The issue of debt has interested me since my doctoral research on the historical transformations of the imperatives ruling the relation between Africa and Europe. Recently, in the light of what was called the Greek crisis, I wrote three pieces for different occasions. Below are  extracts in English, German and French (footnotes are omitted, publication sites are cited at the end),



a. Ending Debts. The Question of the Tabula Rasa


Well, I am ruined, Rodolphe! You must lend me three thousand francs.” (…)

“Dear madame, I have not got them.”

(…) “You have not got them! I ought to have spared myself (NK: in French, m´épargner – which means: save as in saving money for a rainy day) this last shame. You never loved me. You are no better than the others.”

She was betraying, ruining herself.(…)

Rodolphe interrupted her, declaring he was “hard up” himself.

She went out. (…)


Shortly after, Emma Bovary eats up arsenic and lives a protracted agony lying in bed next to her metaphorically agonising husband. One way of ending debts is dying – and specifically here committing suicide.  Emma´s suicide because of her inability to pay back her debts is one of the famous suicides for debts. Indeed death pays all debts, and mostly – often – cancels them. Sometimes, creditors also commit suicide, when it is about to be revealed that their credit is spam, e.g. Mr Merdle in Little Dorrit. Life, the body, can be engaged as payment of debt: this is the story of slavery, also contemporary – for example the refugees-slaves in Libya, the Eastern European prostitutes in Spain or the bond-ridden working children in India. Their bodies and lives are offered as payback. Their death normally means the end of the debt.


Not always, though. Sometimes the debt continues despite death as in the text below about the relation between debt and saying the truth in the guise of poetry/prophecy in a Burkina-Fasso language: ‘Kasim is spoken by a few thousand people in Burkina Faso, and in that language the word contract is kontra and niseem. The first word is stritcly economistic and newly imported. The second belongs the traditional resources of the kasim language and it expresses a particular usage of speech (…)


The part – ni – means ‘mouth’ and is used to designated, by metaphor/simili, all opening, and by metonymy, that which borders it, its surroundings, its limits. (…)The person whose wish was granted but has forgotten to to pay his debt – he ate his credit, it is said – takes the risk of allowing death to enter into the home (the death of his children, his wife, not his) but also, in the same moment, he becomes the victim of the creditor power which, wringing itself around the debitor and his line tightly and forever, transforms him and some of his descendants into interceptors between human beings and the invisible.: he will have to accept the ‘cord of the oracle’, and become a prophet or a poet and he will not ever be able to refuse to all those who ask him to give them access, thanks to this art, to the word of truth. In other words, failing to the word which has been given to the powers of the invisible condemns the person who has forgotten to honour his debt, but also his progeny, to use until death that kind of word (divination or poetry) which, in those societies, is in charge of saying the truth’. (Liberski-Bagnoud, 2013,128-132)



a. Tabula Rasa. Das Ende der Schulden


– »So höre!… Ich bin zugrunde gerichtet, Rudolf! Du mußt mir dreitausend Franken leihen.« (…)

– »Verehrteste, soviel habe ich nicht!« (…)

– »Du hast sie nicht!« Und mehrere Male wiederholte sie: »Du hast sie nicht!… Ich hätte mir diese letzte Schmach also ersparen können! Du hast mich nie geliebt! Du bist nicht mehr wert als die andern!«

Sie verriet sich und ihre Frauenehre.

Rudolf unterbrach sie und versicherte, er sei selbst in Verlegenheit.


Sie ging.


Kurz darauf nimmt Emma Bovary Arsen ein und lebt eine anhaltende Agonie im Bett neben ihrem (in metaphorischen Sinne agonisierenden) Ehemann. Eine Art, Schulden zu beenden, ist zu sterben – und insbesondere, wie hier, Selbsttoetung zu behen. Emmas durch ihre Unfaehigkeit, ihre Schulden zurueckzuzahlen, provozierter Freitod ist einer der beruehmtesten Schuldentode. Manchmal begehen auch Glaeubiger Selbstmord, so wie der betruegerische Mr. Merdle in Charles Dickens’ Roman Little Dorit. Das Leben, der Koerper kann als Zahlungsmittel fuer Schulden eingesetzt werden: dies ist die Geschichte der Sklaverei, auch der gegenwaertigen, wie die der Sklaven-Fluechtlinge in Libyen, die der osteuropaeischen Prostituierten in Spanien oder die von Verpflichtungen getriebenen arbeitenden Kinder in Indien. Ihre Koerper und ihre Leben sind das Pfand fuer die Rueckzahlung. Ihr Tod bedeutet zumeist das Ende der Schulden.


