Debt: an Idiot’s Guide to Defaulting the Future

Negative Capitalism

Life has taken me by surprise by its speed: my book will be out at the end of this month. I’m nervous but excited, but have been so busy with life events that I’ve hardly prepared proper promotion. 

I’m really keen for the book to generate discussion! If you’d like to review the book for a blog or publication, ask me a question, find out about stocking, or any other request, just send me an email  – jdt@riseup.net.

If you’d like to buy the book, great – why not contact your local independent bookshop or library, and ask them to order it in for you? May cost a couple more quid but supports a valuable community venture and is in chime with the intentions of the book. Or alternatively, you can order from Waterstones, AmazonFoyles, even Sainsburys.  And if you’ve ordered online, you could add a constructive review of your thoughts, positive or ‘negative’ ?!

In the future I’ll write here about the process of writing and publishing a book, as well as starting to reflect on some of my experiences as a community worker/charity campaign coordinator, which came after writing the manuscript. But for now, you can read Chapter 4 of the book, included below, which hasn’t been published anywhere else before.

Thanks everyone for the support along the way.

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back cover

4. Debt: An Idiot’s Guide to Defaulting the Future

Negative capitalism generates its own ontological experience, embodied in Foucault’s description of a new ‘homo œconomicus‘, man as entrepreneur of himself, ‘being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer’.[1] Gary Becker too abstracts social and family life into machinic ‘human capital’.[2] Or think of that even more dreary contemporary term of ‘human resources’ in the modern corporation.The popularity of the BBC show The Apprentice with computer salesman Sir Alan Sugar gives the lie that each of us can make it big with the right amount of pluck and entrepreneurial determination. The general sleaziness, arrogance, and fundamental lack of social skills and intelligence of most contestants on this show demonstrate that the homo œconomicus, the man or woman of the neoliberal era, is a dangerous idiot. The show’s contestants are entertaining rather than inspirational, and one’s alienated enjoyment of these greedy and foolish characters masks how being entrepreneurial is increasingly a feature of daily working life, as managers impress upon workers the need to become more productive and develop their human capital for the organisation. But if financial capital’s power is now dependent on life itself to be economically productive and consent to its processes, then life itself – you and I – possess the democratic potential to say no, to draw on the negative and think and behave in entirely foreign ways to neoliberal capital.

Debt is both a means of control of the individual’s time and possibilities, and an exciting vulnerability within financial capitalism. The processes of neoliberalism have led to a negation of wealth into abstracted finance, the production of goods into services, politics into marketing, social relations into economic relations, and time into debt. Negative capitalism facilitates this increasingly sped-up capitalism through a negation of time into an endless present, a flattening of disciplinary space so that work, socialising, pornography and shopping increasingly happen in one universal location, often the small black screens on our walls or in our very hands, whilst the political agency and economic rights of the worker are increasingly negated. Being in perpetual debt means that one’s time spent not being productive is costly: how much interest has accumulated in this time on my debts? How much longer must I now work to catch up? Negative capitalism sustains itself through debt which in turn invests and colonises all future earnings, which are plunged into debt repayments, leading to new increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression in the UK. This anxiety is then manipulated by concerns over ‘security’ to generate new control architectures of surveillance and databases across the UK. But until now there has been no cohesive suggestion of a mass debt-strike. Rather than ever being vulnerable to the increasing interest rates of creditors and the increasing enclosure of public property by the markets, what if all those indebted were to strike back by refusing the only thing capital might need of them, debt?

A ‘man is no longer a man confined but a man in debt’: so Deleuze remarks in his “Postscript on Control Societies”.[3]The exercise of neoliberal theory into practice has largely been determined by debt, where after reaching the status of influential idea it was parachuted into the debt crises of New York City (1976), the United Kingdom (1978-9), Latin America (1982) and others. Neoliberalisation is a process that transforms all social and political relations into economic relations, conforming with Deleuze’s notion of the individual abstracted into a ‘dividual’, void of social content except economically-useful data.[4] Data is information, the basis of its own ‘information economy’, in effect a commodity – and when money is abstracted into financial capital, wage becomes a form of credit that workers sell in order to sustain present spending. By getting into debt, and in effect becoming credit commodities bought and sold by larger credit magnates – the worker becomes abstracted of future potential, their future time sold for a payment, that is, the debt to be repaid. Debt is paradigmatic of neoliberal control, the chief means by which subjects – be they individuals, businesses, or sovereign states – become subordinated and intrinsically controlled. Debt becomes an enclosure of the commons, what Steven Shaviro describes as a colonisation of the future, as individuals can no longer study, shop or afford to live in many urban areas without recourse to loans or credit cards.[5]

