Art, Research and Action Against Debt’s Digital Empire
This article is the introduction to a series of texts published on Public Seminar in the lead-up to the Digital/Debt/Empire symposium in Vancouver in late April 2019, convened by Benjamin Anderson, Enda Brophy and Max Haiven.
Throughout the history of capitalism, debt has been a key weapon of colonialism and imperialism. Examples include the ruinous debt forced on Haiti by the defeated empires of Europe as revenge for their revolution against slavery, the debt bondage that cheapened migrant Asian labour in the 19th century, and a long 20th century defined by the sabotage of decolonization through mechanisms of odious national debts imposed on countries of the Global South. And whether it was the accounting techniques that enabled and insured the transatlantic slave trade, the use of telegraphs to manage global supply chains or the punitive power of global bond markets, the latest forms of technology have often been marshaled to deepen the connection between finance and empire.
In today’s digital age this tendency not only continues, it intensifies. The subprime mortgage meltdown which ignited the 2008 financial crisis revealed the deepening reliance of contemporary debt and financial power structures on the extraction of wealth from racialized communities. It also showed that such racialized debt regimes are evermore intensively digitized. Although perhaps not immediately obvious, examples abound: racially-encoded algorithms that determine credit-worthiness; the high-frequency trading robots that buy and sell predatory debts (such as those of Puerto Rico) thousands of time each second in search of speculative gain; the foisting of new “FinTech” and crypto-currency solutions on poor and racialized people as quick technological “fixes” to deep problems of inequality and oppression; the buy-now-pay-later startup platforms marketed and regulated to “at risk” young people as budgeting tools, in place of meaningful social care and investment in communities; the necropolitical forms of “risk management” that help the global extractive industry and its ongoing destruction of Indigenous lands and human rights.
And yet, at the same time social movements are also seizing on new digital technologies to understand and confront a world defined increasingly by unpayable and punitive debts. For instance: Citizens collaborate on auditing their municipalities’ debt agreements with global banks; debtors assemble their own databases to connect horizontally and discover their shared persecutors; hackers and pranksters attack the ledgers of empire; artists reinvent the line between financial credit and social debts, revealing the hidden sources of solidarity; anonymous and massive data leaks allow tax fairness advocates to expose the hoards of digital cash stashed away in tax havens by the global elite; and everywhere grassroots movements struggle to reinvent the economy, moving away from the debt-driven ecological suicide pact of racial capitalism towards a richer network of social bonds between people and the planet.
To explore these intersections, we have called a meeting of activists, artists and scholars to convene in late April of 2019 in Vancouver, on the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, to discuss three themes:
- First, the legacies and currents of empire, racialization and colonialism that animate today’s global debt regimes.
- Second, the ways in which new digital technologies are being used to entrench these regimes, but also to challenge them.
- Third, if and how these technologies, when mobilized by grassroots social movements, might open new horizons for collective liberation.
This short essay is a flying introduction to these themes. Over the coming weeks, many of those participants will publish short contributions and interventions in this Public Seminar series: DIGITAL/DEBT/EMPIRE.
By thinking of debt and digital technology in terms of modern empire and imperialism we frame our approach in the tradition of anti-imperialist struggle and thought. This tradition echoes the demand for self-determination from those who, throughout the history of capitalism, have been exploited, oppressed, and made into objects of extraction by colonialism. It also echoes the long history of anti-imperialist struggle by the working classes at the heart of empires past and present.
Empire was and is justified and operates through racist ideologies and mythologies. Today, while it may seem out of date to speak of empires, they nonetheless remain, with powerful nation-states (almost always former colonizers) continuing to use violent and financial forms of coercion or enforce relations of dependency, extraction, and debt bondage on countries and peoples around the world. For instance, throughout the latter part of the 20th century, former colonial nations in the Global North exploited their influence over financing institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to compel nations largely in the Global South to comply with the neoliberal agenda of corporate-led globalization, transfiguring “development” into a vehicle of neocolonialism. In the form of what Harsha Walia calls border imperialism, as well as through racist domestic policies, these same colonizing nation-states have typically also rendered racialized populations within their claimed territories as hyper-exploitable.
We are also sympathetic to the argument that, in profoundly new ways, financialization has enabled global capitalism itself to become an imperial force, superintending and disciplining even imperialist nation-states, forcing everyone and everything into a terrifying death spiral of endless, relentless competition. As Maurizio Lazzarato elucidates, debt is perhaps the key method by which this global capitalist imperium is enforced. It comes as no surprise that this global order of debt is enabled and augmented through the ever more intensive application of new information and communication technologies in order to fully integrate global capitalist exchange and open every sphere of life up to extraction and exploitation. That nations in the Global North now feel these phenomena in the form of “austerity” appears to validate the warning of anti-colonial thinkers like Aimé Césaire that the cruelties first exercised at the margins of empire will soon work their way to its heart.
