Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 2 “Chained to the Past”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Kathryn Tanner’s second lecture “Chained to the Past” analyzes how Capitalism construes subjects’ relation to the past by constraining present and future action to the givens of the past. She explores the configuration of debt as well as workplace management in which the past takes on extraordinary significance, and, to use her words “chains people to the past.”

One paragraph summary: Capitalism collapses the present and future into the past by way of debt and promises of future action that accompany workplace obligations. Finance sets the goal or objective, but leaves individuals to manage the means. One must attempt to control future contingencies so they don’t get in the way of past promises. Governments are affected too, but finance and corporations’ relation to the past is easily breakable by cashing out. The subject capitalism creates is one chained to the past; one who must act in accordance with past promises regardless of the volatility of the present. To counter this effect, Tanner looks to Christian views of the past. Conversion is a radical interjection and one becomes a new creation, no longer the result of the past. Conversion, does not, however merely replace the past with a new promise for future righteousness or perfection. In Tanner’s account, we have Christ’s righteousness through our attachment to him, and God’s agency bridges the gap between who we are and who we will one day be.

In finance-dominated capitalism, a good share of profit is made through debt. Individuals take on debt to make up for what the government or corporations no longer give to them. For instance, in the United States, federal and state governments have cut aid to higher education, but the government has taken many steps to make it easier for individuals to contract debt to pay for their education themselves. In other forms of debt, such as debt taken out to meet basic necessities, no new value is often created unlike traditional business lending for capital investment.

In capitalism, one makes a promise to act in the future, whether this is through agreeing to pay back debt or in accepting the terms of less-than ideal employment. Summarizing the general situation, Tanner says, “Every present is past preoccupied and nothing more is to be expected in the future than what the past has already laid down.” Tanner stresses the inexorable quality of past decisions. They are often unnegotiable regardless of the change in one’s circumstances (e.g. one has set monthly interest payments required regardless of income fluctuations). The result of these past decisions often means that one must manage all future contingencies oneself so that they do not get in the way of past promises.

Finance sets the objective, or the target, but it leaves the means one’s own responsibility. One must manage oneself in a way that meets the end objective set by finance. Whatever impediments that arise in the meantime are viewed as the responsibility of the worker or borrower, and thereby this self-management acquires a moralizing character. Further, the objectives set by the past are often nearly impossible to meet, and the extremely volatile environment of everyday life makes meeting these expectations even more difficult (manifested in job anxiety, for instance).

However, the situation is different for creditors and corporations themselves who, through working the stock market, can easily cash out whenever they want. They, in contrast to the average citizen, are not chained to the past. This also manifests in the rising popularity of Post-Fordist methods of production, Tanner argues. New management and production techniques ensure that no slack exists in the work environment and that all products are sold immediately after they are produced. Before, workers may have been able to rest, or compensate for slowness, when stockpiles meant that production could be slowed or stopped altogether for a short time. In today’s climate, Tanner argues, this is not true – there is always something to be done because the demands are constant. Work requires constant exertion because the contemporary workflow has near zero slack. Moreover, other past links in the production chain determine what one must do today.

In finance dominated capitalism, “the setting of nearly impossible demands is an intentional strategy for extracting the greatest possible effort from workers.” This may be due to shareholder desires, for instance. It results in using less, but harder worked employees. Tasks become more difficult by design so that increased productivity and performance is forced.

Tanner details the phenomena of the increasingly sub-contracted workplace, or the “core-periphery model.” Only the most profitable divisions are kept in-house (e.g. sales and design) while all other corporate needs are contracted to other companies (e.g. cleaning, production). This is generally just a feature of attempting to minimize costs as those less profitable divisions profit margins’ are quite low. We see the result of this structure especially in the third world where companies contract out production. Workers are worked incredibly hard so as to minimize their costs to make contacting them more desirable. A race to lowest cost arises in which contractors compete over who can pay their workers less (merely a feature of market competition at this point). As a result, the lead company who merely designs and sells the product, for example, makes outsized profits relative to what could be possible if all corporate divisions were in-house.

Shifting gears back to debt, Tanner notes that ideally profits made from lending would primarily be in repayment of those loans. If this were the case, one wouldn’t want to stretch the borrower thin “so as to jeopardize their repayment.” Additionally, one would lend so that the borrower could benefit and profit themselves, which would in turn help them repay their loans and thereby profit the creditor. However, in capitalism today, Tanner notes that the goal seems to be to make loans as hard as possible to repay, because profits are now generated by repackaging loans and selling them to other investors looking to make maximum profit. In this system, higher loan interest rates are more attractive to investors who buy the repackaged loans. Yet it is only the relative poor who can be charged the most interest due to lower credit scores. Lenders target borrowers with low-credit scores because those loans can be the most profitable to them. Indeed, when they are close to defaulting, they can just lend them more money.

