustainability and its eventual terminality, and thus opens the way for another world. Such an understanding is crucial for action, as we have seen in the debt-strikes and foreclosure-protests which McClanahan cites in her coda. These acts of resistance turn our shared struggle under debt as a source of empowering solidarity that opens the way for new more positive forms of sociality. To end with the words of the Debt Collective: “Alone, our debts are a burden; together, they make us powerful.”