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Department of Geography

Staff Profile

Publication details for Professor Paul Langley

Langley, P. Debt, discipline and government: Foreclosure and forbearance in the subprime mortgage crisis. Environment and Planning A. 2009;41:1404-1419.

Author(s) from Durham


The extensive punishment of debtors through foreclosure, and federal and state support for forbearance by lenders and loan servicers, are key features of the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States of America. From a Foucauldian perspective, foreclosure and forbearance give rise to questions about the production and reproduction of subprime mortgage debt through disciplinary and governmental power relations—questions that are neglected in the dominant understanding of subprime as an anomalous and unregulated market realm where predatory lenders preyed on borrowers. In addressing these questions I make a two-stage argument. First, I show subprime to have been largely unexceptional in the ways in which it was governed as a legitimate and highly profitable part of a mass mortgage market prior to the crisis: legal processes of foreclosure combined with disciplinary technologies for the calculation of risk and the calling up of responsible, entrepreneurial, and self-disciplined financial subjects. Second, it follows that forbearance, as an apparently progressive response to the crisis, is actually deeply ambivalent and more politically problematic than activists and supporters typically acknowledge. Forbearance does suspend disciplinary norms, opening up space for disagreement over whether lenders should be coresponsible with borrowers for the reproduction of mortgages into the future. But, simultaneously, forbearance closes down the prospects for coresponsibility beyond immediate debt rescheduling, and reinforces the legal, calculative, and self-disciplinary operation of power.