The following roundtable, presented here in preliminary, unedited form, will be published in a special issue of The Journal of Cultural Economy on the topic Finance Capital and the Ghosts of Empire, later in 2023.
For the refusal of unpayable debts: An artists’ roundtable
In January of 2022, four artists were asked to respond to the topic of unpayable debts as part of the transmediale festival’s This Is Not Anarchy, This Is Chaos symposium in Berlin. That event culminated a pandemic year of online events, public exhibitions and collective investigations on the theme “For Refusal.”
The panel on unpayable debts, moderated by Max Haiven and curated by Dani Admiss, asked four artists to dwell on the tension between refusal and compromise as it related to financialization. The written contributions collected here represent extensions and expansions of the artists’ contributions to that event.
The four artists were:
Ahmed Isamaldin a visual artist-designer and blogger from Khartoum, who studied physics at the University of Khartoum, graphic design and photography in Cairo, and Visual Communication at Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin. His practice focuses on immigration and psychology, the processes of revolutions, de-colonial design, and technology. He has participated in various exhibitions between Khartoum, Cairo, and Berlin, and is currently studying new media at UDK.
Dele Adeyemo, an architect, artist and critical urban theorist who explores the underlying forces driving the production of space within the racialising logic of everyday logistical processes that orchestrate patterns of life across the planet. Combining drawing, film, movement and installation, his work mobilises the spatial and architectural qualities of black aesthetic practices to rupture imaginaries of logistical power, and celebrate the liberatory spaces fashioned by black life in Africa and the global diaspora. His work has recently presented work at the2019 Lagos Biennial,the 2020 Istanbul Design Biennial, London’s Camden Art Centre 2021, and the 2022 Sao Paulo Architecture Biennial. His current project, Wey Dey Move: imagining new worlds through dance and masquerade, is a video art installation designed and curated by Dele Adeyemo at Het Nieuwe Instituut (16 July 2022 – 8 Jan 2023) exploring the overlapping relationships between the spiritual, ecological, and social lifeworlds at the centre of the megacity of Lagos. He is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London and he leads the Architecture Design Studio with Ibiye Camp and Dámaso Randulfe at the London’s Royal College of Art.
Bahar Noorizadeh an artist, writer and filmmaker. Her research examines the historical advance of speculative activity and its derivative politics in art, urban life, finance and economics. Noorizadeh is the founder of Weird Economies, an online art platform that traces economic imaginaries extraordinary to financial arrangements of our time. Her work has appeared at the German Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennial 2021, Tate Modern Artists’ Cinema Program, transmediale Festival, DIS Art platform, Berlinale Forum Expanded, and Geneva Biennale of Moving Images among others. Noorizadeh has contributed essays to e-flux Architecture, Journal of Visual Culture, and forthcoming anthologies from Duke University Press and Sternberg Press. She is pursuing her work as a PhD candidate in Art at Goldsmiths University of London, where she holds a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship.
Gary Zhexi Zhang an artist and writer. His recent projects have focused on financial fictions and weird temporalities in the context of catastrophe. His last solo exhibition, Cycle 25, documented objects at the boundaries of speculation and nature, including natural disasters, scam nations and cosmic economies. As a researcher, he has held fellowships at the Berggruen Institute in L.A. and Sakiya – Art Science Agriculture in Ramallah. He is a co-founder of design studio Foreign Objects, which received the Mozilla Creative Media Award in 2019. For money, he works as a “strategist”. Recent publications include Against Reduction: Designing a Human Future with Machines (MIT Press, 2021) and Catastrophe Time! (Strange Attractor Press, forthcoming).
Questions (Max Haiven)
To these artists, Max Haiven posed three broad questions:
Unpayable debts from above and below
I would like to open our panel with the question of how we might refuse the conditions of what Denise Ferreira da Silva (2022), calls “unpayable debt,” which she defines as the way certain people or whole populations are (1) encumbered by “debts that are not theirs to pay,” (2) but which they are forced nonetheless to repay, (3) but which they cannot possibly repay.
Here we might think of the debts forced disproportionately on racialized people in the United States in the lead up to the bursting of the subprime housing bubble in 2008. Or we might think of the unpayable debt of Puerto Rico that has licensed an imposed American administration to unleash a vicious austerity regime. We can also consider the way our world has been shaped by over 70 years of extortionate debts brokered by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that have ensnared formally independent nations of the Global South in a new wave of neocolonial wealth extraction. Here we might take Haiti’s odious debt to France for liberating itself from slavery as the paradigmatic example, or the debts imposed by European powers on China at the end of the Opium Wars, or through which nations and rulers around the world were subordinated to Empire through similar debt regimes.
For da Silva, the concept of unpayable debt helps us account for the way colonial, racial and capitalist power are deeply entangled in the history of the world we share. It is between these three co-constituting forces—capitalism, colonialism, and the construction of racial regimes—that value is produced, not only in the economic sense but also in the ethical and cultural sense. As David Graeber’s (2011) influential Debt: The First 5000 Years argued a decade ago now, the wicked magic of debt is that it not only places the person who is said to owe that debt under a material obligation, but also a spiritual one: they are not only a financial pariah but a moral one.
