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2019/2020  KAN-CSOCV1031U  Debt, Economy and Society

English Title
Debt, Economy and Society

Course information

Language English
Course ECTS 7.5 ECTS
Type Elective
Level Full Degree Master
Duration One Semester
Start time of the course Autumn
Timetable Course schedule will be posted at calendar.cbs.dk
Max. participants 70
Study board
Study Board for MSc in Social Sciences
Course coordinator
  • Stefan Schwarzkopf - Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy (MPP)
This course will be co-taught with Lotte List (MPP Dept)
Main academic disciplines
  • Philosophy and ethics
  • International political economy
  • Sociology
Teaching methods
  • Face-to-face teaching
Last updated on 22-02-2019

Relevant links

Learning objectives
At the end of the course, students will be able to:
  • Critically apply theories, methods and concepts of economic sociology to the particular problems of money and debt in modern society
  • Differentiate between different sociological debt theories
  • Discuss theoretical approaches to the relationship between debt and violence
  • Discuss political and legal theories of sovereignty as applied to the problem of national/state debt
  • Outline the socio-political influences that rising private and public debt levels may have on the functioning of democracy
  • Discuss and apply anthropological theories to understand historical and contemporary practices of indebting as well as debt relief
Course prerequisites
Debt, Economy and Society:
Exam ECTS 7,5
Examination form Home assignment - written product
Individual or group exam Individual exam
Size of written product Max. 15 pages
Assignment type Essay
Duration 2 weeks to prepare
Grading scale 7-point grading scale
Examiner(s) One internal examiner
Exam period Winter
Make-up exam/re-exam Written sit-in exam
Assignment type: Written assignment
Duration: 4 hours
Aids:Closed book: no aids
Description of the exam procedure

Students will be asked to submit an essay (between 10 and 15 pages long), which asks them to reflect on a particular problem related to the debt economy. For example: "Neoliberal debt regimes are a form of violence. Discuss this statement, drawing on empirical data and illustrative examples."   


Details to be confirmed at later stage.

Course content, structure and pedagogical approach

Rising levels of debt have become today’s foremost political-economic problem. In 2018, the Institute of International Finance estimated that global debt had reached 247 Trillion US Dollars and the debt-to-GDP ratio was 318 percent. But debt is more than a set of economic figures, it is a social phenomenon. In large parts of the developing world, for example, debt is used to enslave people into work in agriculture, the textile industries, and prostitution. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that over 50 Billion US Dollars is made annually in the exploitation of workers through debt bondage. Based on a mix of lectures and case study discussions, this course will introduce students to the various socio-economic and political logics that cause Western societies to fall deeper and deeper into the abyss of private (household), corporate and public debt. After discussing briefly how mainstream economics defines debt, the course continues in three parts that takes students through the latest research-based perspectives on the relationship between debt and society.          

Part 1 discusses sociological theories of money as debt/credit as well as so-called ‘state theories’ of money (chartalism). This part will draw, amongst others, on Niklas Luhmann’s and Elena Esposito’s sociology of economy, debt, money and time. In this section we will compare and contrast economic debt to other social logics of indebtedness, for example gratitude and gift giving. We will also compare and contrast purely economic ‘(re)payment’ to alternative social logics of ‘paying your debt to society’, such as punishment and imprisonment (debtors’ prison).

Part 2 considers the now infamous case of the EU Troika’s de facto management of the Greek economy since 2010, which in large parts went against the expressed will of the Greek people as legitimized by national elections. This part uses the concept of sovereignty to discuss to what extent increasingly internationalized debt regimes contribute to the erosion of traditional notions of national sovereignty as expressed in elections and national parliaments. We will discuss various approaches to the idea of sovereignty in relation to sovereign debt, for example via Westphalian state theory, John Austin, Carl Schmitt and J. J. Rousseau.  

Part 3 closes the circle around the debt economy by discussing the historical-anthropological origins of money as debt. For this, we will read some very well-known anthropological and also theological authors, such as Marcel Mauss, David Graeber, Keith Hart and Devin Singh. Based on this reading, we will ask what the consequences for modern Western society are that money understood as debt developed first within a religious-ritualistic context. Through the ages, religions indebted humans to a demanding God, but can they also offer an escape from the logic of debt? How, for example, do organized religions today deal with and legitimize debt relief, debt jubilees, and usury-free financial instruments?       

