Here’s the revised text/transcript of a talk I gave to the Strike Debt Assembly in Washington Square Park on August 5. Thanks to Winter and Andrew for the invitation, and to everybody for coming out.
There’s an old saying about the Left:
—there are those who are fighting against wealth
—and those who are fighting against poverty
Are these struggles the same thing? If not, which comes first? Can we really choose?
Likewise, we can remember the famous slogan of the French Revolution:
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Are they the same thing? Not at all: if you are fighting for “freedom,” you will use a certain kind of argument, a certain kind of evidence. Fighting for “equality” will sound very different, invoking different principles and proofs; and calls for “solidarity” will use yet another set of arguments and rhetorics. (In today’s New York Times: Boots Riley upholds solidarity, while Joseph Stiglitz upholds equality. Both of them are “on the Left,” but they’re not saying the same thing.) Again: which comes first? Do we have to begin with solidarity in order to achieve freedom and equality? Or do we have to fight for freedom in order to achieve equality and solidarity? And so on…
Clearly, there are different ways to articulate and inflect political struggles. There are different orientations within the Left, different rhetorics, different principles, different goals.
So what does it mean to build a politics around debt, or more specifically, around the refusal of debt? How is it different from a fight against wealth or poverty or inequality?
I don’t think it’s about fighting against debt as such (whatever that is). It’s about fighting against debt as a system. As a system, debt is multi-sided and contradictory.
—We’re against debt as it is used by the wealthy to accumulate more wealth.
—We’re against debt as it is imposed on the poor.
—We’re against debt because it blocks us from being free.
—We’re against debt because it blocks us from depending upon each other in a healthy way.
In other words: we’re opposed to this system, precisely because of the ways it is built upon debt. Here, I want to draw a map of the debt system, to get a sense of how it works, how it breaks down, and how it might be overcome. By looking at the contemporary situation through the optic of debt, we can get a new perspective on the structural problems that we face—and, at the same time (we hope) trace the outlines of a different set of social bonds, a genuine kind of solidarity.
Let’s begin with the distinction we find on every dollar bill: “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”
DEBT #1: PRIVATE DEBT
In the simplest sense, a “private debt” is simply a part of buying and selling. You go into a restaurant and order a meal: now you’re in debt. They give you food and you eat it before you have to pay your debt. Private debt encompasses everything from these everyday exchanges to the various kinds of loans and credit lines we might have, all the way to business debts, corporate bonds, financial arrangements of all kinds. Private debts, in other words, include everything that is regulated by “private interests”: in short, the domain of the market.
We’re in debt all the time, just by virtue of being caught up in the system of exchanges we carry out in order to live. If we’re able to settle those debts, we might not recognize that we’re debtors; usually it’s only when the debts pile up and we owe more than we have—when we’re “delinquent”—that we really think of ourselves as debtors.
DEBT #2: PUBLIC DEBT
On the other hand, “public debt” would include all of the debts regulated by the “public interest.” As the story goes, the guardians of the public interest can go into debt on our behalf, to pay for the things that we all need and that we can’t pay for ourselves. A moment’s reflection will remind us that public debt not only pays for things that we need, but also for things that we don’t need, like wars. In other words, public debt pays for the operations of the state itself, and it is secured by the power of the state to raise money from the public, primarily through taxation.
This opposition between public and private still structures most mainstream discussions about the economy. It registers the apparently fundamental contradiction between the market and the state. The assumption is that the relationship between private interests and public interests is both antagonistic and negotiable, so that the problems on one side can be remedied by strengthening the other. The interaction of these interests is supposed to ensure the functioning of the whole society. But I think most of us will agree that this framework is not only obsolete: it is corrupt. Why?
I would argue that the private/public opposition has produced a kind of mutant, toxic version of itself.
DEBT #3: NOT “PRIVATE” DEBT: EXPOSURE
What does that look like? What is private debt gone toxic? Andrew Ross put it very well: when people are forced to borrow in order to have access to goods that should have been socially provided. (We can think of health care and education this way: the provision of these things is not a private good, although they are increasingly treated that way within the debt system.) This realm—where private debt becomes the mechanism where social provision is financed or “planned”—is expanding: this is a key feature of what we call “neoliberalism.”
I call that condition “exposure,” because we become exposed to debt in a new way: the system makes it harder and harder to live without debt. The rulers can no longer pretend that debt is something we freely choose as a matter of rational self-interest. Instead, people are forced to take on debts in order to have any chance of having what counts as a good life in this society.
DEBT #4: NOT “PUBLIC” DEBT: ENCLOSURE
Public debts go toxic when we, as private individuals or subjects of the state, are forced to pay for public goods that aren’t really public goods. The best recent example is the wave of big bail-outs: banks, insurance firms, car companies, and so on. Here we see only the most egregious and conspicuous example of the way public debt has always paid the overhead costs for the apparatus of private profit-making.
