Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

A biographical sketch by Georgina Schuyler, written to her niece, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton.

(Letter accompanying photography of a portrait of her namesake, Mrs. Alexander Hamilton)

37 Madison Ave

New York

June 21st 1908

My Dear Elizabeth

This is the day of your ___ and this letter is written to you—to give given to you when you are older, with the portrait of the lady for whence you are named, Elizabeth Schuyler, afterwards Mrs. Alexander Hamilton.  She was your father’s great-grandmother, and my great grandmother.  But though she lived so long ago, some of us still remember her, and all of us love her because she was so lovely, good and king; and we hope you too will love and be like her.

She was born on the 9th of August, 1757, and was the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, of Albany, and she, and her father, and mother, and brothers and sisters lived in a large house just outside the City of Albany, overlooking the Hudson River. It was called “the Pastures,” and is still standing, though the city streets are all about it now.

When this portrait was painted, in 1787, Mrs. Hamilton had been married eight years, and had three little children.  Two years later, in 1789, her husband was appointed by Washington Secretary of the Treasury.  The President and Cabinet then lived in New York City and at the Hamilton house there were dances and parties and many people coming and going—Wednesday evening was their reception evening.  Marie Antoinette, was then the Queen of France.  She wore the same kind of high head dress you see in the portrait—it was the Fashion of the day.  Mrs. Hamilton’s  older sister Angelica, Mrs. Church, had married an Englishman and lived in Paris and in London for many years.  Mr. & Mrs. Church knew many French people noblemen and ___.  Most sought refuge in England during the French Revolution; and a number of the gentlemen came to America introduced by Mrs. Church to her sister and brother-in-law.  Mrs. Hamilton was kind and hospitable to them and they needed kindness in exile from their country, sad and lonely, separated from their family.

For it was Mrs. Hamilton’s kindness and the nature of her disposition that attracted people.  She was not so very pretty—not as pretty as her older sister—but she was good tempered, and everyone liked her.  There was a young gentleman from Maryland, Mr. Tilghman, an aid de camp of General Washington, who stayed at her father’s house when she was a girl.  He writes that she had “the most good natured, dark, lovely eyes I ever saw,” and everyone one told him how sweet tempered she was.  She was also active and fearless.  They all went on a picnic near Albany; and he describes how Miss Betsey Schuyler climbed up the banks of the waterfall, and jumped from rock to rock, declining all assistance, and making merry at the fears of the other girls.

Mr. Carroll of Maryland was detained at the country place of her father, General Schuyler, at Saratoga, for a week, owing to the illness of old Mr. Benjamin Franklin. [He] writes what a pleasant week he had passed.  He was very much older than Miss Betsey, but he found her and her sister very good company, so bright and cheerful, and ready and glad to take not of older people. Miss Betsey was straight forward and simple in her manner.  One of the French gentleman speaks of her in later years—of her simplicity and adds that “she is a charming woman.”

So, when this portrait was painted, she had passed through a happy girlhood, and was most happily married. She was a devoted wife.  She appreciated her husband’s genius and she did all she possibly could to help him.  He had to work very hard to support his family (he was a lawyer by profession) and whenever possible, he was pre-occupied with public affairs.  But he, too, was kind and wished to help people when they were in trouble and so this is the story of the portrait:

The artist, Mr. Earle, had made debts he could not pay, and was put in the New York City Debtor Prison (such was the law of those days).  Mr. Hamilton was sorry for him and worked to get [him] out, and consulted his wife as to the best way of doing so.  She decided that she would dress and visit the Debtors Prison and ask for her portrait there, in a room that was set apart for Mr. Earle to paint her in.  She persuaded the ladies to do the same thing.  They also came to the prison and sat for their portraits; and son Mr. Earle had made enough money to pay his debts, get out of prison, and be a free man once more: Thanks to her we have the portrait, and the memory of her kind heart. This story was told to me by her son James, my Grandfather Hamilton, who loved to tell it of his mother.

In her later life she had great sorrows, and showed much strength of character.  Her husband’s death left her with many children to support and educate, and but little fortune with which to do so.  However, they all grew up and made their way, and then she thought of other children, poor children left without money or father to care for them, and she helped to found the first orphan asylum in New York City. She also took into her home a little orphan girl and brought her up and started her in life.  She lived to a great age.  I remember perfectly her sweet old face and her white hair under her cap as she used to sit in the ball at Nevis where now this very portrait hangs.

