PROSPECTS FOR CHANGE:
JOIN THE RESISTANCE!
The chapters of this manual (The Debt Resistors' Operations
Manual, link on homepage) highlight various forms of debt injustice. Hopefully
reading them has made you angry. Debt can be isolating and demoralizing. The
most common emo- tion associated with debt is shame. We hope to transform that
shame into outrage—and that outrage into action.
In writing this manual we’ve struggled to balance advice that you, the reader, can use to survive under this debt regime with a structural analysis of the system that put you in debt. The reason you have tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt or medical bills that you cannot pay is because we live in a society that refuses to make education and health care accessible and free to all. You didn’t make some horrible mistake to get into the situation you are in. You are not a failure, and millions of people are in similarly dire straits. To again quote one of Strike Debt’s early slogans: You are not alone/You are not a loan.
There is strength in numbers. Individually our debts overwhelm us; collectively our debts can overwhelm the system. There are ways of fighting back and reclaiming our lives and our communities from the current state of affairs. We are not looking for debt “forgiveness”; what we seek is the abolition of debt profiteering and its replace- ment by a society that nurtures the common good.
We should be clear: we are not against all debt nor are we against credit. Rather, we call for new, fair arrange- ments that help us exceed the boundaries of the present (as credit does) without burdening the future in chains of
THE RESISTANCE IS GROWING
All around the world, debtors are rattling the chains
of debt. We are seeing debt for what it is—a form of dom- ination and
exploitation—and we are collectively rising up
against it. From Chile to Québec, students have combined massive waves of protests with organizational initiatives to challenge the debt bondage that results from corporatized education. Countries like Spain and Greece are experiencing massive popular uprisings against austerity. Their governments have prioritized paying back foreign bondholders over providing for the peo- ple, and the people have had enough.
Students in Québec have popularized the symbol of the red square to signify being financially “squarely in the red” amid tuition hikes, cuts in social entitlements and the specter of spiraling student and consumer debt. In Eu- rope, where elites tried to pass on the costs of their sovereign debt crises to the most vulnerable populations—the young and the poor—protesters have shouted, “We won’t pay for your crisis!”
Occupy Wall Street is another incarnation of this global uprising. Since the fall of 2011, it has helped expose the double standards that have al- lowed the oligarchs to maintain their rule even as they ravage the economy. Nowhere are these double standards more apparent than in Wall Street’s re- lationship with debt. Every month, the 99% dutifully make debt payments under conditions set by the 1%. Like an ancient tribute payment to the em- pire, we pay our mortgages, student loans, credit card, car and medical debts, and Wall Street gobbles up the profit. If an individual refuses to make these payments, the banks and the government have the means to ruin their life. In the years since the financial crash, the disparity between the generosity shown to Wall Street (more than three trillion dollars of public money spent already, with an additional 12.2 trillion committed by the U.S. government) and the blatant lack of relief for household debtors and bankrupted municipalities has made it quite clear whose debts are expected to be honored and whose will be written off.
One person’s debt is another’s profit. While Occupy Wall Street has been an encouraging sign that outrage around these issues is mounting, somehow the conversation about debt in the United States is still dominated by right- wing pundits. They place all the blame for our nation’s mounting indebted- ness on irresponsible individuals. Businessmen-turned-politicians tell us over and over again that we must slash social spending and entitlement programs because of this deficit. It is time to set the record straight.
As we have shown in this manual, millions of us are the victims of preda- tory lending. And we understand that government debt is nothing like personal debt. Around the world, debt is used to justify the cutting of basic services. The problem is not that we are broke but that our public wealth is being hoarded. We need a new social contract that puts public wealth to equitable use and enshrines the right to live without the requirement of lifelong debt servitude.
This is the beginning of a radical debt resistance movement, and we need you to be a part of it. There is a long and important history of debt re- sistance—a history that is as old as it is revolutionary—for us to learn from.
From ancient times to the present, there have been powerful debt resis- tance movements that have challenged the harsh penalties associated with debt default, including debt enslavement and debt incarceration. In ancient Athens there was a practice of enslaving either the debtor or one of their family members if their debt was unpaid. This practice expanded to the point that civil wars broke out between debtors and creditors so often that the very survival of the city-state of Athens was in question. This crisis stimulated a major change in the Athenian legal system that outlawed the debt enslave- ment of fellow citizens and became a model for many societies down to the formation of the American republic.
There was still widespread debt incarceration in the United States after the “American Revolution.” (Even two signers of the Declaration of Inde- pendence were later imprisoned!) The first major rebellion in U.S. history after independence, Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, was against foreclosures and debt imprisonment. It took many struggles throughout the first half of the nineteenth century to end the practice of debt imprisonment. The great post-Civil War struggles against foreclosures on small farmers in the Midwest and South were moments of insurrection against the rule of the creditors’ logic. During the Great Depression, urban workers and rural farmers banded together to block home evictions and farm foreclosures. Workers also orga- nized their own credit and mutual aid associations to create alternative ways to borrow and lend without the threat of slavery and torture. Finally these insurrections forced the federal government into passing “personal bank- ruptcy” laws that limited the “pound of flesh” some capitalist creditors were demanding from workers who defaulted.
