Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2019, 255 pp.
Reviewed by Alison Hanson
In her new book, Dispossessed: How Predatory Bureaucracy Foreclosed on the American Middle Class (2019), Noelle Stout offers a different view of the 2008 financial collapse than has been shown in news and media accounts – that of the enduring and everyday effects of foreclosure. Stout argues that the financial collapse shifted Americans’ feelings about the government and financial markets, and it foreclosed aspirations for middle-class life through homeownership. Stout’s study is situated in California’s Sacramento Valley, one of the regions hardest-hit by the financial crisis. As a feminist ethnographer, Stout situates herself as an insider and outsider to the Sacramento Valley. She examines foreclosure within a moral economy of debt exchange, whereby mortgaging creates “an imagined bond of mutuality” (Stout 2019, 19) between borrower and lender. Thus foreclosure, she argues, is experienced as social and economic abandonment, and Stout remains attentive to the ways this abandonment is differently experienced through racial, classed, and gendered dynamics.
Dispossessed is at once an empathetic, even if a devastating, portrait of families affected by foreclosure and a scathing critique of American capitalism. Contracts between the U.S. state and financial institutions engendered what Stout calls “predatory bureaucracy” (2019, 10) that favors profits over the social good. The rhetoric of assistance from government programs like TARP and HAMP, alongside the expectations for reciprocity evidenced in borrower’s actions and statements, together obscure the classed and racial structures of predation and violence through which American capitalism is made. Stout’s research in Oak Park, a low-income and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood in Sacramento evidences how legacies of discrimination, segregation, and redlining were exacerbated by the subprime mortgage crisis. She writes that the nature of subprime lending in this neighborhood was a form of “predatory debt extraction – a process through which the most vulnerable American are no longer exploited for their surplus labor but now become key to capitalist accumulation through their debts” (2019, 72).
These long-standing histories of discrimination and structural vulnerabilities differently shaped communities’ experiences of the financial crisis. Oak Park residents, for instance, had fewer expectations of reciprocity from financial institutions than did foreclosed homeowners in middle-class and predominantly white neighborhoods. Rather than hours spent on phone calls and paperwork by middle-class homeowners elsewhere in Sacramento, Oak Park residents routinely turned to familial and social networks to mitigate debt and foreclosure. Yet kinship enabled not only the flow of capital, but also of debts, as predatory loans traveled through families and neighbors. The seemingly inescapable nature of predatory bureaucracy led to varied forms of what Stout calls “debt refusal” (2019, 172) across the Sacramento Valley. Residents outraged by foreclosure and social abandonment refused to pay their debts, squatted in their homes (or shared knowledge about how to do so online), damaged homes on move out, or participated in community protests.
The racial and classed vulnerabilities to foreclosure are starkly evident throughout her ethnography, yet Stout also hints at some of the gendered effects of the subprime mortgage collapse crisis. Stout argues that following deregulation and the retreat of the U.S. welfare state in the 1980s and 1990s “the home…has come to replace the social benefits once provided by employers and the government” (2019, 16) and mortgaging “commodifies the domestic realm” (2019, 131). By shifting the relationship between the home and the state, reproductive politics necessarily become part of the foreclosure story. Putting Stout’s insights in conversation with Laura Briggs’ (2015) argument that reproductive politics undergird all political decisions made about spending priorities and workplace regulations in the United States, particularly during the subprime mortgage collapse, makes visible how gender and race shape ideas about creditworthiness and default. Many of Stout’s interlocutors are single mothers, though even in heterosexual married households women frequently take on the responsibilities of organizing financial documents, calling lenders, and packing up homes in foreclosure – activities that fall within the domain of reproductive and domestic labor. The forms of debt refusal that Stout identifies also indicate gendered differences, as those who refuse to make debt payments or leave their homes are often men, while women become involved in activism through religious collectives and community organizations. There is a feminist ethos evident in Stout’s attention to the relationship between public and private – or how the deeply personal experiences of home ownership, indebtedness, and foreclosure are made political.
Stout’s research paints a damning portrait of the U.S. financial system in general, and it also tells a particular, local story of dispossession and abandonment. Her project is intimately personal, as she describes friends and family members affected by foreclosure, which hails the ethics of representation and her own ethnographic refusals. Overall, Dispossessed offers important insights into the contemporary economic condition in which we – Americans, and those affected by the financial collapse globally – find ourselves, and it heeds a critical warning about the nature of predatory finance.
Alison Hanson is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research examines juridical scripts of sexual violence and the narrative strategies survivors use to seek justice and care in California and Texas.