Struggles for a collective counter-accounting

A review essay on Miranda Joseph’s Debt to Society:Accounting for Life under Capitalism published in  Dialogues in Human Geography 6(3).

In her acute, apt, and thought-provoking study of the ‘uneven distribution of accountability’, Miranda Joseph is keen, early on, to reject a limited and limiting perspective she associates with critics like David Graeber, one that would approach all forms of quantification and quantitative abstraction as necessarily violent. Rather, she notes that accounting and measurement are always historically situated sites of struggle over how the abstract is to be made concrete and “how the concrete is made abstract”. Without ever losing sight of the tremendous violence of these processes (nor of the way this violence travels through the well-worn channels of racial, gendered, and class-based power), Joseph reminds us that neoliberal capitalism is the context of today’s ‘struggles over measure’ and thus we must be rigorously historically specific in our analysis of them.

Further, Joseph invites us to imagine what a ‘collective counter-accounting’ (90) might look like. This is the vital question of how ‘an alternative “we” might be constituted not beyond measurement but rather through its appropriation and transformation’ (140). She intriguingly suggests that ‘instead of replacing accounting with accountability, we might supplement accounting with accountability, push accounting to its limits as we also stake a claim to goals, to values, not currently articulated within the regimes of accounting to which we are subject’ (142).

Indeed, the book continuously challenges us to dwell in the messy, fraught, and charged terrain of struggles over measure, an argument that crescendos (ambivalently, self-critically) in the book’s final chapter where Joseph calls on her academic readership to attend to the conditions and contradictions of struggles over measure in the neoliberal, ‘interdisciplinary’ university. Reflecting on her own troubled experience as chair of the University of Arizona Strategic Planning and Budgeting Advisory Committee, Joseph provocatively and importantly asks how we can move such struggles beyond efforts to ‘expand our value’ within a given system of measures ‘but to imagine a form of accounting for justice, on behalf of justice’ (148). At stake would be a fundamental challenge to ‘the prescriptive normative curve’, one that might ‘articulate populations and hail subjects through an alternative statistical imaginary’. (118)

And yet such maneuvers are only hinted at or referenced opaquely. I want to identify a few such procedures as a means to extrapolate and open up Joseph’s theoretical arguments by briefly examining activist initiatives in Greece and Spain in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the massive upsurge of movements in those countries since 2011.

Let us begin with the most formal: in April 2015 the newly elected leftist Greek SYRIZA-led coalition government assigned its Parliamentary President, Zoe Konstantopoulou, to strike a Truth Committee on Public Debt tasked with studying and scrutinizing the sources of the nation’s financial obligations, determining which were legitimate, and presenting a legal and moral exploration of the options of default or nonrepayment. This report was inspired by similar efforts in France, led by the nongovernmental group Association pour la Taxation des Transactions financiéres et pour l’Action Citoyenne (ATTAC) in 2014 and by the Ecuadorian government who, in 2008, issued a similar report before declaring nonrepayment in the same year. The Greek committee’s preliminary report was released in June of 2015, only a month before the nation’s momentous referendum that saw 60% of the population vote to reject the austerity agenda being foisted on them by the ‘Troika’ institutions (International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission) in the name of bailing out transnational lenders, mainly banks and financiers. The report concluded that, that most of Greece’s debt was ‘illegitimate, illegal, odious, and unsustainable’, no doubt emboldening Greek voters to register their dissent at the ballot box. Greek and international mass media and elite opinion marched lockstep behind the neoliberal banner and insisted that Greeks had only themselves to blame for a crisis that had led to hospital closures, staggering pension and wage cuts, skyrocketing unemployment, and a mass exodus of young and skilled people. By contrast, the preliminary report systematically argued that Greece’s debt was accrued and expanded through forces that operated well beyond democratic control and unambiguously against the common good, and was for the most part incurred under conditions of duress, manipulation, corruption, or opportunism.

