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July 15, 2012


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I posted this on Corey Robin's FB wall - a series of comments -any thoughts?

Debt has been the animating issue in perhaps the most dynamic and important struggle in North America right now, the ongoing student uprising in Quebec which brought the entire province - and certainly the city of Montreal - to a standstill and has resonated with the working class as a whole. I don't think that's what Jodi Dean meant - and perhaps she's right in regards to Occupy, keeping in mind the class consciousness of Quebec's political culture. But to deny that debt has been a galvanizing force is to ignore the meaning of the Red Square emblem of the movement in Quebec - "squarely in the red" or "Carrement Dans le Rouge"..(in debt).. And indeed it has helped build the left by directly aligning with the working class as a whole, as shown in the "Casseroles" pot-banging nights in working class neighborhoods across Quebec and increasingly elsewhere in Canada. And indeeed, CLASSE, the leading student union umbrella body has explicitly called for a plan to phase in free post-secondary education, so it does not at all fall into some trap of neoliberal discourse of attacking education. If anything, it is affirming the collective commons of education and thus moving towards decommodification.

Concretely speaking, people organizing around the basis of student debt have built a combative and structured movement that isn't repeating the mistakes of Occupy (IE they are building structures and making demands). We can talk all we want about what we think is the 'right issue' but the comrades in Quebec have actually built something in North America that has actually affected business as usual. And it will likely spread. So whatever someone may think is the right or wrong issue is immaterial. What is happening in Quebec - what has been happening in already legendary battles as in Victoriaville, disproves the point in actuality.


I think you're neglecting the extent -- something Graeber made a case for -- to which debt is structurally central to capitalism as a system of power. That *is* something affecting us as a collectivity, as opposed to individually.

Your argument strikes me a bit like someone in medieval times making a case against focusing on landlordism and rent as a strategic mistake.

Rohan Kalyan

Hi Jodi, thanks for the thoughtful post. Really got me thinking...

When it comes to issues of debt, finance and investment, I think you are absolutely right that we often experience these forces in individualized terms (credit scores being the most institutionalized dimension of this). I've often thought (as a recently finished grad student) that there is no lonelier feeling than being in debt (in the financial sense).

But I can see some possibilities for collective action, and possibly of the radical, creative and imaginative variety. Being in debt is never a static thing. In fact, what is so powerful about financial capitalism is that it locks people into a constricted temporality, a time-line of repayment with interest. Interest is, after all, nothing but the deferral of the present for a future repayment. What debt does is not just discipline your present, but colonize your future. I have idealistic friends who went into law school thinking they would go on to do progressive work for the poor, pro bono, immigrant-rights, etc., only to graduate with more than a 100k in debt and basically forced to take whatever high paying job they can find in order to relieve the debt pressure. By the time the loan is repaid, it may be too late to go back to the idealistic things that got them into law in the first place. The same thing might go for doctors as well, and other professions in which taking on massive debt is simply a part of the game.

Having said that, what the critical political focus on debt might be able to do is re-open the question of the future and push people to think of economic relations in more open-ended, relational terms. What might it mean to escape the temporality of repayment and interest? What new forms of collectivity might emerge when we think of debt in social terms, rather than individual?

Just a few scattered thoughts...Thanks again for the enlightening post.


I think one can be critical of Graber's Smithian understanding of debt as distinct from surplus value generation and still understand the centrality of debt to value production right now.


I've tried very hard to organize around debt, and it's a strange phenomenon. On the one hand, it's hard to find a center or a location to organize debtors around (especially in the case of student debt -- which is what I focused on). Students currently going to school see it as a far off thing -- they're anxious about it, but don't see it as a real or immediate threat, yet. On the other hand, people who've graduated are scattered, they're not located anyplace centrally to organize them. At Occupy Detroit we tried organizing a march to cancel student debt. It got tons of vocal support and had a (and this is never a *good* measure to rely on) ton of RSVPs on Facebook (maybe around 250 - 300). But when the time came, maybe a dozen people showed up -- most of them were the usual suspects.

IMO, the problem could be solved by finding a way to, 1) demand that education be regarded as a right guaranteed to everyone from birth until death, 2) cancel all student loan debt, 3) find a way of centralizing and organizing people who are mired in debt after they graduate. I think the third point would require the building, 1) of student unions (a la ASSE in Quebec) which keep alumni and former students on as members (like unions *used* to do, back in the day), and 2) the rebuilding of a labor movement, to organize workers (who are also, most of the time, debtors) at the point of production.

