Review by Nikolay Karkov, Lebanon Valley College
Semiotext(e) has just published a wonderful short book by Maurizio Lazzarato, entitled The Making of Indebted Man. Lazzarato is a key figure in post-operaist Marxism, driven into exile in France after the state-sponsored demolition of Italian Autonomia in the 1970s, where he now resides as an independent sociologist, philosopher, and political theorist. While not as well-known in the English-speaking world as fellow travelers such as Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Lazzarato develops a highly original “vitalist” autonomist Marxism, whose attentiveness to questions of subjectivity, communication, and the media draws on the work of Gariel Tarde, Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari, among others. Though various articles and book chapters have been available in translation, The Making of Indebted Man is Lazzarato’s first book-length text to be translated into English. This translation fills a major gap, by not only making accessible an insightful text by a central author of contemporary Italian Marxism, but also by adding another welcome and highly original contribution to the recent critical literature on debt from a leftist perspective.
Central to the text, which reads more like a manifesto than a footnote-heavy monograph, is an examination of the problematic of debt, or, more generally, of what Lazzarato would call the “creditor-debtor relationship.” Lazzarato reads that relationship as both an anthropological invariant (where, following Nietzsche, he suggests that the paradigm of the social lies in credit, rather than exchange or even production), and as a historically specific phenomenon (which, in his reading, defines the neoliberal condition). Still, the book’s focus is on the latter, the historical specificity of the debt and the “debt economy,” which Lazzarato examines in much detail and with impressive insight. In his view, the debt economy has recently absorbed the “new economy,” the knowledge and information economy, or what some on the left have also called “cognitive capitalism.” It is also inseparable from the production of a new subjective figure, that of the “indebted man.” Blurring the divide between workers and the unemployed, consumers and producers, and retirees and welfare recipients, the indebted man cuts a transversal subjective figure that has come to occupy “the entirety of public space.” (7–8)
The text consists of three chapters, book-ended by a short “Foreword,” “Conclusion,” and a translated “Introduction to the Italian Edition.” Chapter 1 locates debt as the very “basis of social life,” both in the broadly anthropological (indeed ontological) sense and in the historically specific sense mentioned above. For Lazzarato, the problem with the current condition is not the takeover of production (the “real” economy) by finance (the “virtual” economy”), so typical of more traditional Marxist analyses, but rather the priority of debt over both. Indeed, finance is irreducible to its speculative function, but rather plays a political role as social capital. Finance reads as debt for debtors, and as interest for creditors: “In neoliberalism, what we call ‘finance’ is indicative of the increasing force of the creditor-debtor relationship.” Viewing debt as “the archetype of social relations” means two things, for Lazzarato: (1) that the economy is founded on an asymmetry of power, rather than on commercial exchange which presupposes equality; and (2) that it is subjective, as labor becomes indistinguishable from “work on the self,” except that now it is workers who perform that work in the service of Capital. (33)
Chapter 2 offers a genealogy of the phenomenon of debt and its subjective counterpart, the figure of the indebted man. Yet, in line with the methodological thrust of the book, Lazzarato’s genealogy draws not on empirical data, but rather on a host of highly theoretical (and often surprising) references. Accordingly, Lazzarato revisits Nietzsche’s second essay from The Genealogy of Morals on the material origins of moral concepts such as guilt, blame, and bad conscience, to argue that contemporary capitalism replicates the same logic by constructing people as capable of making promises on their future. Similarly, the text offers a provocative re-reading a lesser known text by the early Marx, “Comments on John Stuart Mill,” to discuss the logic of credit as producing an existential alienation far deeper than that on the factory floor, and there are suggestive references to William James’ concepts of “faith” and a “will to believe” and their neutralization under the temporality of the debt economy. The chapter appropriately concludes with a discussion of Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of the problematic of debt. The attractiveness of their approach lies in its non-economistic reading of the economy, as, for Deleuze and Guattari, economic production is inseparable from the production of subjectivity, while money, before being a means of exchange or payment, is first and foremost a power of command. (72)
The final and third chapter discusses the rise of the debt economy as constitutive of the neoliberal project. The ascendancy of debt, “the most deterritorialized and the most general power relation” of neoliberalism (89), profoundly alters the exercise of power. Drawing on a tripartite division most readily associated with the work of Foucault, Lazzarato claims that there are three kinds of debt that correlate to sovereign, disciplinary, and biopolitical power. He argues that the debt economy has (1) deprived the State of a key aspect, its monetary sovereignty; (2) further extended the shareholder’s control over the private enterprise, disciplinary power’s central institution; and (3) shifted the biopolitical emphasis from social rights to social debts. For Foucault, the rise of “civil society” or the “social” in the 18th century served to mediate and alleviate the tensions between the political and the economic, between the state and the market. Today, by contrast, civil society has been displaced by logic of (social) debt, as homo debitor comes to maintain the heterogeneity of the homo juridicus and homo economicus, of sovereign debt and private debt. (126–7) This substitution allows for ever more sinister and invasive interventions in the lives of “indebted” individuals, as the increasing anti-productive side of capitalism works hand in hand with increasingly anti-democratic forms of government. (151–160)
The Making of Indebted Man has a lot to offer, especially to more theoretically-minded readers. Among its highlights is a highly original re-reading of Foucault’s 1978-79 lectures on the rise of biopolitics. For Lazzarato, Foucault’s analysis is “at once quite enlightening and misleading” (91), as his highly suggestive figure of the entrepreneur of the self, still rooted in German Ordoliberalism, has morphed into that of the “indebted man” of today. What is more, Foucault overlooked the function of finance, debt, and money in neoliberalism (90), and remained oblivious to the inherent tendency of liberalism to rule and control “as much as possible with as ‘little democracy as possible.’” (160) Secondly and more generally, the effort to see debt and the debtor as constitutive of neoliberal governmentality promises to change the very terms of the conversation. Lazzarato’s perspective not only complicates debates among economists and sociologists, including those on the left, but tempers the rosy optimism behind concepts such as the multitude or the cognitariat, in the context of a deepening global crisis.
Still, despite its numerous insights and highly original analysis, the text is marked by several tensions. To begin with, its critical-diagnostic side is significantly stronger than its proposed alternative(s). Certainly, one could claim that a reluctance to offer blueprints of the future has been a trademark of some of the finest writing in the Marxist tradition, in an effort to not constraint the creative imagination of future generations. However, one would still want to see more than a relatively trivial call for the “cancellation of all debt” (read through Nietzsche’s appeal for a second innocence), especially in a text that identifies “debt” as the “strategic heart of the neoliberal politics.” (25) Perhaps more importantly, it remains unclear who the addressees of Lazzarato’s text are. The Making of the Indebted Man vacillates between explicit references to Europe and the United States (the “West”) and a more implicit yet no less powerful claim to universal validity, in an effort to revive the class struggle in the context of a neoliberal debt economy. (7, 161) Yet it remains unclear whether this is a key issue that (most) people need to take up seriously, or whether it is the issue for “all of us” equally and in the same way. Is a class struggle against an economy of objective and subjective debt one fundamental axis for organizing anti-capitalist resistance, or is it the axis, the “transversal point of view from which struggles might begin”? (164) If the former, it is difficult to disagree with Lazzarato. If the latter, I wonder if we do not see a reproduction of the classical refrain, so often issued to feminists, queer activists, people of color, and indigenous movements, by far more orthodox Marxisms: put your own struggles on the back-burner, we’ll take care of them after the Revolution! A short paragraph from the “Conclusion” captures that tension perfectly, as Lazzarato begins each of its four sentences with a putative “we,” called upon to counteract the effects of the debt economy. It might be four times too many…