In their insightful and pathbreaking book, “Declaration”, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri analyze the diverse conditions of subordination produced under global capitalism and point to the agents of change who have raised their voices in protest globally against a range of injustices that mark the failures of a really existing democracy. They also explore the ways in which such protests have led to challenging existing zones of exclusion and disposability through the production of new social movements that are inventing a new politics and mode of collective power that affirm and reclaim the principles, truths, conditions, and associations necessary for a sustainable society. Part of the book explores and critiques what they label as four dominant forms of subjectivity that have created the context for the current social and political crisis. At the same time, they go beyond a language of critique and offer a declaration of principles for constituting what they call a “new global project for the common.” The section below draws upon two of the four figures of subjectivity that have emerged under neoliberal regimes and are considered integral to the forms of subordination, injustice and (mis)educative politics that characterize the existing social and economic order. – Henry A. Giroux
Being in debt is becoming today the general condition of social life. It is nearly impossible to live without incurring debts – a student loan for school, a mortgage for the house, a loan for the car, another for doctor bills, and so on. The social safety net has passed from a system of it welfareit to one of it debtfare, it as loans become the primary means to meet social needs. Your subjectivity is configured on the foundation of debt. You survive by making debts, and you live under the weight of your responsibility for them.
Debt controls you. It disciplines your consumption, imposing austerity on you and often reducing you to strategies of survival, but beyond that it even dictates your work rhythms and choices. If you finish university in debt, you must accept the first paid position offered in order to honor your debt. If you bought an apartment with a mortgage, you must be sure not to lose your job or take a vacation or a study leave from work. The effect of debt, like that of the work ethic, is to keep your nose to the grindstone. Whereas the work ethic is born within the subject, debt begins as an external constraint but soon worms its way inside. Debt wields a moral power whose primary weapons are responsibility and guilt, which can quickly become objects of obsession. You are responsible for your debts and guilty for the difficulties they create in your life. The indebted is an unhappy consciousness that makes guilt a form of life. Little by little, the pleasures of activity and creation are transformed into a nightmare for those who do not possess the means to enjoy their lives. Life has been sold to the enemy.
G. W. F. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic reappears here but in a nondialectical form, because debt is not a negative that can enrich you if you rebel, nor a subordination that fosters a line of activity, nor an impulse of liberation, nor an attempt to pass over to a free activity. Debt can only deepen the impoverishment of your life and the depotentialization of your subjectivity. It only debases you, isolating you in guilt and misery. Debt thus puts an end to all the illusions that surround the dialectic – the illusion, for example, that the subjugated labor of the unhappy consciousness could achieve freedom or affirm its own power, wresting away the forces that had been denied it or, rather, that the expression of labor could be resolved in a superior synthesis and that the determinate negation could rise up to liberation. The figure of the indebted cannot be redeemed but only destroyed.
Once upon a time there was a mass of wage workers; today there is a multitude of precarious workers. The former were exploited by capital, but that exploitation was masked by the myth of a free and equal exchange among owners of commodities. The latter continue to be exploited, but the dominant image of their relationship to capital is configured no longer as an equal relationship of exchange but rather as a hierarchical relation of debtor to creditor. According to the mercantile myth of capitalist production, the owner of capital meets the owner of labor power in the marketplace, and they make a fair and free exchange: I give you my work and you give me a wage. This was the Eden, Karl Marx writes ironically, of “freedom, equality, property, and Bentham.” There’s no need for us to remind you how false and mystifying this supposed freedom and equality actually are.
But capitalist work relations have shifted. The center of gravity of capitalist production no longer resides in the factory but has drifted outside its walls. Society has become a factory, or rather, capitalist production has spread such that the labor power of the entire society tends to be subordinated to capitalist control. Capital increasingly exploits the entire range of our productive capacities, our bodies and our minds, our capacities for communication, our intelligence and creativity, our affective relations with each other, and more. Life itself has been put to work.
With this shift the primary engagement between capitalist and worker also changes. No longer is the typical scene of exploitation the capitalist overseeing the factory, directing and disciplining the worker in order to generate a profit. Today the capitalist is farther removed from the scene, and workers generate wealth more autonomously. The capitalist accumulates wealth primarily through rent, not profit – this rent most often takes a financial form and is guaranteed through financial instruments. This is where debt enters the picture, as a weapon to maintain and control the relationship of production and exploitation. Exploitation today is based primarily not on (equal or unequal) exchange but on debt, that is, on the fact that the 99 percent of the population is subject – owes work, owes money, owes obedience – to the 1 percent.
