Debt and Work

by longingforthereal

I’m in debt. Somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy thousand dollars, although I still don’t know the exact amount. In fact, I recently took out another loan to live for the summer, before my teaching assistantship begins again in the fall, simply because I’d rather spend the summer reading and writing than working forty hours a week to make ends meet. Like millions of those of my generation, I look forward to a lifetime of paying this money back, a perpetual bill unto death, most likely. Thankfully, the enactment of president Obama’s student loan legislation will make bearing this burden mercifully less painful. But this still won’t unhinge that chain, the barrier to so called financial freedom.

I repeat, I’m in debt. And somehow I don’t care. Not really. Because somehow there’s comfort in the fact that I know I’ll never pay it off. Ever.

I’m fully aware of the fact that I’ve inherited my mother’s inability to deal responsibly with money. I’m not what you would call “financially literate” (though, funny enough, I have a strong interest in the economy). But I don’t consider myself any sort of voracious consumer either: I have no affinity for gadgetry. I hate iPhones. The only new items I like to keep up with are records and books–my artistic and intellectual indulgences. The rest of the time I’m spending my money on experiences, some of which are healthier than others: social experiences like nights at the bar and restaurants with friends, sometimes current or hopeful lovers. I like to spend money on what keeps me most sane-rest and relaxation with others.

But I’m in debt. And by the standards of our legislators on both the right and left, our austerity proselytizers, I should live within my means, not enjoy the possibility of freedom in these experiences with others but work harder, save my money, chip away at my debt like a financially responsible citizen of a fiscally responsible state. But I want to say this: get bent. Because my debt isn’t real to me; my experiences are, my relationships with and feelings for others. My debt is yet another fact of reconciling myself to material necessity, another bill I’ll soon be forced into paying for the rest of my life, soon to resemble my phone and internet and electricity bills, practically appendages required for my normal life, incurred all the while with no sense that my contribution to society will be considered productive or meaningful.

And yet I continue to exist as though I’m not in debt, or anyway as if there might be something more to it.

 Of course, I’m not yet forced to pay back this debt because of the clemency of deferment that higher education brings. But the reality is that this “higher” education of mine will likely land me in the position of an adjunct professor without health insurance, because education does no longer a middle class citizen make. For me, it will make an educated, indebted citizen who will perpetually pay to play the game of life, that best game in town. And throughout the course of this game, paying off my debt will work in an inverse relationship. The closer you move toward death, the more your net worth as a person increases. As your body decays, your financial status improves, as if working to ward off damnation in the afterlife, only paying to ward off the financial damnation of the here and now, for a sense of freedom that inches closer with every payment made, as though it’s truly attainable through my effort and hard work.


This feeling, that one is perpetually working to be somehow whole, or free because unburdened from without, speaks to a liberal sensibility that places a premium on autonomy; the sense in which one must struggle in the game of life against material necessity to reach a place of self-sufficiency, the freedom of autonomy. It is the psychology that motivates the desire to own a home rather than rent. It is the psychology that allowed predatory lenders to prey on aspiring homeowners who had been led to believe that home ownership is the key to freedom; translated: the key to paying down a mortgage for nearly the remainder of one’s life, building equity against which to borrow in case of a financial emergency. How ironic.

In any case, the psychology of being in debt as akin to being in chains is not the same as the reality of debt, the reality of individuals and families struggling to pay their bills because their wages have not kept up with the cost of living since the early 80s. But the psychology of being in debt now is different. Given the fact that many of us know we’ll never pay off our debt, we’ll take the burden to the grave.

But what is it we’re taking?

Ok, maybe the reality of being in debt isn’t mutually exclusive from its psychology. Many of my friends struggle to make ends meet; this surely affects their psychology somehow. But absent this unfortunate reality, I want to say that our aspiring to be financially unfettered, motivated by our yearning to hang onto the money we’ve worked hard for is the last thing we need in our dire circumstances, in reconciling ourselves to the reality of debt, the reality of material necessity, and in trying to change that reality. It is this aspiration that underlies the psychology of work, that nebulous activity we’ll (maybe) do to pay down our debt; the thing some of us used to do in the hopes of finding meaning or freedom.

