Talk at KAFCA conference, Barcelona 2/12/2011
This piece derives in part from an article I wrote in October 2011, titled Recurring Dreams: the red heart of fascism. In that article, I tried to analyze two different types of debt (the money-debt and the life-debt) in the light of the history of Western capitalism and of the current financial crisis. Also, I drew a number of comparisons between the current European/American situation and the one experienced during the inter-war period by those countries defeated in WWI. I attempted to warn of a recurrence of the breeding times of fascism/nazism, in which people’s exasperation for the devastating effects of a debt crisis risks turning into the desire for a higher authority to take absolute control and impose a new order. Finally, I warned of the ‘red’ – that is, left-wing, social – core of the early 20th century versions of fascism and nazism, and I identified similar desires in vast strata of today’s left.
Since I wrote that text, however, things have changed. With the rise of unelected, technocratic governments in Italy and Greece, with the deepening of the crisis and the enforcement of even more austerity measures, with the waves of occupations and repression in countless countries, and, most notably, with the umpteenth split in the left, the set of dangers and opportunities, I believe, has changed. To the risk of fascism, still present in the hearts of many, especially on the populist fringes, I would like to add that of authoritarian social capitalism. To the opportunity of revolutionary politics, I would like to add that of prefigurative-politics and of anarchist reformism.
For this reason, I will focus my attention first on the issues of debt – as I did in my previous article – and, then, on two different approaches of the left to the challenges posed by the current situation. I will talk about money-debt, life-debt, authoritarian social-capitalists (once known as social democrats) and anarcho-autonomists.
The inspiration for this intervention come from first-hand experiences in my two home-countries, Italy and the UK, as well as from an endless list of intellectual influences, from David Graeber to Mark Fisher, from the Crimethinc collective to Franco Berardi Bifo, from Tiqqun to Alfredo Bonanno, and so on.
At the end of WWI, after millions of corpses of workers and peasants had been buried in the battlefields in soldier uniforms, the heads of State of the winning half of Europe demanded the losing half to pay ‘war debts’. The survivors of five years of massacres and sacrifices, in countries like Germany and Austria, were faced by the grotesque demand that their most traumatic experience, that of prolonged total war, was to be converted into perennial servitude in the shape of quantifiable debt. How was this financial debt to translate into the daily life of millions of defeated citizens? Looking closely at the history of modernity, we can see how the engagement with this very question has always been the heart of social functioning in the West.
Over the last six hundred years, the West has been revolving around a spectrum of possible approaches to essentially two trajectories of debt. On the one hand, we have the financial debt contracted by Principates, Kingdoms and Nation States with generations over generations of bankers and merchants. The easy access to vast financial credit in the early days of modernity made possible the flourishing of large-scale manufacture and of interminable war campaigns, in countries like France and Italy. More importantly, the possibility of light-heartedly refusing to repay such debt, allowed the imprudent spending that gave way to the pinnacles of European cultural history, such as the Italian Renaissance. What would have been of the likes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, if the rulers of the time had used their money to repay their debts instead of ‘wasting’ it on the arts?
If we were to look at the last six hundred years of European history from the eyes of the bankers, we would be presented with a long, unprofitable track record of unpaid debts contracted by all sorts of principates, kingdoms, counties and so on. After centuries of precarity and utter submission to the whims of those in power, it is only relatively recently that the figure of the banker has moved on from the fragile position of Shakespeare’s Shylock.
Over time, moneylenders have first become bankers, then banks, then financial institutions. Finally, in the last few decades, they have lost any residual corporeal substance, and have become numbers themselves. After the disappearance of the classic bourgeoisie, numbers have taken the place of bodies as universal financial creditors. The dictatorship of deficit control on national level – as enforced by institutions like the IMF and the ECB – has inserted the eye of the creditor within the brain of the debtor. In a way, it has achieved the same internalization of the complex of guilt and discipline that was obtained, in the field of religion, by the Protestant revolution in the 16th century. The repayment of a State’s debts is no longer a matter of manageable opportunity for the debtor, but an issue of internal stability.
