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The I, the we and the you in this text are all debtors.


“In truth, laws are always useful to those with possessions and harmful to those who have nothing; from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all possess something and none has too much.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

Social Debt

According to Rousseau, one can technically choose to exit the ‘social contract’. To opt out. But by the age of maturity at which you are allowed to make that decision (18 years old) you have already accumulated a significant social debt. To your family, to your peers, to the institutions that you have been raised in. To pay this back you need to “make them proud”.

In everyday life you are validated by your labour.[1] Get a good job (and go to university to enable this). Set up your own reproductive home. Abide by the social codes of morality in order to do this (heteronormative monogamy is preferred). Earn enough money to buy your stake in society (own, or get a mortgage so you can eventually own some property).

You show that you are not a “scrounger”[2], that you are paying the social debt due to you with your work. Work is moral. Work for work’s sake. So that you have achieved a level of stability to support the family that brought you up (if they live too long, or their pension isn’t enough, or they get sick) because nobody else is going to care for them.

It’s vital that you are producing something (be that material or ‘immaterial’) to exist, to have a point. Production-work is how you define yourself. And of course, all this is to give the next generation the best head start you can in the same game - this is more of a future debt to your potential offspring, you do well by them then they can support you, “make you proud”, you’ve passed on something successfully, a little bit of immortality.

Student-Graduate Debt

Student debt - viewed with hindsight

I was a student once. I still am indebted. I don’t know if after graduation was the first opportunity I had to actually see my own debt, I remember it as the first time though. This first time I saw my debt as something that sits on my desk in an un-opened, un-repaid letter, meaning nothing more than the unfulfilled expectation that I can pay it back — it was not the debt of a thing. In my head a thing-debt was my parent’s house or the credit card debt induced from trainer purchases, which I didn’t want to pay back and so avoided illegally, rather than a letter on my desk.

This first time was also the experience of the isolation of debt. All around me, as I was graduating, credit was bursting and debts were being called in and called in to question - indebted indeed to the the credit crisis of 2008, attendant anti-banks protests and the student marches against fee-increases — credit was a collective thing, a systemic thing which inversely made me feel a so-called individuality of debt.  

Student debt is a debt to the student’s future: the individual is responsible for the rewards that they could ‘reap’ from education.

The Browne review, launched in 2009, published in 2010 and upon which the recent fee-hikes were based, sought to introduce this shift as part of its search for a “sustainable future for higher education” (the report’s title). The independent report, headed by a former chief executive of BP Lord Browne of Madingly, concluded:

A degree is of benefit both to the holder, through higher levels of social contribution and higher lifetime earnings, and to the nation, through higher economic growth rates and the improved health of society. Getting the balance of funding appropriate to reflect these benefits is essential if funding is to be sustainable. Our recommendations place more of the burden of funding on graduates, but they contribute only when they can afford to repay the costs financed. Students do not pay charges, only graduates do; and then only if they are successful. The system of payments is highly progressive. No one earning under £21,000 will pay anything.

Some how:

We estimate that only the top 40% of earners on average will pay back all the charges paid on their behalf by the Government upfront; and the 20% of lowest earners will pay less than today. For all students, studying for a degree will be a risk free activity. The return to graduates for studying will be on average around 400% (Browne review introduction)

The individual is now responsible for the investment of his or herself, through education, in society’s future. We are conditioned into a life of guilt where the individual is the one at stake, yet we owe ourselves to society.

But this notion of the individual as the centre of neoliberal truth is the myth that the weight of individual responsibility affords itself. While clearly too unstable to prove of any use as social organisation, debt is entirely systemic, that is: a crisis where it is the only answer to its own problems. The Economist Richard Duncan[3] has said this is not capitalism, instead he called it Creditism – this is an economy where only more debt can be created. It is the new labour, we take on that work. It also needs collateral, we are that collateral asset.

The future. Student debt. Students are just future workers, students are workers (that pay, or gather debt, for the pleasure of producing cultural and social capital within the institution and its surrounding areas). Through the process of graduating and receiving a categorical, systematic and hierarchical grade, we become filtered to become ready for whatever job matches our considered aspirational success and the reflection of what is to come through this.

