Art and Value and Freedom

Some of the conclusions I draw in Art and Value are echoed here in an article in Mute by two Yale PhD candidates Daniel Spaulding and Nicole Demby. I am confident they haven’t read my book or even my blog, which contains various rough drafts of some sections of the book. The agreement between us, therefore, has possibly deeper roots. Is there a new tendency to question the established conviction that art is nothing but a commodity?

The Art Boycott

This article was published in Art Monthly in October 2014 


When nothing is happening the Ideological State Apparatuses have worked to perfection


Boycott the Sydney Biennial! Boycott Manifesta 10! Withdraw from the Whitney Biennial! Protest against the corporate sponsorship of Tate by BP! Protest against the Dia Art Foundation’s retrospective of Carl Andre in honour of the late Ana Mendieta! Boycott all art materials suppliers in the name of art’s ‘dark matter’! Boycott the Creative Time Exhibition! Campaign against unpaid internships in art’s institutions! Boycott! Withdraw! Protest!

Thirty years of conspicuous apathy and professional cynicism in the artworld appear to have come to a glorious end. Political protest has reasserted itself in public acts of dissent, direct action and speaking truth to power. Although art’s funding, management and links to business and the state have been subject to scrutiny by artists on and off since the formation of institutional critique in the 1970s, the current mode of art’s political critique has become more general and more activist. Individual artists and isolated art groups have withdrawn from exhibitions for various reasons in the past (Art in Ruins had a reputation for pulling out of exhibitions as a matter of principle), but the current spate of art boycotts is rooted in a genuine political turn.

In their announcement to withdraw from Manifesta 10, Chto Delat said, “Manifesta has shown that it can respond with little more than bureaucratic injunctions to respect law and order in a situation where any and all law has gone to the wind. For that reason, any participation in the Manifesta 10 exhibition loses its initial meaning”. Meanwhile, under the slogan Don’t Add Value to Detention, 92 artists boycotted the 19th Biennale of Sydney, which resulted in the biennale severing links with its chief corporate sponsor, Transfield, which operates refugee detention centres off the Australian mainland.

Judith Butler, Lucy Lippard, Chantal Mouffe, Walid Raad, Martha Rosler, and Gayatri Spivak, alongside over 100 others, added their signatures to an open letter calling on participants to withdraw from Creative Time’s traveling Living as Form exhibition because one of its venues is an institution with a “central role in maintaining the unjust and illegal occupation of Palestine.” Allora & Calzadilla, Ultra Red, Women on Waves, Basurama, Celine Condorelli & Gavin Wade, Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency, Chto Delat and US Social Forum subsequently announced their withdrawal.

The art boycott has established itself as a political device for calling institutions, corporations and the state to account. We don’t imagine Museum Directors, CEOs and heads of government retreating to their underground bunkers, but the art boycott is certainly unwelcome. The art boycott is a political act. If the laundering of corporate brands through art sponsorship entails the repression of a damaging corporate narrative (and its substitution by a fantasy narrative), then the boycott holds the threat of the unconscious. Or, if art institutions are the perfect medium for ideology (in which material practices are displaced with high ideals), the art boycott confronts ideology with the social reality that it misrepresents. All boycotts have political or ethical agendas, but what exactly is the political anatomy of the art boycott?

The art boycott combines qualities of the consumer boycott with the industrial strike and it puts anti-art in the proximity of the refusal of work. Undeniably, the art boycott fuses the politics of art with political activism generally, not only in its technique (which is used by both) or its content (insofar as the art boycott tends to respond to the political circumstances surrounding an exhibition), but primarily in their shared historical constellation.

The political revival of the boycott, in calls to boycott goods from Israel for its violent occupation of Gaza and the short-lived campaign to boycott Lawrence and Wishart for withdrawing free online access to the complete works of Marx and Engels, belongs to the tradition of consumer activism. Iris Marion Young constructs a conception of political responsibility that advocates the boycotts that ethical consumers, initially students, developed in the late-1990s, as a form of political activism. The key idea, here, is that ‘a transnational system of interdependence and dense economic interaction’ is the objective ground of an expansive moral responsibility. This sense of ethical obligation pervades the new tendency in art boycotting and the revival of the political boycott.

The art boycott resembles the industrial strike insofar as it act of absenteeism is intended as a coercive measure, but is unlike the industrial strike insofar as the withdrawl of labour has a direct impact on productivity and profit. The art boycott borrows its technique from the consumer boycott, a combination of non-participation and public announcements that specify preconditions for re-participation, but focuses on supply rather than demand. Informed and spurred on by the Italian Autonomia movement’s promotion of withdrawal, the art boycott is not principally associated with the withdrawal from work but the withdrawal of participation, in which participation is understood to be charged with ethical consent.

Despite the fact that boycotts withdraw from sites rather than take them over, the art boycott derives its political character – and its momentum – from the occupy movement. It belongs to a political landscape that was redrawn by the Arab Spring of 2011 which ushered in new modes of political organization across Europe and America, especially through the implementation of new techniques for political activism. The Spanish ‘indignant’ protests, also known as 15M, were the first of the new movements. They inaugurated a new mode of mass political protest based on occupations that reached decisions with consensus-based procedures, and they initiated a new icon for protest by wearing the Guy Fawkes masks now associated with Anonymous.

Occupy Wall Street, and the global occupy movement that followed, was consciously modelled on this Spanish prototype, spreading its techniques and norms back across the world from whence it came. Occupy describes itself as ‘consensual, non-hierarchical, and participatory self-governance’, not merely asking the state to be more democratic but ‘literally laying the framework for a new world by building it here and now’. The theory of Occupy was already split by 2012 between hyperbole and disappointment. Chomsky observed that the movement no longer occupied small tent camps but ‘now occupies the global conscience’ in the form of a ‘message spread from street protests to op-ed pages to the highest seats of power’. Peter Osborne deflated the utopianism of this quick transition of Occupy from political activism to a ‘symbolic’ event by characterising Occupy as the protest of ‘powerlessness and refusal’ which, he argued, ‘places it in a social space related to, yet institutionally distinct from, art’.

If Occupy and the boycott are alike in being largely symbolic, then artists will tend to feel that these forms of protest speak their language. However, in some instances Occupy has exceeded the symbolic and overshot its horizon of powerlessness and refusal. In June 2011, for instance, a group of 80 actors, artists, workers and citizens occupied the Teatro Valle in Rome to protest against the threat of privatization from Rome’s city council. Three years later, the occupiers have successfully ran the theatre while experimenting with new models of cultural management based on the notion of the bene comune (common good), and the occupation has spread to other theatres.

Zižek declares the ‘great revival of protest’ after the Arab Spring consists ‘not [of] proletarian protests, but protest against the threat of being reduced to proletarian status’. As part of this argument Zižek misdiagnoses both the UK student protests of 2011 and the Tottenham riots, arguing that the former was a concerted effort of bourgeois youth to protect its privileges and the latter was nothing but an affirmation of consumerism. First, the students confronted neoliberal policies to increase fees that would deter all but the privileged from attending University; it was the Coalition government that was attempting to reinstate the old privileges of Higher Education. Second, it makes no sense to see looting as conforming to the capitalist utopia of market exchange: consumption without exchange, without purchase, is simply not capitalist.

However, if there is an element of truth to Zižek’s class analysis of the revival of protest, including the art boycott, then it is a carrier of conformism and complicity even while it stands up against governments, corporations and institutions. Noam Chomsky is not wrong to say that “the Occupy movement is the first real, major popular reaction that could avert” the effects of neoliberalism and globalisation that have been hegemonic for over 30 years, but this does not prevent contemporary protest from being, in part, an outlet for privilege. Accordingly, the art boycott, which often speaks up for the disempowered and despairing, is the province of privilege. If consumer boycotts hand over more political agency to the wealthy, art boycott’s hand over political agency to a minority of successful artists.

Nevertheless, artists who boycott large survey exhibitions represent the first serious challenge to the rise of the curator and the corporate sponsor that have shaped the neoliberal art institution. Putting aside the content of each boycott, therefore, we can say that the art boycott generally is a method for renegotiating the balance of power within art. The art strike was too general to threaten specific institutions and specific curators whereas the Yams Collective, for instance, which withdrew from the Whitney Biennial in protest against the alleged racism of the curatorial selection of artwork, points fingers, names names and calls for actual reforms.

