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an artist's blog

On the concept of Indebted Man

Posted on September 29, 2014 by dbfreee
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
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.


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