“In the midst of life we are in debt,” as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore quipped. There is an urgency today to think about debt and its implications for human and planetary life, from the ongoing aftermath of the global financial crisis, through the legacies and futures of advanced capitalism, to the financialization of the modern subject and the privatization of “public” institutions and services, including the university. However, to the extent that “debt” is something to be “thought,” it is also necessary to reflect upon the debts of philosophy, in order to consider what reserves the philosophical tradition may hold in store for this most exorbitant of tasks. What would be at stake in identifying philosophy, among several discourses (in contrast to, say, economics, political science, or history), as a discipline or body of knowledge equipped to take on the duty of accounting for our present debt crisis? Might we say that it is time for Western philosophy to repay its debts not just to the academy, but to the entire project of Enlightenment or European culture from which it seems to arise, a “project” that is itself heavily embroiled in the “debt” question under consideration here? In order to leverage a profitable outcome against the massive and unyielding problem of debt and indebtedness today, it may be necessary for philosophy to distinguish between and analyze the multiple terrains of debt. Speculative thought must take the risk of calculating an exchange between finite and infinite debts, between its debts and its responsibilities. If “debt,” and its supposed obverse “credit,” are themselves philosophical concepts that arise from both a conceptual and non-conceptual history, then to understand debt today will require us to “double down” on philosophy in what Jacques Derrida has described as at once an erasure and a reaffirmation of debt. Philosophy must work through the contradictions of debt and credit, not to hedge their risks, but in order to render their distinctions unstable, if not untenable. Philosophy will not resolve the financial crisis or forgive us our debts, but it does tell us that life is complicated (“in the midst of life we are in debt”), and that we should assume this complexity rather than seek to argue it away, even if the “enrichment” that ensues does not result in straightforward “economic” benefit.
This special issue of Postmodern Culture gathers authors who together speculate on how to combine theoretical and practical knowledge of debt as both a contemporary phenomenon, an urgent question for today, and a complex legacy, materially instituted in many ways, that the future will continue to inherit. By and large, the essays are as much conceptual as they are empirical or experiential (or rather, they expose to conceptual enquiry the fact and experience of debt); they are, however, broadly systemic rather than individualistic in their approach and focus; they consider general structures of debt rather than local feelings about debt or specific historical accounts of debt in a given community or region of the world. That said, they mainly focus on the current question of debt in the West, and as such specify their own historical moment; accordingly, they reflect the common perspectives of the authors which are indeed as much localized and embodied as all experiences of debt may be. In this sense, the essays are largely framed by the philosophical project—that of modern European philosophy—which informs this systemic exposition of debt. Such a paradoxical and perhaps irresolvable negotiation between the universal and particular may well be part and parcel of the problem of debt as it is discussed here.
The volume opens with a new essay by Étienne Balibar. In “Politics of the Debt,” Balibar considers the specificities of the debt economy within contemporary finance capital: its production of profit, credit, money, taxes, derivatives; its control of institutions and its organizational techniques; its relationship to the State, to banks, to industry, to labor and consumption; its management of risk and cycles of boom and bust. It offers an incredibly detailed description of debt-power, not just in the narrow sense of the “capacity to borrow at affordable rates, decided by financial operators through their rating agencies,” as Balibar puts it, but as a generalized means of control, a powerful mechanism (one of many intricately combining parts) for generating, maintaining and multiplying inequalities. Yet Balibar describes such debt-power in terms of a quasi-sovereignty still susceptible to conflicts and contradictions that may prove to be its undoing. The intensifying instability of ownership, the ultimate uncertainty over access to resources, the pseudo-sovereignty of supposedly sovereign powers or institutions, not to mention the compelling and yet enigmatic form taken by “new modes of subjectivation associated with the debt economy/society”—all of this makes possible not only unbreakable domination but decomposition and resistance. Thus Balibar asks about the limits of debt and debt accumulation. He also debates the possibility of the cancelling of debt, notably in the context of intensifying instabilities surrounding both the concept and practice of ownership or property. If the cancellation of debts “must appear as an encroachment on the right of property, considered as an ‘absolute’ right,” nevertheless “today’s circumstance” clearly demonstrates that which was ever the case, namely that “property (whether ‘private’ or ‘public’) is always in fact a relative or conditional notion.” Since, today, “there is hardly a property that is not pledged on credit, or engaged in investments and loans which are the debts of others, or serving as a mortgage for a debt” (i.e., the principal form of ownership today is ownership of money), the right of property as “absolute”—that which might otherwise thwart any argument for the cancellation of debts—is itself in a precarious position, if not in question. In other words, the “debt” is, in the end, as contrived, as fictional or as phantasmic as the “ownership” to which it supposedly corresponds.