This internalization of the discipline of debt has gone hand in hand with the progressive immaterialization of financial wealth tout court, to the point that, after a long process that lasted centuries, big financial creditors have recently managed to abandon their bodily cage completely. They have become numbers, functions, balances. They have become the spectre of nature. In doing so, they have achieved the removal of the weakest point of any creditors, under any circumstances: the indissoluble bond with a physical entity that can be arrested, can be starved, can be killed. Looking at this issue from the opposite angle, that of the inability of getting rid of one’s own bodily existence, leads us to the second type of debt that has consistently been running through the history of modern Europe.
The development of European modern civilization, its technical, cultural, scientific and economic achievements, owes at least as much to the limitless access to credit on the lives of workers, as to that on financial resources. Clearly, this is the Marxian dialectic between labour and capital, now observed in terms of debt/credit.
As bankers acquired greater power, with the rise of capitalism and the progressive immaterialization of wealth, the predatory activity of modern European States started to shift from the field of financial resources to that of living labour. For example, it was through a reckless policy of borrowing from workers’ lives that Europe’s titanic efforts for industrialization were funded throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The wage-system provided the debtors (the capitalists and the State) with a vaguely legitimate method for debt-repayment. However, wages could only ever cover the ‘interest’ on the endless borrowing of time and labour from workers’ life, while they could never succeed in repaying the essence of this type of debt, that is, workers’ lives themselves.
For their part, workers have often interpreted their position towards capitalists and Statesmen as a position of credit. Strikes, for example, can be essentially interpreted as temporary closures of the line of credit on workers’ lives. Similarly, the occupation of factories can be interpreted as the repossession of the assets of a debtor (the capitalist) who is unable to repay his creditors (the workers). In this sense, we can read the wave of civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s as a debt crisis: not financial debt, but the debt on people’s lives. At that time, people and workers simply decided to end their lending and to claim their credits back, to the point of repossessing their debtors’ assets, if necessary. However, differently from big financial creditors, these ‘life creditors’ hadn’t managed to make their bodies melt into thin air, and so, when they went to claim their credits back, their debtors had plenty of targets to shoot at, to beat up, to arrest, to kill, to starve. The end of this story is known to all.
The same kind of debt/credit relationship applies between citizens and States, and especially so since the paradigm of capitalist growth has become the essential measure of a State’s wellbeing. As has become clearer in recent years, States are increasingly turning to borrowing life and labour from their citizens – rather than borrowing capital from the banks – in order to guarantee their survival and prosperity (as symbolized by the magic formula of deficit balance and GDP). The so-called ‘austerity measures’ enforced by most European governments after the financial crisis of 2008 are yet another example of this.
The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber recently noted that, a debt being a promise, when the States of Europe were faced by the choice of either breaking their promises with the bankers or those with their own people, they had no hesitation in choosing the latter option. We could turn this intuition on its head, by stating that in fact, a promise being a debt, the States of Europe decided to extend their line of debit with their people, rather than with the banks. After all, the height of the debt ceiling is directly proportional to the negotiating strength of the debtor towards the creditor. In an age in which military strength is highly capital intensive (rather than labour intensive), due to highly sophisticated technologies and the increasing availability of mercenary armies across the globe, the owners of capital (i.e. the banks, or their ghostly, numerical equivalents) find themselves in a much stronger negotiating position than the owners of labour-force.
The Crisis and the Left
With the outbreak of the current financial and debt crises, the dialectic between these two types of debt has shifted dramatically towards the primacy of financial-credit over life-debt. In other words, citizens – and not banks or financiers – are demanded to lend enough of their lives to keep the political and economic system afloat. But what is the reaction of these forced and unwilling lenders? What is the reaction of the people?
A good point of observation on this matter is that on today’s left wing in Europe.
The European left seems to be increasingly splitting in two diverging currents.
On the one hand, the current that tends towards an authoritarian variation over the theme of socially responsible capitalism. On the other, the current that tends towards anarcho-autonomist solutions.
Let’s have a closer look at them.
Orphans of the Soviet Union and of the ‘great’ communist parties of the 20th century, millions of ex-militants have, over time, moved towards social-capitalist positions. It was not a matter of moving from revolution to reformism. Rather, it was a matter of rancorous surrender. Having interiorized the defeat of the communist alternative (both in its Soviet and European versions), many of the orphans of the left divided their legacy in two parts: they got rid of the utopian element, which they dismissed as impractical and infantile, and they retained the heavy, military, efficient element of the communist experience. In doing so, they refused imagination in favour of morality or, rather, of moral superiority.
