Grievances, however close they are to the pocketbook, must be made respectable, must touch the soul. —Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (1938)
In Metropolitan, Whit Stillman’s 1990 film about teenage Manhattan socialites, one of the more self-reflexive characters, Charlie Black, obsesses over what he considers the decline of his class. Soliloquizing on his single, unvarying theme, he suggests that he and his cohort represent the terminal generation of his class — the “UHB” (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) as he calls them. The last of the dinosaurs, they graze serenely on the pampas, oblivious to the growing shadow of the meteor of Nordau-ian degeneration hurtling toward them to seal their doom. “We hear a lot about the great social mobility in America, with the focus usually on the comparative of moving upwards,” Charlie says. “What’s less discussed is how easy it is to go down. I think that’s the direction we’re all headed in. And I think the downward fall is going to be very fast, not just for us as individuals but the whole preppie class.” Only a most gruesome splatter can follow a plunge from the airy redoubts of Park Avenue penthouses.
Charlie’s narrow outlook mocks the life experience of just about everyone for whom no trust fund awaits. He fails to realize that social mobility in America is not just a cliched abstraction but a process, a result of accumulating and husbanding a surplus. But it’s easy to see how he, as one of the lucky few cream-skimmers that capitalism has the habit of producing, could lose sight of this subtle distinction. As the Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot wrote, “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring a bell.”
Recent historical developments have put Charlie’s fears to rest. Once neoliberal reformers put paid to Depression-era regulations with the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, the UHB have never looked back. Millionaires swelled to multimillionaires, and multimillionaires to billionaires, over nearly a decade of neglect with regard to all things speculative, leveraged, off-balance-sheet, and indeed larcenous. Were Charlie real, he’d probably look upon the current economic order approvingly. Rather than Nordau-ian degeneration, Charlie would find Friedmanite free-market triumphalism: his class transfigured, apotheosized; extreme economic maldistribution read in bird flight, woven in the fabric of the cosmos.
Meanwhile, the unwashed masses found themselves tasked with learning the economic Esperanto of globalization, which for them became more a creole — a simplified, no-nonsense distillation of the dominant class’s plangent substantives, acquired, like all such lingo, in the school of hard knocks. With neither Lexus to drive nor olive tree to plant, the majority had to confront such disorienting concepts as wage arbitrage and downward harmonization, as jobs shifted to countries with lower wages and fewer labor protections and their own standard of living fell.
As globalization grew, the character of class antagonism changed. The proletariat, lumpen or otherwise, found themselves recast as the “precariat,” a neologism coined to cover those over whom the new neoliberal regime runs rough-shod — everyone from American computer programmers dispatched to Bangalore to train their replacements, to house cleaners and field hands fleeing savage destitution in their native lands only to find themselves exploitable nonentities and objects of popular resentment in their adoptive ones.
Maurizio Lazzarato, a leftist theorist who, along with Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri, made his name in the political ferment of 1970s Italy, has emerged as an authority on this process and its relation to “immaterial labor,” a concept now central to the operaismo school of Marxism with which he is associated. In the anthology Radical Thought in Italy (1996) an essay by Lazzarato entitled “Immaterial Labor” defined the term: It is “the labor that produces the informational and cultural content of a commodity,” he writes, “and refers to two different aspects of labor.” The first aspect consists of “the changes taking place … where the skills involved … are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control (and horizontal and vertical communication),” while the second involves “defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.”
On its face, the rise of immaterial labor in the West appears a happy development: No longer characterized by drudgery or mind-numbing assembly-line work, value creation instead depends on creative manipulation of thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Today’s worker needn’t necessarily push a plow or swing a hammer; she need simply get on social media. And who wouldn’t rather define and fix cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and public opinion than shoot bolts into a car frame or work a punch press?
But the elimination of drudgery from many forms of work hasn’t proved an unqualified good. Because the workplace no longer serves as the site of value production — value production happens wherever individuals interact with others — workers no longer can leave the workplace. They are always and everywhere working. Hence the term social factory, which Lazzarato and his colleagues use to describe this phenomenon.
As the workplace expanded to encompass the entire social field, another force threatened to stymie this process: debt. This is the subject of Lazzarato’s recently published The Making of Indebted Man: Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, another essential entry in Semiotext(e)’s Intervention Series, whose 2008 offering, The Invisible Committee: The Coming of Insurrection proved prescient with the rise of the Occupy movement. Unlike, say, David Harvey or Giovanni Arrighi, who take an empirical, “macro” approach to neoliberalism, Lazzarato concerns himself with the more intimate consequences that this political economy visits on individuals. And whereas David Graeber draws from his experience as an anthropologist for his 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Lazzarato largely confines his discussion to theory, blending Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Marx with some of his operaismo confreres. Lazzarato’s text is thus as succinct as Graeber’s is expansive.