The risk, however, is that a universalizing idea of a new, digital, financialized global capitalist Empire can ignore the very real and substantial way that this “new” formation is still characterized by the kinds of colonial extraction, racialized exploitation and border imperialism inherited from the past forms of empire and reinscribed in the digital present. If we are now all the subjects of a capitalist imperium then we would be well served by remembering that, as with any empire, some subjects are literally and metaphorically more credit-worthy than others, and the wealth of the some comes at the expense of Others.
For these reasons, we want to examine debt as a key means to make sense of our moment and, in particular, the legacies and currents of imperialism, colonialism and racism within it. Here we take inspiration from David Graeber’s path-breaking work that explains how, though many human societies have been held together by exploitative forms of debt, global capitalism is particularly toxic in the way it leverages the junction of moral and financial compulsion. Yet along with Miranda Joseph, Denise Ferrara da Silva and Paula Chakravartty we recall that this junction at the border of “culture” and “economics” has always been haunted and shaped by race and empire.
We know from the work of theorists like Ian Baucom, Justin Leroy and Zenia Kisch, Anita Rupprecht and others that the history of the modern debt and “risk-management” industries and their technologies of measure and management are thickly entangled with the world-historic crime of the transatlantic slave trade. We also know that the history of empire has been waged largely through the reciprocal imposition and denial of debts by the powerful. For instance, as Lisa Lowe illustrates, the subjugation and pillage of China in the Opium Wars saw British, French, American and other European merchant capitalists use the liberal rhetoric of free trade, progress and internationalism to foist a poisonous but profitable drug on the world’s most populous nation. When Chinese authorities (for all their faults) attempted to regulate the trade they were held accountable, through military force, for the debt of interrupting the lawful commerce of empire. The debts owed to the millions of Chinese people who suffered the drug’s cruel curse have never even been internationally acknowledged, let alone paid.
Similarly, a series of scholars beginning with W.E.B. Du Bois have noted the way that a Black-led Reconstruction in the US was sabotaged by, on the one hand, denying the reparations due to formerly enslaved people for their abuse and, on the other, compelling many to enter into debt-bondage and share-cropping to further exploit their labour. Miranda Joseph as well as thinkers like Jackie Wang have traced the way these imperial debt politics have shaped the current carceral regime of American mass incarceration, where the “debt to society” imprisoned people are assumed to owe disguises the systemic and structural deficits of care and justice that led to the conditions of their criminalization to begin with. This social “debt” becomes an economic one when the US bail bond industry targets populations of color for its extractive loans, which, when they go unpaid, serve as a pretense for further incarceration — a central grievance within the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri.
We might also note, along with Arthur Manuel, that in an era when colonial settler states like Canada are keen to “reconcile” with Indigenous nations, this often takes the form of endless, doomed land negotiations between these nations and the colonial government, or lawsuits in that colonial government’s own courts, for which these nations must borrow massive sums. Meanwhile, of course, the historical debt that colonial settler states owe for the original theft of the land is rendered invisible.
In the face of the social devastations incurred by this global empire of debt, technological solutionism is rampant. A perfect symbol of the contradictions here are the many American crypto-currency and “FinTech” entrepreneurs, hucksters and gamblers who descended upon hurricane- and austerity-ravaged Puerto Rico. Smugly retracing their forefathers’ colonial footsteps in seizing upon this imagined financial Terra Nullius, these men (because they’re almost all men) aim to create a tax-free high-tech utopia built on a foundation of entrepreneurial affect, market-based extraction, and the libertarian worship of digital technology.
Here, it is important to link the rise of today’s massive digital corporate empire to the politics of international debt and, in particular, the ways that telecom privatization around the world in the 1980s was tied directly to the kinds of “structural adjustment” programs demanded by creditor institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Between 1984 and 1999, up to $1 trillion of state-owned telecommunications networks were sold off and around half of the 189 members of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) at least partially privatized their telecom sectors. In many countries the national telecommunications company became the largest company listed on the national stock exchange.
The overlap between debt and the digital has arguably reached a kind of apotheosis with the rise of platform capitalism. Venture capital funds bankroll the developing sector, which according to Adam Arvidsson displays a new logic of capitalist governance–what he calls, echoing Randy Martin, the social logic of the derivative. As Arvidsson argues, the algorithms that Facebook uses share a genealogy with those of derivative financial instruments. Little surprise then that the company has, as Arvidsson shows, patented a technology to help lenders discriminate against borrowers based on their social connections.