I am my dear little Elizabeth

Your affectionate

Georgina Schuyler

To Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

source: Columbia University, Hamilton Family Papers

anonymous asked:

What will happen to Max (and Featherstone and Idelle) when Rogers returns as a governor after the debtor's prison? Will she be powerful enough for him not to harm her? Will he even suspect that she was behind Guthrie's plan to remove him?

well the vital piece of information you’re missing here anon is that the second rogers is released from debtors’ prison he is (DARN HIS LUCK) plucked off the ground by an unbelievably large bird and then carried off to a remote island somewhere. oddly enough, all that can be found on this island are a couple of drawings of one jack rackham wearing a very large grin, and a note nailed to a tree that reads, “sucks to be you”

max, anne, mary, jack, idelle, and featherstone are all enjoying a drink, a pleasant breeze, and the comforting hurdy gurdy, and are none the wiser

“but jess that’s not wha-”



A 55-year-old Pennsylvania mother of seven, sentenced to serve two days in jail because her children were absent too much from school and she couldn’t pay some $2,000 in truancy fines, was found dead in her cell.

The Associated Press reported that District Judge Dean R. Patton, who sent her to prison reluctantly, blamed a judicial system that imprisons poor people who can’t pay fines for minor offensives such as truancy fines. He said:

“This lady didn’t need to be there. We don’t do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.”

It hasn’t gone out in Pennsylvania.

The dead woman was identified as Eileen DiNino, of Reading, who went to jail to wipe clean some $2,000 in fines and court costs imposed on her since 1999 because a number of her children were absent too much from school in Reading and Muhlenberg townships.

The AP reported that more than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County over school truancy fines since 2000.


Traffic violators are being held in grotesque conditions in de facto Missouri debtors’ prison

The city of Florissant, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, is being sued by five named plaintiffs and others who have been targeted by the city’s de facto debtors’ prison system. Those targeted most often tended to be black and poor, and are arrested using trivial municipal codes and petty justifications.

follow @the-movemnt

The Worst Pirate in History — The Forgotten Legend of Bartholomew Sharp

Perhaps one of the worst pirates to sail the high seas, Bartholomew Sharp certainly is not a legendary figure like Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, or Captain Kidd.  The fictional pirate Jack Sparrow, when accused of being the worst pirate ever heard of remarked, “But you have heard of me.”  Unfortunately Bartholomew Sharp was so bad that his name is almost forgotten to history.  In 1639 Sharp set off with a crew of pirates to Panama in search of Spanish treasure.  Unlike most pirates who stalked the Caribbean, Sharp had the idea to raid the Pacific side of the Spanish Main.  It is a wonder why he had this idea, most treasure fleets bound for Europe crossed through the Caribbean, only a few ships, mostly supply ships bound for the Philippines with some treasure ships bound for the Straits of Magellan could be found on the Pacific side.  Regardless, Sharp and his men sailed to Panama, abandoned ship at the coast, then seized Spanish ships on the Pacific side of Panama.  

Bartholomew Sharp and his crew raided several Spanish ships, but none had anything of value.  After two years of slim pickings, his crew mutinied and replaced him as captain.  Fortunately for him, his replacement only lasted three weeks before unexpectedly dying.  Amazingly, the crew voted to restore Sharp as captain once again.  However Sharps luck failed to pick up, that was until him and his crew came across a Spanish treasure galleon, which they captured after a short fight.  However, rather than finding a rich haul of treasure, the ship was loaded with 700 bars of a dull grey metal which they thought was tin.  Dejected and depressed, Sharp and his pirates decided to cut their losses and head home.  They threw the bars overboard, saving a small portion to be cast into musket balls.

Sharp and his men rounded South America and returned to the Caribbean.  When they arrived they learned of two pieces of very bad news.  First, Sharp had assumed that because England was enemies with Spain, he would be recognized as a privateer by English authorities.  However the English were not at war with Spain at the time, and arrest warrants had been issued in Sharp’s name for piracy.  Secondly, the men had run out of lead to cast musket balls, and had dug into the stock of “tin bars” captured from the Spanish galleon earlier.  It was then discovered that the tin bars were not tin at all, but in fact were silver.  The unfortunate pirates had dumped a fortune worth 150,000 English Pounds (millions today) into the deep blue sea.  Bummer.

