Global Debt and Parallel Universe
An electronic billboard in Times Square displays the American public
debt, an astronomic figure of some thousands of billions of dollars which
increases at a rate of $20,000 a second. Another electronic billboard at the
Beaubourg Center in Paris displays the thousands of seconds until the year 2000.
The latter figure is that of time, which gradually diminishes. The former figure
is that of money, which increases at a sky-rocketing speed. The latter is a
countdown to second zero. The former, on the contrary, extends to infinity. Yet,
at least in the imaginary, both of them evoke a catastrophe: the vanishing of
time at Beaubourg; the passing of the debt into an exponential mode and the
possibility of a financial crash in Times Square.
In fact, the debt will never be paid. No debt will ever be paid. The
final counts will never take place. If time is counted [si le temps nous est
compte], the missing money is beyond counting [au-dela de toute comptabilite].
The United States is already virtually unable to pay, but this will have no
consequence whatsoever. There will be no judgment day for this virtual
bankruptcy. It is simple enough to enter an exponential or virtual mode to
become free of any responsibility, since there is no reference anymore, no
referential world to serve as a measuring norm.
The disappearance of the referential universe is a brand new
phenomenon. When one looks at the billboard on Broadway, with its flying
figures, one has the impression that the debt takes off to reach the
stratosphere. This is simply the figure in light years of a galaxy that vanishes
in the cosmos. The speed of liberation of the debt is just like one of earth's
satellites. That's exactly what it is: the debt circulates on its own orbit,
with its own trajectory made up of capital, which, from now on, is free of any
economic contingency and moves about in a parallel universe (the acceleration of
capital has exonerated money of its involvements with the everyday universe of
production, value and utility). It is not even an orbital universe: it is rather
ex-orbital, ex-centered, ex-centric, with only a very faint probability that,
one day, it might rejoin ours. That's why no debt will ever be paid. At most, it
can be bought over at a bargain price to later be placed back on a debt market
(public debt, national debt, global debt) where it will have become a currency
of exchange. Since there is no likely settlement date, the debt has an
incalculable [inestimable] value. As long as it hangs like that over our heads
with no reference whatsoever, it also serves as our only guarantee against time.
Unlike the countdown which signifies the end of time, an indefinitely deferred
debt is the guarantee that even time is inexhaustible... And we really need a
virtual time insurance since our future is about to dissipate in real time.
Clearing the debt, settling the accounts, cancelling the payments by
the Third World... Don't even think about it! We only live because of this
unbalance, of the proliferation and the promise of infinity created by the debt.
The global or planetary debt has, of course, no meaning in the classical terms
of stock or credit. But it acts as our true collective credit line, a symbolic
credit system whereby people, corporations, nations are attached to one another
by default. People are tied to each other (this goes for the banks too) by means
of their virtual bankruptcy, just as accomplices are tied by their crime.
Everyone is certain to exist for the other in the shadow of an unamendable and
insolvable debt for, as of today, the total amount of the global debt is much
larger than the total amount of available capital. Thus, the debt no longer has
any meaning but to unite all civilized beings to a same destiny served on
credit. A similar thing takes place with nuclear weapons whose global capacity
is much bigger than what is needed to destroy the entire planet. Yet, it remains
as a way of uniting all of humankind to a same destiny marked by threat and
At least, it is easier now to understand why the Americans are so
eager to advertise their domestic debt in such a spectacular manner. The Times
Square initiative is designed to make the state feel guilty about the way it
runs the country, and intended to warn the citizens about the imminent collapse
of the financial and public spheres. But, of course, the exorbitant figure
deprives the billboard of any meaning (even figures have lost their credit
line). In fact, this is nothing more than a gigantic advertising campaign and,
by the way, this is why the neon "billboard" is made to look like a triumphant
stock exchange quotation that has gone over the top. And people stare at it,
fascinated by the spectacle of a world performance (in the meantime, people
rarely look at the numerical time clock at Beaubourg to witness the gradual
ending of this century). People are collectively in the same situation as that
Russian test pilot who, until the very last second, was able to see his airplane
drop and crash on the video system of his Tupolev jet. Did he have the ultimate
reflex to look at the image before dying? He could have imagined his last living
moments in virtual reality. Did the image survive the pilot, even for a tenth of
a second, or vice versa? Does virtual reality live on after the catastrophe of
the real world?
Our true artificial satellites are the global debt, the flows of
capital, and the nuclear loads that circle around the earth in an orbital dance.
As pure artifacts, with a sidereal velocity and an instantaneous capacity of
reversal, they have found their true place. This place is even more
extraordinary than the Stock Exchange, banks, or nuclear stockpiles: it is that
of the orbit, where they rise and set like artificial suns.
Some of the most recent of these exponentially developing parallel
worlds are the Internet and the many worldwide webs of information. Each day, in
real time, the irresistible growth (or outgrowth perhaps) of information could
be measured there, with numbers representing the millions of people and the
billions of operations that they cover. Information now expands to such an
extent that it no longer has anything to do with gaining knowledge.
Information's immense potential will never be redeemed and it will never be able
to achieve its finality. It's just like the debt. Information is just as
insolvable as the debt and we'll never be able to get rid of it. Collecting
data, accumulating and transporting information all over the world are the same
thing as compiling an unpayable debt. And here too, since proliferating
information is larger than the needs and capacities of any individual, and of
the human species in general, it has no other meaning but that of binding
humankind to a destiny of cerebral automation and mental underdevelopment. It is
clear that if a small dose of information reduces ignorance, a massive dose of
artificial intelligence can only reinforce the belief that our natural
intelligence is deficient. The worst thing that can happen to an individual is
to know too much and, thus, to fall beyond knowledge. It is exactly the same
thing with responsibility and emotional capacity. The perpetual intimation of
the media in terms of violence, suffering, and catastrophe, far from exalting
some sort of collective solidarity, only demonstrates our real impotence and
drives us to panic and resentment.
Caught in their autonomous and exponential logic, all these parallel
worlds are like time bombs. It is more obvious with nuclear weapons, but it is
also true of the debt and capital flows. The smallest intrusion of these worlds
into ours, the least noticeable encounter between their orbits and ours, would
immediately disrupt the fragile equilibrium of our exchanges and economies. This
would (or will) be the same with the total liberation of information, which
could transform us into free radicals desperately searching for our molecules in
a scanty cyberspace.
Reason would probably insist that we include these worlds into our
homogeneous universe: nuclear weapons would have a peaceful use, all the debts
would be erased, all the flows of capital would be reinvested in terms of social
well-being, and information would contribute to knowledge. This is, no doubt, a
dangerous utopia. Let these worlds remain parallel to ours, let their threats
hang up in the air: their ex-centricity is what protects us. For, no matter how
parallel and ex-centric they may be, they are in fact ours. We are the ones who
created them and placed them beyond our reach, as an ersatz of transcendence. We
are the ones who placed them on their orbits as some sort of catastrophic
imaginaries. And it is perhaps better this way. Our society was once solidified
by a utopia of progress. It now exists because of a catastrophic imaginary.
"Global Debt and Parallel Universe" was originally published in French by
Translated by Francois Debrix. Francois Debrix is a Ph.D. candidate in
Political Theory and International Relations at Purdue University.
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