Debt obscures the productivity of workers but clarifies their subordination. Exploited work is cast in a mystified relationship – the wage regime – but its productivity is clearly measured according to the rule: labor time. Now, instead, productivity is ever more hidden as the divisions between work time and the time of life become increasingly blurred. In order to survive the indebted must sell his or her entire time of life. Those subject to debt in this way thus appear, even to themselves, primarily as consumers not producers. Yes, of course they produce, but they work to pay their debts, for which they are responsible because they consume. In contrast to the myth of equal exchange, then, the debtor-creditor relationship has the virtue of unmasking the vast inequalities at the foundation of capitalist society.
Once again, the movement we are tracing from exploitation to indebtedness corresponds to the transformation of capitalist production from an order based on the hegemony of profit (that is, the accumulation of the average value of industrial exploitation) to one dominated by rent (that is, by the average value of the exploitation of social development) and thus by the accumulation of the value socially produced in an increasingly abstract form. Production thus relies, in this passage, increasingly on socialized, not individual, figures of work, that is, on workers who immediately cooperate together prior to the discipline and control of the capitalist. The rentier is distant from the moment of the production of wealth and thus cannot perceive the cruel reality of exploitation, the violence of productive labor, and the suffering it causes in the production of rent. From Wall Street one doesn’t see the suffering of each worker in the production of value, since that value tends to be based on the exploitation of a vast multitude, waged and unwaged. That all fades to gray in the financial control of life.
A new figure of the poor is emerging, which includes not only the unemployed and the precarious workers with irregular, part-time work, but also the stable waged workers and the impoverished strata of the so-called middle class. Their poverty is characterized primarily by the chains of debt. The increasing generality of indebtedness today marks a return to relations of servitude reminiscent of another time. And yet, much has changed.
Marx sardonically characterized the improved condition of proletarians who arose with the industrial age as Vogelfrei, free as birds insofar as they are doubly free of property. Proletarians are not the property of masters and thus are free of the medieval bonds of servitude (that is the good part), but also they are free of property in the sense that they have none. Today’s new poor are still free in the second sense, but through their debt they are, once again, the property of masters, now masters who rule through finance. Reborn are the figures of the bondsman and the indentured servant. In an earlier era, immigrants and indigenous populations in the Americas and Australia had to work to buy themselves out of debt, but often their debt continually rose, condemning them to indefinite servitude. Unable to rise from the misery to which they are reduced, the indebted is bound by invisible chains that must be recognized, grasped, and broken order to become free.
It’s dizzying to think about all the information constantly being produced about you. You know, of course, that in certain places and situations surveillance is heightened. Pass through airport security, and your body and possessions will be scanned. Enter certain countries, and you will have your fingerprints taken, your retina scanned. Become unemployed, join the workfare regime, and there will be a different series of inspections, recording your efforts, your intentions, and your progress. The hospital, the government office, the school – they all have their own inspection regimes and data storage systems. But it’s not only when you go somewhere special. A walk down your street is likely to be recorded by a series of security cameras, your credit card purchases and Internet searches are likely to be tracked, and your cell phone calls are easily intercepted. Security technologies have leapt forward in recent years to delve deeper into society, our lives, and our bodies.
Why do you accept being treated like an inmate? In a previous era the prison, separated from society, was the institution of total surveillance, whose inmates were constantly observed and their activities recorded, but today total surveillance is increasingly the general condition of society as a whole. “The prison,” Michel Foucault notes, “begins well before its doors. It begins as soon as you leave your house” – and even before. Do you accept this because you are unaware of being watched? Or because you think you have no choice? Each of these may be true in part, but overlying both is fear. You accept being in a prison society because outside seems more dangerous.
You are not only the object of security but also the subject. You answer the call to be vigilant, constantly on watch for suspicious activity on the subway, devious designs of your seatmate on the airplane, malicious motives of your neighbors. Fear justifies volunteering your pair of eyes and your alert attention to a seemingly universal security machine. There are two dramatis personae in securitized society: inmates and guards. And you are called to play both roles at once.
The securitized is a creature that lives and thrives in the state of exception, where the normal functioning of the rule of law and the conventional habits and bonds of association have been suspended by an overarching power. The state of exception is a state of war – today in some parts of the world this is a low-intensity war and in others it is rather high intensity, but everywhere the state of war promises no end. Don’t confuse this state of exception with any natural condition of human society, and do not imagine it as the essence of the modern state or the end point toward which all modern figures of power are tending. No, the state of exception is a form of tyranny, one that, like all tyrannies, exists only because of our voluntary servitude.
To say that we are objects and subjects of surveillance like inmates and guards in a prison society does not mean that we are all in the same situation or that there is no longer a difference between being in prison and out. In recent decades, in fact, the number of those imprisoned across the world has expanded enormously, especially when one includes those not only in conventional prisons but also under judicial supervision, in detention centers, in refugee camps, and in myriad other forms of imprisonment.
