In the wake of the Ghost Ship and other tragedies, feminist economics may offer a way forward.
This post is Part II of a two-part blog series exploring the culture of debt. View Part I here.
Cassie Thornton’s art suggests that any political revolution around meeting our basic needs without recourse to debt will necessarily be a feminist one. All her art projects—both individual and collective—are presented as products of “the FED”: not the Federal Reserve, but the “Feminist Economics Department.” Her view aligns with that of feminist, anti-globalization activist, and writer Sylvia Federici who identifies the politics of housing, care, and education as part of the politics of reproduction, an explicitly feminist politics. In a 2010 interview Federici called for a “radical movement that programmatically places at the center of its struggle the eradication of social inequalities and the eradication of the divisions between production and reproduction, school and home, school and community.”
It is precisely these divisions—as well as the division between capitalist rationality and revolutionary forms of strategic knowledge; between the immiserated present and the utopian future; or to cite yesterday’s discussion, between the wall and the light outside it—that Thornton’s work refuses. The politics of debt—or, more precisely, the politics of anti-debt—must also be a feminist politics, one that can provide us with powerful strategic crowbars for knocking down walls.
ANNIE McCLANAHAN: How does your work engage debt and the sources of debt—housing, health care, child care, food, education—as it affects artists and activists?
CASSIE THORNTON: I first began to investigate debt in relation to the art produced by my MFA classmates as a byproduct of their own student debt. I initially imagined that if we weren’t indebted at all (if not to repay student loans, then to our parents, or to the people we displaced by moving to San Francisco—the list goes on) then we artists would make more radical work. But I think I made a mistake in condemning my classmates: I fear that my work burdened them with more indebtedness, instead of setting them free. All I am really interested in is making a less boring reality, where people feel free to demand a better set of circumstances and a deeper cooperative experience; where they can see the natural value in each other.
School is still imagined to be some sort of jackpot utopia that exists outside the grid of financial impossibility where work, debt and discipline are the building blocks of an asocial life. That there are still people who are hopeful that there’s a way out of the bland, sad reality we’re forced to live in is what allows the Department of Education and all the for-profit universities to get away with stealing from students and teachers alike. This sleight-of-hand makes people believe that the university is the last free space for learning and living outside the pressures of capitalism. But when they realize that it is actually a secret center of financial speculation and social extraction, their trust and hope wither up, they harden and vow never to be fooled again. What I’m talking about isn’t unique to the system of education: it occurs every time a person is handed something essential to survival—a mortgage, surgery, a car—and is punished indefinitely as a result. Some retaliate by profiting from the vulnerabilities of others. Some try to survive by forever avoiding and fearing debt and credit, and thus sociality at large.
Artists have the potential to see beyond this double-bind. We can make our own value systems, and we are at our best when we make new worlds with new ways of measuring time and sharing space. This isn’t economically possible for most artists living in cities, though it is for some. Until recently, I lived and worked in Oakland, CA. The Ghost Ship was one example of a place where informal lifeworlds, underground economies, experimental making, and makeshift housing were incubating a type of life unhardened by the swindles I describe above. In that sort of ecosphere, the threat-world that used to be the lifeworld can seem far away, but clearly it is not. I should add that it’s not predominantly artists and activists who are at risk: it’s racialized people, low wage earners, and everyone who is not in real estate or finance. The ways that land and institutions are leveraged today is really dangerous, and personal debt is just the tip of the iceberg. The Ghost Ship tragedy is reflective of a larger state of affairs.
I can’t stand it when people look at me smugly and tell me they are free of debt. There is no such thing for anyone living in a developed country. We pay so much for education, health care, housing, and food precisely because of international debt markets. Meanwhile, the source of our collective wealth is a global system of debt that makes the goods we buy from overseas really cheap. That’s why I’m no longer really interested in focusing on personal debt. It feels like a distraction, while the grandiose forms of institutional, municipal, state, and sovereign debt generate and excuse the most evil plans to take advantage of all land, labor, and life. As artists and members of the underground, we need to find genuine solidarity (I think we are trying), and we need to realize we aren’t special, that we must connect with all the other vulnerable people.
ANNIE McCLANAHAN: Can you say something about why you see your work as feminist, both politically and aesthetically?
CASSIE THORNTON: I’ve never really identified with a feminism that didn’t seek to reinvent value. In my artwork and my life, I am motivated by politics of forgotten beings. Everything living is violently devalued by neoliberalism’s system of values. When something is not profitable, or when a dominant paradigm doesn’t fit with neoliberal standards of measurement, it’s just set aside, ignored, or killed off. The excuses vary: race, gender, age, productivity, intelligence. It happens to entire populations, and to certain parts of our selves.
What I call the practice of feminist economics entails valuing things and people differently. A basic feminist argument is that the reproductive labor typically done by women allows the rest of the economy to exist. But this is only the beginning. For me, labor encompasses the work of all beings, including the collusion and symbiosis of the natural systems that allow us live, such as the unidentifiable or invisible labor of microbes. Feminist economics means recognizing and valuing labor and cooperation that we would otherwise ignore or forget.
Neoliberal economics is built on patriarchal structures that invite us to assess quantity instead of quality and to sanitize capitalism’s inhumanity by speaking in numbers rather than human voices. But how will the economy work when there are no people left? Applying feminist perspectives to economics means that the persistence of the lifeworld and the quality of life are the criteria for economic success. It’s not just an intellectual exercise: feminist economics keeps me and my friends alive, because it brings mainstream economics into question and valorizes our lives, which we lead outside and against capitalist frameworks.
I consider the aesthetic of my work successful when it draws people into a situation where the normative rules of neoliberal value don’t apply and allows them the space and time to experience a sort of personal and political transformation. I try to use visual and spoken language to help people do something beyond the necessary in a world that turns all energies to profit.
ANNIE McCLANAHAN: As far as I know, working with kids is a new thing for you—can you describe what that was like? What did the kids teach you about debt?
CASSIE THORNTON: Yes, this is the first time I have worked with kids in a project of my own, though I was a teacher for seven years in New York City. That’s where my art practice and political engagement began.
As a part of Mystery Hands, I visited some Chicago public schools to read the children’s book, and to get advice about it from experts. Until then, every adult who had read it not only disliked it, but distrusted it. This was not the case with the kids. When I read it out loud, it was not only perverse and funny, it made a new kind of sense.
At the beginning of the book, kids are asked to describe debt. I visited with students in the second to fifth grades who understood debt through the anxious behavior of their parents and teachers. It was real and imaginary at once, and kids were comfortable with that ambiguity. Some saw debt as moving through their homes and schools like smoke. It looms in these places, making the air harder to breathe. It makes the attention span of the adults they interact with shorter, and their presence more boring. It was really exciting for them to talk about their experience of adults in financial terms, because it unlocked a lot of things they already knew but had never articulated.
When we got to the page in the book that asks about “abundance,” not one kid out of 150 knew what it meant. Many said that it didn’t make sense. As children born at or just before the financial crisis, they don’t know abundance, but they do know debt and indebtedness, which they experience in every aspect of their lives. They can’t go outside; their schools are closing; their teachers are scared; and their parents are anxious. They are developing different capacities to deal with these conditions, and it seems really important to observe, learn from, and support them. When schools everywhere and all levels have become so corporate, we really need to be developing programs and public spaces for children and their families so they can organize around what will help them to survive the heap of environmental and social catastrophes they are in the process of inheriting.