Da Silva’s point is wider than Graeber’s in some ways: she is not only interested in how economic power justifies itself through cultural and moral narratives. She is also interested in how certain populations and people are cast as, we might say, “always already” indebted. For instance, in a world built on the models devised and that reflect white supremacist, elite European ideals of capitalist modernity, non-white people and non-Europeans are cast as perpetually and irredeemably “in arrears,” an old financial term that implies both a failure to meet expected payments and also perpetually “behind.” Here the arrears are not only financial, they indicate a mythical position in a linear, teleological march of progress in which some are destined to always be “catching up” or “lagging behind.” Here, the politics of colonial debts that keep nations of the Global South enmeshed in a world of extraction and exploitation dovetail with persistent ideological ideas that suggest that the South and its peoples are destined to always be dependent, always lag behind, always be in debt to the North for the gift of civilization.
But wait: another unpayable debt haunts this ledger. Here I am speaking of the unpayable debts that go unacknowledged and unspoken. These are the phantasmatic debts for the monumental crimes on which today’s global economic system is built. Here I am speaking of the unpaid reparations for the transatlantic slave trade, for the wealth looted during colonialism, for the theft of Indigenous lands. To this we would have to add the intergenerational damages, some of which are incalculable. How does one even begin to account for genocide, not only for the millions of lives lost but irreplicable forms of knowledge and culture? To this we might also add that revolutionary debt that living generations owe to those who came and struggled before, to the dreams of the vanquished, a debt, Walter Benjamin (1969) warns, that “cannot be settled cheaply.”
And so, to come a step closer to my opening question to you all: I am interested in if you would be willing to locate your work in between two kinds of unpayable debt, which I outline in my own work on capitalism and revenge (Haiven 2020). On the one hand, we have those “debts from above” that everyone acknowledges but that everyone already knows are unpayable: those debts that operate purely as a form of extraction of wealth or a vehicle for exploitation in our world. (And here I don’t only mean financial debts: perhaps all social power relations, even non-capitalist ones, are based on the idea that someone owes something unpayable to someone more powerful). On the other hand, we have those “debts from below” that are not officially sanctioned, that those with wealth and power deny are real, that the oppressed and exploited have no means to enforce, and yet which are nonetheless very real.
How would you situate your work or your thinking between these two kinds of unpayable debts? And more specifically, how do you see the work of artistic and collective refusal reflected in this positioning? (And I also want to encourage you to refuse the terms of this very question if it does not suit you).
Aesthetics of (debt) refusal
I want to follow up and ask you each to deepen your contribution by developing two lines of thought. In a moment I will ask you about what I hope you will allow me to call an economics of refusal, by which I mean the ways people can, against the current of the neocolonial racial capitalist market, begin to define their own economies, their own forms of value, their own modes of cooperation.
But before we speak of the economics of refusal, I want to ask you each for your thoughts on the aesthetics of refusal. By this term I mean to open a few doors for our common thinking. In the first place, I am thinking here of an aesthetics of refusal on the more elemental layer of the senses. Within a landscape of unpayable debts, what is the common feeling of refusal? What are the affects of economic refusal today, the joys and sorrows, the terror and the wonder, the ambivalence and disenchantment? Or, if you prefer, we might speak of the artistic layer: what do you see as the role of the artist in the refusal of unpayable debts-from-above, or in the calling forward of the ghosts of debts-from-below that are not yet paid? I am also here interested in how we can challenge ourselves to think about the aesthetic beyond the hegemony of the visual: how might a refusal of unpayable debt be expressed in sound, or in collective movement? And we might also ask the question of if and how emergent technologies are helping and/or hindering our ability to come to terms with unpayable debts.
If neither of those approaches appeal to you, allow me to propose another aesthetic layer: what might the role of this thing we call “art” be in challenging what Jacques Rancière (2004) calls the “distribution of the sensible” around unpayable debts? In other words, what is the role of the parafictional, the weird, the uncanny/unheimlich or the absurd in refusing the “reality principle” that stands behind our world of poisonous or poisoned obligations?
Economies of (debt) refusal
I am curious about what it might mean for groups and communities to refuse to accept an unpayable debt-from-above. Or, alternatively, how might insisting on an unpayable debt-from-below—say, for reparations for the crimes of colonialism or the actions of a comfortably retired dictator—challenge the dominant neocolonial racial capitalist economy that depends on the silencing of these debts? I am also interested here in the less triumphant but more ambiguous ways that people are creating new economies of mutual aid and common bonds of obligation (generative, horizontal debts, perhaps) within, against and beyond the overarching global debt-from-above regimes. I wonder about the potential of the debtors of the world, the “wretched of the ledger”, in whole or in part, to assemble in new configurations to cooperate differently. And I am also interested in the power of the imagination here: how can envisioning parafictional, mythoreal or potential economies call something new into existence? And what, if any, might the role of emergent technologies be in helping us organize common life differently? Dare I mention blockchains, which have recently been proposed as solutions to… nearly everything?
By “economy” here I realize that we are working with an artificial term, developed in the European crucible of capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism, that absurdly insists on separating matters of wealth from questions of community and cosmology. And so here I would invite you to also take this term “economy of refusal” as something of a placeholder for a much larger question of how people might organize and provision themselves, not only on the material layer but also all those other layers of what it means to be human.