It is a scandal – or, rather, it should be a scandal and one wonders why it isn’t – that the US prison population, after reaching a postwar low in the early 1970s, has since grown more than 500 percent. The United States locks up a higher percentage of its own population than any other nation in the world. Even with extraordinary prison construction projects over the last decades, the cells are still overfull. This massive expansion cannot be explained by a growing criminality of the US population or the enhanced efficiency of law enforcement. In fact, US crime rates in this period have remained relatively constant.
The scandal of US prison expansion is even more dramatic when one observes how it operates along race divisions. Latinos are incarcerated at a rate almost double that of whites, and African Americans at a rate almost six times as high. The racial imbalance of those on death row is even more extreme. It is not hard to find shocking statistics. One in eight black US males in their twenties, for instance, is in jail or prison on any given day. The number of African Americans under correctional control today, Michelle Alexander points out, is greater than the number of slaves in the mid-nineteenth century. Some authors refer to the racially skewed prison expansion as a return to elements of the plantation system or the institution of new Jim Crow laws. Keep in mind that this differential racial pattern of imprisonment is not isolated to the United States. In Europe and elsewhere, if one considers immigrant detention centers and refugee camps as arms of the carceral apparatus, those with darker skin are disproportionately in captivity.
The securitized is thus not a homogeneous figure. In fact, the infinite degrees of incarceration are key to the functioning of securitized subjectivity. There are always others lower than you, under greater surveillance and control, even if only by the smallest degree.
During the same years of the prison expansion, there has also been a militarization of US society. What is most remarkable is not the growth in the number of soldiers in the United States but rather their social stature. Not too long ago, in the last years of the Vietnam War, it was rumored that protesters spit on returning soldiers and called them baby killers. This was probably a myth propagated to discredit the protesters, but it is indicative of the fact that soldiers and their social function were held then in low esteem. It is remarkable that only a few decades later military personnel have become (once again) objects of national reverence. Military personnel in uniform are given priority boarding on commercial airlines, and it is not uncommon for strangers to stop and thank them for their service. In the United States, rising esteem for the military in uniform corresponds to the growing militarization of the society as a whole. All of this despite repeated revelations of the illegality and immorality of the military’s own incarceration systems, from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib, whose systematic practices border on if not actually constitute torture.
The growth in prison populations and the rising militarization, both of which are led by US society, are only the most concrete, condensed manifestations of a diffuse security regime in which we are all interned and enlisted. Why are these trends taking place now? One phenomenon that corresponds historically with the rise of the security regime in its various forms is the predominance of neoliberal strategies of the capitalist economy. The increasing precarity, flexibility, and mobility of workers required by the neoliberal economy marks a new phase of primitive accumulation in which various strata of surplus populations are created. If left to their own devices, the unemployed and underemployed poor can constitute dangerous classes from the perspective of the forces of order.
All the forms of our internment and enlistment in the security regime, in fact, fulfill the role that Marx credits to the “bloody legislation” in precapitalist England directed at the propertyless and vagrant classes. In addition to coercing the formerly rural populations to accept sedentary jobs in urban centers, the legislation also created the discipline by which the future proletarians would accept wage labor as if it were their own wish and destiny. So, too, our participation in security society operates as a kind of training or dressage of our desires and hopes but also and most importantly our fears. Prison functions in part as a warehouse for surplus population but also as a frightening lesson to the “free” population.
Furthermore, the current economic and financial crisis adds a whole series of other fears. And in many cases one of the greatest fears is that of being out of work and thus not being able to survive. You have to be good worker, loyal to your employer, and not go out on strike, or you’ll find yourself out of work and unable to pay your debts.
Fear is the primary motivation for the securitized to accept not only its double role, watcher and watched, in the surveillance regime but also the fact that so many others are even further deprived of their freedom. The securitized lives in fear of a combination of punishments and external threats. Fear of the ruling powers and their police is a factor but more important and effective is fear of dangerous others and unknown threats – a generalized social fear. In some ways those who are in prison have less to fear; rather, even though the threats they face from the carceral machine, the guards, and other inmates, are severe, they are more limited and knowable. Fear in the security regime is an empty signifier in which all kinds of terrifying phantoms can appear.
Thomas Jefferson, in one of his least glorious and least courageous moments, was driven by fear to justify not only the compromise to allow slavery in the new state of Missouri but also the continuation of slavery in the United States. “We have the wolf by the ear,” he writes, “and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Since injustices to generations of black slaves have accumulated in their bones a rightful rage, Jefferson reasons, which, if unleashed, will destroy white society, slavery, although unjust, must be continued in order to hold the beast at bay. Today’s securitized society functions by the same ignoble logic but now the wolves are already loose, lurking in the shadows, a perpetual threat. All kinds of injustices can be warranted by the ghostly apparitions of a generalized fear.