The subject of debt is isolated, separated from others, who are no longer seen as part of a collective condition. With debt there is only one’s responsibility, one’s isolation, one’s fears up against an economic situation of abstract calculation. It is very difficult to say “we” debtors, in the way one could say “we” citizens or “we” workers. Part of debt passes beneath us, in the calculations, quantifications, and aggregations that make up our digital self, our virtual identity, and is this respect we cannot even say “I.” But even that part that individuates us, the part that we carry with us as a burden, does not allow for the creation of a “We.” This is because debt is seen less as a collective condition, as part of a new regime of accumulation and a new governmentality, than as an individual fate. Debt splinters into its myriad kinds, student debt, mortgage debt, and consumer debt, and the various individual relations to it, the choices made and risks taken. Viewed in this way debt, or financialization, is perhaps only an extreme point in the neo-liberal economy. Its general characteristics are, as we have seen, an extraction of wealth from relations outside of the worker-capital relationship, as not just production but reproduction become the basis for debt and wealth, and a production of subjectivity, that is oriented towards isolation, fragmentation, and inequality. In this manner debt is consistent with transformations of labor in the thirty years, which have lead to short term contracts, temp work, limited union membership and collective bargaining. It is also consistent with the rise of digital technologies that create new possibilities of individuation in consumer profiles, tailored advertisements, etc. all of which transform consumption and leisure into ways of capturing attention and generating profits.
If one looks beyond the focus on lobbyists, on the claims for citizenship, to the anxiety about debt and precarious labor, then it is possible to begin to understand a different relationship with the economy and politics. Yes, it is true, the various occupations are not organizing as workers, in terms of the identities, tactics, and spaces occupied and this has lead some to dismiss the occupations as simply populist movements with no real critique of capital. We should not rush to conclude that the lack of the worker as transindividual individuation to be a negative thing, there is, after all, a long tradition of writing in the Marxist tradition, which has argued against the ideal of critique capital from the perspective of workers. This tradition, beginning with Mario Tronti and the autonomist tradition and continuing through the idea communization, has stressed that the politics of such a critique can only be a politics of reform, a struggle for better wages and benefits. “To abolish capital is at the same time to negate oneself as a worker and not to self-organize as such: it’s a movement of the abolition of enterprises, of factories, of the product, of exchange (whatever its form).”[vi] From this perspective we should not spend too much time mourning the lack of the worker as an identity organizing Occupy Wall Street, or hold out hopes for unions to be revitalized. Such actions can only lead to reforms, to better wages and more work, and would return us to the division of worker and student, waged work and unpaid reproductive work. There is a positivity to this absence, a positivity that only takes an inchoate form in not just the politicization of debt, but also in the global nature of the protests, a positivity that recognizes the full spectrum of exploitation.
The question remains, however, as to how to articulate this nascent critique of capital that is framed in terms of debt and insecurity and how to organize this mass of debtors, unemployed, and precariously employed. Some writers, such as David Graeber, have turned to the long history of debt to see the current situation as yet another chapter in a long history of debt revolts. In this five thousand year history, the struggle over wages and exploitation, appears only as a brief chapter in a long durée of struggle of debtors against creditors. The present is the time of jubilees. Opposed to this return of the past there are those who argue that we find in the contemporary production process an entirely new subjectivity, a new conception of politics, a multitude or precariat. As work becomes increasingly oriented towards the reproduction of social relations, knowledge and affects, it also becomes increasingly vulnerable as the boundaries between waged and unwaged become even more permeable. The present is understood as either the reflection of the oldest inequalities, or to be made up of new exploitations. This same contradiction between the new and the old can be found at the level of liberation, at the level of the possibilities for organizing: some point to the resilience of the oldest tactics, direct democracy, direct action, and even espouse an ideal of locality as a goal, as the general assembly becomes the new democratic model; on the opposite side there are those who point to the role of facebook, twitter, and social networking as the central organizing tools, placing these actions, like the revolts in the Arab world, under the rubric of twitter revolutions, as new political possibilities opened up by networks of communication. Exploitation and liberation are both caught between the old and the new. Rather than reconcile these two points of view in a sort of on the one hand and then the other, or attempt to find some kind of dialectical sublimation of the two, it is necessary to examine the contradictions and limitations of the Occupy Wall Street movement through an examination of its composition.
Composition in this sense follows the work of the Italian autonomists who emphasized the examination of class composition. This work, which began with the early autonomists such as Mario Tronti, was intended to move away from taking class as a given, as a subject forever poised between the in-itself and the for-itself of the “now hidden, now open” class struggle. In its place there is an examination of both the way in which class is constituted, according to its technological and political components, the division of labor and the level of organization, and constitutive, reshaping capitalist accumulation through its struggles. I would add to this, following the worker of Franco Berardi, Stephven Shukatis and Maurizio Lazzarato, that this composition the subjective composition, the affects (hope, fear) ideas and images that motivate and drive individuals and collectives. We have already seen how these three elements combine in the case of debt: debt is dependent upon a new technological regime of surveillance and data sharing, is part of a political strategy of neoliberal governmentality, and perpetuates a subjectivity of isolation and anxiety. A fleshed out compositional analysis would examine this not just in terms of debt, but also work, consumption, and the relation to the state. I can only provide a few notes in that direction here.
The various relations to the kinds of debt, housing, student, and consumer, is one of the constituent dimensions of the occupations. As such it defines both a commonality, a common grievance against Wall Street, against the power of finance, and a point of contradiction and division. As I have already stated this division concerns the various types of debt, student, housing, and consumer, all of which are endlessly individuated according to risks and choices, responsibility as fragmentation. It constitutes an economic and affective commonality, but one that is experienced in terms of individuation. The fragmentation and isolation of debt, with its individualization through surveillance and anxiety, is mirrored in the sphere of production. Work has been restructured through temporary contracts, loss of collective bargaining, and generalized insecurity all of which lead to similar isolation and individuation. Work, even the work at a given office, call center, or distribution site, is no longer that of a “we,” of a collective identity, but is individualized into temporary contracts, continual performance reviews, and dispersed incentives. To call this an “I” with all of its connotation of independence and autonomy, is not entirely accurate. As with debt the balance sheet of any one’s particular performance and hard work remains completely outside of their efforts. People are hired and fired not because of their efforts, but because of the balance of profits and losses, and the cost of wages halfway around the globe. Despite this the “work ethic” remains, or it is perhaps all that remains. Work ceases to be the predominant productive force, displaced by the general knowledge of society externalized in various machines, what Marx called the “general intellect” but it remains the enforced measure. All that remains of work as it loses its central economic function and its transindividual dimension, constituting the basis for collective belonging and individual identity, is its disciplinary function, the demand to “be professional.” Thus to some extent work goes full circle: it began with the protestant ethic, with a discipline without guarantee, a work on oneself to remind oneself of one’s chose status, and it ends that way as well.[vii] All one is left with is a dogged determination to keep working, to take out another loan to learn a new skill, to maximize one’s potential.