Capital and the future: borrowing = payback; buying now = having your future bought.

most workers are also debtors and are also users of social services at one or another point, so it’s the linking up between those struggles, and where the axis of them might be located at any political conjuncture, which can help us track the shift between the political register of work to the one of debt. (Marina Vismidt: Variant 42 -

While referring more to worker debt than to student debt in her interview with Variant Magazine, Marina Vishmidt’s description of the system of debt is equally applicable here (if indeed we are in the paradigm set out by Browne.): “Debt of course exerts a powerful discipline in the workplace and impairs the possibilities of collective action”. As Costas Lapavitsas writes, “Workers have become heavily implicated in the activities of the formal financial system both in terms of borrowing (mortgages and consumption) but also in terms of assets (pensions and insurance).” (MV - Variant 42) So as public services and the basic means of survival; housing, health, education, food, become increasingly privatised and marketised, financial institutions have been able to extract more and more profits directly from wages and salaries of the population as a whole, while simultaneously evermore focusing the point at which this is felt and experienced: the individual.

This transformation of the worker/student/citizen/subjected from a producer under capital in a self-speculator, into asset gains which they can trade on their own future is echoed by the economist Richard Duncan. Asked by the New Left Review about the consistency of debt crisis in the post-bretton woods (post-gold standard era) he describes the self fulfilling expansion of credit and its self-fulfilling failure:

The Austrian economists were basically right in their understanding of the role credit plays. As long as it is expanding, credit will create an artificial boom, driving an upward spiral of economic growth and inflating asset prices, which create further collateral for yet more credit expansion. But the day always comes when ever-faster economic overheating and rising asset prices outstrip the growth of wages and incomes, to such an extent that these can no longer service the interest on the credit. Bubbles always pop and when that happens, it all begins to spiral into reverse: falling consumption, falling asset prices, bankruptcies, business failures, rising unemployment and a financial sector left in tatters. (Richard Duncan NLR)

If studenthood has become the accumulation of collateral - where my future is more valuable than my present - how would this figure here? Student loans are taken out, the student’s future is collateral for this. The Failure of this future is not an option.

Reading about debt didn’t make it feel any less overwhelming. The abstract of it, however conceived, ultimately is a material reality for persons.

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Social Debt part 2

Success - to succeed is just to come after something else[4]

Party guest A: So, what do you do?

Party guest B: (proudly) I’m a marketing finance manager

In order to assuage debt or guilt you could make good art.

Good Art 1:

successful art, expensive art, valuable art, historically relevant art, really fucking big art, famous art, mysterious art, acclaimed art..[male art]

Good Art 2:

worthwhile art, engaged art, political art, social art, community art, pedagogical art, relational art..[art that apparently includes the other]

In ‘good art 1’ you’ve achieved value, you are worth something, you’ve won the game

In ‘good art 2’ you’ve achieved moral superiority, you are USEFUL precisely because you appear oppositional to ‘good art 1’.

This dialect between the two is part of how our society thrives on the seemingly oppositional, whereas in fact each support the other.

“At the same time, these perceived social achievements are never compared with actual (and innovative) social projects taking place outside the realm of art; they remain on the level of an emblematic ideal, and derive their critical value in opposition to more traditional, expressive and object-based modes of artistic practice.” Claire Bishop - Artificial Hells

Community becomes a tagline for being nice — community artists cleaning up after the withdrawal of the welfare state: artists are cheaper than professional sustainable community services for paying back that social debt.  With grant-dependency “community artists [are] increasingly positioned ‘not as activists but as quasi-employees of one or another dominant state agency’” (Owen Kelly quoted in Artificial Hells, 2012) As long as you are engaging with a community (which is a code word for people who need your help because they are sad / bad / poor / uneducated / uncreative / have-no-taste) — and whether or not the objects of your artwork got to opt into the group you defined them as because they look the part — they’ll do the job (unwaged labour).



so many unpaid jobs to do (mainly women doing them)

social debt = duty + guilt

Debt to Society

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The punishment of a debt paid back to society that we feel, or are conditioned to feel is reminiscent of the workings of oxygen debt after exercise. We must repay this debt afterwards until we are back to our normal selves and our body can function as normal without aches or pains. The feeling of debt in this context – of the creation of lack – is the physical process of regaining oxygen again so we can function; the restoration of balance.[5] Debt is therefore physical as well as psychological.

