Newsletter #27: Local Debts and Global Narratives, with Destin Jenkins

By Mack Penner

Especially since the financial crisis of 2008, debt has become a heated political issue. Housing debt, packaged and sold in any number of nefarious ways, was front of mind after the crisis. Since then, political contestation over medical and student debt has been salient. National debt crises are also always with us, with Argentina and Sri Lanka having been in the news lately.

Indebtedness implies certain social and political relationships. As Dig guest Destin Jenkins puts it in his book The Bonds of Inequality, indebtedness is “a condition entangled with governance and democracy, social welfare and capitalism.” Debt is a matter of political economy.

But which political economy? Among the points that Jenkins makes in his interview with guest host Astra Taylor is that political-economic metanarratives are more helpful in some contexts than others. Neoliberalism and financialization, Jenkins argues, are actually not the most effective guides to the history of municipal indebtedness and bondholder power in cities like San Francisco. Instead, the particular contexts in which borrowing takes place have more explanatory power than broader narratives about ideology and macroeconomic trends. Local and global political economies interact, but the former do not simply mirror the latter.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

In this sense, Jenkins’s work could be read alongside a historian like Amy Offner, who makes a similar case about metanarratives, neoliberalism especially, in Sorting Out the Mixed Economy. Offner’s book is focused mainly on Colombia and the United States, and the interactions between them, at the level of policymaking and economic development in the twentieth century. Offner asks “how midcentury states came into being and how they came undone”; she finds that political-economic succession is messy. Reliance on metanarrative can blind us to the contradictions and contestations that feature in local and regional histories. The mechanics of change over time are difficult to capture with a single concept, even a capacious one.

The upshot, as I see it, should not be outright skepticism of metanarrative. Rather, the point is to understand the implications of the bi-directional relationship between local and global political economy. Local histories are made within broader patterns, but the reverse is also true: structural trends are never untouched by particular conditions in any given context. This is not mere historiography for its own sake. Leftist politics have to bridge local and global concerns, keeping each in mind simultaneously.

Further Reading and Listening

If you want to further follow the many threads of Jenkins’s work, you’re in luck. The Jain Family Institute organized a very good roundtable discussion of The Bonds of Inequality, and hosted an extended symposium with eleven contributions.

There are many episodes in The Dig’s archive that could make for good accompanying listening. Because, as Jenkins says in the interview, his book project began with an interest in redevelopment and gentrification in San Francisco, you might listen to Samuel Stein’s 2019 interview on “real estate capitalism.” You can also read the transcript, here.