This is the sad reality in payday lending schemes. One takes them out because they are struggling to make ends meet, “but if one struggled to make ends meet without a loan, that effort becomes even more difficult with loan payments on top of regular expenses.” Debt, in this way, is contractive rather than beneficial to the borrower. It makes it harder, not easier, to live well. “Payday loans don’t lend a hand to get out of poverty, they keep people in it.” Among the poor, this forces extreme self-management in which every single cent must be accounted for and every decision financial.

Turning to governments, Tanner argues that they too are chained to past debt. Taxes should produce goods and services, but with debt, it has the opposite effect because taxes are used to service debts (e.g. US spends 6% of its budget on repaying its debt). Theoretically, this is supposed to improve government efficiency by forcing unnecessary programs to be cut, but it usually has drastically more detrimental effects – austerity targets basic services and social safety nets.

In all of these scenarios in which the past controls the present, the whole of one’s life is transformed. It is not just at work when people feel the crushing effects of debt, or when they must work at home to meet near impossible company demands. All of one’s decisions are effected. All aspects of life are potentially relevant in portion to the difficulty of the demands the past makes.

An admittedly bleak picture, Tanner turns toward possibility for its disruption. She touches upon the method of Michel Foucault who looked to the past to find alternative regimes so as to challenge the inevitability of the present order. In that way, alternative forms of temporal subjectivity could be brought in to challenge finance dominated capitalism.

“I’ll propose that certain Christian ways of structuring the temporal dimensions of human subjectivity stand out by not merely differing, but by being the greatest possible contrast to” capitalism’s subjectivity creation. In Christianity, the past is something to be repudiated, one is to be a new person. Discontinuities break the hold of the past on the present and future. The past is sometimes of value in Christian accounts, such as those that stress a salvific return to a prior more perfect state of existence (e.g. return to the garden). In that model, who one was, is who one should become again. Tanner thinks this is especially dominant in theological traditions influenced by Platonism. Even in this model of returning to the past, there is a discontinuity of time. She also highlights the features of temporal relation in Gnosticism and Manicheanism.

In her view, the passage between states of existence is not smooth, but in Christianity it is understood similar to a birth and death by, for example participating in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism. Our entrance into God’s own life is brought about by God’s initiative. Sin, in the past, cannot contribute to resurrection here.

In other models, there is a release or cancellation of debt. It is impossible to pay through one’s own efforts. Sin, has often been viewed as debt, and it is like a debt-slavery or bondage from which one cannot get free from. The transition out of this state, in Christian terms, is abrupt. There is no gradual repayment, Christ once and for all pays or cancels one’s debt.

In addition, Christian interpretations of personal narrative can work against capitalism. The past is not the basis of the future. God’s agency interjects and one can make sense of the past only after the fact of conversion (e.g. Augustine’s Confessions). The past does not have to strictly anticipate the future. She thinks this is similar to Christian typological understandings of the Old Testament. One can only see Christ in them from the point of view of Christ, not on their own terms. She does, however, want to avoid radically supercessionist readings that give no meaning to the OT in itself. The New Testament also only makes sense in light of knowing the Old. She cites the example of understanding Christ as bread from heaven. The later meaning is partly derived from the significance of past events. God, bridges the gap though, and there is a radical interjection between past and present.

Looking to Christian reflection upon conversion is also helpful. Conversion, as the word implies, is an interjection where the future is not merely based on the past. One doesn’t merely identify with their past but actively struggles against it. However, Tanner wants to stress that much of our past remains. We still largely have our sin and we are who we were, until the eschaton. Now, we have Christ’s righteousness. Tanner is also careful to avoid understandings of conversion which make it the basis for impossible demands upon the future. One isn’t required to keep absolutely pure post-conversion and one is not obligated to lead an entirely blameless life. If so, the possibility of lapsing would be a massive threat to the Christian life. Post-conversion sin, would be an added debt. If conversion were a demand for the future in this way, Christ would be more like a loaned salvation until one could earn it on their own eventually.

This is not true in Tanner’s account of salvation, however. “What one is asked to achieve is already one’s own in Christ.” Our righteousness is Christ’s righteousness, whatever the state of our own. One is still a sinner, but it no longer threatens their salvation because they are secure in Christ. Perfect conformity to God is impossible on our own, God must interject with grace to raise this as a possibility in human life.


For a few additional resources that factored into Tanner’s lecture, see:

On the core-periphery model of sub-contracting and its detrimental effects, The Fissured Workplace by David Weil.

On debt’s creation of the subject, The Making of the Indebted Man by Maurizio Lazzarato.

On how the poor are especially affected by debt, Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir.

As always, check out the official commentary and discussion of the lectures at GiffordsEdinburgh.com.

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