In response to your provocations, Max, let me add one type of unpayable debt worth mentioning if we want to understand the cycle of debt extraction: the “imperial debt” that, as David Graeber (2011) notes, is incurred by states in the course of securing the tools of violence that are then used to maintain the unpayable “debts-from-above” which you described. I am thinking particularly about the debt of the US empire, brokered through treasury bonds sold to petroleum rentier states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, which started accumulating in the 1970s. Ever since that time, these debts have financed the expansion of the American military machine and the state department’s ability to offer friendly regimes around the world what is euphemized as “lethal aid.”
In this way, imperial debt helps finance the repressive power of the world’s other debt guardians, the ones who maintain autocratic and tyrannical orders in countries in the Global South, who continue to transfer billions of dollars to the Global north to repay odious debts. Such a paradigm should remind us of what Walter Rodney (2018) identified as the “Iron-Slave-Cycle” of 19th century west Africa, where enslaved people were exchanged for guns and other weapons, empowering some African groups to preserve local forms of tyrany and extend the slave market through violence.
I was born in Sudan in 1989. That year, the external public debt reached $15 billion US. By the time I left Sudan in 2018, the debt had reached $51 billion. Yet of course this $39 billion dollar growth did not reflect the cost of me and my generation’s education, my access to health care, or my tickets to art galleries. The debt originated from private lenders, backed by the oil industry and western countries, who supported Sudan because of its pro-”West” stance in the Cold War. Or to be more accurate, it helped finance local tyrants to murder communists and so eliminate the threat of socialist revolution, as also occurred around the world. In the following decades, the increase of debt was due entirely to interest on the principal. This fictitious debt, which did nothing to improve our lives, is one that we will still have to repay (see Gallopin et al. 2021).
In this sense, debt is not only the theme of my artistic practice, it is the foundation of my very existence and has shaped the material realities that have allowed me to realize my artistic work.
In my last research-driven project, I collected what I came to call “objects of austerity” from uprisings in several indebted countries between 2011 and 2019. Using augmented reality and virtual reality platforms, I was able to link these objects to data I collected and analyzed about the role of the IMF and World Bank in those countries’ political crisis. This data included information extracted from the IMF and WB communications with debtor state governments as well as the wording of the infamous Structural Adjustment Programs. The project aims to show how the political uprisings represent responses to the austerity measures demanded by international institutions, and how they are implemented through the violence of police states.
To develop that project, I traced the political relations underlying forms of collective refusal in indebted societies, for example, the refusal of structural adjustment programs or the refusal of the austerity imposed by enforcers either from the IMF, who mobilized the weapons of policy, including the selling off of collectively-owned lands and the privatization of services, or in the form of local tyrants, wielding those murderous weapons exported by the arms industries in creditor countries themselves. The data gathered for “objects of austerity” demonstrate those organization’s stark ideological orientation: reduction of government deficit through cuts in public spending (cost recovery programmes), higher interest rates, liberalisation of foreign exchange rules and trade, rationalisation and privatisation of public and para-state companies, the general deregulation of the economy, including liberalisation of foreign investment regulations, efforts to make labour markets more “flexible” by attacking workers’ rights, the imposition of wage “flexibility,” and the abolition of price controls and food subsidies. As Koenraad Bogaert (2020) demonstrates, anti-debt movements around the world were and are responding to all these impositions and such commonality can help reveal the aesthetics of a common struggle to shape a new world.
My investigation of this aesthetic of resistance begins with the Haitian revolution and the struggle of the Haitian people in subsequent decades and centuries to overcome the odious debt forced on them by imperialist countries to repay their former French “owners” for their own liberation. This debt continues to haunt the Haitian people. By contrast, in 1960, even with the moral justification of an empire in ruins and as the world was moving into a new, post-colonial stage, the IMF disregarded pressure by the UN and global civil society and agreed to issue millions of US dollars to both Portugal and apartheid South Africa to preserve their colonial projects (see Toussaint and Bond 2022).
But in the course of this project I came up against limits. Artistic practices may indeed be able to alter or transform our consciousness of debt and free us from its false ethical claims, yet it cannot challenge the institutions that maintain these debts and enforce their payment. Conversely, if art is characterized by the unlimited possibilities of imagination, and if these lay the foundation for potentially alternative worlds, then perhaps the kinds of anti-debt activism and uprisings that I have investigated, which aim to dismantle debt institutions, could also be considered artistic practices? Maybe if we can flip the colonial map of knowledge and alter the path of learning, we could imagine new practices and new politics of collective debt refusal.
If so, what are the aesthetics of debt resistance? In my investigations into the way the politics of debt plays out in today’s social movements, I witnessed the gathering in Tahrir square, watched videos from Chile and have joined organising groups from Sudan. In these struggles I have seen the creation of low tech tools for solidarity as well as the appropriation of high tech as political and artistic practice. These have included the banging of cooking pots to defy the nightly curfews in Chile, a kind of decentralized, mobile, collective sound installation. In Iraq, the resculpting of empty oil barrels that symbolise defiance against austerity. So too does dancing in clouds of tear gas, or the creation of necklaces from its empty canisters.
Perhaps these movements are experiencing a moment of defeat or perhaps, even worse, they are transforming into a new breed of debt guardians. But we can still learn something new from these processes of negation that emerge within, against and beyond a world shaped by imperial debt.
