Dialectic of Neoliberalism: The Shape of Debt

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Dialectic of Neoliberalism: The Shape of Debt

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Dialectic of Neoliberalism: The Shape of Debt is an academic dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment for a doctorate of philosophy degree. It applies Theodor Adorno’s negative dialectics to neoliberal theory—particularly the classical liberal concepts of liberty and property as represented primarily by John Locke and Adam Smith—and uses this theoretical framework to analyze the current American student debt crisis. In the context of its historical precursors (classical dialectic, Hegelian dialectic, dialectical materialism) negative dialectics emerges as a tool that helps the subject recognize the existing hegemonic forces that influence any dialectic prior to its performance. It reveals the arbitrary nature of power structures—how they were built and can be undone—and the constellations that veil the power at play within them. When applied to neoliberalism, property, and debt, this method provides an approach to understanding the social, cultural, and economic influences that contribute to vast inequities observable in twenty-first century American society. The American student debt crisis is an example of an object of this inequity. Using original research from the University of Minnesota’s budget history, Dialectic of Neoliberalism: The Shape of Debt confirms that certain correlations exist between state allocations, tuition, and student loans at the University of Minnesota, in particular, and surmises that this phenomenon exists between many, if not most, similarly organized academic institutions and their state sponsors. Dialectic of Neoliberalism: The Shape of Debt further demonstrates how these correlations are often motivated by core neoliberal values that have risen to prominence in the politics, culture, and economics of mid-late twentieth and early twenty-first century American society. Dialectic of Neoliberalism: The Shape of Debt includes a dramatic exposition of a theory of debt that captures its physical brutality and psychological abuse, and exposes the perverse power dynamic that underlies debt relationships. This dialectic of debt reveals a power at play that imposes the most heinous physical tortures, psychological torments, and perverse applications of power itself in order to maintain class antagonisms. Using historical theories of debt put forth by David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari, this project reaches the ultimate conclusion that the shape of debt is rooted in a profound violence and desire to exert power and control over other human beings. This project further concludes that the shape of debt indicates one example of the ways in which human beings value capital and power over life and humanity itself. Last, Dialectic of Neoliberalism: The Shape of Debt introduces the concept of pathocentrism as a differentiated dialectic that illuminates hegemonic power dynamics by appealing to emotional discourses that reprioritize pathos in the context of typically logos-centered systems of power and discourse in Western society, culture, and economics. Pathos-centered discourses allow for the expressions of oppression to coexist alongside logically dominant discourses that attempt primarily to prove or disprove. The goal of pathocentrism is to eliminate anxiety on both sides of the dialectical equation by honoring the voices of the oppressed in public discourse.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. 2022. Major: Comparative Literature. Advisor: Robin Brown. 1 computer file (PDF); 226 pages.

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Renwick, Derk. (2022). Dialectic of Neoliberalism: The Shape of Debt. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/241307.

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