In Praise of Usura

By Melinda Cooper and Angela Mitropoulos, 27 May 2009

In the subprime crisis, which followed a mass desire to live above one's means, the usury that allowed it demonstrates the connected notions of productive capital and the heterosexual family unit. Here, Melinda Cooper and Angela Mitropoulos trace usury's genealogy in political economics, and praise those subprime ‘speculators' who are inverting its exorbitant demands


In the heady maelstrom of official and tripled declarations of crisis  - not least, that of subprime - there are some notable phrases doing the rounds. With a recycled air of self-evidence, we have all heard of green new deals, and new readings of John Maynard Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, to note the most prominent. We had joked between ourselves, and somewhat grimly, that there would soon be more serious talk of the sin of usury, or that it would be taken seriously in widening circles. In other words, the various attempts to fasten panic to desire, under the rubric of such a perfect storm, would not only reach back to the moral economy of the 1930s for dubious inspiration. In the circulation of what would pass as critique and commentary, there would not only be talk of parasitic capital, of something called unproductive (or unreal) capital, or another round of calls for greater regulation, criminalisation, or to euthanise the rentier. Of these, there had been much discussion already. But, just to make everything more explicit, we thought that these motifs - these fantasies of equilibrium, without which no punctual definition of crisis is possible - would be joined by that of usury, that more medieval bundling of evils.


Image: A protest organised by City Life/Vida Urbana, Massachusetts, April 2008


In March 2009, and rehearsing an earlier piece in The Guardian, Ann Pettifor (self-described co-author of the Green New Deal and co-founder of Jubilee 2000) wrote for The Huffington Post on the need to revive the sin of usury. In the next month, Harper's published a special edition, featuring an article by Thomas Geoghegan on ‘infinite debt', in which he lamented the dismantling of ‘the most ancient of human laws, the law on usury.' Of six pieces carried on Democracy Now's website, five were published since January, while The Daily Kos carried a post in the same month entitled ‘Obama vs. Usury? Why Not?'

Much of the uproar had an obviousness about it. After all, the logic that proceeds from the announcement of a crisis in subprime to that of (as the jargon has it) the liquidation of toxic assets requires a moral turn against usury - and such that, among other things, words like liquidation begin to sound either reasonably bereft of consequence or morally obligatory. We will return to the question of these consequences below, but note that the current talk of usury marks, under the banner of a tripled crisis (energy supply, climate and finance), the re-invigoration of certain conservative agendas which circled around what the mainstream opted to call the anti-globalisation movement. And, just as the panic over some apparently new-found globalisation at the end of the 20th century was attended by an actual proliferation of controls on the movements of people - and in some notable instances, open alliances between greens, social democrats and xenophobic groups during the campaigns against the MAI and WTO in the late 1990s - we would argue that the inclination here is toward a normative rectification that is more or less violent in its requirements and decidedly transcendental in its vantage point.

We are not interested in rehearsing the debates over the branding of a series of anti-summit protests and the irreconcilable many who gathered there - over whether they were anti-globalisation, globalisation from below, anti-capitalist, or counter-globalisation. Plainly, they were all of those and then some. Yet, the alliances between parts of the left and right against globalisation were, even if only fleetingly, more than the mistakenly shared platforms of a few conferences and press releases. It might be better, then, to begin by noting that what Keynes, following a long tradition in political economy, described as counter-generation is nothing other than the condition of usurious debt. And, as with lyrical condemnations of ‘people smuggling' and ‘sex trafficking', which have unfolded their hypocrisy alongside the fortification of border controls (without which, it goes without saying, neither ‘people smuggling' nor hyperexploitation would be possible), so too the calls to reinstate the sin of usury are directed toward a restoration of boundaries. In accountant's language, and to borrow Pettifor's, this translates as a restoration of ‘faith and trust in the way banks do business'. At stake in current pronouncements against usury is the redemption of contract and control of issue. This is not only a question of banking but, more broadly, of faith, promise and the authentication of value as these resonate across contracts simultaneously rendered as social, marital, industrial and fiduciary.

