Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, July 22, 2011

Indebtedness As A Lifelong Condition of Existential Precarity

David Graeber:
It is simply assumed, nowadays, that we will be born to indebted, mortgage-paying parents, go deep into debt for our educations, and never, quite, completely, get out -- and, therefore, that we will both live our lives with a constant feeling of at least slight attendant fear and humiliation, and that a significant portion of our life income will end up being paid out in interest and financial service payments.
It is enormously interesting to contrast the anxious relation of subjects to owner-elites sustained throughout life by means of ongoing indebtedness, to the empowering relation of citizen-peers to one another through their collaboration and contestation by means of the democratic state.

It is also interesting to ponder the different work of a massive state indebtedness shoring up owner-elites through the maintenance of the tyrannical state qua war machine (whether directing its energies toward foreign foes in wars of conquest of toward domestic foes in class warfare) as against the deployment of the democratic state qua investment engine to provide institutions for the nonviolent adjudicate of disputes, for the provision of general welfare to maintain the scene of informed nonduressed consent on which nonviolent enterprise depends, and to socialize public and common goods whose production otherwise demands the violent externalization of costs and risks or the violent expropriation of the common heritage of humanity.

I find myself thinking of Foucault's Discipline and Punish in which he proposes that the permanent failure of modern prisons to function as institutions of rehabilitation may suggest that their function instead is to create a permanent population of delinquent subjects at once susceptible to exploitation and conspicuous abuse in ways that are indispensable to the privileged but would otherwise undermine the self-image of polities defined by ideals of general welfare and legal equity, while at once bearing permanently in their bodies the conspicuous stigma and in their lives the costly marginality of illegality not so subtly warning majorities always to behave even if they are "free" not so to do.

Foucault's point is not, by the way, to propose that the production of delinquency is a secret or conspiratorial project undertaken under cover of rehabilitation but that the disciplinary assumptions and supervisory mechanisms through which normal(izing) rehabilitation is undertaken are functionally indistinguishable from the production of delinquency as such, with the implication that prisons are a representative disciplinary institution rather than an exceptional one, just one islet in what he describes as a "carceral archipelago" which includes armies, broadcast media, companies, courts, factories, and schools producing "capable selves" rationalized in reference to the normalizing administration of general welfare.

What is especially provocative about Discipline and Punish, of course, is its exposure and critique of what might be described as anti-democratizing forces at the very heart of the democratic ethos, arising out of democratizing assumptions and ends themselves, and while this can be useful it can also be rather demoralizing (as it was not for Foucault himself, who was devoted to all sorts of liberal and radical political campaigns in his public life of precisely the sort some might think he had fatally problematized).

Recalling that pieties about rehabilitation are infrequent compared to the discourse in which prisoners are said to be "paying their debt to society" I find myself wondering if Graeber's discussion of indebtedness as a generalizing existential condition reminiscent to me of Foucault's delinquency might provide an analytic tool helping those of us Marxists/Postmarxists who have made the biopolitical turn (usually via Arendt, Fanon, Foucault) and who would still make distinctions between democratizing universalisms and anti-democratizing neoliberal/neoconservative universalisms that are often intertwined historically, discursively (through the language of humanism, rights, nonviolence, consent, markets, and, yes, democracy itself).

Making this move through the figure of debt is especially attractive given the ongoing neoliberal(/neoconservative) "progressive" developmentalism that polices planetary hierarchy, installing a planetary precariat (the rewriting of the vast majority of humanity in the image of informal insecure radically precarious labor, the postmarxist proletariat) especially in the context of global digitizing-financialization-logoization and international debt through "structural adjustment protocols."

Strife and Debt

It is in this context that I think it is interesting to read this comment on the ways contemporary society compels young people into comparative acquiescence by Bruce Levine. (The excerpt is about student loan debt, but I also agree with him about the impacts of mind-numbing superficiality of "participation" in now ubiquitous social media formations and the pharmacological-therapeutic imposition of mediocrity-conformity among school age students, follow the link to read more):
Large debt -- and the fear it creates -- is a pacifying force. There was no tuition at the City University of New York when I attended one of its colleges in the 1970s, a time when tuition at many U.S. public universities was so affordable that it was easy to get a B.A. and even a graduate degree without accruing any student-loan debt. While those days are gone in the United States, public universities continue to be free in the Arab world and are either free or with very low fees in many countries throughout the world. The millions of young Iranians who risked getting shot to protest their disputed 2009 presidential election, the millions of young Egyptians who risked their lives earlier this year to eliminate Mubarak, and the millions of young Americans who demonstrated against the Vietnam War all had in common the absence of pacifying huge student-loan debt.