When Sharp tried to make harbor at Barbados, he found a Royal Navy frigate waiting for him.  He then made for Antigua, but authorities there barred him from entry.  Eventually Sharp and his men were captured and arrested, then hauled into court in chains.  In a rare stroke of luck for Sharp, him and his men were acquitted due to lack of evidence, either that or the jury felt bad for him.  After avoid the hangman’s noose and gibbet, Sharp settled down on the Danish Island of St. Thomas.  A man who could not lead a successful life as a pirate, Sharp was also a man who could not lead a successful life as a regular citizen.  He died in a debtors prison in 1702.
The Morgan Affair

Since all Masons place their hands on a Bible and promise not to reveal the passwords and grips of the degrees, several members of the Batavia lodge published an advertisement denouncing Morgan for breaking his word by authoring the book. An attempt also was allegedly made to set fire to Miller’s newspaper office and print shop.[26] On September 11, 1826, Morgan was arrested for the alleged nonpayment of a loan and for stealing a shirt and a tie;[27]according to the laws of the time he could be held in debtors’ prison until the amount was paid, which would have made it more difficult to publish his book.[28] Morgan was jailed in Canandaigua, and when Miller learned of this, he went to the jail to pay the debt and secure Morgan’s release. Miller and Morgan then walked to a waiting carriage, which arrived the next day at Fort Niagara.[16]

There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. The generally accepted version of events is that Morgan was taken in a boat to the middle of the Niagara River and thrown overboard, where he presumably drowned, since he was never seen again in the community.[29] Another version has Morgan being paid a large sum of money to simply “disappear” and give up his plans to publish the degree work. In 1848 Henry L. Valance allegedly confessed on his deathbed to taking part in Morgan’s “murder”, a tale recounted in chapter two of Reverend C. G. Finney’s anti-Masonic book, The Character, Claims, and Practical Workings of Freemasonry (1869).[30]

In October 1827, a badly decomposed body washed up on the shores of Lake Ontario. Many presumed it to be Morgan, and the body was buried as his. However, the wife of a missing Canadian named Timothy Monroe (or Munro) positively identified the clothing on the body as that which had been worn by her husband.[31][32] One group of Freemasons denied that Morgan was killed, saying they had paid him $500 to leave the country.[33] Morgan was reportedly seen later, including in other countries, but none of the reports were confirmed.[34] Eventually, Eli Bruce, the sheriff of Niagara County and a Mason, was removed from office and tried for his involvement in Morgan’s disappearance; he served 28 months in prison after being convicted of conspiracy for his role in kidnapping Morgan and holding him against his will before his disappearance.[35] Three other Masons, Loton Lawon, Nicholas Chesebro and Edward Sawyer, were convicted of taking part in the kidnapping, and served sentences.[36] Other Batavia Masons were tried and acquitted.[37] Author Jasper Ridley suggests that Morgan was probably killed by local Masons, as all other scenarios are highly improbable.[36] Historian H. Paul Jeffers also considers this the more credible explanation.[38] C.T. Congdon, in Reminiscences of a Journalist, cites a third-hand account “that Morgan was murdered by certain very zealous Freemasons,” and notes that the resultant anti-Mason sentiment caused many elections to go to non-Masons for a number of years afterwards.[39]

To handle his civil suits, Burr retained the young lawyer Nicholas Biddle. He was the son of old friend Charles Biddle, and a graduate of Princeton, who had just returned from France, where he was serving as the private secretary of John Armstrong, the U.S. minister. At twenty-one, Biddle was just beginning his distinguished career as a man of letters (he would shortly begin editing the Lewis and Clark journals) and would go on to establish himself as leader of the financial community. In fact, as president of the Bank of United States from 1823 to 1836, Nicholas Biddle would be the second most powerful man in the country after the president. Despite the scandalous repercussions of the conspiracy and treason trial, Charles Biddle and his family had never distanced themselves from Burr. Burr was considered part of their family, having done everything in his power (when he had power) to promote the careers of Biddle’s sons. It was Biddle’s enduring network of personal friendship that now kept Burr out of debtors prison.
—  Fallen Founder: Aaron Burr, 369
The Beauty Within Chapter 9, a beauty and the beast fanfic | FanFiction

An AU story (based on the 2017 ver) where the Prince was never cursed by an Enchantress but is still as ruthless as a Beast. He taxes the villages, leading Maurice into debt. He nearly goes to debtor’s prison, but Belle prevents this by deciding to work at the castle to pay off their debts. Reduced to that of a humble maid, she hopes never to encounter the cruel Prince.. However…

Originally posted by animations-daily



“I am sure that you are already aware of your circumstances, but for the sake of the council”–Iason glanced at the other blondies seated around him–“I will summarize briefly.”

He fixed the female elite with his unrelenting icy stare. “The debt you’ve incurred with this little failed venture of yours is astronomical. I could have you thrown in a debtor’s prison for this. However–and I am sure you will agree with me–that it would be scandalous for an elite like yourself to be thrown in prison along with the common rabble. And so, I have a proposition.”

He steepled his fingers on the table before him, looking every inch a man of business. “You would still be incarcerated until your debt is paid. But this incarceration would be…rather unique. Instead of a prisoner, you would be my pet. And–save for a few small liberties, which I would decide–you would be treated no different from any other pet in Amoi. And you would be expected to perform the same functions as any pet.

