If Nietzsche’s analysis of debt is helpful to us, then, it is because it reveals that when we start from the assumption that human thought is essentially a matter of commercial calculation, that buying and selling are the basis of human society— then, yes, once we begin to think about our relationship with the cosmos, we will necessarily conceive of it in terms of debt.
– David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Graeber doesn’t really think much of Nietzsche’s debt history in the Genealogy of Morals telling us that there “is every reason to believe that Nietzsche knew the premise of his genealogy of debt was insane; in fact, that this was the entire point. What Nietzsche is doing here is starting out from the standard, common-sense assumptions about the nature of human beings prevalent in his day (and to a large extent, still prevalent)— that we are rational calculating machines, that commercial self-interest comes before society, that “society” itself is just a way of putting a kind of temporary lid on the resulting conflict.”1
Of course those other navigators of the human world of debt Deleuze & Guattari will take Nietzsche’s ethnology a little differently, saying: “The great book of modern ethnology is not so much Mauss’s The Gift as Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. At least it should be.”2 What’s their reasoning? For them its simple: the second essay, is an attempt – and a success without equal – at interpreting primitive economy in terms of debt, the debtor-credit relationship” (p. 190). And unlike Graeber who will tell us that Nietzsche’s genealogy has no basis in fact, that it’s a complete fantasy in his own mind, D&G will frankly admit that Nietzsche’s approach is based on the imaginative literature of Germanic law and Hindu literature (“Nietzsche has only a meager set of tools at his disposal”). Yet, acknowledging this limitation they will see that his insights are not only vital to their own arguments, but in fact dispel aspects of Mauss’s own problematique quandaries concerning the relation between exchange and debt. They mention Georges Bataille in this regard as well, another who acknowledged Nietzsche’s genius in this regard to debt as underpinning social relations.
In fact it was Nietzsche, and Nietzsche alone who provided the first hint of a theory that the “primitive socious” was inherently a “problem of inscription, of coding, of marking…” (p. 190). As they’ll state it:
Man must constitute himself through repression of the intense germinal influx, the great biocosmic memory that threatens to deluge every attempt at collectivity. But at the same time, how is a new memory to be created for man – a collective memory of the spoken word and of alliances that declines alliances with the extended filiations, that endows him with faculties of resonance and retention, of selection and detachment, and that effects this way of coding the flow of desire as a condition of the socious? The answer is simple – debt – open, mobile, and finite blocks of debt: the extraordinary composite of the spoken voice, the marked body, and the enjoying eye.” (p. 190)
This triangulation of voice, marking, and eye they will term the “theatre of cruelty” – the debt system as the theatre of territorial representation which is formed by the three sides of a savage triangle “that implies the triple independence of the articulated voice, the graphic hand, and the appreciative eye” (p. 189). In fact the point of this system of pure pain is the inscription of debt relations as obligations of guilt based on the code and law of social responsibility to the Dead Ancestors:
All the stupidity and the arbitrariness of the laws, all the pain of initiations, the whole perverse apparatus of repression and education, the red-hot irons, and the atrocious procedures have only this meaning: to breed man, to mark him in his flesh, to render him capable of alliance, to form him within the debtor-credit relation, which both sides turns out to be a matter of memory – a memory straining toward the future. (p. 190)
This sense of debt binding us to a system of mnemonics and cruelty, an organized and ritualistic memory system based on marking and pain – inscription of the collective socious as a system of obligation and guilt, debt and the endless deferral of payment into the future. The ancestors require sacrifice and payment, blood and guts. Alliances against this filiation must be formed, struggles against the dead, defensive gestures: the infinite deferral of debt beyond the vampirism of the dead. This whole triangular process of voice – inscription – eye becomes in our time the “spectacle of punishment”: “as primitive justice, territorial representation has foreseen everything” (p. 191).