In this sense, the audit of the nation’s debt was a form of actuarial theater aimed not merely at correcting the ledgers but fundamentally and publically challenging the criteria, meaning, and legitimacy of the measurements themselves. The report did not simply attempt to transfer blame onto the creditors but to challenge the underlying neoliberal evaluative assumptions that underwrite the global financial order. Greece’s disastrous debt, it argued, was illegitimate because the loaned monies only ever enriched transnational lenders or the country’s corrupt elite and therefore should not be repaid. Further, forced repayment would threaten an even deeper and more important set of values: the Greek people’s rights to a livelihood, health, education, and a decent standard of living. In this way, the report sought to, in Joseph’s terms, ‘imagine a form of accounting for justice, on behalf of justice’ and marshal an ‘alternative “we”…through [measure’s] appropriation and transformation’. We might even be tempted to say that the Greek state, under leftist leadership, attempted to cohere a ‘we’, an imagined community, from the shared condition of exploitation by debt, to make debt the common condition of politics itself when all other forms of politics appeared foreclosed by austerity.

All for naught. This is not the place to recount the about-face of the SYRIZA government in the wake of the referendum’s success, except to say that among the causalities of the subsequent schisms within SYRIZA was the Truth Commission, whose preliminary report was to be its last. According to Former Finance Minister and Trade Negotiator (and ‘erratic Marxist’ political economist who also quit the party after its capitulation) Yanis Varoufakis, the sorts of arguments and rationale he presented, and which were echoed in the report, were unintelligible in Brussels, Berlin, and elsewhere as the Troika forced the country to adopt further austerity measures, in spite of the untold damage they are already doing to the country’s social fabric.

Perhaps part of the problem was that SYRIZA’s audit, like its general political strategy, sought to leverage change from above through the state’s orchestration of experts and academics, rather than using the process of auditing as a means to educate and mobilize some sort of autonomous and grassroots base. A contrast might be drawn between this approach and that of the Spanish Platforma Auditoría Ciudadana de la Deuda (PACD, or Citizens’ Debt Audit Platform). Also born out of the Indignados movement of 2011, Platforma Auditoría Ciudadana de la Deuda (PACD) assembled grassroots activists around the country to develop comprehensive report on the nation’s financial obligations, which likewise were largely incurred ways the citizen-auditors decry as illegal, illegitimate, odious, and unsustainable, never having served the society which has made to pay their price via austerity.

Notably, the PACD is made up entirely of grassroots activists who are largely distrustful of working with even the most left-wing parties. Their process is remarkably transparent and open. They emerge from and perpetuate the effervescence of movement activity that has flourished in the country in the wake of the 15M uprisings, most of which share a resolutely horizontalist, grassroots and extra-institutional approach, advocating forms direct citizen engagement and participatory democracy over and against representative schemes.

Indeed, PACD, in addition to preparing a series of reports outlining the objectives and processes, the workings of the Spanish banking sector, the profligacy of the country’s military spending, and the forensics of the bank rescue program, has recently spawned over 40 autonomous Observatoria Ciudadano Municipal (OCM; Municipal Citizens’ Observatories). These OCMs provide a theoretical, practical, and digital platform for urban citizens to collectively demand and collect information on municipal budgets, spending, and third-party contracts and develop platforms for action for better allocation of resources and against corruption and privatization. The OCMs attempt to mobilize citizens around their self-organized capacity to audit, to themselves with their collective power by becoming an actuarial counter-power. In this, they not only seek to correct the arithmetic of the global debt regime’s power, but to build, brick-by-brick, an accounting for other values through a democratic process.

The central tension that cuts across all these grassroots auditing initiatives is to what extent they can transcend their role as a vehicle of critique and their tactical orientation towards merely calling for greater accountability from those in power. How might they, instead or in addition, come to account for and articulate power otherwise? While the auditing activities of these groups represent a call for accountability, their organization, structure, and operations implicitly call for, and also explicitly model, a very different model of value and accounting. Here we may find the seeds of a fabled diagonalism, which combines the spirit and process of horizontalist organization with an honest and pragmatic accounting for the durability and perhaps the importance of vertical forms of governance and governmentality. The development of such a strategy or set of political coordinates would seem to be among the most important tasks today for those of us who still believe time remains to choose socialism over barbarism. And here Joseph’s approach might prove an invaluable contribution. Her book develops an expansive set of theoretical and intellectual exercises that open our imagination to the possibility that today’s forms of anti-austerity resistance and revolt must, in some sense, account for their own power to change the world.