Jedoch nicht immer: manchmal setzen sich die Schulden ueber den Tod hinaus fort, so wie in dem folgenden Text ueber die Beziehung zwischen Schulden und der Wahrheit in der Gestalt einer poetischen Prophezeihung in einer Sprache Burkina Fasos:’ Kasim wird von einigen Tausend Menschen in Burkina Faso gesprochen, in dieser Sprache bedeuten die Woerter kontra und niseem beide Vertrag. Das erstgenannte Wort ist strikt oekonomistisch und wurde vor kurzem importiert. Das letztere gehoert zu den traditionellen Ressources des Kasim und drueckt eine bestimmte Nutzung der Sprache aus (…) Der Teil ‘ni’ bedeutet ‘Mund’ und wird gebraucht, um – durch Metapher oder Simile – alle Oeffnungen und – durch Metonymie – das, was die Oeffnungen umgibt, deren Grenzen, zu bezeichnen. (…) Die Person, dessen Wunsch erfuellt wurde, die aber vergessen hat, ihre Schulden zu zahlen – man sagt, sie ass ihren Kredit – nimmt das Risiko auf sich, dass der Tod (der Kinder oder Ehepartner, nicht der eigene) in ihr Haus kommt, aber zugleich auch, dass sie das Opfer der Glaeubigermacht wird, die sich eng und fuer immer um den Schuldner windet und ihn und seine Nachfahren in Vermittler zwischen den Menschen und dem Unsichtbaren verwandelt: diese Person muss das ‘Band des Orakels’ akzeptieren und ein Prophet oder Dichter werden und wird nie wieder in der Lage sein, all denen, die darum bitten, den durch ihre Kuenste erlangten Zugang zu dem Wort der Wahrheit zu verweigern. Mit anderen Worten: Nicht dem Worte nachzukommen, das durch die Maechte des Unsichtbaren gegeben wurde, verdammt die Person, die vergass, ihren Schulden nachzukommen, aber auch ihre Nachkommen, bis zu ihrem Tode jene Art von Wort (Wahrsagung oder Poesie) zu gebrauchen, die in jenen Gesellschaften die Aufgabe hat, die Wahrheit zu sprechen.´(Liberski-Bagnoud 2013, 128-132)



b. ‘Time, Debt, Creation


Time is the most crucial parameter in the concept of debt. According to which understanding of time is assumed, very different understandings of debt ensue.In Esquisse d´une Théorie de la Pratique, in which he is centrally interested in the institution of the gift, Pierre Bourdieu speaks of the bewildering time of debt, without perhaps drawing the necessary attention to it:


In every society it may be observed that, if it is not to constitute an insult, the counter-gift must be deferred and different, because the immediate return of an exactly identical object clearly amounts to a refusal (i.e. the return of the same object). Thus gift exchange is opposed, on the one hand, to swapping,which, like the theoretical model of the cycle of reciprocity, telescopes gift and counter-gift into the same instant, and on the other hand, to lending, in which the return of the loan is explicitly guaranteed by a juridical act and is thus already accomplished at the very moment of the drawing up of a contract capable of ensuring that the acts it prescribes are predictable and calculable


So, according to Bourdieu, lending is opposed to gift because of its time. The gift needs a long time interval between the first and the second move, whereas the swapping happens instantly. In the situation of the debt, the paying back is already accomplished,says Bourdieu, when the original transaction takes place by of the juridical act that is drawn at the moment of the exchange. At the same time, Bourdieu observes that this juridical act makes acts predictable and calculable – and those acts are unquestionably situated in the future.


There is an ostensible fiction involved in the contract of the debt, which Bourdieu overlooks, and which can be useful when thinking about changing the terms in which debt relations are seen in general. It is the same fiction that defines categories like ‘perfect competition’ or ‘market exchange’ and that stipulate an un-hindered, non-thick layer of knowledge, culture, practices, earlier relations etc. According to that fiction, the juridical act of lending encloses in itself (by virtue of being written) the whole process of credit and repayment immediately, or, as Bourdieu says, as already accomplished. However, one very well knows that this is not the case: indeed, the debt relation would quite simply not arise at all, if the whole exchange could take place immediately, since the debtor would not be buying that which s/he essentially does: time. And the creditor would not be selling (or ‘giving’, as – perhaps abusively – goes the expression in most languages) time.