My work explores the centrality of the Gulf of Guinea to the historical and contemporary transformation of capital, so when we speak of unpayable debts I am conscious that we have to speak about Africa. Throughout the last five centuries, the continent’s populations have continually been conceived of as a wellspring of human capital, and not only in terms of the transatlatic slave trade that took so many people from its shores. Since the emergence of a globalized economy in the late 20th Century and the unfolding economic and demographic stagnation of developed nations, Africa is increasingly providing a new frontier in the capitalist expansion of consumer populations. In considering the question of unpayable debts, I therefore specifically want to think about the role that Africa’s debts have played and continue to play in structuring the geography of our global capitalist system.
When we trace the dynamics of global capital in West Africa what emerges is a narrative that runs counter to mainstream developmentalist discourses that frame Africa as a space that simply follows the trajectory Euro-American modernity. Instead, I would argue that legacies of slavery and colonialism have made Africa intensely vulnerable to the rise of neo-coloinal and neo-liberal debt arrangements in the past fourty years. Africa can therefore be understood as a site of experimentation in neo-liberal policy that is continually re-constituted by the global economy, producing an accelerated reality of conditions that are now emergent everywhere.
This comes into sharp focus when looking at Nigeria and its largest municipality, Lagos State, the most populous metropolitan region on the continent. The Nigerian state’s prowess reached its height in the late 70s with the emergence of OPEC and the soaring price of oil. After the boom, Nigeria’s economy and state infrastructure crumbled. The devaluation of the domestic currency, the liberalization of markets and the structural adjustments programmes that followed, at the behest of international lenders, decimated the industrial sector and small scale domestic firms. Such policies produced a geometric expansion in the rate of unemployment, which today sits at around 33 percent, with youth unemployment at an incredible 53 percent. With such dramatic reductions in the viability of work across the country, people of working age have flocked to metropolitan centres like Lagos in the hope of finding more stable income. This issue is compounded when we consider that Nigeria has the highest proportion of youth of any nation in the world, with around seventy percent of the population under the age of thirty. This trend has profound implications on the spatial structure of capitalism and the new subjects of capital’s attention. Indeed, even as the numbers of unemployed multiply, and despite the existing fragile economic environment, global capital seeks to develop consumer markets in Nigeria in anticipation that the country’s youthful demographics will become increasingly more productive.
Capital’s wager is exemplified in a wordless 135-second fashion film produced in 2019 by Nigeria’s leading bank, GTB, which aims to celebrate and appeal to an African youth culture.
The film begins with a calm aerial pan over Lagos. In the foreground, the city’s islands, connected by a network of motorways, are impossibly deserted. The rapidly expanding population of the megalopolis along with its famous congestion are all eerily absent, a sight unseen prior to the Covid lockdowns.
The film sparks to life with a lively electro afro-beat. Scene after scene produces apparitions of an African haute couture, epitomized by several characters dancing on or within the city’s infrastructures of circulation. Appearing in empty locations that would usually be teeming with the flow of bodies and commodities: highway overpasses, shipping container terminals, streetscapes, and public transport vehicles, these fashion spirits recall the terrific force and eccentric movements of the African masquerade.
At the climax of the short film, whose structure is reminiscent of a music video, the scenes of empty streets give way to vivid depictions of the hustle and bustle of the actual city. Ambient sounds of crowded buses, jostling markets and busy streetscapes enter the soundtrack. We are encouraged to realize that these fantastic costumes and dances earlier in the video were, in fact, a window into the imagination of urban youths as they daydream while going about their everyday business, dressed not in fabulous regalia but modern streetwear.
With the closing caption “Fashion is Freedom”, GTBank’s film makes the simple statement that personal style is a route to free yourself from the chaos and stresses of the city, positioning the bank as a financial institution that can be a partner to achieving that dream.
Here, we see the aspirations of big finance to connect with an African youth. The film is fresh and exciting and marks a significant departure from tradition. Now banks desire to incorporate young, street-level consumers previously seen as unreliable and insignificant debtors.
But, in fact, this is not an entirely new story. Since the formation of transatlantic slavery, African consumers have been central to the creation and transformation of our world system. European traders went to great lengths to develop merchandise that would appeal to African consumers, including textiles (mostly sourced from their South Asian colonies), ornamental items and specialized weaponry. Often, these trade goods were sold to African merchants and traders on credit, the better to facilitate the extraction of African people for enslavement. In recent years there has been a growing appreciation that the transatlantic slave trade and modern financial institutions grew together in an entangled relation. Less discussed is how the production of an African consumer of global products, fuelled by credit, was crucial to the supply of enslaved labor. Indeed, as Ian Baucom (2005, 89) summarizes in Spectres of the Atlantic: “credit didn’t only follow the slave trade, enabling the purchase of slaves. Credit also produced slaves by creating a class of debtors whose bodies or whose relations’ bodies functioned as their ‘guarantee’ of last resort.”
Since the era of transatlantic slavery, the geography of West Africa has not only been continually reconstituted as a new frontier for capitalist exploitation. The more profound effect has been the production of perpetually indebted populations who’s bodies underwrite capitalism’s globalizing network. Even after the abolition of the slave trade, a web of debt and dependence on imported consumer goods underscored the European extraction of palm oil, ivory, rubber, oil and other commodities. Africa and Africans have been central to the world economy since its inception. This centrality is not necessarily purely in terms of the overall purchasing power or debt. It stems from the way its populations became the test subject for relations of debt bondage.