“It is your decision, to take my proposition or not. But know that, once you decide your fate, you cannot change your decision.”

He tilted his head to the side, considering her. “What say you?”
The Beauty Within Chapter 11, a beauty and the beast fanfic | FanFiction

An AU story (based on the 2017 ver) where the Prince was never cursed by an Enchantress but is still as ruthless as a Beast. He taxes the villages, leading Maurice into debt. He nearly goes to debtor’s prison, but Belle prevents this by deciding to work at the castle to pay off their debts. Reduced to that of a humble maid, she hopes never to encounter the cruel Prince.. However…

chapter 11 - :D:D:D

Originally posted by ofallingstar
A City Near Ferguson Is Still Caging Humans In A 'Grotesque' Debtors' Prison
Lawsuit alleges the city of Florissant was running a "modern debtors' prison scheme" and locking the poor in jail over minor municipal code violations.

“Once locked in the Florissant jail, impoverished people who cannot afford to pay the City endure grotesque treatment. They are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or shoes or underwear; they step on top of other inmates, whose bodies cover nearly the entire uncleaned cell floor, in order to access a single shared toilet that the City does not clean; illnesses and even infected wounds go untreated and uncovered; they endure days and weeks without being allowed to use the moldy shower; they are housed in short-sleeve jump suits; shoes and flip-flops are not permitted, so those who are not arrested in socks go barefoot on the dirty cement floor; they huddle in cells kept intentionally cold in order to quiet detainees, forced to retreat under a single thin blanket as they beg guards for warmer coverings; they are not given adequate hygiene products for menstruation; they are routinely denied vital medical care and prescription medication, even when their families beg to be allowed to bring medication to the jail; they are provided food so insufficient and lacking in nutrition that inmates lose significant amounts of weight; they suffer from dehydration out of fear of drinking foul smelling water dispensed from an apparatus covered in blood and mucus on top of the toilet, without sufficient pressure to drink from without pressing their lips to the contaminated apparatus; and they must listen to the screams of other inmates languishing from unattended medical issues as they sit in their cells without access to books, or legal materials. Perhaps worst of all, they do not know when they will be allowed to leave their disorienting and timeless cage, deprived of windows and perpetually flooded in florescent light.

Jail guards routinely taunt impoverished people when they are unable to pay for their release,” the suit claims. The lawsuit says that the plaintiffs were “held in jail indefinitely without either the legal representation of the inquiry into their ability to pay guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Instead, they were threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement until their frightened family members produced enough cash to buy their freedom or until City jail officials decided, days or weeks later, to release them free of charge ― after it had become clear the City would not be able to extract any money from them.  

Shays' Rebellion
  • Led by Daniel Shays
  • Took place in western MA (1786-87)
  • The rebels were protesting against the rampant foreclosures and the aggressive debt collection. They especially did not like the fact that people who could not pay off their debts were sent to debtors’ prisons.
  • The rebels forced judges out of courtrooms and freed debtors from the prisons.
  • There were mixed reactions to the rebellion.
  • George Washington was horrified with the rebellion. “What, gracious God, is man?” he said about the rebellion.
  • However, others were rather pleased about it. Said Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, “I like a little rebellion now and then.”
  • SIGNIFICANCE: The rebellion underscored the need for a stronger central government. The Articles of Confederation proved to be inefficient.
  • liberal: debtors prisons are illegal
  • debtors: actually you can be incarcerated if you can't afford court assigned fees this is super common.
  • debtors: also you can be incarcerated if you can't afford student loan debts in some states
  • liberal: yeah but those are criminals so ...... it doesn't count because they need to be punished for their sins.

C) Everyday Sadism

When a limo cruises New York City, the financial capital of the world, equipped with a massive sign painted on the side reading “Kill the Poor,” is this “irony” or is it something else altogether?65 When Ted Nugent conducts a “Trample the Weak” rock tour, what kind of person attends the concert?66 Is this intended as “entertainment” or as agitprop? Since 2008, we might want to consider whether the answer has taken on new significance. In order to shift the frame away from offhand dismissal of some trifling stunt to something a bit more profound, I would like to quote the premier philosopher of cruelty on the wellsprings of that urge:
An equivalence is provided by the creditor’s receiving, in place of the literal compensation for injury, a recompense in the form of a kind of pleasure—the pleasure of being allowed to vent his power freely upon one who is powerless, the voluptuous pleasure de faire le mal pour le plaisir de la faire, the enjoyment of violation. This enjoyment will be the greater the lower the creditor stands in the social order.67