To coax people into debt, Lazzarato argues, they must be rallied under the banners of debt’s antitheses. Drawing on Foucault’s 1978-79 Collège de France lectures on the birth of biopolitics, Lazzarato identifies “deproletarian policies” that “made possible a genuine transfer of wealth to workers possible” by “involving them in the capitalist management of society.” Recast as minicapitalists, erstwhile proletarians face all of the terrifying uncertainties of the latter-day job market and its wage depressions while enjoying none of their accustomed protections from its worst consequences. They find themselves oppressed by the demand that “one take upon oneself the costs and risks externalized by the State and corporations.” Last week’s proletariat is yesterday’s “ownership society,” which is today’s precariat.
Lazzarato suggests that the middle class and the knowledge workers of the new economy, in particular, absorbed the ethic of personal responsibility peculiar to life under Finanzkapital, regarding themselves as “human capital and ‘entrepreneurs of the self’ ” — grand terms that conceal a sorry condition of being “more or less in debt, more or less poor, but in any case always precarious.” Which is just how their creditor, the financial elite, want them. Being impoverished and in debt are ideal preconditions for exploitation.
In retrospect, it appears no accident that expansion of personal debt occurred pari passu with technological development, particularly in the areas of computing. For all the talk of increased productivity brought by technology, little has been said about wages during this walk-up to an imminent technotopia. Doug Henwood registered his skepticism in 2003 in After the New Economy, observing that productivity-growth enthusiasts “rarely bother to delineate the mechanisms linking the net to the productivity burst” that began in the 1990s; for all modern technology’s Wow! factor, its nuts and bolts consist of “very unglamorous things.” These Henwood identifies as “the cheapening of labor through outsourcing, the movement of much of production to low-wage countries, continued unwillingness of firms to share their good fortune with employees, and … ‘management by stress’ (pushing human workers and work arrangements to their breaking point and maybe a little beyond).” To acknowledge these unglamorous things would remind everyone that the One Percent have further refined the art of the deal — the proverbial elevator deal, that is, in which they keep the elevator and everyone else gets the shaft.
Getting the shaft naturally leads to disgruntlement, and keeping that disgruntlement from becoming open revolt requires ideological application far beyond geekspeak and public-relations humbug. “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free,” Goethe famously observed. The vital necessity of debt to the neoliberal project is in perpetuating this false belief in freedom. As Lazzarato sees it, “no question of economic equilibrium or economic imperatives” bears on issues of policy, legislation, and governance. Pursued, rather, is “a politics of totalization and individualization of authoritarian control over indebted man” to uproot democratic practices and traditions and prevent such impulses from recurring.
Lazzarato’s characterization of neoliberalism as a totalizing, authoritarian politics of control leaves you wondering whether debt isn’t an experiment designed to test sociologist Barrington Moore’s thesis, “No bourgeoisie, no democracy” — especially when you consider that debt functions by placing liens on property, a defining bourgeoisie mainstay. Though Lazzarato admits that debt works “as a ‘capture,’ ‘predation,’ and ‘extraction’ machine on the whole of society,” it also works certain spiritual effects, functioning “as a mechanism for the production and ‘government’ of collective and individual subjectivities.” Neoliberal debt discourse rests on a deep entanglement of economic reasoning, moral suasion, and established social convention. That this ideology is neither fish nor flesh enables it to figure as one, the other, both, or neither as circumstances demand.
Despite its protean aspect, this ideology tends to a single outcome, what Lazzarato calls “a specific ‘morality’ ” first defined by Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals as proceeding from a double meaning of the German word Schuld. Signifying at once “promise” and “fault,” this term represents the verso and recto of the debt relation and its seemingly contradictory character as a compulsory relationship freely compacted. “The power of debt is described as if it were exercised neither through repression nor through ideology,” Lazzarato writes. “The debtor is ‘free,’ but his actions, his behavior, are confined to the limits defined by the debt he has entered into.” Happily for those holding the note, the debt mechanism scales. “The same is true as much for the individual as for the population or social group.”
This behavioral heliotropism requires cultivation, however, and for cultivation you need culture. Again taking cues from Foucault, Lazzarato presents debt as primarily ethical rather than contractual, legal or juridical. Debt is an ascesis, a ready-made set of prescriptions and procedures for proper self-fashioning. He writes that “debt means immediately making the economy subjective, since debt is an economic relation which, in order to exist, implies the molding and control of subjectivity such that ‘labor’ becomes indistiguishable from ‘work on the self.'” The U.S. and other developed nations really don’t produce much besides debtors anymore.