The boycott resembles the ‘block’ gesture, one of the General Assembly hand signals used in consensual discussions. Signified by folding your arms over your chest in the shape of a diagonal cross, the block is the most extreme of the GA gestures. “It indicates a serious moral or practical objection to the proposal”, in the words of the Writers for the 99%, “indicating that the objector will leave the group if her or his concerns are not addressed”. The block has more power than the boycott, however, since it acts as a veto whereas the individual boycott alters the composition of an exhibition, or perhaps forces the resignation of an individual, without bringing the whole thing to a halt.

Pushing in the opposite direction of the art boycott, power occasionally withdraws from political confrontation. One example of what we might call the inverted boycott took place when the organisers of the 13th Istanbul cancelled the public programme out of fear that these events would become targets of the popular protest that had gripped the city. In another variant, istitutional critique reverses the ethical charge of the boycott, using it as a rationale for participation rather than withdrawal. Andrea Fraser explains: “From the vantage point of institutional critique, I define criticism as an ethical practice of self-reflexive evaluation of the ways in which we participate in the reproduction of the relations of domination”. So, ethics allows participation in an institution by providing subjective compensation for an objective predicament. Following the example of institutional critique rather than the art boycott, Liberate Tate stages protest events within the Tate, dissensually participating in, rather than withdrawing from, the institution. Justifying its entry into the museum by the fact that it is normatively opposed to the Tate’s objective economic entanglement with BP, Liberate Tate is more fleeting than Occupy and more embroiled in the institution that the art boycott.

Occupy takes over a place through ethical self-organization; institution critique participates in an institution through ethical practices of critique; and, the art boycott is ethically obliged to withdraw from institutions.

The artworld has a highly attuned sense of art’s complicity with social forces, and a poorly attuned sense of art’s role in the broad political struggle. The art boycott satisfies both of these conditions by conducting its site-specific activism by absenting itself. Paradoxically, the boycott takes a stand by standing off, which opens the question of whether it is an example of activism or inertia. Is the boycott an instance of ‘nothing happening’ or is participating in controversial exhibitions better understood as nothing but business as usual? Indisputably, if the boycott is a political act then this is a formalist politics to which the artwork’s content or specific properties cannot contribute. And if participating in exhibitions is necessarily to comply with its objective institutional form, then this too amounts to a formalist politics that condemns the work regardless of its actual material and semiotic qualities. And this is why the art boycott obtains its highest justification when the content of the artwork appears to be nullified by the political circumstances of its institutional display.

There is an assumption at large within the arguments against art events in trouble spots that art is nothing but a luxury item or must always be affirmative. Art Against Cuts is a good example. To coincide with the strike on June 30th 2011 by teachers, lecturers and other public sector workers, they called for artists and other cultural workers and administrators ‘to suspend all cultural programming/work’. This is an example of a proposed boycott by artists and others that is more closely aligned to the industrial strike than the current spate of art boycotts. While it would be absurd to boycott political protest – ie to withdraw direct action – because a situation is indefensible, it appears far from absurd to boycott art – ie to withdraw participation in an art exhibition – because a situation is indefensible. Rather than see art as an active agent within political struggle, or even acknowledging that every political struggle must also be a cultural struggle, the art boycott dovetails with the idea that art’s only mode of participation is complicity.

Some of the philosophical niceties about action and inaction called up by the art boycott appear to be undecidable (at least at the level of generality in which we speak of the art boycott as such), however, the problem that the art boycott can not fully shake off is that insofar as it focuses on a particular issue (arms dealers, gay rights, gentrification etc) it implies that the institution under normal circumstances is unobjectionable. Boycotts are atypical, which is the reason why they can call attention to specific institutional deficiencies and, therefore, are ill-equipped to tackle general and deep-seated conventions and structures common to all art institutions. Do not boycotts affirm all those institutions not included in the specific boycott? Is it not difficult to get away from the idea that the art boycott, in singling out particular exhibitions and institutions for active inaction, covertly expresses the message that everything (else) is alright?

The art boycott can be politically aligned to the cultural occupation, but they are tactically distinct. Akin to worker takeovers, in which unprofitable facilities under threat of closure become worker- and community-owned firms that flourish under worker management, the occupied theatres go further than the art boycott’s ethically charged abstinence. The point is not that the boycott is negative and the occupation is positive; the illegal occupation is a strong negation of the status quo. The difference, in principle, is that the boycott is limited by the horizon of protest while the occupation can be engaged directly in the process of political transformation. In politics, however, principles can be outflanked by events.

Prior to their announcement to boycott Manifesta 10, Chto Delat had explained that they were opposed to the art boycott, especially in Russia where “a cultural blockade will only strengthen the position of reactionary forces”. Instead of boycotting Manifesta, Chto Delat hoped, as locals, to occupy the role of “alternative hosts and representatives of the city”. As the Manifesta curator, Kasper Konig, sought increasingly to marginalise any political disruptions, emanating either from the state and its discontents or from participating artists, Chto Delat decided that their original hopes would be thwarted by the circumstances under which they would be staged. Remaining in principle against the boycott, they boycotted Manifesta under duress. Despite its limitations, therefore, the art boycott is a technique for reinstating political dissent at the heart of hegemonic complacency.

Short ‘provocation’ on art and the ethics of corporate sponsorship

Delivered at a symposium titled “Take the Money and Run” organised by Platform and ArtsAdmin held at Toynbee Hall, London 29 January 2015

Marxism differentiates between revolutionary political movement and reformist social democracy. It’s a useful distinction. The campaign for ‘fair wages’ in the C19th was rejected by Marx as a social democratic means of preserving the existing class rule. While acknowledging that workers would benefit from the small increase in wages determined to be ‘fair’, Marx said the workers movement should reject the policy and demand nothing short of the abolition of the wage system. He compared the campaign for fair wages to a hypothetical campaign to reform slavery rather than abolish it.

Marx was not opposed to trade unions demanding higher wages. The class war is expressed through the struggle over wages, he said. So, Marxists are fully committed to the struggle over wages and dismissive of political parties that call for fairer wages or restrict themselves to policies of the redistribution of wealth. Politically, therefore, Marxists like me find themselves supporting political movements that we also criticise. What’s more, we tend to find ourselves among political activists who are far more enthusiastic about a particular protest than we are because they do not share the nagging feeling that this protest, equivalent to the struggle over wages, is both an expression of genuine political antagonisms and a mechanism for containing those antagonisms within the wage system itself.

I want to explain how the political campaign for the ethical corporate sponsorship of art leaves a Marxist like me with mixed feelings.

Thirty years of conspicuous apathy and professional cynicism in the artworld appear to have come to a glorious end. Political protest has reasserted itself in public acts of dissent, direct action and speaking truth to power. Although art’s apparatus has been subject to scrutiny by artists on and off since the formation of institution critique in the 1970s, the current mode of art’s political critique has become more general and more activist. Individual artists and art groups have withdrawn from exhibitions for various reasons in the past, but the current spate of art boycotts is rooted in a genuine political turn.

At the heart of this new politicisation of art is a critique of art’s institutions that extends the agenda of institutional critique into a fully fledged confrontation with art’s institutions and their corporate funders. And one of the principal tools of this confrontation is the art boycott. Even when activists do not actually boycott museums, the new political campaigns that put direct pressure on art’s institutions are guided, it seems to me, by the logic of the boycott.

The art boycott has established itself as a political device for calling institutions, corporations and the state to account. If art institutions are the perfect medium for ideology (in which material practices are displaced with high ideals), the art boycott confronts the ideology with the social reality that it misrepresents. Art’s new era of protest is a genuinely politicising historical event. Protest is beautiful, but if the politics of protest does not lead to a revolutionary movement then it becomes nothing more than a series of campaigns to preserve capitalism by softening its rough edges.

The political revival of the boycott in recent years feels like the reassertion of popular political activism but it belongs to the tradition of consumer activism. Iris Marion Young has charted how ethical consumers, initially students, developed in the late-1990s, as a form of political activism. The key idea, here, is that ‘a transnational system of interdependence and dense economic interaction’ is the objective ground of an expansive moral responsibility. Students in American Universities were successful in campaigning against official University clothing being produced in sweatshops and this success led to an expansion of the agenda, targeting the likes of Nike, and an expansion of the political constituency of the protest against unethical corporations.

