Mug Shots and Bankruptcy Proceedings

May 11, 2018
Matt Stannard

The other day I stumbled upon this example of the practice of publishing people’s bankruptcy proceedings. Declare bankruptcy at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Spokane, and the Tri-City Herald will publish your name, address, total debts, and total assets.

They’re a matter of public record, of course, but one’s conscience asks why such painful information needs to be publicized in this way (if there are public policy-oriented reasons for disseminating bankruptcy information, surely there are better ways to do it), even as one’s legal mind may understand the theoretical reasoning: Bankruptcy is the public legal forgiveness of debt.

But as I cited in a recent public banking article over at Occupy, debt itself is a political and sociological invention.

In his 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber chronicles the transition from communal systems of sharing – including shared obligations – to capitalism’s assimilation of all relationships into a system that generates profits for investors. Integral to that process is the individuation (and demonization) of debt, one of the many relationships that are stripped away, often through literal violence.

 

In addition to Graeber, in that article I also cite Linda Coco, a law professor and innovative legal clinician concerned with how debt and financial distress damage us. I learned about Professor Coco’s work when I read her 2016 article on bankruptcy as discipline in the Wyoming Law Review. Concerned with how bankruptcy court procedures construct and reinforce a narrative of fiscal failure, Coco concludes:

The bankruptcy petition codes [petitioner’s] financial life according to a legal and procedural logic found in the bankruptcy legal world . . . [their] financial lives and their identities are properly rendered into a recognizable pattern. Their information is fixed within the grid of the schedules and organized over time in the Statement of Financial Affairs. Their financial life is organized and controlled. It becomes legible in two-dimensional space. It is clearly analyzed and rendered for and in the bankruptcy process . . . a normalizing force in American social and cultural life. The internalization by disciplinary techniques of these dominant discourses results in the collective doxa of a group in which “more and more people must attune their conduct to that of others, the web of actions must be organized more and more strictly and accurately, if each individual action is to fill its social function. Individuals are compelled to regulate their conduct in an increasingly differentiated, more even and more stable manner.’  Therefore, discourses of economic utility and individual responsibility create the standards by which individuals compare themselves to each other, the manner in which individuals distinguish themselves, the way that individuals rank and measure each other, generate ideas of good and bad, and ultimately decide what is normal and abnormal behavior. The social group views individuals experiencing over-indebtedness and financial distress as aberrant. Financial failures are people who have not mastered the requirements of economic productivity and utility. According to the economic utility models, individuals experiencing financial difficulty are believed to be unable to exercise restraint and self-control.

Professor Coco’s article is a profound exposition of an insidious ideological machine. Another law professor, similarly concerned, is Mehrsa Baradaran, whose recent prolific work effort proposes that we create supportive, rather than adversarial, relationships with our financial structures. For Baradaran, this reformation includes a more authentic and class-conscious interpretation of the Bank Holding Company Act’s public benefits requirement, and the creation of postal banks with a mandate to provide credit and liquidity to the economically marginalized.

Those would be relatively modest reforms, if we’re being honest with ourselves. But conventional American economic thinking sees such proposals as pretty much Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism. If such a reconciliation of Americans’ material vulnerability with the building of democratized and compassionate financial utilities is difficult to conceive in the present moment, one reason for this is the not just the ritualized discipline of financial failure, but also its ritualized spectacle. These newspaper bankruptcy notices are a manifestation of that spectacle. They are like, although perhaps not completely like, “mugshots” magazines available for sale (because people buy them) in gas station convenience stores across the Midwest.

“Of all capitalism’s tricks,” I wrote in the Occupy article, “the trickiest is convincing people that debt, credit and currency have an objective existence and power beyond what we give them.” Marching debtors out naked onto the public stage while their debts and assets are called out as dry, existing things is one way to reinforce that topos.

Featured image: Philip Nicholas Bankruptcy Proceeding, signed by John Quincy Adams as Commissioner.
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