The question of borders is, then, more than analogous. Recalling capitalism's bloody inauguration in the enclosures and witch hunts, and its most vicious moments since, sermons against the sin of usury have always implied that crises might be transcended in the determination of a boundary between that which is excessive and that which is proper. Usury connotes neither finance, nor interest, debt or capital, as such. Even less does it suggest a critique of finance, interest, and so on. To confuse this would be the first mistake. Usury is, more precisely, a signal of debts deemed exorbitant and illegitimate (if not exactly, or not yet, illegal). To denounce usury is to point an accusatory finger at debts whose repayment cannot be guaranteed and therefore should not have been promised. Unlike the debt that can be repaid, which in its repayment makes the future a calculable version of the present, usurious debt assumes the existence of an incalculable, unknowable - and, quite possibly inflationary - risk. In its malevolently construed history, usury has signified both unnatural generation and an obstacle to proper generation, not so much non-normative as abnormal.

Take Pettifor, writing in The Guardian, for whom usury is the accumulation of ‘reserves of unearned income' and ‘creating money at no cost', that is, both the absence of productivity and the seemingly magical accumulation of money. Elsewhere she calls bankers ‘wizards'. Usury is a complex semantic assemblage, irreducible to its intimate, political, sexual or economic registers. It is not, however, the ancient, pre-capitalist law overtaken by capitalism that Geoghegan and Pettifor imply. As expected, the medieval Church pronounced injunctions against usury depending on whether it was a lender or borrower but, more significantly, it mobilised its denunciations in the process of expanding a purgatorial market upon which it made rental claims of its own. In a philosophical-economic register, the sin of usury is the labour theory of rights (and of value) in its most forcefully capitalist form - i.e. most insistently naturalising, moralising and (re)territorialising.1 All questions of the authentication of value will be solved by invoking this right. It is labour that will distinguish what is counterfeit from what is real and has value, and that will differentiate hoarding from thrift, and so on. To be sure, it has its strongest philosophical precedent in the Aristotelian distinction between the oikos and the chrematistic, defined in turn as the productive household and an excessive love (of money) that does not result in production. Following Aristotle, Aquinas declared usury to be analogous to sodomy. Though nowhere, leaving aside Dante's Seventh Circle of Hell, is the demand that bodies partake in authentic, productive issue - whether what passes between them is defined as sex, labour, touch or communication - more spectacularly put than Ezra Pound's Canto LXV. A fragment:

Usura slayeth the child in the womb

It stayeth the young man's courting

It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth

between the young bride and her bridegroom


Pound, of course, goes on to intone that usury is contra naturam, against nature. Usury, for him, as for many before and since, indicates both unproductive excess and impotence. It is this condition which elicits the charge of usury, and the obligation to return to natural, productive arrangements through fiat and force, for example in the heteronormative household, in nationalism (or the domestic economy), in the guarantee of issue and the redemption of value through labour. That is, production and reproduction should be turned to their properly deemed effect and union. For this reason, the sin of usury was not only part of that medieval confluence that included the sins of sodomy and prostitution, sermons against gambling, the witch burnings, pogroms and anti-heresy trials. Nor was it only the pertinent aspect of national socialist and Shakespearian figurations of, respectively, cosmopolitan and faithless Jew - around which ressentiment would be organised and the fraternal equality of the nation restored. After all, the prohibition against usury was never invoked when the borrower was deemed a brother.

But the theme of usury returns in the 1930s, for socialists both national and democratic, because this time is marked by, among other things, the rise of line-work and the problem of its management - a problem that was simultaneously sexual, racial, libidinal, intimate and economic because it was a question about what bodies do and can be made to desire. In this instance, the management problem was resolved in a re-alignment of the connections between factory, household and domestic market that we call Fordism. Henry Ford's name is not only associated with a time of the fraternalised assembly-line and family wage. It also appears as the author of The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. What Ford reproached the International Jewish Banker for was not only his unproductive use of money, idle speculation and profit (that is, making money without recourse to labour), but an exorbitance in every sense: as too high, but also beyond the pale - in other words, a future unable to be captured by the productively interlocking flows, geopolitics, and architectures of gender, citizenship, sex and race.