Since the 1990s, the so-called European ‘social democracy’ (which I would rather call social-capitalism) has been a parable of thought centered around the idea that the objectives and aims of capitalism could be better pursued by a state-centered system rather than by a market-centered one. Reforms, if at all implemented, should be aimed at the more efficient achievement of the goals set by the capitalist system, just slightly adjusted with a trace of social justice: growth, competitiveness, employment, financial stability, and so on. The struggle is no longer to conquer power, or to escape from it, but to prove to power itself (as if it was a merciless superego) to be the most worthy of its favours. A prime example of this tendency is the British involution of the Labour party during the 1990s, which first gave birth to the so-called New Labour of Tony Blair, and then to the unspeakable ‘thing’ currently lead by Ed Miliband.
This shift in attitude meant that what used to be the historical superiority of the working class – according to historical materialist discourses – finally turned into the moral superiority of the acculturated middle class. The character of the social-capitalist left resembles the typical attitude of post-1970s American liberals: highly narcissistic intellectual critique, arrogant feeling of superiority mixed with self-pity, loathing for the brutal ignorance of the market actors, fear for the descent of the working class into populism, and, ultimately, utter surrender for the logic and rules of both the nation-state and global capitalism. As Saul Bellow used to say, ‘conquered people tend to be witty’. It is not by accident, for example, that during the Berlusconi decades in Italy, satire and comedy seemed to be the weapons of choice of the social-capitalist, parliamentary left.
Looking enviously to the devastating freedom of financial capitalism, social-capitalists oppose the full force of the law as an antidote. In their opinion, the ubris of capital should not be fought with an even more daring ubris of the people, but rather with a call for general submission. Everything, in their opinion, should be submitted to the law, which they believe to be the ultimate and only guarantee of social justice within a capitalist system. It is hard not to spot the creeping, impotent moralism contained in this view, which turns resentment into a desire for collective punishment.
A good example of the immediate effects of this new attitude can be found in the increasing use by the State of the ‘full force of the law’ against each and every form of social dissent which does not proclaim their submission to the law. In the face of abominable police tactics and medieval judicial practices, the social-capitalists of several countries across Europe don’t seem to be able to do anything else but welcome the repression of all sorts of illegal practices of dissent. This was particularly evident in August 2011, during the widespread riots in Britain, when the ‘decent’ social-capitalist left could not but approve the incredibly harsh response of the government against an as-yet-unseen popular insurrection. The feral underclasses – so they were denominated in the media – had to be kept under control, had to be punished for being ungrateful for being left alive and even being supported by the benefit services provided by the state, despite their utter economic and social uselessness. Little surprise, then, that the public demonstration of the social-capitalist decency was the ‘march of the brooms’, where hundreds of white, middle-class leftists descended on the streets of the rioting neighbors and symbolically swept away the traces of the devastations – implicitly sweeping away all the black, impoverished, human waste that had created it.
Their worshipping of the law, however, should not lead us to assume a similar commitment to the cause of democracy. After all, the conjunction between State and democracy is only a recent, and fragile one. In terms of economic and political practices, today’s social-capitalists seem to be losing their faith in the ability of elected parliaments to move towards any notion of ‘progress’. This distrust for politics – which in parts of the extreme right tends to verge towards nihilist populism – among the social-capitalists finds its expression in the cult of the newly discovered figure of the ‘technocrats’.
Who are the technocrats? As the word suggests, they are the powerful, top-technicians of the capitalist mega-machine. According to social-capitalist positions, the advantage of employing un-elected technocrats in government, rather than democratically elected representatives, lay both in their technical abilities and in their supposed neutrality to political ‘ideologies’. (Needless to say, it might have escaped them that there is no such thing as ‘neutral technique’, as countless thinkers have shown, from Heidegger to Foucault.) And yet, the support for these technocrats seems to be, today, at levels which are as yet unmatched by any democratically elected representative. This was the case, for example, both in Italy and in Greece, where the suspension of democracy ordered by the stock markets put in power two of the most appreciated prime ministers ever: Mario Monti (EBC) and Lucas Papademos (EBC). Despite the fact that no citizen had ever voted for them, the vast majority of Greek and Italian social-capitalists declared full support for their new prime ministers. In Italy, for example, the support to the ‘technocrat’ Mario Monti is close to 80%, a number rarely met even by explicitly authoritarian figures such as Chavez in Venezuela.
