Review – Indebted to Asceticism (Hollis Phelps)

Stimilli, Elettra. The Debt of the Living: Ascesis and Capitalism. Translated by Arianna Bove. Albany: SUNY Press, 2017. ISBN 9781438464152. Hardcover, xvi + 199 pages.

Max Weber, as is well known, traced the origins of capitalism to an inner drive to renunciation and sacrifice. In The Debt of the Living, Stimilli, in contrast, traces capitalism’s origins to the “compulsive drive to enjoy and consume” (2). This does not mean, however, that Stimilli jettisons Weber, or the ascetic paradigm on which his thesis ultimately rests. Rather, she re-reads Weber and asceticism not in terms of renunciation but, rather, as action without end or purpose, as a uniquely human form of praxis whose resolution lies only in itself.

Doing so allows Stimilli to provide a novel reading of the philosophical and theological foundations of economic discourse but also the subjective pull of indebtedness. Echoing Maurizio Lazzarato’s work in The Making of the Indebted Man and Governing by Debt,1 she suggests that “indebtedness has reached a global scale and has become an extreme form of compulsion to enjoy; unexpectedly, it has turned into the condition that characterizes the potentiality of action. In its various forms, debt has become the premise of current modes of subjectivation and, as such, needs to be reproduced rather than repaid” (3).

Stimilli’s argument extends across seven chapters. Her first chapter focuses largely on how an emphasis on purposeless activity, that is, praxis that has no end other than itself, is the primary driver of the capitalist enterprise, rather than instrumental and utilitarian logic. Drawing on Bataille’s notion of general economy, which marks the particularity of life in terms of the expenditure of excess or surplus energy, Stimilli re-reads the foundations of economy in anti-utilitarian terms. Whereas Polyani had argued that the market economy presupposes and grounds self-interest and utility at the expense of the fundamentally social nature of human beings, Stimilli elides this alleged separation via an emphasis on asceticism. Otherwise put, instrumental action “presupposes an autotelic condition: its profiting results from an end in itself, independently of the satisfaction that it may give, or any one individual’s utility and interest” (30). On Stimilli’s reading, it is this condition that capitalism parasitizes, reshaping the human being as a limitless form of capital, as seen in its most extreme form in the neoliberal economy. The latter, Stimilli’s avers, subsumes “life under finance, [as] debt finds new forms of investment that radically expose its implicit default and the need for it to be constantly reproduced” (47).

In the second chapter, Stimilli traces the logic at work here back to Christian practices of asceticism, investigating the latter in terms of the specific form of life that they foster. Stimilli draws heavily on Agamben’s genealogical analyses of oikonomia in The Kingdom and the Glory,2 here, to argue that the early Christian experience was one of life conceived as economic. Crucial for Stimilli’s argument is her reading of Paul’s putative opposition between law and grace, which radicalizes the experience of human freedom. If, for Paul, sin cannot be known apart from the law, then this also means that human freedom can be located in not following the commandments. Such negativity at the heart of human praxis, on the one hand, exposes the human being to punishment and condemnation; on the other hand, it also opens the same being to the gift of grace, to a gratuity without reserve or end that detaches action from “its accomplishment in the form of ‘works’” (57).

Grace, however, works paradoxically. Although it frees the human being from the sort of end-directed behavior supposedly found in the law, it also translates obligation into another sphere, into a specific form of life constituted as an unpayable debt that exceeds all utility or fulfillment. Stimilli writes, “The gift of grace outstrips all due service and, in faith, identifies a productive kind of administration of life that deactivates all extrinsic obligations and thus all effective chances of compensation” (58). What emerges from this is a type of government, both at the individual and social level, that is simultaneously free, that is, detached from clearly defined ends, but also constrained in its own freedom via gratuity.

Grace thus names the impossibility of the human being ever completing itself, indebted as it is to its own freedom, that is, the atelic nature of its being. Hence the practice of asceticism, as it is developed among early Christian authors, takes the form of a “constant exercise on the self” (74). Asceticism, on this reading, cannot simply be reduced to an externally-imposed self-renunciation; it is, rather, “the object of its own practice” (79), in the sense that it names the self-reflexive nature of human freedom in excess of the law. As Stimilli puts it, ascetic practices “cannot be configured as law or an external command to which the individual is forced to submit. It is, rather, a meticulous codification of the techniques of self-discipline, where obedience is a form of life” (79).

Stimilli continues this reading of asceticism in the third chapter, focusing in particular on the ways in which twentieth century theological debates over the nature of Christianity worked with certain preconceptions of the nature of asceticism. As Stimilli argues, whether such authors, including Harnack, Stolz, Peterson, and Overbeck, affirmed or denied ascesis as central to the core of early Christianity, they assume in advance what asceticism is, thus largely missing the way in which it shapes human life in terms of an investment that has “no other aim than the one within itself” (84).

Reminiscent of Agamben’s The Highest Poverty,3 Stimilli’s fourth chapter examines the ways in which medieval monasticism was, fundamentally, an economic experience. Rather than a simple renunciation of earthly wealth and consumption, monastic experience, especially in its Franciscan variety, emphasizes use without possession, which corresponds to a type of human activity that “has no other end than itself” (110).

