Review: Maurizio Lazzarato’s Governing by Debt, by Moritz Altenried

logo95x95Review of Maurizio Lazzarato’s Governing by Debt by Moritz Altenried



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Abstract: In Governing by Debt Maurizio Lazzarato describes the present political and economic moment as entirely determined by debt. With recourse to Foucault, he understands debt as form of governmentality that traverses subjectivity as well as all policy in a time of austerity. In his discussion of liberal and neoliberal governmentality he stresses the importance of ‘hard’ power and state interventions, which have always been an important part of capitalism and have increased in the wake of the financial crisis. Positing a growing importance of the debt relation vis-à-vis the capital-labour relation, Lazzarato argues that the hegemony of financial capital coincides with the advent of neoliberalism and a more recent growth of its political power through the crisis of sovereign debt. Lazzarato’s intervention is a pungent critique of contemporary ‘debt capitalism’ and at the same time a valuable contribution to theoretical debates on debt, financialisation, and governmentality.

It is hardly surprising that debt is still a much-debated topic in social and political theory and continues to inspire academic and political discussions. Bearing in mind the events unfolding after the election of the SYRIZA government in Greece earlier this year, the title of Maurizio Lazzarato’s new book, Governing by Debt, could not be more apposite. After The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (Lazzarato, 2012) the current book is Lazzarato’s second on the topic. While continuing many strands of its predecessor, Governing by Debt also addresses some of its shortcomings (Toscano, 2014) and sheds light on new aspects of debt. It emphasises, for instance, the ‘axiomatic’ and structural dimensions of capitalism, enlarging the focus on ‘indebted subjectivity’ that characterised the first book. What both publications share, however, is a political and theoretical commitment to understanding the contemporary situation through debt: by using debt as an analytical prism and, moreover, by suggesting that the debt relation is indeed the most important power relation of the present moment.

Governing by Debt consists of a series of essays that can be read on their own; together they present a consistent political as well as theoretical intervention into our contemporary moment marked by crisis, austerity and debt. In lieu of an introduction, Lazzarato begins his analysis with a glossary; it is worth naming the terms he discusses as they not only refer to key topics but also introduce central concepts for his theorisation of the present. These include austerity, public debt, taxes, growth, crisis, state capitalism, governmentality, class struggle, finance, transversality, human capital, reformism, the refusal of work, rupture, institution/subversion, representation, signs and machines. After the glossary, Lazzarato continues with a chapter on profit, rent and taxes and one on the American university as a model for the debt society, followed by three chapters discussing the critique of governmentality in the light of the current crisis and a final chapter on the past and present of finance capital. In the conclusion, he returns to the form of a glossary, revolving around the refusal to work, a classic workerist (operaista) concept. As capitalism today has subsumed all of society, so Lazzarato argues, the refusal to work must be rethought as an exodus from capitalist social relations.

While the historical reach of the Indebted Man included pre-capitalist times, Governing by Debt focusses on the present and the more recent past. In the first chapter, Lazzarato starts by discussing profit, rent, and taxation as three different “apparatuses of capture” specific to periods of capitalism: profit to Fordism, rent to Post-Fordism, and taxation to the crisis-ridden present after 2007. While he complicates this chronology later in the book, it represents a somewhat paradigmatic example of a totalising periodisation (typical of much post-workerist writing), which can be both conceptually limiting and empirically untenable. While the temporalities and their respective social arrangements become more complex towards the end of the book, the description of clearly distinct historical periods dominated by one form of capture, accumulation, and subjectivity remains problematic throughout the book. Nonetheless, this mode of theorising allows for insights that other forms might not be able to achieve (which is also the strength of much post-workerist writing); for example, it allows for the focus on taxation in the first essay, which Lazzarato describes as the dominant apparatus of capture for the post-crisis economy. Drawing on Schmitt, Lazzarato is able to carve out the fundamentally political nature of the post-2007 economy: “By determining who must pay (certainly not those responsible for the crisis) and where the money must go (to the creditors and the banks responsible for the crisis) taxation ensures the wholly political reproduction of an ‘economy’” (35).

In the next chapter, Lazzarato reviews the central topic of his Indebted Man: subjectivation through debt. Looking at the American university where two-thirds of students graduate with debt, he describes debt as a central moment of power and subjectivation: “Debt is the technique most adequate to the production of neoliberalism’s homo economicus” (70). Lazzarato argues that the creditor-debtor relation is the new central antagonism, replacing that of capital-labour. For Lazzarato the nature of debt today is infinite, unpayable, and inexpiable, hence debt becomes an almost ontological condition of the contemporary capital relation.

At the heart of the book is an extended discussion of Foucault’s ideas of governmentality and neoliberalism stretched out over three chapters. Lazzarato here mainly refers to the concepts presented in Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France, especially the 1978-79 course that became The Birth of Biopolitics (2008). The great French philosopher provides both the inspiration for thinking neoliberalism as subjectivity (homo economicus) in the Indebted Man and also now for neoliberalism as governmentality in Governing by Debt. With this recourse to Foucault and neoliberalism, Lazzarato takes up what can be considered a weakness of the Indebted Man, namely, a reading of neoliberalism mainly as a form of subjectivity. This marked a stance that even lagged behind Foucault’s not very encompassing reading of capitalist social relations at the macro-level.

