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.
Interview by Antonio Alia, Loris Narda and Vincenzo Boccanfuso.
Translated and edited by Yari Lanci and Tom Vandeputte.
In The Making of the Indebted Man, you develop an account of neoliberalism in which debt functions as an all-pervasive mechanism of power. Paraphrasing Marx we could say that debt is not a thing but a social relation. How do you understand the creditor-debtor relation to be connected to property?
The creditor-debtor relation is organised around property: it is a relation between those who do have money at their disposal and those who do not. Property is not ownership of the means of production, as it was for Marx, but rather revolves around capital securities (titoli di proprièta del capitale). Therefore it concerns a relation of power that has changed with respect to the Marxian tradition, that is deterritorialised as Deleuze and Guattari would say. It stands at a higher level of abstraction, but it is still organised around a certain kind of property: a distinction between those who do have access to money and those who do not.
This relation of power does not stem from the equality of exchange, but from the inequality of the creditor-debtor relation, which is immediately social. The economy of debt makes no distinction between waged workers and non-waged workers, between the employed and unemployed, between material and immaterial labour. We are all in debt. At the same time, the creditor-debtor relation has an immediately global dimension, which transversally commands and acts on all divisions between rich and poor countries, established and developing. Debt has been the fundamental weapon of the capitalist strategy since the 1970s, one that has completely displaced the terrain of class struggle at a social and a global level, and that we still find difficult to address today.
At this point I would like to take up an argument that I have not used in my book, because it comes from the notorious reactionary Carl Schmitt, but which also addresses the problem of property. This argument has been very useful for me in order to understand the power of money, even if Schmitt did not speak about this last aspect. Every politico-economical order is constructed and organised on the basis of three principles that correspond to three different meanings of the word ‘nomos’. These same three principles are at the basis of the creditor-debtor economy. In the first place ‘nomos’ means ‘to take/conquest’, and therefore appropriation. Every new society (and every new stage of capitalist dominion, for example post-Fordism) begins with conquest and robbery, with a kind of primitive appropriation and expropriation. Until capitalism, this phase consisted in the appropriation and expropriation of land as a starting point for every economy and any additional right. In contemporary capitalism that phase is organized by finance and credit, which have expropriated, by means of money, the society as a whole (not only labour, but the entirety of social relations, of knowledge, of wealth, etcetera). Finance, therefore, functions as a predatory apparatus of capture. The second meaning of ‘nomos’ is ‘to portion out/divide’. Division and distribution ‘make the parts’ (but in a way that is radically different from Rancière). Property and legal rights are defined by ascribing ‘what is mine and what is thine’. In contemporary capitalism, property is distributed by means of money and credit/debt, and it consists, principally, in the ownership or deprivation of capital securities.
The third meaning of ‘nomos’ is to produce – production. Now, it also seems clear to me that also in the stage that started at the end of the 1970s, there is an appropriation and expropriation, a distribution and division (of property) that precedes production – logically, if not in reality. In order not to be economicist, the concept of production must include these three principles. In my view, in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, money, as a prerequisite of ‘production’, organises the distribution of functions and property as well as the process of appropriation.
What is interesting is that, until the rise of capitalism, the order of events in the process of formation of a society can be described like that: appropriation, division, production. Classical economy and liberalism wanted to make one believe that ‘production’, characterised by the liberation of productive forces and by the remnants of the society of the Ancien Régime, would by itself resolve the problem of appropriation and division. And this is precisely what the neoliberals and their technocratic governments continue to affirm. When the standard of life is rising (‘growth’), ‘division becomes easier, and appropriation is not only immoral, but also irrational from the economical perspective, and therefore senseless’ (Schmitt). Schmitt refers to Lenin and Marx as authors that – in part, as he argues – have not given in to the illusion of production. The former considers imperialism and colonization as processes of appropriation and expropriation necessary for resolving ‘the social question’, whereas Marx considers primitive accumulation and its ferocious violence as conditions inseparable from Capital as such. To change production one needs to ‘expropriate the expropriators’ and distribute ‘property’ in a different way. And this is the problem posed by the current crisis that the liberals and the social democrats do not want to see – or better, a problem they see very well, but cannot accept!
