The Return of the Politics of Debt

Yesterday I saw Doug Henwood interview the anthropologist David Graeber about his new book about debt. It was a fascinating discussion, and it made me decide that I’m going to have to read the book, despite it coming in at five hundred pages and being a bit overpriced in its e-book edition. One of the […]

Yesterday I saw Doug Henwood interview the anthropologist David Graeber about his new book about debt. It was a fascinating discussion, and it made me decide that I’m going to have to read the book, despite it coming in at five hundred pages and being a bit overpriced in its e-book edition.

One of the themes that came up a lot in the discussion was the way that debt has historically functioned as the foundation of economic domination in a lot of different social formations. As Graeber wryly put it, conquering invaders will happily tell their new subjects that they now owe a debt that must be repaid for the cost of conquering them. And rulers in various times and places have canceled debts as a way of keeping the peace, as in the tradition of the Jubilee year.

Graeber cited the historian Moses Finley, who identified “the perennial revolutionary programme of antiquity, cancel debts and redistribute the land, the slogan of a peasantry, not of a working class.” And as Mike Konczal (who was also there last night) notes, “The balance-sheet recession policy for USA is basically: abolish the debts, and redistribute the land.”

But if we seem to be returning to a millennia-old politics of debt, that only highlights the anomaly of the past two centuries. In at least some places, “cancel the debts, redistribute the land” hasn’t been the primary slogan. Rather, the demands were for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” and later for more jobs, or higher wages, or more job security.

These demands, of course, all presuppose a society of generalized wage labor, in which people think of it as normal or inevitable to work for a boss in order to procure the means of subsistence. And it is the presence of generalized wage labor — and therefore, of capitalism — that marks out the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as anomalous. When we think about this in relation to debt, we can see that one of the distinctive features of capitalism is that it is a system that can, in principle, control the exploited classes without pervasive debt relations. That is, the archetypal wage laborer does not necessarily have any debt. But they also don’t have the means of production to produce for themselves, hence they are forced to work for a wage. Thus, the worker is “free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.”

In practice, of course, individual debt has always been an important part of capitalism, and debt and credit are indispensable to other parts of the system as well. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is something significant about the increasing importance of debt in our political economy. It may be indicative not merely of a short-term debt bubble, but a longer-term shift away from the canonical form of capitalism I just described. This is related to my previous discussions of rentier capitalism, since one of the problems I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is how one could maintain relations of class power if it becomes possible for people to survive outside of wage labor. I’ve mostly been concerned with the way in which the state can create artificial scarcity through intellectual property laws and the like (e.g., anti-Star Trek). But debt is an equally important part of the picture, and one which I think I’ve tended to overlook.

This suggests one source of the Left’s political confusion today. Leftists and liberals are used to viewing issues of jobs, hours and wages as the core problem facing workers. And insofar as most people are still wage laborers, that still appears to be the case. Yet it seems to me that we could easily arrive at a situation where it is technically possible for people to opt out of wage labor (due to the wonders of the Internet, 3D printers, small-scale communal production, and so on) but where people are still compelled to work for bosses in order to pay off their debts. (And we can only guess at what new forms of debt will be concocted to cement this system in place. Perhaps we will all one day be born with debt, for the privilege of being born in America?) In that situation, it might appear that the fundamental problem was inadequate demand, or low wages, or something else to do with the labor market. But the real problem would be the existence of all this inviolable debt.

Indeed, widespread and large debt loads are one of the most important ways in which my generation differs from those that immediately preceded it. The need to service debts — chiefly student loan debt, but also credit card debt in many cases — shapes every decision people make in their early adulthood. People who might otherwise want to sacrifice some income in order to pursue their goals are forced into corporate careers in order to pay off their debts. This has direct implications for the Left: more than once, older comrades have noted to me that it has become much more difficult to live in the kind of bohemian poverty that sustained an earlier generation of young radicals and activists.

As a matter of political consciousness, it’s important to drive home the point that insofar as we are burdened with debt, we are not free people — not even in the impoverished sense in which Marx spoke of the “free” laborer. In the spirit of Corey Robin’s call to reclaim the politics of freedom, it’s time to demand freedom from debt.

And there may be some advantages to a politics centered around debt rather than wage labor. The problem confronting the wage laborer is that they are, in fact, dependent on the boss for their sustenance, unless they can solve the collective action problem of getting everyone together to expropriate the expropriators. Debt, on the other hand, is just an agreed-upon social fiction denoting an obligation for some act of consumption that has already occurred. The only way to make people respect debt is through some combination of brute force and ideological legitimacy — a legitimacy that we can only hope is starting to slip away.

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