Simon Morgan Wortham’s essay delves into some of the recent writings on debt foregrounded by Balibar, notably those by Maurizio Lazzarato and David Graeber, in order to pursue once again the question of debt’s resistibility. He begins by asking whether Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is in fact able to resist the insidious logic of a retroactive interpretation of debt that it is devoted to overturning. Looking over Graeber’s wide-ranging discussion of debt, credit, money and power across five millennia and an array of empires and nations, it is argued that a persistently double and divided narrative of historical origins and development is perhaps just as retroactive as the origin stories Graeber wishes to oppose. Morgan Wortham points out tensions and contradictions in Graeber’s book that have to do with unresolved theoretical questions at his thesis’s core. These problems undermine Graeber’s attempt (via an empiricist method of anthropological example) to break free from the retroactive explanations that he reductively projects in terms of the figure of disciplinary economics. As the essay turns its attention to Lazzarato, it recognizes the influence upon the latter’s work of Nietzsche’s conception of debt. But through a rereading of Nietzsche, two objections arise to Lazzarato’s thesis. First, his notion of a catastrophic future-without-future of unending debt relies on an understanding of the ever-intensifying asymmetry of power that elevates the creditor to near-Godlike status. While this suggestion may derive from a strand of Nietzschean thought in the Genealogy of Morals, the further implication of a debt so all-pervasive that it leaves no creditor intact opens up (as in Balibar’s essay) the possibility of thinking rigorously about the non-self-identical or divisible limits of sovereignty and sovereign debt (an opportunity Lazzarato does not properly pursue). Second, despite some of the more dominant flourishes in the Genealogy, one can excavate from Nietzsche the idea that the retroactivity so pivotal to the very possibility of debt is based on a false continuity between past and present, “origin” and “aim,” which implies in turn that debt itself aggresses against temporal continuity in general. As such, debt’s ostensible sponsorship of neoliberalism’s violence against all future time becomes questionable and indeed resistible.
In “The Debt of the Living,” Samuel Weber argues that there is a need to think the “economic theology” of finance capital if one is to attain a fuller understanding of the problems of debt and debt crisis. He uses the term in an analogous relation to “political theology,” suggesting that these theological frames of reference “provide insights into an economic and political situation that seems ever more irrational, and dysfunctional—indeed possibly even suicidal—with every passing day.” Turning to Walter Benjamin’s “Capitalism as Religion,” Weber considers the idea that capitalism does not so much surpass religion as inherit it in new ways, for example in terms of certain cultic practices but also through the maintenance of particular conceptual ensembles such as debt-obligation-guilt. For Weber, a text such as Benjamin’sTrauespiel points to a crisis in the narrative of Christian Salvation, one that continues to intensify in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, taking hold of the very “Spirit” that Max Weber would famously associate with Capitalism. If for Weber—reading in the wake of Benjamin—debt capital is also something of a religious (death) cult, a central concern for him becomes “the demonic ambiguity” of the German word, Schuld. Weber points to a “strange homophony” between “death” and “debt” that he first observed while listening to tapes of Paul de Man’s 1983 “Messenger Lectures” given at Cornell. Weber notes that the entanglement of these two words is anticipated by Benjamin’s “Capitalism as Religion,” and indeed that the constitutive ambiguity of Schuld “resounds” (as he puts it) “in the near-homophony” of “debt” and “death.” Here, capitalism’s (cultic) survival manifests itself according to an ingrained incapacity to acknowledge finitude. The twin figures of indebtedness and redemption (or, to push the term towards a more economic register, redeemability) together form a central part of the “economic theology” that emerges here (giving rise to powerful cycles of both destruction and profitability), and all of this is read into claims that the bankers—as the architects of the global debt crisis—were merely “doing God’s work” (a defense that prompts Weber to embark upon a sustained reading of Biblical creation myths). The essay concludes with some reflections on the possibility of an alternative to a “capitalist politics” which functions, in terms of its politico-economic theology, to continually convert anxiety into aggression.