Like being free from financial burdens, work can never bring freedom, despite any and all affinities for what we do. “But I love my job, it brings me great pleasure!” -I believe you might, but many don’t. Many hate their jobs, and will continue to hate their jobs, as those adjuncts with PhDs who find themselves on food stamps, chasing the specter of a “professional” life of the mind are painfully learning. The keyword here is “professional.” And it has to do with the attachment of income to work, what makes so many of us hate that we have to work to live, that we must reconcile ourselves to material necessity in order to prove our worth as autonomous persons, self-sufficient creatures.

That is, when our lives are constrained based on the need to keep ourselves alive, we internalize the values of productive work as a virtue, alienating us from those around us. Our sense that we’ve mastered material necessity through our own efforts, through our hard work, leads us to value productivity for its own sake, as a virtue we equate with freedom, with autonomy. We derive from our dependence on necessity, and our attempts at overcoming that necessity through laboring, a psychology that leads us to believe that hard work builds a sound character. Herbert Marcuse said as much in his writings about work in his 1933 article “On the Philosophical Foundations of the Concept of Labor in Economics,” and in his famed 1955 book Eros and Civilization. He argued with Marx that our freedom is only attainable when we attain the means to transcend material necessity. Only then can we rethink the meaning of work itself, blur the distinction between work and play, and re-organize society through the release of our libidinal impulses. Such a release is not tantamount to chaos or narcissism, but involves rethinking the psychology that keeps us enslaved to necessity instead of each other, moving toward a psychology that values human creativity through cooperation, rather than the autonomous mastery of nature through hard work. “The true spirit of psycho-analytic theory,” he argued, “lives in the uncompromising efforts to reveal the anti-humanistic forces behind the philosophy of productiveness.”

Productivity is anti-humanistic. Only when we remove the fact of necessity from our lives, through means like a guaranteed income removed from one’s choice of vocation and socialized higher education, can we begin to rethink the nature of work itself, and thus find freedom in our dependence on others rather than ourselves.


 But what does this all have to do with debt? As we consider the reality that many of us will be paying back our debt for the rest of our waking lives, we are reminded of the values that society places on education. We no longer educate our citizens for sake of their cultivation, for democratic citizenry, but in order to harvest useful, productive citizens for our technological ascent upon the mountain of progress, students increasingly imbibing the values of autonomy and self-sufficiency rather than cooperation, dependence, and emotion. Those of us who have found recourse to the humanities, and those of us who can’t afford college, are left behind with these effete sensibilities, left in piles, mountains of debt, thrown to the dogs of material necessity.

But if we have, in theory at least, transcended material necessity as a society, we are reminded in our indebtedness of the fact that we can never transcend the necessity of our emotional dependence on others. Paradoxically, some would say spiritually, it is in this reminder that we find freedom in our dependence.

The debt we students have collectively incurred attunes us to the value that the U.S places on education: that it has a high price and you probably can’t afford it. But for this reason we are also attuned to the fact that this experience is now commonplace, we all share it. And it is only in such attunement that we come to realize that this collective experience binds us together; we become dependent on each other to change the reality we’ve inherited, and so the emotional fact of our dependence acts as a moral imperative against the “anti-humanistic forces behind the philosophy of productivity,” the forces that place a premium on autonomy and hard work, the forces that put us in debt in the first place.

This is the point to which we’ve been driven, what fuels Occupy Wall Street, what should lead the Left to find the moral imperative for the redistribution of income away from corporate profits, and toward healthcare, and education, and a guaranteed, livable, minimum income. Then we might begin to reverse the ethos that leaves us all so indebted, left to fend for ourselves, to work our lives away just to live. And so, perhaps, reconciling ourselves to debt, on an individual, psychological level, may be the first step to overcoming it, meanwhile overcoming the compulsion to work. The first step toward a democracy, unlike what James Madison or the Pragmatists had in mind, should not consist in balancing our interests by pitting them against each other. Rather, it should attune us to our interests in, and utter dependence on, our neighbors.

-Erik Hmiel