A new model of growth, a new New Deal, that does not imply a new concept of appropriation and a new concept of property – to expropriates the expropriators, that is still the point! – would only perpetuate the conditions of the crisis. Growth is a political relationship before an economical one. ‘Green’ growth, growth tout court, the New New Deal, politics of employment, et cetera do not at all address the political stakes of the crisis, namely the modalities of appropriation and division proper to neo-liberalism. Since these are the liberal and ‘social-democratic’ proposals to escape the crisis, we will only witness its deepening – a process that is actually already taking place. The growth model of Germany, for example, does not modify the causes of the crisis, because it increases class differences and inequalities, the precarity of poor workers and qualified wage workers, while concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. Today it is the economy of debt that ‘expropriates’, ‘divides’ and commands ‘production’. Luckily, the austerity that Germany wants to impose on the Europeans through the control of the euro – the contemporary form of money as capital, of money as control – is not working. This austerity has already transposed the ‘instability’ of the market to the political realm, distorting the capital/state relation with unpredictable outcomes.
The creditor-debtor relation is thus several different things at once. It is a mechanism (dispositivo) for capturing social wealth; it is a mechanism of control because, through credit, it redefines the allocation of investments; but it is also a new form of measurement and evaluation. The mechanisms of evaluation that have been introduced in all realms – the university included – come from finance. Finance has instigated this process, claiming that the Fordist factory was an opaque situation that was, from its point of view, impossible to measure. In order to be able to invest, for example in a company, finance required all possible instruments of evaluation – a perfect transparency that has been provided since the 1980s and 1990s by new standards of accountancy.
Measurement is again a principle that Carl Schmitt introduces, arguing that the result of appropriation, what is acquired through ‘conquest, discovery, expropriation’, must be ‘measured’, ‘weighed’ and ‘divided’. Today measurement has not disappeared: as finance and credit demonstrate, it has just become ‘subjective’. This form of measurement is certainly new and it is arbitrary, depending solely on logics of power. The logic of evaluation and measurement is imposed on all aspects of life by introducing the figure of the expert and of evaluation into the school, into the police, into the university, into hospitals, even into the government, et cetera. This hierarchical structure needs to be overthrown, focusing on social reappropriation and the sharing of knowledge. I think it is absolutely fundamental to break this logic of measurement, of evaluation, of the expert.
Among the most beautiful passages of the book are those where you engage in a polemic against the ‘a-historical egalitarianism’ of Rancière and Badiou and the ‘second modernity’ of Beck and Habermas. Even though both strands of thought are very different, they certainly have things in common, for instance the removal of the question of class struggle from the debates on the left. Is it time to return to being Marxists?
In Badiou and Rancière there is the political, but there is no capitalism. There is the political, but it is pre-capitalist. There is Plato, and Aristotle, instead of Marx. There is no production. There is no factory. ‘Factory’ here means the actualisation of the assemblage of humans, machines and signs, which is today not only encountered in production, but in every social relation – also in the welfare state and its various manifestations. I have always been struck by the fact that there is no concept of the ‘machine’ in Badiou and Rancière – not even the word, just like there is no mention of technics or science. The machine (both in the sense of the social machine and the technical machine) has also disappeared from other critical theories, even though it is everywhere today, even though it accompanies every gesture, expression, and action of our everyday life.
I think that the concept of language and of the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy have created large problems, because they refer to a process of subjectivation that is in my view not materialist. In capitalism, subjectivation always takes place for and with the technical and social machine. Capital is a social relation, a relation of power, but one that is ‘assisted’ by social and technical machines. That is precisely the specificity of capitalism. Capital is not merely a relation between ‘humans’, an intersubjective relation as in Hannah Arendt (or Rancière), where action lacks any element of ‘matter’. We need to stay ‘loyal’ to Marx’ ‘Fragment on Machines’. For these reasons I think that the political subjectivation found in Badiou and Rancière is ‘idealistic’. In Badiou, the class struggle is thought in abstract terms – mathematics is his anthology. Badiou and Rancière refer to economy as if it were the other of politics, whereas the political is always being redefined by the economy. Capitalism is nothing but this. ‘Our destiny is the economy’ – that is a power relation, a relation between those who manage power and those who are subjected to it, and where those who are subjected have the possibility to revolt, to overthrow the situation. Subjectivation does not occur around democracy as a given, but starts from machinic processes of exploitation and domination that become democratic through struggles.