Like other essays in this volume, Martin McQuillan’s essay, “False Economy,” starts out from the recognition that, far from being an aberration, an unwanted outcome of economic failure, debt is a necessary condition of economy, albeit one that takes on different forms at different times. If Weber’s essay on the “economic theology” of debt capital is inspired by the impossibility of determining whether, on an old tape recording, Paul de Man could be heard to say “debt” or “death,” McQuillan paints a portrait of finance capital’s inter-bank lending and Credit Default Swaps that depends upon the understanding that all money is counterfeit money, one that is inspired by Derrida’s “Donner les Temps.” Following Derrida, McQuillan explores the question of credit as one of both faith and fiction. He has in mind the relation between money and literature, and between the dematerialization of finance and the erasure of the public realm. In an economy of debt and responsibility, the all-powerful non-power of literature continues to provide a resource to challenge the marketization and sale of the commonwealth. Through a reading of Baudelaire’s “Assommons les pauvres!” which Derrida considers a “symmetrical counterpoint” to “La fausse monnaie” (but largely ignores in his seminar), McQuillan questions the calculations around debt today by politicians and university administrators as a form of bad faith and critical bankruptcy.
The volume concludes with an essay by Fred Botting that explores the way in which the zombie metaphor recurs within contemporary economic discourse, and situates this recurrence in terms of the popular resurgence of zombies in contemporary fiction and film. Looking at a range of cultural examples, Botting distinguishes zombies from vampires: while, for him, the latter connote credit and “consumer boom,” the former signify global debt and stagnation. Botting suggests that there is an arc of desire and fear engendered by these figures of horror that itself discloses a continuity in the affective trajectory of neo-liberalism as it supplants traditional philosophical distinctions between material and symbolic forms of debt. Rather than operating on the basis of a distinction between spiritual and financial modes of guilt/debt, an economic absorption of cultural values takes effect, one that circumvents the need for subjective or symbolic inscriptions in the sense that, for Botting, it directly and materially institutes the debt-relation itself.

Martin McQuillan
Martin McQuillan is Professor of Literary Theory and Cultural Analysis, and Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, where he is also Co-Director of the London Graduate School. He has published works of literary theory and the philosophical analysis of contemporary culture, including Deconstruction after 9/11 and Deconstruction without Derrida.


Simon Morgan Wortham

Simon Morgan Wortham is Professor of English in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, London. He is co-director of the London Graduate School. His books include Counter-Institutions: Jacques Derrida and the Question of the University (Fordham UP, 2006), Experimenting: Essays with Samuel Weber, co-edited with Gary Hall (Fordham UP, 2007), Encountering Derrida: Legacies and Futures of Deconstruction, co-edited with Allison Weiner (Continuum, 2007), Derrida: Writing Events (Continuum, 2008), The Derrida Dictionary (Continuum, 2010) and The Poetics of Sleep: From Aristotle to Nancy (Bloomsbury, 2013). His book, Modern Thought in Pain: Philosophy, Politics, Psychoanalysis, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press (2014).