Six Ways of Being in Debt

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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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….


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.

Feeling Like a Communist

Here’s a talk I gave at the “Affective Tendencies” conference at Rutgers University in October 2010. It deals with the concept of “solidarity,” which remains at the center of the politics of indebtedness. 

Let me begin with a series of simple questions: how do we ever find, or make, a sense of solidarity with others? What explains the feeling that, sometimes, a connection with one person enables us to make a connection with two, three, ten, many others? Is that just a narcissistic illusion? Or is it rather a feeling that every encounter might offer us a chance to touch upon what we all have in common? Or to put this in another way: what does it feel like to be in common with others, to be a communist? Obviously it’s not just a matter of finding a communist and asking her how she’s feeling. There is every reason to doubt that there is some specific communist feeling or emotion, even though there is every reason to suppose there is a relationship between what we are here trying to understand by “affect” and what is now being called “communism,” a necessary relationship working both ways: an affective dimension of communism and, perhaps more obscurely, a communist dimension of affect.

As a shortcut into these questions, I want to read the first page of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Here it is:

In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table.

He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gazing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the officers had open on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend—the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, although as likely as not he was a Communist. There was both candour and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors. Obviously he could not make head or tail of the map; obviously he regarded map-reading as a stupendous intellectual feat. I hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone—any man, I mean—to whom I have taken such an immediate liking. While they were talking round the table some remark brought it out that I was a foreigner. The Italian raised his head and said quickly:


I answered in my bad Spanish: ‘No, Inglés. Y tú?’


As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hope he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.

Rather than reading this scene in psycho-biographical terms, which would question Orwell’s ability to recognize and process the inner upheaval caused by this encounter, I think it would be more productive to take the text at its word, shifting the focus from the person to the situation. For this is a description of something more extraordinary than an unexpectedly strong affection for a stranger: the encounter takes place in, and comes to stand for, a whole revolutionary moment, in which the task of destroying the old social order creates a “special atmosphere” where everybody must find and develop new kinds of relationships. In the time I have here, I would like to draw your attention to various components of this peculiar encounter, which can stand as a kind of placeholder for a much larger discussion.

Whatever else they do, revolutions manifest themselves as a kind of shared collective feeling, or a series of such feelings, which take on a life of their own precisely insofar as they seem to condition life anew, from the outside. Orwell arrives in Barcelona when “the revolution was in full swing,” where businesses have been collectivized, civil power has been seized and broken up, and class distinctions are being expunged from everyday life, starting with the disappearance of bourgeois clothing. “All this was queer and moving,” Orwell remarks. (9) His decision to introduce his description of this state of affairs through the vignette of the militiaman should be understood as an attempt at seduction: we enter his picture of the transformed society through a moment of immediate, unguarded pleasure. The erotic charge lasts only a moment because it is treated as a figural element in a text aspiring to be literal: the evocation of emotion orients us within a situation that we might otherwise be unable to imagine. It leads us toward the concrete. And for that reason this is the most passionate moment in the whole book: as soon as Orwell acts upon his commitment and actually joins the militia, things starts to go a little bit awry. That is when the retrospective tone creeps in: we learn that the revolution had in fact already peaked before the story begins, and that it had been thoroughly defeated by the time the tale can be written.

Everything begins with the sighting of the Italian militaman. Orwell’s description starts with a close-up of his head and shoulders, and gravitates toward the face. When he reaches the eyes, affect flashes up: what “moves” Orwell so deeply is the way this man’s facial expression indicates what he might do, what he is capable of: its qualities are immediately understood in terms of potential actions, which Orwell imagines in both aggressive and submissive terms. But despite his imposing presence, the man doesn’t exactly belong here, he is “obviously” lost, unable to situate himself in the world of the officers’ table because he cannot read their map. He may be capable of physical courage and selfless sacrifice, but not strategic thinking. In spite or perhaps because of this ambivalent complexity, Orwell again expresses his affection, stumblingly, as if it still comes as a surprise to him.

When the militiaman at last takes notice of Orwell, looking for someone like himelf, Orwell disappoints him. Both of them are foreigners in Spain, and they remain foreigners to each other. They do not exactly communicate: they exchange verbal identity tags and keep their distance. Now it is Orwell’s turn to look stupid, which he seems to think makes them equal again. But when it is time to part company, they can still share the “very hard” handshake, a simple gesture, a momentary touch after the possibilities of looking and talking had been used up.