But what is strange about this? Isn’t the ‘technocrat’ the purest expression of the social-capitalist attitude towards the current, global political and economic system? Having interiorized their historical defeat by the system, the only honour left for them is to make it function to its full potential. To be the nicest pets at the beauty contest, with perfectly groomed fur to hide their collar.
This notion of technique does not end within the field of political and economic administration. Culture, too, seems to be increasingly affected. In the eyes of the social-capitalists, who often and manneristically praise it, culture too becomes a technique of perfect functioning of pre-existing machines. Innovation, when it is even mentioned, is simply a game of positions within the pre-existing set of possibilities imposed by capitalism and by the state. Most importantly, meritocracy – possibly the most used term to describe their politics of culture – reveals their innate inability to dare to move beyond hierarchical thinking.
The dangers of such an atrophy of imagination of the social-capitalist left are not confined to its terrible dullness. The inability to think beyond the scheme of capitalism and of the state, leads to the assumption that the only way to triumph over today’s socio-economic system is to beat it at its own game: if capital is brutal, we need to show that we are capable of being even more brutal, if capital demands sacrifices, we need to show that we make even more sacrifices, if the state requires obedience, we need to show that we can be even more obedient than requested, and so on.
In the fight of power against power, the risk is that the only winner is power itself.
When talking about the growing currents tending towards anarcho-autonomism today, we must begin by discussing one of their most recognizable features (and definitely the one most commonly shown on the mainstream media): their indifference to the rule of the law.
Such indifference, however, should not be mistaken for ignorance for the way the law is generated and operates. It is well known to everyone today how, during the workers’ struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries, such an indifference to the law – or, often, its open violation – was in fact a constitutive moment for new laws to come. Paradoxically, the illegal acts of the workers of those generations, with their unauthorized strikes and occupations, have been the foundation of later legislations in defense of the right to strike, as well as of most demands of those movements.
In this sense, we can interpret the conflictual aspect of contemporary anarcho-autonomist practices as essentially reformist, rather than revolutionary: their most likely outcome is that of imposing a reform within the system of laws, and progressive victories in terms of regulations. Thus, despite appearances, their claim for an emancipatory state of exception – which would oppose those recently imposed both by financial capital (with the debt crisis and austerity) and by the state (with repression and the suspension of democracy) – is indeed a reformist attempt, in the best sense of the word. As Alex Williams says, ‘revolution is easy, reform is hard’. As they fight the state and capital, anarcho-autonomists still engage with them, thus keeping a door open to the possibility of a dialogue.
As opposed to these, most of their other practices do not leave any space for dialogue or reform. For example, the growing occupation movement – especially when not merely symbolic – truly brings the current political discourse on the left both beyond the grounds of engagement with state and capital, and beyond the reflexive, reactionary nature of resistance. Once practice is no longer a practice of conflict, but a practice of invention, once the thought process is no longer that of critique, but that of imagination, then resistance evolves into pre-figuration. As opposed to revolution, often interpreted as the peak moment of a social conflict, pre-figuration is a process of immediate invention of a new world which begins with the act of forgetting about one’s opponents. By cutting themselves out of the capitalist system and the system of the state, by creating autonomous zones (temporary or permanent), today’s anarcho-autonomists have started the construction of a new world within the old one. This is what happened in London, for example, with the Really Free School, last year, and with the Bank of Ideas, this year: two occupied spaces quickly turned into autonomous universities, where horizontal, experimental, cooperative methods of teaching and learning were put in place with no mediation of any external or official institution of education.
The difficult existence of an ‘outside’ which is ‘inside’ has been at the core of most major cultural transformations throughout history, such as the rise of early Christianity within the Roman empire. This type of paradoxical coexistence also applies to the meaning of an old Marxian term, often misunderstood and often reinvented: alienation. According to those who Franco Berardi Bifo calls the ‘compositionists’, alienation is not the disheartening measure of one’s disempowerment, but, rather, it is the liberating distance which allows a person to be actually outside while technically inside the exploitative conditions where s/he has to live and work. In this sense, alienation is, today, the widening gap between the structure of the social and economic system of State and Capital, and the warm universes that people create. With every failure, with every disappointment, with every betrayal of the capitalist and State system, this gap widens. Our presence finds a wider ‘outside’ within the system, in which it can grow.