Today in the United States, two-thirds of graduating seniors at four-year colleges have student-loan debt, including over 62 percent of public university graduates. While average undergraduate debt is close to $25,000, I increasingly talk to college graduates with closer to $100,000 in student-loan debt. During the time in one’s life when it should be easiest to resist authority because one does not yet have family responsibilities, many young people worry about the cost of bucking authority, losing their job, and being unable to pay an ever-increasing debt. In a vicious cycle, student debt has a subduing effect on activism, and political passivity makes it more likely that students will accept such debt as a natural part of life.
More Graeber: Debt and Magical Thinking

David Graeber:
The peculiar willingness of American families to accept, at a time of 9.2 percent unemployment, that our real problem is the need to cut government spending to balance the budget can only be explained as a classic example of magical thinking (I’m an anthropologist, I know magical thinking when I see it): perhaps if we can balance our collective budget, I will be able balance my family’s budget too.
Obviously this is enormously relevant at the present time, given the facile rhetoric circulating especially among the anti-tax anti-government ante-constitutional Movement Republicans to justify their eagerness to crash the economy (you know, for kids!), endlessly analogizing budgetary decisions families make with those governments make -- even though family budgets are minute pieces of national budgets and not vice versa, although governments have tools available to them that no family has at its disposal, thus rendering the analogy instantly, obviously, utterly false.

It is interesting that Graeber is making the same sort of point from a different angle of view: Rather than imposing an inapt domestic set of budgetary standards on a national budget in an understandable effort to make comprehensible something unfathomably enormous through something modestly quotidian, something altogether alien through something more familiar, Graeber is proposing that another part of what might be afoot here is the desire to exert control on what seems volatile at the local level by uncritically demanding the control of the wider context in which that local threat is lodged, a desperate desire to wrangle the wider world into stability on familiar terms in the hope that one's own pocket of the world will thereby resume its own stability.

Still More Graeber: Debt, Money, History

David Graeber:
As long as there has been money, there’s been debt… For one thing, what we now call “virtual money” is nothing new. In fact it’s the original form of money. Credit systems predate coinage by at least two thousand years. Human history has alternated back and forth between eras of virtual credit money, and eras dominated by gold and silver -- which have also, invariably, been times of great empire, standing armies (coins were invented to pay soldiers), and slavery. [A]rguments over credit, debt, virtual and physical money have [always] been at the very center of political life… [W]hen money is imagined as gold… simply one commodity among others, attitudes toward debt tend… to harden, often creating dramatic social unrest (pretty much every popular insurrection in the ancient world was over issues of debt). In periods dominated by credit money, such as the Middle Ages, money was seen essentially as an IOU, a social arrangement. The result was, almost invariably, the creation of some sort of great institution designed to protect debtors, so as to ensure the system didn’t fly completely out of hand: periodic clean slates in the ancient Near East, bans on the charging of interest and debt peonage in Medieval Christianity and Islam, and so on… We already learned in 2008 that debts -- even trillions in debts -- can be made to go away if the debtor is sufficiently rich and influential. It is only a matter of time before people draw the obvious conclusions: that if money is just a social arrangement, so many IOUs that can be renegotiated by mutual agreement, then if democracy is to mean anything, that has to be true for everyone, not just the few. And the implications of that, could be epochal.
Marvelous stuff, definitely I will have to read Graeber's book now. The identification of money with debt has, of course, an enormous pedigree, but Ellen Hodgson Brown has been attracting a lot of populist attention lately flogging the point, I know.

The deeper point about money as a social compact rather than as a commodity -- the point which yields the "epochal implications" concerning democracy of his conclusion -- reminds me of the great Karl Polanyi's insistence in The Great Transformation (the first, immediate, and still best repudiation of Hayekian neoliberalism) that money -- like labor and land -- cannot properly be regarded as commodities.

Polanyi's point about labor is actually at the root of my own insistence on the maintenance of a scene of legible informed nonduressed consent, his point about land -- where "land" has the same sort of resonance it does in Leopold's "land ethic" -- is also at the root of my insistence on the socialization of public and common goods -- both of which I elaborated in a companion post occasioned by Graeber's editorial today.


David said...

I feel like kind of a bore in focusing on this rudimentary element of your post, but it was your summary of Discipline and Punish that really grabbed my attention.

The overview of Discipline and Punish’s more particular argument made me realize that there is whole, important, component of this text that I’ve totally neglected! I read the book as an undergrad, but I skimmed the last two chapters, since, in the class for which I read it, our discussions focused on Foucault’s more general argument, concerning the ‘disciplinary society,’ which, to my recollection, comes through most clearly in the chapter called “Panopticism.” More importantly, your analysis of Foucault’s points about modern incarceration and his utterly continuous insights regarding ‘normalization’ as revealing the anti-democratic forces within modern liberal democracies was something of a revelation for me. As obvious as the anti-democratic effects of these powers relations may be, I didn’t ever think about them in this way, at least not with any clarity.