Debt on a mass scale has sustained and made possible the neoliberal project. In the UK, neoliberalism has been largely premised on huge national borrowing and a deregulation of credit controls, flooding the market consumers with cheap credit which has largely supplemented stagnating real wages and increasing poverty during this time.[6]As Marazzi argues, the servicing of debt has been a major commodity and source of disproportionate capital accumulation over the neoliberal era.[7] Post-Fordist financial capitalism has been presented with a problem of how to continue economic growth and production without producing further goods, resulting in what Deleuze calls a ‘metaproduction’ of financial speculation.[8]Marazzi’s research finds that economic growth over the last twenty years has been based on a manipulation of mortgage loans and re-mortgaging, effectively allowing home-owners access to cheaper and cheaper credit.[9]Post-Fordist growth has therefore become based on ‘non-wage incomes’, a somewhat euphemistic reference to debt, whereby losses are socialised (national debt, austerity) and benefits are privatised (bankers’ bonuses, MPs expenses, unpaid taxes).[10] Ultimately Western economies become ensnared in this speculative logic of borrowing and debt, where the powerful have a vested interest in maintaining the continued financialisation of everyday life by capital mechanisms. Public services are privatised; welfare-users and school-children become customers; whilst the final marks of citizenship (public service, safety) are replaced by CCTV and advertisements, the final form of civic information.

Debt also sustains and, in a very limited and problematic way, empowers many to participate in a consumer economy that would otherwise exclude the impoverished. Being in debt or depending on overdrafts and credit have become entirely normal in working-class and middle-class British life, but why has no-one stopped to ask what debt means? If it’s a sacrifice of the future to sustain the present, why does one need to replace one debt with another on a regular basis? What was the original source of crisis that required one to sell one’s future labour for credit in today’s currency, and was this crisis fair, or were each of us taken advantage of? Ivor Southwood describes how debt is the closest thing to a collective identity the British people have, aside from a fear of terrorism.[11]What if the collectivity of indebted British workers were not dupes of persuasive credit card schemes, but forced into debt by unfair economic circumstances which rightly need to be rectified? Beyond individual debt, this language of debt and the necessity for cuts has become a new ideology: the national debt is now used to justify political and economic restructuring in language of ‘sacrifice’. David Graeber has noted that much of the US debt is in fact owed to the Federal Reserve, effectively itself – interestingly the Federal Reserve was the engine of neoliberalism in the United States under Volcker.[12]Shaviro too argues that the ‘free market’ indeed forces us to be ‘free’: to cooperate in its price system as rational, efficient, “dynamic” individuals – a freedom which is increasingly based on credit to afford education, housing and consumer items.[13]This creates another experience of time beyond that of sheer instantaneity: the time of debt is one that extends into the future, speculating its own value that ‘ravages the present in the name of a future that will never actually arrive; and it depletes our hopes for, and imaginings of, the future by turning it into nothing but a projection and endless repetition of the present’.[14]Debt has individually and socially become the pretext for further intrusions, demanding ever further sacrifices, for debts which no-one is ever realistically expected to repay, but must strive to do so all the same.

Private debt links the contemporary neoliberal worker with the citizen of the earlier democracies: it allows us to purchase what was once common and accessible by ‘social rent’ – decent housing, basic appliances and media devices, some kind of full-time employment.[15]Sean O’Connell’s historical research into debt in working-class British communities found it to be a regular feature of working-class life long before the credit card. Working-class households, often led by women, have negotiated debt first with credit drapers, then mail-order catalogues, and now via the boom in doorstep moneylending since the 1980s onwards, as many became ‘credit orphans’ following increasing credit rating exclusions and deregulation.[16] The ‘personal finance industry’ and the no-win-no-fee insurance industries dominate television advertising during daytime hours when largely those unemployed, ill or caring for children will be watching TV, offering cheap loans, or advertising shops like Cash Converters or Bright House which have increasingly replaced the pawn-shop (and whose online store locator maps offer a topography of national poverty).[17]Perhaps the difference here is the recent phenomenon of both middle-class debt and national debt.