This sense of ethical responsibility pervades the new tendency in art boycotting and the revival of the political boycott which share is a new impetus that the consumer boycott lacked. The political landscape was redrawn by the Arab Spring of 2011 ushering in new modes of political organization across Europe and America, especially through the implementation of new techniques for political activism.

The boycotting tendency in art resembles the industrial strike and borrows its techniques from the consumer boycott, but it derives its momentum from the occupy movement, despite the fact that boycotts withdraw from sites rather than take them over. Informed and spurred on by the Italian Autonomia movement’s promotion of withdrawal, the boycott today is no longer principally associated with the withdrawal of labour but the ‘block’ gesture, one of the General Assembly hand signals used in consensual discussions.

Noam Chomsky is not wrong to say that “the Occupy movement is the first real, major popular reaction that could avert” the effects of neoliberalism and globalisation that have been hegemonic for over 30 years. However, Zizek declares at the same time that the ‘great revival of protest’ after the Arab Spring consists ‘not [of] proletarian protests, but protest against the threat of being reduced to proletarian status’. If there is an element of truth to Zizek’s class analysis of the revival of protest, then it is a carrier of conformism and complicity even while it stands up against governments, corporations and institutions.

The problem with boycotting a biennial or other art institution in regard to a particular issue (oil, arms dealers, gay rights, gentrification etc) is that it implies that the institution under normal circumstances is ok. What happens when the corporate sponsor that fails the vetting process of consumer responsibility is successfully ousted from the art institution? Does another, slightly less objectionable corporate sponsor take its place? What kind of corporation is politically acceptable? Banks, supermarkets, car manufacturers, fashion brands, agribusinessnesses, global coffee chains? Or, are we thinking of ethical banks, ethical car corporations, ethical fashion brands, and so on? My view is that no capitalist organisation can possibly be politically or ethically acceptable so long as its existence depends entirely on exploitation. As such, I find it impossible to get behind any campaign against this or that corporate sponsor. I want the abolition of corporate sponsorship for the arts. Actually I would extend this to a ban on all advertising, too, but that’s another provocation for another day.

What is neglected in the contemporary short-circuiting of options for art’s relationship to big business, is the full range of the non-economic, in which we can discern three antagonisms: (1) the confrontation between the economic and the non-economic, (2) the employment of political mechanisms rather than market mechanisms for arriving at collective decisions, and (3) the substitution of consumer preference with discourses of value.

We can begin to build an alternative to the neoliberal hegemony only by developing conceptions of the non-economic and citizen sovereignty in a ‘political economy of labour’ instead of the ‘political economy of capital’. We must resist ‘economics imperialism’ and develop processes of de-commodification, as well as rid the public sphere of those who occupy it by virtue of renting advertising space. Hardt and Negri’s concept of the Common Wealth and the commons belongs to this reconstitution of economic relations and David Harvey’s concept of the ‘cultural and intellectual commons’ is important because it combines art and science under a unified description of ‘what should be common knowledge open to all’. Walter Benjamin’s dashed hopes about how culture might be reconfigured as a result of the introduction of technologies of mechanical reproduction must now be reinterpreted as a collision between capital and anti-capital, not as the utopian content of technology but the revolutionary promise of non-capitalist social relations.
I hope it is clear that I am not advocating the allegedly Marxist policy of the Stalinists that cultural questions have to wait until after the political revolution. The Marxist distinction between revolutionary movements and reformist social democracy ask us, rather, to ask whether our political activism in art serves to preserve the bourgeois apparatus of art or leads towards a revolution in the art system itself.


The Ullage of Luxury: the economics of the art fair

Last night I took part in an exchange with Julian Stallabrass about the Frieze Art Fair organised by the Marxism in Culture group at UCL, London. This is the paper I gave.

Art’s relationship to wealth has been transformed by the unfettering of capital and its global circulation through neoliberalism. Frieze is emblematic of the intensified encounter between art and money that grips an increasingly large section of the artworld today. Art museums did not stage ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions until business leaders rather than academics began to dominate the Boards of public art museums. While the biennial is, effectively, a large public gathering of artworks on a global scale (according to the no doubt compromised concept of the curator), the Art Fair is an epic invitation for a mass of artworks to be privatised.

Art Fairs were once rare and marginal but now they are the lifeblood of many galleries, providing multiple opportunities throughout the year and across the globe for galleries to capture a concentrated population of collectors in a reduced period of time. If the Art Fair has now become economically dominant in the artworld calendar then this is because it has proven itself as a highly effective method for turning art into money. Politically, therefore, it is not the rise of the biennial but the victory of the Art Fair in general, and Frieze in particular, that is to contemporary art what the cotton mill was to Marx’s political economy of industrial capitalism.

Wealth has been associated with art since the beginning, but the sheer size of the art market today is staggering compared with any period in art history. Fifteenth century bankers sunk their fortunes into art and nouveau riche industrialists amassed impressive art collections, but the similarity ends there. Artworks and antiques have passed through the hands of dealers and auctioneers since the early Renaissance, but this merely establishes a relationship between art and merchant capital and art and finance insofar as the most successful Renaissance merchants became bankers. This says nothing about the relationship between art and capitalism.

In response to last year’s Frieze Art Fair Julian wrote a short piece for the London Review of Books. Why, Julian asked, would anybody pay ‘a hefty fee to visit a mall’? No one should doubt that the organisers of Frieze will have a businesslike interest in the balance between outgoings and income and that the participating galleries and artists will hope for sales, while a small proportion of the visitors will actually turn up to buy some art. The rest of us – those who do not buy artworks at art fairs – if we attend the Art Fair, merely get the chance to look, according to Julian, at the interior decor of the super-rich.

The image is striking. What’s more it is politically provocative. An economics of the art fair immerses art in a world of mega-wealth, super-galleries, celebrity artists, billionaire collectors, monopoly prices and monotonous commodities. Economic reductionism insists there is no other story to tell. The non-purchasing audience seems irrelevant to such an account, or functions, cunningly, as spectators of magnificence and therefore as ideological subscribers to the dominant decor.

Like an episode of Downton Abbey in which the servants are permitted to take a peek at a lavish dinner before the toffs arrive to eat it all, the role of the non-consumer at an Art Fair appears to Julian, to use the words of Leonard Cohen, as ‘the shy one at an orgy’. The spectator of other people’s luxuries and the financial transactions they complete to obtain them is a pitiful figure. If artworks were standard luxuries then we might conclude that the non-purchasing public of art resembles a crowd of workers cheering on the shareholders.

Although neither the labour theory of value nor the marginal utility theory of prices applies to artworks, it has always seemed more realistic and more radical to highlight the ways in which art resembles commodity production, including luxury production, rather than the ways in which it differs from standard commodity production. Politically, the exaggeration of art’s commodification, such as calling an art fair a shopping mall, has something going for it, but it leaves the Left with nothing to do but echo neoliberalism in a bitter tone of voice. Economically the exaggeration is superficial and distorting. A critical theory of the art fair requires a more nuanced understanding of art’s relationship to the economics of luxury.

There are three theories of luxury. Mainstream economics defines luxuries as those commodities for which demand increases more than proportional to increases in wealth. Marx defined luxuries in Capital Volume II, as products that are neither used as instruments of production nor as means of subsistence. Thorstein Veblen, the sociologist, defined luxuries, in his book ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ from 1899, as purchased precisely to display the wealth of the purchaser. Artworks are not standard luxuries in any of these senses.

Mainstream economics is correct insofar as the consumption of sports cars and designer clothing increases at a greater rate than the consumption of bread and cheese, thereby becoming an increasingly large proportion of the expenditure of the wealthy. Certainly it is also true that the super-rich not only purchase more artworks than the rest of us but they they do so increasingly in proportion to their wealth. Nevertheless, most of us view art for free and viewing art for free is not a luxury in this definition.

