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Debt

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There’s been a surprising paucity of articles in the media about Occupy’s 10th anniversary, but Dissent has run a good series on it. One of the essays is on the Debt Collective that spun out of Occupy. Debt of all forms–student, consumer, medical, housing–was a big part of what spurred Occupy and little about this has improved in the past decade. Higher education is even more expensive, medical debt issues haven’t been dealt with at all. I guess there a bit less predation in the housing market. But still. Anyway, it’s worth thinking about the continued role debt plays in our society.

Ten years after Occupy, and despite the anti-electoral stance of many original Strike Debt founders, the Debt Collective’s influence in Washington is undeniable. The once marginal vision of a student debt jubilee and free public education has grown in visibility and moved to the edge of the possible. “I was feeding into a broken system which actively penalizes people like me. So, I refuse to pay it,” Umme Hoque, Debt Collective’s organizing director, announced in January, as she and ninety-nine other members went on the second organized mass debt strike since Corinthian, pushing Biden to use the executive authority granted to him to erase all student debt within his first 100 days in office. In a coordinated week of action, branches held rallies across the country. In New York, passersby were encouraged to burn metaphorical debt by setting pieces of paper on fire in front of Senator Chuck Schumer’s home; in Philly, an oversized inflatable ball and chain was erected in front of Centre Square. In reality, debt “strikes” are happening everyday: one out of every ten Americans have defaulted on student loans. But when inability to pay is organized into collective action, when those who must default recognize their insolvency as a shared and common reality, failure to pay becomes refusal to pay.

Though he campaigned promising a degree of student loan cancellation, Biden remains firmly resistant to full relief. Yet there have been real wins: billions of dollars of fraudulent debt erased through DTR, a four-month extension on the debt moratorium, and a viable updated version of Bernie Sanders’ College for All Act, which includes canceling all $1.6 trillion in student debt on top of free tuition for public two- and four-year colleges, paid for by a tax on Wall Street. The Debt Collective is growing its movement, too, building coalitions with graduate workers’ unions to discuss other facets of the higher education crisis and assembling committees focused on all the ways that debt and financial instruments like bonds turn spaces of learning into Wall Street profit centers.

I joined the Debt Collective in 2019, but I have lived under debt for nearly my whole life. As a first-generation college student from an immigrant, single-parent-income household, I was exposed to class politics and economic inequality early on. But my parents and I bought the idea that if I worked hard and got a foot in the door with the elites—attended their universities, mimicked their lifestyles—class lines would be blurred. It soon became clear that my ticket out of the working class would be impossible to redeem when the economic system is set up to trap people like myself. I experienced class as a limiting factor on my freedom of choice: what I did with my time became inextricably tied to and in service of my debt.

During my new member orientation with the Debt Collective, I went into a breakout room where all the attendees’ cameras were off. Debt is a shameful thing. It forms the backdrop to your life and your commitments. To know and speak about it with others is to recognize its deplorable nature, instead of your own. In the Debt Collective, we were bound not only by debt, but by our commitments to each other and to building a better world—turning a source of exploitation into power, and bonds of oppression into bonds of solidarity.

I still think the ubiquity of debt remains a powerful potential force in our politics, even if it hasn’t really coalesced yet. The biggest problem is the shame people have over it. Talking about our debt is the first step toward acting collectively to eliminate systems that place us here.

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