The financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent “Great Recession” have often been seen as crises of debt and credit. Political economists have attempted to unravel the financial instruments — the subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations — at the heart of the crisis; but debt and credit raise central questions for culture and everyday life, as well.

How does debt work to discipline and degrade labor? What if we apply notions of debt to the natural world? Can national debts resolve state sanctioned violence? How does student debt shape education? How might we narrate and repay notions of intellectual debt? What is the relation between debt and memory and what are the narratives of debt that structure our everyday experience of the “debt crisis”?


This past year, the Working Group on Globalization and Culture been thinking about these questions while looking at the long-term place of debt and credit in human society, as well as the dramatic increase in personal debt and international state indebtedness over the last half-century. This dossier on debt draws from the group conversations about the cultural meanings of debt in relation to the histories of migration, nation-building and state violence, to discourses around nature and intellectual exchange, as well as to the narrative structures that construct and reframe the meanings of debt in daily life. 

We are indebted as well to the participation of Charlie Samuya Veric, and to those who engaged these ideas at the 2011 Left Forum, the 2011 Yale American Studies Colloquium, and the IIPPE’s conference on “Neoliberalism and the Crises of Economic Science.”

Social Text Collective

The Social Text Collective began in 1979.