‘Debt operates not only in the manipulation of enormous quantities of money, in sophisticated financial and monetary policies; it informs and configures techniques for the control and production of users’ existence, without which the economy would not have a hold on subjectivity.’1
I purchased a copy of Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man (La fabrique de l’homme endetté) for $25 at World Food Books earlier this year, at the suggestion of Melbourne artist Lucina Lane, who was working in the shop. I want to pass on this worthy recommendation and use The Making of the Indebted Man as a kind of sustaining pedal to some of the things that might arise during these blog episodes.
The fundamental argument Lazzarato advances is that the ‘debtor-creditor relationship’ is the basis of contemporary social life. The word ‘relationship’ is important, for it insists that the dynamic between the two entails conviction, commitment, character-judgment and, in the end, morals. These days we must indebt ourselves in order to sustain life. Basic needs such as housing, food, education and health exist through a dynamic of credit and debt, and to obtain credit one must prove oneself willing and able to repay (with interest, of course). Increasingly, the onus of proving one can sustain life/repay is placed upon the individual, and yet the state decides which forms of life it will sanction. Property is a prime example, where rather than the question of shelter or even housing, the discourse focuses on the ‘power relations between owners (of capital) and non-owners (of capital).’
A particular kind of subjectivity is thus borne, which accordingly predetermines the routes lives can take. This is the impasse: in order for capital to sustain its stranglehold on individual subjectivity it must indebt us to the point that we have no choice but to reproduce it (through repayments). And if we default, we are not only fiscally but also morally bankrupt.
In order to buy Lazzarato’s book, I used a Visa Debit card to access a bank account identified by a series of numbers associated with that particular piece of plastic. Their validation occurs through my being able to remember the PIN. My identity corresponds to that inscribed in and through the card and, by extension, what the card allows (or doesn’t allow) me to do. Thereby, it manufactures subjectivity. The transaction grants access to an intangible electronic space where a salary (if one is within this sanctioned rubric of time-for-money employment) should regularly find itself via a similar process of numerical assignation, identity evaluation and transference.
Yet all debit cards are arguably elaborate placebos for a universal sickness, as this process above doesn’t need a surplus to function. I could also have taken a credit that day, which effectively sends the bank-computer a very welcome message to the effect of ‘I am bound to pay you back at some later date, plus interest.’ In one fell swoop, the future collapses! It sounds extreme, but imagine if I’d taken a mortgage. Or think about what it means to study at university these days; one takes a credit in order to study in order to secure a place in a job that will enable you to pay off the fact you had to study to get a job. What does all this mean for the very concept of future, and the possibility of the new and non-preconceived?
‘Granting credit requires one to estimate that which is inestimable – future behavior and events – and to expose oneself to the uncertainty of time. The system of debt must therefore neutralize time, that is, the risk inherent to it. It must anticipate and ward off every potential “deviation” in the behavior of the debtor the future might hold.’
Through neoliberal ideology, indebtedness becomes wholly commensurate with subjectivity, and Margaret Thatcher’s curse fulfils itself. Rather than society being a collectively agreed-upon formulation of laws and rights, which are upheld by a (more or less) democratically elected government accountable to its constituencies, a situation arises where the moral course of action is to ‘take upon oneself the costs of economic and financial disaster’. In other words, a reversal of democracy comes to pass whereby individuals are responsible for what government~finance externalises onto a society it rejects per se.
What can this mean for political life? How can we divert capitalism from its warpath when representational democracy itself has been subjugated to the whims of finance and terror-management? How do we take responsibility for our collective lives, our society: through absorbing the quasi-moralism of the exponents of the debtor-creditor relation, or by becoming truly immoral?
1. All quotes from Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man, Semiotext(e) 2012 (trans. from the French by Joshua David Jordan)