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

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Strife and Debt

A couple of weeks ago I wrote:
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…

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… indebtedness as a generalizing existential condition reminiscent to me of Foucault's [discussion of the production of a population and register of socially useful "delinquents/delinquency" by means of prisons and other disciplinary institutions in what he describes as the "carceral archipelago" of schools, courts, factory floors, corporate cubicles, and so on] might provide an analytic tool helping… us Marxists/Postmarxists who have made the biopolitical turn... 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."
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.

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