Image: Chinese migrant worker returning to the countryside, Shangxi Province, December 2008


In this sense, current discussions of the sin of usury are not quite the anachronism they seem to be. It is no small matter that Pound's Canto begins: ‘With usura hath no man a house of good stone'. Usury is indeed disruptive of the normative household, the oikos that inclines toward productive pursuits. Denunciations of the corruptive influence of money on the poor, on women and the otherly-complexioned - or, less figuratively, on those deemed not to understand or unable to adhere to the conditions of the contract, or who squander money in enjoyments when they should be virtuously working - are a moral campaign against the spread of inflated desires as much as inflationary prospects and their deflationary comedowns; in other words, the possibility that the currency itself will be debased. This is the danger of surplus becoming excessive.

Keynes acknowledged in the General Theory that scholastic prohibitions against usury had the merit of allowing the ‘marginal efficiency of capital to be high, whilst using rule and custom and the moral law to keep down the rate of interest'. The rate of profit on ‘productive capital' would remain undiminished, even as interest rates on ‘unproductive' loan capital were curbed. The Keynesian taxonomy of economies is reminiscent of the medieval scholastics not only in its attention to the corrosive effects of interest-bearing capital on the social contract but also in its insistent sexualisation of the transactional relation as such. It is a question, then, of the security or insecurity of the contract (whether sexual or economic), and of the tensions between contract and circulation, the union and dissolution of bodies and fluids. Where the scholastics obsessed over the counter-natural acts of prostitution and sodomy - economies of desire which liberated transaction from the space of household consumption, generating pleasure from pleasure with no comparable investment in the reproduction of lineage and familial property - Keynes' idiom was that of medical hygiene. His exemplar of counter-natural generation is the solipsistic production of pleasure through masturbation. But the point remains the same: in its capacity to generate interest through the excessive liquidity of money, speculative investment is similar to the wasteful economy of masturbation. True enterprise, in contrast, puts the (re)productive potential of fluids to good use by securing their investment in the reproduction of ‘organic unities', be they familial or national. The Keynesian sexual problematic can be expressed as follows: how to domesticate the exorbitant contingencies of desire? How to contain the overly liquid circulations of body fluids within the genealogical space of household consumption, where its wastes can be redeemed? At one point, Keynes asks himself whether in fact the investor should be held to his investment by a contractual agreement on the model of the marital union:

the spectacle of modern markets has sometimes moved me toward the conclusion that to make the purchase of an investment permanent and indissoluble, like marriage, except by reason of death or other grave cause, might be a useful remedy for our contemporary evils.2

Ultimately, however, he opts for a settlement between the gambler's surplus consumption of pleasure and the reproductive investments of the marriage contract, the coincident application of stimuli and demand management on bodies demarcated and linked as households, superintended by the national convention as a way of channelling liquidity to the ends of long term growth. After all, marriage, whether gay or straight, is both a social and marital contract, as much about recognising the nation state's authority to vouchsafe issue and trust (and to link property to what is proper, possession to authenticity), as it is about some theoretically expansive recognition of couplings. But it might be noted that Keynes began his career as economic theoretician with a rebuke of ‘unfertile habits' in the English colonies. His was a Malthusian formula of population, production and territory that defines optimal population numbers according to their assessed levels of productivity. That this was the formula which bureaucrats of the German national socialist government relied upon in the path that went from labour camp to extermination factory should go without saying.

In any event, while this meshing of genealogy, intimacy and sex in the coupling of household and nation state might appear to unfold in a purely metaphorical register, as the figurative embellishment of Keynes' expositions on more strictly economic matters, it has had very literal consequences in the subsequent history of the national convention. In the Keynesian welfare state, the harnessing of finance to serve the interests of long term national production finds its moorings in the partitioning and regulation of the domestic space of (re)production and consumption. Quite simply, the Fordist conventions around industrial labour would not have been possible without a correlative regulation of the domestic economy of the household, secured through the legislative means of the family wage, normative social welfare and the eugenic combination of a de facto prohibition on abortion operating alongside enforced sterilisation and other punitive reproductive policies. In this way, unproductive life - life before and after work or rather life in excess of work - is recaptured in the reproductive margins of the normative household, redelivered in other words to the ends of proper social production and the reproduction of the time of labour. The Keynesian welfare state constituted the household as the ultimate foundation of the national economy. It is this foundational value which will guarantee the trustworthiness of state fiat money - a promise that all debt issued by the state will be redeemable, if only in the long run, premised as it is on the ‘free gift' of female labour and the familial consumption of the fruits of industrial labour. Yet, whatever else the history of the welfare state suggests, it is also the case that neither Fordism nor the welfare state extended their reach until the second half of the 20th century - and they did so in the wake of the conscriptions of labour and of violence and, not least, the industrialised liquidations that culminated in WWII. We are once again in a time of repatriations.

