Book Review: Debt and Guilt: A Political Philosophy

Elettra Stimilli, Debt and Guilt: A Political Philosophy, Stefania Porcelli (trans.) (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019)

Reviewed by Scott Robinson, Monash University


(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version appears in Thesis Eleven Journal, available on the T11 Sage website)


In the wake of the financial crisis, the imposition of austerity, and the virulent dominance of financial capitalism, scholars returned to the paradigm of ‘debt’ to re-theorise relations of exchange, appropriation and domination. Elettra Stimilli’s Debt and Guilt: A Political Philosophy (translated from Debito e colpa, Rome: Ediesse, 2015) summarises, with admirable density, many of these attempts, including their precursors in Michel Foucault’s seminal work on neoliberalism and Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer series, their foundations in Carl Schmitt, Max Weber and (in more recent scholarship) Walter Benjamin, and their polemic iterations in Roberto Esposito, Maurizio Lazarrato and David Graeber’s work. It also follows up her more in-depth study, The Debt of the Living: Ascesis and Capitalism (2017). What marks this book out is the interplay of debt with guilt, a present but under-recognised theme of other work in this field.

‘To be in debt is the model of contemporary existence.’ So Stimilli begins the opening chapter, ‘Debt: Between appropriation, exchange, and gift’, which traces the production of debt in various modes (and theories) of capitalist reproduction. In an essay of Schmitt’s, appropriation is the essential process (not status) of founding the law, and so the economy. Appropriation is ‘openly predatory’, inequality is essential to it, and even if accumulation is its ultimate aim, it cannot cease enacting its foundational violence if the institution of the state is to endure. If classical political economy defines the fundamental basis of human life as exchange (positing the market as a priori), Stimilli, following Marx, posits appropriation as equally central. Exchange is essential to the circulation of value, which invests the market with ‘objectivity’. Stimilli’s focus on the communicative dimension to exchange, which she finds in Paolo Virno and Adam Smith, links the act of valuation to that of persuasion, specifically the promise that the pursuit of self-interest will produce common good. If, up to this point, Stimilli has adopted the conventions of ideology critique, here she departs, arguing that Marxist critique reveals ‘areas of dysfunction in the system, which are apparent’ but Foucault’s analysis of ‘governmental rationality’ shows that debt is ‘not so much the result of degeneration of the market’s self-regulation, but’ its very mechanism of self-regulation.

Deepening Foucault’s history of the process of governmental self-regulation, Stimilli incorporates key anthropological studies by Marcel Mauss, Karl Polanyi and Georg Simmel. Disputing the origin of the market in barter, Stimilli shows how for Mauss, exchange emerges only secondarily to the gift. The gift, not exchange, founds social relations and specifically ones of (mutual) obligation, debt and reciprocity, a point upon which both Polanyi and Simmel converge. Under capitalism, however, these relations are distorted by the ‘loss of the sense of social community’, so that the ‘social dimension of reciprocal bonds’ inscribed by the gift becomes the invisible conditions of social reproduction. Although she does not force the point at this stage, Stimilli’s elaboration of the gift effectively illustrates the endurance of the debtor-creditor relationship at the heart of all apparently equivalent exchange.

The second chapter, modestly titled ‘An open question’, delves into the dense thickets of debt under neoliberalism. Debt is a central feature of the key ‘figures’: ‘the “labourer”, the “producer”, and the “consumer”’, united under the sign of ‘“human capital”’. In a phrase that marks Stimilli’s aim in this book, she describes the ‘entrepreneur of oneself’ as embroiled in and committed to ‘a true “anthropological mutation”’, which liberates labour from its putative passivity and intensifies the extent of its imbrication in financial capital by its constant activity of investment. Investment from the outset in human life induces at the same time a state of perpetual indebtedness, both individually and nationally. ‘“Primordial debt”’, which Stimilli cribs from Graeber, expresses an original relation between the individual and the state, transmuting theological commitments into administrative institutions. Moreover, institutions such as the states have ‘always existed within the market’, and under conditions of ‘radical violence’, such as ‘financing wars’ or enabling debt imperialism. Turning to Roberto Esposito, Stimilli notes his call to seize hold of ‘“universal indebtedness”’ and ‘“transform this oppression chain [of debt] into a circuit of solidarity.”’ Concluding the broad survey of this chapter with a discussion of Maurizio Lazarrato’s work, Stimilli returns to the question of neoliberalism and the adequacy of concepts such as appropriation in making sense of the ‘kind of administrative and business rationality [that] has extended to all areas of labour, and to the social and political domain… The entrepreneur’s freedom, innovation and creativity have established themselves as models to be followed’ at the perverse cost of perpetually reproducing the condition of indebtedness.’