Today, this trend continues. A 2010 McKinsey’s report, Lions on the Move, makes the case that Africa’s fastest-growing and young urban population means that, “global investors and businesses ought to be focusing on Africa as the next frontier of growth.”
Yet a country like Nigeria has, for decades, been compelled to export its oil and labor whilst importing value-added commodities and expertise, a relation of what Samir Amin called “unequal exchange” that maintains the country in a state of perpetual (under)development. Here as elsewhere, value is transferred from periphery to center. Emerging generations of Nigerians are burdened by a trade gap that can never be closed, compounded by neoliberal loan arrangements that create and renew debts that can never be repaid. One result is a super-dispossessed under-employed population of urban youth, who survive largely in the informal economy. However this condition has produced an interesting paradox that points to the potential for change.
As early as the 60’s, the Nigerian Marxist thinker Eskor Toyo observed that the nation’s liberatory potential would come not from a traditionally-conceived workers’ revolt, but from the dispossessed peasant classes, who had little to lose but much to gain. Since that time, the global conditions of debt have drawn millions of Nigerians to move to cities. With Lagos receiving an estimated two thousand new inhabitants each day, many of whom immediately enter the ranks of the unemployed urban youth, might this trend in urbanization be producing a super-dispossessed population with an unintended revolutionary potential?
In the aftermath of the global wave of the Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the public murder of George Flyod at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, the protests of Nigerian youths, both in that country and across the global Nigerian diaspora gained momentum. The energy of the youth that came out onto the streets during the rainy season of 2020 to animate the #EndSars grassroots movement against police brutality shook the Nigerian establishment to its core. The catalyst for this movement was the brutality, intimidation and extra judicial killings perpetrated by an arm of Nigerian law enforcement known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). But, quickly, the demands and spirit of the protests expanded and mobilizations became a much wider refusal of the corrupt system that put SARS in place. While elites could perhaps accept a protest against a specific police unit, this broader agenda was unacceptable because the protesters’ refusal of corruption had, inadvertently, become a movement of mass refusal of a much broader political and economic system of obligation and dependency. These protests gathered momentum internally and on a global scale as the collaboration between local Nigerian youths and those in the diaspora began to expand. Diaspora youths living in the West or between both geographies sent campaigners money and reposted on their social media feeds violent incidents as well as information about rallies and as with Black Lives Matter, celebrities, musicians and public figures with large followings lended their voices to multiply the call for change. Though perhaps the structural relations of debt were not explicitly articulated by the movement, by spotlighting the embedded corruption of the country’s elite’s, the young protagonists were in fact creating a broad diasporic coalition and mass movement to rebel against a system of transnational debt obligations that put the Nigerian ruling class in place and has continued to shape the country since, that has resulted in an economy with such poor prospects for the youth.
In the face of such a dynamic coalition of local and diasporic actors calling for change, Nigeria’s ruling class calculated that extreme measures were necessary to stop the movement dead in its tracks. At the Lekki Tollgate of the 20th October 2020, at least 12 people were killed when a paramilitary government unit opened fire on the peaceful protest, putting an end to the #EndSars movement. However, the state’s recourse to this spectacular violence–a violence so callous and shameless that it recalled the actions of bygone military regimes–only highlighted the fact that a new antagonistic consciousness has awakened in Africa: that of the precarious urban youth.
As global capitalism transforms, the balance between a precarious urban youth and an imperialist-feudal-comprador elite becomes increasingly fraught. The success of movements that refuse the frontiers fashioned by capital might therefore hinge on bridging the unbridgeable gap created by the economic mechanism of unequal exchange through the emergent diasporic coalitions between the Global North and South that engage the spirit of these growing populations of dispossessed urban youth.
I want to foreground the word weird, as a concept underlying some of the work I’m involved with at the moment, namely the online project Weird Economies. It can be seen as a site for discussions around unorthodox and radical economic practices in a post-disciplinary space as well as an archiving and programming space, and a knowledge infrastructure.
I will discuss three figurations of the weird, like the three wayward or weird sisters in Macbeth, in relation to finance capitalism and the debt regime. Indebtedness could also be understood as the inherent historical and intergenerational interdependence of beings–human, non-human and more-than-human. A political promise that, as dancer and sociologist Randy Martin (Martin 2016, 190) writes, can be a means for populations to rehearse and practice the social. The socialization of debt has been stifled in the past century as the totalizing reign of finance came to render debt an individual burden. Besides strategies of refusal, against our subjection to individual debt, the question of how to recover, maintain, and imagine practices of social indebtedness still looms large in the horizon.
What is investigated here, built on the work of many before, is how to leverage a politics of risk and indebtedness that reclaims these categories as generative of emancipatory common practices.
Mark Fisher (2016, 8) describes the allure of the weird and the eerie to be a “fascination for the outside.” Over the course of modernism, two entities become emblematic of a fascination with the outside of time: finance and art. In the past couple centuries, capitalist economics-qua-finance has sped up its perverse quest to capture and control this exteriority. The totalizing urge to capture these realms beyond the present, for art and finance alike, have long been aligned with the enlightenment subject’s promethean project.
