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  • Governmentality in Crisis:Debt and the Illusion of Liberalism1
  • Liane Tanguay (bio)

On 13 July, 2015, the leadership of Greece’s left-wing Syriza government capitulated to a host of outrageous demands imposed by the country’s European creditors—effectively confirming Maurizio Lazzarato’s contention, in Governing by Debt, that “contemporary democracy has been circumvented by techniques of transnational governmentality whose active basis lies in finance capital” (2015, 237). To the increasingly dated argument that democracy still offers a solution—that the voting public are responsible for their own predicament and capable of resolving it—the Greek crisis offers a timely rebuttal: popular sovereignty simply no longer holds up to the transnational forces unleashed by global creditors—banks, investors, and unelected, supranational bodies like the IMF and the ECB. Though the Greeks had elected a coalition that promised to end the crippling austerity measures under which they had suffered some seven years, they found themselves only months later trapped between further austerity and the prospect of an almost certainly equally devastating “Grexit” from the Eurozone. So that, just a week after the resounding oxi in response to the creditors’ latest proposal, the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, found himself in impossible straits, forced to accept terms even harsher than those originally put forth, including the transfer of some €50 billion in public assets to a foreign organization tasked with their privatization at fire-sale rates. At the time of writing, Greece can do little more than accept wholeheartedly its humiliation at the hands of Europe’s corporate and financial leadership, who seem intent on punishing the nation less for its pre-2008 profligacy than for its election of a left-leaning government and the latter’s refusal to submit to further “restructuring.” Alienated from the voters and from much of his own party, Tsipras will likely have to fight to stay in power. What the creditors have achieved, then—without bombs, drones, or the risk of any casualties on their own side—is nothing short of regime change, in the name of fictitious capital: assets created ex nihilo, numbers conjured up on a spreadsheet. [End Page 459]

According to this reading, which is fairly consistent with Lazzarato’s work and similar perspectives on the Left, finance is a deftly orchestrated transnational scam that makes a mockery not only of democracy but of the very principle of national sovereignty on which Western modernity is founded. German philosopher Carl Schmitt, however unpalatable his political commitments, indeed demonstrated an uncanny prescience in asserting, mid-century, that beyond the crumbling second nomos of the earth—the jus publicum europaeum of the imperial era—lay a third order, a “non-state sphere of economy permeating everything” (2003, 235) that would destroy the “autonomy of the political” and replace the order of national sovereignty—for him the essence of politics as such—with commercialism and a vacuous Wilsonian universalism. For Schmitt, the nation-state would henceforth serve as a staging ground for the articulation of competing class interests, its sovereignty and internal cohesion fatally undermined by an “ethics of civil war” (2003, 54) only modestly veiled by the discourse of liberalism and democracy.

Schmitt is an unlikely inductee into the theoretical matrix that informs Lazzarato’s Governing by Debt—a book that develops his earlier exploration of indebted subjectivity into a theory of governmentality under the hegemony of finance. Premised, like Indebted Man, on a synthesis of Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Governing is less a book-length argument than six overlapping essays on, among other things, the logic and politics of capital, the decline of the American university, and the rise of authoritarianism as the inevitable corollary to a form of capitalism so thoroughly deterritorialized that no “extra-economic code” (157) can contain or legitimate it. For Lazzarato, in Governing as well as in a third book, Signs and Machines (2014), capitalism’s 2007 crisis coincides with a breakdown in the production of the subjectivities necessary to its functioning, and the concomitant “failure of neoliberal governmentality” (2012, 126) reveals starkly what for him has always been the case: that capitalism has never been liberal or progressive, and that behind its myth of formal...


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