Marx distinguishes production into two ‘departments’, the second of which is divided again into two. This division provides us with three different circuits of productive capital. Department I, consists of products involved in the means of production, and Department II, concerns the means of consumption which Marx divides into IIa, daily necessities, and IIb, luxuries. Within this schema, if a product is neither consumed by the means of production nor consumed as a necessity, then it is a luxury. Spending in the two departments, therefore, is split between the expenditure of capital and the expenditure of revenue. Within Department II, a luxury is distinct from what Marx called ‘sustenance’. Sustenance consists of the consumption of necessities. But Marx does not give a list of necessities or identify what sort of needs must be fulfilled by them. This is because necessities change from context to context and period to period. A necessity is a commodity consumed by the workers of a given society. Luxuries, therefore, are consumed exclusively by capitalists. ‘Articles of luxury’, Marx says, ‘enter into the consumption of only the capitalist class and therefore can be exchanged only for spent surplus-value, which never falls to the share of the labourer’.

If we just follow the money then artworks are luxuries in Marx’s definition since they are not purchased by workers but are collected exclusively by the capitalist class. However, since the French Revolution, which, among other things, expropriated certain luxuries from the aristocracy, particularly painting and sculpture, and placed them in public institutions for all to enjoy free of charge, the consumption and use of art has been separated from its purchase and exchange.

As part of Veblen’s argument that the wealthy engage in ‘conspicuous consumption’, Veblen argued that ‘pecuniary struggle’ (gaining status through the exhibition of wealth) and ‘pecuniary emulation’ (the attempt to equal or surpass the status of other wealthy individuals) were important incentives in the consumption patterns of the very wealthy. A Veblen good has technical features that the mainstream category of luxury good lacks. A Veblen good, counter to the normal laws of supply and demand, sees an increase in demand as prices rise. Lowering the price of a Veblen good can therefore reduce demand, because the consumer loses a portion of the motivation for purchasing it. The consumers of Veblen goods display their wealth through these purchases and therefore extremely high prices are incentives to purchase rather than, for ordinary goods, disincentives.

Luxury goods such as sports cars, fine wines, islands in the sun, the empire state building, and exotic pets are purchased, at least in part, to position oneself competitively with other wealthy consumers and to display one’s purchasing power.
Consuming a sports car generally means driving it, consuming a designer dress means wearing it, and consuming a yacht means sailing it. Seeing somebody else drive a sports car, wear a dress or skipper a yacht is not in itself the consumption of the sports car. Looking at a luxury item is not the same, normally, as consuming it. Artworks are different in this respect. When a non-owner of an artwork looks at it, they are consuming it without purchasing it and without any diminution in the enjoyment of the product. Art collectors continue to treat artworks as Veblen goods, nonetheless, of course, displaying their wealth and taste by loaning the works they own to public museums and important exhibitions. The difference in the case of art is not in the behaviour of the owner, but in the use-values afforded the non-owner by the display of the Veblen good. If artworks are luxuries they are non-standard luxuries that are not reducible to luxuries.

Treating artworks as nothing but commodities leads to the qualities and significance of artworks (and the visitors who focus on them) taking on the status of ullage – the amount by which the contents fall short of the volume of the purchased container. Ullage doesn’t stand completely outside of exchange relations but it doesn’t quite complete the metamorphosis from commodity capital to money capital. It’s value is not realised because it is not exchanged. Ullage drops out of circulation. Ullage is that part of the product that is purchased for exchange but is never exchanged.

Julian portrays the non-collector at the Art Fair as a spectator of other people’s luxuries, as a non-participant in other people’s pleasures. This is made worse, of course, by the fact that these spectators of other’s luxuries are asked to pay an entrance fee. What the entrance fee veils, however, is the anomalous fact that artworks can be consumed without being purchased. In consuming artworks for free, however, it seems we are the witnesses that the Veblen good desires, those to whom wealth is displayed, not those to whom artworks are displayed. If artworks are anomalous luxuries in which their display permits consumption without purchase, however, then the closed circuit of exchange and consumption is broken. The Art Fair cannot display wealth to non-purchasers without also displaying works that can be consumed for free. There is an incalculable amount of ullage here. We might even go so far as to say that the art market is the market of infinite ullage.

The exceptional economics of art demands more attention to detail. Comparing the art fair with the book fair sheds some light on this. Books are mass produced while artworks are (economically) unique objects. We might conclude (socially) therefore that books can have a popular readership while artworks are almost inevitably luxuries. But we can also conclude (economically) that books conform to the economics of commodity production for a market whereas artworks are not since neither the labour theory of value nor the marginal utility theory of prices applies to unique objects.

Books are luxuries according to the mainstream definition – as wealth increases we buy more of them proportional to our income – and books can be Veblen goods insofar as they are displayed in large book cases and so on, but they are not luxuries in Marx’s definition since workers buy them and read them. But what of book fairs? Do we think of book fairs as business fairs pure and simple or events at which ideas are circulated? Of course, the purchase of books is not limited to the super-rich, so the display of books at a book fair is not a display of luxuries beyond the purse of most of us. However, the display of books at a book fair does not permit the consumption of the works without purchase, as it does in the case of art.

The contrast between the book fair and the art fair has a social rather than economic root. Art was described by Julian in his article last year as ‘the wilfully eccentric conversation pieces with which millionaires and billionaires decorate their rooms’. He called art ‘their culture’, identifying ‘them’ as ‘crooks, swindlers, tax-evaders and the architects of banking scandals’. Artworks, in his view, are purchased by the super-rich for one purpose alone: for the collector to say, quote, ‘look at my money!’ Any attempt to defend art as having qualities independent of the luxury trade merely acts as ideology or marketing that serves to boost that trade. The idea that art might be more than a commodity is summarily dismissed by recategorising all the values and debates around art as ‘the intellectual garnish which is laid lightly over the business of selling’.

Julian evidently puts Veblen above Marx in his account of the art fair. However, there is no trace of the anomalous nature of art as a Veblen good. There is no ullage here: everything is accounted for in infinite exchange. Consuming artworks for free disappears so that the anomaly is lost, leaving us with the impression that visiting an art fair, or even visiting a commercial art gallery or a public museum of art, is nothing but the witnessing of luxury transactions and the codified display of cash.

However, since the establishment of the Louvre shortly after the French Revolution, when the Fine Arts became public property, there has been a notice on all collections of art, saying: these works belong to all and may legitimately be taken out of private ownership by representatives of the public and placed on permanent public display. The infinite ullage of looking at art for free is a legacy of the nationalisation of art and remains a threat to the private exchange of artworks.

There is a political point to Julian’s exaggeration but looking at art is not the same as looking at other people’s money.

On the concept of Indebted Man

I began to write a lengthy book review of Maurizio Lazzarato’s book, ‘The Making of Indebted Man’ but it remains in draft form. Rather than tighten it up and get it published I’ve decided to upload it to my blog as an unfinished text.