Yeah, I know. The third point is like a tired, boring, old song, but there might be a good reason for singing that tune over and over again. Where can you find debtors? Well, you could run around town, running up to everyone randomly, asking them to take your leaflet or flyer or come to this or that march, and that works in a limited way. You could run to the bar, late at night, and hand everyone there a flyer and talk to them about turning out to a march (I've done this before, it works poorly). Or, ideally, we'd have organizations at work. People spend almost almost a third of their lives at work. Most of the time, people's reason for *wanting* to come to something, but not being able to is, "Shit, I would, but I gotta work." If we could rebuild the ability for people to organize, agitate and take political action at the work place, this would be, it should go without saying, a huge victory for the Left in terms of being a boon for our organizing potential and capacity, and I think, would really solve a lot of problems for organizing and building a successful movement around debt. Not because we would, say, have strikes around debt right away or anything, but workplace organizations could at least mobilize workers to marches, other forms of political action, etc.


One last point, re: California and prison spending. Michigan has long been one of the few states in the U.S. that spend more on prisons and incarceration than on higher education. This is a useful point to raise *as long as the emphasis is placed on reducing spending on prisons by releasing nonviolent prisoners.* The right has latched on to this spending priority issue and used it to argue for privatizing prisons, prison services, and cutting the quality of life for prisoners. Furthermore, at one protest against tuition hikes here at Wayne State in Detroit, students made speeches that were incredibly anti-prisoner, saying things like, "the state is spending more to feed and house murderers than they're spending on students," etc. Everyone struggling for a radical solution to the debt problem needs to stand in unshakable solidarity with the victims of the prison system, not attack them. This kind of talk, no doubt, has the negative impact to alienate everyone who has a friend or family member in the prison system, who is wholly familiar with how shitty the prisons treat the incarcerated, which means (statistically) alienating tons of Blacks, Latinos, and poor whites...

Jodi Dean

Abetterworld -- thanks for your points. I had neglected the right-wing variation on the prison-spending issue. I fully agree with you on the solidarity with victims of the system, absolutely. I also agree with you with your emphasis on workers. And this makes me wonders, if the effort is going to organize people at their workplaces, is debt the issue on which to do so? Why wouldn't the issue be wages, unions, benefits, hours, pensions?

Rohan--thanks for your comment. It could be that thinking through debt can allow questions of collectivity to be explored in new ways that could be useful. I haven't come across anything like this yet, but I am going to keep looking--maybe the idea of education as a common and/or public good grows directly out of it (esp student debt), maybe the idea of one bank of the commons whose role is to allocate money fairly at no/low interest might be another (like, an entity formed that is the product of a massive number of consolidated debts, so new entity would be the people's bank, and as an entity comprised of all the debts, it has power vis a vis credit card companies etc...).

Kevin -- I suggest you read the post.

Jordy--my comments here are about Occupy, not Montreal. From what I can gather, Montreal is the most exciting thing going on in North America (the journal I edit is publishing a special issue on it, co-edited by Darin Barney and Brian Massumi). The organizational discipline of the students is really impressive. It's interesting to me that the CLASSE manifesto uses the language of people and the commons; it doesn't appeal to debt.



Fair enough but it took the issue of debt to move towards the language of commons. Take a look at CLASSE's literature from earlier in the strike.


Jodi -- I had neglected the right-wing framing of the prison spending issue too until I saw it. It certainly caught me and my comrades off guard. My thoughts on unions/labor/class & debt, are more or less really disjointed. Of course organizing people in their workplaces will likely start off with wages, benefits, job security, etc. as an issue (but we don't want it to stop there, of course -- political demands, including ones around debt, should be put on the agenda ASAP). And this seems to be more of what I was trying to get at, not that the labor movement immediately needs to agitate for workplace strikes against debt, but that, a rebuild and radicalized labor movement could place this sort of thing on the agenda...but that should be obvious to any socialist, really...

And after trying to sort my own thoughts out (here: http://abetterworldisprobable.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/organizing-around-student-debt/) I realized that I had been treating labor as almost a kind of panacea for organizing around debt. Really organized labor in general is important as a foundation for building any powerful social movements, period, so it doesn't make sense to treat it as an important factor just for building a successful movement around debt. Of course, rebuilding the labor movement is like, the Ultimate Question, right? So, what now?

It can't be as simple as "rebuilding the labor movement," of course. I think, that as far as the question of debt is concerned, trying to find constructive ways to build coalitions with unions, etc. right now, in building a movement against student debt, etc. through organizing, mobilizations, protests, etc. seems useful (so, on the one hand, not neglecting the immediate need to organize around debt however we can, or anything like that, nor reducing the issue of debt to being an issue that's only resolved by organizing in the workplaces, which it can't be right now).

So clearly my thoughts around this are flakey and disjointed. And now that I think about it, perhaps it's hard to formulate an answer to the question because of the way the question feels like it's being asked..."How do we solve the debt crisis?" Rather, maybe it should be, "How do we solve the problem of a society which produces debt crises?"

Also, it may be hard to formulate an answer because I haven't had any coffee yet.

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