Lacan and Debt: The Discourse of the Capitalist in Times of Austerity

By Mura, Andrea | Philosophy Today, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Lacan and Debt: The Discourse of the Capitalist in Times of Austerity


Mura, Andrea, Philosophy Today


In his The Making of the Indebted Man, Maurizio Lazzarato (2012b) provided one of the first attempts to inquire into the effects of the creditor and debtor relationship in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In his view, Michel Foucault's influential analysis of neo-liberalism offers a crucial genealogical framework, detecting the transition from classical liberal perspectives, which took homo economicus as the subject of exchange and the market, to later developments in the Freiburg Ordoliberal School and US neo-liberalism, where competition became valorised, and that same subject was then constructed as an 'entrepreneur of the self.' In Foucault's analysis, neo-liberal practices kept intensifying a crucial principle devised already by German Ordo-liberal theories: "the idea that the basic element to be deciphered by economic analysis is not so much the individual, or processes and mechanisms, but enterprises" (Foucault 2008, 225). No longer assumed merely to be labour power, the worker is transformed into human capital upon which rests the responsibility to make good or bad 'investment' decisions, which allow for the development, accumulation, valorisa- tion of himself or herself as 'capital,' increasing or decreasing his or her personal capital value. In its later developments, this biopolitical reconceptualisation of the individual as an entrepreneur-of-the-self extends to the whole of society, affecting all areas of social life, including education and health. Although "enlightening," Lazzarato notices that this account has now become "misleading" in that it is unable to account for what occurred from the 1990s on, "when governmentality began to limit the freedom which Foucault made the condition of 'liberalism'" (Lazzarato 2012b, 108). According to Lazzarato this becomes particularly problematic in the light of the recent financial crisis, which has proved that "the mode of government founded on business and proprietary individualism has failed. By revealing the nature of these power relations, the crisis has led to much more 'repressive' and 'authoritarian' forms of control, which no longer bother with the rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s of greater 'freedom,' creativity, and wealth" (Lazzarato 2012b, 109).

The problem in Foucault's The Birth of Biopolitics would lie in its strict adherence to the particular vision expressed by German Ordoliberalism, whose objective was a de-proletarianisation of the population, aimed at hampering the formation of large industrial firms and the subsequent organization of the proletariat into an autonomous political force, as had already happened between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. It is in the light of this de-proletarianisation that policies were devised promoting the welfare state and business co-management structures that involved workers in the management of capitalist production and capitalist society in general. Foucault's analysis, however, missed the transition to a logic of financialised business in the 1970s. Besides allowing for the ensuing formation of new professions and the growth of middle classes in what will later be called the new-economy, such logic imposed a new 'government of conduct' based on the new strategic mechanisms of finance, debt, and money-mechanisms whose effective repressive outcomes, we add, could already be observed in the modes of control of Third World economies. What the recent crisis has unveiled, therefore, is the intensification in the use of these mechanisms resulting-in face of post-war projects of de-proletarianisation-in renewed attempts of 'proletarianisation' through which a generalised economic and existential precariousness has been instantiated. It is here that the credit and debt relationship assumes its full significance, highlighting, for Lazzarato, new subjective types, which no longer coincide with both those expressed in the new economy of the 1980s and 1990s and those described by Foucault: "The promise of what 'work on the self' was supposed to bring to 'labor' in terms of emancipation (pleasure, self-fulfilment, recognition, experimentation with different forms of life, mobility, etc. …

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