Indebtedness – Liability and debts

For quite some time now, a governmental technique or governance has come to the fore in post-Fordist capitalism that is called debt. (Cf. Lazzarato 2012: 39f.) This is a dispositive that engages in the machinic fabrication of economic debt by massively socializing the power-based creditor-debtor relation in favor of the creditor, who, however, at the same time appears as debtor (banks) in a position to transform any money into credit, which he calls his property for the purpose of multiplication. In our context, the term governance always remains related to Foucault’s notion of governmentality, which describes that intersection of state techniques of power/governmental practices and individual techniques of self, „at which the way individuals are directed by others is linked to the way they direct themselves. „1 The concept of governmentality is thus conceived by Foucault in terms of a precise definition and sharpening of the problem of governance in that he describes government as the „leadership of leaderships,“ as an objectified and stratified constellation of power in which both the „government of the self“ and the „government of others“ remain involved. (Cf. Lemke 2007: 53f. ) The linking of governing („gouverner“) and ways of thinking („mentalité“) means, in Foucault’s context, that inherent in the notion of governmentality is a form of representation that indicates how, as government, one can deploy discursive (and non-discursive) fields that make it possible not only to ground but also to conceptualize and stratagemize a productive exercise of power in the course of democratic politicizations, planning, and valorizations of practices of living and experiencing. With regard to government, we have always been dealing with machinic policies that operate in a politico-economic time-space curved by powerful attractors in which they are historically-singularly actualized, with policies offering a set of options that are harmonizing or conflicting strategies of solving, processing, and managing the socio-economic field. These strategies provide options for intervention that take place in and from the relevant institutions, apparatuses, and technologies. Thus, governance does not represent a privilege of the state alone, but should generally be understood as a rational control practice of institutions and socialities within the framework of power relations, whereby the productive interventions with regard to the valorization of life, cognition and body extend to the most diverse fields of the political, the economic and the social (ibid: 35f.), until one can finally speak with Negri/Hardt of an extremely fluid type of power, a „governance without government“. And it remains to be emphasized with Agamben that the „terminus technicus“ of Foucault’s studies of governmentality is the concept of the dispositif, which a) defines an ensemble of discursive and non-discursive elements – institutions, apparatuses, laws, machines, objects and statements, etc., b) denotes the strategic (and stratified) functions within power relations, and c) connects power and knowledge relations, including their materialization in institutions, functions and structures. (Agamben 2008: 9) Through a specific expansion of the concept of the dispositive, Agamben finally arrives at the view that every affliction of living beings – be it evoked by human or non-human objects, from factories to literature to cell phones – remains indebted to something like a dispositive. For Agamben, it is only from the relations of forces between the dispositifs and the living beings that subjects emerge, which are permeated by manifold processes of subjectivation and desubjectivation in accordance with the growth, organization, and concatenation of the dispositifs. (Agamben 2008: 26f) Thus, every kind of governmental technique and every single governmental dispositif includes processes of desubjectivation and subjectivation; in the case of the dispositifs of control, these are very specific machinic processes in and with which individuals are able to produce themselves as free, i.e., as self-controlling, increasing, and optimizing „subjects.“ Beyond this, however, Negri also understands the Foucauldian dispositif as a potential for resistance, as an interplay of machinic conatus (striving) and productive cupiditas (passion) that strengthens the autonomy of subjects within and against the capital relation, insofar as the degree of contingency allowed by the flexible techniques of government is understood as an enabling condition of transversal power and, if possible, overridden.

And even household debt today implies a technique of government (a dispositive of power that requires persons to incur and, of course, repay debts) that banks and credit companies use in order, through their extension of credit, to place wage earners under the coercion, experienced both physically and psychologically, of regular debt repayment, to which they have contractually committed themselves – thus making them permanently participate in the „moral“ mode of self-responsible control and discipline, and this by means of the techniques of individualization (one stands by one’s debts, indeed one affirms one’s debts) and valorization (of labor assets and ways of life), which are present for the powerless debtors all their lives, not only temporarily (during working hours). We see, we have to take debt at this point as a (lived) technology for fabrication and modulation, for regulation and control of subjectivity, which is always accompanied by new practices of productive self-control, so that it is now the individual, ever already divided by demoscopy and social control, the dividend itself, that exercises control in relation to itself when it wants to organize its life as a permanently indebted „economic subject“. Finally, all monetary expenditures are to be reviewed in relation to debt. And this is happening today as part of an increasing economic precarization of large segments of the population. Thus, one screws the technologies of the self with the economic logic of precarization, and the latter calls for still taking on all the risks and costs of the social, which, after all, are already privatized for the most part, so that precisely private debts, low incomes, or competitively oriented social benefits are to be managed individually. (Cf. Lazzarato 2012: 107f.) In this context, things actually go together perfectly – control of time and space, control of subjectivity, projection of control into the future – all factors that for certain strata of the population are in a certain sense characterized by economic debt, if private debt does not even lead to a reduction to bare living, with which a process of de-subjectivization takes place that is no longer connected to any forms of subjectivization – e.g., radical impoverishment. For example, radical impoverishment, Hartz IV and the resulting complete fragmentation of the social body, when, for example, so-called elements unwilling to work are shipped into 30 square meter modular cells and connected to digital consoles, so that they experience the world outside long ago no longer as Benjamin’s television viewing, but as television. Within the framework of this new biopolitics, which names a constellation in which the state and sub-state dispositives no longer produce any subjects, life ultimately remains subject to the pure administrative activity of state institutions, which quite deliberately no longer permit any recomposition of subjectivity in the course of the formation of (politicized) masses. Beyond that, however, even bare life, of which Agamben constantly speaks, can become the source of a return, as has happened in the U.S., for example, when, as a result of the use of statistical models with which one calculates the probability of a defaulting debt repayment for a person in relation to the total population, loans that are considered bad from the outset are issued to weak income strata or those suspected of insolvency and are also traded in the context of so-called securitization procedures. However, at this point we must not conceal the fact that we have long been dealing with a „transversal precarization“ (Marchart 2013: 398) across all strata of the population and their stratifications, which, like indebtedness, leads to an at least latently insistent lability of all spaces of the social. The interplay of indebtedness, substitution of the wage form by fee payment, and finally affective self-government subjects the management of labor power to a completely new model of risk, which calls for the permanent shaping of the same. With regard to the production of subjectivity, it is thus no longer only the dispositifs of security that, according to Foucault, produce „a surplus of freedom through a surplus of control and intervention“ (cf. Foucault 2004b: 103), but above all the dispositifs of self-optimization and self-control that enable a believing and authenticated and at the same time highly emotionalized self-realization along the regulating-regulated models of the self. Most biopolitical governmental techniques today intervene by means of the dispositifs of control in socio-economic spaces and times, they benefit from „a mathematical support […] that is at the same time a kind of integrating force inside the fields of rationality acceptable and accepted at the time.“ (Foucault 2004a: 92)