We are talking, first of all, of a psychic and imaginary space. A growing wilderness within people’s mental ecosystems, in which new ideas and new behaviors can put down their roots. From this psychic space, of course, physical space follows. This is what is happening today with the countless occupations springing up everywhere in the so-called West, even in the notoriously conservative Great Britain. But this is also what happens regularly in workplaces, where workers’ disaffection quickly turns into sabotage, absenteeism, refusal to work and stealing. For example, according to a research published in 2000, about 75% of American employees steal from their employers at least once during their career, and half of them steal repeatedly. Similarly, in the famous department-store Harrods in London, it is calculated that about 50% of the overall amount of shoplifting is done by employees.
Even more of this disaffection and disillusionment about work is with those who experience such distance to the extreme, namely, the growing legion of the unemployed. While the over-exploited often lack the material conditions to convert their alienation into emancipatory practices, the unemployed have the advantage of a great availability of time to do so. Of course, it is not immediately that simple, as too often the ‘free’ time of the unemployed person stuck in a metropolis is nothing but a terrifying whirlpool of depression and isolation. But when, as it happens today, metropolises pullulate with newly occupied spaces, students in permanent revolt, global activist networks, then... over the abyss of depression and isolation millions of bridges suddenly appear. Within the current scenario, the blossoming utopian communities can and do act as wonderful magnets for the aggregation of those who, more than anyone else, constitute the subjects for contemporary politics of emancipation. Just as it was the case for the early Christian communities, it is the most excluded, the most alienated, the most distant people who will build the backbone of a new method of life.
The two lefts and the debt
How can we understand the relationship of these two strands of the left with the issue of debt?
As we saw, for the social-capitalists the bonds of debt are little more than a matter of fact, both in the case of those that tie the State to its obligations towards financial creditors, and of those that are bound around the lives of people by the State and by capitalism. To use our previous definitions, the social-capitalists accept as legitimate both the money-debt of the State and the life-debt over people. It is for this reason that they support the technocrats’ governments in countries such as Italy and Greece, the rhetoric of ‘austerity’, the legitimacy of repression, and the lethal mantra of ‘hard work’.
For the anarcho-autonomists, of course, the situation is completely reversed. On the one hand, by refusing the state, they refuse the unspoken contract which makes State’s debts automatically translate into citizens’ debts, thus rejecting the legitimacy of any austerity measures. On the other, they refuse the debit crisis itself, as they reject any pretenses of financial capital to take back a credit which is, in fact, composed of people’s congealed labour, first stolen by the capitalists and then turned into money and inflated with interests by the financiers.
Most of all, anarcho-autonomists do not accept the current use of the idea of debt, especially in reference to the debt on their lives. What debt is it, when there has been no real negotiation, when the circumstances of lending are of disproportionate submission on one part to the other, when, in fact, it wasn’t a matter of lending or borrowing at all, but of rapacious looting? Thus, what legitimacy is there, not only in the enforcement of austerity measures by a State run by capitalist technocrats, but also, and most importantly, in the endless, devastating, everyday practice of work within a capitalist system?
It is in this refusal of work, which is forcefully made flesh in the lives of the unemployed, that we will find the sparks of a desire for free activity which is at the core of prefigurative vision, energy and practice. In 1978, at the end of another round of recession and austerity, Ivan Illich noted it in the pages of his ‘The Right to Useful Unemployment’, especially when talking about the two choices facing western society today: the market-driven, capitalist, technocratic development, or the pursuit of an autonomous, fulfilling life. There, he discussed the two types of ‘austerity’ which would derive from each of those two choices: “The second choice [that of autonomy] would bring down the curtain on absolute market dominance, and foster an ethic of austerity for the sake of widespread satisfying action. If in the first alternative [that of technocratic capitalism] austerity would mean the individual’s acceptance of managerial ukazes (= edicts) for the sake of increased institutional productivity, austerity in the second alternative would mean that social virtue by which people recognize and decide limits on the maximum amount of instrumented power that anyone may claim, both for his own satisfaction and in the service of others. This convivial austerity inspires a society to protect personal use-value against disabling enrichment. Under such protection against disabling affluence, many distinct cultures would arise, each modern and each emphasizing the dispersed use of modern tools”.