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Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in convers
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in conversation as part of Propositions for Non-Fascist Living, October 2017
Debt and Study

Author(s)
Stefano Harney & Fred Moten

This is an extract from the chapter “Debt and Study,” in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013). Across its three sections—Debt and Credit, Debt and Forgetting, and Debt and Refuge—this extract traces the sites and practices of “desired” and undesired debt that perforate contemporary financial capitalism and western culture. The text moves through different people who are marked as debt carriers, such as the precariat, the student, and racialized people, among others.

Linking in with the colonial origins of contemporary capitalism, Moten and Harney refer to black radical politics as “a politics of debt without payment, without credit, without limit,” formed in response to a form of debt that “was built in a struggle with empire before empire, where power was not with institutions or governments alone, where any owner or colonizer had the violent power of a ubiquitous state.” Against the precarious realities of a paradoxically forgivable debt that remains unforgivable, Moten and Harney speak of the possibilities of a “fugitive public” as the real public: a place to be found wherever “the state doesn’t work” or that “bad debt elaborates itself.” It is somewhere that creditors seek to destroy, “in order to save the ones who live there from themselves and their lives.”

This extract is shared as part of the project Usufructuaries of earth, co-convened by BAK with artist Marwa Arsanios. It is one of the readings for the Rotterdam reading group Undoing Debt—convened by artists Iliada Charalambous and Philippa Driest—hosted by book and print workshop KIOSK on 28 April 2024. The reading group seeks to collectively unpack debt as a form of gendered and financial violence and see how, in turn, to “undo debt” through learning common political tools and vocabulary inspired by transnational feminist movements.
DEBT AND CREDIT

They say we have too much debt. We need better credit, more credit, less spending. They offer us credit repair, credit counseling, microcredit, personal financial planning. They promise to match credit and debt again, debt and credit. But our debts stay bad. We keep buying another song, another round. It is not credit we seek nor even debt but bad debt which is to say real debt, the debt that cannot be repaid, the debt at a distance, the debt without creditor, the black debt, the queer debt, the criminal debt. Excessive debt, incalculable debt, debt for no reason, debt broken from credit, debt as its own principle. 

Credit is a means of privatization and debt a means of socialization. So long as they pair in the monogamous violence of the home, the pension, the government, or the university, debt can only feed credit, debt can only desire credit. And credit can only expand by means of debt. But debt is social and credit is asocial. Debt is mutual. Credit runs only one way. But debt runs in every direction, scatters, escapes, seeks refuge. The debtor seeks refuge among other debtors, acquires debt from them, offers debt to them. The place of refuge is the place to which you can only owe more and more because there is no creditor, no payment possible. This refuge, this place of bad debt, is what we call the fugitive public. Running through the public and the private, the state and the economy, the fugitive public cannot be known by its bad debt but only by bad debtors. To creditors it is just a place where something is wrong, though that something wrong—the invaluable thing, the thing that has no value—is desired. Creditors seek to demolish that place, that project, in order to save the ones who live there from themselves and their lives.

They research it, gather information on it, try to calculate it. They want to save it. They want to break its concentration and put the fragments in the bank. But all of a sudden, the thing credit cannot know, the fugitive thing for which it gets no credit, is inescapable.

Once you start to see bad debt, you start to see it everywhere, hear it everywhere, feel it everywhere. This is the real crisis for credit, its real crisis of accumulation. Now debt begins to accumulate without it. That’s what makes it so bad. We saw it in a step yesterday, some hips, a smile, the way a hand moved. We heard it in a break, a cut, a lilt, the way the words leapt. We felt it in the way someone saves the best stuff just to give it to you and then its gone, given, a debt. They don’t want nothing. You have got to accept it, you have got to accept that. You’re in debt but you can’t give credit because they won’t hold it. Then the phone rings. It’s the creditors. Credit keeps track. Debt forgets. You’re not home, you’re not you, you moved without a forwarding address called refuge.

The student is not home, out of time, out of place, without credit, in bad debt. The student is a bad debtor threatened with credit. The student runs from credit. Credit pursues the student, offering to match credit for debt, until enough debts and enough credits have piled up. But the student has a habit, a bad habit. She studies. She studies but she does not learn. If she learned they could measure her progress, establish her attributes, give her credit. But the student keeps studying, keeps planning to study, keeps running to study, keeps studying a plan, keeps elaborating a debt. The student does not intend to pay.

DEBT AND FORGETTING

Debt cannot be forgiven, it can only be forgotten to be remembered again. To forgive debt is to restore credit. It is restorative justice. Debt can be abandoned for bad debt. It can be forgotten for bad debt, but it cannot be forgiven. Only creditors can forgive, and only debtors, bad debtors, can ofer justice. Creditors forgive debt to offer credit, to offer the very source of the pain of debt, a pain for which there is only one justice, bad debt, forgetting, remembering again, remembering it cannot be paid, cannot be credited, stamped received. There will be a jubilee when the North spends its own money, is left with nothing, and spends again, on credit, on stolen cards, on a friend who knows he will never see that again. There will be a jubilee when the Global South does not get credit for discounted contributions to world civilization and commerce but keeps its debts, changes them only for the debts of others, a swap among those who never intend to pay, who will never be allowed to pay, in a bar in Penang, in Port of Spain, in Bandung, where your credit is no good.

