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Beyond Failure and Forgiveness: The Debtor's Place in American Fiscal Identity, Bankruptcy, and Capitalism


This dissertation is based on six years of original field research in the bankruptcy legal field. It explores the dominant discourses that function as controlling processes for individual fiscal agents within the American free-market system--a system based in credit structures and debt relations. The ways these individual fiscal agents are viewed impacts the behaviors, attitudes and perceptions of the place they inhabit within the social system. This dissertation demonstrates the impact of Enlightenment notions of reason and probity that construct the American fiscal identity. Within the dominant construct of American fiscal identity, "rational" decisions and "sound" processes create wealth accumulation and fiscal success. Conversely, debt and "failure" are seen as a result of irrational, "wrong" decisions and aberrations from this fiscal identity norm. This dissertation argues that reason and responsibility are manifest in success, and the absence of those qualities result in and explain failure. Hence, the subjectivities of individual agents are shaped and manifested through this culturally and economically constructed fiscal identity rooted in notions of reason and responsibility. This dissertation further argues that the stigmatized financial failure is incorrectly identified as a social deviant, sinner, and one who must be pardoned and/or redeemed. In other words, the fiscal failure is a misrecognized cultural creation of a credit-debit system that supports the accumulation of wealth and depends on the existence of debts. This is made visible by tracing the pathways leading to the financial failure filing a bankruptcy petition, and the transformation of the failure into the recognizable bankruptcy debtor. This puts spurious factors in the spotlight and hides from view the actual functioning of our free-market, credit-based structures that have led to the current impending collapse of our economy.

In an economic order that encourages wealth accumulation, credit is required for those who lack wealth. Debt and debt relations are the life of the system, and indebted institutions and individuals are essential to the health of the system. Yet, when the indebted individual enters the bankruptcy system, the individual is viewed as a pariah whose conduct must be reformed so that he can be reintegrated into the economic system. Intrinsic to this model, fiscal identity is an evaluation of the individual's character and conduct. The conduct of the individual in the marketplace is used to characterize the essential nature of the individual as a moral actor. This process of evaluation and categorization is most apparent when the person fiscally fails. Therefore, the commercial success or failure of the individual in free-market capitalism defines the identity of the individual for the social world.

Participants in modern capitalism come to view themselves and others as autonomous financial actors in financial matters. It is from this space of separation and isolation that individuals assume responsibility for their financial status. This model for the American fiscal identity is hegemonic because it improperly locates the causes of the boom and bust cycles of free-market capitalism in the individual. In so doing, the larger social and economic forces are personalized. The individual is taught to take responsibility for their location in the economic order rather than viewing themselves as part of the cycles of the larger capitalist structure of power and wealth. The individual's financial success or failure is viewed as a direct result of the individual's attitudes, conduct, and behavior, rather than as emerging from particular sets of economic relations, historical processes, class structure, and legal order.

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