‘Governing by Debt’ reviewed by Adam George Dunn

Governing by Debt

Translated by Joshua David Jordan, Semiotext(e), South Pasadena, CA, 2015. 278pp., £9.95 pb
ISBN 9781584351634

Reviewed by Adam George Dunn

About the reviewer

Adam George Dunn is a Teaching Fellow at the Winchester School of Art. …


Governing by debt is Maurizio Lazzarato’s second book in Semiotext(e)’s diminutive intervention series (for the first, see http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2013/870 ). Revisiting the concept of debt, Lazzarato puts it into the context of how capital in different ways has learned to extract value. Alongside this topic follows an extended discussion of the history of governmentality and debt. After a discussion of Lenin and finance capital, Lazzarato is ready to close the book with a suggestion that laziness is a refusal of capital’s division of time.

 The most likely audience are those interested in an analysis of capital that focuses on the means of appropriation and (later) pure valorization. This is a story Lazzarato structures around an account of capital developing across a series of historical phases, with the current phase presented in terms of interesting parallels with imperialism.

Lazzarato is very careful to present things with a full enough context, so that the reader does not need to already be familiar with the sources in order to understand Lazzarato’s use of them. With the exception of the Lenin chapter at the end, these sources inform Lazzarato’s discussion without overwhelming it. His main influences are Schmitt, Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari, and most obviously Foucault and Lenin. However, apart from with the last two, their theoretical resources are deployed sparingly. This, alongside the clear writing style, makes for an accessible read in spite of the wide range of sources. Early in the book, this leads to a tendency to over explain, such as in the slightly laborious elaborations of finance’s role in the financial crisis (36).

A ‘glossary’ forms the first (un-numbered) chapter of the book, which, together with the conclusion, consists of key terms presented in bold with a short definition or explanation. In the glossary, this presentation lays out the basic terms and context for the book, and the appearance of a structured (not-quite-alphabetical) list of definitions is reasonably well maintained. The conclusion drops this fiction to focus on developing its argument in favour of laziness as organised refusal of work and the organisation of time in favour of capital.

Between the glossary and conclusion, there are six numbered chapters organized more normally. Of these six, three (chapters 3 to 5) form a set, each titled ”Critique of Governmentality”, and numbered in sequence.

Before the sequence on governmentality, Lazzarato uses his first chapter to lay out the conceptual framework through which he analyses the valorization of capital. One virtue of this chapter is its clarity, another is the persuasive distinctions Lazzarato makes in an attempt to update our theories of value-extraction as industrial capital diminishes in importance (30). Instead of relying on production, more direct techniques, such as rent and taxation, assume greater importance (29). In Lazzarato’s account, taxation is, and always has been, good for business (33); it sends money back to the rich in return for the products they distribute. But now, he claims, taxation has assumed a new priority. The emphasis Lazzarato places on taxation and money reflects his belief that it is money rather than production that is the main driver of social change (31). This is certainly a plausible claim as things stand now, with so much of the condition of the global economy dependent on ‘market confidence’.

This chapter is a pessimistic start to the book, with a blunt declaration that reform is quite impossible, as any real reforms would require a total revaluation of capitalism (39-40). However, the text suggests one road out. In his discussion of Schmitt, Lazzarato praises Schmitt for seeing clearly that economic and political spheres are completely and thoroughly entwined (56). In recognising this, Lazzarato claims, Schmitt lets us see that the political control of distribution of rights and wealth etc. is inevitable, as the real and necessary struggle during the crisis occupies the positions of control (56).

For the second chapter, Lazzarato gives an argument against the liberating potential of debt, taking one statement each from the fields of philosophy, anthropology and economics as representative opponents (61). Lazzarato does not deign to name them in the text, but in the endnotes they are, respectively: Dostaler and Maris; Hénaff; Dupuy (260). They’re stand-ins for ‘what everyone’ believes (73). The three all praise modern commercial debt, but focus slightly differently in the kind of freedom they associate it with. Taken as an anonymous set, so that additional personal entanglements are avoided, they praise debt as an egalitarian mechanism that offers freedom to grow. The anthropologist’s contribution is to present commercial debt as self-negating, and as a release from older forms of debt, including debt to the gods (62-63). Lazzarato is withering about these claims.

