Is debt the red thread that connects (and can reconnect) the seemingly unraveled strands of OWS? Significant work is being done in this direction. Below the excerpt I raise some questions.
Excerpt from a piece by Yates McKee:
If debt is a gateway into a radical conversation about the capitalist system itself, strategic and analytical questions arise about the role of the state — questions that have always haunted OWS as a movement grounded in anarchist principles. What can we learn from the debt cancellation forced upon the Icelandic government by citizens earlier this year? How do we connect the dots between “personal” debt and the public debt of municipalities and governments subjected to corporate bondholders and credit-rating agencies? How do we link struggles against budgetary austerity with the grievances of the indebted? In the words of Andrew Ross, “How might debt be rethought as something socially productive and collectively managed, rather than as an engine of predatory profiteering for the 1 percent?” Can we think beyond existing models of public finance, planning, and infrastructure toward something closer to the ideal of “the commons”? As activist and New York University professor Nick Mirzoeff has asked, in a speculative vein, if “slavery” to debt were abolished, what would a subsequent “Reconstruction” process look like? For ordinary people to delve into these questions is empowering in its own right, and for OWS they will continue to be explored through public assembly and direct action of the sort that began at Liberty Square 10 months ago.
An emphasis on debt could be politically promising -- particularly as it helps people understand the trap of capitalism, the way the system feeds off them, the way it relies on debt at multiple levels and establishes terms of credit and debit for the benefit of the capitalist class. A politics of debt seems especially posed to reach a middle class that compensated for its declining income with credit (that said, household indebtedness has declined since the beginning of the great recession even as part of that decline can be attributed to mortgage defaults).
At the same time, there seem to be some challenges or potential drawbacks to a political strategy based on debt:
1. It is difficult to overcome the individual dimension of debt: the individual quality of debt (credit card, mortgage, student loan) presents a collective action problem. How can we insure that everyone who agrees to default (one of the versions of the student loan debt campaign) actually will default? And why should we think this is a viable political strategy given that people are already defaulting, banks are already defaulting, countries are nearly at the point of defaulting and still the system keeps on going. Defaulting is essentially invisible to others; it is born by the individual as their credit rating. Now, this is not an insurmountable problem--second wave feminism was born out of the idea that the personal is political and that problems that were hidden in the domestic arena could become public ones. What would the analogous move look like with respect to debt? Refusing to use credit cards and get mortgages seems like living in separatist communes and refusing heterosexual marriage. These can be effective, but don't tend to become mainstream or large-scale solutions.
2. Focusing on student loan debt too easily slides into the language of attacking higher education already prominent on the right. It seems almost to concede that mass education is too expensive for contemporary or future society. A language of education as a public good, even a common good that belongs to everyone seems to me to be a more promising alternative. It places the burden on those who would treat education as something to be purchased, something out of reach for some, something private. It begins from the idea that knowledge, culture, and language are already all of ours.
3. The construction of debt as a problem can easily elide with right-wing attacks on deficits, the national debt, too much government spending, etc. The mistake is to treat government debt as the same thing as individual and household debt, and vice versa.
4. Why not begin from concerns that affect people collectively as collectivities? Stop-and-frisk and incarceration issues have already mobilized large groups, groups that could be knit together into anti-capitalist movement as the economic function of the prison-industrial complex is highlighted (in California spending on incarceration increased as spending on education decreased, a clear indication that education was seen less and less as a public good and more as a private means of advancement), as emphases on policing areas so that they are safe for the one percent are critically explored, etc. Similarly, increases in college tuition, cuts to city budgets, cuts to teachers salaries, attacks on public sector unions -- all these issues begin from people as collectives facing common problems. The contrast becomes clearer when we contrast debtors with proletarians: the former consume, the latter produce. Admittedly, in the face of CDOs, debts become a kind of production--but it's fake, empty, a ponzi scheme, production without production.
5. The most pressing common issue in the present is climate change. This affects everyone. The rich are currently dispossessing the people of our collective wealth, positioning themselves so that they are mobile, comfortable, defended, impermeable. The rest of us will face the ravages of weather, drought, flood, famine, shortages, disease. The only way to deal with any of this is collectively -- beginning from the premise that food, shelter, health, and knowledge belong to all in common. Anyone who thwarts this is an enemy of the people.
6. A politics that focuses on debt seems to treat people as failed capitalists -- even if debtors are not shopaholics or spendthrifts, that is, even if debt is a matter of self-investment, or purchasing in order to benefit one's self, children, household, the model seems too close to the one that treats people as human capital, the homo economicus of liberal and neoliberal theory. The indebted consumed in order to succeed under the unfair terms of the capitalist economy. The system is rigged against them, so they failed and they are in a situation from which there is no escape. The politics here doesn't move forward. It only moves against. It only negates -- and this is another symptom of its beginnings in individualism. A class politics sees in the working class those who are already collectively building the world. All they have to do is shake off the chains of private property that expropriate their common work into the wealth of the few.
Overall, my concern is that debt is too individualized, too tied to our consumer economy, too entrenched with moralizing language of restraint and indulgence (and so here suspectible to individual treatment via lessons in personal finance). Yates McKee (the author of the piece excerpted above) makes the analogy between burning draft cards and burning debt statements. I kept thinking about the guys who were arrested, who fled to Canada and couldn't return, who went underground -- they made public statements but faced private burdens for their courage. Also, these days burning a piece of paper is pretty irrelvant --it's all in the cloud anyway (which suggests that even the awesome solution from the end of Fight Club is no longer the option it used to be).
My prediction (and I could be wrong -- it would be great if I am) is that a politics focused on debt won't be able to produce effective large scale demonstrations because it's too hard to focus or target them. It will likely continue to produce thoughtful discussions and small demonstrations. It could produce some really terrific and interesting specific policy recommendations and campaigns for them (change bankruptcy laws again, better regulation of credit card companies and credit ratings agencies, a few more consumer rights claims, limit to increase in interest rate on student loans -- a cool suggestion here would be that student loans have a zero interest rate, or one no higher than the interbank lending rate). And, the best way in which I could be wrong is if consciousness-raising around debt led people to a clear, strong, courageous class consciousness.