Could this new offshoot of Occupy reignite the movement? In These Times organized a dialogue about the prospect of a modern-day debtors’ revolt—and how the creditors might fight back. Participating were Pam Brown, an organizer with Strike Debt; Jodi Dean, professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges; Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute; and Peter Rugh, an organizer with the Occupy Wall Street Environmental Solidarity working group.
Most Occupiers have been reluctant to organize the movement around any one overarching issue. What’s the potential benefit of focusing on debt?
Jodi: The issue of debt is typically embedded in the austerity agenda. Debt, whether our nearly unfathomable national debt or debilitating personal debt, supposedly signifies a will too weak to sacrifice present pleasures for future benefits. And in a country so punitive that weakness of any sort invites cruelty and condemnation, debt has given Republicans—and Democrats tripping over themselves in their race to the Right—an opportunity to inflict pain on “the 47 percent” by cutting much-needed benefits and services. So Strike Debt’s move to claim debt as a cause for the Left is a welcome change.
Pete: It would be a mistake to understand Occupy as a single-issue movement focused on debt. For example, OWS Environmental Solidarity is helping coordinate direct actions against fracking and other forms of extraction. But there is a symbiotic relationship between the exploitation of the planet and the exploitation of people, and debt is a useful lens for this. The question we ask by focusing on debt is “Who owes who?” We are all owed a future, but we aren’t going to get one if we accept that Wall Street is entitled to cash in on the investments it’s already made in wrecking the planet.
What are the challenges of organizing people as debtors—rather than as workers, women or others who have been the basis of mass movements?
Jodi: The individual quality of debt makes a collective response a big challenge. Unlike the factory, where worker encounter one another daily, debtors accumulate debt—and face the consequences of default—privately. That others are in the same boat may feel reassuring, but it doesn’t change one’s credit score. And because it’s often hard to figure out who actually owns a loan, it will be hard to organize and target debtors’ actions.
Pam: It’s true that debt is much harder to organize around than the collective grievances of the workplace. But that’s why, as the power of labor declines, figuring out how to build a debt resistance movement is so important.