“Today, everything is “debt” like twenty years ago, everything was “capital””

Governance. After the eclipse of the “start-up nation” and then “whatever it takes” years, the amount of France’s public debt has returned to the center of political news. It exceeds 3,000 billion euros, or now 110% of gross domestic product (GDP). More worrying, the cost of this debt requires each year a financing requirement equivalent to 2% of GDP, which further increases the debt.

Beyond the technical assessments and the nuances that we can bring to this economic reality, the symbolic dimension of debt maintains the idea of ​​a downgrading of France, even a feeling of concern with regard to the future of our world.

The 2000s, those of financialization, appear, by contrast, as animated by optimistic lightness and marked by the omnipresence of the rhetoric of “capital” to be valued: human capital, social or relational capital, health capital or sleep capital… Everything was translated in terms of capital. The vision was decidedly speculative.

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The future would produce innovations with such high returns that current debts would be mechanically erased by the increase in the market value of things. The constant rise in real estate prices was the clear sign of the triumph of capital. In the dominant neoliberal spirit, considering oneself as “capital” made it possible to valorize oneself as a resource – provided, of course, that this resource found a market.

Financial logic and political order

In the last days of this euphoria, the anarchist thinker David Graeber (1961-2020) popularized the idea that the notion of debt is the expression of the power of the dominant over the dominated (Debt. 5,000 years of history, Actes Sud, 2016). According to him, financial logic serves a political order which places debtors in a position of servitude towards creditors, and subjects them to the legal obligation to repay whatever it costs them. Recognizing a debt therefore means recognizing a balance of power favorable to the most fortunate.

Twenty years later, the speculative dream of infinite growth of wealth vanished in the face of the trivial reality of the accumulation of loans of all kinds. The rhetoric is renewed but it remains financial, moving from the capital to be valued towards the debts to be assumed: public debt of course, but also household debt, social debt, ecological debt, climate debt, debt towards future generations, etc. , everything is “debt” as everything was “capital”. The expectation of profitable tomorrows gives way to the anxious worry of piling up bills. Who will pay them and how?

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