Skip to content

Payment constraint as class structure

One of the effects of the debt relationship is to make the debtor experience themself as inferior, as an incomplete human, but one that complete themself simply by honoring their debts and paying them when due. The creditor, antisymmetrically, experiences themself to be superior, as an over-complete human, who holds some piece of the humanity of their debtors by virtue of holding the debt over them.

This creditor-debtor relationship inscribes a certain class arrangement. The creditor, ipso facto, is a part of the creditor class, the amalgamation of those in the creditor position, free to enter into privileged places and engage in the sociality befitting of one who is greater than human. The debtor, antisymmetrically, is consigned to a class of debtors, their individuality suppressed or confined to limited modes of being, determined ultimately by the insistence that they pay. This is the survival constraint (Minsky 1954; Neilson 2019) at the class level.

There is a parallel between the relationship between borrower and lender on the one hand, and that between capitalist and worker on the other. In payment terms, a lender of money expects a periodic cash inflow while the debt is outstanding; the seller of labor expects a periodic cash inflow while the labor contract is outstanding. If we think of a stream of cash flows as a kind of abstract financial asset, then the wage-earner and the lender are in an analagous position to one another, as are the wage-payer and the borrower.

But to see it this way is to overwrite the fact that the power differential works in opposite ways in the two situations: the class structure of the two problems is not the same: in the labor arrangement, the worker, the receiver of wages, is subordinate; in the debt arrangement, the lender, the receiver of periodic payments, is dominant.

To be emphasized here is that the payment constraint operates by taking a class phenomenon and turning it into an individual concern. This goes by the ungainly name of “responsibilization” in discourses around neoliberalism (somewhat randomly Fleming 2017; Fisher 2009): collective situations are made individual problems. The affective consequence for the individual (guilt, shame, fear) isolates and so prevents class solidarity.

This reading is correct but incomplete. What is missing (Connolly 2018) is that this phenomenon is much older than this contemporary understanding of it. It needs to be understood as primarily a colonial act. The force of debt is to create colonial subjects who cannot, by virtue of imposed but immutable categories such as race, escape from it. The relationship of creditor–debtor is interwoven with and often overlaps with the relationship of colonizer–colonized.


  • Connolly, N. D. B. 2018. “A White Story.”

  • Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

  • Fleming, Peter. 2017. The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation. London: Pluto Press.

  • Minsky, Hyman P. 1954. “Induced Investment and Business Cycles.” PhD thesis, Harvard University.

  • Neilson, Daniel H. 2019. Minsky. Cambridge: Polity Press.