And yet, strangely, that is enough: it is enough to send Orwell into lyrical flight, and it is enough because he wants nothing more. The hope for full reciprocity between them is accompanied by a wish that the encounter will never be repeated. Thus the bond between them is sealed. Indeed a certain kind of repetition will carry on, because, as it turns out, encounters like this were happening all the time. This will not be the only one after all. Here Orwell’s prose acquires a kind of impersonality, speaking not only for himself and the militaman, but for more or less everybody else. The moment passes too, and the memoir turns to its proper subject, the history of the Spanish disaster. What are we to make of the way this episode ends? Is it supposed to offer something more than an illustration, something more like a lesson? To be faithful to such an encounter requires neither constraint nor promiscuity. Its intensity does not depend on its brevity, like an amorous glance held nostalgically as an image of happiness. Nor does it depend on any kind of renunciation. There is nothing unfinished here: it is a picture of fulfillment which, having happened once, reminds us that it remains possible. It is enough, and it is a start.  It is enough because the affect has passed, and the trace it leaves behind is the capacity to be affected, a heightened ability to anticipate and produce fortunate encounters, to enter that “special atmosphere” of liberated social life.

Before we can try to extract any broader theoretical propositions from this text, we have to notice two places where the description gets snagged: first, where Orwell suggests that this militiaman had face of an Anarchist, even though he must have been a Communist; and second, when he hastens to point out that his surge of affection is seldom sparked by a man, presumably because it happens with women quite often. Both snags concern the logic of Orwell’s look. I’ll take the second one first. He tells us “hardly know[s] why” his feelings are differentiated by sex, but that seems beside the point. What he loves in the militiaman is their solidarity: not his, not the other’s, but the solidarity of the situation that circulates between them. Yet he can know that only in retrospect: having learned when enough is enough, one also learns that affects cannot demand satisfaction from the bodies they pass through. The drama of looking, talking and touching is the closest Orwell can come to acknowledging that liberty, equality, and fraternity might travel along sexuated circuits.

More difficult to reconcile, at least in this context, is the difference between anarchist and communist. Homage to Catalonia is celebrated as an anti-Communist classic, the book that articulated the theme of a Communist betrayal of the left in Spain. By the time Orwell wrote the book, “Communist” was for him a synonym for treachery and mendacity. And so how are we to understand his affection for someone who looks like an Anarchist but is probably really a Communist? The placement of this episode at the threshold of the book strikes me as a way to emphasize the contingency of defeat of Spain: we feel, even if we can’t quite know, that the experience was not destined to end badly. Once again, we have to treat the militiaman as a kind of allegorical figure marking the possibilities of the situation, before its antagonisms break out. Perhaps the task is precisely as he says: we must be able to look like anarchists, in the way we engage others affectively, but we must really be communists, committed to construction of durable bonds. Today Orwell’s opening scene will engage us only insofar as anybody still wants to revisit this problem, to have it both ways, where the euphoric and fleeting energies of a revolutionary movement confront the need for some binding force in order to keep going.

There is, I think, a special value in approaching this supreme political problem through the notion of affect or emotion. It is fairly easy to recognize how affects can be liberating precisely because they are shared; but it is harder to see how they can acquire enough consistency to change a situation. If, as Alexander Kluge has put it, “every emotion believes in a happy ending,” it is hard to shake the feeling that some happy endings are better than others. That is why theorists as different as Spinoza and Ernst Bloch recognize not only that every affect displays an anticipatory character, but that our thinking about affects can propose criteria of perfectibility. Or to be more precise, they both show that there exist trustworthy affects that allow for the steering, selection, reorganization and even perfection of the others. For Spinoza, this perfectibility consists in the separation of affects from the debilitating thoughts of external causes (the wrong kind of anticipation) and their reordering according to the dictates of reason (where one increases one’s capacity to be affected). Bloch’s typology offers a similar distinction: on one hand, the “filled” affects, which merely “ask for fulfillment in a world at all points identical to that of the present, save for the possession of the particular object desired and presently lacking;” and on the other hand, “expectation affects,” which aim “at the very configuration of the world in general or (what amounts to the same thing) at the future disposition or constitution of the self.” (Jameson in Marxism and Form, 126-7.) Evidently Orwell wanted to describe the composition of affect from the perspective of Utopia, despite everything else he would go on to say in this book. This moment offered him a truth from which he never recovered. In the end, it is not that hard to feel like a communist; everybody knows the drawing power of such affective compositions. It is harder to feel their staying power: for that we need words, images, bodies, spaces; we need each other.

review: graeber and dienst

Here’s a good (and kind) review of The Bonds of Debt alongside David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years:

I’ve been talking about Graeber’s book in lectures and classes for months. One of these days I might write up something more formal. Meanwhile, see Graeber’s contribution to the Social Text dossier (linked in an earlier entry below).