Social Security under Neoliberalism: The Department of Answerable Beholden Unworthies

The work of Maurizio Lazzarato on ‘the indebted man’ is surprising. I’ve had it lying around for a few weeks and not had to time to dip into it but find myself glad I did so today, as it is helping me piece together more of my wiki page on neoliberalism. The following is a slightly amended version of a section on that page, which I felt was too significant given the current political and media climate not to publish to the blog.

Writing in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis—and its subsequent ‘conversion’ into a series of sovereign debt crises through governments bailing out failed financial institutions—Lazzarato criticises definitions of neoliberalism which, following Foucault, overplay its historical roots in liberalism at the expense of analysing its contemporary configuration.

The governmentality Foucault describes in The Birth of Biopolitics does not seem sufficient for understanding what it implies from the 1990s on, when governmentality began to limit the freedom which Foucault made the condition of ‘liberalism’. The freedom in liberalism is always and primarily the freedom of private ownership and owners. When the ‘rights of man’ are threatened—by a crisis, a revolt, or some other phenomenon—regimes of governmentality other than liberal governmentality are required in order to ensure their durability. In this way, the problem of ‘governing as little as possible’ first created the conditions for, then gave way to, as has always been the case in the history of capitalism, ever more authoritarian politics. To read The Birth of Biopolitics in light of what is taking place today is to be struck by a certain political naivete, since the parable of ‘liberalism’ always describes, leads to, the same thing: crisis, limitations on democracy and ‘liberal’ freedoms, and the institution of more or less authoritarian regimes according to the intensity of the class struggle to wage in order to maintain the ‘privileges’ of private property.

For Lazzarato, Foucault’s socially-pervasive ‘techniques of biopower’ operating alongside a liberal discourse on rights, freedoms and creative power no longer hold the explanatory merit or epistemologically paradigmatic grasp which they once did, as they fail to explain how post-crisis regimes have responded, i.e. by replacing the means by which the subjugation of bodies is maintained with more direct, centralised and authoritarian power brandishing a deeply moralising discourse.

[T]he current crisis is not only a financial crisis but also a failure of neoliberal governmentality of society. This mode of government founded on business and proprietary individualism has failed. By revealing the nature of power relations, the crisis has led to much more ‘repressive’ and ‘authoritarian’ forms of control, which no longer bother with the rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s of greater ‘freedom’, creativity, and wealth.

Lazzarato notes that under neoliberalism the democratic principle of ‘social rights’ is transformed into an ‘affective environment’ of biopolitical life management or ‘processes of control and subjectivity production’, in which a deeply moralised relation of indebtedness dominates and pervades all transaction between state and beneficiary:

With neoliberalism, the creditor-debtor relationship redefines political power, since the Welfare State not only intervenes in the “biology” of the population (birth, death, illness, risks, etc.), it requires ethico-political work on the self, an individualization involving a mix of responsibility, guilt, hypocrisy, and distrust. When social rights (unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, healthcare, rtc.) are transformed into social debt and private debt, and beneficiaries into debtors whose repayment means adopting prescribed behaviour, subjective relations between “creditor” institutions, which allocate rights, and “debtors”, who benefit from assistance or services, begin to function in a radically different way, just as Marx foresaw.

The reference to Marx is to an early manuscript (‘Comments on James Mill’). In this work, Marx identifies a series of features of the credit system and of the credit-debt relation, which includes the following characterisations:

Mutual dissimulation, hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness are carried to extreme lengths, so that on the man without credit is pronounced not only the simple judgment that he is poor, but in addition a pejorative moral judgement that he possesses no trust, no recognition, and therefore is a social pariah, a bad man, and in addition to his privation, the poor man undergoes this humiliation and the humiliating necessity of having to ask the rich man for credit.


Since, owing to this completely nominal existence of money, counterfeiting cannot be undertaken by man in any other material than his own person, he has to make himself into counterfeit coin, obtain credit by stealth, by lying, etc., and this credit relationship ? both on the part of the man who trusts and of the man who needs trust ? becomes an object of commerce, an object of mutual deception and misuse. Here it is also glaringly evident that distrust is the basis of economic trust; distrustful calculation whether credit ought to be given or not; spying into the secrets of the private life, etc., of the one seeking credit; the disclosure of temporary straits in order to overthrow a rival by a sudden shattering of his credit, etc. The whole system of bankruptcy, spurious enterprises, etc…. As regards government loans, the state occupies exactly the same place as the man does in the earlier example…. In the game with government securities it is seen how the state has become the plaything of businessmen, etc.

