Unpayable Debt: Capital, Violence, and the New Global Economy
Unpayable Debt: Capital, Violence, and the New Global Economy
ADÁL, Puerto Rican Underwater [Jeanette Betancourt] 2016
An interview with Frances Negrón-Muntaner
by Vanessa Pérez-Rosario
Even before hurricane Maria pushed Puerto Rico into the spotlight last year, filmmaker and Columbia University professor, Frances Negrón-Muntaner co-convened the Unpayable Debt: Capital, Violence, and the New Global Economy working group. One of the unique things about this project on debt is that it is not made up of economists. Bringing together scholars, activists, journalists, artists, and students, the Unpayable Debt working group explores debt and its effects on family relations, health, and ways of being. The members of the project have developed a framework for thinking and a language for talking about how debt structures our lives in powerful ways. Through conferences and symposia, over the past three years, the Unpayable Debt project has gained a better understanding of debt in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and beyond. I had the opportunity to ask Negrón-Muntaner some questions about the workings of debt in the global economy and the weight of debt in everyday life.
Vanessa Pérez-Rosario (VPR): What is debt?
Frances Negrón-Muntaner (FNM): 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.” Across sites, however, 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 at the Unpayable Debt project, we focus 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 colonial politics designed to extract profits from current or former colonies to imperial capitalist centers. A key location to think about these 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, Haitians opted to pay in order to avoid further war and possible re-enslavement. Scandalously, Haiti's 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 nearly 155 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.
VPR: Why a project on debt? Why now?
FNM: The seeds of the project began three years ago when a group at Columbia University became increasingly concerned about the potentially devastating effects of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. As it is widely known, in 2015, the governor of Puerto Rico Alejandro García Padilla declared that the island had accumulated a staggering 72-billion-dollar debt largely held by US financial investment firms and hedge funds that was “unpayable.”
What we saw as disastrous was not only the debt crisis; it was also the federal government’s response to it, which aimed to advance the interests of US capital at a high human cost. For instance, instead of seeking ways to invest in Puerto Rico, in 2016, 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” whose main goal was to extract payment. At this point, although nearly half of Puerto Rico’s population was living below the poverty line, the board was promoting cuts on all of life’s fundamentals, namely health, education, infrastructure, and pensions.
As our work progressed, we also saw the urgency of thinking critically about debt more generally. While the island’s formal colonial relationship to the US shapes debt in particular ways, in comparing Puerto Rico to other places affected by debt over the last decades such as Argentina, Detroit, and Greece, it was evident that debt crises are neither isolated instances nor solely about collecting. They are also political opportunities for globalized capital to reorient state policies toward privatization, deregulation, and austerity that change so much more than what we think of as “the economy.” Left unchallenged, these measures result in fundamental political transformations that generate increased hardship and inequality for the exclusive benefit of capital. This 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.
VPR: Tell me about the Unpayable Debt project?
FNM: Formally founded in 2016, 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, most of whom are not formally trained in economics. Our goal is to support and enable critical thought and collective action against the imposition of debt as an extractive regime, drawing on multiple methods and perspectives given that debt structures all aspects of our lives. The group offers public programming such as workshops and conferences, curates art exhibits and syllabi, produces print and media resources, and collaborates with community organizations. 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?
Some participants at the Frontiers of Debt Conference, Unpayable Debt Project, Columbia University, 2018
VPR: What have you learned about the ways that individuals and groups have grappled with and against various forms of indebtedness?
FNM: Our research is still ongoing yet one note is that communities respond differently to debt crises 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” 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 financial outlook at the moment—coordinated mass efforts for the most part 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 by hundreds of years of colonial rule, first by Spain and then the United States.
VPR: What are the politics of debt?
FNM: 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 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 receive support; 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 education debt, which renders the purpose of a young person’s life to pay debt rather than to live, create, and grow.
VPR: You have referred to the debt crisis in Puerto Rico as a humanitarian crisis. Why is it helpful to think of Puerto Rico's debt in this way?
FNM: 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 perceived as humanitarian crises. But given how difficult it has been to communicate the devastating impact of debt in Puerto Rico, the expansion of the term to encompass such circumstances became an effective way to argue what was already taking place and was exacerbated by Maria, and has many of the same characteristics associated with a humanitarian crisis. These include hunger, internal displacement, destruction of the environment, and mass migration. The critical point is that there was, and there still is, inflicted suffering in Puerto Rico that requires both immediate relief and long-term political redress.
VPR: 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?
FNM: 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, where I argue that the phrase became widely used by invested journalists like CBS’s David Begnaud as a strategy to pressure the US government into providing more resources for a fast and fair recovery.
Yet, although the new rhetoric was somewhat effective in shifting public sentiment, 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 Maria changed our work is that it gave us a renewed sense of urgency and motivation to expand and intensify our efforts.
VPR: What kinds of new political and cultural practices have emerged in the wake of extreme, crippling, and catastrophic debt?
FNM: As I have explored elsewhere, 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. These realizations ushered communities to enact and expand alternative political vocabularies and forms of organization to those imposed by capital and the state.
For example, before Maria, 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, the environment, and cultural production. There is also a sprouting of organizations and groups engaged in horizontal governance and disruptive storytelling 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 hurricanes 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.
VPR: What have you learned about the kinds of debt that inhabit relations of intimacy, kinship, and everyday interaction?
FNM: 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, including 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 additional economic hardship, homelessness, and other forms of violence.
Debt may also bring profound despair. For instance, in Greece, suicide rates went up dramatically 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.
At the same time, we have seen that although debt imposes a suffocating temporality, captured in the idiom “drowning in debt,” it may paradoxically open a creative space for critique, bringing entirely different worlds into existence. Perhaps one of the best examples is ADÁL’s photography series “Puerto Ricans Under Water.” In this project, ADÁL individually photographed over one hundred people “drowning” in a tub filled with water. Although confined and immobilized, ADÁL’s subjects defy death and debt in their own unique ways. Among other things, they scream, smoke, exercise, sleep, play the trumpet, take photographs, and strike a pose. The project, however, is not only about radical self-representation. It is also about the power of artistic practice to unsettle the very terms of the crisis and call them into question. This is manifest in the portrait of Bold Destrou, a young man wearing a red ski mask and black t-shirt that reads “Muerto Rico." The phrase immediately begs a series of questions: Is this a photograph of a rich dead man, a dead man who is attractive, or a portrait of a “dying” Puerto Rican that is nevertheless alive with attitude and creativity? Ultimately, the diversity of responses to the crisis and each image’s polysemy suggests that “the debt” can likewise be read in different ways, including that it is ridiculous—not only unpayable but also a capitalist fiction largely created by selling debt, which is to say, nothing. From this point of view, the debt crisis is an invitation for creative insurrections and political disruptions, and vice versa.
ADÁL, Puerto Rico Underwater [Bold Destrou] 2016
VPR: 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?
FNM: 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 to build 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 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 a 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. Still I am currently most interested in the question of political constitution, as I believe it is more critical and has greater long-term potential for living otherwise.
VPR: 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?
FNM: In short: think, share, and collaborate (in any order). Specifically, readers can send suggestions, curate sections, and disseminate materials, 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 May, we released Caribbean Syllabus: Life and Debt in the Caribbean, a second digital resource centered 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 contests 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 a larger political project of transformation that is also challenging the normativity of capitalism, economy, and development.
VPR: What’s next for the Unpayable Debt project?
FNM: For the last two years, we have been focused on gaining a better understanding of 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
Left to right: Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Huáscar Robles, Juan Manuel Benítez, Sarabel Santos, and Omar Z. Robles at Benite'z show, Pura Política, 2018