In the course of the 20th century, economic debates across the socialist-capitalist divide commonly perceived the market as a static information machine. Early neoliberal ideologues vouched for the market as a high-speed abstract super-calculator, free of excessive management and top-down supervision. In response, the socialists hailed the newly invented computers that could outdo the market’s processing speed.
The promissory dimension of economic organization is often left out of these accounts that reduce economics to an accounting problem. What’s regularly dismissed from the critiques of the neoliberal doctrine is how the question of futurity was addressed, and augmented in Friedrich Hayek’s later work until it reached its occult status: It was not knowledge but the absence of knowledge—the ontological impossibility of accessing this knowledge in advance—that underlies economic activity (Hayek 1952).
The economists who took this challenge to heart emerged primarily out of the Cowles commission based at the University of Chicago. Following a more orthodox liberal philosophy, Cowles was the breeding ground for the contemporary American economic ideology that married free markets—as means of distributing economic power—with political decentralization. Cowles’ economists strongly opposed Hayek’s cognitive theories, and for the same reason were committed to overrule his metaphysics of the market with more enhanced information pragmatism. It was in Chicago that the neoclassical science of economy (popular at the time in the US) was married to the neoliberalism of Hayek and the ilk through a subtle appendage: The introduction of advanced probability theory and Bayesian statistics through the emerging field of game theory. That the shadow of the future surfaced into economics as a numerical factor, has directly to do with the chaotic feud with the Hayekian market-unconscious, that summoned the unknowability of the future into economic science. This unholy alliance between American econometrics—itself an uncanny twin of Soviet cybernetics—with the early-day neoliberal philosophy resulted in the contemporary monster-child called “neoliberalism”: A mishmash of idealist battles over information. Neoliberalism then came to shape the violent policy innovations of the upcoming governments in the UK, the US and their colonial laboratories, in its totalizing image.
The mid-century market theories were far more mystical and esoteric than those that animate today’s industries of the future: insurance, hedging, forecasting, etc. As many have noted, The sciences of the calculation of the future, borrowing their formulas from orthodox thermodynamics and classical physics are bereft of ecological knowledge itself as the primary input of their forms of calculus. The rituals of measurement act as self-fulfilling prophecies, congealing and totalizing the future as a reality, as something here and now, rather than placed within the territory of the unknowable. In cybernetic terms, finance operates via its feedback loops, between experience and the unknown.
To loop something into existence is the shared calling of rituals and derivative instruments alike, the recursive movement between debt and credit, via the constant flows of liquidity, spanning the gift and ritually organized societies till the present. The weird is also another word for looping. Timothy Morton (2016, 5) writes, “Weird, from the Old Norse Urth, meaning twisted, in a loop. The Norns entwine the web of fate with itself… In the term weird flickers a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing, a pathway that dominant Western philosophy has blocked and suppressed.”
Fisher further elaborates on the weird as a particular kind of anxiety. “It involves a sensation of wrongness: A weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid.” The weird, in this sense, creates a rift in the models of thought, or in categories of the locally and historically-situated familiar knowledge.
Massive financial crises of the past decades have shaken the grounds of finance’s forecasting models to reveal that they only apply as long as the context they arise from remains unchanged. As Elie Ayache (2007) says, financial crises “are a change of context and that it is only relative to a given context that we can make causal predictions at all.” In other words, capturing the end of the undead capital in a fugitive glimpse, at the moment of the stock market crash, signals a change of context from one reality setting to another—a recalibration from one reality setting to another.
As the threat of an imminent and immense illiquidity event is unleashed, the invisible infrastructures of circulation are revealed. As Marina Vishmidt writes, “Crisis makes circulation visible, when circulation freezes it becomes visible.”
The weird cam name a sense of being haunted by a foreign agency. “Who or what is it that cannot or will not explain what it is doing or why it is doing it?” Or, as Martijn Konings puts it, “Why do we keep doing this, why do we keep offering up our surplus?” (Konings, Bordeleau, and Lotti 2021). The absence of the puppet master that animates us, that works through us, renders us as ruins. Discussing the ruins of the colony and the function of memory, Achille Mbembe writes, “In certain canonical Black texts the colony appears foremost as a site of loss, which in turn makes it possible to demand that the ex-colonizer pay a debt to the ex-colonized” (Mbembe 2019, 104). The weird is a glitch, a form of hauntology required to bring us into the waking life of our bodies as reserves of debt.
These three theoretical itineraries of the weird help me locate derivative politics that are separate from, or take advantage of instruments currently in the service of the sorts of predatory practices of extracting futural resources exemplified by finance. If the end of capital cannot be imagined before the end of the world, maybe we should imagine the end of the world as a precondition for the end of capital? The climate catastrophe is that communal limit-experience which can orient us towards modes of financial activism that can contribute to broader strategies of refusal or compromise.
What’s at stake is pursuing forms of justice-seeking activism that work through our current economic systems. Can these take the form of trying to forge a politics of mutual indebtedness, with the shift from the individual to the dividual subject of finance? The dividual points to the condition in which, under the sign of precarious and gig-oriented work, bodies and their cognitive capacities are dissected and partitioned into part-time job obligations. Not unlike the way in which a house can be dissected and reassembled into a bundle of Collateral Debt Obligations, as was fatefully revealed in the subprime mortgage debacle.