Beck needs to be understood as one of the models of the impossible ‘third way’, of the new social democracy. I think that Beck’s ‘risk society’ is completely ridiculous because, to put it in very simple terms, class differences traverse risk as well. This is inconceivable for such theories, in which the class struggle is disposed of as an old, worn out tool. Capitalists are the only ones who do not risk anything. The risks are all taken on by the old and new proletarians. If we stick to the discourse of risk in the context of the economy of debt, the investors who risked investing in sovereign debt should take on the responsibility for it. If the national States go bankrupt they lose their money, period. Instead, the absolute contrary is true: those who are not responsible are supposed to pay the risk taken on by the economic system. The true risk is taken on by the population. The same applies for ecological risk.
Beck thinks the political in terms of a diffusion and a democratisation of the centres of decision and government, the multiplication of mediations, of ‘discussions’. What is happening in front of our eyes is precisely the opposite. It seems to me that we are currently witnessing a centralisation of decision and of technologies of governance. Through technical government, this crisis imposes a recentralisation of control, a recentralisation of mechanisms of state and non-state governance, which dismisses ‘representative politics’, the democracy of citizens, etcetera. It is true that the technical government decides, but its decisions, while effectively reducing wages, incomes, and social spending, are funnily enough absolutely ineffective when it comes to exiting the crisis. They are running up against a wall, and we are caught between them and the wall. Social democracy was built on specific political bases that do not appear to be reproducible today in the terms that Beck proposes. That possibility no longer exists: the theories of the third way, elaborated during the 1980s and 1990s, have been shattered by the current crisis.
The inadequacy of unions in dealing with the crisis and the incapacity of the radical left to interpret the present have become entirely evident. New movements are beginning to pose the question of debt: think of the campaign against student debt in the United States and the timid protests against Equitalia in Italy. The Indignados and Occupy have started to engage in a reappropriation of the city by physically occupying squares. What are your views on the question of organisation, which now seems to be more open than ever?
Here we should start from the exhaustion of the logic of representation, political as much as linguistic. A long crisis of representation is approaching its end, both from the point of view of capital and from the point of view of emancipation. The crisis of debt is first of all a crisis of governmentality that redefines both the governed (indebted man) and those governing (technical government). This sheds a new light on Foucault’s concept of governmentality that breaks radically with his genealogy. Since the Thatcher era we have witnessed a privatisation of governmentality that is the counterpart of the privatisation of money. The governmental technology is no longer a technology of the State – although the State plays a central role in it, but only as a ‘privatised’ institution – and the economy does not only limit the possibilities of governing from within, but takes on the function of governing in its entirety. Technical government is the accomplishment of this process of privatisation. The logic of representation is replaced by the functional, operative logic (diagrammatic, Deleuze and Guattari would call it) of money/credit. This logic does not pass through representation, not even through signifying and representative semiotics (language) or through deciding ‘subjects’ à la Schmitt. The logic of ‘production’ and the logic of representation (political and linguistic) work together in capitalism, but on the basis of the supremacy of the former. And in the crisis, the logic of production pervades the entire political space.
What is a technical government, a non-representative government? It is an attempt to transpose the ‘just-in-time’ logic from business to politics. The government must make sure that the population responds in real time to the modifications of economic variables. The ‘spread’ increases, the stock market falls; wages, incomes and social spending need to adapt in real time to signals given out by the economy of debt. Neoliberals define the subjectivity of the governed through the concept of ‘human capital’, a definition also used by Foucault. What is ‘human capital’? ‘Human capital’ is s/he who responds systematically to the modifications that are artificially introduced in the ‘environment’. Human capital is no longer the ‘atom of liberty’ of classical economics, but a systemic and subordinated variable of which the different behaviours must adapt, be compatible with, and respond ‘just in time’ to the signals given out by the economy. Neoliberalism wants to extort from indebted man what it has not succeeded to obtain from human capital – the capacity to respond in real time to needs of the ‘creditors’.
