eipcp News
06 2012

Debt, Affect and Self-Reproducing Movements

Christoph Brunner

Interview with Christian Marazzi, George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici on the latest events in Québec

Christoph Brunner


George Caffentzis


Silvia Federici


Christian Marazzi


Zurich, May 25, 2012

In the wake of the 100th day of the general student strike in Québec and in the aftermath of passing the so-called Special Law 78, the global rupture these events evoked cannot be overlooked. In solidarity with Québec, its students, activists and the Quebecois people reminding us of the rights for free education, the right for peaceful assembly and political expression, this interview has been prompted spontaneously during a workshop at Zurich University of the Arts. Based on discussions in the work of Christian Marazzi on the shift from real production to what he calls financialization and Silvia Federici’s and George Caffentzis’ conceptual, activist and feminist involvement in the Occupy movement in New York and Maine this interview hopes to put emphasis on the problem of debt at the core of current movements around the globe. Aspects concerning the role of affect and the problem of continuity in these movements are inseparable from the social, political and economic circumstances usually foregrounded in the public media.

CB       –            Christoph Brunner
GC       -            George Caffentzis
SF        -            Silvia Federici
CM       -            Christian Marazzi

CB: The genealogy of student loans and fees in the United States is dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. From the introduction of tuition fees an unraveling process of debt has been taking off. Current conservative opinions concerning the circumstances in Québec often refer to the modest increase of fees proposed by the Charest government and the general acceptance of fees as a legitimate contribution to society. These inappropriate and anachronistic perspectives lack any resonance with the current unfolding of a biopolitics tied to debt as a central part of human existence. Could you shed light on the relation between this process of financialization and its biopolitical development?

CM: What came out of the 70ies in response to a general crisis of the Fordist mode of production is a number of counter-tendencies, like the attack on wages, de-localization, international investments and financialization which have become chronic to the extend of not being counter-tendencies anymore. It is a kind of permanent counter-revolution to the extend that financialization has really changed the relationship between the sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction. Both at the level of modes of production: the post-fordist enterprise is something that has to do very much with the capturing of value outside the direct process of production – outsourcing, crowdsourcing and so on. But also at the level of forcing labor power to assume a number of risks which were circumscribed by the capitalist sphere before the crisis. In this respect Foucault in La naissance de la biopolitique is very interesting because of the passages on neoliberalism where labor power is concerned as an entrepreneurial in itself. This idea that each of us has to behave like an entrepreneur. That’s when the debt-economy comes in because of the double-crisis: First of all the dismantling of the welfare state as a dispositif of creation of additional demand through deficit spending. And at the same time the privatization of this same mechanism through private indebtedness. Every household, every person has become a center of creation of additional demand by means of debts. The financialization has been the way by which profits have been able to be realized thanks to this growing volume of private debts allowing to turn surplus value into money. I think by now the process has reached a point where it is legitimate to talk of neoliberalism as a huge factory of the indebted man. In this respect Maurizio Lazzarato got the point addressing indebtedness as a sort of social condition which functions on the same level as the wage relation and at the same time reminding us of the fact of being wage earners as the general condition throughout the history of capitalism. This poses a number of serious political questions because to be indebted does not only mean to be financially trapped. At the same time, debt in German like Nietzsche said is Schuld meaning debt and guilt which complicates the whole issue: How do we get out of this moral trap? Debt is not anymore what it used to be, that is a way of bridging the present with the future in Keynesian terms. In capitalism debt always had a positive function; debt being a sort of investment into the future. Today debts are accumulating because on the one hand you invest into the future but on the other hand the future is investing in you so that you will never be able to pay back and you will always be trapped in this dispositif. I think here is where you guys come in because you have been with the Occupy movement and what is happening precisely in Québec is a demonstration of the importance of a sensitivity for those phenomena. The only thing that I would also like to add, concerns the fact that this process is similar to what is happening in Greece at the moment: Greece is a laboratory where all the levels, individual, collective, public, political and so on are gathered together. Maybe speaking about struggles and the difficulties that you mention can also be referred to a very concrete situation on a national level like the one in Greece.

CB: One important aspect in the current events in Quebec concerns the question of the production of subjectivity as an indebted man in relation to governance and how governance is responding to these events. Particularly in Québec concerning the special law 78 that they just passed. I am very surprised that a state or rather a province in its governance reacts by imposing a law. It seems very outdated for me and still they believe it’s the kind of means to stop what they call “crisis.” What is going on in this bi-directional mode of governance?

GC: Well, I mean this is not very new compared to what has happened in response to the Occupy movement in the United States which has been tremendously repressive in response to a movement that has been systematically and pragmatically nonviolent. New York city is full of windows and as far as I know not one window has been busted in the long period of the occupation of Zuccotti Park. These laws and the response have been quite clearly very violent and brutal responses both physically and as well in terms of the legal status that has been attributed to it.

