The first issue of The New Reader focuses on debt as a theme in current philosophy and critical theory. Released in two parts, this initial instalment sets off with an essay by Richard Dienst, which maps out the discourse on debt and the distinct conceptual models it relies on. The following three contributions address a pivotal recent intervention on the topic: Maurizio Lazzarato’s book The Making of the Indebted Man. Each of these texts attempts to frame, elaborate or problematise the thesis central to this book: that the concept of ‘indebtedness’ does not only characterise an increasingly generalised economic situation, but also marks a form of subjectivity central to our present condition.
Those rooting around for a bleak allegory for our subprime present could do worse than the dystopian denizens of exurban spaces in K.W. Jeter’s novel Noir, the fittingly named indeadted. Artificially kept alive until they repay outstanding debts, they stalk the landscape of commodity refuse, scavenging, salvaging, recycling to shave off infinitesimal portions of their liabilities, living-dead labour both unproductive and profitable. Telescoping hi-tech financial expropriation and the lo-tech labour in the breakers yards of global capital, the indeadted embody a moment in which subjection to capitalist imperatives subsumes life to the point that it trespasses into death, a hyperbolic echo of the quotidian horror of phenomena like ‘dead peasant insurance’, whose benefits are reaped by corporations with the demise of their unwitting employees.1
It is important to keep this ‘thanato-political’ facet of debt in mind – and its origins in the commodification and insurance of enslaved, racialised bodies2 – in considering a palpable shift in the sensus communis of much anti-capitalist theory. Though some may wish stubbornly to hold fast to the notion that only an acceleration of the dynamics of desiring-production will unhinge capital’s supremacy, the vitalist vision underlying much theorising in the 1990s and 2000s seems to have been eroded, along with capitalist enthusiasm, by protracted recession.3 I think it is telling, in this respect, that Lazzarato’s intervention The Making of the Indebted Man – in my view, his most trenchant and timely political piece to date – draws much of its force from sidelining a large portion of the conceptual and rhetorical arsenal that he shared with other improperly named ‘post-workerist’ thinkers. The thesis of cognitive capitalism regarding the expropriated productivity of knowledge and cooperative intelligence is given short thrift;4 immaterial labour is only parenthetically alluded to, and dismissed;5 ‘desire’ and ‘belief’, the object of Lazzarato’s rich recovery of Tarde, no longer appear as molecular forces or flows, but are indexed to a relatively classical, intentional (dare we say, humanist) subject; Foucault, whose analysis of governmentality has often been held up as the philosopher’s stone of neoliberalism, is faulted for his political naivety.6
The political challenge of the crisis has not, however, sapped Lazzarato’s core commitments. The familiarly heterodox trinity (or quadrumvirate) of Marx, Nietzsche and Deleuze-Guattari still serves as the philosophical matrix for these reflections. But the compass of debt orients us to different sections of the materialist corpus than the ones that had bodied forth in the ‘manic’ communism of the pre-2007 period: not the Marx of living labour and cooperation, but the humanist castigator of credit as a mechanism for monetising morality; not the Nietzsche of forces and transvaluations, but the narrator of debt’s violent incision into that ‘animal bred to make promises’, man; finally, not the Deleuze-Guattari of desire and absolute deterritorialisation, rather the theorists of ‘anti-production’ and of the philosophical challenges posed by the rise of credit-money in the crises of the 1970s. This reorientation is a real boon to those hankering for a philosophy à hauteur du Capital, as Badiou put it in his first Manifesto. It is also a stimulus to those for whom philosophy and the critique of political economy are, from the standpoint of anti-capitalist politics, indivisible. This is particularly true if we wish to build on Lazzarato’s compelling presentation of les deux Marx, that of the 1844 notes on James Mill’s political economy and that of the unfinished third volume of Capital; in other words, integrating the young Marx who discovers, because of his ‘humanism’, the monetised ‘biopolitics’ of debt, with the later theorist of credit understood as a key factor in making capital into a totality, as well as a pivotal dimension of the capitalist state.
In what follows, I want briefly to explore some of the conceptual and methodological problems attendant on this reorientation. This will mean ignoring altogether Lazzarato’s history and phenomenology of the debt-economy. Inasmuch as the novelty of The Making of the Indebted Man lies in proposing a political philosophy of debt worthy of our defaulting present, I think this is warranted. Parenthetically, I would also argue that the ‘sociologically’ original dimensions of the book – namely the account of the mechanisms whereby ‘precarious’ cultural-sector workers are disciplined and monitored into debt through the institutional mutations of welfare into workfare, and through the centrality of ‘the social’ – are much more specific to France than Lazzarato lets on. (This may also explain why, despite his emphasis on property, the book is relatively silent about one of the key devices for creating indebted men and women, from California to Catalunya: mortgages.)