For Deleuze & Guattari this primitive system of memory and pain will enter the stage of religion as a debt to be paid ending in the death of Christ as the payer of all debts; and, yet, it will not end there, for debt can never be repaid, so it forms the kernel of the modern State: “the new machine, and the new apparatus of repression” (p. 192). This system of endless debt: “that finds itself taken into an immense machinery that renders the debt infinite and no longer forms anything but one and the same crushing fate: the aim now is to preclude pessimistically, once and for all, the prospect of discharge; the aim now is to make the glance recoil disconsolately from an iron impossibility. The Earth becomes a madhouse.” (p. 192)
This is not the gray scaled economics of appeasement and attrition, nor the cosmopolitan capitalism of affluence; no, this is a feral, savage capitalism where cannibals and vampires hide among the Wall Street bankers and financiers like so many masked marauders and barbarians of a new age. This is the dark underbelly of a capitalism that dips its teeth into the flesh of the world, where wolf-pack minions romp among the nations seeking nothing less than the last ounce of flesh and monetary blood, enforcing an austerity and asceticism of cold and malicious regulatory mechanisms of control, modulated to the ripples of hunger and jouissance, voice and gaze.
In his Theses on the Philosophy of History Walter Benjamin would tell us:
The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply…. even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he triumphs. And this enemy has not ceased triumphing.
Like many of his generation he still believed in redemption, we know better. There will be none. Our enemy is a Savage Capitalism: a system of debt and cruelty that tells us the debt cannot be paid, ever. Instead it offers the insanity of an interminable future that can never be allowed into the present moment: the moment the future of debt enters the real of the present all bets are called off and the apocalypse begins. It projects the debt into the endless future for our children and their children to pay, an endless tribute to the Dead. Unlike Christianity there is no capitalist savior to redeem us from this future, and even the dead God has fallen beyond his own belief in redemption or history. He exists no longer even for himself. All that is left is a hole, an emptiness where an illusion once tried to fill the gap. Now is the time of endless debt and insanity… the Age of Savage Capitalism as a Zombie Apocalypse.
Yet, as Benjamin admonishes us: it is we the inheritors of this vast debt that must enact the redemption – not God, not Time, not History… but we ourselves in inaugurating, as my friend, Edmund Berger would have it, “The Great Refusal”, the No that refuses to acknowledge our debt to this system of cruel relations, to the “theatre of cruelty” of that triangular system of voice, mark, and eye that keeps us bound to the circle of capital relations. Only we can say No. Only we can finally walk away from the lie of Capital and its debt-obligations. There is nothing to be paid because it is an “empty signifier” – a bone without a spirit, an empty power that has held us in its clutches for far too long. Now we must say NO, NO, NO… never again… a revolution not through violence, but though abandonment of the very system that has bound us to this cruel dictatorship of debt for far too long…
D&G will remind us at the center of savage capitalism is the circulation of money as “infinite debt”: “the circulation of money – is the means of rendering the debt infinite” (p. 197). The two acts of the State, local or global, inaugurates the great movement of deterritorialization that subordinates all the primitive (Third World) filiations to the despotic machine (Global Capitalism); the abolition of debts or the accountable transformation initiates the duty of an interminable service to the State despotic machine that subordinates all the Third World alliances to itself. The infinite creditor and the infinite credit have replaced the blocks of mobile finite debts. There is always a monotheism on the horizon of despotic capitalism: the debt becomes a debt of existence, a debt of the existence of the subjects themselves. (p. 197) In our time the State has become borderless, or should we say it stretches to the sphere-logical horizon of the planet itself. The flows or swarms of capital have infested even the localized territorial machines of nations. There is no Outside anymore, only the infinite horizon of capital and its debt obligations. One can think of those abstract entities China, Russia, Europe, America, etc. as nodal points in the circulatory system of capital as money and debt rather than as substantive objects attached to specific histories. Yes, each microhistory of the specific nodes still exists, but it has been overcoded by the greater invisible State apparatus of capital itself.