So what the juridical act does is in actual fact to allow for a pre-determined amount of time to pass before the payment, that is, to bind the future. Hannah Arendt´s thought around the promise as a binding of the future comes well at hand here: promise is that which makes the unknown predictable and even calculable (or knowable) from the point of view of now. Pointing out that this promise is juridical underlines its binding force – and, if we were to look at this both more broadly and more profoundly, it directs us to the role of dogmatique in our social practices, that is, a set of norms which cannot be proven or cannot be ascribed to a higher authority and by which we abide. In other words, by contracting debts, not only do we play along the fiction of a certain immediacy, but we also play along the belief that the contract is the right instrument to enact the exchange and that we have faith in the laws governing it.



c. Subject-in-debt

(with Peter Wagner)


Tentatively, we propose to distinguish three stages in the sentiments and passions of the subject who is indebted. They mark highly different attitudes to one’s indebtedness, and even though they do not necesarily occur in sequence, their distinction is crucial for mapping out a different understanding of debt.


In a first instance, debtors whose debt has become unbearable often feel guilt. They overestimated their capacity to repay the debt. They should not have entered into a debt of such high amount, long-lasting duration and/or difficulty to monitor and control. The relation between debt and guilt has been a topic of moral philosophy and genealogy at least since Nietzsche. It has resurfaced during the current Euro-zone crisis both as a subject of conceptual history and as a topic of public debate, namely when alleged creditor countries, often with Protestant religious majorities, blamed debtor countries for immorally living beyond their means. The feeling of guilt may go along with a feeling of humiliation as well as either resentment of, or gratitude towards, the creditor.


Parenthetically, we note the case of the annihilation of the over-burdened subject-in-debt, the one who never fully becomes a subject. The most famous literary figure is Madame Bovary, who commits suicide under the unbearable weight of her accumulated debts. Both the specific character and the case of the annihilation of the person or the collective actor (state failure and all that this entails in terms of ruptures in the social net) need to be developed in full in the future.


In a second step, facing a situation without exit, debtors’ passions may move to indignation and anger. The terms of the debt that were imposed on them were unjust and exploitative. The creditors abused a situation of need when contracting the loan. It was improper of them to grant a loan of which it was likely that the debtor would never be able to repay it. The state should have protected potential debtors by legally limiting the terms and conditions on which loans can be contracted. Such indignation and anger is directed in the first place against the creditors, but also against the political authorities that set the framework for the creditors to operate. Thus, it turns into an antagonism, defining opponents in a struggle.


In this process, thirdly, the debtors may recognize that they have the power to resist. They note the capacitating effect of their redefining the situation at the second step. If their situation is not their fault (alone), then something can be done about it. Responsabilities are redesigned and solidarities developed. What emerges are feelings of trust in oneself, in other debtors, and possibly in the collectivity; and with trust comes a sense of resilience, of becoming able to well exit the seemingly unbearable debt situation.


Our intuition is that as soon as a person, or a group of persons, pass from the first to the second cluster of sentiments, we witness the creation of the subject, a subjectivation, that is, a rising into political and social consciousness of the person. This is a process of empowerment and emancipation. The move from the second to the third cluster consolidates this process by pointing to a solution of the issue from which it started out as the identification of a problem. There is (always) a variety of possible solutions, more agonistic or more consensual ones. And there is no necessary or generally preferable passage from the second to the third moment. But the way in which this passage occurs leads to the forming of different social relations. They vary according to the intensity of the relation, the substantive definition of responsibility and solidarity, the criteria of inclusion or exclusion, among other features. A comparative history of welfare states, of the processes of their creation and the varieties of their institutionalization, would give testimony of one major case of such passage, given that the welfare state´s theoretical justification is a debt that society has towards its workers.



c. Le sujet-en-dette

 (avec Peter Wagner)


Tentons de distinguer trois étapes dans les émotions et passions du sujet endetté. Ces étapes marquent des attitudes hautement différentes du sujet vis-à-vis de son propre endettement, et alors qu’elles n’ont pas nécessairement lieu de manière séquentielle, la distinction entre elle est cruciale pour la cartographie d’un sens différent de la dette.