Lazzarato’s inquiry is framed by two hypotheses.7 First, that of the antecedence of debt over exchange. For Lazzarato, the asymmetrical violence and personal dependence that characterise debt relations are both logically and historically prior to the impersonal meeting of sellers and buyers on the market. Obligation comes before equalisation. Second, that the debt-economy operates through the production of subjects, that is, through moral discipline and control. There is a set of corollary theorems, as it were, to these hypotheses, some independent of them, some not. For my purposes I would single out: the idea that the neoliberal approach to the production of subjectivity and de- or re-regulation of the economy is in crisis; the opposition to the notion that capitalism forms a structure or system; the pivotal, explanatory role of class struggle; the need to transcend the state as a political arena; and lastly, perhaps crucially, the advocacy of a non-economic theory of the economy, or a general theory of production that would cut across the economic, the political, the social, the psychic, and so forth. Let us consider these positions in turn.
The first, Nietzschean, hypothesis, is one that, understandably, finds an ample audience today, as the unravelling of credit’s affluence-effect brings to the fore phenomena that initially appear atavistic – the return of debtors’ prisons, say8 – but which soon make us suspect that certain invariant, or at least recurrent, forms of domination are at work. The success of David Graeber’s epochal panorama, Debt: The First 5000 Years, stands testament to this spontaneous philosophy of populations in the red. Yet without discounting the considerable insights to be gained from debt’s longue durée, there is something of a misleading inversion in this rediscovery of an anthropology of asymmetric, economic violence against the equations of political economy and its value-critique. For the point of the latter was of course to treat the social synthesis founded on exchange and equivalence not as the ontology of capitalism, but as something like an objective illusion or a real abstraction9 – a social relation or form which, though in itself intangible, really structures our everyday life, and which only reveals its conditions of possibility from the partisan, dominated vantage point of the exploited bodies of living-labour power, once theory and militancy have managed to crack into the notorious ‘hidden abode’.
If in The Making of the Indebted Man there is a move to shift the ground from the critique of political economy to a political critique of debt, then this is not a shift from equivalence to asymmetry, but from labour to debt as the site of that asymmetry. Now, just as the thesis of immaterial labour could be faulted for forgetting the logic of abstract labour and thus positing living labour as directly productive outside the logic of value,10 so this explanatory ascendance of debt suffers from neglecting that the crisis and its violence can only be understood in the articulation – dare one say, the dialectical articulation – of equivalence and asymmetry. Not to grasp the forced regimes of equivalence that structure social life under capital and think of debt simply as a directly political relationship runs the risk of making its actual dynamics unintelligible. As Marx’s own commentary on Mill shows – and we should all be grateful to Lazzarato for underscoring its acute timeliness – the modern debtor-creditor relation differs in kind from its pre-capitalist precursors in being bound to the abstractions operated by money-capital, which is in turn, in however mediated a way, incomprehensible without the prism of the capital-labour relation (as indeed much of the tale told by Lazzarato, especially as it concerns the depression of workers’ incomes, makes patent).
Money, which elsewhere in the text Marx calls the ‘alien mediator’, ‘has not been transcended in man within the credit system, but man is himself transformed into money, or, in other words, money is incarnate in him. Human individuality, human morality, have become articles of commerce and the material which money inhabits. The substance, the body clothing the spirit of money is not money, paper, but instead is my personal existence, my flesh and blood, my social worth and status’.11 Today, there’s almost no need to gloss these lines, though Lazzarato provides a powerful account of the crucial contemporary role played by agencies of assessment and evaluation, with their insidious moral discourses, across the whole gamut from credit agencies to workfare institutions. But they do bring home, in a way that is only further corroborated by attention to the vicissitudes of the debt-economy, that the contemporary violence of the creditor-debtor nexus, as an extension and variant of the capital-labour relation, is not only the asymmetrical violence of Nietzschean domination but represents the violence of abstraction, the violence of equivalence. Without the (legal, financial, mathematical) mechanisms of commensuration and commodification that make debts divisible into tranches, and allow their circulation through the financial system to be indifferently remote from its social and existential referents, the subprime mortgage crisis, for instance, would remain incomprehensible.