Maurizio Lazzarato’s book, ‘The Making of Indebted Man’, published in French in 2009 and translated into English in 2012, argues that debt is a more important concept for the analysis and understanding of contemporary capitalism than the old Marxist ideas of surplus value, surplus labour, exploitation and labour-power. Recent global events have given credance to this argument. There is no shortage of empirical evidence for the new significance of debt in the world economy. Credit crunch, recession, neoliberalism, financialization, pension funds, mass home ownership, public debt, national debt, third world debt: Lazzarato is not making this up. Lazzarato complains that neoliberalism promised “everyone a shareholder, everyone an owner, everyone an entrepreneur” but has delivered “everyone is a debtor”. The making of indebted man, therefore, is the descent of the human species into debt. Following an extended period in which organized labour has lost a great deal of its ability to politicize the exploitation of labour-power, the banking collapse has made debt a conspicuous political issue. Hence, the eclipse of labour by debt in the politicaly imaginary is undeniable.
Lazzarato does not provide an account of the recent rise of debt, however, but takes the opportunity of the credit crunch to outline a theory of the permanent priority of debt over exchange. Debt, Lazzarato tells us, ‘precedes, historically and theoretically, that of production and wage labour’. As well as existing long before the industrial mode of production, debt outlives it, according to Lazzarato. Despite this anthropological timeframe that Lazzarato prefers for thinking about debt, the book does not reject the argument that a new era of capitalism has risen in the wake of industrialization. For instance, he quotes the French regulationist economist André Orléan’s ‘The Power of Finance’ (1999), who argues that credit has a new status in post-Fordism: ‘We have moved from Fordist regulation, which privileged the industrial and debtor, to financial regulation, which prioritises the financial and creditor side’. Although Lazzarato’s book addresses the current debt crisis, it is not intended primarily as an analysis of debt after 1975 but as a refutation of economics under the spell of industrialism, especially the Marxist analysis of capital. This is confirmation that the focus on debt in general that drives this book is intended primarily to displace and overcome Marxism. The new prominence of debt in neoliberal capitalism appears, in Lazzarato’s argument, to be the return of the repressed – an ancient form that theories of industrial capitalism, especially Marxism, neglected but which has reasserted itself, calling such theories of capitalism into question.
Lazzarato is known primarily for the theory of ‘immaterial labour’ which allegedly supplants the Marxist category of labour and labour-power through the empirical study of that labour which produces the informational and cultural element of the commodity. Lazzarato claims that such labour was not regarded as ‘work’ in classical economics, including Marxism, neglecting the fact that J.B Say invented the term ‘immaterial labour’ to sharpen the distinction made by Adam Smith between labour that does and doesn’t produce a ‘vendible product’. It has not gone unnoticed that the Marxist theory of labour does not turn on whether labour is informational or manual, and that the commodification of labour that was previously unpaid or voluntary is not anomalous to Marxist theory. Marx examined the economic relations of labour not its morphology or the ontology of its products. As such, Lazzarato’s critique of the Marxist category of labour is of no theoretical consequnce. In ‘The Making of Indebted Man’ Lazzarato has done to the Marxist concepts of production, exchange and value what he had previously done to the concept of labour.
Before entering into a detailed examination of the major arguments in Lazzarato’s theory of debt, it is worth making note of the book’s plot. It is a horror story. There is a monster which is hunted down and butchered by four heroes who save society from peril. The monster is Marx and the heroes are Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. Lazzarato assumes the role of the narrator not one of the heroes. Whereas for Marx, capitalism is haunted by the spectre of communism, and capitalism is a vampiric predator, for Lazzarato in this book there appears to be nothing monstrous about capitalism. This is not the story of how the self-regulating market began life as an impudent hero only to grow fatter and more cruel with every decade until it was as big as a planet and as threatening as the wrath of God. It is not even the story of how the capitalist monster exerts its power first by demanding the village folk work for it, and then, not satisified with exploiting labour, takes their wages from them through credit agreements that allows it to take their homes too. No, in this mythic tale of debt, capitalism is let off the hook because debt is more ancient than the capitalist mode of production and because, it is Marx, not capitalism, who is cast as a monster that delights in snaring us with devilish riddles and intellectual traps. We can kill the monster only by evicting his faslehoods from our thought and action. Marx is the ultimate cause of all of our theoretical and practical failures to bring about the good life. Like in an episode of Columbo, this is a whodunnit in which the guilty party is revealed in the opening scene. Like all classic horror stories, the happy ending that it supplies coincides with the death of the monster and the safe return to normal life of the villagers full of gratitude to the heroes who saved them.
Lazzarato’s book has three chapters. The first sets out the empirical underpinnings of the historical transformation from the kind of industrial capitalism that Marx dissected into the kind of finance capitalism and post-Fordist production of profit in today’s ‘debt economy’. If Marx was once a viable commentator on the capitalist mode of production, then this is no longer the case, Lazzarato claims. The second chapter argues that Nietzsche had an inkling that debt was more fundamental than labour and exchange all along. Nietzsche’s analysis of pre-capitalist economies are acclaimed as more contemporary than Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Lazzarato also digs up what he calls the Nietzschean Marx and strangles the labour theory of value with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘infinite debt’ (77). The chapter culminates with a Deleuzean analysis of ‘Capitalist Flows’ (83). The third chapter opens with Foucault’s reflections on the subjective dimension of the worker as an ethical entrepreneur of skill, training and lifestyle. Lazzarato introduces Foucault’s politics of the subject into the analysis of debt like Indiana Jones producing a revolver in answer to a florid swordsman. Lazzarato pins his hopes on the alleged absence of the subject in Marx’s critique of political economy to drive a wedge between Marxism and contemporary capitalism. The most recent developments of capitalism, which appear to be beyond Marx’s understanding of capitalism, have already been explained by Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. The final chapter passes through a series of observations about neoliberalism and ends with four sections that chart different subjective aspects of debt.
This book constantly fuels itself on material from three main sources: Deleuze & Guattari’s ‘return to the creditor-debtor relation in Anti-Oedipus’ and Nietzsche’s theory of debt in the Genealogy of Morals as well as Foucault’s political theory of the subject. However, like the Holy Trinity, the three are one. Since Deleuze and Guattari base their ‘return’ to debt on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and Foucault’s emphasis on subjectivity is heightened by Deleuze and Guattari, this book could well have beeen entirely drawn from just one source, Anti-Oedipus. It is empirically thin, intellectually narrow and conceptually broad, but it holds a very tight focus throughout, largely because it never strays from the discussion of debt in Anti-Oedipus. In fact, in key respects represents a diminishment of the original argument by Deleuze and Guattari.
Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘infinite debt’, which Lazzarato adopts, derives equally from Christian guilt and the introduction of money, both of which have no limits. However, insofar as debt in gift-exchange societies cannot be measured, debt before money was not finite. Perhaps the two historical types of debt that Deleuze and Guattari speak of ought not to be finite and infinite but immeasurable and infinite. “The creditor’s power over the debtor” contains “an asymmetry of forces”. What is appealing to the post-Marxist is that the analysis of the debtor-creditor relation as a relation of force rather than an economic relation shelves questions about workers, capitalists, surplus value and class in order to make room for the micropolitics of intersubjective encounters between ethically charged individuals. Lazarrato, perhaps informed by Nitzan and Bichler, does not inquire into what kind of power the creditor has (1) prior to lending, (2) through lending, (3) after repayment. If this power is economic or made possible only through wealth and capital, then overcoming Marxist categories of the capitalist mode of production with reference to debt and power is nothing but a rhetorical device.
Lazarrato argues that Nietzsche and the readers of Nietzsche, principally Deleuze and Guattari, knew all along that debt is more fundamental to social organization than capital and labour. The emphasis on social organization rather than economics, it transpires, is the presumption that anticipates Lazzarato’s longed-for accomplishment, namely of theorizing the economy through affect. In other words, a sociology of the subjectivities of economic relations rather than an economically informed understanding of social relations. Nietzsche’s musings on debt are neither economically informed nor sociologically grounded, but Lazzarato prefers them to Marx’s analysis of capital because they focus our attention on a specific power relationship. The debtor-creditor relationship is the pulse of Nietzsche’s second chapter of the Genealogy of Morals. This is, according to Lazzarato, a power relation of “capture, predation, extraction, governance”.
Lazzarato’s focus on debt today has more currency than it did when Anti-Oedipus was published and addressing such a politically topical issue through an examination of theories of capitalism, is, in itself, a political act. Debt is finance from the point of view of the debtor, Lazzarato claims, while interest is finance from the point of view of creditors. This reads as a political rationale for a theory of debt in preference for the various current theories of financialization, and it is welcome on that account. To understand contemporary capitalism as a system for producing debt, rather than as a system for creating financial wealth, is a necessary corrective and opens up the possibility of a politics of finance in the antagonistic exchange between a rentier class and a debtor class. However, while Lazzarato happily distinguishes between debt and interest, Lazzarato rejects the social distinction between different classes that confront one another through debt. On the contrary, he says, ‘everyone is a debtor’. And, in a flash, the politics of debt is extinguished. Or, perhaps more accurately, the politics of debt versus interest turns out to be an empty formal commitment that cannot pass into lived antagonisms. Lazzarato comes close to a politics of the indebted but lacks the detailed grasp of the economics of capitalist expropriation that might translate his broad commitments into specifically political terms. This is because, for him, the political signficance of debt is its subjective character not its economic form. As a result, Lazzarato is capable of identifying instances of the politics of debt, such as observing ‘No right to housing; instead, real estate loans. No right to tuition; instead, university loans’, but finds it impossible to state clearly what is wrong with the neoliberal shift from rights to debt. A phantom politics can be heard feintly throughout the book.
