Lazzarato and the governmental power of debt: La Fabrique de l’homme endetté or The Making of Indebted Man

There can have been few more timely recent books than Maurizio Lazzarato’s La Fabrique de l’homme endetté, originally published by les Editions Amsterdam in 2011 and now published in translation by MIT press as The Making of Indebted Man. An analysis of how debt works, across a whole range of social practices and levels (from nation states down to individuals), the book seeks to update Foucault’s analysis of modern governmental techniques as developed in his famous Birth of Bio-politics lectures from the Collège de France in 1978-1979. The core of Lazarato’s argument is that, writing at a time when neo-liberalism was still on its upcurve, Foucault over-estimated the liberty associated with entrepreneurial individualism and failed to foresee the distinctly authoritarian turn that neo-liberalism would take, noticeably through the use of debt as governmental tool. In his Collège de France lectures, Foucault developed a three part genealogy of neo-liberalism. He began with classical liberalism with the centrality it gave to exchange. He moved on through German Ordoliberalism where the emphasis shifts from exchange to free competition, the latter being something that must be promoted by all means, but where there is a recognition that there are significant areas of the social where market logics cannot be applied.  He arrives finally at US neo-liberalism, which seeks to extend the ‘laws’ of market competition to all areas of social life, so that, for example, health and education are to become investments made by the individual in his or her individual capital. The worker, no longer conceived merely as labour power, is reconceived as personal capital making good or bad ‘investment’ decisions as he or she moves from job to job and increases or decreases his or her capital value. This reconceptualization of the individual as an entrepreneur-of-the-self means a significant shift in the nature of governance, a move away both from both the relative passivity and enclosure of disciplinary regimes (the school, the factory, the prison) and the attention to populations of the biopolitical (as typified by the Welfare State). The question that then of course arises is how one can apply the concept of governance to the free market choices of individual entrepreneurs-of-the-self. The beginning of an answer is already there in Foucault. Individuals make their choices in environments not of their own making and in response to the behaviours of others which they cannot predict or control. Neoliberal governance is thus exercised at the level of the environment in which people make their apparently autonomous decisions. It is an action on an action rather than a direct intervention.

Picking up on this narrative of a transition, Lazzarato looks at the major transformations that have marked the passage to neo-liberal governance. If a key part of the story he tells is the rise of the power of finance (the independence of central banks, financial deregulation, the rise of shareholder power), an essential part of it is also the way the protections of regular Fordist employment and New Deal and post-war welfare regimes have been dismantled and risks outsourced from companies and states to individuals. The individualisation of social policy and the privatisation of social protection or its alignment with market norms are clearly essential components of this. However, if at an earlier stage, neo-liberalism is virulently hostile to any form of social protection, it later learns to use it as a governmental tool, by making protection conditional (no longer a right) and by tying it to individuals whose behaviours are thus opened up for evaluation. As a result of these broader transformations, where being an entrepreneur-of-the-self might once have lent itself to heroic, conquering framings (in the heady 1990s and early 2000s), it has now become essentially about the individual’s ability to deal with outsourced risks without having the necessary resources or power to do so adequately. As Lazzarato writes, ‘contemporary neo-liberal policies produce a human capital or ‘entrepreneur-of-the-self’ more or less indebted and more or less poor but always precarious. For the majority of the population, becoming an entrepreneur-of-the-self is limited to managing one’s employability, one’s debts, the drop in one’s salary and income and the reduction in social services according to business and competitive norms’ (p. 74, my translation from the French). As individuals become poorer through the shrinkage of their salary and the removal of social provision, neo-liberalism offers them compensation through debt and by promotion of shareholding. So, wages or deferred salaries (pensions) don’t rise, but people have access to consumer credit and are encouraged to provide for retirement through personal share portfolios; people no longer have a right to housing but have access to housing/mortgage credit; people no longer have a right to higher education, but can take out student loans; mutual and collective protection against risks are dismantled, but people are encouraged to take out private insurances. Without replacing all existing social relationships, the creditor-debt nexus thus comes to overlay them: workers become indebted workers (having to pay back their company shareholders for employing them); consumers become indebted consumers; citizens become indebted citizens, having to take responsibility for their share of their country’s debt.

