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.More Graeber: Debt and Magical Thinking
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.
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
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.