Lazzarato gives the impression that it is always tactically correct to take sides with the debtor, failing to distinguish between consumer debt, commercial debt, debt-funded capitalist enterprise, and national debt. Marx observed, for instance, in Capital Volume 1 that since wage labor is used up by the capitalist before it is paid for, therefore “everywhere the worker allows credit to the capitalist.” (Marx, Capital: Volume One, p. 278-9) If wage-labour is a form of unacknowledged credit that bears no interest in which the labourer is the creditor and the capitalist is the debtor, then taking sides with the debtor is presumably not the kind of politics that Lazzarato has in mind but is logically consistent with his formal commitment to debt and the indebted. Hence, a substantial leftwing politics about debt cannot be derived from the perspecive of the debtor against the creditor when, as is clear from the case of subprime mortgages and student loans, the danger is that the tactic reinforces the status of the debtor. That is to say, it is strategically inept to take sides with the debtor at a time when neoliberal policies are using personal debt to fund social goods such as housing and education: by supporting the interests and rights of debtors, one remains entirely within the new neoliberal agenda in which the rights of citizens are systematically undone in processes of privatization in which the provision of universal entitlements are converted into commodities paid for by consumer debt. Lazzarato opposes rights to debt in a way that is pertinent to a range of current political struggles. Rights, obligations and the welfare state – the twentieth century’s bureaucratic and paternalistic attempt to revive an economy of mutual aid within capitalism itself – is in the process of being handed over to capitalists as a new frontier of accumulation, pioneered by finance through lending. Lazzarato has an impoverished concept of class and class struggle, and therefore finds it difficult to state clearly what is wrong with the neoliberal shift from rights to debt. Taking sides with the debtor has to be combined not only with campaigns for the right to housing and education, for instance, but also the critique of political economy generally, including the role of finance capital in the latest enclosure of the commons.
His politics of debt begins to take shape when he discusses its relation to economic growth and the parliamentary left’s traditional desire to curb the power of finance. Lazzarato is at pains to point out that “[d]ebt is not an impediment to growth”. The solution, he says, is not “regulation” or the “elimination of greed”. Which is to say he subscribes neither to nationalisation nor protest, neither government interference in the free market, nor rationalised management with worker participation. It is in this context that Lazzarato repels the critique of finance, financiers and the rentier class indirectly by arguing that finance should not be opposed to the so-called ‘real economy’. Taking sides temporarily with neoliberalism against the Keynesians in rejecting the association of finance with wasteful and dangerous speculation, parasitism and rent, his target is the alleged ‘productivism’ of the Marxist analysis of the extraction of surplus-value from surplus-labour. Lazarrato erroneously attaches the opposition between finance and productive capital to Marx. In fact, the theory of finance as parasitic on production derives from Ricardo and was revived by Lenin, Gramsci and Keynes. Marx, as Lazzarato concedes despite also accusing Marx of ‘productivism’, did not underestimate the function of finance within the capitalist mode of production. Marx understood that consumer debt puts wages back in the pockets of capitalists and therefore makes it available as capital again, and also that producer debt increases the rate of accumulation and the rate of the reproduction of the means of production. Despite this, Lazzarato presses his case against the Fordist theory of capitalism as a case against the Marxist critique of political economy. The style of Lazzarato’s dissatisfaction with the Marxist economic analysis of contemporary capitalism is inherited from the heterodox left of post-war Italy. There is ‘a long, punctuated history of theoretical work and political practice aimed at testing the validity of Marxist categories in light of empirical transformations in modes of production and reproduction, tendencies in class composition and shifts in the forms of capitalist domination, driven by political struggles and economic reconfigurations in post-war Italy’. (Toscano, The Italian Difference) Just as Antonio Negri turns to the Grundrisse to conjure up a ‘Marx Beyond Marx’, and the early ‘workerists’ detected the seeds of post-Fordism within Marx’s previously neglected ‘fragment on machines’, Lazzarato does not confront the three volumes of Capital directly in his attempt to surpass them. Like his predecessors, Lazzarato digs up a somewhat obscure fragment by Marx that appears to outstrip the mature Marx in its articulation of contemporary themes, challenging the central tenets of Marxist economics by drawing on its periphery. From the Paris Notebooks of 1844, Lazzarato alights on the discussion of credit and debt in Marx’s notes on James Mill at the very beginning of Marx’s inquiry into political economy.
Lazzarato reads Marx in the notes on James MIll as a heterodox Marx, arguing that credit ‘entails the creditor’s “moral judgement” of the debtor’. (59) When the mature Marx returns to the analysis of credit in Capital Volume 3, Lazzarato mournfully reports, he ‘does not go back to the rich analyses of debt’s subjective effects’. (61) He quotes Marx from the Paris Notebooks as saying ‘a good man is one who can pay’ (overlooking the fact that Marx is quoting Shakespeare’s Shylock), in order to argue that the focus on the debtor as a subject – the bearer of guilt, shame and honour. Lazzarato makes no mention, here, of the guilt projected onto unemployment, laziness and vagrancy that Marx refers to in passages on the transition from feudalism to capitalism that required the disciplining of the workforce. Lazzarato’s argument depends on the distinction between debt and labour on the grounds that only the former is governed by an ethics of the subject. Indebted man is ‘a subjective figure’. Unlike labour, in which the subjectivity of the labourer is alienated and counts for nothing, debt depends on the good character for the debtor and therefore is an extension of the ‘work on the self’. Credit requires the debtor to be of good character, whereas abstract labour is indifferent to the individual. Reference to the debtor as subject does not amount to a humanist Marx but ‘a very Nietzschean Marx’, (54) Lazzarato says. We are supposed to be heartened by the qualification. Not only is a Nietzschean Marx better than no Marx at all; a Nietzschean Marx is better than a Marxian Marx, according to Lazzarato. This is because ‘it is credit, and not exchange, that Nietzsche sees as the archetype of social organization’. Trust is essential to debt. This is why Lazzarato applauds Nietzsche’s etymological association of guilt and debt. “Debt breeds, subdues, manufactures, adapts, and shapes subjectivity”. The aim is to convert economics into a study of affect.
Lazzarato’s Nietzscean, Deleuzean Marx is not as wayward as the Paris based sociologist would have us believe. In his notes on James Mill Marx distinguishes between two types of credit: credit between two capitalists (which we can call ‘productive credit’) and credit between a capitalist and a worker (which is an example of consumer credit). Since the former is advanced for interest based on projected profits, the decision to give such loans is based entirely on economic calculations and therefore is not based on the ethical judgement of the debtor. It is only with consumer debt that the reliability and industriousness of the debtor is taken into account. In cases of lending between capitalists it is only the finances of the capitalist that are assessed, while in cases of the latter, Marx says, ‘man himself is turned into money’. Lazzarato exaggerates Marx’s interest in the ethics of debt, which takes up a very small proportion of the notes on James Mill. Lazzarato proceeds as if the special case of consumer debt can be applied to all forms of credit. This reading attempts to be a literary Judo throw in which the weight and momentum of the opponent is used against her, but in fact it is nothing but shadow boxing. The point, however, is clear: Lazzarato seeks to understand the capitalist economy, both in its Fordist and post-Fordist variants, without adopting or adapting the principal findings of Marx’s critique of political economy in the three volumes of Capital.
Back in the late-1960s and early-1970s the theorists of a ‘new capitalism’ simultaneously beyond classical industrial capitalism and the Marxist critique of political economy were dubbed by Robin Blackburn ‘the flat-earthers of economics and sociology’ (Blackburn 1972, p. 177) because they isolated this or that agent of the capitalist society (the manager rather than the entrepreneur, for instance) in order to draw a line between the capitalism that Marx understood and modern society. Lazzarato’s theory of debt belongs to this tradition. “The debt economy appears to have produced a major change in our societies”, Lazzarato says, justifiably. The question of not whether a change has taken place, but whether the shift is so great that it dislodges the capitalist mode of production and discredits the Marxist analysis of this mode of production. New ‘forms’ of capitalism rapidly appear and therefore the ‘true character of capitalism has to be rediscovered by each new generation’ (p. 164) but, today as in the second half of the twentieth century ‘the most novel features of neo-capitalism, far from mitigating or abolishing the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, rather pose this contradiction in a purer and more dramatic manner’. (p. 164) The principal error of the theories of ‘new capitalism’ or post-capitalism, according to Blackburn, is the failure to examine capitalism as a system. And the analysis of capitalism as a whole is certainly avoided by Lazzarato. The change he has in mind, however, is not the kind that Paul Sweezy noted when he commented on the ‘expansion of debt’ in 1978: “Since 1975 the United States has created a new debt economy”. But this is because the actual transformation of the form of capitalism, for him, is an indication that a change of method is required. Lazzarato has his eye on a shift from economics to subjectivity. What emerges with the debt economy, therefore, is not an economics of debt but a politics of affect, which is why the Nietzschean knotting together of economics and morality appears to Lazzarato as a strong methodology for interrogating contemporary capitalism.
While Taylorism eliminates the decisions made by workers and puts increasing capital expenditure into supervision, management, regulation and monitoring based on an absolute lack of trust, debt, in Lazzarato’s account has never been able to do away with the interior life and industrious character. ‘Debt produces a specific morality,’ Lazzarato says. This kind of observation is not unprecedented, as Lazzarato is well aware. ‘Debt resurfaces in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the work of Deleuze and Guattari’ he says, ‘as a way of analysing contemporary capitalism. By bringing together Nietzsche’s theory of credit in primitive societies and Marx’s theory of money in capitalism, the authors trace a short history of debt that encourages a non-economistic reading of the economy’. Although neither the Genealogy of Morals nor Anti-Oedipus address the advent of the debt economy, both claim that debt or credit has a significance obscured by classical political economy, which is Lazzarato’s chief concern in this book. Deleuze and Guattari use Nietzsche’s philosophy to question Mauss’ anthropology, saying Nietzsche’s ‘Genealogy’ is superior to Mauss’ “because it interprets primitive society in terms of debt, in the debtor-creditor relationship by eliminating every consideration of exchange”. Lazzarato, effectively, extends this argument, saying Nietzsche (via Deleuze and Guattari) is superior to Marx because debt is more fundamental and more up to date than exchange. ‘The economy seems to have become Nietzschean”, he says. “Modern day capitalism seems to have discovered on its own the technique described by Nietzsche of constructing a person capable of promising”. Debt, therefore, is a ‘non-economic’, ‘moral’, ‘subjective’, ‘force’. Hence, Lazzarato says he is “going to analyse the meaning of the change by drawing on the Second Essay of the Genealogy of Morality”, simultaneously recalling the work of Deleuze and Guattari and misdirecting our critical attention away from the economics of debt.
Dave Graeber, in his extensive anthropological study of debt, also connects debt with morality but in a richer and more differentiated way than Lazzarato. Debt in precapitalist societies, he says, was indistinguishable from morality insofar as those societies are based on mutual aid. The best way to understand how debt worked in such societies is to think about the unpayable debt owed to a parent or to one’s ancestors. Debt, in such circumstances, can never be paid. The idea of calculating what one owes to one’s parents and then ‘settling accounts’, Graeber says, is tantamount to ending your relationship with them. Payment is the ending of a social relationship. Debt, on the other hand, is the acknowledgement of sociality, mutuality and dependence in the context of ‘primitive communism’. Debt is not immoral or synonymous with guilt, Graeber points out, but is the very basis of society and morality. Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari and Lazzarato do not adequately recognise the sheer difference of the concept of debt in precapitalist societies compared with debt today. Graeber gives a different picture of pre-market society: “the refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found through the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies” in which “the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom.”
