On the Occupy/Strike Debt "Debt Resistors'" Manual

Sep 14, 2012Mike Konczal

People have been talking a lot about the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. There is special interest with the movement's turn to organizing around the idea of debt as a "connective thread" for the 99%. The most recent issue of The Nation has two articles on the topic, with Astra Taylor witing "Occupy 2.0: Strike Debt" and David Graeber writing "Can Debt Spark a Revolution?"

There's a Strike Debt/Occupy Wall Street group, and they have put out a Debt Resistors' Operations Manual, which is embedded here at the end of this post and available at that link as a pdf. You can pick up a hard copy of the document tomorrow, Saturday, in Washington Square Park from 10:30 a.m. till 7:30 p.m. and at Judson Church from 7:30 p.m. till 9:30 p.m.

Reading it, I agree with Yves Smith's assessment that it "achieves the difficult feat of giving people in various types of debt an overview of their situation, including political issues, and practical suggestions in clear, layperson-friendly language." You should read her review in its entirety, and check it out for yourself. I want to talk a little bit about it from a different angle, noting how each half of the book builds out a new direction for Occupy.
 
Over the summer, Jodi Dean argued that debt would be a difficult connective thread to pull off for a political movement. It's too individualized, too prone to viewing people as failed market agents, too moralized, and it can mimic unhelpful reactionary arguments against the welfare state and the government. I know people involved in organizing homeowners, especially underwater and deliquent homeowners, and I can say that these are all very accurate problems. Beyond that, nobody likes their identity as a struggling debtor. People can take pride in their role as workers, as citizens, and as numerous other things organizers can build on, but debt is a real challenge. The failure part runs deep.
 
So there's a couple of interesting things in the Strike Debt booklet that I think are useful as a political statement. The first half of the book is about the major types of consumer debt -- medical, housing, education, and credit card -- as well as the credit scoring agencies. And the book places runaway consumer debt in the context of larger institutions that are failing to meet the needs of the population.
 
The medical debt chapter calls for universal health care, the student debt chapter calls for free public colleges, and the credit card chapter is titled "The Plastic Safety Net," directly alluding to weakness in income maintence and basic income support. The credit scoring chapter points out how these debts, and your ability to pay them, are tied to your ability to gain access to basic needs like utilities, phone lines, and health care.
 
These are all essential goods for our lives, and we choose the institutions that will deliver them. They can be publicly provided, based in principles of social insurance, decommodification, and access independent of wealth. Or they can be provided in individualized ways, ones that replace social insurance with self-insurance through individualized, large debt loads, while also working to the benefit of private agents.
 
But these are both choices. And this focus on debt is a way of understanding the wrong choices we've made as a society in providing for these goods, and who benefits and who loses from them. People should understand their debts as part of a system's design, rather than its failure. If developed, it could turn into a powerful statement for the commons and for a more progressive and social democratic approach to all of these topics.
 
It also approaches the 1 percent issue in a new way. Instead of a lot of arguments about the just deserts of the richest, the 1 percent and the "financialized" sectors of the economy are those who profit from inserting themselves between social goods and those who desperately need them. The second half of the book focuses not on individual debts but structures that benefit creditors. From municipal debt to the "expensive to be poor" areas of fringe finance to debt collection and bankruptcy, there's a whole series of institutions that work against debtors, the poor, and civic infrastructure.
 
Here the banks aren't just nefarious agents taking too much of the pie; they are the people overcharging the poor to be able to cash a check or otherwise engage in trade. They are the people ignoring the Fair Debt Collection Act, harassing your family on old debts they bought on the cheap. And they are the ones privatizing municipal structures, collecting the gains while socializing the losses. And that's a new way of understanding the 1 percent's power, and how to resist it, and ultimately overcome it in the kind of world we want to build, which is a major step forward.
 
As Astra Taylor wrote in her Nation piece, "As individuals, many of us are in debt because we have to borrow to secure basic social goods—education, healthcare, housing and retirement—that should be publicly provided. Meanwhile, around the world, debt is used to justify cutting these very services, even as the game is further rigged so that the 1 percent continues to profit, raking in money from tax cuts, privatization schemes and interest on municipal and treasury bonds."
 
Will it be enough to spark a genuine political movement? Who knows. But it is a document worth your time, and the issues it brings up will hopefully form a core narrative of all future political struggles.

Occupy Wall Street/Strike Debt: The Debt Resistors' Operations Manual

 

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