This debt could be reflected in the prison system where we owe and pay time for the act of doing something outside of our defined functions as humans in a capitalist society. We rebalance the books and “pay” for our crime, for the lack we have created. Many terms reflect this balancing out, or equalisation of forces between negative and positive, such as the “punishment should reflect the crime” or an “eye for an eye”. The feeling of owning up to our responsibility as people is a concept that we are taught from the beginning of school, that there are consequences for our actions, a cause and effect for all that we do, and a debt that we must pay if we take too much or give too little. These echo a monetary transaction where we must pay to get something; if not we are stealing. We must learn this process of debt to take part in this mode of living. If not, we risk being “rehabilitated” until we are deemed fit to be a functioning member of society.

However, just as school is a filtering system, filtering pupils into streams of debt-paying potential, the prison system seems to do the same. It is a site that contains the “undesirables” of our society, from the poor, the mentally ill or the minority group; the unbalanced. It is a site where those removed from the normal payback of social debt are sent.

-"Prison Industrial Complex" (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to what are, in actuality, economic, social, and political "problems." [6] 

To put it more simply, criminalization is the process through which certain actions become illegal. Actions become crimes only after they have been culturally or legally defined as such through processes such as legislation, court rulings, or institutional policies. Ideas about what is "criminal" extend far beyond specific actions, however. Criminalization is also what happens when entire groups of people, or of particular social circumstances (homeless, youth, genderqueers, Others . . .), are targeted by law enforcement for surveillance, punishment and control.[7] 

— similarly for those in institutions not technically defined as prisons - eg. all the privately run Immigration Removal Centres, people who are indefinitely imprisoned, ‘are there’ because they cannot pay back social debt. They are positioned as external to it. Undocumented persons, outside a certain social contract, and as such, without social debt. in this case it seems our bound, living under an impossibility of opting out of the social contract, without being criminalised.

Pension Debt

At present, people who do not have a final salary pension normally save into a “defined contribution” pension scheme. This means that their money goes into their own savings pot, which always has a defined value. When they retire, these savings are used to buy an “annuity” from an insurance firm[8]

A pension is your debt to life, and an insurance firm (that then returns this to you via ‘annuities’). A paper trail to remind you, I’m grateful for being extended this far. I’m in debt to society by way of: “Thanks for still subsisting me here with you as an awkward aside.”

In Middle English the word pension reflects this as a regular sum to “retain allegiance”, almost to show that we still participate in this system, yet we are not ‘indebted’, as such.

I owe it to myself to pay in now. I’m indebted to myself to provide my future pension, an IOU to my future self. As in, Pension Debt is the creation of an account, an investment towards my incapacitation as a worker - for when I will need to give thanks, draw my pension, and say again and again, “cheers guys! My affective and consumer production is no longer viewed as labour, I am defunct as a worker, so good job I prepaid myself and indebted my past-self so I can still be included in your current disco. Sincere thanks, not new sincerity, more genuine relief”

Essentially we are avoiding future guilt.

The ‘we’ of the proposed “Dutch Style” collective pension pots put forward by Tories recently, speculates that it could mean we create a debt to each other and an economy of scale that proposes a vaster debt to being kept-in The Life. . .

Instead of saving into individual pots, which are more vulnerable to variations in the stock market, workers would pool their investments with thousands of other members in a “mega fund”. Members would not have an individual pot of money with a defined value.

Another difference is that their income in retirement would come directly from the fund – annuities would not be involved.


Quotes From (lol):

Psychological Debt

The stages of debt -



Fear and panic




Nietzsche suggests that debt and guilt are interlinked, and surely the strongest place to find this link is amongst the nuclear family under capital.