CB: Isn’t it a prolongation of debt because of the fines you get which put you even more in dept because of this continuous spiral indebting you and creating guilt?

GC: Yes, the fines are huge!

SF: And now in many states they are considering reinstituting the prisoners. They want to bring back imprisonment. In Illinois it is already in place. In a number of states they found ways or ways of wording the bills so that they can actually put you in prison for that. It is imputing some sort of fraud. A fraudulent way in which you are left taking the loans. That puts prisons back on the agenda.

CB: And of course the capitalist production machine of the university is involved. The highest fines you get are for preventing other students wanting to go to class. So the question of what kind of production does this system seek and what the deployment of that law aims at is the increase of debt because they continue to study because there is no term taken out of the students’ accounts which could happen if students assert that they were not able to go to class. Which would be a catastrophe on the side of the university or the state. How did we come to this point of fees being put in operation in the first place and why are they continuously rising?

SF: To me I read the process of financialization in general but in particular applied to education also as a response to the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a political response that tries in fact to bring a new form of discipline in order to kill the movement. I think the student movement basically dissolved the idea that has been very dominant in the 1950s and 1960s that motivated big investments of the state into the educational system – certainly in the United states but not only there. The idea for example in the US that inspired investment in mass education was that mass education would pay the investment back, that the workforce would be much more productive and also education would function as a lesson of democracy making you identify with the system. The student movement in a sense was a major disappointment in terms of this objective. I think the capitalist class came to the conclusion that this investment will not pan out. So, you have financialization beginning to provide the mechanism for this major transformation. In fact there is a reversal of the ideology of these optics resulting in the imposition of fees. By the end of late 1970s open admission was eliminated. The introduction of fees first started on a small scale and then continuously increases and outplays all measures of inflation. The way the change has operated is based on the assumption that investment in education will not pay back in the future. Accordingly, education is transformed into an immediate point of accumulation. This is one function of the introduction of fees: to make education pay right away. Instead of the state investing, giving the student the resources to educate themselves now you force them to perform accumulation, to produce profit immediately, to produce surplus immediately. The other objective is of course the discipline imposed on students while they are in the university. When you have to pay these very high fees you have to find a way of getting out of the university as quickly as possible. You don’t have the time to socialize, you don’t have the time to read the extra book that does the political work. In a sense all your time has to be consumed by getting out of the university as quick as possible to find a job. I have students that even had three jobs. They come to school, they fall asleep and they tell me, ‘don’t take it personally but I had to work until 12 a.m. last night. The discipline is actually a disciplinary mechanism that extends throughout your work time because immediately after you finish classes you have to figure out how to find a job. You don’t have the luxury to decide which kind of job you are going to choose but you have to find out what allows you to pay the debt. What happens of course is that many students have put a lot of investment in the time to go to get this or that certificate to provide them with the good job and at the end they find out they can’t get the good job anyway. Sure enough they realize that the bank will triple the interest rate if you don’t pay your installment in time. Very soon they find themselves in a situation when they cannot pay the debt. And then your life begins to unravel because particularly the private banks have collectors who persecute you, call you, call your mother, call your family. There have been cases of students who have to go underground. I actually know some students who left the country as they did during the war in Vietnam. Because they found themselves in front of an amount they will never be able to pay and confronted with an immense amount of pressure.
The question of debt is extremely important in relation to its transformative impact on social relations.  The ideology of debt rules out any form of entitlement. The ideology of the 1960s was in a way that you as a student contributed to the wellbeing of society and that the university has made an investment in you. This was functional toward your future contribution to society. It was a social contract between you as a social figure and the state. Now things are different. Now we are told that in this neoliberal ideology you are the only person who benefits from these investments. You want to have a better job? You want to have a better life? Well, that’s your business. You are a micro-entrepreneur.  You are a micro-investor. Why should the state pay for you to have higher wages? It is the same kind of ideology that they are now imposing on us in relation to health-care and in relation to pensions. If you want to have a pension, you will have to invest in it. They are telling us as soon as you have a child we have to put aside money for it to go to university.
Everything has become a private matter. This ideology is very perverse because it percolates into the consciousness and the subjectivity of people. It creates people who are consumed by a feeling of guilt that they shouldn’t have allowed themselves to take so much money out of their accounts, etc. Once they leave university they are already outside of a social relation. They take the debt on campus but they confront the payment in a situation of isolation when this ideology can be more effective. The sensation of failure is a very paralyzing feeling.
Fortunately there is a struggle that is taking place on many levels. Canada now is really leading the way. It is very important what is happening there. The students are saying: No! – even to smaller increases in tuition fees because they have seen what has happened across the border. You start with small fees and once you begin that road soon the fees escalate beyond control. In the United States too there is a movement that is growing and it is a movement that has many sources. For example the organization is taking a kind of consumer perspective, saying: ‘what we should fight for is a kind of private bankruptcy.’ Another strategy says: ‘what we should fight for is the cancellation of the debt because this will stimulate the economy.’ Now there is a third movement growing which has been stimulated by the Occupy movement, saying: we are not going to pay the debt because this debt is not legitimate. ‘We have to pay for the right to have a certificate and the right to work. We have to pay in order to be exploited.’ This is a movement that is both by students and teachers. It is a movement that is working through the pledge stating: ‘if another million students are not going to pay their debt I am not going to pay.’ This movement also has pledges for teachers because many like us do not any longer want to be accomplices for an educational system that turns students into slaves.
We don’t find it politically acceptable anymore to teach as if this was purely a matter of transmitting cultural ideas while we are involved in this machine which is basically working on the students’ lives. It is very good that the movement has made a space for that as well.