As Philippina domestic workers flee the upper class neighbourhoods of New York, Polish migrants depart the restaurants of London, and Bangladeshi construction workers board charter flights from the Gulf States under threat of losing their confiscated passports, we are witnessing a series of enforced repatriations on a massive scale, as far reaching and ‘informal' in its methods as was the preceding era of labour migration. This is the geopolitical and demographic face of debt redemption - perhaps the one immediate way in which the nation state is able to make good on its promise to purge ‘toxic assets' and restore confidence in its national currency. As economies retract into their domestic boundaries, there are striking parallels to be drawn with the crisis of the 1930s. Yet the situation today is immeasurably more complex. As the issuer of the world's reserve currency, the US economy is neither national nor international in the precisely Keynesian sense of the terms. Pivoting around the US Treasury Bond, the economies of the US and China are locked in a mutual embrace from which there is no possibility of peaceful exit, the one acting as the world's producer and exporter, the other as its consumer of last resort. Behind Obama's reassuring moves to usher in a new age of ‘cooperative partnership' between China and the US lies the uncomfortable fact that neither can realistically pursue its stated goals of reinvesting in its national economy (China in domestic consumption and the US in domestic production) without some major shift in global financial, political and military powers.

Image: Reoccupying a foreclosed home in Florida, helped by the Take Back the Land campaign, February 2009


What this suggests is that the current moment of repatriation is merely the prelude to a renewed deterritorialisation of capital flows on another scale and another basis. How this shift in the great powers will play out remains a matter of speculation, depending on the unfolding relationship between the US and China, on bargains made and broken over the distribution of ‘social unrest' and its management. But whatever the outcome, it is clear that the politics of the household is no longer (and perhaps never has been) a wholly domestic, or national, concern. This much was acknowledged by Bernanke when he accused the Chinese of having tendered the poisoned gift of easy credit to the American working class, while they themselves indulged in excess hoarding. The recent diplomatic manouevering of China, pursued during the long years of US military engagement in the Middle East, gives some indication of the stakes. Like many other countries, China responded to the financial crisis by repatriating its surplus population of internal migrants, while promising to reinvest in its domestic economy and extend welfare to its rural hinterlands. Such a reform, if carried out, would signal a radical turnaround to China's post-socialist household registration system, whereby China's rural workers were maintained at the borders of citizenship through constraints on mobility and access to welfare. The only way it could accomplish this feat is by again deterritorialising its household economy - perhaps this time by offshoring industrial manufacture to Africa and Latin America rather than insourcing its rural population as cheap migrant labour. If this were to occur it is not only China's domestic economy which would be profoundly affected but also the world-systemic co-dependency between the Chinese and US economies - a scenario which the US is at pains to avoid. Repatriation has its simultaneously geopolitical and familial aspects.

Insofar as the agenda of the incoming administration is to restore the integrity of the US dollar as the global reserve currency, it will also, necessarily, entail a more or less violent reinscription of the oikos. It is the North American household, after all, that most unassuming of categories in the budget itemising of economic theory, which has played the role of the world's consumer of last resort for the past decade or so, coupling the economies of China and the US in a creditor-debtor relation from which, it seemed until recently, there was no way out. More than this, the North American household had been targeted as an emerging consumer market for a proliferating range of new financial risk products, many of them designed to finance the everyday life of people who had long replaced the deferred gratification of the Keynesian wage with the borrowed time of the credit card. The evaluation of risk is not, of course, an exact science and relies much more on the psychology of confidence, trust and indeed moral judgement as on any probabilistic calculation of mathematical chance. This much was again confirmed by retrospective enquiries into the subprime debacle, which show that the ‘creditworthiness' of borrowers (prime, semi-prime and subprime) was more often than not calculated on the intangibles of race, gender and marital status as on net income, credit histories, and assets. What is known is that the greater proportion of subprime was composed of women, and African-American and Latina women in particular (most of those demographed as ‘single parent' households or living in non-normative ‘arrangements'). What is also clear is that the interest rates and contractual conditions of the subprime market were more exacting than in other loan markets - in some instances, those women were relegated to subprime loans even when earning as much as their white male counterparts.

