Debt society: Greece and the future of post-democracy

Dossier: The Greek Symptom: Debt, Crisis and the Crisis of the Left

RP 181 () / Article, Dossier, The Greek Symptom

The passage from early to late modernity is generally associated with a gradual process of democratization, in both political and economic realms. Politically speaking, representative democracy has enjoyed an unprecedented global spread. In the West, especially, political and social rights seemed to have flourished until quite recently. Economically speaking, we have witnessed a ‘democratization of consumption’ with the gradual spread of a consumerist culture of ‘luxury’: having emerged with the ‘conspicuous consumption’ typical of court society, this ethos gradually colonized, first, the bourgeoisie and then the lower classes, creating a predominantly consumerist society. Up to a certain point the two processes progressed together, which is how the system managed to co-opt popular pressures and social movements and create relative stability: by largely replacing prohibition with commanded enjoyment and disciplinary power with the productive regulation of desire. Both pillars of this process are currently in crisis. The crisis first affected the political realm, marking the post-democratic mutation of representative democracy.

Jacques Rancière is one of the political theorists who coined the term ‘post-democracy’. According to his schema, it denotes ‘the paradox that, in the name of democracy, emphasises the consensual practice of effacing the forms of democratic action’.1 This diagnosis is largely congruent with the sociological observations of Colin Crouch: while the formal aspect of democratic institutions remains more or less in place, politics and government are gradually slipping back into the control of privileged groups in a way reminiscent of pre-democratic times.2 What accompanies the development of post-democracy, Rancière argues, is an outright identification of democratic form with the ‘necessities’ of globalized capital:

From an allegedly defunct Marxism, the supposedly reigning liberalism borrows the theme of objective necessity, identified with the constraints and caprices

of the world market. Marx’s once scandalous thesis that governments are simple business agents for international capital is today an obvious fact on which ‘liberals’ and ‘socialists’ agree. The absolute identification of politics with the management of capital is no longer the shameful secret hidden behind the ‘forms’ of democracy; it is the openly declared truth by which our governments acquire legitimacy.3

How was the passage to this hybrid regime achieved without the development of significant resistance? What permitted the slow but steady development of ‘post-democracy’?

It is important to note that, at first, the post-democratic dynamic did not affect the ‘democratization of consumption’, although it signalled a significant increase in inequality. This delicate balancing act was accomplished through the accumulation of debt. The loss of political and social rights went largely ‘unobserved’ to the extent that the lower strata could still function as consumers by getting more and more loans. The hegemony of finance managed to exchange rights for credit and debt. Thus, if the welfare state was instrumental in sustaining ‘mass consumption’ through income redistribution, in consumerist post-democracy ‘consumer credit has taken the role that belonged to the welfare state in the Fordist regime’.4

Multiple faces of debt

It is here, however, that things acquire an extra moral, subjective gravitas with immense social and political implications. Although Maurizio Lazzarato fails to inscribe his analysis within the long sociological and psychoanalytic traditions of ethics, morality and the spirits of capitalism, his impressive The Making of the Indebted Man offers a revealing account of the way in which the hegemonization of economic behaviour by debt/credit started producing effects well beyond the economic field. How? Because debt acts as a ‘capture’, ‘predation’, and ‘extraction’ machine on the whole of society, as an instrument for macroeconomic prescription and management, and as a mechanism for income redistribution. It also functions as a mechanism for the production and ‘government’ of collective and individual subjectivities.5

It is the realm of subjectivity that stands at the epicentre of this functioning: ‘debt breeds, subdues, manufactures, adapts, and shapes subjectivity’.6 It works at the intersection of power, morality and the economy.

Starting with the role of Christianity that ‘interiorizes’ debt as ‘feeling of guilt’ and then drawing primarily on Nietzsche and Deleuze, Lazzarato shows how debt involves a special type of power relation ‘that entails specific forms of production and control of subjectivity – a particular form of homo economicus, the “indebted man’”. This is a type of power that operates through the …