On the basis that in this document Marx foresaw something of the cynical and invasive bio-morality inherent to neoliberalism already latent in the credit capitalism of his time, and on the basis of his own investigations while engaged with activism on behalf of precarious workers in France, Lazzarato writes of the violence of the ‘neoliberal’ process by which social rights are transformed into debts:

[The transformation] into debt is part of a long process in which we have witnessed techniques for making a debtor “subject”. Indeed, rights are universal and automatic since they are recognised socially and politically, but debt is administered by evaluating “morality” and involves the individual as well as the work on the self which the individual must undertake. The logic of debt now structures and conditions the process of individualization, a constant of social policies. Each individual is a particular case which must be studied carefully, because, as with a loan application, it is the debtor’s future plans, his style of life, his “solvency” that guarantees reimbursement of the social debt he owes. As with bank credit, rights are granted on the basis of a personal application, following review, after information on the individual’s life, behaviour, and modes of existence has been obtained.

Building critically on the work of Nietzsche and Foucault, Lazzarato identifies the Welfare State under neoliberalism with a form of subjectivation which prompts an individual to produce a certain kind of subjectivity that exists in a state of moral indebtedness and culpability, answerable to the State. These obligations and affects then become entangled in the existential conditions of the individual as they produce and relate to a “self”, such that they are difficult to historicise.

The relationship with the institution always comes down to the user’s “self”. It requires the user/debtor to constantly consider the “self”, to negotiate and compete with oneself. As Nietzsche says, the main purpose of debt lies in its construction of a subject and a conscience, a self that believes in its specific individuality and that stands as guarantor of its actions, its way of life (and not only employment) and takes responsibility for them. The techniques used in the individual interviews, which intrude on one’s private life, that which is most subjective, push the welfare recipient to examine his life, his plans, and their validity. The State and its institutions act on subjectivities, mobilize the “innermost depths of the human heart” in order to orient behaviour.

Nietzsche and Marx converge on the realisation that, through relations of indebtedness, frequent periodic monitoring and practices of evaluation (including self-evaluations) become widespread techniques for governing people’s behaviour. A governmentality of this kind does not control in an absolutely irresistible way, but rather induces in individuals a subjectivity which stands in the shadow of an abstract potential, posited by the State and internalised as its own, which it must always compete with and remain in debt to.

[E]ven in the case where the recipient resists this invasion of privacy, the violence against his person and subjectivity, he is no less troubled by the “work on the self” these institutions oblige him to undertake.

The generalisation of the creditor-debtor relation as a paradigm for all relations—something Lazzarato identifies as a fundamental feature of neoliberalism—thus condemns those in receipt of State assistance to an affective context of insurmountable indebtedness, obligation and constitutive unworthiness. The experience is not merely subjective or paranoid, and indeed is further objectivised by the institutionalised attitude of the State itself and its media representation in ‘conditions of ubiquitous distrust created by neoliberal policies’ furnishing the heart of all social relations with ‘hypocrisy and cynicism’.

In the same way as credit turns trust into distrust, the Welfare State suspects all users, and especially the poorest, of being cheats, of living at society’s expense by taking advantage of public assistance instead of working… In the same way, according to Marx, as credit encroaches on the private life of the person who applies for it by “spying” on him, the Welfare State invites itself into individuals’ private lives in order to control the users’ existence… [Spying] is what welfare agents increasingly do, since underlying their work is “distrust” of the poor, the unemployed, precarious workers, all the potential “cheats” and “profiteers”.

[end of entry]

So there it is. I find these passages resonate deeply with what Alenka Zupancic has to say on ‘bio-morality’ in her book Odd One In: On Comedy, although there is nothing particularly amusing about the paranoia and insecurity emanating from a state department that supposedly attends to social security. Even this term is passée now, the ‘Department for Work and Pensions’ instead de-emphasising the collective nature of the fabric of social cohesion and interdependency in favour of highlighting a depoliticised, individualised labour and the personalised ‘account’ it generates. Zupancic’s claim is that bio-morality fixates or anchors the moralising of the Other in a sort of biological vision of the individual, which she sees as a new from of racism or at least biologist ‘racization’ of individuals. I’m not married to the idea of ‘racization’ which she elaborates, especially since it risks conflating and possibly diffusing existing institutional racism in an over-generalised and impressionist picture, and so I would prefer to see the bio-morality she describes as a kind of ‘moralising biologism’. However, when taken together what Zupancic and Lazzarato describe—as something at work in contemporary political ideology and at large in the media—goes some way to accounting for the attitude and behaviour of some government employees, such as the Jobcentre adviser who angrily insisted that a ‘disgusting’ mother leave the premises merely because she was breastfeeding her infant. Rather than being indignantly infuriated with this story, I can only confirm it as being the tip of the iceberg as far as Jobcentre advisers go. When out of work and signing on myself, I’ve overheard small groups of advisers grouped round a screen in their little cubicles eagerly discussing ways in which such-and-such an ‘unworthy’ claimant can be penalised, including advice to one another on how to exploit loopholes in the wording of official policies.