The extreme abstraction of the originate and distribute model12 has to be thought together with the predatory racialised logic of reverse redlining,13 for instance, in order to begin to map the multi-dimensionality of the crisis, which is both a theoretical and a political imperative.14 To treat the asymmetry as prior to equivalence makes the specificity of capitalist violence, and of our political-economic moment, unintelligible. To propose that credit is our socio-economic ‘archetype’,15 rather than exchange, is to obscure how relations of obligation are specifically shaped by monetisation. Viewed through the wide-angle lens of anthropology, debt may be such an archetype of social relations – but the current question is how is it morphed by monetisation and abstraction. In this regard, I think it is misguided to seek the differentials of power in debt, rather than in unequal exchange and surplus value as specifically capitalist, if conjuncturally mutable, mechanisms. Though transhistorical inquiries into debt are fecund with insights, to understand debt’s contemporary configuration we must think of it as an ingredient of capitalist logics which are simultaneously equivalential and exploitative, operating, as Neil Smith showed in Uneven Development, through a production of sameness and difference. In this context, the function of money is paramount; but we can’t think of money simply as money-debt created ex nihilo, otherwise the production of value becomes unthinkable.
Similar questions can be asked of the second hypothesis – some of which, in this instance, are answered, or at least helpfully problematised, by Lazzarato himself. In spite of his cautions about the Foucauldian vogue in the study of neoliberalism, Lazzarato, to my mind, exaggerates the extent to which the new debt- economy involves a production of subjectivity. No doubt, there is a deep and complex raft of devices and ideologies, the object of titanic capital and research investments, which have sought to quash solidarity among individuals, engineering them into entrepreneurs of their own human capital, all the while oscillating opportunistically between prescription and predation. But to think that we must identify a figure of subjectivity in the debt- economy – which, as we forget at our peril, ranges across variegated social formations, geographies and class positions – is to underestimate the opportunism of capital, its capacity to be relatively indifferent to our mentalities and desires. The premise that there must be a ‘subjective paradigm of modern-day capitalism’16 is unnecessary. Not only does this ignore that the paths into the subjectivity of debt, when it eventuates, are varied – consider the uneven ideological preponderance of home-ownership or the deep class differences in attitudes to debt . It also neglects that the specific form of ‘non-political’ and ‘indirect’ compulsion that capital excels in is so powerful precisely because it can very often do without a capitalist mentality or subjectivity. Glibly put, a self-described revolutionary socialist may not have appreciably different relationships to their mortgage than a benighted captive of neoliberal self-help doctrines. And those subject to debt in most of the world are often only the distant receivers of neoliberal orthopraxy while they are the immediate targets of its critical role in accumulation by dispossession.
Where Lazzarato is more perspicacious is not in presuming the paradigm of subjectivity, but in pointing to the way in which the debt- economy, following Deleuze’s post-Foucauldian partition of discipline and control, operates through the disparate channels of subjectivising mechanisms (aspiration, guilt, shame) and the impersonal apparatuses of control of ‘dividuals’. The aforementioned articulation between the predation of exploited and racialised workers by mortgage lenders, on the one hand, and the speculation on collateralised debt obligations, on the other, is a painfully apt example of such mechanisms. Lazzarato puts it very clearly: ‘Debt/money involves subjectivity in two different but complementary ways. “Social subjection” operates molar control on the subject through the mobilisation of his conscience, memory, and representations, whereas “machinic subjugation” has a molecular, infrapersonal, and pre-individual hold on subjectivity that does not pass through reflexive consciousness and its representations, nor through the “self”.’17 Yet, though this captures an important social phenomenon, brought home in the alienating experience of being interpellated by algorithms, as both debtor and consumer, it also downplays the supra-personal and collective character of social subjection – in short, class domination qua economic compulsion. It also, we could add, does not go far enough, against the doxa of desiring-production, in countenancing the sheer significance of need and negativity, rather than desire and affirmation, in contemporary debt-phenomena (here, Walter Benjamin’s fragment on capitalism as religion could have proved inspiring).
I think the blind spots in these two guiding hypotheses also account for what is unconvincing about the auxiliary theorems. Thus, it is only if we accept the idea that there must be a dominant paradigm of subjectivity that we are led to think, along with Lazzarato, that the crisis (or crises) that began in 2007 involves a failure of the neoliberal project. As Philip Mirowski has shown, neoliberalism – which cannot be reduced to its hold over hearts and minds, though this hardly shows signs of collapse either – has weathered through the crisis remarkably well, from its everyday forms to its hegemony over economic theory, thus revealing the delusions and strategic miscalculations behind countless leftist declarations of its demise.18 Though Lazzarato appears to recognise the intensification of the debt- economy in crisis conditions, his philosophical overdetermination of neoliberalism, equating it more or less with a paradigm of subjectivity, undermines the analysis.
