Un Magazine 9.1

Debt striking and collective anonymity: the search for an identity beyond the constraints of neoliberalism

Sophia Dacy-Cole




‘The practice of happiness is subversive when it becomes collective.’1

The idea that we must move towards more collective ways of understanding ourselves as subjects is so commonly held it is almost a priori. Perhaps the most surprising and amusing call to community I have encountered recently is in K-Hole marketing report Youthmode. K-Hole is a US-based trend-forecasting group, whose reports function simultaneously as art-world institutional critique and as marketing data, and whose recent report attributes normcore to the desire of contemporary youth to experience community.2 Accounts of how community may be found vary widely. The conflation of a desire for a collective identity with a nauseating fashion trend exemplifies both collectivity’s ubiquity and its vulnerability, like all other things, to commodification.

To speak of the subject these days is to speak of the control society. Life has changed radically since the rise of neo-liberalism and the attendant transition from a discipline society to the societies of corporatisation ushered in by the 1980s. As our society moved from a production-line economy to an information economy, work time insidiously slithered into home time. Corporate strategies, like Amazon’s dog-friendly headquarters, entice the employee not to go home, while still having her best friend at her side.3 The subject begins to identify herself almost purely through her labour, which is never-ending. And she alienates herself from those around her: the more she identifies with her labour, the more she becomes complicit in the myth of meritocracy and competition for work.

This conflation of the subject with her labour is exacerbated by her debts. Wage repression since the 1970s and 1980s has meant that the subject must go into debt in order to obtain basic life necessities.4 It is then difficult for her to change her situation: a fantastic trick of capitalism is convincing us that it is our sole responsibility to change our own circumstances. This is why Coca-Cola encourages us to recycle yet successfully sued the Northern Territory over a cash-for-cans scheme that would have cost Coke ten cents an item.5 This is why our economy runs on credit while we are told that our debt is our personal ­responsibility. As a result the contemporary subject is overworked but cannot stop working because she understands herself through her labour, as she carries the heavy weight of her debt. On top of this weight, she has the pressure of changing her own life, by herself.

Deleuze assures those fearing the control society that ‘there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.’6 If the heart of the problem is our alienation and enmeshment in individuating pursuits, it seems necessary to look for ways of ­re-imagining more interdependent ­subjectivities.

In her recent text Lost Properties, Chris Kraus argues for the inclusion of certain activist praxes into art discourse, stating ‘the desire to pursue a life in ‘fine art’ simply means a desire to respond creatively to the present’.7 Chantal Mouffe takes this assertion further, arguing that agonistic artistic practices are uniquely suited to challenge the hegemonic order by disrupting its invisible structures: rendering them visible.8 I would add Brian Massumi and Erin Manning’s observation that ‘every practice is a mode of thought already in the act’.9

The work of the artist group Bernadette Corporation (BC) is an enigmatic study into collective collaboration with ambivalence towards individuated identity at its core. This ambivalence is central to their 2003 anti-documentary Get Rid of Yourself that explores attempts at outright rejection of neoliberal selfhood. Set in the 2001 G8 riots in Genoa and their immediate aftermath, the hour-long film flips between archival riot footage, anarchist interviews and fashion shoots.