One doesn’t need ‘conspiracy theories’ or visions of master puppeteers pulling the strings to see how this affective environment works, or how an otherwise probably quite rational person devolves into a cynical Othello tragically suspicious and jealous of even those who possess much less. It’s tempting to simplistically summarise the problem as one of ‘projection’, whereby those in the grip of neoliberal ideology’s valorization of competitiveness as the principle of markets disown their own introjects and characteristics (success through ‘gaming’ behaviour, venality, the performance of ‘reputable’ lies as a way of life) and unable to accept the unbearable sense of inauthenticy that confronting them would unleash, project precisely these characteristics upon an intrinsically unknowable Other.

All this is to miss the objective or social dimension to the distrust which Marx identified as the fulcrum of credit-debt relationships. The distrust, the reduction of the other to a shit of a person, a conniving and disgusting way of life too proximate to the animal and to the biological, is not merely a question of psychological selves disavowing their own functioning, but of a social relation which in an important sense precedes the psychological selves which then locate themselves within it. The adviser in the Jobcentre no doubt felt that the woman she was interviewing ‘owed’ it to her to be something more than a mother, that she ‘owed’ it to herself too, and ‘should have’ (the moral or deontic element) found a way to disguise the human neediness of a baby behind some kind of stoical professional veneer. This is the dimension of debt which Lazzarato, after Foucault and Marx, helps to elaborate. If the other is dehumanised then it is because this social relation is an inherently dehumanising one. And you only have to think briefly about debt-credit and its logic of prospective evaluation to reach the same conclusion that the young Marx did: it’s a loss of human scale, or human measure. We can go beyond this ‘humanist’ conclusion though; it’s too obvious to say that the debtor is reduced to a status of a pet, an object of enjoyment/disgust. It’s not particularly more penetrating to say that the creditor has also lost their humanity. All this was already present in the early Marx’s concept of alienation. At some point we have to move, as he did, beyond this also-moralising frame and talk in more systemic or structural terms, about the social form and the struggle of classes within that form for consciousness of their own position and, ultimately, ownership of the means to produce their own lives. This takes us beyond the scope Lazzarato has set for himself in The Making of the Indebted Man—he leans on Marx but never really takes it further—but as far as a richly descriptive investigation into the details and the subjectivity of neoliberalism goes, it remains a surprisingly good work. There is certainly a pleasure, ostensibly the same as in observational humour, in having everyday experiences of asymmetrical power, often humiliating and frustrating, broken down into their constituent moments and thoroughly described. There is a minor rush in being able to articulate exactly how it was done, like discovering the ‘trick’ behind some illusionist act. I worry however that this kind of critical descriptive work is not enough, far too ‘sociological’ and far too commonplace; the Freudian platitude that making the unconscious mechanism conscious is in itself the sought-after intervention doesn’t really wash here. What we want is an inventive exploration of ways in which we can fight these situations both individually and collectively.

One final note: persistently lurking in the background while reading The Indebted Man was the spectre of Martin Heidegger’s own Schuldigkeit, plaguing the reading with the sensation that as human beings (or as dasein, at least) we can’t really help feeling indebted, that it’s part of our condition to never be able to coincide with what is potential in us. What is interesting is the way Lazzarato addresses this ‘existential’ dimension obliquely, although in name, and ambiguously. The ‘affective environment’ created by creditor-debtor relations can fool us into believing that it is ‘existential’, that it is a given of our condition, just as one of the ways in which the capitalist social relation reproduces itself is through the ideological claim that ’twas ever thus and ever thus shall be’. The question lingers, however, of how we might have the capacity to feel such debt, and thus to become indebted, and this is the nagging thought that a dalliance with Heidegger leaves as a philosophical residue that can’t be simply wiped away— the structure of dasein is such that it is always ‘worried’ about the way in which it is oriented as a trajectory in the world, trailing behind while reaching ahead. If temporality (or ‘Time’) is the essence of Being then one can say that dasein is always ontologically insecure, and this can damage the claim that a certain historical social relation is to blame for the great unease which we currently feel. If you accept this as a transhistorical fact of human existence, however, you can still argue that the historical creditor-debtor relationship, with its inherently distented, delayed and deferred structure, attempts (perhaps successfully) to ‘hijack’ this dynamic, and that in doing so it simultaneously gains the appearance of a transhistorical given itself. Lazzarato does not say as much, but there are indications in the text that this is what he is thinking.


Lazzarato, M., (2012) The Making of the Indebted Man, Semiotext(e), New York
Marx, K., (1823) ‘Comments on James Mill?Elements d’economie politique Translated by J. T. Parisot?Paris, 1823’ in Marx, K. (2005) Karl Marx, Friederick Engels: Collected Works, vol. 3, Marx and Engels: 1843-1844, trans. Jack Cohen, International Publishers, New York