If work is the religion for a secular society then debt is its sin. In the words of Maurizio Lazzarato, author of The Making of Indebted Man, “we are no longer the inheritors of original sin but rather of the debt of preceding generations”.
Within the world of debt, work is a poor guarantee of absolution; save bankruptcy, debt is an almost irremovable sin and for the many that bear its burden the stigmatisation is at times unbearable. For their creditors, on the other hand, debt—like sin to the Church Lords of old—is an immeasurably profitable business.
Beyond the financial or economic, however, debt has other functions: it is a key mechanism through which complicit and governable subjects are produced. In the context of declining wages finance and debt may provide a certain freedom to consume but, as Lazzarato points out, the actions and behaviour of the debtor are “confined to the limits defined by the debt they has entered into.” In other words, you are free insofar as you “assume the way of life (consumption, work, public spending, taxes, etc.) compatible with reimbursement.”
Conversely, one who assumes a way of life incompatible with reimbursement undermines the future of certainties on which the debt economy is built. One cannot have confidence in the economy if there is no confidence in the future (of repayments) and as we are told, the economy functions on confidence.
On this note, let us turn to the following video of an orchestrated discussion between Bez, of Happy Mondays fame, and Martin Lewis, self-proclaimed consumer champion and the brains behind MoneySavingExpert.com:
“Welcome to my money vault”, or is it the crypt of a church? The introductory graphic almost suggests so and Lewis’ inquisitorial style is worthy of Tomás de Torquemada himself. What is clear is that for all the half-hearted attempts at joviality there is a solemn, near religious undertone to the conversation that unfolds. The entrance at 2.28 of an organ playing the soberest of notes confirms the significance of the matter at hand: financial responsibility and debt.
As is obvious, the ‘money vault’ has little to do with money and everything to do with morality, specifically Bez’s incompatible lifestyle and Lewis’ vehement disapproval of it. The ‘Money Saving Expert’ even admits he is no economist, yet this does not stop a disarmed Lewis from attempting, by way of his ‘economist friend’, to answer Bez’s unexpected question: “Who is lending all the money to us and why are we paying it back… why bother?”
Lewis’ answer is revealing in that, economically speaking, he doesn’t have one. What he does do, like the priests of old, is predict an apocalypse should people stop paying their debt and governments refuse to bailout banks. Lewis forebodingly explains that if this were to happen the system would go ‘kaput’. Thanks to the re-entrance of the organ one could almost believe him.
Except it’s obvious that Lewis has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. Indeed, as if to willingly illustrate his own economic illiteracy, Lewis pulls the most dismissive and unknowing of faces when referencing the ‘$750 million American bailout’ (5.03–5.05).
Yet this does not matter, for Lewis deals in morals and not in money; he is a lowly emissary of a system that translates meaningful economic and political discussion into the language of morality and personal responsibility. Famous for his easy-going lifestyle and drug consumption, Bez is an easy albeit threatening target, a piñata for Lewis and his ‘respectable’ viewers to whack and thus feel better about—to paraphrase Bez’s words—the slavery into which they have unwittingly sold themselves (5.35-5.46).
For all the talk of ‘money talk’ what we are left with is a reminder that not only does the debt economy demand and enforce social and political conformism, its very existence depends on it. Governments know it, banks know it, Lewis knows it, and so too does Bez.