Precarization and Credit

Credit as exploitation of existence

In his 1844 text “Comments on James Mill”, Marx thinks about credit in a way that helps to understand the politico-economic entanglement of debt and precarization in the present. Already in his critique of Mill’s Elements of Political Economy Marx formulates thoughts that would become his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Marx problematized the logic of credit and debt as separating the individuals from one another, destroying social connectedness and blocking common political action.

In the logic of credit, Marx makes clear that it is “man’s moral existence, man’s social existence” that is at stake and which becomes valued. In the relation between the creditor and the debtor “a man recognises another man by advancing him a certain quantity of value.” It is a relation of trust and distrust: the creditor should not be a usurer or a swindler, the debtor should be “a “good” man […], a man who is “able to pay.”” It seems that the main relationship in debt economy is one in which “a rich man gives credit to a poor man whom he considers industrious and decent.” But this, Marx emphazises, is nothing but “the romantic, sentimental part of political economy”. The creditor passes a moral judgement on ‘the poor’, assessing his creditworthiness. As return it is not the social capacities that count but the ‘blood and flesh’, the ‘morality’ and the ‘existence’ of the ‘poor’: “That means, therefore, that all the social virtues of the poor man, the content of his vital activity, his existence itself, represent for the rich man the reimbursement of his capital with the customary interest.” For Marx, it is not the labour that is exploited by the credit but the ethical action of the ‘poor’, the work of self-constituting, the way of life (Lazzarato 2012, 54-5). The aim is not to allow the ‘poor’ a better life, but to not let him pass by: “It is the death of his [the creditor’s] capital together with the interest.”

In credit, however, money is not the medium of exchange, it has “returned out of its material form and been put back in man, but only because the man himself has been put outside himself and has himself assumed a material form. Within the credit relationship, it is not the case that money is transcended in man, but that man himself is turned into money, or money is incorporated in him. Human individuality, human morality itself, has become both an object of commerce and the material in which money exists. Instead of money, or paper, it is my own personal existence, my flesh and blood, my social virtue and importance, which constitutes the material, corporeal form of the spirit of money. Credit no longer resolves the value of money into money but into human flesh and the human heart.

Governing Through Precarization

For over two decades now in Europe, in the ongoing hegemonic of financialized capitalism, a form of governing has been established that does not legitimise itself by guaranteeing social protection and security for the majority of citizens, but is rather characterised by social insecurity and precarization.1

Governing through precarization means that the precarious are no longer solely those who can be marginalised to the peripheries of society. Due to the individualising restructuring of the social welfare state, the deregulation of the labour market, and the expansion of precarious employment conditions, we currently find ourselves in a process of the normalisation of precarization, which also affects larger portions of the middle class. In this normalisation process, precarization has become a political and economic instrument of governing.2 Social security, and also therefore social reproduction, are being increasingly de-collectivised; they are again being privatised, but this time handed over to the self-responsibility of the individual and capitalised. As a result, more and more people are only able to fund retirement provisions, healthcare, and education by taking on debts. At the same time, the productivity of the self and of sociality in low-wage or unpaid positions leads directly to indebtedness. De-collectivisation and its accompanying individualisation of risk, self-management, and self-responsibility, as well as the capitalisation of reproduction, are the central anchoring points in the current neoliberal regime of precarization for an economy of guilt and debt.

Guilt and Debt

Precarious living and working conditions and the privatisation of protection against precariousness are conditions of both a prospering financial capitalism and its concomitant debt economy. As Marx has already pointed out, this economy is based on the expansion of productivity that involves less work in the traditional sense than subjectivation. A subjective figure is needed to assume responsibility, to take on debt, and to internalise the risks both as guilt and as debt: a personality that is doubly indebted and responsible for oneself. This personality plays a decisive role in enabling and stabilising neoliberal governing through precarization and insecurity, for there is no longer an outside of debt. Everybody is indebted in one or another way: “If it is not individual debt, it is public debt that weighs, literally, on every individual’s life, since every individual must take responsibility for it” (Lazzarato 2012, 31). As Maurizio Lazzarato reminds us, Marx was one of the first to expressly link the debt economy with morality, that is, with specific modes of subjectivation. In the Christian genealogy, becoming indebted cannot be separated from burdening oneself with guilt. Incurring debt results in guilt through the promise to repay creditors. The indebted person promises to continuously behave in such a way that they are able to give back what was given to them, so that they can pay back their debts. In the debt economy, this financial exchange constitutes subjectivation. The obligation to pay back debt corresponds to that disciplinary self-governing that ensures not only subjectivising and social productivity, but also compliance. To place one’s behaviour at the service of repaying debt means to place life and sociality at the service of debt and to make oneself even more governable.

To understand the governmental intertwining of precarization and debt, it is important to bear in mind that precarization means dealing with the unforeseeable, with contingency, of acting without being able to predict what the near or distant future will bring. It is precisely this ability to deal with contingency that is exploited by the loan contract, preventing agency that might start something new or refuse to work under the given conditions. The financial promise of the repayment of debt must go on, even if it requires something decidedly paradoxical of the indebted person: in their precarization they must estimate something inestimable, namely, the future. The logic of credit means not only controlling the future in the present, but also through self-governing to make precarization and the precarized person calculable in the incalculability of their life and to hold them under control – yet doing so primarily on behalf of the creditor.

In self-precarization, however, this paradox of calculating the incalculable is reversed, the temporality of debt is phantasmically inverted: by investing the self in what is supposedly one’s ‘own’ future, the doubly indebted personality consciously accepts precarization in the present. The fantasy of shaping the future means accepting precarization in the present. For the illusion of a predictable and better time-to-come, self-precarization appears to be a necessary investment above all amongst the northwestern European middle classes. What is abandoned in this self-investing projection of a future is the agency that might start something new in the present. Taking action, as Marx already pointed out, requires forces that emerge from sociality, from connectedness with others, from precariousness: trust in oneself, in others, and thus in the world. And it is precisely this trust – this ethical relationship – that gets exploited by credit and indebtedness. In the normalisation of precarization what becomes apparent precisely in the crisis of the debt economy is that there is no future, and that at the same time a new present simultaneously opens through this in which people care about how they want to live now.