Description of the teaching methods
28 lessons; 7 weeks, 2 meetings per week of 2x45mins. First hour usually devoted to lecture, second hour to case discussion and group work.

Lectures, group work, in-class discussions, joint reading.
Feedback during the teaching period
Students will receive feedback as part of ongoing teaching and are encouraged to make use of the office hours.
Student workload
Lectures 28 hours
Preparation time (mainly reading) 118 hours
Exam 60 hours
Expected literature

Please note that we do not expect students to read all of the literature below for the course. During each session, one or two central texts will be selected for discussion.


Part 1:

  • L. Randall Wray, ed. (2004). Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of A. Mitchell Innes. Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Elena Esposito, ‘The Time of Money’, in: Soziale Systeme, Vol. 13 (1/2), pp. 267-276
  • Ivan Boldyrev, ‘Economy as a Social System: Niklas Luhmann’s Contribution and its Significance for Economics’, in: American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 72, No. 2 (April 2013), pp. 265-292.
  • Heiner Ganman, ‘A symbolically generalized medium of communication? On the concept of money in recent sociology’, in: Economy & Society, 17, No. 3 (1988), pp. 285-316 
  • David Graeber, Debt: the First 5000 Years. Melville House, 2011.
  • Gianfranco Poggi, Money and the Modern Mind: Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money. Berkeley 1993.
  • Costas Lapavitsas, Social Foundations of Markets, Money and Credit. Routledge 2003.


    Part 2:

  • Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Chicago 1985.
  • Joseph Vogl, The Sovereignty Effect: Markets and Power in the Economic Regime, in: Qui Parle, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2014), pp. 125-155.
  • Devin Singh, ‘Sovereign debt’, Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 46, No. 2 (2018), pp. 239-266
  • Michel Aglietta, Money: 5,000 Years of Debt and Power. Verso Books, 2018 (Chapter 2: ‘Logics of Debt and Forms of Sovereignty’)
  • Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Zone Books, 2017 (Chapter 2: ‘Sovereignty and Enclosure’)   
  • Wolfgang Streeck, ‘The Politics of Public Debt: Neoliberalism, Capitalist Development and the Restructuring of the State’, German Economic Review, Vol. 15/1, pp. 143-165.
  • J. Peck, ‘Zombie neoliberalism and the ambidextrous state’, in: Theoretical Criminology 14(1), 2010, pp. 104–110.
  • Adam Tooze, Crashed: how a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Allen Lane, 2018 (Chapter 14: ‘Greece 2010: Extend and Pretend’)



    Part 3:

  • Keith Hart and Horacio Ortiz, ‘The Anthropology of Money and Finance: Between Ethnography and World History’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 43 (2014), pp. 465-482. 
  • Devin Singh, Divine Currency: the Theological Power of Money in the West. Stanford University Press.
  • Elettra Stimilli, The Debt of the Living. SUNY Press 2017.
  • Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of theIndebted Man: an Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. London 2012.
  • A Ross, Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal. New York 2014.   
  • J. Laidlaw, 2000. ‘A free gift makes no friends’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6:617-634.
  • Keith Hart, ‘Mauss on gifts, markets and money’, The Memory Bank (April 7, 2010), Blog Post
  • Marcel Henaff, The Price of Truth: Gift, Money and Philosophy. Stanford University Press, 2010.
  • Alla Semenova, ‘Would you barter with God? Why debts and not profane markets created money’, American Journal of Economics & Sociology, Vol. 70, No.2 (2011), pp. 376-400
  • Camilla Sløk, ‘Debt and Guilt’, in: Stefan Schwarzkopf (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Economic Theology. (forthcoming) 
  • Hollis Phelps, ‘Overcoming redemption: neoliberalism, atonement, and the logic of debt’, Political Theology, Vol. 17, No. 3 (2016), pp. 264-282.   
  • Andreas Jobst, The Economics of Islamic Finance and Securitization. IMF Working Paper Series, 2007, WP/07/117.
Last updated on 22-02-2019