When the deceptively homogeneous category of the household is scrutinised then, it splits open to reveal a Koch's curve of deflections from the norm. For while it may be true that we are ‘all subprime now' (in that the Keynesian ideal of life-long stable employment is the exception rather than the rule), in practice the pricing of risk is overtly contingent on the more or less normative (familial, sexual, racial) status of the borrower. Esteemed to embody the least exotic and least profitable of risks, the white male borrower was also offered the safest of mortgage contracts. Other contractors were assigned to the volatile fortunes of the variable interest rate. It was these risks, deemed to be the most exorbitant on offer, which would be repackaged into the more ostensibly exotic mortgage-backed securities, promising to render profits as vertiginous as their dangers - threatening also, at some point, to test the limits of market confidence in their long term investment quality. In the meantime what were once casually referred to as exotic financial instruments, by virtue of their incalculable promise, are now just as blatantly renamed toxic assets, which everyone wants to purge from their balance sheets.

As Keynes explains in the General Theory, the pricing of risk in the capital markets is comparable to a beauty contest in which investors assign their votes not so much on the basis of ‘real or fundamental aesthetic value', but rather on a continual, nervous assessment of other peoples' judgements. While the housing boom momentarily offered a kind of renewable redemption contract for the erstwhile Welfare Queen and other undesirables of the US economy, the very terms of the subprime contractual arrangement meant that these minority contestants would be the first to suffer the consequences of declining investor confidence. Pushing beyond the limits of normalisable risk, the specificity of late 20th century financialisation is the expansion of credit of all kinds to the riskiest of ‘at risk' populations including, it would seem, undocumented migrants. Now that the manic phase of credit creation has lost its nerve, the subprime class in the US is exhorted to live within its means in a virtuous gesture of belt-tightening - that is, to return to the ranks of race, sex and class. As the exotic sours into toxic, the expansion of investor confidence, ecumenical, liberal and even daring in its tastes, suddenly demands the immediate redemption of all debts.

Image: Bangladeshi migrant workers returning home, 2009


Viewed in this way, the political calculus of Obama's rhetoric of faith - household, work and confidence - assumes its full complexity. Obama's familial politics incorporates a moral discourse on the African-American household which is - for the moment, at least - benevolent rather than punitive, restorative rather than disciplinary and (perhaps most notably) directed more toward the African-American father than the welfare mother. This much distinguishes Obama's rhetoric from that of his predecessors. It remains, however, a moralising rhetoric. One which responds in very astute terms to the combined predicament of the subprime household and the faltering US dollar. Vowing to renew America's promise and redeem the trustworthiness of the US currency, Obama locates the foundation of this promise in the North American household - with a particular focus on its African-American incarnation. If the future of this household has been gutted by the subprime crisis then the solution offered by Obama is first of all a re-normalising one, most notably by restoring all fathers, black and white, to their position of responsible paternal figures. As stated in his campaign publication, Change We Can Believe In:

Barack Obama believes that of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, family is the most important. Fathers are critical to this foundation, but since 1960, the rate of American children without fathers in their lives has quadrupled, and more than 25 million children live without their biological fathers today. [...] Barack Obama believes [in] promoting responsible fatherhood and supporting families

Yet, in the absence of a credible bail-out directed at the subprime household, the discourse remains purely moralistic, a more or less veiled imputation of guilt through overconsumption (too much fun has been had, not pointing any fingers) which finds its counterpart in Black Nationalism and may some day be radicalised by more overtly nativist, survivalist and white supremacist elements in American political life, precisely those that have been reinvigorated by the groundswell of white working class opposition to Obama's election. Dion Dennis, writing for CTheory, astutely traces the history of prohibitionism through the time of Roosevelt's New Deal, suggesting that this finds one of its most recent expressions in an escalation of the war on filesharing and remix cultures.3 To his account, it might be added that the Great (Livejournal) Strikethrough of 2007 was as much a conflict over the norms of the sexual contract as it was the mark of that conflict's limit in digital labour's contractarian imaginary - these mechanisms presuppose the limit of the border construed as frontier, beyond which all forms of violence are permitted.4 In other words, this prohibitionist impulse makes its way through every possible formulation of identity (class, race, gender, citizenship, sex, generation, and so forth) on the basis of a morally radiating distinction between counterfeit and authentic, seeking the demarcation of zones and acts of illegal (re)production and, more significantly, reconstituting the powers to decide these distinctions (which is to say, to bring a legitimated, if not entirely naturalised, violence to bear).