Similarly, though he is commendably thorough in documenting the role of the state in imposing the regime of debt, in particular through the hollowing out and refunctioning of welfare and the social into mechanisms of subjection, and adamant that the notion of neoliberalism as a triumph of markets is a smokescreen, Lazzarato’s attachment to the thesis – shared with Hardt and Negri – of the nation-state’s demise leads to a self-defeating contention that struggles against capital’s domination as debt must essentially bypass the state. In spite of Lazzarato’s correct estimation that no new New Deals are on the horizon, that reformism as we knew it is sterile, and his abiding suspicions about fantasies of economic autarky, it remains evident that contemporary struggles about debt are struggles in and against the state (at a variety of levels, from local authorities to central banks). It is self-defeating to imagine that we get to choose the terrain of our struggles; the conjuncture of sovereign debt crises, austerity, workfare and the refunctioning of the ‘social’ as an instrument of discipline and dispossession means that the state is indeed a crucial component of that terrain – which need not imply any nostalgia for the post-war boom and its social compact.
Concerning struggles, though Lazzarato’s emphasis on class conflict in the debt- economy is vital, it runs the risk of perpetuating the ultimately optimistic political metaphysics and philosophy of history driving much of '‘post-workerism’: the postulating of positive collective powers or energies which are not only poised on the edge of liberation, or already embody it, but have been brought closer to communism by the obsolescence of previous figures or paradigms of class struggle (Fordism, the factory, the party, unions, etcetera). Again, let us do justice to the truth-content of Lazzarato’s position: the debt-economy and the neo-liberal offensive were most definitely, and often very overtly, attempts to quash the social insurgencies of the long 1960s and to neutralise their challenge to class domination and capitalist reproduction. The restoration of class power is easily traced in graphs registering, for instance, workers’ incomes as proportions of national product. But this does not mean that the debt-economy is simply a political instrument in class struggle, aimed at hindering potential revolutionary challenges.Class conflict was critical to the distributional struggles that led up to the crises of the 1970s – though hardly the sole factor, with intra-capitalist competition and endogenous limits of accumulation playing their part19 – but the debt-economy is not a univocal weapon aimed at the rising multitudes. If anything, it could be argued that it concerns the regimenting of non-insurrectionary class struggles over wages, in conjunction with the reproduction of consumption and ownership, as can be seen in the trajectory of the US over the last 40 years, rather than the task of frontally countering a radical political challenge to capitalism.
Curiously, while Lazzarato treats class struggle as first philosophy – primary and univocal – he simultaneously ascribes to the rather faddish thesis that capitalism is neither a structure nor a system,20 but rather something like a heterogeneous assemblage of strategies.21 The combination of the over-politicisation of the debt-economy with this methodological nominalism (shared with Foucauldians, Latourians and many contemporary social theorists) is mobilised against a straw man: Lazzarato’s own historical account (as some of his Marxian sources suggest) is not incompatible with an understanding of a logic of capitalism and its limits, which can allow for conjunctures, strategies and contingencies, without abandoning the idea that this is a system whose imperatives are compelling, not just for the dominated but for the dominators too. It is not just a Nietzschean field of forces. For those who recoil from Hegelian bugbears we need not call it a totality; to draw on Deleuze- and Guattari, we could even term it an ‘axiomatic’ (needless to say, any serious consideration of their theory of capital, money and credit, to which Lazzarato has rightly drawn attention, would require a critical engagement which far transcends the purposes of these remarks).
Many of the sympathetic objections I have tried to articulate above – to debt as an anthropological archetype ‘prior’ to exchange, to its over-politicisation, or to the idea of a ‘paradigm’ of subjectivity – are ultimately objections to a grounding methodological, or even ontological, postulate, summarised by Lazzarato in the call for a non-economistic theory of the economy .22 Here Lazzarato inherits what I think is the key legacy of what we could call la pensée soixante-treize – the internally conflictual French philosophical field, crystallising shortly after the ‘Nixon shock’ of 1971, and embodied in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Baudrillard’s essays ‘The Mirror of Production’ and ‘Marxism and the System of Political Economy’ (in the journal of radical urbanism and architecture Utopies, later collected in the book The Mirror of Production), and Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (as well as Jean-Joseph Goux’s Freud, Marx: Économie et symbolique ). This is the conviction that, because of the transformations of the economy itself, it is imperative to move beyond the critique of political economy to a general economy, to appropriate Bataille’s term, or, more specifically, to a general theory of production. Such a theory would cut across material and imaginary economies, desire and accumulation, linguistic and monetary abstractions.