Friedrich Nietzsche derived the will to punish from the world of debt obligations, and not vice versa. If one were to take this version of psychology seriously, it suggests that the exacerbated asymmetry between imperious creditors and distressed debtors that has widened since the crisis has freed up an antagonistic field of cruelty that may have festered in a more repressed state during more prosperous times. Clearly, by this late date everyone is aware of the multitudes unceremoniously turfed out of their underwater houses mortgaged beyond all rescue, the one in five children reduced to poverty in the United States, the newly disenfranchised filling the homeless shelters and Wal-Mart car parks at night, the mute beggars standing at street corners with their crude handmade cardboard signs, the sheepish families crowding the food pantries, the superannuated, the forlorn, the downwardly mobile. One way to live in this grim harsh world would be to tell yourself that all these people are just collateral damage, and that no one bears them any particular animus for it, that it is just the unfortunate result of transpersonal forces: in Rawls-speak, there but for the grace of God go I. Such would run the exculpation of the classical liberal.
This, I would suggest, is not now the predominant mind-set in our neoliberal era. Instead, the culture of everyday neoliberalism tends to foster a set of attitudes reminiscent of Nietzsche’s creditor psychology, and has plumped for a different morality: it extends beyond a defensive schadenfreude of the Great Contraction, if only because it predates the crash. Since the 1990s, not just the rich, but almost everyone else who still has a job has been galvanized to find within themselves a kind of guilty pleasure in the thousand unkind cuts administered by the enforcers of trickle-down austerity. Since, as we argued above, the poor no longer are held to exist as a class, it is easier to hate them as individuals. They are the detritus of the market. Those wretched souls subsist at our munificence, it is hinted; therefore it is the indigent who owe us, it is implied; hence we qualify as the righteous and willing audience at the theater of cruelty. Through this guilty pleasure, people of modest means are ushered into the vicarious experience of what it feels like to be extravagantly rich in an era of decline. For a brief moment, the working class can empathize with the imperious creditor, even though they lack the assets to maintain the charade. In a sense, one might approach this phenomenon as an elaboration of Thorstein Veblen’s basic insight in his Theory of the Leisure Class: “An invidious comparison is a process of valuation of persons in respect to worth.”68 The theater of cruelty becomes an emporium of conspicuous consumption.
But beyond a little virtual reality, the normalization of everyday sadism fulfills deeper functions as well. The “double truths” of neoliberalism outlined in the last chapter cannot be permanently confined within the ambit of the NTC, but tend to leak out as barely repressed contradictions in quotidian life—between populism and plutarchy, between freedom and control, between smug ignorance and fervent conviction, between Christian theology and norms of efficiency, between kosmos and taxis, between the enjoyment of pleasure and the deployment of pain. These contradictions could not be confronted directly by the larger populace without fomenting utter disenchantment with the promises of neoliberal order. To get around the cognitive dissonance, cultural outlets square the circle by staging little neoliberal allegories in the public sphere, directing anger away from intractable predicaments in the political sphere and toward the victims. As one analyst put it, every system of cruelty requires its own theater.69
In the neoliberal theater of cruelty, one torments the poor or indigent precisely because they are prostrate. Everyday sadism of this sort is enshrined in every crisis-porn news story that dupes the victims into “sharing their feelings” over their eviction notices and job losses; it reared its head when the Nebraska attorney general un-­self-consciously compared recipients of unemployment benefit with “scavenging raccoons”;70 it is there in the ridiculous obligatory “upbeat” ending to every failure narrative so as not to unduly derange our complacent spectatorship. It is rampant in every suggestion that relief offered by religious charities (accompanied by the obligatory sectarian message) renders the predicament of the downtrodden and disenfranchised bearable. It underpins the argument that the poor must of necessity bear the brunt of austerity now, because it will only get worse for them later if they do not.71 As a political ploy, right-wing think tanks began their counteroffensive against a rising chorus pleading taxation of the rich in 2011 by disingenuously twisting the evocative rhetoric of “equality” in pointing out (in a fit of indignation) that a large proportion of the poor do not “pay their share” of income taxes (viz., none at all) and thus lacked “skin in the game”; this echo chamber of contempt ricocheting throughout the news media was so extravagantly over the top that it became the target of satire on many of the usual cable outlets, such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.72
In the current climate, it seems there is almost nothing you could do to the poor that would earn you opprobrium and ostracism from polite company, (maybe) short of sexual molestation of children. Prior to the 1980s, the practice of “salary purchase,” aka “payday loans,” had been outlawed; but a concerted effort beginning at the state level progressively legalized this particular form of predatory lending. As of 2008, there were more payday lender outlets in the United States than there were McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants combined, with turnover that dwarfed casinos, the other major poverty vampire operation.73 What is astounding about such operations is that they are no longer treated as reviled bottom-feeders by both the media and politicians, but rather as exemplary of the types of legitimate businesses that provide opportunity and salvation in the current contraction. Given the vast hollowing out of the income distribution, it makes sense that the working poor constituted one of the only substantial customer segments that left any room for expansion:
Jared Davis [CEO of Check ’n Go] … pulls in around $20 million a year making loans of $300 or $400 or $500 a year to the working poor but he had brought his brother into the business and it was his father’s money that had gotten him started. “I don’t consider myself wealthy,” he tells me … There were photos around his office of him shaking hands with George W. Bush and John McCain and behind his desk hung stylish black-and-whites of his young children blown up so large that they were distracting. I watched the YouTube videos made by former Davis employees who felt horrible about how they made their money (“I resigned because I could no longer stomach the lies, and I could no longer continue exploiting customers, making hard lives even harder,” one said), I had spent the better part of a day with a former store manager who had saved some of the crass directives she had received from management (lend “to anyone getting social security,” one read, even if a customer only had “one dime to their name”). I only got to spend two hours with him before I was shown the door—barely enough time to even get into the lawsuit his father has filed against his two sons charging them with bilking him out of money … A district director who used to work for him called a press conference a few years back to talk about the company’s methods for choosing new store locations. “I have been responsible for selecting sites for new stores in D.C. and northern Virginia,” he said—and to those who claim the company doesn’t target minority communities, “I can tell you emphatically that it does.”74