As D&G will explain it overcoding is the operation that constitutes the essence of the State, and that measures both its continuity and its break with the previous formations: the dread flows of desire that would resist coding, but also the establishment of a new inscription that overcodes, and that makes desire into the property of the soverign, even though he be the death instinct itself. (p. 199) On the world stage there is no center, no concrete particular where Capital resides, instead it has dematerialized itself into the very networks of our global technological systems. Zizek speaks of this semiotization of capital in his critique of Hardt and Negri, as well as how Berardi opposes their take: “One cannot but note the cruel irony of the contrast between Berardi and Hardt and Negri here. The latter celebrate “cognitive capitalism” as opening up a path towards “absolute democracy,” since the object, the “stuff,” of immaterial work is increasingly constituted by social relations themselves. Hardt and Negri’s wager is that this directly socialized, immaterial production not only renders owners progressively superfluous, the producers also master the regulation of social space, since social relations are the essence of their work: economic production directly becomes political production, the production of society itself. The way is thus open for “absolute democracy,” with the producers directly regulating their social relations without even the detour of democratic representation. Berardi’s conclusion is exactly the opposite: far from bringing out the potential transparency of social life, today’s cognitive capitalism makes it more impenetrable than ever, undermining the very conditions for any form of collective solidarity among the “cognitariat.” What is symptomatic here is the way the same conceptual apparatus leads to two radically opposed conclusions. For Berardi, if we are unable to avoid the compulsion of the system, the gap between the frantic dynamic it imposes and our corporeal and cognitive limitations sooner or later brings about a fall into depression.”4
This sense of depressive realism hangs over the world like a ticking bomb. And, yet, as the echo of the dead rise out of the debt systems of cruelty they whisper to us: “If not debt, then what? What new system of relations will you enact? We the dead know of your obligations to us, that it is your responsibility to redeem us and our debts.” Is it? Do we truly owe you tribute, payment? Our obligations, our gratitude? Why should we harbor the guilt for your inscriptions? Isn’t it you who have spawned this system of absolute cruelty that crushes us the living under its dark despotic law of debt? Haven’t you dead ones done enough to us already? We owe you nothing, our allegiance is not to you, but to the Earth. We banish you to the oblivion of stars. Now begins the redemption of the Earth, not the dead… the debt has been paid in full. Let the gates of the future once again open up. Let the great outdoors of that realm in; let its wind sweep away the past debts like so many dead leaves upon the ocean of time…
A voice in the wind, whispers: “Is the Earth mad, too?”
In the novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brook we hear of a guy after the apocalypse who marks himself to remember all the dead:
And then there were psych casualties. More than anything else combined. Sometimes we’d march into barricaded zones and find nothing but rat-gnawed skeletons. I’m talking about the zones that weren’t overrun, the ones that fell to starvation or disease, or just a feeling that tomorrow wasn’t worth seeing. We once broke into a church in Kansas where it was clear the adults killed all the kids first. One guy in our platoon, an Amish guy, used to read all their suicide notes, commit them to memory, then give himself this little cut, this tiny half-inch nick somewhere on his body so he would “never forget.”3
So it begins, again… are we fated to inscribe, to mark, to cut the atrocity of savage capitalism into our scorched flesh even after the future begins again? Or like the LT who found out about the man with ten-thousand cuts: “Crazy bastard was sliced from his neck to the bottom of his toes. When the LT found out about it… sectioned eight his ass right outa there.” (Brook, p. 322) Memory or forgetfulness: an obligation to the past, to the living dead, to debt and all it implies; or, to a new dawn beyond the savage wars of capital… a passage that entails nothing less than an active forgetfulness and an openness to the future that is incomplete and utterly alien to the human?
1. Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Locations 1525-1529). Melville House. Kindle Edition.
2. Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Penguin, 2001)
3. Brooks, Max (2006-09-12). World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (pp. 321-322). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.
4. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 83-84). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.