Moreover, the global operations of platforms like Facebook have taken on decidedly colonial hues. Free Basics, a program developed by Facebook with six internet service providers, is marketed as an “onramp to the internet” in developing countries where access is otherwise difficult. In the future, web connectivity will be delivered by a fleet of solar-powered drones, but when populations are brought online they get the dubious benefit of a stripped-down, “poor person’s” Internet. According to a 2017 report from Global Voices — an anti-censorship network of bloggers and activists — the architectural and content limitations of Free Basics are highly skewed in favor of certain (largely corporate sites), violate the principles of net neutrality and exist, to a large extentm as a mechanism for Facebook to collect potentially profitable meta-data from users. Here, at the outer reach of the platform empires, we find the extension of what can rightly be called “data colonialism.”
The use of digitized debt and the magic of “FinTech” to solve the problems of racialized poverty are also actively and enthusiastically deployed in the Global North: crumbling government health, education and social services are increasingly financialized through schemes like social impact investing, direct privatization or through new forms of public-sector accounting. Yet when we read between the spreadsheets, we see the larger story. As da Silva and Chakkravarty note, along with Ananya Roy, racialized populations are targeted for “financial inclusion” to open new frontiers of wealth extraction and labour exploitation with the promise of social mobility. But racialization already marks the horizon of exclusion from the body economic, and racialized subjects, especially Black and Indigenous subjects, are frequently doomed to have their fiscal investments transformed into often deadly liabilities, as the subprime mortgage meltdown revealed. This is also revealed in the aftermaths of financial remedies offered to Indigenous nations in lieu of the repatriation of stolen lands.
Graeber’s work shows us that debt has always hidden and normalized social violence, making it appear that the oppressed and exploited owe something to the oppressor and exploiter while at the same time hiding the true debts owed for the perpetuation of these injustices. Wherever and whenever we see a well-publicized punitive debt, whether it is financial or moral, we should turn our critical eye towards what debts are being hidden. For instance, in the case of the debts that “developing” nations owe the “developed” we can often see the traces of unpaid reparations for centuries of colonialism, imperialism and enslavement. In the case of those incarcerated people who are said to owe a “debt to society” we can question the unpaid deficits of social care and poverty that have led to the conditions in which many people’s criminalized actions become likely or necessary.
The intersections of debt, empire and digital technology we list above do not constitute anything close to a comprehensive or systemic account of the topic, but are offered to excite the imagination towards curiosity for — and catalyze anger against — this fraught intersection.
Could debt be a platform for resistance to this neocolonial order? Many hopeful experiments have emerged in the past decade in this regard. The Debt Collective, which emerged in part out the Occupy Wall Street offshoot StrikeDebt, is attempting to use digital methods to organize a debtors’ union in the United States, mobilizing people who owe debts to a common creditor to band together to challenge their oppressor. Their most successful campaign to date has been a debt strike against Corinthian, a for-profit college that explicitly targeted poor Americans of color to invest in an already-sabotaged professional degree. This campaign cancelled millions of dollars of odious debt and led to significant changes to US law and policy.
Meanwhile, in Europe, citizens groups are challenging the agenda of austerity by creating networks of municipal organizations that undertake a people’s’ audit of government finances and debts, demonstrating that resources that exist to care for the population are instead being delivered to transnational financial vultures. These audits take inspiration from similar efforts in the 1990s and 2000s from the Global South.
Central to many of these efforts have been the contributions and interventions of artists. Debt is, ultimately, an imaginary set of relations between people, institutions and financial entities, and in an era when the will of global capital to sacrifice whole populations on the altar of corporate profit has reached a level of horrific absurdity it should be no surprise that artists find much material to work with. DebtFair, for instance, interrupts the financialized pageantry of the global art world with the specter of shows of artists selected by the debts they owe — often to the corporate patrons themselves.
And then there are those initiatives that seek to create a space of exodus from the debt system, within, against and beyond the current order — what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney signal as the undercommons. Cooperation Jackson, in Mississippi’s capital, for instance, has developed a profoundly inspirational set of experiments in creating a network of grassroots cooperatives that seek to directly challenge the racial order of wealth and economic control in the US South. The Madison, Wisconsin-based Mutual Aid Network, meanwhile, has created a hub for imagining new methods for organizing forms of cooperation and care that might allow us to survive and thrive beyond digital debt’s empire. In both cases, digital methods are important, but always as a means to an end.
We now have within reach powerful and capacious digital tools to allow us to reinvent social and economic relations in ways that draw on and reinforce non-exploitative social bonds. The task ahead of us is to approach these possibilities with complex stories. Given that global debt-driven capital is on a collision course with ecological catastrophe it can be tempting to imagine that we must forgo a discussion of the legacies and currents of race, empire and colonialism in the name of an emergency solidarity. But for some of us, the emergency began centuries ago with the viral spread of capitalism and colonialism, and without attending to these legacies and currents we may inadvertently renovate, rather than abolish and replace, the very systems we claim to be seeking to overcome.