Monday, 9 May 2016

The Social and Cultural Politics of Debt – A Workshop

Wednesday, 18 May, 3pm-5.30pm (CM0.012), Keele University

Click here to register for a free place at this workshop

Issues of debt, indebtedness, default, and bankruptcy have become key to understanding the dynamics of contemporary social life since the global economic crash of 2008. In the current post-crash period, when the state has fallen back on austerity in order to manage the fall out of massive bank bail outs and future proof the neoliberal system from total collapse, the individual must be able to take care of themselves because social security is no longer an option. In the age of austerity, welfare no longer makes sense. It is unproductive and costs far too much. In light of this situation the neoliberal individual becomes responsible for costs that might otherwise have been covered by the state (education, health, and so on) in a period where faltering economic growth means that the burden of not only being a neoliberal individual, but also making ends meet starts to become unsustainable. Where credit was good in a period of sustained economic growth, because it allowed the individual to realise their neoliberal consumer identity and become through things, in the austere society debt weighs heavy on neoliberal individual, the debtor, who now lacks in the face of the creditor that demands repayment. In the recent past it was good to live in the red, but now credit is harder to come by and even harder to manage the moral politics of neoliberal society explain that people should aspire to living within their means. In the context of this shift, there is little doubt that the behaviour of the neoliberal state has been ethically questionable. In the past individual credit was good because it drove consumption and supported growth, whereas today debt is bad and somehow representative of morally dubious conduct, even though the global economic system remains absolutely reliant on processes of financialisation. It is precisely this shift from the credit to the debt society, and the consequences of this development, which is captured in recent works by Maurizio Lazzarato, David Graeber, and others on the topic of indebtedness and bankruptcy. It is also this move and the consequent writings of the above writers that inspired this workshop that comprises three papers on the social and cultural politics of the contemporary debt society.

Workshop Schedule

3pm-3.20pm: Mark Featherstone – Ecologies of Indebtedness

3.30pm-4.10pm: Mark Davis - Futureproof: The Cultural Politics of Indebtedness in Neoliberal Societies

4.20pm-5.00pm: Ole Bjerg – Debt Drive and Compulsive Money Creation

5.00-5.30pm: Questions and Answers


Ole Bjerg (Copenhagen Business School)

‘Debt Drive and Compulsive Money Creation’

Slavoj Žižek's concepts of desire and drive provide a model to distinguish between 'normal' engaged behavior and 'pathological' addiction. While desire is structured around the pursuit of an object onto which the subject projects different fantasies of enjoyment and redemption, drive has moved beyond the realm of fantasy and thus also beyond the realm of subjectivity as such. The proposition I would like to raise is that contemporary financial capitalism is no longer even structured around the desire for money but has moved into a state of debt drive. Political initiatives in the wake of the financial crisis such as bank packages, quantitative easing, austerity politics seem to have given up even on the fantasy that we can move out of the crisis. Ultimately, they all boil down to the compulsive repetition of the same failed act of creating money out of debt.

Mark Davis (University of Leeds)

‘Futureproof: The Cultural Politics of Indebtedness in Neoliberal Societies’

Maurizio Lazzarato teaches us that debt is fundamentally a promise – a promise of future reimbursement. As such, in order for debt to exist, there must first be the creation and production of a subject who is able to make and to keep that promise (‘homo debtor’). We can therefore start to understand the neoliberal economy as one that is always projected into a future that has been emptied of its radical potential, pre-determined by decisions made today.

In this paper, I locate these ideas through a (very) brief tour of the history of economics, in search of alternative visions of a future that is not forestalled by debt, and then assess Lazzarato’s claims in relation to a recently funded project looking at the financial decisions of indebted graduate students in precarious labour market positions. The challenge for a cultural politics of neoliberalism is how to wrestle back the utopian possibility of the future such that indebted subjects can imagine a world beyond the next set of monthly repayments.

Mark Featherstone (Keele University)

‘Ecologies of Indebtedness’

In this paper I explore the impacts of debt through the lens of Felix Guattari’s three ecologies of the mental, the social, and the environmental in order to reimagine the meaning of indebtedness in a form of globalisation defined by exhaustion and depression. In the first part of the paper I trace the origins of the contemporary debt society through a discussion of global socio-economic change before moving on to consider the impacts of the near collapse of this social form in the period following 2008. In the second section of the paper I expand my exploration of these impacts through consideration of the ways in which unmanageable indebtedness destroys the future on the level of both societies, which fall into exhaustion and a kind of decrepit post-modernism, and individuals, who come to occupy a space of lack and melancholia by virtue of their inability to live up to the modern ideal of what it means to be a person. Finally, in the third part of the paper, I think about the ways in which the realisation of what Will Davies et al call financial melancholia may open up a space for a new ecologically sustainable understanding of indebtedness based on an ethic of the inherent interdependence of people, or what Gerald Raunig writes about in terms of the category of dividualism. In this respect the central point of my paper concerns the attempt to rethink the bad, or unsustainable, ecology of financial indebtedness, which leads to individual, social, and environmental despair, through an ethics of default and bankruptcy. Here, I suggest that the unsustainability of debt premised on the ideal of living in the black may open out onto the possibility of a new vision of the necessity of dividual interdependence, where self, other, and world come together to create a sustainable ecology of living in the red characterised by a recognition of vulnerability, responsibility, and irreducible indebtedness.

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