The Birth of Biopolitics lectures (which are actually much more about liberalism and neoliberalism than biopolitics) have stimulated considerable academic debate and publications over the last decade. Lazzarato’s original point, however, is his attempt to re-read and further develop Foucault’s theory of governmentality and power in the light of the current crisis. Against the backdrop of sovereign debt and austerity, Lazzarato argues that ‘older’ forms of power (such as disciplinary and sovereign power) come to be more important again in the context of the handling of the crisis by states, banks and corporations. While Lazzarato is broadly sympathetic with Foucault’s project, he argues that Foucault underestimates the role that disciplinary and sovereign forms of power continue to play in liberal capitalism. Even though Foucault does not outline a simple historical succession of regimes of power (in contrary, they “dovetail” into each other, Foucault, 2004: 242), Lazzarato accuses him of falling for the anti-state discourse of (neo)liberalism. This, according to Lazzarato, leads him to underestimate the role of ‘hard’ power in neoliberal capitalism, where “there is no opposition between the principle of sovereignty and the techniques of governmentality” (93). With Deleuze and Guattari, however, Lazzarato argues that even if authoritarian tendencies come to light more forcefully in the contemporary moment than before, in general “capitalism has never been liberal, it has always been state capitalism” (92).

Lazzarato’s sympathetic critique of Foucault and his argument about the absence of the capital relation in the concept of governmentality are convincing and refreshing. So is his call for rethinking governmentality in light of current politico-economic events ,through which “[d]isciplinary technologies, which have never disappeared, acquire a new importance, particularly in the management of the ‘unemployed’, the ‘poor’, the labor market and in the governance of social services” (211). In his attempt to update the concept of governmentality, he draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari, stressing the ‘axiomatic’, structuring and determining nature of the capital relation. It is also through their concepts that he discusses money (starting with a critique of regulation theory and of David Graeber’s account of money) and financialisation. Lazzarato argues strongly against an opposition of finance and ‘real economy’, but claims that financial capital and the logic of finance have become completely hegemonic in a “capitalism of flows” (131). For him finance capitalism is not a degeneration of industrial capitalism, but rather a process that is inherent in the logic of capital, completing the real subsumption of all social life under capital. While Lazzarato is careful not to make a simple argument of finance controlling everything, the relation of finance and industrial capital and its reconfiguration in the last decades remains theoretically underdeveloped; one reason might be Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology and the idea of a non-economistic theory of the economy, which appears quite general and imprecise at some points. Lazzarato’s last chapter on governmentality returns to the question of subjectivity: here, he describes the constitution of modern subjectivity as a twofold, seemingly contradictory process. The first dimension is the form of governmentality that produces the individuated subject, which today functions after the model of ‘human capital’. As the second, apparently opposite part, Lazzarato describes a process of desubjectivation or ‘machinic enslavement’ that produces the ‘dividual’ (another Deleuzian concept). This process of machinic enslavement acts upon the presubjective components of the body by non-representational, diagrammatic and operational techniques. By combining the discourse around human capital and the entrepreneur of the self with this second form of non-signifying, machinic (de)subjectivation, Lazzarato reaches the conclusion that the force and power of contemporary capitalism “lie less in the performative, in the symbolic, or in speech – all techniques common to every form of power – than in forms of operative ‘diagrammatic’ action that do not involve consciousness or representation” (200).

While Lazzarato’s sources for the first chapters were quite expectable, the last essay holds a surprise: drawing on Lenin, Lazzarato argues that today’s hegemony of finance is nothing new in itself because European, and especially British, imperialism itself was driven by a primary hegemony of finance. Against the backdrop of this reading, Fordism comes to be the historical exception: it is then “the hegemony of the industrial capital of the great Fordist corporations that represented a completely exceptional and unrepeatable parenthesis in the history of capitalism” (221). Lazzarato’s argument here is compelling not least insofar as it complicates the progressivist, stagist and periodising image of the development of capitalism we encounter so often. This tendency is not alien to Lazzarato himself and also present in Governing by Debt. In fact, the tendency to, on the one hand, describe the contemporary as one clearly distinct historical period, coined by one form of capital, subjectivity, etcetera, and, on the other hand, the attempt to account for the multiple temporalities, coexisting social forms, and practices, are both present in the book. This tension contributes to its allure, without, however, being resolved.

Even if the hegemony of finance is nothing new, for Lazzarato there is one thing that differentiates the contemporary from the primary hegemony of finance: “The great novelty of contemporary financialisation lies in its expansion of the [creditor-debtor] relation to the whole of society through consumer credit and state sovereign debt” (223) allowing for the government by debt of the whole population. This also summarises the commitment and great strength of the book: Lazzarato delivers an engaged political philosophy of debt and a critique of contemporary capitalism where the debt-crisis is not an interlude, but has become the form of government.


Foucault M. (2004): Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. London: Penguin Books.

Foucault M (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lazzarato M (2012) The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. Cambrigde, MA: Semiotexte.

Toscano A (2014) ‘Alien Mediations: Critical Remarks on The Making of the Indebted Man’ in The New Reader 1(1).