Deleuze and Guattari say the question of whether debt precedes exchange or is an example of it derives from Mauss, which, from their point of view, discredits him. The subtitle of Mauss’s study of the gift is ‘Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies’. Since gifts are made and repaid within customary social circuits, Mauss prefers the term gift-exchange to mere gift. The latter isolates an instance of a flow. Deleuze and Guattari neglect this and take sides, instead, with Levi-Srauss who regards debt as the conversion of exchange into cash. “All this is a vivid reminder of how easy it is to mistake radicalized forms of our own bourgeois tradition as alternatives to it,” says Graeber, citing Bataille as another of Deleuze and Guattari’s economic radicals who, in fact, projects aspects of market forces onto ancient modes of sociality.
Lazzarato opposes debt to exchange, arguing that debt is the basis of archaic social organization, not the gift. He derives this from Nietzsche, and this is loosely endorsed by Deleuze and Guattari. We should note, here, that the argument for debt over the gift is a based on a misrepresentation of Mauss’s concept of gift-exchange, and the preference of debt to exchange is based on a misrepresenation of Marx’s theory of capital as self-augmenting value, which cannot occur within the sphere of circulation. Lazzarato shows his ignorance about Marx’s theory of capital when he says money does not derive from “economic exchange (contrary to the thesis advanced by the entire tradition of political economics, from the Physiocrats to Marx by way of Adam Smith).” In fact, neither the Physiocrats nor Adam Smith believed that money derived from economic exchange, and Marx certainly didn’t. It is true, however, that debt exists before market exchange but not in the form of financial loans, consumer credit and mortgages. Exchange exists before any commodity markets, too, but for the greater part of human history not in the form of direct exchange of one thing equivalent to another and not in a form that is designed to settle accounts. What is missing from Lazzarato’s account of primeval debt is its hybrid character: part debt, part gift, part exchange, part circulation of that which is common.
Lazzarato says, “the origin of calculation, measure, evaluation, comparison, and accounting … must not be sought in economic exchange or in labor but in debt”. This is one of Nietzsche’s unsubstantiated claims made in the Genealogy of Morals but Lazzarato presents it as fact. Nietzsche is thinking of the actual social practices that were the basis of Shylock’s ‘ounce of flesh’. There were very detailed legal formulas which specified the value of body parts which, in principle, could be demanded by a creditor or a victim of crime. Nietzsche was aware of some legal documents but had no knowledge of actual social practices. In fact, Graeber explains, bodies were rarely cut up to pay debts. Rather, it was the equivalence of body parts with values that meant revenge could be prevented, and violence avoided, by giving a calf, for instance, that was deemed equal to the injury caused. “If Henry gives Joshua a pig and feels he has received an inadequate counter-gift, he might mock Joshua as a cheapskate, but he would have little occasion to come up with a mathematical formula for precisely how cheap he feels Joshua has been. On the other hand, if Joshua’s pig just destroyed Henry’s garden, and especially, if that led to a fight in which Henry lost a toe, and Henry’s family is now hauling Joshua up in front of the village assembly—this is precisely the context where people are most likely to become petty and legalistic and express outrage if they feel they have received one groat less than was their rightful due. That means exact mathematical specificity”. Debt is not the source of calculation (as we have already noted, societies based on mutual aid would always be in a state of incalculable debt). Calculation, however, is required in order to appease families seeking revenge and reparations.
“Money is first of all debt-money”, Lazzarato says. Debt, in its capacious and hybrid sense, precedes money. In fact, we might say debt as gift-exchange within primitive communism is the form of ownership in which money has no role. Money is introduced for acts of exchange with other groups, not within the community itself, and here, money is not connected with debt but with settling up. Money allows strangers, including enemies, to have no relationship with one another. It ends negotiations, obligations and sociality. In this sense, money is right from the start the opposite of debt. Money replaces debt, gift-exchange and the commons by paying for goods instantly. Even in the early nineteenth century, while the Industrial Revolution finally broke the feudal bonds, hardly anybody paid for goods directly with cash. Shopkeepers kept tabs on customers, and suppliers kept ledgers on shopkeepers. Only travellers and strangers were expected to pay instantly and in cash for anything but the cheapest of goods. Every commodity has a price, but the time-lag between purchase and payment meant that only a small proportion of the value of goods was exchanged in money form as, when it came time to reckon up, each would subtract what she owed the other before asking for any payment. Debt is first of all common and incalculable and money is not associated with debt but its opposite. Debt can be expressed in money but can be paid off with labour, the product of one’s labour or even by enslaving members of your family.
We can see that Lazzarato is more concerned with distancing himself from Marxism than in any kind of historical or anthropological fidelity when he says, “money … does not derive from exchange, from mere circulation, from the commodity; nor does it constitute the sign or representation of labor. It is instead the expression of an asymmetry of forces”. It is difficult to tell when Lazzarato shifts from discussing pre-capitalist social relations, post-Fordist practices and post-Marxist theories: they all seem to be different names for the same eternal human condition. “Traditional categories rooted in 19th- and 20th-century revolutions – labor, society, and politics – are now informed and in large measure have been redefined by debt”. As well as mixing up prehistory with post-Fordism, Lazzarato asks his very thin concept of debt to carry too much weight. Economics after the heyday of heavy industry – the rise of the service sector, the commodification of data, outsourcing of production and the growth of design and distribution branding strategies – are not all reducible to the effects of debt. Even financialization is not principally a question of debt. The most important transformation of corporate capitalism has been the shift from strategies of ‘retain and reinvest’ to strategies that increase shareholder value (see Michel Aglietta, “Corporate Governance Adrift”, 2005) such as stock buybacks which ploughs profits into a mechanism for increasing the value of shares. “Financialisation”, Lapivitsas explains, “does not amount to dominance of banks over industrial and commercial capital. It stands rather for increasing autonomy of the financial sector. Industrial and commercial capitals are able to borrow in open financial markets, while being more heavily implicated in financial transactions. Meanwhile, financial institutions have sought new sources of profitability in personal income and financial market mediation.”
“The economy of debt provides a clearer picture of the capital’s new subjective types to which the whole of the population is made to correspond.” What Lazzarato is straining to avoid, here, is any discussion of how the so-called ‘indebted man’ as a new – and simultaneously ancient – moral subject is related to class and class relations. A ‘new subjective type’ may arise without making any perceptible modification to class division. It is not a new class and it does not necessarily represent a new balance of powers within existing class relations. This is why Lazzarato says the “Gramscian concept of hegemony (the hegemony of financial capital) seems less relevant here than Foucault’s ‘governmentality'”. A truly post-Marxist aside! And the observation of a new subjective type does not contribute to an adequate account of the economic transformations involved. More substantially we can say Fordism completes the shift from primitive accumulation and the formal subsumption of labour (in which absolute surplus value is dominant) to the real subsumption of labour under capital (in which relative surplus value is dominant). Since relative surplus value can be derived from increased capital investment, productivity, efficiency, machinery, automation etc, it appears – to the capitalist and the mainstream economist – as if labour-power has a diminished role in capitalist accumulation, especially when thinking about profit instead of surplus-value. 
Debt is not adequately differentiated by Lazzarato according to its various modes, but is subsumed under a single concept. Lazzarato theorizes debt as an abstraction rather than the range of different particular forms of debt. Consumer debt is not adequately differentiated from debt financing in Lazzarato’s account. ‘Ordinary debt-crisis talk conflates two completely different processes: on the one hand, the credit system; on the other hand, living in debt, part of the daily life of wage earners’, Michael Denning correctly points out (Denning ‘The Fetishism of Debt, 2011 That is to say, while the purpose of business credit is ‘to accelerate the process of the accumulation; and interest is that part of surplus value which is distributed to those capitalists who keep capital’s blood circulating’, consumer debt, or ‘our debt, living in debt, is not a capital investment; it is not even like the debt of sharecroppers or debt peons who borrow to acquire the seeds and tools needed to produce their cash crops. Rather, our debt was contracted to cover the costs of “consumption,” to secure the very means of subsistence, and to smooth the micro-booms and micro-busts between paychecks’. Other material differences between forms of debt are suppressed by Lazzarato, too. The Greek national debt is not to be understood within the same terms – according to the same general theory – as Third World Debt, for instance, since the former belongs to a process of fiscal disciplining within the EU, while the latter belongs to the long history of the transfer of the value of natural and human resources from one set of continents to another. Similarly, Sub Prime Mortgages are not identical with credit and store cards, while the issue of student loans has yet further distinguishing features. Each type of debt requires its own distinctive economic analysis. But Lazzarato is opposed to the economic analysis of debt and prefers to look at the whole thing from the point of view of morality. What he fails to acknowledge, therefore, is how, for instance, ancient debt was not mediated by banks but made available by merchants and wealthy individuals and even neighbours, friends and family, in the case of smaller scale debt, such as lending a cup of sugar, hand-me-downs and other forms of mutual aid. The debt of mutual aid within a community is not part of Lazzarato’s debt economy. It is only by abstracting debt from the specific economic relations of different forms of debt that Lazzarato can fix his gaze permanently on debt as a power relation.
Lazzarato provides an analysis of capitalism (albeit one in which the difference between the capitalist mode of production and precapitalist modes of production is minimized through the abstract concept of debt) and he derives a politics from this analysis (albeit one that stresses protest rather than the annulment of capitalism). Additionally, Lazzarato has a concept of history which has a heightened perception of continuities and a blindness towards historical discontinuity which reduces his ability to fathom any political agency today, and he is vague about the conjunctural location of his argument which leads him to focus on tactics rather than strategies. The emphasis on the subjective element of debt throughout Lazzarato’s account is pitched in such a way as to lean towards the individual and theories of consciousness. What’s more, Lazzarato entirely leaves out any explanation of the social mechanisms through which the subjective element of debt is reproduced in the individual, and therefore bypasses ideology altogether in a discussion of ideas independent of their material circumstances that are presented, therefore, as ahistorical and applicable to all rather than unequally to different sectors of society. Lazzarato stresses the eclipse of Marxist categories: debt over exchange, power over exploitation, rent over profit, interest over labour. Lazarrato is a post-Marxist.