According to Foucault, if the concepts of biopower and biopolitics can be used to describe the entry of bios, political life into the fields of power and politics within a singular history, then biopower, in a different weighting to biopolitics, organizes the historical regulations of bodies as well as populations in a socio-economic field, in which capital and its population are „free“ to flow as unhindered and unrestrained as possible after the dismantling of sovereignty and its forms of government, while in the sense of affirming and multiplying life (through biopower), at the same time, processes of articulating, forming, and condensing interests must be taken into account, and this is where the deployment site of biopolitical dispositifs is to be located. Biopolitics inheres modes of governance that push for the acceleration, valorization, and regulation of flows, for functional circulation of commodities, goods, services, money, and capital, and this in the sense of a permanent modulation, for example, also of labor assets and, finally, of life itself, which is transformed into a functional model of biopolitical calculations and power-knowledge. If, between the 17th and 19th centuries, the function of disciplinary dispositives was to bind the orientation of the individual to a small number of constitutive norms, the motivational techniques of the 20th and 21st centuries are much more focused on the controlling and controlled increase of the degrees of freedom and belief of individuals/individuals. The mathemes of power are now much less based on the internalized execution of obedience, but aim at the active self-enhancement of actors who treat all of their faculties, from emotion to cognition, as if they were an ever-exploitable resource, ultimately to produce efficiency, indeed to optimize social productivity and subjectivity. (Cf. Lemke,T. 2013) It is, after all, the lived technologies and forms of subjectivation of the new labor entrepreneur that increasingly take root in consciousnesses and psyches, and probably even neuronally pave their way, through which the biopolitics of neoliberal regimes then take their controls. In this context, Foucault shows how conceptual tools, discourses, and technologies are developed in the different variants of neoliberalism not only to set up and stabilize heterogeneity between economic machines, institutions, and political bodies at new levels, but also to produce new forms of subjectivizations. He does not mention in his book The Birth of Biopolitics, however, that these subjectivizations are quite incisively borne by the prospect of following obligations, i.e., becoming „subjects“ who function less as enclosed „subjects“ than as „indebted subjects“ (Deleuze) repaying their debts for life, thus directly externalizing the security dispositif onto the future.

The reconceptualization of the relationship between the state and the economy, to which the neoliberal model attaches particular importance, now consists precisely in making the modes of operation of the market the exclusive organizing principle of state action; therein, after all, lies the task of any constructive-strategic governmental action, according to the neoliberal conceptualists themselves. First of all, state interventionism contains a Kantian moment that serves to support possibilities of competition and enterprise by the state on the basis of the social as a „natural condition.“ Neoliberalism thus clearly contradicts the ideology of the passive consumer (without, however, today getting rid of the service provider’s status as a consumer of labor); instead, the individual is to situate himself as the production and enterprise of himself. Second, the philosophical roots of neoliberal intervention can be traced back to Husserl. In this case, competition does not open up as a law of nature, but shows itself as the essence of the social itself, which, however, has to be constantly constructed and formalized; in a different weighting than in classical liberalism, the market cannot be freed from the state here in any case, whereby the emergence of competition is also not established as a law of nature, but rather the state has to permanently intervene from now on in order to establish or at least promote competition on all levels of the social. However, classical liberalism already suggested that the social field should be regulated with the help of political-economic principles, by means of modes of government which, with the establishment of market structures, should achieve an optimization of the respective government action itself. Today, neoliberal governance is anti-Keynesian, i.e., in any case, politico-economic strategies should aim less at commodification qua strengthening of effective demand than at the production of a constructive diversity and differentiation of capitalization itself. And Foucault goes on to say at this point that in addition to the heterogeneous ensembles of the economy and the state with regard to the control and regulation of life, a third element is needed, because neither law nor market mechanisms alone are capable of reconciling the heterogeneity of the state and the economy; heterogeneity that consists, among other things, in the fact that the legal subject surrenders its rights to the state, while the economic subject serves the common good precisely by consistently pursuing its own interests. And this third is the social – an ensemble of governmental techniques experimenting in the field of the social – which today, however, is completely neutralized as the product of those neoliberal techniques and technologies and functions above all as the effect of technological, political and economic machines to whose flows almost all strata of the population, their composite bodies and consciousnesses are productively coupled (and much less included today), and this completely detached from any idea of a wild community. (Cf. Lazzarato 2012: 107ff.)

The quintessence of Foucault, which is that capitalism makes the different logics compatible – economic, political and social logics – this is also found at the level of debt: private debt, public debt and social debt. The latter are to be understood as processes of managing collective lifestyles and regulating the population through welfare state programs challenging full-time social activity; it is a matter of an individualizing and at the same time collectivizing management of debt, with the social increasingly falling into line with political and media apparatuses and regulated, indebted subjects. And it is precisely at this point that a new mode of governmental biopower/biopolitics emerges within a debt dispositif immanent to capitalism. (Ibid.: 95f.) In this context, it also seems downright absurd to speak of the state as an abstract form in the sense of an unchanging definition, for the state – neither subject nor instrument – is never to be conceived as an empty container or space in Newton’s sense (by putting something into it), rather it is more like a Leibnizian space, which as such remains permanently changeable. There are no capitalist enterprises without a capitalist state, but without a state center from which the heterogeneous dispositives of power would emerge, for the respective economic, political, and social machines permanently produce their own power effects, but are held together and chained by what we call here, in contrast to Lazzarato, who employs universal debt economics at this point, structures/systems of capitalization, the economic as determinant in the last instance. Of course, Lazzarato is correct in pointing out that Foucault did not direct the problematics surrounding the governmentality of liberal and neoliberal governance to the issue of debt and its inherent power relations, although he did anticipate to some extent the accompanying transformations of the neoliberal power bloc and the transformation of democracies into post-disciplinary regimes. However, Lazzarato’s attempt to subsume the unifying regime or dispositif that unites finance, real economy, and state under the term universal debt economy remains highly questionable when he even presents it as a negative ontological existential (of a Nietzsche), thus simply undercutting the effects of the comprehensive structurings and systematizations of monetary capitalization (in its differential) as we have presented them so far. Lazzarato assumes two basic hypotheses, a) the primacy of the asymmetric and personal debt relation over a-personal exchange relations, b) the debt economy operates through the production of subjects, that is, through the mechanisms of discipline, control and morality. However, to understand the current configuration of debt, it is still necessary to assume that the debt economy is part of a capitalist „logic“ that operates simultaneously equivalent and non-equivalent, processing through equivalence and asymmetry, indeed through a production of identity and difference. In this context, the functions of money remain of paramount importance, and this precisely not simply as debts created ex nihilo, but as part of the various formats of capitalization as we discuss them in this paper. Money as a medium has by no means been transformed into personal relations within the framework of the credit system; rather, persons are transformed into money, indeed money incarnates them, i.e. persons become consumer articles of capitalization and the material shaped by money. Without paying attention to the modes of operation (legal, financial, mathematical, etc.) of commensuration and capitalization, which make it possible to tranch and redistribute debts so that they can circulate through the financial system independently of social and subjective referents, financialization and its crisis symptomatics could not be understood at all. Maurizio Lazzarato’s idea of the primacy of an asymmetric creditor-debtor relation over the capital relation, as one also finds in David Graeber’s work, by the way, cannot express money as money capital, in whose relation to itself the phenomenon of indebtedness is precisely integrated. Instead, Lazzarato’s conception of a catastrophic future without a future, based on the universal problem of debt as well as a Nietzschean-inspired analysis of asymmetric power, assigns an almost godlike status to the creditor. Lazzarato’s non-economic theory of economics thus goes in a very different direction from ours, following the imperative, in the face of current economic transformations, to move from a critique of political economy to a theory of general production or general economy, to bring Bataille’s categorization into play here, an economy that traverses or includes the material, imaginary, and symbolic economies, the relationship between desire and accumulation, the symbolic and monetary structures and processes. The attempt to combine an over-politicization of the debt economy with a hypernominalism cannot grasp the logic of capitalization and its limits, which allow for conjunctures, contingencies, and stratagems, if, moreover, one reads the Nietzean relation of forces to mean that in the credit relation in particular the master and servant relation continues to operate, although even Deleuze/Guattari, to whom Lazzarato constantly refers, speak of an axiomatization of capital, which in turn refers to the mathem of the economy.

Let us take a brief digression on the morality and theology of debt, and then return to the governance of debt. Within the contextual framework set by the theological dispositif of debt, it does not seem possible to make moral debt analogous to debt as inherent in an economic relationship (the economic creditor, if debt is not paid, may also make suffering). Debt (not debts) is defined a priori as sin or hypostatized to sin in Christianity and precisely cannot be paid, which in the same breath, according to Nietzsche, justifies earthly life as suffering and devalues it in favor of transcendent promises of redemption. (Cf. Deleuze 1985: 107f.) And in the bad conscience, guilt, according to Nietzsche, who here purely envisages the moral/religious discourse on guilt, shifts to the interior of a devaluing, reactive life, whereby the mode of internalized guilt in Christianity is consistently based on a discourse of transcendence. The attempt to analogize religiously motivated guilt (which cannot be separated from transcendence) with the constellation of economic indebtedness in capitalism (and this in relation to the figure of the infinite), as Lazzarato elaborates in his book The Fabrication of the Indebted Man, hereby appears blurred. In this context, Lazzarato writes that in capitalism, the thinking of the infinite (diffused from Christianity into religion) has been definitively grounded in economics, and this in turn legitimately corresponds with the notion of anthropology, which states that money did not emerge at all as a medium of exchange, but as an expression of a debt (sacrificial money) that cannot be paid in itself. (Lazzarato 2012: 71f.) When Lazzarato writes that capital as the self-movement of money, thanks to its production of debt in perfect immanence, shifts its internal limits to infinity, one must not, however, at the same time neglect the reality of capital as its finitude. In Lazzarato’s case, it is precisely not seen that the economic debt relation, as we find it in capitalism, has an inherent (measurable) finitude insofar as the credit relation entered into between two actors forces the creditor not only to assume the possibility of the debtor’s insolvency, but to calculate it as precisely as possible and thus, in the best case, to exclude it, by calculating the immanent risk inherent in the debt-toincome ratio – and this with a view to expecting the debtor to pay the interest and repay the loan on time, i.e. to service the due dates and to schedule the loan so that it can be finally liquidated at a point in time fixed in the contract. Nowadays, of course, debts can also be distributed, split and securitized, so that a machinic connection of lenders and borrowers (who remain unknown to each other) takes place, a virtual, an endless or infinite concatenation of credits, which postpones repayment in a crazy way, which in turn arises from the demand for more included in the credit and is articulated today as differential accumulation of money capital. But even this potentially endless concatenation of credit usually breaks off at a certain point and thus remains finite, either through the redemption of the debt and the associated dissolution of the credit relationship or through the insolvency of a debtor. The infinite postponement of the repayment of the loan thus has a specific finiteness inherent in it.

One could see a further analogy between the economic debt relation and the religious interpretation of debt in the fact that the credit relation is based on an act of faith on the part of the creditor, which the latter, however, tries to limit from the outset by exploring or analyzing the financial status of the debtor. And by no means every act of faith must have a religious motivation. If, for example, Samuel Weber sees Luther’s „sola fide“ principle, which attributes the ability to redeem not so much to good works but to faith alone, as the starting point for a credit relationship based on salvation history, and concludes from this that in capitalism it is not production but only credit (faith in the future) and the consumption arising from it that can hold out the prospect of redemption (cf. Weber 2009), then it would have to be countered that, with regard to economic debt, we are dealing with a highly secularized faith that the subject risks with his economic commitment, especially with regard to the role of the creditor, whose success is not guaranteed from the outset by the receipt of interest, which is why he engages in calculation in the first place. The calculation of the risk and not the belief in redemption characterize today’s economic debt procedure or the asymmetric creditor-debtor relation, which both sides enter into, and this not at all in order to find „redemption“ in it, but in order to achieve, in the best case, a surplus of whatever kind for both sides, whereby the surplus (interest) and the surplus enjoyment can coincide or fall apart in capitalism, depending on which economic position the participants already assume before entering into the credit relation. Thus, credit is not primarily based on faith, but primarily on the deposit of collateral. In terms of time, this means that time is inherent in credit, but not an unlimited time, but a limited time; it demands metrics, scheduling, and cadence. It is about structurings of time in time. If, for example, financial capitalist and functioning capitalist stand opposite each other in this relationship, the doubling of monetary capital produces, in addition to mutual surplus, a possibility of mutual surplus enjoyment, while consumer credit promises the debtor no surplus, but at least a house, a car and extended forms of consumption, which the debtor is also able to realize to a certain extent. Today, consumer credit not only occupies, regulates and controls working time, but increasingly also the debtor’s life time and every expression of life (by the way, quite in contrast to archaic or pre-capitalist worship, where there were still separations between everyday life and celebration) – a strange promise of redemption that the credit transactions make there.

Nor can credit, in terms of its function in pre-capitalist societies, in any way be conflated with capitalist credit relations, as David Graeber, for example, does. In pre-capitalist societies, „obligations,“ writes Polanyi, „are usually of a specific nature, and their fulfillment is a qualitative affair, whereby they lack one characteristic of payment – their quantitative character.“ (Polanyi 1979: 323) And Polanyi goes on to write, „A violation of sacred and social obligations, whether to god, tribe, clan, totem, village, age group, caste, or guild, is not compensated by payment, but by a qualitative act. The fulfillment of an obligation may include courtship, marriage, exclusion, dance, song, disguise, fasting, lamentation, laceration, even suicide, but they do not therefore constitute a form of payment.“ (Ibid.) Thus, to fulfill a social obligation in the context of the existence of pre-capitalist sacrificial money is not necessarily to enter into an economic credit relationship. In this context, one should think of the so-called homo debitor as an extended form of the modern homo economicus, as the indebted economic subject in capitalism, whose temporality today one tries to regulate in toto, to dominate and to make subject to social control; it appears completely integrated into the debt machinery of financialization, in that its future horizon is stretched out in the form of a completely secularized promise, faith, and trust, in order to create a controlled more of capital and more-enjoyment (depending on which economic position one takes), which finally congeals into the all-decisive imperative, a really very worldly form of transcendence, which finally has something to do with religion only insofar as the highest form of religion today has its religiousness confirmed by court order, as L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, has demonstrated with his peculiar way of „sacralizing“ profane contents of any kind, only to make it known that one can certainly put one’s own religion into the world in order to show that religion does not exist.2

To return to the starting point of debt: Debt implies specific problems, it promises and creates possibilities, it constitutes in capitalism and its unique machinery of options one of the essential conditions for generating profits at all (with credit, money is sold as money for an availability of time always projected into the future. See Esposito 2010: 71f.) One could therefore summarize without further ado: Whoever does not get into debt under capitalism is to blame. In economics, guilt is precisely the one who does not get into debt, whereas in the religious context, guilt is the one who gets into debt (which then has to be atoned for eternally. ) Debt thus requires a thoroughly secularized creed that relies on anticipation and postponement simultaneously, either in the sense of hope as the postponement of fulfillment (creditor) or, conversely, as the premature fulfillment (debtor) in order, in the best case, as is the case with derivatives overtrading, to spend virtual income now, before it has even been earned. And this kind of secularized creed, which is essentially enlightened about its own mode of believability, is based on the affirmation of an unthought-of self-movement of capital and the included „submission to the permanent, and as in itself infinitely constituted, irredeemable ‚indebtedness principle‘ of ‚abstract labor.'“ (Kurz 2012: 399) However, Kurz’s terms would have to be made more precise here in such a way that, first, the relation of finitude and infinity included in credit is not left unmentioned, and, second, the concept of abstract labor is made more precise by that of capitalization. It is, after all, the case that the belief in the amount x plus n is complementary to the purchase of a security at the price x with the instruction on future income x plus n (mathem of economics). (Cf. Strauß 2011) Thus, it is not so much about the mode of improbability, which, by the way, plays a supporting role in various postmodern theoretical approaches, where it is claimed that precisely because of the complex calculation procedures regarding capitalistically tradable futures, the world, which has become even more complex as a result, has become completely unpredictable and unpredictable and, precisely for this reason, has something essentially religious about it. In this context, it must be taken into account that Benjamin’s critical impetus, when he calls capitalism a religion, is often reinterpreted by the squad of postmodernists as an affirmation of capitalist markets. And here we should also mention Benjamin’s list of the religious characteristics of the capital fetish, which includes, among other things, the term indebtedness, whereby Benjamin analogizes the moral becoming guilty, which must be atoned for – and this entirely in the sense of religiously conditioned structures of personal obligation relationships – with the economic indebtedness procedure in capitalism, without taking a closer look at the immanence of capital, which constitutes the economic debt relationship, in contrast to religious transcendence. Rudolf Kaehr implicitly alludes to this in his response to Benjamin’s religiously motivated critique of capitalism, in order to then think of the form of capitalist reversal in which debts actually become profits, whereby this figure is already inscribed in the economic dispositif of capitalism, which, as Kaehr remarks following Bataille, should be exploded. Kaehr writes: „It is a characteristic weakness of the Western critique of capitalism to be caught up in its own paradigm. What would have become of Walter Benjamin’s profound analyses if he had freed himself from the compulsion to trace everything back to one thing? […] How would his ideas have developed if he had seen not only the aspect of anchoring a property in a debt, but also the aspect of anchoring a debt in a property? Why should it not have been conceivable to dare to think beyond debt and fortune? Did George Bataille not spend enough time in heterogeneity to think a sovereignty beyond economic debt? And what would have become of a religion, say of liberation, if anchoring had turned out to be a clearing of any anchors and clearing had turned out to be an enabling of anchoring, beyond any necessity but with all the agility of an origin-free economy? Not to think how West German philosophy and critique of capitalism could then have freed itself from its myths of origin.“ (Kaehr 2013) It is readily apparent that the figure of indebtedness (contrary to the figure of an origin-free economy) refers, on the one hand, to a rather sad memory of one’s own debt incurrence and, on the other hand, to the calculative anticipation of the future in order to ensure terminations in both directions fluently in time, which are, after all, necessary in order to be able to project and also carry out, above all, the future as a calculable forward transaction in permanence.

The economic dispositif of indebtedness in capitalism thus produces very specific forms of subjectivation, whereby we have known since Nietzsche at the latest that the relation of indebtedness implies not only the promise on the part of the debtor to repay the debt, including interest, in the future, but also the thoroughly calculated belief on the part of the creditor that the debtor will actually do so, which in turn presupposes reactive forces on the part of the debtor in order to be able to take on debts and also service them in a self-responsible manner. The constellation of debt implies the active, calculating faith of the creditor in the steady amortization of the debt plus return, which is guaranteed by the word credit. Included in this is the hope that the debtor, as, for example, a functioning capitalist, will himself generate returns in the future, so that repayment of the debt plus interest is guaranteed, also with a view to taking on and piling up further debt with the creditor, in order to make possible higher returns for both sides as a result.3 The logical-economic preconditions necessary to enter into a creditor-debtor relationship at all consist, with regard to the debtor, among other things, in the debtor’s willingness to make a promise for the future (which includes the possibility of insolvency and is assessed as a risk on the part of the creditor) in order to then be able to make a profit as a debtor or to carry out a consumption right now. These forms of temporality represent, in fact, a significant feature of how debt establishes a new ethics of action and self-constitution, to produce, above all, the responsible and, at the same time, the enjoying subject, a subject that, as Lazzarato correctly insists, never functions purely cognitively, never mobilizes only its psychic and intellectual capacities, but also its other corporeal potencies, if it calculates then the ethical time of choice, of decision, of affects and of playing with the future, in order to articulate itself as the measure of its own creditworthiness, and this within the framework of an appreciation that always requires the evaluation of the indebted subject by the creditor. When Lazzarato introduces Marx, of all people, into his analysis in this context, he refers to the little-known 1844 text Credit and Bank (MEGA II IV/2: 428ff.), for here Lazzarato finds a „Nietzschean Marx“ who ties the conditions of indebtedness entirely to the circumstances and lifestyles of the poor, those who must rent out large portions of their lives. (Lazzarato 2012: 60ff.) In several passages, Lazzarato reiterates that the thesis of cognitive capitalism cannot entirely grasp the dimension of debt(s); rather, with recourse to Nietzsche, it is necessary to take into account the affirmation of corporeal forces that play a weighty role with regard to the establishment of the subject’s relation to its future. (Cf. Lazzarato 2012: 49f.) In general, however, one would have to argue against the dichotomy of cognition and body in order not to position new forms of a posthuman concept against abstraction and difference by simply calling for more life, more affects, etc. again.

Instead of being able to freely invest in physical or intellectual capacities (forme de vie) with the help of credit, the credit relation, especially as consumer credit, actually formulates and formats the subjectivation of the masses themselves, directed into the future, and for this very reason becomes a question of ethics. From this point of view, credit not only accesses working time, but increasingly occupies the entire existence of wage-dependents, or rather their lifetime, by always promising something, which at the same time means that on the part of the debtor, very specific risks must be permanently processed, whereby it finally becomes a duty to continuously conjecture about one’s own future in order to make the corresponding provisions with regard to the fulfillment of the credit. (Ibid.) What is seized here is the future itself, or what Lazzarato calls the „debt-relations‘ asphyxiation of futures.“ The problem of debt is thus inseparable from precarization, which demands the social life plan as the permanent processing of one’s life as a risk. At this point, in terms of its governance of indebtedness/precarization, financialized capitalism involves a specific form of future processing or a right of first refusal on the future; in any case, the future politics of fictional/speculative capital ultimately orders which forms of production (of life-time) and products are actualized there. Both Maurizio Lazzarato, who deploys indebtedness as the decisive figure of subjectivation within the framework of a debt-economy, and Oliver Marchart, who replaces the term indebtedness with the panoramic concept of precarization, would object that the identification of such a dominant form of subjectivation underestimates the opportunism of capital, its capacity to be to some extent indifferent to the mentalities and desires of the masses. The premise that there is a dominant paradigm of subjectivation in contemporary capitalism not only ignores the class-specific variations of subjectivation within the debt economy, but also neglects that the specific form of non-political and indirect coercion by which capital is characterized is so powerful precisely because capital often processes without a specific capital mentality or subjectivity. Social subjectivation operates at the molar level of the subject’s control over the mechanisms of memory, consciousness, and representations, while „machinic subjugation“ (Deleuze/Guattari) establishes a molecular, pre-individual, and infrapersone access to the dividend that does not traverse either reflexive consciousness or its representations. And it is precisely the form of future processing qua indebtedness and/or precarization that seems to lead today to a general fatigue of the masses. For the first time in history, we are apparently confronted with a future of fatigue or exhaustion: Fatigue of ideas and natural resources, of productive ventures and mental and physical resources. In the process, the very idea of a progressive future is fading away with the permanent adjustment of the capitalist parameters of future processing.

When Lazzarato writes that the social, asymmetrical relation between creditor and debtor forms the core of modern Western society, because today, with regard to debt, it no longer makes any difference to distinguish between worker and unemployed, producer and consumer, pensioner and welfare recipient, etc., because in the end, the debtor and the debtor take up the same amount of money. If the author is saying that it is no longer possible to distinguish between workers and the unemployed, producers and consumers, pensioners and welfare recipients, etc., because, after all, these groups all assume the position of a (universal) debtor who is guilty and thus at the same time also fully responsible vis-à-vis the capital relation, then he is primarily addressing the dispositive of that indebtedness which takes place in the mode of consumer credit: A matrix of governmental governability and regulation, which always includes special processes of subjectivation, in order to finally produce very specifically conditioned subjects, who can more or less well afford their financial existence by means of consumer credit, or if one wants to formulate it more abstractly, who are always anxious, by means of crediting, to actively treat their self (Lazzarato quotes Nietzsche here: „work on the self, ordeal on the self,“ with which even desire becomes part of the economic infrastructure, ibid. : 56f.) to actively shape, modulate, and also exploit as a resource.4 One should therefore assume that today’s dispositives of control operate in a far more subtle and sophisticated way than with the mere use of disciplinary governmental techniques and/or moral and pseudo-religious discourses that place the guilt and responsibility of the individual at the center of their observations, rather, the dispositifs with their mathemes of power move toward the economic-rational control of the dividend/individual, and do so as an imaginative interplay between foreign determination and auto-operational bending upon itself (Cf. Sloterdijk 2009: 589) In this process, the dividend/individual oscillates primarily between two forms of integration: a) the regulation and control of information, migration, and labor flows by means of the creation of entry barriers for the respective distribution networks, and b) the forced integration into a monetary circuit, which is inherent in the impotence of purchasing power.

Consumer credit – quite in contrast to the credit transaction between capitalist actors, which does not imply a redistribution of existing abstract wealth, but a mode of access to future abstract wealth – contains the ideal promise of prosperity, it articulates the monetarily fueled and stimulated hope, with which at some point the certainty is to be realized that one can freely shape time, with which consumer credit, in addition to its granted pleasures, implies precisely the infinite postponement of this fulfillment, while at the same time time time time is radically bound, time is downright stolen from the debtor. And the history of economized schizophrenia is not too difficult to understand or to continue when, for example, employees today function as wage earners and at the same time as entrepreneurs/shareholders. This form of schizophrenia, by permanently cutting the ego, generates the problem of mobilization and motivation in the mode of a productive biopolitics, because the excellent „human capital“ is not something that is simply already there, but something that has to be constantly constructed, built and maintained as capital competence. In a sense, a transformation from passive to active subjectivation can be seen here, but it remains inscribed in the capitalist logic with its postmodern operators. With the miraculous transformation of wage-earners into two kinds of actants, they are, on the one hand, integrated more strongly than ever into the external and internal production processes in the factories as small shareholders, above all because of shareholder value dominance, in order to call them, on the other hand, as wage-earners and thus at the same time as credit-seekers or savers, and to motivate them a second time in this respect. With this two-fold mechanism, income, wages and savings are sucked into the processes of financialization on a large scale, also by transforming wage earners into small financial investors with the help of such factors as company pensions, insurance and pension funds. Already in the neoliberal theories of the Chicago School, wage-earners no longer appear as dependent employees of a company, but are constantly transformed into „human capital“ (with the factors of physical-genetic manifestation, totality of learned abilities or results of one’s own „investments“ qua upbringing, nutrition and education) or into autonomous entrepreneurs, who make their respective investment decisions completely on their own responsibility, in order to achieve the optimal subjective benefit, which is expressed in monetary value. One modifies in the history of neoliberalism above all also the members of the precariat to enterprises of their own. And it is hardly surprising that this kind of generalization of the corporate form congeals into a social model, within which, however, the actors in the labor markets function precisely not primarily as producers of goods and services, but as consumers (who are regarded as the embodied demand for labor and precisely not as the embodied supply) who enter the social stage, where they mutate into customers of agencies, into buyers of labor that are temporally actualized via an act of purchase. (Cf. Treusch-Dieter 2003) And even if the labor power is still spent, it is deleted from the consumer, because he no longer defines himself through an act of production, but rather through an act of purchase. The „Modern Service“ can rely on the fact that this act of purchase will also occur through the demand for labor that is presupposed for it, not so much with regard to the lack of labor, but with regard to the permanent need for advice, training and further education „on the labor market“, since the consumer of labor remains dependent on this acquisition of knowledge for the maintenance and expansion of his information value. By buying labor, individuals may become entrepreneurs of themselves, and this in turn does honor to the concept of capital of neoliberalism, which mutates into capital everything that generates income, be it profit, interest, pensions or the various types of income of wage earners. However, this is far from putting the labor entrepreneur as a precarious and indebted subject under the microscope, as it actually presents itself today, whereby it has to behave as an entrepreneurial subject even with regard to the organization of mini-jobs and the receipt of social benefits, with regard to investments in individual insurance, the organization of education, consumer credits or other loans, so that indebted subjects tend to coincide with their functions of being precarious employees, receiving social benefits, consumers of labor and labor entrepreneurs. Consequently, financial economics continues to work through the paradox that those whose wages are being cut at all levels should at the same time be the consumers with the most purchasing power, which of course can only be „solved“ by granting loans. Lazzarato summarizes, „The financial sector is a war machine of privatization that transforms social rights into credits, into individual insurances and pensions (shares), and therefore into individual property.“ (Lazzarato 2012: 100)

Today’s consumer credit buyers are in debt perhaps for the next twenty years on average, if not for their entire lives, generating debt for the purchase of a home or automobile, to finance their studies or health insurance, etc., This shows, on the one hand, that formerly state-secured social rights are now privatized as debts (instead of the right to housing, one receives a real estate loan; instead of the right to education, one must finance one’s studies with loans, and so on); on the other hand, the debtor, by taking out the consumer loan, possibly generates a small credit transaction himself, if the consumer loan or the goods consumed with it are themselves suitable as collateral for new consumer loans. The transformation of social rights into debt, the privatization of pension insurance, the mutation of social spending into a source of profits – all this points to the primacy of property rights, rights equated with financial securities. As Lapavitsas argues, banks today are generally interested (and depending on economic cycles) in attracting wage earners as new borrowers, because credit gives banks a claim on future wage payments, and this in turn has the effect of tending to increase the rate of exploitation (and inflation) as long as workers are unable to enforce higher real wages against capitalists in negotiations or struggles. (Cf. Lapavitsas 2009)

It seems obvious that for universal creditors such as banks, the so-called functioning enterprises are the ideal debtors because they can service the interest and repayment of the loans taken out from the profits and depreciation revenues realized in the „real economy.“ Since the 1970s, financial accumulation has grown much more dynamically than industrial accumulation, so that the financial assets of creditors in particular, as well as the debt sums of debtors, have increased hyper-exponentially. Consequently, at a certain point in time, hedge funds, banks and owners of financial assets started to look for more and more debtors (besides the state) with regard to their vagabond assets. This does not seem surprising in two respects, because the differential accumulation of monetary capital can only work if the monetary assets multiply and at the same time monetary demand for goods, services (and securities) is „provided“. This succeeds very effectively with the construction of consumer credit, because here one actually kills two birds with one stone: On the one hand, consumer credit functions as interest-bearing capital (for the creditor) and on the other hand as effective demand for goods and services. Since, of course, in post-Fordism the effective demand for goods and services can no longer be met from wages and salaries alone, because real wages, which are included as costs in business balance sheets, have been stagnating for more than two decades and state deficit spending is no longer able to compensate for the decline in effective demand, private debt or consumer credit of wage earners must inevitably come more and more into play. And the dispositive of debt in the form of consumer credit, which in recent decades has become much more widespread in the U.S. than in Germany, for example, virtually calls for governmental, biopolitical techniques of governance within the framework of a power-political machinery of financialization that constantly transforms social rights into credit. Instead of a raise you get a loan, instead of the right to retirement you get individual life insurance, instead of the right to housing you get a mortgage, and so on. Finally, the partly state-subsidized indebtedness of wage-earners replaces social housing and rental housing affordable purely from wages, while at the same time cementing prevailing norms of consumption such as the fixation on home ownership or car ownership, whereby it is primarily the so-called middle class – economically upward, culturally downward oriented – that constantly needs instruments, goods and signs to compensate for its losses in value, in self-confidence, in lifestyle and ways of life. And thus, as a result of the stagnation of real wages that has been taking place for decades, or of the wage reduction that is taking place, private debt modulates a sublime biopolitical coercive relationship within which wage earners try to cover the expenses of housing or their own house and car, hospitalization or children’s studies. And one can see, with regard to the expansion and explosion of consumer credit in the U.S. up to the subprime crisis, a spiral development that can be depicted as follows: First, loans are granted, with repayment and interest still being serviced from current income, followed by lending in which the debtor is only able to pay the interest from current income, and finally we are dealing with the ultraspeculative Ponzi mode, by granting consumer loans even to those who are not even able to pay the interest from their current income, which, as could easily be seen in the subprime crisis in the U.S.A. in 2007f, only works as long as the prices of the goods (e.g. houses) purchased with loans rise. houses) rise. The issuance of subprime loans for real estate (the usual „prime“ terms fail) took place in the years before the crisis under the constant relativization of the creditworthiness of the borrower (downward), who now needed virtually no equity capital to take out a mortgage loan. At the same time, in the U.S.A., on a legal basis, from a certain point on, the loan amounts issued could exceed the value of the property by up to 20%, so that debtors increased their overall consumption potential beyond the purchase of a house. However, due to the way the speculative mode worked, more and more subprime loans were not serviced over time, automatically leading to higher interest rates and thus really setting the default movements in motion. It can be assumed that the security of the loans was inadequate from the outset due to U.S. liability law, because borrowers are liable only with their real estate and not with other assets or their income. This made it possible to discharge credit obligations simply by moving out of the house, which inevitably led to an oversupply of houses on the real estate market and a drop in house prices. What is interesting in this context is that U.S. banks, in turn, took out CDS insurance abroad on these unsafe loans at home, thus simply exporting the risk correlated with these loans abroad. Empirically, then, a negative household savings rate could be observed in the U.S. after the New Economy boom, which was the result of private consumption being increasingly financed through debt. Nevertheless, the transformation of social rights into debt remains extremely ambivalent because, on the one hand, post-Fordist biocapitalism establishes impoverishment at a new level – it has been blocking wages and reducing social services for years – but, on the other hand, it produces the thoroughly precarious illusion that one can achieve prosperity and wealth in the future by taking out consumer loans. At the same time, inflation, previously tied to price movements of ordinary goods and services, has today been transformed into a very specific debt-driven mode of self-financing of wealth. In this process, the multiplication of credit, through the borrowing of which every individual is supposed to have the possibility of increasing wealth, has reached a limit for the time being.

Paulo Dos Santos (Dos Santos: 2009) has shown that in recent years the strategies of large banks with regard to the granting of credit have become increasingly focused on private households as well, so that this type of private debt has been able to set in motion a secondary exploitation, because the growing indebtedness of wage earners naturally leads to growing wage deductions.5 The extended reproduction of consumer debt involved the following, especially in the United States: When the consumer bought something with borrowed money, the fact that banks accepted the purchased goods as collateral gave him new money to buy more goods. And thereby the consumer loans issued miraculously turned into collateral and thus into further consumer loans, insofar as the lenders actually assumed that, for example, the monstrously issued mortgages would be repaid. the monstrously issued mortgage loans would lead to ever-increasing real estate prices and thus include the future creditworthiness of the borrowers – and even goods paid for by credit card could serve as collateral for a new loan, and the more credit the consumer took out, the more credit he would receive in the future, possibly until the Minsky moment (named after the neo-Keynesian economist Hyman Minsky, for which see Minsky 2011), which is characterized by the fact that at a certain point current income cannot even pay the interest, which is acceptable to the bank only if the prices of the goods serving as collateral continue to rise, as was just assumed for houses. At the beginning of the new millennium, the real estate boom in the USA was still completely overshadowed by the boom in stock prices, but after the bursting of the New Economy bubble, the rise in real estate prices continued in dramatic fashion. And this had nothing whatsoever to do with construction costs; rental prices also lagged behind the massive rise in real estate prices. Rather, in addition to the immanent mechanism of indebtedness described above, the facilitation of the acquisition of real estate loans by the U.S. government and the Fed played an initiating role in the rapid development of the subprime mortgage market, which, incidentally, was often the only way poor U.S. citizens could obtain a permanent residence. Even in the last boom, however, the home of many U.S. citizens remained only the trailer. It was the obsessive search for new investment opportunities for lendable money capital and the associated re-regulation of the financial sector by the state that forced the debt spirals by potentiating them, as long as it was also possible for the banks to chunk the debts into small units and recombine them qua securitization, until the debts seemingly disappeared into no man’s land, but this nevertheless had a very decisive disadvantage: The debts continued to exist in a parallel universe, the space of the creditors, by all means. The entire debt procedure had also become possible because the banks developed and also used sublime technologies or formalized models to categorize borrowers according to their so-called default potential or insolvency capacity, and at the same time to set in motion a procedure of inclusion when issuing credit cards, which involved the subdivision of borrowers into hierarchically arranged groups in order to set the corresponding interest rates on the basis of these distribution patterns. In this process, borrowers in the lowest category, who would most likely never pay on time and who could be charged higher interest rates for that very reason, were virtually sought out, with at least the future increase in the price of the property on which the borrower had taken out a mortgage being expected in the event of insolvency. However, it was already becoming apparent at the beginning of 2006 that the rise in real estate prices would not continue in this way; at the same time, the burden of debt servicing on private households had continued to increase, and with it the ability to service new loans. Consequently, house vacancies increased and debt levels did not decline.

1 cited in Lemke,T. 2013.

2 Cf. Sloterdijk 2009: 133ff. The result of a secularization of religious belief (in the invisible world and its forces) has been described by Gabriel Tarde as follows: „The real is comprehensible only as an instance of the possible“ and „the actual forms only an infinitesimal part of the real.“ Thus, the actual is never 100% actualized, while economic action in the actual always also refers „to possibilities.“ However, this practical positivism to which the actors adhere does not necessarily have to penetrate as far as the problematic and its virtual potentials; rather, it seems to harbor precisely the opportunism of today’s individual, who quite consciously plays the game with the options in order to achieve the optimal result for himself in a narcissistically motivated manner.

3 „The relationship creditor-debtor brings to light the activity of culture in its process of breeding and shaping,“ Deleuze quotes Nietzsche in his book Nietzsche and Philosophy (Deleuze 1985: 147), alluding to what Nietzsche calls the „oldest“ power relationship, which, in juxtaposition of measuring persons, serves purely to tame the „predatory beast man,“ and does so qua techniques of language and violence that structure the promise of payment as an ongoing act of performance. Nietzsche, however, does not primarily aim here at representing the economic relation of indebtedness, at the fact that credit inheres a promise of payment or future utilization, thus establishing something like memory and subjectivity as a calculable account (of the self), but rather brings into play (moral) techniques of subjectivation that historically occur precisely when processes of internalization of guilt take place under the predominance of religious and moral patterns of interpretation. At this point, Lazzarato cites Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality, in which the emphasis is placed on guilt (not debt), where it is evident to Nietzsche that guilt has a moral and religious dimension as well as encompasses socio-economically obligatory relations before the capitalist-economic dimension of debt has even been historically established.

4We are trapped-as Deleuze and Guattari write in Anti-Oedipus-trapped in debt: We can never cope with debt under capitalism – especially when capital acts as a universal creditor. In this, Deleuze/Guattari assume a historical antecedence of appropriation and taxation apparatuses as well as asymmetrical creditor-debtor relations over economic and symbolic forms of exchange.

5) In 2001, indebted homeowners in the U.S. had to spend an average of 13.9% of their income on debt service; by 2007, the figure was 15.6%. The percentage of indebted homeowners who had to spend 40% or more of their income on debt service increased from 14.7% in 2001 to 18% in 2007.

translated by deepl.

Foto: Sylvia John

Scroll to Top