The internal coherency of Foucault’s arguments and their challenges to traditional philosophical notions were, when I read Discipline and Punish, my more or less exclusive concern. I was interested in questions like, From what position does someone presume to speak when they say all knowledge is power-knowledge? How convincing is Foucault that we are constituted by power relations, not autonomous Kantian agents? The secondary literature that I read focused on these type of questions too. After a while, forgetting that these concerns constituted just one aspect of Foucault’s work, I began to think that Foucault was nothing more than someone to quibble about ineffectually in academe (not that I think there’s anything wrong with that, mind you). Which was about were I was when I read your post—I could list plenty of threats to democracy for you—campaign finance, the financial industry lobby, deceptive branding of policy, and so on—but I just never realized that Foucault was particularly illuminating on this matter.

Clearly, you are very interested in practical politics. Clearly, you have found Discipline and Punish and Foucault’s oeuvre, helpful in this arena. Your post suggested to me that I should be getting much more out of Foucault. It also raised some questions.

I made the intuitive connection between Foucault’s argument in Discipline and Punish and anti-democratic forces immediately. If someone is talking about strategies for increased control over the social body, they are obviously talking about threats to democracy, which presumes agents with at least some degree of autonomy (can’t believe this wasn’t clear to me when I first read the book). However, I have to admit to myself that this it all still quite vague. How exactly does the modern prison system work to enforce obedience in a way that threatens democracy? How exactly do the different strategies of normalization do the same? I certainly don’t expect you to answer these questions. My question for you is whether you think I’d come to some sort of satisfactory answer to these questions were I just to reread Discipline and Punish (read it about two years ago). Is there some secondary literature or work in a similar vein that I might find it helpful to read?

And a final question. When you raise the possibility that debt might be the late modern technology par excellence for controlling subjects, are you implying that perhaps Foucault’s work has lost some of its relevancy?

Dale Carrico said...

I think it is useful to think of prisons and parole officers as institutions producing socially useful delinquent populations rather in the way it is useful to think (to keep this very Foucauldian) of clinics and therapists as institutions producing socially useful perverted populations like queers -- especially in the context of racist wars on urban zones and racist Wars on (some) Drugs. When I teach Foucault's D&P I often pair it with Angela Davis on prisons. I have also benefited from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

Nobody who studies Foucault seriously has remained untouched by the publication in the last few years of his newly translated College de France lectures, especially the volumes delineating the genealogy of neoliberal biopolitics, Security, Territory, Population, then The Birth of Biopolitics, and then the two volumes on the Government of Self and Others (volume two called here, The Courage of Truth). A volume called The Government of the Living is not yet out, at least I don't think it is. It is hard to read these volumes without re-thinking D&P and History of Sexuality, vol. 1. I also read them with texts like Harvey's Brief History of Neoliberalism, Mike Davis's Planet of Slums and Victorian Holocausts, and Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine very much in mind.

It is important to grasp that for Foucault autonomy is ambivalent (Judith Butler's writing since 2000 really helps us engage with such an ambivalent understanding of agency) as is obedience -- we are lured into collaboration with the terms of our own exploitation precisely through promises of capacitation, legibility, pleasure. The point is not to deny these promises are worthy or fulfilled but that they precede, exceed, and undermine while they also enable agency.

Also, it is crucial to understand that panoptism is not just a matter of a normalization which provides a rational for and practice of universal intervention in the form of a promise to provide equity (the usual -- correct but incomplete -- point people tend to get from the chapter), but also the organization of a specifically experimental form of human subjecthood in a society figured as a vast laboratory and one to which we consent via open participation. Again, the point is not to propose that our consent is really phony or that participation is just a ruse, but that these are ambivalent, costly and beneficial, disabling and enabling, a field ripe for both resistance and opportunism.

I think it is important to realize that Foucault's exposure of the bloodyminded history and reality of humanism is not in itself enough to recommend its rejection (to do so would actual involve a kind of obliteration of the who that might want to do such a thing in the first place), but creates a fruitful and frustrating demand that humanism be taken up and redeployed differently, forced to live up to its hitherto (and probably inevitably) false promises. For me, it is Fanon who provides the best formulations for this sort of political imperative (and I regard Foucault, Fanon, and Arendt as the three indispensable figures delineating the field of the biopolitical, though they are only rarely read together in this way, each providing corrective supplements for one another -- Paul Gilroy is a good figure to read today who is doing work on race and culture in this vein).

I don't think Foucault has lost his relevance -- but I do think our Foucault in the aftermath of the Bush Administration is as a different Foucault from the Reagan era's, if that makes sense.