In a sense, neoliberalism was always predicated on a cheap trick, underscored by military power: allow workers to maintain living standards via cheap credit whilst wages in real-terms fall. As Graeber notes, money has always been something that never specifically existed, but has been a historical relation between banks and states seeking to pay for war.[18]The decision by US President Richard Nixon to end the fixed convertibility of gold to US Dollars on 15 August 1971, terminating the global Bretton Woods agreement, was forced in order to continue the hugely expensive Indochina wars. The postwar Keynesian consensus had guaranteed full employment, expanding public services and inclusive education on the unwritten ‘agreement’ that workers would continue increasing productivity, accede to modernising labour practices, and that unions would regulate workforces to manage discipline. The collapse of this Fordist consensus is marked here: when productivity stagnates, Western economic hegemony is challenged. Post-Fordist financial credit, premised on debt, was a breakthrough that living standards could temporarily be maintained or frozen, through access to cheap credit – buy now and pay later become the policy of both individuals and national governments, a temporary political quick-fix at the time to guarantee backing from powerful capitalists in exchange for tax breaks. Margaret Thatcher’s premiership demonstrates this in two ways: the support of the wealthy was assured immediately upon being elected in 1979, when she cut the personal income tax rate from 83% to 60%, whilst nearly doubling VAT from 8% to 15%, and cutting social spending; whilst she was able to temporarily buy public support through the sale of council houses to owners in the UK during the 1980s.[19] Obtaining credit was essential to continue purchasing basic items as prices rapidly rose through increased inflation and VAT. Thirty years on, decades of underfunded infrastructure is visible in the rotten, negated state of individuals, schools, housing, healthcare and communities. War becomes a powerful way of asserting Western hegemony whilst managing domestic unrest at home, with Pasquinelli arguing that it ‘has a distinctly cathartic role for the libido of a nation’.[20]Thatcher’s deregulation of credit controls in the 1980s gave new access to credit, and a short-term income was generated for many in buying and then subsequently selling (or sub-letting) council flats, but it took the controversial Falklands-Malvinas war of 1982 to establish real political support for Thatcher during a period of shrinking wages, rising inflation and unemployment, and overall social decline.[21]

A new economic and political identity was forged in the neoliberal era: ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reaganism’ converged on a right-wing religious morality of restrictive family values alongside neoliberal free markets. Corporations were free whilst individuals and trade unions became heavily restricted and regulated. The current effects of the neoliberal project demand that less employed workers work for longer hours, resulting in increasing productivity as before but with far cheaper and more disempowered labour. The decline of the social state, unwilling but also unable to provide infrastructure due to declining tax revenues from the wealthy, and at the mercy inevitably of credit rating agencies (Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor’s have become the king-makers of contemporary global politics), suggests private financial interests and stakeholders may be demanded to assume political control, given their possession of economic and therefore social power already. The question is whether citizens will have the strategy to take responsibility for their own decisions. Will obesity, depression, war and alcohol/drug dependency prove effective contraception to a new social democratic movement that might destroy its own indebted servitude?

The manipulation of debt during the neoliberal era has offset future production to abortively sustain contemporary consumerism – an effective sale of future labour, the ultimate speculation and permeation of life by capital. This can be understood in the looming £191billion debt that students will owe by 2047, according to latest government estimates, a figure which has already risen from the £67billion estimate last year.[22]Find evidence of this in the increasing capital imbalance between capital-accumulating states (China, India, the oil-producing states) and capital-borrowing states (US, UK, Ireland and the southern Eurozone states), which has required these states to effectively guarantee through credit and bond-purchases the unsustainable consumerism and public expenditure of the citizens and governments of these indebted states.[23]In many ways debt has unnaturally allowed consumption and economic production in declining states, a temporary economic solution which defers bankruptcy or social collapse to an abandoned future – “when the shit hits the fan, we won’t be in government”. Keynesianism has the capacity to redirect state expenditure into socially munificent projects but this required precisely the international Bretton Woods international banking agreement dissolved in 1971. National currencies no longer have the power or ability to protect themselves against central banks and credit markets, and it is only military power that confirms the UK and the US as independent and powerful forces when their own currencies and economies are in such indebted, deregulated and hence uncontrollable disarray. Global financial exchange is underscored by nothing except the abstract debts of its workers, an abstract debt which would be fictitious were it not brutally underscored by bailiffs, police forces and national military machines.Thus debt has sustained impossible levels of consumption in declining states, a temporary economic solution which defers bankruptcy and social collapse to some unknown point in an increasingly unlikely and ruined future.