For some time it seems to have succeeded in doing precisely that, but we can already see the limits and the impossibilities of this ‘technical politics’. The frenzy about the ‘self-regulation’ of governmentality is added up to the already existing frenzy about the ‘self-regulation’ of the market. It is a kind of automatic government – cybernetic, as Deleuze and Guattari would call it. But it will not work. In the midst of all of this destructive and anti-productive madness of capital, something is becoming clear. Contemporary society cannot actually be governed according to a capitalist logic if this is not formulated in authoritarian (and reactionary) terms – and the current techniques of government are moving in precisely that direction. Society exceeds the measure of the neo-liberal economy. What presents itself as a strength of capital, hides a considerable weakness.
We live in a permanent state of exception. As this has become the rule, it is by now useless to even continue referring to it as exception. If the sovereign is he who decides in these conditions, the sovereign of today is Capital. This evidently implies a radical change of the concept of sovereignty – its end, actually – that defines the limit of Schmitt and of all the theories that return to him (Agamben, etcetera). Capital is not a ‘person’ – the Schmittian presupposition for the decision – and not even a group of persons, but a ‘machine’ (or more precisely a number of machines) with its subjectivations or personifications. Moreover, Capital does not have a territory in itself, nor the ability to express the ‘warm values’ capable of constructing a community or a society, as the German ordoliberals would claim. The market, business, and competition are based on principles of dispersal, not of unification. They systematically destroy what holds a society together. Capital always needed to make use of borrowed territories to compensate for its lack of political integration. Since the 1970s it has committed itself to a systematic attempt to undermine the most important of these, namely the Nation-State. All of the representative and institutional mediations have either been destroyed or forcefully weakened. In Italy, this process is clearly visible. On the one hand, the ‘Padania’1 is based on a farce of territory and of the communitarian ‘warm values’ that lack in the so-called tertiary sector. Capital, as represented by Berlusconi and the neo-fascists, which are the other side of the farce, provides a surrogate of national and state values. Once again, Capital’s display of the force is rather a sign of its weakness, insofar as there is a subjectivity that fights it at the same level, exposing its own weaknesses through struggles.
Also from the point of view of movements, the representative logic is in crisis. Political democracy and social democracy founded on representation (unions, social institutions, etcetera) have been rejected by the movements that have emerged in the last thirty years. Between numerous difficulties and ambiguities something new is taking place. The new movements are involved in very interesting experiments. However, they do not yet seem to be up to par with the attacks of Capital, even though the experiments of the Indignados, of Occupy Wall Street and especially of Oakland are certainly advanced. On the one hand, they position themselves at a level that is immediately social, breaking with the corporative and sectorial traditions of unions. On the other hand, they recoil from ‘representation’. At any rate the acceleration and deepening of the crisis will best teach us how to find new modalities of organisation and new mobilising issues. I do not think that we can subjectivate ourselves as debtors: I do not think it is possible, since it is a category assigned by capitalism – you are forced to be a debtor. Nonetheless, debt immediately implies a social terrain, a transversally socialised dimension that we did not have before. As Marx would say, capitalism reveals itself in all its nakedness, but not through a triumphalist discourse or a philosophy of history – quite the opposite. But compared to the 1980s and 1990s the conditions have changed, for there is now a common ground that has to be re-singularised in relation to the heterogeneity of different social struggles and different forms of life. We need to start once again from practices engaged in the reappropriation of the metropolis, the struggles over income, etcetera.
The expansive dynamics of capitalism have ended. In the 1980s they could still promise us the increase of wealth for everyone. Today capitalism can no longer maintain this promise of future wealth. What we are promised today is ‘blood and tears’ for the next ten to fifteen years and the ferocious defence of their ‘privileges’. In this context, many of the old aims of the class struggle become relevant again.
This text is a translated and edited version of an interview that was originally published in Italian on the UniNomade 2.0 website in May 2012.
With special thanks to Riccardo Baldissone, Rory Rowan and UniNomade.
‘Padania’ is the name used by the Northern League in order to refer to the Italian part of the Po Valley: the territory for which they demand more autonomy from the central control of the state. ↩
Maurizio Lazzarato is an Italian sociologist and philosopher based in Paris. He is the author of The Making of the Indebted Man (Semiotext(e), 2012) as well as various books published in French and Italian, including Lavoro immateriale (Ombre Corte, 1997) and Les Révolutions du capitalisme (Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2004).