The work is deeply earnest in its cynicism, with impassioned monologues and incisive criticism of capitalism on the one hand, and on the other, cuts to modeling photo shoots and New York it-girl Chloë Sevigny rehearsing her own version of the anarchist monologues. The film begins with a voiceover of Sevigny reading what appears to be a Black-Bloc manifesto: ‘a whole counter world of subjectivities, who no longer wanted to consume. Who no longer wanted to produce. Who no longer even wanted to be subjectivities.’10 The irony of having a minor celebrity speaking about no longer wanting to have a subjectivity is clearly intentional. The imperative to ‘get rid of oneself’ is shown in the film through the juxtaposition of seeming opposites: dissolving into the anarchist Black-Bloc on the one hand, or dissolving into consumerism on the other. A causal correlation between consumerism and the oppressed subject informs much left-wing rhetoric, evidenced by the current trend for simple lifestyles, from freeganism to freecycling to the tiny home movement. It is also shared by some of the anarchists that BC document, with one lamenting that ‘all this could be different. The rules of consumerism are just too stupid to deal with.’ But Get Rid of Yourself is an explicit attempt to reject left-wing assumptions, to ‘refuse the representational politics of the official Left.’11 Through this refusal, BC proposes that consumption is merely correlative to our misery, the real cause is the oppression of identity. This conviction has been a tactic of the group since its inception. They describe their choice of name as ‘the perfect alibi for not having to fix an identity’.12 And their two immediate works following the film also took collective anonymisation as their method. Their book, Reena Spaulings is a novel written by a committee, undermining the trope of the genius author, and their 2009 epic poem A Billion and Change was co-authored by the group. This resistance to individual valorisation or authorship provides temporary relief from some of the squeeze of the neoliberal subject: the individual is released from conflation with her work and the attendant alienation. For the Bernadette Corporation, then, the collective is not an end in itself, but rather a tactic for getting rid of oneself. Of course, while looking towards this tactic of collaboration and de-emphasis on self-hood may provide relief from the ravages of work, it does not release our proverbial subject from her reason to work: the debt economy. For this, I look to a more recent project.

An offshoot of Occupy New York’s Strike Debt! collective, the Rolling Jubilee is a ‘bailout of the 99% by the 99%’: a group of debtors who eliminate the debt of others. The group’s method is a direct response to one of the more bizarre strategies of the debt economy: the selling of debt to third parties. It is common practice in the financial sector to bundle debt and sell it on to debt collection agencies, which buy debt at a reduced rate and then collect the profits.13 The original lender has nothing to do with the debt after making the sale. This makes it chaotic for the debtor to trace her own debts and ensures that the lender can lend money at exploitative or impossible rates, knowing that it will not effect them if the debtor is unable to make her payments. The method of Rolling Jubilee is simple and effective: fundraise, buy the debt as a third party and then ‘forgive it’. The message is embedded in the action: every debt forgiven publicises the inhumane absurdities of the debt economy, ameliorates an individual’s life and demonstrates the effectiveness of collective mobilisation. This incisiveness led Chris Kraus to describe it as a work of conceptual art. Kraus argues that the project is more elegant than historic political art as it is a mutable response to its actual political conditions, and not merely a static archiving of the idea of politics.14 The gesture of the work moves it somewhere between our understandings of poesis and activism. But it is the reimagining of present conditions that makes it so exciting.

The Rolling Jubilee engages old dreams of another era by adapting union methods to the particular constraints of neoliberalism. In ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, Deleuze argues that unionism is ineffective in control societies because employees are alienated and individuated by the corporate model; the leverage of us-against-the-boss is no longer effective when there is no us.15 Forebodingly he explains that unlike unionists of times past, ‘man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt’.16 But Strike Debt! and the Rolling Jubilee illustrate that society is still organised into discrete groups: the worker and the boss become the debtor and the lender. As I write this, the Rolling Jubilee is standing in solidarity with Strike Debt!’s first group of ‘debt strikers’: a group of students known as the Corinthian 15 who are refusing to pay their debts to their for-profit university. The Rolling Jubilee has responded by eliminating $13 million of student debt owed to Everest College, a subsidiary of Corinthian.17 The Corinthian 15 have given Strike Debt! the opportunity to launch their new project, Debt Collective, described as a debtor’s union. Strike Debt! and the Rolling Jubilee use reconfigured techniques to perform a very traditional yet hopeful technique of collective organising. The group exemplifies the long-held belief that by banding together we might ameliorate the oppressive conditions of some, and the hope that this will lead to the reconfiguration of the lives of many.

Bernadette Corporation and the Rolling Jubilee help us to imagine what a collective identity might be, and how it might ameliorate the difficulties of neoliberal subjectivity. Bernadette Corporation undermines the importance of the individual, relieving the subject of the suffocating conflation of herself with her work and the Rolling Jubilee challenges the debt structures that necessitate her constant work. Both of these practices show how we might collectively imagine new ways of knowing ourselves: practices by which we might enact radically emancipatory modes of thought.