Despite various attempts at economic stimulus since 2008, the global debt crisis is again flaring up in the collapse of the Eurozone and further collapse of American currency markets, with rounds of ‘quantitative easing’ compounding the fact that money is now largely fictional, speculative and based on no value apart from the hegemonic power of those who issue it.At this stage, the only option for most western economies is to go into further sovereign debt (by selling bonds), whilst encouraging consumers to do the same. Whilst China may be behind many of the loans, negative capitalism has no responsible sovereign. The terrifying spectre haunting the neoliberal era is universal debt, with no obvious creditor, and no possible means of ever repaying a debt owed. The more literary readings of Marx’s works have attended to his metaphors of spectres, vampires, and the undead in his descriptions of capital.[24]Another spectre looming behind this is perhaps ‘zombie banks’, inflated by state capital to continue appearing as functioning, lending banks when in fact their activities or independence have long been nil, another iconic contradiction of the neoliberal era.[25]

Is capital itself undead, one that has deferred its imminent organic death by structural contradiction by a Frankenstein-like appearance of life as debt? Perhaps it is not capital which is undead, but workers, ‘life’, neither alive nor dead but abstracted, negated and organised into financial streams which are used to afford a decreasingly minimal basic biopolitical support – precarious labour, declining infrastructure, reduction of agency to forged consent, reduction of public spaces to privatised control. Negative capitalism abstracts all labour-relations into debt-creditor relations, where most workers are entirely disempowered and limited by their debts to maintain membership and complicity in a system of capitalist accumulation which they gain no real benefit from, and which many cynically admit is a rigged show. To compound the Kafkaesque ‘indefinite postponement’, there is increasingly no possibility for many nation-states of becoming bankrupt either.[26]Perhaps only a campaign of systematic mass-bankruptcies and hacking into financial systems and currency markets will effect some kind of redress of this negation of future and labour-in-potential by debt.

 

 

References

[1] Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, 147, 226, 269, 278.

[2] Indicated by Gary Becker’s pioneering work, Human Capital, 1964; see also Theodor Schultz, Investing in Human Capital, 1971.

[3] Deleuze, “Postscript”, Negotiations, 181.

[4] Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, 57-67; Deleuze, “Postscript”, Negotiations, 179-180.

[5] Steven R. Shaviro, “The ‘Bitter Necessity’ of Debt: Neoliberal Finance and the Society of Control”, Paper presented at Debt Conference April 29-May 1 2010, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 8-9.

[6] The High Pay Commission, Director’s Pensions: in it for themselves? (London: High Pay Commission, 2011), 4-7; High Pay Commission, More for Less: what has happened to pay at the top and does it matter? (London: High Pay Commission, 2011), 5-9; Wenchao Jin, Robert Joyce, David Phillips and Luke Sibieta, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2011. IFS Commentary C118 (London: Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2011), 1-3.

[7] Marazzi, Violence, 33-37, 40-42.

[8] Deleuze, “Postscript”, Negotiations, 181.

[9] Marazzi, Violence, 25, 33-34.

[10] Marazzi, Violence, 47.

[11] Ivor Southwood, Non-Stop Inertia (Winchester, UK; Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2011), 11.

[12] David Graeber, “The Debt is Not Nearly as Scary as You Think”, 21st April 2011, New York Daily News. See also Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism, 1-2.

[13] Shaviro, “’Bitter Necessity’ of Debt”, 8.

[14] Shaviro, “’Bitter Necessity’”, 9.

[15] Marazzi, Violence, 94-95.

[16] Sean O’Connell, Credit and Community: Working-Class Debt in the UK Since 1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 50-52, 90, 127.

[17] O’Connell, Credit and Community, 188-191.

[18] Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011), 361, 364, 372. On the cultural expense of the military, see Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 323.

[19] Graeber, Debt, 375-376.

[20] Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits, 168.

[21] O’Connell, Credit and Community, 6, 91.

[22] Sarah Morrison and Brian Brady “Student debt will soar to £200bn, official figures show”, Independent on Sunday, 21 August 2011.

[23] Castells, Rise of the Network Society, xix.

[24] Marx frequently refers to zombies, vampires and the supernatural – see Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. (trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1990), 163, 176, 189, 255, 342, 416, 502-503, 548.

[25] On ‘zombie banks’ see Tyler Cowen, “Euro vs. Invasion of the Zombie Banks”, New York Times, April 17 2011.

[26] Every ‘outside’ is now within and ‘inside’ capitalist accumulation – even bankruptcy functions inside accumulation, leading to an infinite regression of debt. See Marazzi, Violence, 109-111.

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