CB: The question of affect and aesthetics interests me in relation to these movements. Now everyone talks about the new movement and the embrace of difference and radical inclusion as well as the refusal of naming clear demands. They are very important steps to be taken. But also the questions of aesthetic strategies being deployed are of relevance. There is a politics of aesthetics happening through the movements, an affective politics. For me this question pertains much more to the question of affect itself than a mere discussion of affective labor which deals with reproductive forms of labor and the problems coming out of that. What I am interested in is the affective level of something that is felt and through that feeling there is a different sense of collectivity happening which is not just the grouping of people under an ideology or an idea but a felt intensity of something happening. Through this process new modes of expression come to the fore. You mentioned in an earlier conversation that the question of technology should not be undervalued in these kinds of practices. How does that relate to the aesthetic and affective level of these movements?

SF: The way I like to put it if you speak of aesthetics and affective levels is that we have a movement now – whatever its objective and organizational form – representing something new because it brought to the fore this whole issue of reproducing in itself at the center of political organizing. We have seen even before the Occupy movement  – but the Occupy movement has made it visible – the need and desire for a kind of politics that recalls something of a feminist politics: the refusal to separate the political and the personal, the affective and the political. We used to discuss in New York particularly with people of the younger generation of activists the idea of creating a self-reproducing movement. We conceptualize this as a movement that would not continuously surge and collapse, surge and collapse but would actually have a continuity through all its transformations. This continuity would be precisely the ability to also place the needs of people and the relationship of people at the center of the organizing. This is also what you are referring to by affectivity as a sharing of space, the sharing of reproductivity, like the preparing of food, the conversations in the nights or the sleeping together under the tents, of making a sign together, of bringing together this creativity as being an extremely important aspect of this movement. For many people it has been really a transformative experience inseparable from the specific demands, which I wouldn’t actually call demands. Demands imply a passive relationship to the donors weather this is the state of capital or the employer. Whereas if we speak of objectives we speak of something that has an effect in the way it brings people together. An objective maps a terrain on which people can come together rather than mapping a relation of dependence. The way that the movement has insisted on not following the politics of demand and refusing a politics of representation has been extremely important.

GF: My sense of the experience of being in the encampments that developed not only in New York but also in Maine. The Occupy movement there showed me that is was by the ability of people to stay at the encampments. When the temperatures went down below freezing and they spent the night there to go to the general assemblies in the middle of snow it was a physically and bodily measure of how fed up these people were in an affective way. People facing tremendous assaults and lots of criticism for demanding to be able to stay together against their own health showed to me that something is happening. It is like the temperature check in the assembly showing that something is really happening, that it’s really hot.

SF: And the joy and the resonance of these tactics, of these bodily tactics, like the mike-check is a symbol of the affectivity you are referring to. The way people speak of mike-check is so powerful. Mike-check has become a kind of statement for saying: “we are together! And we are going to do what we desire weather the others are going to allow it or not.” It has become this emotional solidarity pledge or solidarity expression.

CB: On the expressive level mike-check is interesting because it is not an order-word anymore, it’s a proposition. It is very moving for instance how the “casseroladas” are taking place now every evening in Montréal as such a mode of expression.

SF: Exactly, and how they moved from Argentina to Madrid and now to Montréal. Something that began in Latin America is now circulating through different languages defining a common notion.

CB: And isn’t that part of the continuity you described earlier? Since the 1970s there has been a continuous struggle in Argentina, ceaselessly reproducing and reinventing itself and steadily inspiring similar techniques for struggles around the globe?

SF: Exactly!


George Caffentzis is a political philosopher and autonomist Marxis teaching at the University of Sothern Maine.

Silvia Federici is a feminist theorist and activist living in New York. She is professor emeritus teaching at Hofstra University. 

Christian Marazzi is an economist and autonmist. He is the director of Socio-Economic Research at the Scuola Universitaria della Svizzera Italiana

Christoph Brunner is a research at Zurich University of the Arts and PhD candidate at Concordia University Montréal.