The irony is that in the guise of challenging Marxian totalisation, for the sake of the multiple and the molecular, this trend ends up over-totalising capital, neglecting its historical limits and specificities and spreading it all the way up and all the way down, rejecting dialectics in favour of a kind of non-dialectical cosmology. To be sure, Lazzarato’s book does not lay out such a ‘general theory’ (though one may be sought in his books on videophilosophy and Tardean psychological economy, themes curiously absent here). But I think his call for a politics of transversality rests in part on the philosophical decision to abandon the notion of capital as a totalising process, and the inquiry into the current configuration of its imperatives – imperatives that present insurmountable compulsions even to the most predatory of capitalists – for the sake of an account, to paraphrase Marx, of ‘production in general’ (and, more specifically, of ‘debt in general’). But the consequence of turning capital into a full-blown ontology is to lose many of the instruments that allow us to grasp its specific historical limits, imagining, in a weirdly voluntaristic way, that it is all up to the balance of forces, to strategy, to a class struggle in which class is oddly stripped of composition or inner contradictions. This elision of ontology and politics, in the name of a repudiation of the dialectic, over-estimates how deep capital goes in terms of subjectivity, while underestimating how constraining it is as a social form, the complicities and obligations – the debts – that it recurrently elicits.
On Jeter’s grim creatures, see Steve Shaviro, ‘Capitalist Monsters’, Historical Materialism, 10(4), 2002, 281-90. ↩
See Iain Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History, Durham, Duke University Press, 2002; Tim Armstrong, The Logic of Slavery: Debt, Technology and Pain in American Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012. ↩
For a bracing ideology-critique of ‘accelerationism’, see Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities: Speed and Capitalism, London, Zero Books, forthcoming 2014. ↩
Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2012, 50. ↩
Ibid., 55. ↩
Ibid., 108. ↩
Ibid., 11. ↩
For an overview of this Marxian idea, see my ‘The Open Secret of Real Abstraction’, Rethinking Marxism, 20(2), 2008, 273-87. ↩
Among the many critiques of this position, the following two essays are particularly illuminating: Max Henninger, ‘Doing the Math: Reflections on the Alleged Obsolescence of the Law of Value Under Post-Fordism’, ephemera, 7(1), 2007, 158-77 (available here: http://www.ephemerajournal.org/sites/default/files/7-1henninger.pdf); David Camfield, ‘The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour’, Historical Materialism, 15(2), 2007, 21-52. ↩
Karl Marx, ‘Excerpts from James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy’, Early Writings, trans. R. Livingstone and G. Benton, London, Penguin, 1992, 264. ↩
‘[B]eginning in the 1980s, and even more so in the 1990s, banks shifted to an “originate and distribute”, or O&D, model. With O&D, banks issue loans and then pool them together for sale, via the now-notorious securitisation process. […] The resulting securities offered lots of opportunities for high returns, money came from all over the world to purchase them, and securitisation expanded accordingly’. Geoff Mann, Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism, Edinburgh, AK Press, 2013, 176. ↩
The process whereby ‘minority populations are targeted by lenders who provide mortgages with higher fees and costs than loans made to similarly situated white customers’. Leland Ware and Theodore J. Davis, ‘Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Time: The Black Middle Class in the Age of Obama’, Howard Law Review, 55(2), 2012, 568. Redlining was the practice, made US policy by the National Housing Act of 1934, of refusing loans for home buying to inhabitants of black and other minority neighbourhoods, which would be marked as such on residential security maps. ↩
See Gary A. Dymski, ‘Racial Exclusion and the Political Economy of the Subprime Crisis’, Historical Materialism 17(2), 2009, 149-79; and the special issue of American Quarterly, 64(3), 2012, edited by Paula Chakravartty and Denise Ferreira da Silva on ‘Race, Empire, and the Crisis of the Subprime’. ↩
The Making of the Indebted Man, 33. ↩
Ibid., 38. ↩
Ibid., 146. ↩
Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, London, Verso, 2013. ↩
See Mann, Disassembly Required, which also contains an illuminating encapsulation of the capitalist logic of the subprime crisis. ↩
Ibid., 107. ↩
Proving how impossible it is to hold to this tenet while explaining the crisis, Lazzarato elsewhere (rightly) contends that ‘Capitalism is not only a system that continuously expands its limits, it is also an apparatus that infinitely reproduces, independently of the level of wealth achieved, conditions of exploitation and domination, that is, conditions of “lack”’. (154) ↩
The Making of the Indebted Man, 42 and 72. ↩
Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory at the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (2010), The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze (2006), and of the forthcoming Cartographies of the Absolute (with Jeff Kinkle). He sits on the editorial board of the journal Historical Materialism and is series editor of The Italian List at Seagull Books, for which he has recently published a translation of Franco Fortini’s The Dogs of the Sinai.