I call this a debt of “enclosure,” as in the enclosure of the commons, when a collectively-held or collectively-produced resource is seized for the sake of a few rich people. More broadly, enclosure signifies the socialization of risks and obligations in order to maintain and expand the accumulation of wealth. (Indeed, we have to recognize that the banking system seizes upon a common power of productivity and reciprocity, which it restructures in order to profit from the interactions that make social life itself possible.)
DEBT #5: ANTI-SOCIAL DEBT
When we look at the pincer movement of exposure and enclosure, we see where the debt system is headed: a negation of all social bonds. When nearly everybody needs more than they can afford and when the system itself imposes debts that nobody can pay, the very idea of “society” unravels, and we would have only relations of sheer domination. Impossible debts—whether interminable or incalcuable—would be the fulfillment of Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society.”
Here is the debt system as it currently stands. A politics of debt has to build a critique that takes account of every aspect of the system. We can denounce the frauds that cluster around private debts, as well as the policy errors and corrupt practices of public debt. We can protest the injustice of exposure, as basic social provision is submitted to the calculus of private debt; meanwhile we must also protest the public debts of enclosure which threaten austerity and atomization. Refusing the debt system means many things: refusing to go into debt, refusing to pay odious or fraudulent debts, refusing shame and resentment, refusing the relations of domination and coercion that support the system itself….
DEBT #6: BONDS OF THE COMMON
Our diagram suggests that the only way to overcome the closed system of debt—and especially the debt system that springs from the ideological opposition between private and public interests—is to propose some principle or principles that undo the terms in which the problem has been presented to us.
To be more practical, we should look for ways that our description and critique of the system necessarily traces the outlines of what we will need to construct instead. As Hardt and Negri have recently argued, somehow we have to transform the current system of indebtedness into new kinds of social bonds. How can we imagine such a change?
In The Bonds of Debt, I end with a conundrum: what would a Utopia of indebtedness look like? I think there are two versions: the Utopia of Jubilee and the Utopia of microcredit. I imagine you’re all familiar with the notion of Jubliee: erasing the debts, wiping the slate clean, a vision of plenitude and freedom. Alongside of that, we can see microcredit as a kind of Utopia, a social world where access to credit is as easy as access to water (or at least, water in Bolivia)—where credit flows from a kind of public utility, ensuring that everyone has the socially-shared resources they need. Credit would no longer operate as a system of constraints organized for profit, but would be available as a system of support for all kinds of productive intitiatives.
When we line up those two alternatives, they might seem like they belong to different universes. Jubilee imagines life beyond debt; microcredit imagines life thoroughly enmeshed in debt. I wonder if we can imagine a way to reconcile them, or if perhaps we need to reject both.
This is the question where we are all poised: what do we owe each other?
Let’s talk about that…
FOOTNOTE: Some readers will recognize that the diagram offered here is a Greimasian “semiotic square,” first proposed by A.J. Greimas and later developed throughout the work of Fredric Jameson. Choosing to outline the concept of “debt” in this form has certain theoretical and political implications that I should briefly sketch here.
As Jameson has argued since the early 1980s, the Greimasian square is useful for mapping ideological systems, where the core of an ideology consists of a basic dualism or contradiction. (Here, the basic contradiction is between private and public debts, or between the market and the state.) The terms of this contradiction can be unfolded through their contraries (not “private” and not “public”), and the resulting square makes visible a new set of implications. The bottom term is a negation (neither X nor Y), while the top position requires a complex term that undoes or overcomes the intital contradiction. (There are also two secondary terms to the left and right of the box, not drawn on the chart, which describe the implication of the top and bottom terms. In my talk, I suggested that the left-hand term could be designated “derivatives”–ever more private debts for which there is public liability–and the right-hand term could be designated “ecological debt”–ever more collective burdens for which nobody is responsible but everybody will pay.)
The technical construction of this box may be more or less consistent with Greimas and Jameson. More importantly, the diagram offers a political challenge. Insofar as it successfully maps the “closure” of every attempt to think through the current situation using any ideology grounded in the contradiction between private and public (or market and state), the diagram will help us to sort through various political propositions and programs, showing which ones remain stalled at one or another corner of the box and which ones break with this “common sense” logic entirely. It becomes clear that many arguments about the current crisis consist simply in adjusting the “balance” of the contradiction, or in affirming the centrality of one of its terms against the others. Any “exit” or solution to an ideological dead-end requires something else: a complex rewriting of the whole problem, that is to say, an ideological break. Here, the new (affirmative) complex term is “social bond,” understood as the zero degree for any radical politics of solidarity.