‘Changing Things with Words’

This short text was written to accompany the Freee art collective’s contribution to “Abstract Cabinet”, EASTSIDE Projects, Birmingham 2009

The Freee art collective puts slogans into circulation. Sharing and contesting opinion through acts of publishing is central to all of Freee projects. For the exhibition Abstract Cabinet at EASTSIDE Projects, Freee have developed a three pronged campaign. Two billboards, one outside above the gallery door and the other on the back wall inside, and 100 coloured balloons carried by gallery invigilators, and a manifesto, are intended to act, singularly and collectively, as mini temporary counter-public spheres.

Freee’s use of slogans is self-consciously performative – in the original sense developed by J. L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words, and in the extended sense developed by Judith Butler of acts which transform the conditions that bring them about. And this is why we use slogans rather than enigmatic literary phrases, names, descriptions or facts. Slogans are interesting because they divide opinion and do not call for interpretation but action: slogans are passed on by people who agree with them, shared in collective chanting, and ambushed by people who oppose them.

Today the key question about politics is how to stop it from becoming the professional activity of a small minority i.e. of politics being reduced to policing. Our work refuses to limit its politics to addressing the professionalized field of politics and management (activist art). Also, the work is not satisfied with the tasks appointed to art by big business and local government (culture led regeneration, new genre public art), or what’s left of politics in art after the elimination of critique (relational aesthetics). Moreover, we would argue, if the importation of politics into art is seen as abject (as being in the wrong place, so to speak), this is not quite true for the politicization of art, which sees art as always and immanently political.

Time is central to the project, as it is with all our works. Delay is built into the project. A sequence opens up in real time that changes the character of the elements of the work and the social relations that they embody. The photographs of the balloons printed up as billboards were taken in advance of the exhibition and remain visible after the last balloon has been taken away. Thus, they act as advert and document of a temporary performance in the space, which may well turn into a hundred dispersed semi-permanent exhibitions on fridge doors, in coat pockets, tied to a pram, or stored in kitchen drawers, between the pages of a book, kept in a box.

The slogans on the balloons precede the exhibition and later act as backdrops for photos that are then printed as billboard images pasted directly on the walls of the gallery. The work is not over when the artists’ photograph the curator surrounded by sloganeering balloons, neither is it completed when the photos are pasted up as billboard images. The work doesn’t finish its journey when the balloons enter the gallery space, carried by invigilators. The balloons, we should remember, are placed in the gallery to be taken out. And this is why the work shifts spatially too.

This is why Freee’s work is never, strictly speaking, site specific. Rather, the work continually folds one site into another. The work is always dispersing and contracting, back and forth between sites. Balloons, actual and depicted, move from space to space, format to format, relationship to relationship. Finally, if we could map the movements of the balloons we would see these coloured dots winding their way from the gallery through the streets to peoples homes, or let loose instead of drifting outwards into the city moving upwards into the sky.