The only way to make it to the top of the heap, then, is by offering financial services to various and sundry service-mongers in the larger economy. Neoliberal reform-minded horsemen of the Reagan administration, for instance, in addition to saddling the nation with an inactivist government, herded it into the waiting hands of HBS and Wharton School hordes mad for rents and keen for some opportunity to squeeze a little vig from others’ toil.
When the roundup ended, the U.S. economy resembled the very opposite of the oogy symbol on the dollar, the one which sets conspiracy theorists’ fantods a-howling. The country had become an inverted pyramid where one’s wage had stories of claimants set above it, each angling to wrest it from the rightful owner’s grasp. The incumbency of actually existing conditions now bulwarking it, the ascesis of debt appeared to rest less on any ethical than on a physical principle, a fifth force to keep markets humming and Charlie Black’s bourgeoisie urban and haute.
Binding any physical force is the supreme law of entropy. All discourse — economic, ethical, or otherwise — rests on an unfounded yet strategically necessary invocation of a principle that grounds it and orders its differences into an intelligible whole. Yet such corralling, as Jean Baudrillard suggests in his 2001 book, Impossible Exchange, cannot overcome the fact that in truth the items constituting these differences find equivalents only in themselves. They are in this sense, radically singular, and the system must efface this primordial truth — a truth that, once acknowledged, would expose its oppositions as mere inventions.
Outside the palings of this corral lies what Baudrillard calls an “Impossible Exchange Barrier” beyond which the system of organized differences responds not to some Marxian general equivalent but only to themselves, while within the palings persists “the Great Game of Exchange” whose sole strategy involves “passing around the debt, the credit … you cannot get rid of” lest you dispel “the ruse of capital, which, at the same time as it plunges the world into ever greater debt, works simultaneously to redeem that debt.” God may not play dice with the universe, but humankind does play with itself a kind of macroeconomic game of Fort/Da, the stakes for which certainly drive beyond any pleasure principle to thanatotic stalemate.
Lazzarato holds a similar outlook regarding the Great Game of Exchange and the global fiscal cliff toward which it drags its participants. But unlike Baudrillard’s, Lazzarato’s pessimism comes short of total. He tempers it with the hope, however slight, that there remains time to reverse course before the developed-world economies exceed the Impossible Exchange Barrier and hurtle into the void. Such a reversal depends on slaying the neoliberal dragon in its lair. If debt means immediately making the economy subjective, then, Lazzarato writes, “a specific kind of subjective conversion,” a counter-ascesis that frees initiates from “debt morality and the discourse which holds it hostage” must be the aim. Not only must all existing debt be annulled, but debt itself must be exposed for what it is, namely, “not an economic problem but an apparatus of power designed not only to impoverish … but to bring about catastrophe,” and tossed into the dustbin of history.
Such tidying up will not be easy. Rather, you imagine it may prove tantamount to cleaning the Augean stables. Short of a collective rolling up of sleeves and getting to it, however, nothing adequately addresses the problem. “The financial catastrophe is far from over,” Lazzarato notes, “since no regulation of finance is possible.” Nor is regulation even desirable to those in power, for it “would mark the end of neoliberalism.” Metropolitan?s Charlie Black exemplifies the sort of myopically grandiose perception of his class. For him, his class’s value is made plain by its continued existence. Should it disappear, Armageddon would ensue. Seas would boil. The moon would turn to blood. Stock options would go unexercised. It is this chimera of necessity that underwrites the sense of unique tragedy attending the urbanite bourgeoisie’s decline, as well as the logic of “Too big to fail” banks and Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein’s ex cathedra decree of “doing God’s work.”
Apparently no longer content with being known as “Government Sachs” for the various former executives who now stride Washington D. C.’s corridors of power, Blankfein and his merry band seek nothing less than the foundation of one holy catholic and apostolic church, consecrated to Mammon their tribal deity, who demands regular bloodletting and smoldering hecatombs. Against this unholy crusade Lazzarato invokes Nietzsche, whose blaspheming in this regard represents the sole path to deliverance. “Nietzsche again offers us some idea,” writes Lazzarato, going on to quote the gay scientist: “‘atheism might release humanity from this whole feeling of being indebted…. Atheism and a sort of second innocence belong together.'” Granted a new dispensation and catechized in the tenets of debt repudiation, born-again innocents may step into a future no longer threatened by the dehiscence of compound interest, leaving the dead to bury the dead.