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From the beginning, capitalism has established an intimate connection with individual lives, formerly based on the exploitation of specific skills in the form of work. The real change is that today at stake are not only specific services, but the whole of life and the very capacity of human living to assign a value to it. This phenomenon has emerged in all its radicalism with the affirmation of neoliberal policies, basically designed to turn the market into the very principle of political government and to thus turn economic rationality into a normative logic able to comprehend all areas both public and private, from the state to the most intimate aspects of human subjectivity.

This aspect was rendered even more acute by the consequent process of financialization of the economy. In this sense, a paradoxical form of asceticism can be called into play in the contemporary capitalist forms of power. In this work the notion of “ascesis” is fundamental to understand the power and the “spirit” of capitalism – i.e., the “governmental power” (Foucault) – not only because, in Weberian terms, this is characterized by renunciation, by valuing diligence in earning and saving money, but because it is fundamentally the practice of life that can “electively” be integrated within the capitalist modes of production.

One crucial dimension of this historical process is the development of new and ever changing forms of debt: social, financial. In this exclusive Public Seminar piece Elettra Stimilli shares the introduction to her book, The Debt of the Living (SUNY Press), which presents an in depth study of these dynamics within modern capitalism. The full introduction can be read here. Stimilli’s Debt and Guilt is forthcoming form Bloomsbury.

Elettra Stimilli is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. She is the author of Jacob Taubes (2004) and The Debt of the Living (2017) and the editor of Italian Critical Thought (2018).