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The other day the results of the National Heritage Digitization Strategy funding competition were announced, and it got me thinking about the place of grant-funding in librarianship and in academia more broadly. When I was applying for a PhD at University of Alberta last year, it was presumed that I would apply for SSHRC funding for it - indeed, disclosing SSHRC funding is a key component of the application process. Going after available funding is considered “common sense” in academia. To argue that, as a full-time, tenured, salaried professional, any grant funding should go to someone else goes against this common sense; when I mentioned the idea to faculty members, I might as well have been speaking Greek. More and more, grant funding is becoming a core part of library practitioner research as well, to the extent that we have training sessions on how to apply for and manage external funding.

This reminded me of when I worked for AT&T in my 20s. AT&T brought in private life- and health-insurance which you could not opt out of unless you provided proof of coverage through another private insurer. This was in Manitoba, a province with universal public health insurance. Arguments that, because one was covered by the public insurer, one should not have to sign up for public insurance were disregarded.

The connection between these two examples became clear while reading Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man, in which he argues that neoliberalism has created a society in which the debtor-creditor relation is the primary power relation. Because of the financialization of neoliberal society - the securitization of everything, including risk and debt - more and more people have to be enrolled in the relationship (as debtors, obviously). This explains the easy enrollment of undergraduates into credit card debt, but it also explains why the model of all economic exchanges is the debt relationship (as opposed to other kinds of economic relationship). Grant funding is modeled on a debt-credit relationship, along with everything else.

Lazzarato further argues that the debt relationship creates the kinds of people who will keep the debt economy going: people who live the kind of responsible lifestyle that will allow them to repay their debts, people for whom not paying off their debts is seen and felt as a moral and personal failing, people who are trained to follow all of the rules required to prove their trustworthiness in matters of debt repayment. Obviously, shame at not repaying a debt applies only to workers, not capitalists, for whom either bankruptcy or national bail-out remain viable alternatives.

One might argue, however, that one doesn’t repay a grant. Lazzarato’s argument - using employment insurance as an example - is that

Unlike what happens on financial markets, the beneficiary as ‘debtor’ is not expected to reimburse in actual money but rather in conduct, attitudes, ways of behaving, plans, subjective commitments, the time devoted to finding a job, the time used for conforming oneself to the criteria dictated by the market and business, etc.

Not only does one have to be the kind of person who knows how to follow the instructions required to apply for funding (and here we come up against the perennial debates in librarianship on professionalism, class, race, and gender), to convince the funding agency of one’s worthiness to receive and hold their credit, but one also also has to be the kind of person who will tailor their life, work, and behaviour to the reporting requirements of the agency. Grant funding becomes a form of biopolitical control, constraining the range of decision-making, choice, response, and agency of debtors through the very mechanism of credit.

It is precisely at these “obvious” points of “common sense” (why not have someone else pay for your work?) that we become most tightly enrolled in the system of domination of financial capitalism, that we become forced to adjust our very subjectivity to conform to the requirements of exploitation and dehumanization. Therefore, it is precisely these obvious points of common sense that we have to challenge, even if it’s hard for anyone to understand the challenge. As Dostoyevsky argued in Notes from Underground, the right to “go against our own interest and profit”, as perverse as it seems, is one of the most fundamental rights of a human being.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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