Denunciations of usury amplify the questions of intimacy and genealogy around which labour is organised and contracted - they are the naturalising hinge between domesticity and the domestic economy, further tightening the links between the simultaneously sexual and political economies of domesticity and the domestic market (including the market in labour), and in preparation for redistributing people across their architectures, geographies and boundaries. We might point to the evictions of squatters and deportation of migrants from Jakarta; the pogroms against undocumented migrants and those ‘of Middle Eastern appearance' in South Africa, Italy, and Australia respectively (in Italy's case, surrounded by talk of ‘cleaning up the rubbish'); and the announcement of epidemics of child abuse as a prelude to real estate manoeuvrings, or pandemics as evidence of the hygienic importance of migration controls, as some of the ways in which repatriations have occurred recently.

Karl Marx's ambivalence on the question of the labour theory of right - an ambivalence that continues in the divergent legacies of socialist productivism and the refusal of work - is no more cause for hesitating in the face of these repatriations than can his critical remarks on the attachment of rights to production be set aside for the sake of conforming with the rise of a seemingly inexorable neo-Keynesian consensus. Indeed, when it comes to discussing usury, in the third volume of Capital Marx refers to it as the ‘occult property' of interest-bearing capital, insisting that it exploits the conditions in which it finds itself but in no way should be considered as having created them.5 For him, usury ‘lives in the pores of production, as it were, just as the gods of Epicurus lived in the space between worlds'. He goes on to say that ‘the usurer knows no other barrier but the capacity of those who need money to pay or to resist.' These reallocations - whether rendered as the liquidation of that which is toxic or (in the recent Italianate) a clearing away of the rubbish - seek to restore the borders, the filters and walls, between those who need money to pay and those who need it to resist. Here, violence is made rightful on the ground of the labour theory of right. As George Caffentzis puts it, ‘If the rentier, through his/her right of exclusion, disrupts the productive development of a profitable industry, then there is a right of the "more productive" to lay claim to the right of exclusion'.6 And what counts as labour is that which might, simply put, be counted, exchanged, made indifferent. Put schematically, the rentier lays out fence lines - within which there exists a monopoly on violence, including that which secures the legitimacy of the currency - can command labour to be exerted, guarantee contracts and so on. The rentier shifts from being a good (finance) capitalist to a parasitic usurer when they lend to those who cannot (or will not) repay. But the question for those of us who do not concern ourselves with balance sheets is how this ostensible conflict between good and bad capitalism unleashes a redemptive, morally sanctioned violence to, as Obama remarked, put ‘people back to work' or, on the other hand, declare them superfluous, parasitic or simply a barrier to more productive pursuits. Whether this legitimated violence unfolds in the form of what Tatjana Greif (in Reartikulacija) has referred to as the New Inquisition (against unproductive sex and gender indeterminacy) recently announced by Pope Benedict XVI in his pre-2008 Christmas address to the Roman Curia or, as with the emergence of the welfare state last century, in the expansion and proliferation of wars more officially declared and undertaken, the question is of the domestication of the crisis. There is no such thing as a non-violent counter-cyclical.

For Marx, the restoration of limits and boundaries does not mark the resolution of capital as such (as the moral critique of capitalism always imagines), but rather the retraction of credit which occurs once the expansive phase of capitalist debt creation has ceased to be profitable. Capital oscillates between the poles of credit expansion and credit retraction, and is maintained in tension between the two poles in a dynamic that is neither dialectical nor progressive. As such the restoration of boundaries of all kinds is a periodic necessity of capitalist accumulation, as intrinsic to the capitalist dynamic as the expansive production of credit. Yet while Marx acknowledged that the moment of restoration, in its abstraction, can take on any number of geographical, contractual and productive forms (from the enclosures to the wage contract to the creation of the poor houses) he was unable to perceive the dynamics of restoration in its most intimate operations. In other words, in those moments when it claims to reimpose proper boundaries on the sexual transaction, to reconfine production within the household economy of familial reproduction, and sexual transit within the genealogical limits prescribed by the race, people or nation.