The mantra “your debt is not my problem” has permitted other bottom-feeding organizations like personal debt collection agencies to revive the once-banned practice of debtor prisons.75 As people fall behind in their debts and are often unaware of being subject to lawsuits, any arrest whatsoever now can trigger jail time, often for sums as small as five hundred dollars. Hundreds of fly-by-night firms scoured databases to find those falling behind in their mortgages, and hired offshore phone banks to endlessly call and promise false hope, only to swindle them with false stories of help with principal reductions, stealing from them fees they could ill afford. Yet no major media outlet has mustered even a scintilla of outrage for what is, at bottom, cheap illegal ways to harass and torture debtors.
How has this theater of cruelty been made to seem so unexceptional?
Martijn Konings has pointed out that the dark underbelly of the bright shiny neoliberal self is the daily spectacle of the public put-down.76 Not only must the truly entrepreneurial life embrace the risk and insecurity of a constantly revised self tossed hither and yon by market forces beyond our ken; the fundamental narcissism encouraged by neoliberalism demands that we participate in an active externalization of the experience of insecurity and vulnerability to revaluation. The complement to a culture of celebrity has become therefore the unabashed theater of cruelty, the public spaces where we gaze upon the half-speed car wrecks of the lives of others in the throes of failure, Nascar for the politically challenged. In one sense, this programming of everyday sadism explicitly aimed at the poor and distressed is so ubiquitous that one need hardly recite the titles: The Jerry Springer Show, Dr. Phil, The Apprentice, Shattered, Unbreakable, Big Brother, Hell’s Kitchen, Survivor, American Idol—it is hardly worth the minor effort that it takes to disparage it. A moment’s reflection reveals it is pervasive in American culture. Unremarkable people, desperate for some sort of acknowledgment and validation, yearning for some promise of escape from the stale and commonplace, offer themselves up on the altar of abject humiliation to an audience of millions; smarmy celebrities berate them to their face; and the spectacles proliferate because they are cheaper for the networks to program than either scripted fiction or news. In many instances, the audience is even encouraged to pay to “vote” for those to ostracize and banish—a clear simulacrum of the neoliberal marketplace. Game shows used to reflexively reward the poor; now pay-to-play reality TV crushes them. Computer gaming used to be about triumphs of virtuosity; now, as in Grand Theft Auto, it is all about debasement of the losers. Rather than engage in the kabuki of high dudgeon, it might be worthwhile to meditate briefly on the possibility that this genre is indicative of some relatively new lifestyle under everyday neoliberalism.
One rather common approach is to describe this theater of cruelty as essentially a ruse: it diverts attention from the real forces at work in the impoverishment of people, set in train by the three decades or more of increasing inequality and wage stagnation in the West. This might be construed as a somewhat kindred version of the “bait and switch” argument of Tom Frank, only now with the theater of cruelty as stand-in for the culture and religious themes he identified as weapons of mass distraction. This appears to be the position taken by Konings:
The culture of self-help that is so crucial to neoliberal governmentality involves a dialectic of continuous affirmation and rejection, seduction and denial … Neoliberal governmentality involves the creation of chains of disciplinary pressures, networks composed of acts of everyday sadism and expressions of judgment that serve to distract us from the resentment provoked by our submission to authority structures we do not fully understand and experience as oppressive and constraining. This re-direction of our anger and discontent serves to … contort our notions of self-realization and responsible living in such a way that we end up ascribing a spiritual dimension to balancing the household budget.77

