Debt as a Mode of Governance

by | 16 Apr 2012

A man is no longer a man confined, but a man in debt. (Deleuze, 1995: 181)

Capitalism has complete control over life: it has “biopolitical” control. Hence Deleuze’s above statement in his text on the societies of control, where the regime of indebtedness is as much about biopolitical control as it is an extension of capital.

In the primitive society, debt is charged through the primitive inscription, or coding, on the body. Blood-revenge and cruelty address a non-exchangist power. In the despotic society, all debts become infinite debts to the divine ruler. In capitalism, all debts finally break free from the sovereign and become infinite by conjoining flows. With capitalism, debt is continuous and without limit: student debt, credit card debt, mortgage debt, medical debt.

Whereas in the primitive system debt is incurred through inscription and, in despotism, exercised by divine law, in capitalism “the market-eye keeps a watch over everything” (Dienst, 2011: 124-5). In other words, the market-eye becomes the new normal that constitutes the biopolitical control around a weightless, infinitely circulating, immortal debt. We now live in the era of debt in which it is the soul of the individual that is imprisoned.

In capitalism, the innovation of the market coincides with the individual that owes nothing except to itself. We should, however, stress that this self-interested individual is also one indebted to others. In contemporary society, the subject is literally locked into a regime of indebtedness whose belonging is infused with insecurity and isolation (see Read, 2012). For a better grasp of what is at stake in the politics of debt, we must therefore see debt as a mode of governance, which predetermines political outcomes. Debt is a mode of governance, a future acting, restricting and curtailing human imagination.

As an exceptionally punishing kind, student debt, for instance, produces desperate individuals who try to match their actions to the laws of the market, rather than radically question their place within society (ibid.). Student debt prevents individuals from engaging in politics that makes them think creatively and critically about society, and ask questions. As such, debt has a profound disciplining effect on students, taylorizing their studies and undermining the sociality and politicization that has traditionally been one of the main benefits of college and university life (Caffentzis, 2011: 32).

With the internalisation of debt, politics and critical thinking are transformed into a monetary relation and the subject’s individuality and morality become parts of the market by emptying public life of moral argument. Thus, to quote Marx (1844), “instead of money, or paper, it is one’s own personal existence, flesh and blood, social virtue and importance, which constitutes the material, corporeal form of the spirit of money.” More importantly, debt produces what Paul Mason calls “the graduate with no future” (2012: 10). As individual carriers of unpayable debt, students are simply facing a future without employment. For the students, “the future has disappeared, shielded by a wall of debt” (Armstrong, 2011: 4).

Further, with so much available debt, students are forced to accept insecure, part-time, temporary, casual, intern, flexible, project-based, contingent and adjunct positions, and are thus becoming a source of cheap, instructional labour. It should therefore come as no surprise that adjunct professor is one of the fastest growing job titles in America; “an ill-paid, overworked species of academic” (The Economist, 10 March 2012).

Viewed in this way, debt perpetuates a subjectivity of desperation whose morality and individuality become enslaved by money. The subject of debt is a new figure of homo economicus as a grid of intelligibility that is trapped in isolation and insecurity. With debt, therefore, there is only an isolated and fragmented subject who cannot show a collective response. Debt defies a collective response precisely because it is seen less as a regime problem, as part of a capitalist free-market ideology, than as an individual fate. To put it bluntly, “debt is a collective phenomenon suffered individually” (Armstrong, 2011: 5).

The subject of debt is one that must be left on its own. It is told to blame itself, rather than look to the economic and social conditions that have driven individuals into deeper and more unsustainable debt. Enslaved by its own isolation and anxiety, the subject of debt is rendered governable, just as neoliberalism is the “the art of governing”, dealing with competing interests.

In this context debt expresses a biopolitical control that aims to defuse the idea of revolution. Debt should be understood as a mode of neoliberal governance that keeps people off the streets, preventing them from protesting. Underemployed and broke, the subject of debt is an atomized but networked individual whose lack of collective response is presented as a kind of autonomy and liberation. All that remains is, therefore, individual responsibility, which is often branded as ‘freedom’.

Unable to collectivise struggles against indebtedness and unemployment, the individual is thus produced and governed by the idea of maximizing value and minimising risks where the notion of social solidarity is excluded, in which any connection with other groups in the ‘precariat’ is avoided. Collective action to remedy these precarious conditions is also foreclosed, for the state of exception becomes the rule. And when governmentalities act, they do so to further control based entirely on individual self-interest, or individual human motives and intentions that are ethically justified in capitalism.

Locked into isolated and immiserated futures, political lives, in short, “are now shadowed by debt” (Armstrong, 2011: 4). With debt, the subject becomes an investor in its own human capital in which relations of trust and collective action are replaced by security and biopolitical control that aims at life’s global pacification. The regime of debt not only appears to become a defining characteristic of capitalist biopolitics, but also a precondition of human life in general in which the subject is simultaneously bound to capitalism while potentially cynical to its rule.

Debt presupposes a kind of (un)sociality of people who are connected only by self-interest, but not engaged in direct conflict. In other words, debt is, like capitalism, indifferent to the idea of sociability, or, worse still, exploits it. The regime of debt creates responsible, insecure yet cynical subjectivities aimed at decreasing desires for radical social change. Isolation and insecurity combined with cynicism about the world are the marks of the subject of debt. Here, the individual realises its isolation and disillusion yet refuses or is unable to actualise its dissent. Debt is a future war on human imagination that disempowers individuals from demanding positive social transformation, or collective action.

However, what is inherited blindly should not be passed on blindly. And if radical critique still persists in the new spirit of capitalism, if it refuses to disappear in the regime of debt, this is because radical critique inhabits a present in which “time stands still and has come to a stop” (Benjamin, 1969: 254). Are we not all part of the system?

Are we?

Ali Riza Taşkale is a doctoral student in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield. Email:


— Armstrong A, 2011, “Insolvent futures / bonds of struggle” reclamations journal 4–7
—Benjamin W, 1969 Illuminations (Schonken Books, New York)
— Caffentzis G, 2011, “The student loan debt abolition movement in the united states” reclamations journal 31–44
— Deleuze G, 1995 Negotiations (New York, Columbia University Press)
— Dienst R, 2011 The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good (London, Verso)
— Mason P, 2012, “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere” G2 February 1
— Read J, 2012, “Starting from Year Zero: Occupy Wall Street and the Transformations of the Socio-Political” Unemployed negativity 9 February, HYPERLINK “”
— The Economist, 2012, “A pixelated portrait of labour” March 12,|a

1 Comment

  1. Eline saglik Ali R?za.
    Ogrenci borclari ve harclar yuzunden oralarda isyanlar yasanmisti degil mi?



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