Dans une première étape, les débiteurs dont la dette est devenue insupportable ressentent souvent de la culpabilité. Ils ont surestimé leur capacité de remboursement. Ils n´auraient pas du entrer dans un prêt d´un tel montant, d’ une telle durée et/ou d´une telle difficulté à monitorer ou à contrôler. La relation entre la dette et la culpabilité est un sujet de philosophie morale et de généalogie au moins depuis Nietzsche. Ce sujet a refait surface dans la crise courante de la zone Euro autant comme sujet d´histoire conceptuelle que comme sujet de débat public, notamment quand les pays dénominés créditeurs (souvent à majorité religieuse protestante) accusèrent les pays créditeurs de vivre immoralement bien au-dessus de leurs moyens. Le sentiment de culpabilité peut accompagner un sentiment d´humiliation comme de ressentiment à l`encontre du créditeur ou de la gratitude envers lui.


Il nous faut noter en passant le cas de l’annihilation du sujet-en-dette surchargé, celle ou celui qui ne devient jamais un sujet entier. La figure littéraire la plus fameuse est Madame Bovary, qui se suicide sous le poids insupportable de ses dettes accumulées.  Autant le caractère spécifique que le cas de l’ annihilation de la personne ou de l´acteur collectif (faillite étatique et tout ce que cela comporte en termes de déchirements du tissu social) devront attendre pour être développés plus avant…


Dans une deuxième étape, faisant face à une situation sans issue, les passions des débiteurs iront vers l´indignation et la colère. Les termes de la dette qui leur furent imposés étaient injustes et abusifs. Les créditeurs abusèrent d’ une situation de besoin au moment du contrat. Octroyer un prêt dont ils savaient que le débiteur ne pourrait jamas le rembourser n’ etait pas correct.3 L’ État aurait dû protéger les débiteurs potentiels en limitant légalement les terms et les conditions selon lesquels les prêts peuvent être contractés. Cette indignation et cette colère sont d´abord dirigées contre les créditeurs, mais aussi contre les autorités politiques qui construisent le cadre dans lequel opèrent les créditeurs. Ainsi, cela tourne à l’antagonisme, et définit des adversaires dans une lutte.


Dans ce processus, troisièmement, les débiteurs reconnaissent qu`ils ont le pouvoir de résister. Ils notent la capacité émancipatrice que leur confère leur redéfinition de la situation dans la seconde étape. Si leur situation n´est pas (uniquement) leur faute, alors on peut y remédier. Les responsabilités sont redessinées et les solidarités sont développées. Ce qui émerge, ce sont la confiance en soi-même, en les autres débiteurs, et probablement en la communauté; et avec la confiance vient un sentiment de résiliance, de se sentir capable de bien sortir d´une situation de dette qui paraissait insupportable.


Notre intuition est que dès qu’une personne, ou un groupe de personnes, passe de la première à la deuxième étape d´émotions, nous somme témoins de la création du sujet, de la subjectification, c’est-à-dire de l´émergence de la conscience politique et sociale de la personne. Ceci est bien un processus d’ émancipation et d’ autonomisation. Le mouvement de la seconde à la troisième étape consolide ce processus en montrant bien que la solution de la question à l´origine du processus se trouve dans l´identification du problème. Il y a (toujours) plusieurs solutions, plus ou moins agonistiques ou consensuelles. Et il n`y a pas de passage géneralement préférable entre la deuxième et la troisième étape. Mais la façon dont ce passage a lieu conduit à la formation de relations sociales différentes. Elles varient selon l’ intensité de la relation, la définition substantielle de la responsabilité et de la solidarité, les critères d’ inclusion ou d’ exclusion, entre autres. Une histoire comparée des États-providence, des processus de leur création et des variétés de leur institutionnalisation témoignerait d´un cas majeur de ce type de passage, puisque la justification théorique de l´État-providence est la dette que la société a envers ses travailleurs.



Lucian Freud and Leigh Bowery, after Courbet’s ‘The Painter/s Studio’, photo by Bruce Bernard –  how many debts and mises en abyme!