But it is also the potential to have people indebted to us - the notion of the ‘natural’ is often used to enforce reproductive values onto us. “It’s natural for women to be desirable, sex objects”, “It’s natural for men to be sex-crazed, dominating and protective”, “It’s natural for women to be communicative and caring”. We owe not just our society but our species. We have some kind of ‘natural’, ‘biological’ duty to reproduce that justifies gendered oppression. The word ‘natural’ attempts to quash dissent to shut down discussion because: “Women and love are underpinnings. Examine them and you threaten the very structure of culture.”[9] Firestone says women "must seize the means of reproduction—for as long as women (and only women) are required to bear and rear children, they will be singled out as inferior."[10] 

A similar repayment is due to those who help ‘shape us’ through teaching and nurture, through influence. But some of this must surely be acts of kindness., is there such a thing as a debt of kindness? I think that is something different, possibly Communisation.

The debt to stay both sane and healthy. Perhaps, by staying healthy, we are attempting to avoid an inevitable debt, avoid conditions that label individuals and groups ‘a burden on society’.

A notion such as laziness has freely moved from the political realm to the artistic avant-garde, and in fact it has been particularly dominant in contexts where two avant-gardes mixed or merged. A tiny Dutch left-wing press, De Dolle Hond (Mad Dog Editions), has published a number of editions of Herman Schuurman’s 1924 pamphlet Work is a Crime, which Schuurman wrote as a member of the radical Dutch group De Moker. “Only when we will not work again, life will start,” Schuurman notes in this short and condensed pamphlet. “Working is a social evil. This society is life’s arch-enemy and only through the destruction of the current and future communities of work animals—i.e. through revolution after revolution—will work disappear.” And: “Creation is the intense joy of life, working is the intense suffering of life. Under these criminal social relations creating is impossible. All work is a crime.” [11]

Calling for an induction of the catatonic subject.


What is Abolition?

Prison Industrial Complex abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating policing, prisons, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and prison. From where we stand right now, it is really difficult to imagine what abolition would look like. Abolition isn't just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It's about undoing the society we live in because the prison industrial complex both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence and the control of millions of people. Because the prison industrial complex is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and lead us all to believe that things can be really different. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

Lou Macnamara

Ana Gold

Sam van Strien

Rozsa and Tom from A_M

[1] n/b - The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), by Michael de Certeau, examines how people individualise mass culture, in order to make ‘things’ their own.

[2] Skivers/Scroungers vs. Strivers: Tory ad campaign asking ‘asking whether the Government should support "hard-working families or people who won't work".”


[4] Origin mid 16th century: from Latin successus, from the verb succedere 'come close after' (see succeed).

[5] During muscular exercise, blood vessels in muscles dilate and blood flow is increased in order to increase the available oxygen supply. Up to a point, the available oxygen is sufficient to meet the energy needs of the body. However, when muscular exertion is very great, oxygen cannot be supplied to muscle fibers fast enough, and the aerobic breakdown of pyruvic acid cannot produce all the ATP required for further muscle contraction.

During such periods, additional ATP is generated by anaerobic glycolysis. In the process, most of the pyruvic acid produced is converted to lactic acid. Ultimately, once adequate oxygen is available, lactic acid must be catabolized completely into carbon dioxide and water. After exercise has stopped, extra oxygen is required to metabolize lactic acid; to replenish ATP, phosphocreatine, and glycogen; and to pay back any oxygen that has been borrowed from hemoglobin, myoglobin (an iron-containing substance similar to hemoglobin that is found in muscle fibers), air in the lungs, and body fluids.

The additional oxygen that must be taken into the body after vigorous exercise to restore all systems to their normal states is called oxygen debt (Hill 1928). 

[6] what is the prison Industrial Complex?, Critical Resistance, Rachel Herzing.

[7] Counter Terror has is an entire new field devoted to repressing particular ethnic or political groups, whilst providing all sorts of lucrative contracts.

[8] A life annuity is a financial contract in the form of an insurance product according to which a seller (issuer) — typically a financial institution such as a life insurance company — makes a series of future payments to a buyer (annuitant) in exchange for the immediate payment of a lump sum (single-payment annuity) or a series of regular payments (regular-payment annuity), prior to the onset of the annuity.

[9] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution

[10] ibid

[11] Sven Lutticken