The Power to Say No: Debt Cancellation and a Liberatory Income

How can we wager our future on the legacies and claims of those who – then as now – have been plunged into existential hardship by the ecological-economic complex? And how can we make such struggles a source of inspiration for a common cause? In his contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism” economic anthropologist Julio Linares is looking for answers.


It is interesting to use the word wager to speak about the future. The word for wager comes from the word in Old North French wagiere or its equivalent in Frankish wadja, which originally meant a promise or something pledged or sworn to, a guarantee or the payment of services, coming from the root word wages that we use today in contemporary English to mean the salary that people earn through selling their labor-time for money. It is tantalizing to use this word because at the same time, a wager also means to make a bet, to make a gamble about the future, and sacrifice something (today called “a security”) if one happens to lose on the bet. 

The wager of the wage

I would like to play with this “demonic ambiguity,” as Walter Benjamin once called the tension between Schulden (debt) and Schuld (guilt) in German, to that between wager and wages in order to ask a few questions of my own about the cosmology of capitalism before returning to the question posed by the editors of text series “After Extractivism.” 

How does capitalism wage war on people through the wager of the wage? Or, in other words, how does capitalism use wages in order to keep people in a constant gamble for their lives? 

If we think of capitalism as a type of casino, then answering these questions suddenly becomes easier. Take banks, for example, where most people currently deposit the incomes they earned from their work. Banks are the institutions of capitalism par excellence, a type of secular church where our debts get turned into gambles. Banks own our deposits and use them in bundles to make investments in undertakings they feel will win the most profit in the future, adjusting for risk. That is what investments are, really, a game where people gamble on the future using money. But it is not only banks, this casino capitalism logic is also used by states, businesses and industries. From the perspective of capital, wages are both a costly bet and a promise to pay people for selling their time, a debt paid in money for time. Using debt, capitalism wages war on people by betting on our future time, stealing the present through wages.

If the colonization of the future happens through money, then I think it is imperative that we free ourselves from it, so that we can reclaim back time. 

The cycle of wagedom 

As Orlando Patterson tells us in his monumental comparative study of slavery, we cannot understand slavery without looking both at the process of enslavement and manumission that slaves go through, from losing their social life, to becoming socially dead and to negating the negation of that very social death through regaining back freedom. Similarly, I believe we must also understand the cycle of wagedom that people go through in order to understand how to dismantle it.

The dependence on wage labor as the main source of income that humans depend on in order to live is quite a modern phenomena. It seems to have happened in a few phases. Intensifying with the enclosure movement of the commons in Europe and through the rise of capitalism, people have depended more and more on wages as they have lost access to their ancestral lands and communal structures for support. In antiquity and even the middle ages, waged work was a temporary phenomena and workers often had more power vis-à-vis their employers due to their small numbers (as was the case after the Black Death). In modern times wages worldwide represent one of the most important links that allows capitalism to keep going by sacrificing human time through labor markets and the global debt system which fuels it. 

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Today, for most people on the planet, the cycle of wage slavery starts from a young age, as young as four years old in some countries, where whole families have no choice but to collectively find various income sources in order to live, without access to any “formal” contractual jobs. 

While the meaning of what “children” are shifts over time, people working for wages from an early age was a common phenomena in Europe until the 19th century and it’s definition seems to be related to the nature of waged-work itself; it is only now that bourgeois morality and law have banned child labor in Europe, projecting a racist moral superiority on countries who still continue the practice, as if modern chattel slavery doesn’t have its roots with settler colonial European empires. 

Today, the European middle classes have three clearly demarcated phases for wagedom, which are telling of the larger ideology of work at play here.

The first phase can be defined as the pre-life of waged work, where children are defined as those people who do not engage in waged work until they are of ‘legal’ age to do so, a type of state of primordial innocence, where no bets can be made. The second phase follows as the end of innocence and the becoming of an “adult” as the suffering coming from the knowledge of work, defined as the years in which a person (often the archetypal man) sells their time for wages in order to gain one’s livelihood, for oneself and for the patriarchal family, or the life of waged work. The third phase is an interesting one, which is normally referred to as when people retire from waged work, the afterlife of work, known with many names such as having a pension or retirement in English or a jubilación in Spanish, literally a jubilee from work, or nyugdíjas in Hungarian, which means a person who receives a resting fee or a resting allowance. It is a type of redemption from work.