Credit can be restored, restructured, rehabilitated, but debt forgiven is always unjust, always unforgiven. Restored credit is restored justice and restorative justice is always the renewed reign of credit, a reign of terror, a hail of obligations to be met, measured, meted, endured. Justice is only possible where debt never obliges, never demands, never equals credit, payment, payback. Justice is possible only where it is never asked, in the refuge of bad debt, in the fugitive public of strangers not communities, of undercommons not neighborhoods, among those who have been there all along from somewhere. To seek justice through restoration is to return debt to the balance sheet and the balance sheet never balances. It plunges toward risk, volatility, uncertainty, more credit chasing more debt, more debt shackled to credit. To restore is not to conserve, again. There is no refuge in restoration. Conservation is always new. It comes from the place we stopped while we were on the run. It’s made from the people who took us in. It’s the space they say is wrong, the practice they say needs fixing, the homeless aneconomics of visiting.

Fugitive publics do not need to be restored. They need to be conserved, which is to say moved, hidden, restarted with the same joke, the same story, always elsewhere than where the long arm of the creditor seeks them, conserved from restoration, beyond justice, beyond law, in bad country, in bad debt. They are planned when they are least expected, planned when they don’t follow the process, planned when they escape policy, evade governance, forget themselves, remember themselves, have no need of being forgiven. They are not wrong though they are not, finally communities; they are debtors at distance, bad debtors, forgotten but never forgiven. Give credit where credit is due, and render unto bad debtors only debt, only that mutuality that tells you what you can’t do. You can’t pay me back, give me credit, get free of me, and I can’t let you go when you’re gone. If you want to do something, forget this debt, and remember it later.

Debt at a distance is forgotten, and remembered again. Think of autonomism, its debt at a distance to the black radical tradition. In autonomia, in the militancy of post-workerism, there is no outside, refusal takes place inside and makes its break, its flight, its exodus from the inside. There is biopolitical production and there is empire. There is even what Franco “Bifo” Berardi calls soul trouble. In other words there is this debt at a distance to a global politics of blackness emerging out of slavery and colonialism, a black radical politics, a politics of debt without payment, without credit, without limit. This debt was built in a struggle with empire before empire, where power was not with institutions or governments alone, where any owner or colonizer had the violent power of a ubiquitous state. This debt attached to those who through dumb insolence or nocturnal plans ran away without leaving, left without getting out. This debt got shared with anyone whose soul was sought for labor power, whose spirit was borne with a price marking it. And it is still shared, never credited and never abiding credit, a debt you play, a debt you walk, and debt you love. And without credit this debt is infinitely complex. It does not resolve in profit, seize assets, or balance in payment. The black radical tradition is the movement that works through this debt. The black radical tradition is debt work. It works in the bad debt of those in bad debt. It works intimately and at a distance until autonomia, for instance, remembers, and forgets. The black radical tradition is unconsolidated debt.

DEBT AND REFUGE

We went to the public hospital but it was private, but we went through the door marked “private” to the nurses’ coffee room, and it was public. We went to the public university but it was private, but we went to the barber shop on campus and it was public. We went into the hospital, into the university, into the library, into the park. We were offered credit for our debt. We were granted citizenship. We were given the credit of the state, the right to make private any public gone bad. Good citizens can match credit and debt. They get credit for knowing the difference, for knowing their place. Bad debt leads to bad publics, publics unmatched, unconsolidated, unprofitable. We were made honorary citizens. We honored our debt to the nation. We rated the service, scored the cleanliness, paid our fees.

Then we went to the barbershop and they gave us a Christmas breakfast, and we went to the coffee room and got coffee and red pills. We were going to run but we didn’t have to. They ran. They ran across the state and across the economy, like a secret cut, a public outbreak, a fugitive fold. They ran but they didn’t go anywhere. They stayed so we could stay. They saw our bad debt coming a mile off. They showed us this was the public, the real public, the fugitive public, and where to look for it. Look for it here where they say the state doesn’t work. Look for it here where they say there is something wrong with that street. Look for it here where new policies are to be introduced. Look for it here where tougher measures are to be taken, bells are to be tightened, papers are to be served, neighborhoods are to be swept. Anywhere bad debt elaborates itself. Anywhere you can stay, conserve yourself, plan. A few minutes, a few days when you cannot hear them say there is something wrong with you.
These extracts are republished with the kind permission of the authors and Minor Compositions and in keeping with the open access policy under which The Undercommons was originally published.

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