Sophia Dacy-Cole is an MFA candidate at Monash University. She is an artist and an environmental activist, but isn’t really sure which one is which anymore.

  1. Bifo Berardi quoting A/traverso Collective in his essay ‘Anatomy of Autonomy’, Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi (eds), Semiotext(e), Cambridge Massachussets, 2007, p. 133. 

  2. K-Hole, Youth Mode, 2012, khole.net/issues/youth-mode/, accessed February 2015. ‘Normcore doesn’t want the freedom to become someone. Normcore wants the freedom to be with anyone…In Normcore one does not pretend to be above the indignity of belonging.’ Normcore is a current fashion trend which privileges fitting-in over performing difference. It has been described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a trend in which ordinary, unfashionable clothing is worn as a deliberate fashion statement’ and by New York Magazine as ‘Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.’ 

  3. Corina Zappia, ‘I Was an Amazon Chew Toy,’ the Awl, www.theawl.com/2015/01/i-was-an-amazon-chew-toy, accessed February 2015. 

  4. David Harvey, The Crisis of Capitalism, lecture delivered to the Royal Society of Arts, London, 26 April 2010, accessed February 2015 www.youtube.com/user/theRSAorg. In his humorous video about the Global Financial Crisis, radical sociologist David Harvey describes the current phenomenon of ‘wage repression’, as a stagnation of the minimum wage since the 1970s and 1980s. The introduction to Strike Debt’s Debt Resister’s Operations Manual, available online at strikedebt.org/drom/, traces minimum wage stagnation in the United States of America back to 1969 and has an interesting discussion of the effect of the phenomenon on the contemporary United States 99%. 

  5. Tony Wright, ‘A Policy Worth Bottling’, Insight, SBS, 2014, www.sbs.com.au/news/insight accessed February 2015.
    Brené Brown, ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, TED, 2010, accessed February 2015. Alyssa Battistoni, ‘Toward Cyborg Socialism’, Jacobin, Volume 13, 2014, www.jacobinmag.com/ accessed February 2015. ‘It’s ridiculous that we still bracket climate change and water supplies as specifically ‘environmental’ issues: the questions at hand are ones of political economy and collective action.’ 

  6. Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October, Vol. 59, Winter, 1992, p. 4. 

  7. Chris Kraus, Lost Properties, Semiotext(e), 2014, p. 8. 

  8. Chantal Mouffe, ‘Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces’, Art & Research, volume 1., no. 2, 2007, accessed February 2015. ‘To grasp the political character of those varieties of artistic activism we need to see them as counter-hegemonic interventions whose objective is to occupy the public space in order to disrupt the smooth image that corporate capitalism is trying to spread, bringing to the fore its repressive character.’ 

  9. Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2014, Loc. 52. 

  10. Get Rid of Yourself employs footage of Black-Bloc interventions. The Black-Bloc is a protest tactic, often paired with anarchist ideologies whereby participants cover their distinguishing features in black clothing and sunglasses in order to remain anonymous, protect themselves from pepper spray and promote solidarity. 

  11. Bernadette Corporation, Get Rid of Yourself, accessed February 2015. 

  12. Chris Kraus, Where Art Belongs, Semiotext(e), Cambridge Massachusetts, 2011, p. 44. 

  13. Australian Competition and Consumer Commision, Debt Collection Practices in Australia Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2009. www.accc.gov.au/
    system/files/Debt%20collection%20practices%20in%20Australia.pdf, accessed February 2015. A discussion of debt assignment in Australia authored by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. 

  14. Kraus, op. cit., p. 8. 

  15. ‘The work of activist group Rolling Jubilee, an ingenious project that uses raised money to purchase bundled bad debt for just pennies on every dollar, goes straight to the conceptual heart of semio-capital, in ways that materials-based, old-fashioned ‘political art’ can only contemplate. Instead of producing objects that fetishize past revolutions, projects like Rolling Jubilee abstract the concept of debt with wit and elegance, and in the same gesture, attack and ameliorate it.’ 

  16. Deleuze, op. cit., p. 7. ‘One of the most important questions will concern the ineptitude of the unions.’ 

  17. Ibid., p. 6.