The example used for the chapter is the role of debt in the American university system, which Lazzarato takes to be a clear representative of all the alleged good of a debt system, alongside the obvious problems. In practice, the two are not always distinguishable. The discussion takes in the scale of the debt through which students finance their education, the creation of a habit of debt in them, and the ‘voluntary’ acceptance of a monitored and disciplined life in return for the finance needed (by many) for an education (65-69). His account works well and builds towards a discussion of money’s role as creator of power relations (74-75). This too is compelling, although shares with the previous chapter a sense of being perhaps a tad too expansive. Part of the issue is that Lazzarato spends a good portion of the chapter defending his accounts of debt and money against a variety of interlocutors, including ‘heterodox economists’ and a return to arguing against Graeber as interpreter of Nietzsche (85).

A strange feature of this chapter is that it feels slightly like a stand-alone paper. Partly this is because it’s easily readable, and partly because it does not take any heavy theoretical backing from the chapter and glossary before it. It ends with one of the few prescriptions in the book, and perhaps not a terribly realistic or easily-implemented one, namely the infinite debt which the chapter focuses on should be answered by a refusal to keep paying (90). In theory, yes, but behind the symbolic power of capital there are a range of ways to enforce payments.

The sequence of three chapters on governmentality is an extended argument about the nature of governmentality under capitalism, taking Deleuze and Guattari as a starting point (92) to develop the claim that capitalism hasn’t ever been ‘liberal’ in any sense, and that it has always been comfortable working with and through state institutions.

The second chapter in this sequence uses an idea of ‘axiomatics’ as part of a return to discussing the move from industrial to financial capital, here treating it as part of a move from a physical to a virtual or symbolic economy (147). ‘Axiomatics’ here is meant to capture the sense that semiotic operations are an effective part of the infrastructure, oriented not towards truth but to ”what must be done” (150).

The capstone chapter of the sequence returns to current events to examine capitalism’s contemporary mechanisms. The development of the thoroughly atomised individual, and their subsequent isolation from meaningful discourse, takes a large part of the chapter (185). All this is plausible enough, although this is the point at which the Deleuze and Guattari terminology starts to obscure more than illuminate.

Rereading Lenin is the title of the final chapter. Lazzarato delivers as promised, using Lenin’s work and influences to compare current finance capitalism to capitalism in the period 1870-1914. At issue is whether the preponderance of finance is a new development, and how to categorise successive phases of capitalism. The answer to the first is that finance is best thought of on the model imperialism described by Lenin, for whom the essence of the imperial phase of capitalism was not industrial, but financial (215). Where Lazzarato detects a difference between then and now, is in terms of how finance uses markets, having moved from the use of imperialist projects to integrate fully with every available sector of commerce (232). Lazzarato links this to a process of splitting off higher-paid and ‘prestige’ workers so that they identify more fully with ‘middle-class attitudes’’ and the needs of finance capitalism, as in the extensive investment funds used for pensions (235).

After the pessimistic end to the chapter on Lenin and finance capital, Lazzarato discusses potential responses to current capitalism’s modes of appropriating value. This is more suggestion than programme, and seeks to revive interest in the ‘right to laziness’. It is something of a redemptive reading of laziness, and one that by the end sounds suspiciously like hard work. It is an active kind of refusal that organizes alternatives to capitalist appropriation ”and reveals other movements, speeds, and rhythms” (250). The focus of the entire chapter is on the refusal of work, which Lazzarato claims is a more profound refusal than in the times of industrial capital because ”exploitation [now] affects… subjectivity in all its dimensions” (249). Something about this doesn’t quite ring true, unless the idea of ‘work’ expands to take in the work of consuming in tempo with capitalist temporality as well. There are hints of this in the extensive disruption of identities that true ‘lazy action’ is meant to involve (251), including gender identities. This is material that could have done with more room, with more attention given to the different modes in which one might be lazy in an effective way. It is not clear if lazy action is an end in itself, or simply a means to an end. However, expanding on this would take a book on its own, and such a book by Lazzarato would surely be worth reading.

8 June 2016

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