Just as in the case of Frank, while this may sound plausible on its face, it too readily partitions the landscape into a self-regulating economy as separate from hierarchical structures and cultural epiphenomena that putatively merely surround it. The spectacle of shaming is not merely a lightning rod for burning resentment; nor is it just an inconsequential occasion for rubbernecking by people with truncated attention spans; it is also a technology for recasting economy and society. After all, what is the vast industry of “job retraining” than a government-subsidized walk of shame? The economy and the theater of cruelty have been merged into a vertically integrated conglomerate. It is a parable of the droves and the wishes. It can be deployed in a myriad of ways under a variety of circumstances; the question here is whether there is some special common denominator in the ways it has been used in a didactic sense in the last three decades. Shock jock or shock doctrine, it cannot be written off as merely a surefire expedient to divert attention. To paint it prematurely as cynical sideshow forecloses the option that everyday sadism is not just some facile prestidigitation of the hand invisible, but serves other more targeted purposes, such as teaching techniques optimized to fortify the neoliberal self.
I expect many readers will immediately object: stylized sadism as extravaganza is nothing new, and therefore (it will be said) bears no necessary relationship to neoliberalism. Spectacles of cruelty are literally timeless. Of course, much art aestheticizes violence, as does much politics; but this line of argument tends to deflect the inquiry into areas irrelevant to neoliberalism. Perhaps the reflex dismissal of anything distinctive about the modern theater of cruelty seeks to appeal to putative distinctions between high and low culture: low-culture violence tends toward the literal, whereas high-culture violence is symbolic or allegorical, and thus subject to critical interpretation. Greek tragedy linked sadism and fate, but attempted to draw lessons from it concerning the defects of the virtues. Likewise, the highly stylized middlebrow theater and film of Lars von Trier and Neil La Bute are notorious for their fascination with evil as an abstract category, and debasement as a form of salvation, but that also ends up being beside the point. None of these constitute bona fide instances of the neoliberal theater of cruelty. Moreover, we are not talking about satire here (interestingly, mostly a non-American phenomenon, such as How to Get Rid of the Others or Un Mundo Maravilloso). Everyday sadism within the theater of cruelty in the neoliberal era has been crafted into a much more finely tuned and precisely targeted instrument, providing a necessary counterbalance to the proleptic upbeat stress on the magic of self-fashioning transformation. It is not so much that explicit portrayals of violence or aggression need to be paraded (although the entertainment values cannot be discounted), as it is that pageants of the ostracized appear to accept the dictates of the market as final, and also in the audience coming to appreciate that it is legitimate for themselves and others to take advantage of those who fail.
The modern neoliberal theater of cruelty does not seek to plumb any deep pathologies of the human psyche, precisely because it does not endorse any solid notion of an invariant persistent self. Typically, it is uninterested in depth characterization of personality, dealing instead with the most superficial stereotypes. In this way, it departs from the anatomy of shaming inscribed in most self-conscious art. Pace the acolytes of Adam Smith, neither is it concerned with interpersonal empathy, nor evocation of the impartial spectator; it is unconcerned about any glue to bind society together. To recapitulate Nietzsche, it deals in the pleasure derived from gazing upon those reduced to helplessness by their overwhelming pecuniary obligations or failure in their quest to fashion a pleasing persona. The allure of the neoliberal theater of cruelty derives from the essential distancing of the audience from the spectacle: becoming complicit with the cruelty merely by being willing spectators, deriving pleasure from the wretchedness of the scapegoat; throughout the experience, the actual onus for the pain is inevitably diverted onto faceless collectives—this is the simulacrum of capitulation to the wisdom of the market. Furthermore, the audience is guaranteed to shed any residual guilt they might feel in their enjoyment at the distress of the unsuccessful and the destitute through reification of the invisible fourth wall; the lesson reiterated is that it is fine for the audience to bear witness to distress, because the mark entered the arena “voluntarily,” and the verdict was delivered through the “wisdom of crowds,” and in the last instance, there is money to be made and gratification to be experienced at the expense of the loser. Their shame in abject failure becomes a fungible commodity, albeit one of the least rare commodities on the planet. Defeat is not stoic nobility planted on this stage; it is instead the human compost of conspicuous destitution, the fertilizer of economic growth. Losers must learn to let their defeat be turned by others into something that will, at minimum, make money for third parties. Soylent Green is people!
Antonin Artaud wrote in The Theatre and Its Double,“Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theatre is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.” Artaud probably did not mean to preach actual torture or cruel affrontery in his text; but the neoliberals do. Their dramaturgy is that the castaways should not affront us; rather, we should affront them. Staged acts of everyday sadism do not seek to confront the audience with an inconvenient truth they refuse to recognize; rather, they promote the reign of a double truth by appealing to a convenient rationalization that the audience can feel under its skin: If the losers, the poor, the lost, the derelict, and the dissolute would only exit the stage after their fifteen seconds of notoriety, having abjectly accepted their status, never to be heard from again, the world would seem a much better place, wouldn’t it?
To drive these lessons home, a spectacle must be made out of random outbreaks of misfortune. Thus the erstwhile war on poverty has become a guerrilla war on the poor in the contemporary theater of cruelty. Past standard harassment, there really would otherwise be very little point in subjecting the destitute to further irrational punishment, unless, of course, the purpose of the exercise was instead to exemplify, titillate, and instruct an audience. We need to feel their pain, but only in an abstract vicarious fashion. It is all the more poignant when administered through an absentminded procedure. One index is the willful catch-22 character of the official determinations tendered along with the torment:
In Colorado, Grand Junction’s city council is considering a ban on begging; Tempe, Arizona, carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent at the end of June. And how do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “an indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance. One person who fits that description is Al Szekeley. A grizzled sixty-two-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington, D.C.—the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until December 2008, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Szekeley, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs, or cuss in front of ladies, did indeed have one—for “criminal trespassing,” as sleeping on the streets is sometimes defined by the law. So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Szekeley. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless?”78