Stimilli begins to tie these threads together in the fifth chapter, turning to Walter Benjamin’s short well-known essay “Capitalism as Religion,” in which he posits capitalism as a religion without redemption, that is, a cult of “permanent duration” (117). Drawing also on Durkheim’s notion of the sacred, which marks religious experience outside the realm of utility, along with, again, Bataille’s notion of useless expenditure, Stimilli locates the resonance between Christianity and capitalism via Benjamin in “the lack of determined purpose that essentially characterizes human life” (132). This is, again, life’s freedom, but also its enslavement, as capitalism’s parasitism of Christian ascesis marshals an “unfulfillable lack [that] is constantly reproduced and turned into a powerful means of subjugation” (129).

In the sixth chapter, Stimilli turns her attention to the relationship between asceticism and economy, by focusing on various critiques of asceticism, as found specifically in the works of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx. Buttressing her main argument, Stimilli shows that, despite notable differences, each of these thinkers identifies asceticism not primarily with self-denial but with “the way in which human life, which has no predetermined biological purpose, finds ways of sustaining itself” (135). Although, as Stimilli argues, capitalism exploits this mechanism via the production of different modes of indebtedness, that very exploitation implies the possibility of another way of life, one that harnesses the atelic nature of human being against its own subjugation.

Stimilli’s ultimate goal, then, developed in the seventh and final chapter, is similar to certain lines in Agamben’s thought. The point is not to reverse or even annihilate the essential purposelessness of human life in some other conceptuality but, rather, reactivate that purposelessness otherwise, apart from and against its colonization in and by capitalism, which constrains the human being toward the ceaseless proliferation of profit without end. Against the financialization of human being, which subjugates the latter via unpayable debt, Stimilli holds out the possibility of a “reactivation, in ever different ways, [of] the same finality without end that is inherent to human action and that, when not incorporated into an empty mechanism that is an end in itself . . . can coincide with its ability to change” (182). For, if the human being, its very freedom, has no goal, then that very seem freedom qua auto-finality can be channeled and realized otherwise, for the sake of “demolishing” the debt-driven, parasite of capitalism (182).

The way in which human praxis has itself as its own goal provides an important corrective to received understandings of asceticism, turning the latter into a critical, genealogical tool to understand the functioning of the neoliberal economy, both in itself and in, on, and through its human subjects. In this much, Stimilli provides an important, though not exclusive, way to read the subjective mechanisms that underpin the current debt economy.

Elettra Stimilli

Nevertheless, the analysis is often thin in places, and the chapters themselves are often uneven, at times too truncated. So much is evident in her reading of the Christian theological tradition surrounding the relationship between sin, debt, and grace. Although I agree with Stimilli that the theological tradition of atonement produces essentially indebted subjects, who must paradoxically work on themselves without end to be recipients of grace, it is simply not the case that debt functions in one way in early Christianity.

Stimilli’s emphasis on the Pauline moment ignores the way that debt as a paradigm for the dialectic of sin and grace had already been operative to various degrees hundreds of years before Paul’s specific intervention, as Gary Anderson has convincingly shown in Sin: A History.4

Moreover, Stimilli only focuses on one understanding of debt in early Christianity, specifically that owed to God and remedied through Christ’s atonement, which she reads in terms of sacrifice. But the relationship between debt and sin is far more complicated and varied in early Christianity, and I suspect that Stimilli is reading Anselm’s satisfaction theory back into the Pauline and early Christian material.

That is not wrong, per se, as the thread that Anselm codifies is present in early Christianity. It does, however, elide other understandings of sin and debt, most notably the notion, extremely widespread in early Christianity, that the debt of life is not owed to God via the auto-finality of human action but, rather, the devil. Such an emphasis may complicate Stimilli’s reading of Christian asceticism, without necessarily obviating it: tracing the way in which Anselm’s theory comes to predominate would be an important supplement to Stimilli’s analysis.

One other point to consider, we may well be moving beyond the paradigm in which individuals feel obligated in regard to debt, an obligation linked to the perpetual, auto-finality of human activity in and for itself. In her analysis of post-financial crisis literature and culture Dead Pledges, Annie McClanahan has convincingly argued that the subjective pull of indebtedness has, in some quarters, been replaced with denial, resistance, and sabotage.5 This suggests a new subjective paradigm that is emerging via debt, one that may supplement Stimilli’s analysis but also, perhaps, move it toward the “demolition” that she seeks.

Nevertheless, despite these reservations, Stimilli makes an important contribution to the theological genealogical of the functioning of neoliberalism and our current debt economy. It should be read widely, by those concerned with such matters.


Hollis Phelps is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary studies in the Department of Liberal Studies at Penfield College of Mercer University. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology (Routledge, 2014).

[1]  Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)), 2011; Maurizio Lazzarato, Governing by Debt, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)), 2013).

[2] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).  

[3] Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[4] Gary Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

[5] Annie McClanahan, Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First Century Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).


Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Mercer University (USA).

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