Martin (2016, 190) argues that, in a previous moment of industrial capitalism, “Creating the world in the image of commodities made it possible to imagine what it would mean to take collective possession of the means of production” . But in a financialized age, such an imaginary and associated activism is eclipsed. We must recognize that “the world crafted through the operations of derivatives leads toward the entangled constitution of mutual indebtedness, of the ways that we are social together, even if we never fuse as one.”
This is the essence of what we are trying to exercise at Weird Economies, in admittedly very abstract terms. We are still an infant of a project; in Silicon Valley terms, we are still in the beta version.
In the spirit of indebtedness, I will end on sharing a few of our inspirations in thinking about the politics of debt and forms of financial activism. Recent critical literature on finance, and radical practices, for instance in the work of philosopher Michel Feher (2018), and political historian Robert Meister (2021), have pointed out possibilities to use the techniques of finance to subvert and reverse finance’s own tendency to widen the accumulative effects of past racial, colonial and economic injustices.
In regard to the formation of new political subjectivities, Feher describes practices of counter-speculation or speculative insurgency in the current reputational regime. More specifically, he describes this program to be the political work of investing and raising the credit-worthiness of discredited subjects and forms of knowledge.
In a social realm, entirely predicated on a reputational regime and politics of credibility, how can the art system lend itself to social experimentations around theories of financial justice? A campaign like New York’s Strike MoMa, which targets the toxic philanthropy of the museum’s leadership, is a good case in point of such “investee activism” in the field of art. Building on the past instances of museum boycotts and strike campaigns in the US and elsewhere, Strike MoMa works on changing the image of what’s previously taken as reputable and credible engagement with art institutions. Namely, it shifts the moral codes around previously perceived “good art”, disengaged from its conditions of display and circulation. Or as Feher says, “Far from sacrificing substance to symbolism or concentrating on symptoms to the detriment of structural inequalities, these movements reckon with the fact that the allocation of moral, social, and financial credit has become the decisive stake of social struggles.”
Robert Meister’s theorization of historical justice and reparations as a (financial) option provides another approach.
Meister sees Capitalism as an injustice-compounding machine. He therefore looks forward to a politics that “without having to go viral, can develop financial vehicles that allow a movement to internalize the benefits of exaggerated perceptions of its momentary success, and to hedge against the losses that are mainly due to exaggerated perceptions of a momentary failure. The strategy here is to make such movements the repositories of a kind of accumulated countervalue that can give them stakes, horizontally, in each other’s progress and partial hedges against their own failures” (Meister 2021, 193). The price of justice during times of economic crises, according to Meister, is the price of the liquidity premium that governments pay to bail financial institutions, that is, to delay the option of revolution.
Gary Zhexi Zhang
B.S. Johnson’s 1973 novel Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry is all about debt. The eponymous character, Christie, gets a job as a junior bank clerk and learns about double-entry bookkeeping. Throughout the novel he gets into all kinds of adolescent exploits and decides to keep a ledger documenting a balance between himself and the world, a book-keeping table headed “Christie Malry in account with THEM”. For example, one line of credit is labeled “small kindnesses from Joan”, because the girl at work smiled at him. Another day, he debits “THEM” £30 because there’s a bad atmosphere at work, £55 because his supervisor lacks sympathy, another £60 because he hasn’t learned any secrets today. As time goes on, the stakes get higher and higher. At one point, Christie causes the death of 20,000 innocent West Londoners, a massacre for which he compensates the universe £26,000, but likewise he debits his counterparty £325,000, because “socialism [was] not given a chance” (Johnson 1973, 151).
Who is to say that Christie’s accounting is at fault? His double-entry book is as absurd as it is idiosyncratically correct since it brokers an impossible exchange between the universal and the particular. On one hand, it invokes objective theories of value, such as the economic materialism of the physiocrats, a mechanistic universal bank statement entailing both karmic and monetary flows. Christie’s world is an account to be balanced. On the other hand, it is embedded in a subjective theory of value, such as that of the marginalists, in which the price paid and the amount owed is determined by the needs, preferences and emotional whims of participants in the market – in this case, priced by Christie’s sense of appreciation, guilt and dispossession. Like a lonely god in an economic world of his own making, all phenomena are made commensurable, fungible, and reconcilable through Christie’s experience.
In the “real” world things are far messier, a social and geopolitical fabric comprising a plurality of value systems and an endless web of asymmetric creditor-debtor relations: a patchwork of broken contracts with no prospect of resolution. A key consequence of finance is the way in which it binds the fates of events in time, prices and expectations, investors and investees. As David Graeber showed, debt is not only what the weak owe the strong but also what the strong owe the weak. The example of U.S. Treasury bonds is a case in point. The top holder of U.S. national debt is Japan, a sort of U.S. protectorate, but the second highest is China, by no means an economic ally of the U.S. The ties that bind go both ways: a loan brings into existence the possibility of a default.
This would be one way to think about unpayable debts: as a story of irresolvable temporal conflicts between things that can never fit onto a ledger, or else the whole game has to change. In the novel, Christie is able to cut the world down to size and account for its debts; in the real world, if these debts – both financial and moral, from colonialism to climate – were to be claimed and honoured, they would no doubt crash the financial system and the planetary order by which it is upheld. A similar catastrophe would ensue if debtor nations to the IMF were to collectively default. These debts are “unpayable” insofar as they formally contractualise not an agreement between equals but a powerfully unjust history of value and power – i.e. the post-war international financial order – and for these debts to be “paid” would demand a redistribution on the scale of remaking the world.