The sheer cantankerousness of the torment of the poor for the edification of the comfortable shows up in a thousand little ordinances and prohibitions found in every small town and suburb across America, like the one in Fresno, California, that specifically prohibits the homeless from panhandling on median strips of roads, while explicitly permitting richer people to solicit contributions for their “good causes” on the very same strips.79 The confrontation with losers in the neoliberal sweepstakes must necessarily be tightly scripted and closely supervised in the neoliberal theater of cruelty; it cannot be left willy-nilly to those spontaneous orders that the NTC loves to extol.
We would be remiss if we did not point out that the theater of cruelty sometimes is staged in an actual theater. One of the more bizarre developments of the post-2007 crisis is that filmmakers have sought out terminal urban dereliction and poverty to serve as backdrops for their popcorn epics, lending a special frisson of revulsion. Graffitti-defaced walls and garbage-strewn streets are no longer sufficient to signify destitution, since they are literally a dime a dozen, ubiquitous in urban experience. Consequently, some dying cities, such as Detroit and Gary, Indiana, are exhorted to parade their squalid decay and long-abandoned structures to satisfy an aesthetic of grunge porn cultivated among the prosperous in search of an “edgy” experience.80 Locals are employed to offer themselves up for a pittance to lend authenticity to the postapocalyptic landscapes. No film company or photographer thinks to offer to clean up any sites after they have finished their shoot, it seems. And as one now expects, Gary does not even have one functioning movie theater to show the films that have used it as gruesome backdrop.
One of the most commonplace entryways into the theater of cruelty is the ambuscaded introduction to debt peonage. These days, young people are involuntarily initiated into its mysteries when they are offered student loans to attend university in the U.S. (and increasingly, other countries). The expansion of university attendance for the poor has been inflated in much the same way as the earlier mortgage bubble, but with one big difference. Student loans stipulate posting neoliberal human capital as collateral, and legally define it as something that can never be repudiated, reversing centuries of bankruptcy reform. More astoundingly, in 2005 the provision was extended to for-profit companies who make student loans. Over the last two decades, student loans have been retrofitted to enforce a pitiless twenty-first-century version of indentured servitude. Even if disease strikes you blind after graduation, existing law forces you to run a gauntlet of one degrading court appearance after another, to see if you might possibly qualify for a standard called “certainty of hopelessness”; and even then, there is only a slim chance to have the debt repudiated.81 I cannot think of a more depraved and decadent theater of cruelty than having to repeatedly prove before an audience and some smug judge that your life has become “hopeless.”
With mortgage defaults, banks seize and resell the home. But if a degree can’t be sold, that doesn’t deter the banks. They essentially wrote the student loan law, in which the fine-print says they aren’t “dischargeable.” So even if you file for bankruptcy, the payments continue due. Hence these stern words from Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. “You will be hounded for life,” he warns. “They will garnish your wages. They will intercept your tax refunds. You become ineligible for federal employment.” He adds that any professional license can be revoked and Social Security checks docked when you retire. We can’t think of any other [debtor] statute with such sadistic provisions.82

What better way to have the university teach the home truths of neoliberal life?

—  Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste