Last month (October 2014) I was asked to give a response to Etienne Balibar’s paper “The Politics of the Debt” at the Columbia University Seminar in Literary Theory. (Thanks to Bruce Robbins for the invitation.) Balibar’s paper has been published online in Postmodern Culture here. Here are my lightly-edited remarks:
Balibar’s paper makes a far-ranging and very useful intervention in the growing theoretical and political discussion around the current operations of the “debt economy” as well as “the condition of indebtedness” in general. I do not think I need to summarize the paper point by point, nor to recall the various contemporary situations that give this topic its urgency. Instead, I’ll begin by pointing out that, as the *structure* of Balibar’s paper indicates, the problem of debt extends across several discourses and modes of inquiry. Sometimes, in reading the various philosophers or anthropologists or political economists or journalists who have taken up this topic, one can detect a certain eagerness or impatience to nail down the problem in a single set of terms, whether to expose it as a metaphysical mirage, to denounce it as a ruse of political power, or to shrug it off as a symptom of something else. It is the first virtue of Balibar’s paper that it does not reduce the very thing whose prevalence and power must be investigated.
By way of launching our discussion, I will offer seven brief questions or comments about some key points in Balibar’s presentation. Here, in a telegraphic list, are the points I want to emphasize: 1. extensive finance vs. intensive debt; 2. “generalized surplus value;” 3. the topography of debt; 4. the articulation of debt as a “quandary”; 5. the “general economy” of subjectivation; 6. the metamorphoses of owning and owing; and 7. policy vs. politics and property vs. provision.
1. The first part of Balibar’s paper addresses the difference between speculative financial capital and a “generalized debt economy,” and proposes to see these terms as the extensive and intensive aspects of capitalist globalization. Out of all the issues that arise from this formulation, I’m especially interested in the way this formulation redistributes our usual way of seeing credit primarily on the side of the wealthy and debt primarily on the side of the poor (Kunkel). What we call “today’s financial capitalism,” then, needs to be grasped from another angle as “today’s debt capitalism,” which throws a different set of features and processes into relief. Should we see the emerging emphasis on the debt economy as a further or later development in the process of subsumption, as if the expansive “spatial fix” again turns inward? Is there a cycle or pattern here?
2. In order to explain this complex of speculative finance and debt economy, some critics have posited a “becoming-rent of profit,” akin to the “becoming-immaterial” of labor. Balibar disputes this analysis, arguing that financial capital organizes the creation of a “generalized surplus value.” This phrase seems fundamental to Balibar’s account of the new mechanisms of capital, in that it registers: a) the power of financial capital to direct all other industries and sectors of the economy; b) the strategies of exploitation of labor; c) the coordination of credit-driven consumption; and d) the exploitation of natural resources. Does the notion of a “generalized surplus value” suggest that the totalization of this system generates some kind of super-profit or structural aggrandizement?
3. The combined operations of “global financial capitalism and the debt economy” enforce the discipline of profit-rates everywhere, generating a new topography of competition and risk (which seem to correspond to the extensive and intensive vectors at work throughout the system). I can’t help but wonder how this picture—sketched briefly on pages 6 and 7—updates and/or revises the “topography of cruelty” so forcefully described in Balibar’s We, the People of Europe?. In particular, I wonder whether the division of the world into life zones and death zones is being overwritten by the division between indebted zones and the too poor-for-debt zones.
4. The second part of the essay is devoted to an account of the “articulation” of debt and money through the (private) savings-credit mechanism and the (public) taxing mechanism. Let me just remind everyone what it says on the face of a dollar bill: “legal tender for all debts public and private.” Yet, as Balibar shows, this articulation does not run smooth: it is more of a clashing and grinding process, as Marx’s word Zwickmühle suggests. (Translated as “alternating rhythm” by Fowkes, but it also means “dilemma, “quandary,” even “catch-22.) In fact, the articulation throws out two other terms, which can be diagrammed in a Greimasian way: the non-public “privatization of public debt functions,” as when social goods must be financed by private individuals (I call this “exposure”), and the non-private “socialization” of profits and risks, as when states, that is to say, taxpayers, become lenders and insurers of last resort for private enterprises (I call this “enclosure”). My question here is this: if the institutions of money and debt can be articulated only in terms of a quandary or blockage, can we even think of a politics of the debt that would break the double bind? Rather than anchoring our hopes to a rehabilitation of one or another “corner” of the four-part scheme, we would need to find ways to break up the blockage. A secondary question might be: how far does any radical politics of the debt today depend, as its basic condition of possibility, upon greatly expanded and improved tax collection?
5. I was especially fascinated by the discussion of new “modalities of subjectivation” associated with a “general economy (and society) of debt.” Insofar as this subjectivity of debt is shaped by the impossibility of refusing debt and the impossibility of repaying it, it produces what Balibar calls “negative individualities, for whom feelings of solidarity and political perspectives, the forging of a common interest, have no immediate bases in professional or cultural experience.” (31) I have a very schematic question here: how will we ever be able to distinguish between solidarity and indebtedness, and would we even want to try?
6. The Zwickmühle or blocked articulation of private and public, then, can also be carried over to the distinction between owning and owing. As Balibar puts it, “the correlation of property and debt (or ownership and credit) [is] the real (concrete) social institution, rather than each of them considered separately and abstractly.” (34) Here we might ask: does the existence of “generalized indebtedness” provide a focal point for redescribing modes of social wealth? Are there forms of participation and political leverage that become available through the intensive growth in indebtedness? What would “expropriation” look like in a world where mass pension funds and boutique hedge funds operate in the same arena? Perhaps the radical question “who owns the world?” (the subtitle of Brecht and Dudow’s Kuhle Wampe) must now be rephrased “who owes the world?”
7. Finally, as I see it, the paper asks us to imagine a politics of the debt that would require the constitution of a power capable of not only renegotiating but repudiating the current regime of debts. On one hand, this operation would require a new kind of sovereign power (including, presumably, the installation of a global tax authority). On the other hand, this operation would insist on the abolition of certain types or property, and with them, certain kinds of debt. The principle of “odious debts” would apply not only to governments but everyday life. At the conclusion of the paper, Balibar points to the need for both legislation and political struggles or popular revolt. So it is not at all a question of refusing debt as such, any more than one can refuse obligations or responsibilities as such. But, for all the reasons we can see in Balibar’s paper, it remain difficult to draw the fault lines of a politics of the debt. Are debtors, like workers, a class that can answer a call to unite? Are debtors, like the 99%, an excluded majority? Perhaps a Utopian slogan might work: credit for everybody, debt for nobody.