Blackness and Value; Part 1: The Economics of Criminalization

This series is being crossposted from Women in Theology

“Money promises value. It does not specify the form that such value will take. Used for consumption, money promises pleasure. Used for investment, money promises more money. The value of money, or the value that is promised, has no exact or fixed measure. It is an indefinite potential.” (Philip Goodchild, Theology of Money, 107)

“How could anyone expect to profit from unpayable loans without debtors who were already marked by their racial/cultural difference ensuring that at least some among them would not be able to pay? This is precisely what makes “high-risk” securities profitable. The Black and Latino/a holders of subprime loans, like Dana, owe incomprehensible and unpayable monetary debts precisely because they are not constructed as referents of either the relationship between persons presumed in commerce (which Graeber states precedes all other economic circumstances) or the capacity that according to Karl Marx ultimately determines their value of exchange (the productivity which John Locke, David Ricardo, and Marx agreed elevated the human thing).” (Denise Ferreira Da Silva and Paula Chakravartty, Accumulation, Dispossession, and Debt, 367)

Money promises value, as Philip Goodchild announces in the quote above. The promise of value is also the production of more money. Because money promises value, for more value to be created, more money must be created. In Goodchild’s elaboration, this creation of money to satiate the value it promises is the creation of debt. That is, the promise of value requires the creation of debt in order to produce value.

If money, according to Goodchild, is the promise of value—a promise which creates debt—blackness, following Ferraira da Silva and Chakravartty’s analysis, is the invention of an indelible indebtedness—the promise of a permanent inability to pay the debt that money creates. Blackness’ indebtedness is a demarcation of the threat that is named poverty. The threat of poverty in the US is figured as black as the threat of global poverty is figured as Africa. The threat of poverty that blackness represents is the threat that secures the promise of money’s value. In other words, money is valuable and desirable because its accumulation is how one proves they are not-black. Goodchild understands the threat to value as exclusion from participation in social life and the loss of freedom:

“value is seen to be not a transcendental category, but rather always relational, and an effect of the use of money to mediate exchange. So, we find that the value of money arises from its nature of a self-fulfilling promise. And therefore, also, from the counterpoint of that promise, which takes the form of a threat of exclusion for those who are unable to participate in social life because of a lack of money. It may then be said that money also “draws its value from the will to survive that is threatened by a lack of money.” [pp. 119] The promise of money is then a certain kind of freedom, the freedom to make one’s demand effective and thence, to express one’s own evaluations.” (Indradeep Ghosh, Absolute Economics)

While this is correct on one front, we must also think from the underside of this logic. Goodchild argues that we must think ecologically about money – think about the relations it enables and disavows. I would argue this, but even further. We must think of money and blackness ecologically – Think of the relations that money and blackness engender. If we follow this ecological thought, we must take Da Silva and Chakravartty’s analysis as a necessary interlocutor and even more incisive understanding of the relations money produces. Because these authors understand global capitalism to come into being and expansion with the invention of race, they are also aware of the relation between money and blackness, not just the relations money produces. In this formulation, the promise of value is dependent on the promise of debt—the promise that the black will never be able to repay its debts and that the overwhelming debt accrued by blackness will be what organizes the principle of money’s promise. A permanent indebtedness, then, is the condition of blackness.

For my own part, I am concerned with how the criminalization of blackness alongside carceral, legal, and theological structures, works through this racialized relationship between the value that money produces and blackness. What I consider in my next two blog posts is the way value is distributed racially, what the implications are for our contemporary political moment, and some alternative ways we may be able to understand this distribution, or imagine it otherwise for the purpose of thinking of new modes of sociality. The second post in this series will consider whiteness as credibility, suggesting that whiteness is the position of finding one’s self credible even when one has debt (or perhaps precisely because one has debt).1 In other words, whiteness is the position Da Silva and Chakravarrty reference in the quotation above: “the relationship between persons presumed in commerce … or the capacity that according to Karl Marx ultimately determines their value of exchange.” My third post considers Blackness as indebtedness, arguing that blackness is the position of finding one’s self excluded from credibility and situated as a “high-risk” object, or criminal, whose circulation produces wealth for the credible.

My parenthetical above perhaps makes more sense in light of this. There is a difference between having debt and being indebted. The difference lies precisely in the relation between having and being. It is a difference of those who are the owners of their debt and those whose preceding indebtedness makes them ownable and exchangeable for profit. My hope is that in the following posts, greater clarity on the relation between having debt and being indebted will be produced and so gain new insights with which to examine the racialized ecology of global capital, and its carceral arm. Finally, I hope to invoke some ideas of how the relation between value and indebtedness, between money and blackness, enables us to follow the high-risk object, the criminal, into another form of social possibility.

1. Thanks to Sean Capener, who wrote some very insightful words in an AAR paper/thesis excerpt on the relation between credibility and indebtedness.

3 thoughts on “Blackness and Value; Part 1: The Economics of Criminalization

  1. This is fantastic. Thinking alongside you, I am wondering if the form of “social democracy in service of neoliberalism” necessitates this ontologogical arrangement you have described. The capitalist system exploits all forms of labor. Yet, in theory, the capitalist system is dependent upon “getting votes” (or “buying in”) to its policies. Thus, Western (white) social democracy in service of neoliberalism requires that black be exploited more efficiently than white, whites who will vote out of their own interests to be exploited less than the excluded blacks. Thus, ontological blackness equated with indebtedness and “high-risk”-ness is necessitated by the democratic (ideal?) being subject to the fetishized “efficiency” of the market. In reverse, I am wondering if ways of de-fetishizing and deprioritizing efficiency are ways to some sort of break in black ontological indebtedness. Is this too abstracted from reality?

  2. I’m really interested to see how the ‘having’ and ‘being’ difference plays out in this series (since, as you know, I’m working along similar lines, but drawing a bit of a different distinction about the significance of the association of blackness and ‘risk’). Hard to have much to say about it before future entries emerge, except to register that interest (ha).

  3. Hmm, Adam, you may have to break this down a bit more for me. I think part of what I’m trying to argue is that whites are maintaining a position of credibility. Credibility is a certain subject position and possibility of relation. So, I think it’s quite the reverse of this: “ontological blackness equated with indebtedness and “high-risk”-ness is necessitated by the democratic (ideal?) being subject to the fetishized “efficiency” of the market.”

    That is, the democratic ideal being subject to the efficiency of the market is precisely what occurs in the transformation of blackness into property. So, I would read efficiency as coming out of the relations that are imposed on the permanently indebted (the black) not the other way round.

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