If Lazzarato’s own main debt in this analysis of neo-liberal governance is Foucault, he also acknowledges what he owes to Deleuze and Guattari and to Nietzsche. What he takes from the former is primarily the sense of finance as above all a power relationship, financial power (credit) being the power to shape the terrain on which others make their decisions so that money (finance) is different in nature and reach to money (income) which can only make choices within what money (finance) has already lain down. What he takes from the latter’s A Genealogy of morals is more complex. In that celebrated text, Nietzsche claimed that what distinguished human societies, as they moved away from their primitive origins, was their capacity to produce a human able to promise to pay others back and to recognize their debt towards the group. This promise developed a particular type of memory, one oriented to the future (‘I remember I owe you, so I will behave in ways that will allow me to pay you back’). It thus became a way of governing future conducts. Whereas forgetting was natural and allowed for an opening to new experience and possibilities, promising had to be taught, often in painful ways, debts breeding a calculating, measuring individual able to work out how much flesh – a pound? – represented reimbursement. In more primitive social groups, debts to others were limited and could be discharged. With the coming of empires and monotheisms, one’s social or divine debt become effectively unpayable. Christianity perfected this mechanism: its all-powerful God meant a debt that was infinite. At the same time, one’s guilt for non-payment was internalised. The only way one could possibly repay in any way was through obedience: to the will of God, to the church. Debt, with its grip on past and future behaviours and with its moral reach was a formidable governmental tool. All that remained was for it to be secularised.

Picking up on this governmental capacity, Lazzarato is particularly interested in the kind of subjectivities it develops and the moralisation, temporalities and the right to evaluation with which they are associated. The essential point about the former (moralisation), is that the indebted subject is associated with two kinds of work. Firstly, there is salaried labour. Secondly, there is the work upon the self that is needed to produce a subject able to promise and to repay and ready to assume its guilt for being an indebted subject. The positive effort / reward pairing of work is now tied to the negative debt / fault duo of work upon the self. At the same time, and with the debt to Nietzsche coming through, a particular set of temporalities are associated with indebtedness: to be able to repay (to remember one’s promise), one has to make one’s behaviour predictable, regular and calculating. This not only militates against any future revolt with its inevitable disruption of the capacity to repay, it also implies an erasure of the memory of past rebellions and collective resistances with their lot of disrupted time and unpredictable behaviours. Crucially too, the indebted subject is constantly opened up to the evaluating inspection of others: individualised appraisals and targets at work, credit ratings, individual interviews for those in receipt of benefits or public credits. The subject is thus compelled not only to show that he or she will be able to repay debt (and to repay society through the right behaviours), he or she also has to show the right attitudes and assume individual guilt for any failings. This is where of course the power asymmetries between creditor and debtor come through. The debtor is to be an entrepreneur-of-the-self, a creature more active than those sought by previous, more disciplinary modes of governance, yet, deprived of the ability to govern his or her time, or to evaluate his or her own behaviours, his or her capacity of autonomous action is strictly curtailed.

In case it might seem that debt is simply a governmental tool suited to modulating the behaviour of individuals, it should be noted that similar techniques can apply to the governance of institutions and countries. Anyone following the unfolding, slow motion car crash that is the current crisis could not but be aware of how countries and institutions are under constant evaluation (by credit rating agencies for example), have to accept moral fault for their previous errors and self-indulgence and have to commit to future good behaviour that will ensure that, no matter what cuts have to be made in the body of their social provision, or their workers’ rights, they will be able to repay the lending agen’ts pound of flesh.

Given this governmental range, Lazzarato might be tempted to develop a grand narrative around debt as something able to explain all aspects of functioning of the neo-liberal order.He is wisely more modest in his claims, not least because he feels that the claims of previous candidates for explanatory mastery such as ‘cognitive capitalism’ were overstated. What he suggests instead is that the power of debt lies in its range, its ability to connect and overlay different apparatuses of governance (education, consumption, health) each with their own logics, and to bridge different socio-economic levels from the individual to international finance. It is partly this awareness of the limits of its claim that makes the book so persuasive.

One might also suggest, finally, that in recognising the governmental power and reach of debt as governance, Lazzarato’s book is actually disempowering. The obvious answer to this is that one always needs to know what one is up against if one is to resist it. At a personal level, one needs to take stock of the extent to which one’s own subjectivity is formed under the grip of debt and think how one might work towards a more genuine autonomy. At a more general level, one might need to think of ways to resist the moral grasp, evaluative gaze and predictable temporalities of indebtedness as they apply to collectivities, countries and institutions.

In two later posts, I seek to open up a dialogue between Lazzarato’s discussion of debt and the work of two film-makers, Laurent Cantet (here) and the Dardenne brothers (here). In another post (here), I sketch out some lessons from two more recent Lazzarato books and apply them to an understanding of the contemporary British university.

Martin O’Shaughnessy

This entry was posted in debt in theory and culture, The crisis and the economy, The politics of crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lazzarato and the governmental power of debt: La Fabrique de l’homme endetté or The Making of Indebted Man

  1. Pingback: Film and debt 2: calculable and incalculable debts in the films of the Dardenne brothers | La France et la Crise

  2. Pingback: Film and debt 1: self-investment, evaluation and governance in the work of Laurent Cantet | La France et la Crise

  3. Pingback: Using the work of Maurizio Lazzarato to understand subjection in the contemporary British university | La France et la Crise

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