“I have made some mistakes. That’s why you won’t be going to school this fall. It’s simple, true. I fucked up. But they do not make it easy on guys like me.” A Hologram for the King — Dave Eggers
When we think about debt there is a temptation to think on a global scale; the debt of countries—the national debt of straining European social democracies or the impossibility of the debt of developing nations. I would argue that debt is a central feature of what allows contemporary neoliberal capitalism to function. David Harvey writes “the promotion of levels of debt incumbency that reduce whole populations, even in the advanced capitalist countries, to debt peonage” exemplifies the fact that debt is not something that happens by chance, but is actively promoted within capitalism.
To understand a little of the background to this idea, one can consider the second essay from Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, where he develops the idea of there being creditors and debtors. He writes of an equivalence between injury (suffered by the creditor) and pain (to be delivered to the debtor). He suggests that the equivalence is that “instead of an advantage directly compensatory of his injury (that is, instead of an equalisation in money, property or some kind of chattel), the creditor is granted by way of repayment and compensation a certain pleasure, a sense of satisfaction—the satisfaction of being able to wield, without scruple, his power over one who is powerless.” A pleasure derived from inflicting pain on the debtor. This pain is what drives contemporary power structures—while it may not be physical pain that is forced upon the debtor, the tortuous mental and financial pain is what valorises capital in the present day. Through contracts, late payment fees, interest rates, pay-day loans and other mechanisms, capital is able to make the creditor and debtor relationship a cyclical one. It ensures that the debtor remains forever indebted to capital—the universal creditor. At the time, Nietzsche posed the question: “how can suffering be a compensation for ‘debts’?” and our modern system can answer this succinctly: it is not the suffering itself which is the compensation, it is what the suffering entails – not only guaranteed profits for capital, but guaranteed and exponentially increasing power over individuals and society at large. This power structure obviates how the creditor has not only a “claim on cruelty” but, more importantly, “a right to draw upon it.”
In Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel A Hologram for the King (AHFTK) debt plays a central role. The novel follows the story of Alan Clay, an American business-man in his mid-fifties, who travels to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to sell hologramatic IT technology to King Abdullah for use in the new, and as yet un-built, King Abdullah Economic City. Clay had enjoyed years of business success in the past, but now found himself struggling—he owes “$18k to a pair of bicycle designers […], Jim Wong, who had loaned him $45k, [and] another $65k or so to half-a-dozen friends and would-be partners.” We can read the desperation and anxiety in his Saudi transaction as unrelated to his desire for business success, but as being a way for him to relieve the burden of his debt. Indeed, we are told that “Alan’s commission, in the mid-six figures, would fix everything that ailed him.” Eggers presents a character here who, though we are told has familial and health problems, believes that the debt he faces is what is truly hindering his life. References to his financial failings and cash-flow problems pepper the text, and the reader feels a growing sense of angst with every private taxi and hotel room-service Clay orders. Debt in the novel weighs on Clay in the same way as the oppressive Saudi sun; it is everywhere and is inescapable.
Debt in the novel weighs on Clay in the same way as the oppressive Saudi sun; it is everywhere and is inescapable.
The text also allows us to grasp the fact that it is capital and not people who are the universal creditors; despite Clay’s business acumen and past successes, he is just as susceptible to the mechanism of debt as anyone. The effects of his indebtedness on his life are best exemplified in his worries over not being able to pay for his daughter’s next semester of college. Here we can see how the mechanisms by which debt operate are able to take control and power from the indebted and those who rely upon them.
The neoliberal characteristic of assigning blame to the poor and indebted for their own inability to fix their problems is prevalent in AHFTK and Clay continuously blames himself for circumstances out of his control: “I have made some mistakes.” “It’s simple, true. I fucked up.” “Had he planned better, had he not been so incompetent.” “He had twenty years to save $200k. How hard was that? It was ten thousand a year.” He blames himself for his failures to save: “All he had to do was save $60k and leave it alone. But he didn’t leave it alone. He played with it. He invested it.” The reader is presented with a snapshot of capitalist reality—Clay attempts to work within the neoliberal system of investments and risk, and is dutifully punished for his efforts. One is reminded of Lauren Berlant’s idea that to take part in the capitalist system is to be exploited. Effort is not rewarded, it is simply what is required, and there can be no existence outside of this exploitation. AHFTK presents the world in which capital takes on a religiosity; an invasive, controlling and all-encompassing power. When Clay asks the bank how the numbers for his credit score have been calculated, “the man chuckled, as if the two of them were considering the motivations of God himself.”
In his work on debt, Maurizio Lazzarato builds upon Nietzsche’s ideas, specifically those outlined above. He argues that the debt economy (as he terms it) has deprived people of political power, wealth and “above all, it has deprived them of the future, that is, of time, time as decision-making, choice, and possibility”. This lack of choice limits the potentiality of the future and, as Lazzarato argues, also serves to further entrench the power structure of neoliberalism. According to Lazzarato, Capital’s function is to turn people into the indebted man for life, and he points towards systems such as credit cards, which are carried with us at all times, as a way in which capital ensures “the automatic institution of the credit relation, which thereby establishes permanent debt.”