The pre-life, life, and after-life cycle of wagedom shows us an ideology of work where one is only freed from waged work after they have earned it with their lifes’ labor-time. The capitalist cosmology at play here of ‘Redemption after the Fall and Eden represented by the child-like ignorance of waged labor’ are simply old stories manifesting themselves in new forms under capitalist modernity, mediated through the fetishism of the wage and the debt system. The promise of redemption in the afterlife of waged work is sold to us as freedom, just like the promise of manumission was necessary as a means of disciplining slaves to behave, knowing that they will be released from slavery at some point. Retirement is thus the ideal owed ending to a life of work. In practice, however, there is no redemption for the majority of the planet. 

Because we are dealing with a cosmology here, the only way to fight it is by means of another one which exists outside of it, in order to break capitalism from within. 

The power to say ‘no’

To invoke this cosmology, it is important to remember that the genuine harmonization between humanity and nature depends fully on dismantling the regimes of domination that human beings have created with each other throughout time. In other words, the deepening imperial hierarchies of gender, race, and class are at the root of what is destroying the natural world. If we do not dismantle these systems of domination first, we cannot change our relationship to the world and gain real freedom.

This intuition sets the basis for our alternative cosmology of freedom, where we can only truly free ourselves by gaining the power to say no and abolish the systems of domination that are shaped by and at the mercy of capital. As we have seen, wages are bets that capitalists make to ensure the future at the expense of our continued domination. They sacrifice money, we sacrifice time. In order to flip the capitalist cosmology around, it seems that we have to free our time by freeing money itself. Only in this way can we hope to have the power to say no to the gambles of capital.

By freeing money, I mean two things: First, changing the way that we receive money and relate to it, from a disciplining conditional gamble where we only receive money in exchange for work, to an unconditional guaranteed income that we have just because we exist, without the need to engage in waged work. Second, freeing people from their debts. I do not only mean at the personal level but also at the regional, national and international level, as colonial extraction just means more destruction for the planet. 

By freeing money we can free up our time. By freeing up time we gain the power to decide which relationships we would like to enter and which ones we want to say no to. No to a boss or a corporation, no to a violent partner, or no, even, to the state. 

The liberation from wages – e.g. in the form of an unconditional income – can give us the power to dismantle current social hierarchies, as people would now have the time and the power to say no to those who oppress them. The unconditional abolition of debts can free people and countries from colonial subjugation, that today have to decide between paying back illegal loans or feeding people. 

Weaving back to the original question posed by the editors: how can the struggles of people who have been plunged into existential hardship by the system serve as an inspiration for a common cause? 

Let’s take so-called sacrificial zones as an example. These are territories where mining and fracking are destroying entire indigenous nations, towns, and living systems, as illustrated by the struggle against fracking in Argentina’s Vaca Muerta or the struggle of the Yukpa nation in Colombia against the Drummond open pit coal mine, one of the largest mines in the world. For people struggling against capitalism in these territories, climate change is not an abstraction but a very real problem which threatens their very existence. Despite this, people have against all odds organized effective forms of resistance, fought back and have effectively said no to colonial companies looking for coal and gas. 

Recently, people from these territories and many others have started the Debt for Climate movement (Deuda x Clima). Confronting extreme debt as a major impediment to realizing environmental justice, they demand the unconditional cancellation of all debts that are owed to imperialist organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The Debt x Climate movement aims not just at the cancellation of colonial debts but also at economic restitution, reparations and, above all, justice.

In territories plagued by the specter and violence of (“green”) extractivism, strengthening the power to say no can happen through both the abolition of debts and an unconditional income given to all people within such contexts and others alike. Debt cancellation would ensure that whole countries have the power for their own self-determination and not be bound by monetary imperialism. A liberatory income would make people be at the center of their own economy, giving them the resting allowance to care for each other and their rivers, forests, mountains, jungles, lakes and oceans, rather than finance fueling parasitic mining corporations looking to profit from the extraction of the Earth’s minerals at the expense of people’s lives.

People’s cultures exist because of their relationship to each other with those rivers, forests, mountains, jungles, lakes, and oceans. Our debts are, as the Debt x Climate says, with them. By bringing forth the power to say no, we can collectively change the course of human history and stop capitalism from it’s wake.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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