Having it in mind to write something later this spring that touches on the idea of debt — but more about that another time — I thought I’d better prepare myself by reading some of the prominent recent (and perhaps not-so-recent) books on the subject. Intimidated by the scale of David Graeber’s massive history, Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), I decided to work my way up to it by reading Maurizio Lazzarato’s two compact treatises, of which this is the earlier. I’m glad I did. I suspect Lazzarato could be onto something (following Nietzsche by way of Deleuze) in maintaining “that the paradigm of the social lies not in exchange (economic and/or symbolic) but in credit. There is no equality (of exchange underlying social relations, but rather an asymmetry of debt/credit, which precedes, historically, that of production and wage labor” — and, therefore, that debt is the crux where economics and morality intersect. But given this, Lazzarato does not succeed in defining what makes our present neoliberalism structurally distinct from previous economic forms — what it is that has allowed not only for the intensification of the debt regime but also for its new conceptual salience. Ringing denunciations of the current situation — with which it is impossible to disagree — can only go so far. Still, much food for thought here. Debt is essentially an effort to foreclose the future, to neutralize the necessary “indetermination” that allows the present to encompass alternatives, choices, risk — in other words, to nullify the possibility of a politics. “For finance, the future is a mere forecast of current domination and exploitation.” Okay, but if “inequality is a fundamental part of the system,” not simply since the birth of capitalism — I’d accidentally typed “cannibalism” but have corrected it — but all the way from what are called primitive societies and continuing up to our own, what chance do we have to get out from under it? It’s fine to say that the key “lies in the capacity of debtors to think and act collectively” — but it’s still far from clear what we should collectively think and how we should collectively act to overthrow the regime of debt.

Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (2012), translated by Joshua David Jordan, is published by semiotext(e) and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...

One reply on “Reader’s Diary: Maurizio Lazzarato’s ‘The Making of the Indebted Man’”

  1. it may be helpful to know that usery, or charging interest for debt, was once punished by hanging.

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