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 http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/the_fetishism_of_debt). 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.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s