The Debt of the Living

Ascesis and Capitalism

By Elettra Stimilli
Translated by Arianna Bove
Foreword by Roberto Esposito

Subjects: Continental Philosophy, Philosophy, Economy And Society, Theology, Political Economy
Series: SUNY series in Contemporary Italian Philosophy
Paperback : 9781438464145, 216 pages, January 2018
Hardcover : 9781438464152, 216 pages, January 2017

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Table of contents

Foreword to the English Translation
Preface to the English Translation

1. The End in Itself of the Economic Enterprise

2. Oikonomía and Asceticism

3. The Theological Construction of the Government of the World

4. Voluntary Poverty on the Market

5. Capitalism as Religion

6. A Philosophical Critique of Asceticism

7. The Spirit of Capitalism and Forms of Life


An analysis of theological and philosophical understandings of debt and its role in contemporary capitalism.


Max Weber's account of the rise of capitalism focused on his concept of a Protestant ethic, valuing diligence in earning and saving money but restraint in spending it. However, such individual restraint is foreign to contemporary understandings of finance, which treat ever-increasing consumption and debt as natural, almost essential, for maintaining the economic cycle of buying and selling.

In The Debt of the Living, Elettra Stimilli returns to this idea of restraint as ascesis, by analyzing theological and philosophical understandings of debt drawn from a range of figures, including Saint Paul, Schmitt and Agamben, Benjamin and Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, and Foucault. Central to this analysis is the logic of "profit for profit's sake"—an aspect of Weber's work that Stimilli believes has been given insufficient attention. Following Foucault, she identifies this as the original mechanism of a capitalist dispositif that feeds not on a goal-directed rationality, but on the self-determining character of human agency. Ascesis is fundamental not because it is characterized by renunciation, but because the self-discipline it imposes converts the properly human quality of action without a predetermined goal into a lack, a fault, or a state of guilt: a debt that cannot be settled. Stimilli argues that this lack, which is impossible to fill, should be seen as the basis of the economy of hedonism and consumption that has governed global economies in recent years and as the premise of the current economy of debt.

Elettra Stimilli is research fellow of theoretical philosophy at Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy. Arianna Bove is the translator of many books, including Factory of Strategy: Thirty-Three Lessons on Lenin, by Antonio Negri.


"The Debt of the Living offers its readers a careful reading of a wide selection of important thinkers, alongside a thorough analysis of what it means to be an indebted human subject. Raising a series of urgent questions, this book makes a valuable contribution to the debates surrounding our current condition." — Journal of Italian Philosophy

"…Stimilli makes an important contribution to the theological genealogy of the functioning of neoliberalism and our current debt economy. It should be read widely, by those concerned with such matters." — Religious Theory

"Globalization is on everyone's lips these days but little or no attention has been paid to its effects on the individual human being. Elettra Stimilli's book is a major step towards filling this lack. Drawing on, and creatively extending, the work of Foucault, Agamben, Benjamin, and a wide range of other thinkers, she argues that one can no longer understand the source of inequality in sacrifice, that is in the refusal to satisfy desire. Her thought-provoking conclusion is that the modern increase in individual psychopathologies is consequent to the neoliberal transformation of the economy and thus of governmentality. A strikingly creative and new voice." — Tracy B. Strong, author of Politics without Vision: Thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century

"Stimilli's Debt of the Living offers invaluable insights into the connections between the domination of global technocapitalism and the subjective strategies of conformity and resistance. Through a series of illuminating readings of Nietzsche, Weber, Harnack, Benjamin, and Heidegger it provides the ground plan for a radical political theology that insists on the renewed subversive potential of transcendence." — Howard Caygill, author of Kafka: In Light of the Accident

"Debt is a burning issue today. Against the background of contemporary debates on neoliberalism and biopolitics, The Debt of the Living takes us on a breathtaking tour to understand the constitutive entanglement of capitalism and debt as well as of debt and guilt. Elettra Stimilli's genealogical investigation of Christian asceticism sheds light on the emergence of a matrix of economic power that continues to haunt our present. And helps us to contest it." — Sandro Mezzadra, coauthor of Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor

"…unreservedly recommended." — Midwest Book Review