Rebelling against debt: examples from spain

… discourses of crises become a way to governmentally produce and manage (rather than deter) the crisis.  “Crisis” becomes a perennial state of exception that turns into a rule and common sense and thus renders critical thinking and acting redundant, irrational, and ultimately unpatriotic.  The boundaries of political space are determined and naturalized accordingly.  This, neoliberalism is not primarily a particular mode of economic management, but rather a political rationality and mode of governmental reasoning that both constructs and manages the realm to be regulated.

Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession


On the 17th of September, in Madrid, a 45 year old woman, Amparo, brought her life to an end on receiving notice of her immanent eviction, for a debt of 900 Euros.  She leaves behind 6 children, 3 of them minors (Periódico Diagonal, 17/09/2013).

On the morning of the 11th of September, 12 anti-riot police vehicles, with over a 100 fully armed, militarised police carried out the eviction of a young woman, Amaya (Periodismo Humano, 12/09/2013).

(The video that follows, by Jaime Alekos, is testimony to the eviction of Amaya, to a politics reduced to the exercise of force and to the solidarity built around the defense of a home).  

Between 2008 and 2012, 362,776 home evictions have been executed in spain, affecting over 400,000 families. (PAH, 18/02/2013)  In the meantime, there are over 3 million empty houses in the country, many of which are held by different banking and financial institutions; banks which received since May of 2009, 61,366 million Euros in aid, according to the Bank of Spain (Reuters, 02/09/2013).

Spain, as with other countries in the wake of the crisis of 2008, has nationalized the debts of its financial economy.  The consequence has been an explosion in public debt, which itself has become an object of profit for those who speculate on sovereign debts.  Austerity measures followed, in an effort to “calm the markets” and as the price for EU aid.  Almost four years after, the “success” is there for all to see.  If spain’s national debt in 2007 was 36.2 % of GDP, it today stands at 92.2% of GDP, and continues to rise (BBC News, 13/09/2013).

The absurdity, the obscenity, of all of this almost defies the imagination.  And tragically, spain is but one example among many.  One should not however allow indignation to blind, for what seems incongruous and immoral, is that which lies at the very heart of contemporary capitalism.

We are the subjects of the reign of debt, Maurizio Lazzarato teaches us.  The power of capitalism wears numerous masks: capital, business, welfare-state, opposed to which are labour, consumers, welfare program users.  But what runs through all of these relations, in our time, is debt.  Capitalism is today above all a universal creditor, to which increasingly large parts of humanity are indebted. (32: All references in the text are to Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of Indebted Man)

The primary social bond is not exchange, as liberal theory has always insisted upon.  It is rather credit and debt, a relation that is itself devoid of any pretence to equality; the debtor assumes her/his obligations as a weaker party to those more powerful. (11)

The overriding debt economy thus renders any distinction between rent and profit illusory, and accordingly any proposal to restrain the power of financial institutions and their speculative activities becomes futile.  Debt is a generator of wealth; indeed, it is today its principal source.  It is a machine, a “war machine” for the capture, prey and extraction of social creativity, prescribing and managing not just economic life, but all social relations, moulding them after its own exigencies. (29)

But dependent as it is on an underlying inequality, debt is also a system, or more precisely, a changing collection and organisation of techniques of power that not only produce and appropriate wealth, but also create the conditions necessary for both.  That is, the power of debt creates subjects susceptible to, and to the greatest degree possible, forced to, submit to debt.  The debt economy creates the “indebted man”, an identity-relation that cuts across that of worker, consumer, welfare state user.  Those not touched by debt are few, and they are the creditors.  Bound together through multiple and changing relations of power, they together constitute contemporary capitalism.  It is not a system or structure; it is a set of procedures of government determined by imperatives of exploitation and domination.  “The power of capitalism, like the world it aims to appropriate and control, is always in the process of being made”. (107)  And it is made in and through the class struggle that is the war between creditor and debtor.

The debt economy deprives people of political power and wealth.  It imposes its norms on the administration of social services, determines government spending, controls consumption, shapes production.  Debt reconfigures political power, forcing the privatisation of state-public benefits, overturning social rights with individual contractual relations (social rights become individual responsibilities), weakening or removing legal restraint in economic activity (e.g. labour, consumer, environmental law).  And as debt is permanent feature of the economy, so too is its crisis.  State power is then exercised in a permanent state of exception.

The contemporary debt economy, its development and expansion, would be impossible without the power of the State.  Yet simultaneously, it weakens the political autonomy of the nation state and whatever representative expression it is capable of, by also rendering it indebted.  The State is necessary, at least in our present, to secure the power of creditors.  And it exercises its power in such a way as to guarantee the generation of wealth from debt, and the disciplining of the recalcitrant to it.  The display and use of militarised police, on seemingly incomprehensible scales, is accordingly far from exaggerated.  Its function is to intimidate, to terrorise, to dissuade; in sum, to contribute to the making of “indebted man”.  As for the occasional suicide, it is bit a small price to pay for the making of wealth.

If, as Lazzarato states, debt “represents a transversal power relation unimpeded by State boundaries, the dualisms of production (active/non-active, employed/unemployed, productive/non-productive), and the distinction between the economy, the political, and the social”, (89) then the question of “what is to be done?” becomes urgent.  It would seem obvious that a great deal of what may be called the politics of the left, from its past, is today rendered problematic or useless.  A politics centred exclusively on the socialisation of labour, typically understand as achievable only after the taking of national state power, completely fails to grasp the nature of contemporary capitalism.  The labour movement itself, in its “traditional” forms, with few exceptions, is equally condemned to irrelevance.  And yet from the history of the labour movement, the strike offers a parallel to what is today necessary.  As the strike, or more dramatically, the general strike, brought production to a standstill, a debt strike, or actions which hamper or impede the production of wealth from debt, and contest it openly, are today what are called for.

The strategies and tactics that such an ambition suggests are many.  Spain’s Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca is an inspiring example of militant opposition to debt in the domain of housing.  It has not only brought attention to the tragic housing crisis in the country; it has also, through autonomous, direct action, actively sought to halt evictions, as well as to organise the occupation of empty housing stock for sheltering the homeless.  And what an anrti-capitalist politics demands is the proliferation of such movements, in the fissures of the multiple relations of power that comprise capitalism.

(The video that follows, by Sicom TV, is a documentary on the history and politics of the PAH)

To speak of the PAH or similar and related movements in spain, or elsewhere, as anti-capitalist, is not to ignore struggles and conflicts around labour and production.  What the capitalist debt-economy however forces us to recognise is that labour and production are not central.  Indeed, capitalism has no centre, for the production of debt now permeates all social relations.  Thus any action that questions or contests debt, however modest in scale, is revolutionary.  And perhaps it is above all revolutionary because it begins in an ethical transformation.  The “indebted man” is a creature, a moral creature of the debt economy.  S/he is the new indentured servant.  Rebellion against the debt economy therefore requires a passage through a kind of ethical reshaping, a making of new ways to live, together, which brings about simultaneously, new subjectivities in new worlds of greater freedom, autonomy and creativity.

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