‘Between political theology and economic theology’, the third chapter, returns not just to the foundational transmutation of theological indebtedness (to, say, God) into political indebtedness (to, say, the State), it also interrogates the efficacy of political theology to theorise the prevailing economic conditions. Stimilli argues that political theology is essential for understanding the condition of neoliberal financial capitalism only if its boundary with the economy is appreciated in its complex permeability. Given the ‘indispensable condition’ of the ‘capitalist enterprise’ that ‘has been placed at the centre of all social relationships’, it is essential to appreciate the fact that ‘the mechanisms of valorization essential to the financial community… appear more than ever dependent on a singular type of faith’. This faith subtends currency to the extent that it can be identified, following Simmel, with credit. The speculative character of currency – the fact of its being nothing more than a promise – and the ‘complete dematerialisation of currencies’ in the post-Bretton Woods era means that capitalist debt is ‘unredeemable and, as such, doomed to circulate indefinitely’. Countering nostalgic ‘regulationists’ (i.e. Keynesians), Stimilli argues that debt persists regardless of the intervention of the state. Here, the ‘functional’ interrelation of political and economic theology proves pivotal in reminding us of the relationship between sovereignty and debt. Debt’s inexhaustible hold on the bond governing life under the state gives way to, or rather is exposed by the role of sacrifice and violence, which Stimilli elucidates via René Girard. Conceiving violence as the condition of all social communities, Girard’s theory of sacrifice gives to this discussion of debt its most extreme ends, wherein a debt is soluble only by the death of an innocent victim who introjects the guilt shared by all members of the community. The conventional neoliberal subject ‘devoted to enjoyment and consumption’ has (also) become ‘indebted ‘bare life’, at the same time innocent and guilty, a tool of economic powers and subjected to them.’ New ‘anti-democratic trends’ and the manic oscillation between ‘populist’ and ‘technocratic’ governments play over and manage the ‘peculiar form of faith [that] fuels the world’s economic power and the underlying valorization mechanism of the financial community’.

Stimilli broaches guilt directly in the penultimate chapter, ‘The religion of debt.’ She also revives her analysis of Walter Benjamin’s fragment ‘Capitalism as Religion’ from The Debt of the Living (2017, pp.136-146). Benjamin performs two modifications on the conventional Weberian story about capitalism’s relationship to Christianity. The first is to argue (finding later echoes in Foucault’s link between ascetic religious practices and capitalist enterprise) that Christianity does not found or condition capitalism, but the opposite: capitalism absorbs religion, scooping out its dogma and transforming it into a cult without principle. The second is to propose directly that capitalism ‘creates guilt, not atonement’. Guilt squats at the centre of the irredeemable quality of debt, and the origin of the juridical order. The thematic of guilt is a corpus callosum between the state and economy, tying individuals and institutions together in a self-reproducing web of debt. Without theological lehre, its teachings or principles, guilt is pervasive, as well as highly mobile and applicable in working conditions globally. The cult of capitalism abandons the promise of absolution or salvation from debt. Agamben’s investigations of early Christianity, then, can only take us so far in understanding the ‘entrepreneur of oneself’, bound not only by ascetic commands, but also by ‘the possibility of an investment.’ Stimilli writes, ‘The economic administration of faith is not in contradiction with munificent gratuity; they both share the experience of radical insolvency that is not to be amended, since it becomes profitable.’

The fifth chapter, ‘The psychic life of debt’, is Stimilli’s strongest scholarly contribution in this book. It draws together and gains from the previous chapters, and their development of the foundations and link between debt, capitalism, the state and theology. But here, Stimilli buries into the psyche of the entrepreneurial enterprise. This psyche has undergone the aforementioned ‘anthropological mutation’, and is subject to an ‘unprecedented investment in life’ that produces ‘active subjects, who are completely devoted to their business, and have abolished any distance between themselves and the enterprise in which they are involved.’ This ‘total involvement… involves everyone.’ It absorbs ‘life itself’ into financialisation, and within its pervasive rationality, one ‘aspires towards redemption, even through sacrifice, while on the other hand… one must submit as a member of the community.’ Guilt operates inside debt (Schuld) to instigate ‘new forms of investment… and the need for continuous reproduction.’  In Judith Butler’s work, Stimilli finds an exemplary theorization of the role of power in psychic life, working by analogy with psychoanalytic models of the fragile internal domination required for ‘“fusional humanity”’. Turning to a brief consideration of feminism in the context of neoliberalism, Stimilli compares Butler’s approach to Nancy Fraser, amongst a series of other interlocutors. Increasing workforce participation has been ‘accompanied by a concomitant and widespread disempowerment of individual roles’ leading to ‘a perverse process of the involvement of women’ and harnessing femininity. Neoliberal rationality seizes hold of femininity’s ‘spectacular embodiment’ in the ‘showgirl and the spokesmodel’ in a way that

‘transforms individual capacities, which are potentially open, into a condition that remains incomplete. Like indebtedness, it must not be filled, but constantly reproduced in order to be managed. Debt as a political operator presupposes the empty reproduction of ghostly desires.’ (p.143)

The ‘process of the feminisation of labour as well as the phenomenon of generalized indebtedness’, Stimilli finds, ‘is a process that disempowers the very elements from which capital produces value.’ Guilt is a name for the complex ways power forms subjects precisely through these conditions, canalizing their freedom, as it were. It also embodies the repudiation of dependence of bootstrapping entrepreneurs, who incur debt in order to invest in themselves but whose ‘profit, so to speak, emerges autonomously and does not simply derive from the cost paid to obtain it.’ De-stabilised from the beginning, the subject of debt also begins with ‘radical disesteem’. Lost in the ‘disorienting’ cycle of ‘perverse inebriation’ the enterprising subject lurches between crises, accruing debt like the negative image of bark rings, emptying out the consumer’s (already) ‘lost subjectivity.’

From the final chapter to the conclusion, Stimilli begins to make tentative offerings towards transformation, again following Butler. Even if ‘[i]ndebtedness is… a condition that is continually produced and nourished’ by the need ‘to invest’, nevertheless the power that it commands is ‘“not mechanically reproduced when it is assumed. Instead, on being assumed, power runs the risk of assuming another form and direction.”’ Nevertheless, due to the combination of ‘sadistic-narcissistic’ and ‘solipsistic enjoyment’ that characterises the desires of competitive entrepreneur-consumers, especially twinned with the guilt-ridden ‘masochistic component’, it is obvious that this ‘entangled net’ of neoliberal capitalism will prove particularly sticky.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s