From Los Angeles to Philadelphia, overnight raids on Occupy encampments and mass arrests of protesters late last year highlighted the reality of police repression in America but also hinted at the possibility for a new chapter in Occupy’s young history.1
Occupy Wall Street captured the world’s imagination last year by uniting the left under the common tactic of occupation. Yet, with the fading of many of the original encampments, a new organizing principle is needed. Debt is a common problem that unites us collectively, providing an altogether promising and transformative opportunity for the Occupy movement to advance.
This year, the height of Occupy’s first summer months saw one of the year-old movement’s most promising developments to date beginning to take shape and blossom — a broad debt resistance movement under the simple banner: “Strike Debt.”
It is an idea first articulated as a question: what is debt? Debt is a social relation naturalized as fact, unequally applied to structure and limit debtors’ future life chances. It is, as Occupy organizer Yates McKee writes, “the tie that binds the 99 percent.” Debt cloaks itself in the language of morality (“refusing to repay is wrong”) while making its presence felt through threats and coercion.
And it’s easy to see all around us. Our society is debt-ridden to the core. Student loans alone have cumulatively topped $1 trillion2 in the U.S., burdening a record one-in-five households. The math is harsher for poor and young households, whose student loan payments consume roughly a quarter of their income.3
Defaults on these loans have risen for the fifth straight year,4 with 218 American colleges now boasting default rates over thirty percent. Sixty-four percent of all bankruptcies are caused by medical loans,5 while credit card debt, also creeping toward the $1 trillion mark, generates an average of 16.24% interest6 that large banks borrow at a Federal Reserve prime loan rate of 3.25%.7 And we can’t forget the millions of Americans in varying stages of home foreclosure, a sad accompaniment to our decaying cities and states, themselves swindled by Wall Street interest rate swaps that leave them struggling to finance schools, hospitals, and basic public infrastructure.8
Amid these mounting tensions, perhaps it was unsurprising that debt resistance bloomed as a central organizing principle during this summer’s thematic Occupy assemblies, each focused on distinct core issues.9
Called by Occupy Theory, publishers of the free, radical magazine Tidal, these meetings brought activists together in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, where attendees sat in the shadows of New York University, the college with the nation’s most highly indebted students. They met to discuss what could be learned from the student protesters in Quebec, Canada, who were also protesting financial barriers to educational access.
The marchers in Montreal, they reflected, emphasized their opposition not only to tuition hikes but also more broadly toward the overarching neoliberal ideology that made such cuts to public education appear necessary. Organizers from the Occupy Student Debt Campaign (OSDC)10have long been thinking along the same lines: debt as a way of life, an indentured servitude, foisted upon members of the 99% by the 1%, abducting agency and the ability to imagination a fulfilling personal future outside of financial constraints. For indebted students the situation is painfully clear. In the words of Occupy organizer Amy O., “our future is owned by them, as we are forced to make decisions about our existence in light of our debt.”11
Entire life paths are made unthinkable by the single fact of crushing debt obligations.
At the same time as many Americans literally reorient their lives in light of their debt, the private debt of Wall Street speculators has been diffused and distributed to the general population. As the popular slogan goes, “the banks got bailed out; we got sold out,” our future lives tied up into odious debt held by financial institutions. What does it mean that banks can be “too big to fail”? Why do we pay when the banks gamble and lose, and yet we get nothing when they return a profit?
The same institutions playing “heads I win, tails you lose” with our money own us twice: once with their debt that has taken the country’s budget hostage, and again with our personal burdens. Is it not the height of injustice that sovereign countries have their debts “restructured” and passed along to their citizens in terms of brutal austerity regimes as people are concomitantly obligated to debt-finance medicine and education? In this odious world structured by the 1%, basic social goods — healthcare, education, housing, retirement — are barred from the public, attainable to so many only through inexorable private debt that pads financiers’ bonuses.
Strike Debt is not concerned with debt “forgiveness,” which would imply the blameworthiness of the debtor and the generosity of the creditor. Instead it transforms the morality of debt itself. Its members argue that democracy can only be salvaged by refusing to honor immoral debts that impoverish and enslave the multitudes while a few financial elites profit. Our society — not the banks — is “too big to fail.”
We can’t afford to ignore the multiplying symptoms of our system’s failure: the staggering default rates of bankrupt students, the masses for whom further education remains a financial impossibility, those dissuaded (and punished) from receiving proper healthcare by pure cost; and those predatory vultures, the debt collection agencies, circling above them all.
Profit-centered debt urgently needs to be reformed toward more socially productive forms of credit, and Strike Debt has begun to lay the first foundations of resistance that could set us on this path. Andrew Ross, a Strike Debt organizer and sociologist at NYU, predicts that “if the struggle over wages was a defining feature of the industrial era, the struggle over debt will be the battlefield of our times.”12
The idea doesn’t seem farfetched in our atomized neoliberal age,13 where few expect to ever become workers in a unionized labor force but virtually everyone — as individuals as well as members of political communities — is ensnared in debt.
Recognizing debt as a common condition holds the potential for solidarity on a massive scale. As a central issue, debt has the potential to build bridges of solidarity between Occupiers and anti-austerity activists worldwide. A popular chant among marchers in Europe is “We won’t pay for your crisis!” The red squares Quebec protesters wore showed that tuition hikes would place students “squarely in the red.” A historical connection can also be drawn to the largely successful global justice movement of the 1990s, when enormous anti-austerity movements effectively kicked neoliberal IMF technocrats out of power in East Asia and Latin America.14
Anthropologist David Graeber reminds us in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years that debt absolution (cancellation of debt), moreover, has been an institutionalized practice and oftentimes a political necessity throughout human history. Just last year, the King of Saudi Arabia proclaimed a broad cancellation of debts in a bid to maintain power as the Arab Spring destabilized regimes in neighboring countries.15
Strike Debt is still at an infant stage, but already its accomplishments are heartening. Working with established OSDC activists, Strike Debtors have provided a framework for systemic analysis and long-term direct action, which they hope will underpin the movement for decades.16
Organizers have researched and compiled “The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual,” combining educational material with guides for replicable direct actions.17
Studying the Savings & Loans crisis of the 1980s, organizers learned that debt can be bought on secondary markets for pennies on the dollar and eventually abolished. This knowledge has led to plans for a “Rolling Jubilee” beginning this November, where debt in default will be bought and abolished through mutual aid and a “People’s Bailout” for which community-based “pay-it-forward” funding mechanisms are being rigorously sketched and tested.18
While the dream of a sweeping, global debt strike and an alternative, socially equitable credit system may seem distant, the building begins now. It has already begun. Occupy united the left under a common tactic of public occupation, and now Strike Debt offers unity around a common problem. In our day, debt has widely become the slavery of most to the profligacy of a few. A shining injustice illuminating the arduous path forward.
Strike Debt has a website (strikedebt.org) with ways to get involved and learn more.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a junior at Duke University, where he is studying political science, environmental policy, and film. He has been published for extensively writing about the effects of globalization on labor forces in the Global South and is more broadly interested in the intersection of political economy, global ecology, and democracy. Prashanth is chair and co-founder of Duke Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a student activism group, and an avid documentary film enthusiast.