(Perhaps one of the ironies here is that this illusion of resolution – of uninhibited intertemporal reconcilability – remains central to the imaginary of financialization. Complex financial instruments such as derivatives, for instance, are often defended for their efficacy in increasing liquidity, towards the image of a “complete market”, in which there exists a security to meet every possible state of the world.)
The philosopher Achille Mbembe (2022) reflected recently in an interview:
It may be that we must give up the dream of reconcilability … it may be that those dreams are so antagonistic that they can never be reconciled. The question then is: Is it at all possible to build anything in common in the face of such agonism? How do we live with irreconcilability? What kind of life is likely to emerge out of conflictive opinions and positions that will never be reconciled? And how can we live with them without opening up the doors to civil war? A civil war not only within specific nation-states, but a civil war at a planetary scale. I think that’s probably where we are.
For me, the question of refusal of unpayable debts results in this question of how to live with a world of irreconcilability. But unlike the bookkeeping metaphor, the world is not some static ledger. A more apt image might resemble some kind of effervescent foam, where new narrative conflicts and temporal rifts are splitting into so many new worlds. This form of worlding inherits from finance the collectivisation of desire and expectation into material forms of life. Some of them enclaves, some of them communes, all in some ways manifestations of refusal, whether through opting out or structural exclusions from the social contract. (In this sense the super-rich are pioneers in the exercise of refusal, by removing themselves from the infrastructures and public goods that materially bind a society.) The pandemic itself saw the corporeal sacrifice of front-line worker communities while white-collar workers got into day-trading apps. And while the bursting of the most recent cryptocurrency bubble revealed a dearth of actual liquidity, it nonetheless unsettled the foam, leaving large swathes of technologists with a blurry understanding of the difference between a DAO, a “community”, a shared bank account and a sovereign state.
And so in that irreconcilability, in the unpayable debt, the refusal of one world necessarily opens another: another episteme, another source of arbitrage, another paradigm of value, another social contract from which collective realities accrue. The refusal of one condition becomes the acknowledgement of multiple, interoperating yet irreconcilable realities.
I mean this metaphorically, but also somewhat literally. Amidst the dynamics of voracious social platforms, resurgent nativisms, geopolitical re-orderings, emergent communities and financial technologies, we are seeing a proliferation of narrative technologies for collective lore, conspiracy and world-building, for power or for survival, as the result of all these temporalities, these layers of indebtednesses, clashing against one another. Bruno Latour has been developing this theme recently, with the idea that “we don’t live on the same planet”. You can see this quite literally, for example, in the temporality of the planet and the market – what ex-Bank of England governor Mark Carney (2015) calls “The Tragedy of the Horizons”. Climate risk, for example in the form of catastrophe bonds for hurricanes and earthquakes, is understood to be “uncorrelated” with the market and therefore a good hedge for portfolio diversification – because hurricanes don’t care about stock markets.
So I suppose, once you find that backing out of one world lands you in another, it becomes less a binary between refusal or assimilation, voice or exit, and something more like arbitrage. The construction of mechanisms, concepts or communities that interface between these different economies, temporalities and worlds. Artistic and conceptual practices are part of this construction. They are not necessarily emancipatory: they are catalysts for hyperstition as not-very-productive, highly promiscuous, belief-based interventions.
I suppose my practice is interested in the openings and closings of worlds. What interests me is the way structures of desire hold them together, carry across them.
There’s something I find difficult within the “aesthetics of refusal” which is that it can end up with a kind of subjective moral authority. Perhaps refusal is grounded in solidarity, a kind of mass default, a jubilee where you tear apart the terms and conditions. But when it is taken up on the level of subjective representation, it takes on an affective dimension akin to Christie Malry’s book-keeping. Everyone has it in them to feel dispossessed, to find righteousness, and we should be suspicious of that feeling. Not because it isn’t true, but because it needs to be grounded in some concrete form of sociality, in solidarity. Otherwise refusal looks more like an abdication of responsibility. As Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò (2021) writes, “pain […] is a poor teacher”.
I’m thinking in part of the memetic power of ressentiment, where every new grasp at power is framed as a radically countercultural act, a revenge of the dispossessed. As it turns out, almost everyone feels dispossessed, and when everything feels like shit nevermind that violence is structurally ill-distributed. The revolutionary salvos of blockchain and the “ownership economy” are a good example here, as a force of technological agency increasingly reads like a generational bourgeois revenge fantasy about being deprived of assets. Arguably, you can kind of read much of the ideological history of the web in this way.
How to act for refusal, but against withdrawal? I’m not sure. It means living with irreconcilability, with unpayable debts, with the lacuna at the heart of economy and exchange. These economies cannot be reconciled; they must be refused, but on a basis of solidarity, in order to detach one world from another. As Deleuze and Guattari (1983, 151) said, no one has ever died of contradictions. Refusal means not critiquing but actively invalidating systems of value. That is something we can learn from financial technologists – build the platforms that make counterspeculations possible, unsettle the froth of worlds and find its center of gravity. Another economy is possible or there can be no economy at all.
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