Image: The Temporary School of Thought squat an opulent Mayfair mansion, January 2009


We are not, therefore, suggesting that Obama's moral reinscriptions of the household be supplemented with real economic supports of a neo-Keynesian kind in the manner, for example, of the family wage. This, indeed, is one of the demands of Obama's progressive Christian supporters, E. J. Dionne, and is one obvious direction in which demands for a living wage or basic income might unfold. Rather, we are interested in pushing the exercise in excess even further, in praise of a usurious economy from below that would begin with the most intimate of acts while breaking beyond their normative sexual and racial boundaries. Briefly put, how is it possible to live on borrowed time, to extend credit to oneself and others, while defaulting on the contractual arrangements one might have with the creditor? This is not an instance of declaring what is to be done, but of noting what is already occurring. Treasury Secretary Paulson was not so wrong in accusing the subprime class of being ‘speculators'. It is possible to separate the temporality of speculation from the obligation of debt, as long as living beyond one's means (which means living beyond the conditions of scarcity imposed by the wage) is no longer limited by a deference to repayment. As the foreclosures began, some defaulted on their debts while extending their own credit lines - the latter, often in the most practical of ways, by staying on after foreclosure and reconnecting energy. The merely private reocccupation of property could undoubtedly descend into the most reactionary of populisms - a survivalist protest against the federative, taxing state. But when the reoccupation extends beyond the limits of the private (whether in its strictly economic or infra-economic, familial and genealogical form) it enables connections of a more interesting kind. Some post-foreclosure squatting groups make a deliberate effort to separate re-housing from prior claims to ownership, therefore breaking with the moral pact between lineage, property and an authentic (i.e. non-usurious, repayable) debt. Generally, squatting networks have long been preoccupied with the question of how to reconnect and house without recourse to the identifications of race, class and sex that have a tendency to reform, even in the most marginal of spaces. In this regard, we could point to the queering of (some) European squatter spaces, the presence of undocumented women from Algeria in queer squats in France, or the regular traffic between queer, sex worker and undocumented squats of London, Oakland and Sydney. Moreover, the question of permanent occupation posed during the New School occupation - that of how to go beyond the ‘four sweating walls of privacy' - assumes a wider conflict over genealogy, territory and property beyond simply that which is manifest in the universities or contained under the heading of cognitive labour.

As it is, we would argue that the financial crisis is an effect of usury from below, a consequence of speculative household consumption that extended beyond the limits which were tolerable to capital. And so, while it is a commonplace to speak of predatory lending, it is too easy, we think, to assume that those who took out the loans had no sense of risk or, rather, did not strategise within the cramped conditions of what was a monetised, racialised and gendered housing regime well before the advent of subprime loans. Usury lives in the pores of production because that is where many live, or attempt to. Condemnations of usury, even where seemingly pronounced in the interests of the poor, have - as Marx noted - a tendency to ‘turn pious wishes into their very opposite during the process of realisation'. Disorganised from the perspective of social movement theory, and yet nevertheless effective, the subprime class rolled over their debts and lived beyond their means, generating surplus in the most unproductive of ways. The financial crisis signalled the existence of mass debt default and occupation, and was precipitated by the growing presence of usurious households. This unfolds as an experiment in the defamiliarisation of the nexus that binds intimacy, genealogy and productivity.


Melinda Cooper <melinda_c_e AT> is a theorist who lives in Sydney. She is the author of Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. She is currently working on two book projects: Turbulence - Between Ecological and Financial Crisis and Clinical Labour: Human Research Subjects and Tissue Donors in the Global Bioeconomy, the latter co-authored with Catherine Waldby


Angela Mitropoulos <s0metim3s AT> lives in Sydney. Some of her most recent writings are ‘Borders 2.0 - Future, Tense' (Mute) and ‘Oikopolitics, and Storms' (The Global South, 3:1)


1 For more on the labour theory of rights, see, Angela Mitropoulos, ‘The Social SoftWar',

2John Meynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishing, 2006, p.143. See,

3 Domestic War Redux: Obama, Digital Prohibition and the New "Reefer Madness"',

4 For more on the ‘strikethrough' see,

5 Chapter 36. See,

6 George Caffentzis, ‘Not Just Blood for Oil: The Political Economy of the War in Iraq',