We can read Eggers’ Alan Clay as being a representation of the indebted man in Lazzarato’s terms; he is effectively controlled in his actions—unable to sway from his Saudi IT deal or take any risks because the system of debt “neutralises time” and “it must anticipate and ward off every potential “deviation” in the behaviour of the debtor the future might hold.” (Lazzarato) His actions are predictable to capital because they have left him with no other choice – he is part of the system, so he must be exploited. While the actions of the indebted man may be predictable to capital, the circumstances under which the indebted man lives are less so. This leads Lazzarato to suggest that Nietzsche’s version of debt “faces temporal indeterminacy and unpredictability” and this idea is what leaves Clay so powerless throughout the text. The novel concludes with his impotence in the face of his creditors following the failure of the IT deal (King Abdullah preferring to offer the contract to cheaper, Chinese businessmen), he decides to remain in Saudi Arabia: “He had to. Otherwise, who would be here when the King came again?” His inability to go home reflects the lack of choice his debt has engendered; the King may call at any moment with another opportunity, effectively ensuring that the indebted Alan Clay remains where he is, desperately waiting.
This implies that not only are there those for whom rules don’t apply—as we know from the world of hyper-mobile cybercapitalists under neoliberalism—but that, just as with American capitalism, what is offered and said is not necessarily what is true. It implies a different kind of globalisation where a model of American society can exist simultaneously with strict Wahhabism.
In the novel, Eggers presents the King as the embodiment of capital, and the salespeople waiting to present their IT system to him are kept waiting for weeks, being told that he is in another city or country. As the universal creditor, the King has complete control over their futures, and only he is able to decide when and on what terms their lives will resume. While this is reflective of many of the ideas discussed above, notably the powerlessness of the indebted, it also speaks to the theme of globalisation in the text. Specifically, the reader is expecting the novel to speak of the differences between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America—the way in which their societies approach the subject of capital, money, debt and work. However, what one finds is Clay is able to “party like it’s the end of a millennium” (Martina Sciolino) despite the strict laws governing culture, sex and alcohol consumption. Rules are broken by American, European and Muslim characters and “the whole country seemed to operate on two levels, the official and the actual.” (Eggers) This implies that not only are there those for whom rules don’t apply—as we know from the world of hyper-mobile cybercapitalists under neoliberalism—but that, just as with American capitalism, what is offered and said is not necessarily what is true. It implies a different kind of globalisation where a model of American society can exist simultaneously with strict Wahhabism.
These two modes of society would seem mutually exclusive but, through debt and impoverishment, the novel suggests that both types of societies retain similarities through class-based power structures. Clay is wandering through a half-finished apartment block when he stumbles across a group of migrant workers, he angers them and they begin to chase him through the decrepit, unfinished parts of the building. He eventually makes his way to the luxurious top floor where his pursuers do not follow. Clay questions “had they been scared off by this, the finished floor? Did their run of the building end here?” Eggers shows how in this Saudi society there are certain spaces where certain people are not allowed to go, and that these people are defined by their poverty and their immobility—their indebtedness. This draws parallels with American society in which the most indebted are the least mobile, the least able to actively chose their own paths. To cement this comparison, Clay believes that this was the reason they ceased their chase, since “it seemed to make a certain sense.” It is only through the nature of punishment that we can ascertain differences in the two systems: the punishments delivered within the Kingdom, which may manifest as physical pain, are written and (ostensibly) strictly enforced, whereas in the USA it is through monetary and mental pain that punishment is delivered—a pain that is inherent in the system itself and is delivered with no external force necessary.
In Volume 1 of Capital, Marx writes that “when machinery seizes on an industry by degrees, it produces chronic misery among the workers who compete with it”. Automation’s influence in global markets is also a recurring theme in AHFTK. However, this automation is not necessarily with machines, but with people who are, as Eggers writes, “so much like robots already, programmed and easy to manipulate.” This passivity among people signifies the transfer from a production economy, to a debt economy; under such indebtedness, people cannot but become automatons, as they exist within a system in which the universal creditor has all the power. This Marxian misery becomes the only way of life for the workers under neoliberal capital, and to think of another of Berlant’s ideas, this “ordinariness of suffering” is the direct and inevitable result of the debt economy. People are forced to ignore or try to forget this suffering, to make their lives seem more palatable and fulfilling, but this proves to be yet another mechanism by which capital valorises itself. As Nietzsche writes, “there can exist no joy, no hope, no pride, no real present, without forgetfulness.” With Clay, his forgetfulness lies in his willingness to remain in Saudi Arabia and try again; the fact that he believes that this time, unlike all the other times, things will work out better.
Harvey, D., New Imperialism., Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Nietzsche, F., On the Geneaology of Morals. London; Penguin Classics, 2013.
Eggers, D., A Hologram for the King. London: Penguin Random House, 2015.
Berlant, L. Cruel optimism. London: Duke University Press, 2011.
Lazzarato, M., The Making of Indebted Man. South Pasadena; Semiotext(e), 2011.
Dinerstein, Ana C et al., 2014. Debt, Neoliberalism and Crisis: Interview with Maurizio Lazzarato on the Indebted Condition. Sociology, 48(5), pp.1039–1047.
Sciolino, M., A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. Transnational Literature Vol. 5 no. 2, May 2013.
Marx, K., Capital Volume I. London; Penguin Classics, 1990.