Debt resistance movements have been the driving force behind many of the most important struggles in the last twenty years. For example, the alter-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s was a broad constellation of social struggles against paying “odious” national debts to international banks. The global justice movement that emerged in much of the global south forced many banks (both private and international, like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) to renegotiate the loans by cutting their interest rates, reducing the principal, and in some cases simply “forgiving” the loan.
Along with these struggles against “national” debts there have been remarkable recent struggles against personal debt like the movement of El Barzón in Mexico. In 1994, the Mexican peso dramatically lost value com- pared to the dollar, which set off a steep inflation that increased the interest on variable-rate loans and often made loans, including mortgages, that were denominated in U.S. dollars (as many were) ten times larger. This brought nearly 30% of the people indebted to banks into default. The El Barzón movement began by claiming that the loan repayment conditions after the
collapse of the peso were the fault the government and the banks, and that it would be unfair to hold the debtor responsible. Their slogan was, “Debo, no niego, pago lo justo” (“I owe, I don’t deny it, I’ll pay what is fair”). The movement grew rapidly across the country and was known both for its practical approach (by setting up legal consultation services for debtors) and its riveting tactics. It forced the government to come to the aid of the
embattled debtors and had a definitive positive impact on their situation.
Almost two decades later, Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, emerged out of a series of open assemblies. It continues to spark conversations about debt as a global system of domination and exploitation. Debt binds the 99%—although as we’ve seen in this manual it binds some people (women, people of color, and the poor) more tightly than others.
Debt resistance can take many forms and Strike Debt is developing tac- tics, resources and frameworks for generalizing the fight against the debt system. These initiatives include publishing this manual and hosting debtors’ assemblies; supporting the work of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign and their Pledge of Refusal; launching the “Rolling Jubilee,” a mutual-aid project that buys debt at steeply discounted prices and then abolishes it (to learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org); and planning direct actions across the country, ranging from debt burnings to targeted shutdowns of predatory lenders of all kinds.
Planning for the slightly longer term, Strike Debt is focused on bring- ing debt resistors together with the aim of growing the struggle against debt into a force to be reckoned with. Imagine, if you will, a global Debt- ors’ Union made up of a network of lender-specific sub-unions. For ex- ample, if someone had a mortgage with Bank of America, tuition debt from Sallie Mae and Citibank, and credit card debts with Wells Fargo and Chase, when this person joins the union they automatically join the sub-unions for Bank of America, Sallie Mae, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Chase. These unions could, eventually, be platforms for sustained agita- tion, providing support for strategic actions, including debt strikes, akin to the labor battles of earlier eras.
Underlying all these projects is Strike Debt’s support for a Jubilee—a full cancellation of all debts. Civilization after civilization has recognized that when debt gets unmanageable, it must be cancelled. This has happened many times throughout history. We should remember that there are conservative as well as revolutionary jubilees; debt cuts can save the system if what follows is business as usual. A Debt Jubilee needs to be accompanied by a program of social transformation.
Consider this call for a global jubilee from David Graeber’s Debt: The
First 5,000 Years:
We are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way. It is significant, I think, that since Hammurabi, great imperial states have invariably resisted this kind of politics. Athens and Rome established the paradigm: even when confronted with continual debt crises, they insisted on legislating around the edges, softening the impact, eliminating obvious abuses like debt slavery, using the spoils of empire to throw all sorts of extra benefits at their poorer citizens (who, after all, provided the rank and file of their armies), so as to keep them more or less afloat—but all in such a way as never to allow a challenge to the principle of debt itself. The governing class of the United States seems to have taken a remarkably similar approach: eliminating the worst abuses (e.g., debtors’ prisons)*, using the fruits of empire to provide subsidies, visible and otherwise, to the bulk of the population; in more recent years, manipulating currency rates to flood the country with cheap goods from China, but never allowing anyone to question the sacred principle that we must all pay our debts.
At this point, however, the principle has been exposed as a flagrant lie. As it turns out, we don’t ‘all’ have to pay our debts. Only some of us do. Nothing would be more important than to wipe the slate clean for everyone, mark a break with our accustomed morality, and start again.
What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, just as no one has the right to tell us our true
value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe.1
We all know that promises have been broken. The 1% have
gambled with our livelihoods. In contrast to their recklessness, those of us
who advocate debt refusal take our collective responsibility very seriously.
By dissolving the bonds which bind us to the 1%, we seek to forge new and equitable
bonds with one another. We recognize that everyone deserves adequate housing,
meaningful work, short hours, fair wages, access to health care and a truly
liberating education. We cannot fulfill these obligations if we continue to
cooperate with the system as it currently exists. Why keep paying our money
to the Wall Street mob? We know our resources could be better spent.
Remember: we don’t owe Wall Street anything, we owe each other ev-
erything. The possibilities of organizing around debt resistance are only be- ginning to be realized. Strike Debt, like Occupy Wall Street, hopes to inspire autonomous action. It encourages all to resist. To contact Strike Debt, please email email@example.com or visit strikedebt.org.
ARtiCleS And bookS
George Caffentzis, “University Struggles at the End of the Edu-Deal,” Mute Maga-
zine, April 15, 2010 (tinyurl.com/DROMCaffentzis1).
George Caffentzis, “Workers Against Debt Slavery and Torture: An Ancient Tale with a Modern Moral,” Edu-Factory, July 2007 (tinyurl.com/DROMCaffentzis2). Harry Cleaver, Jr., “Notes on the Origin of the Debt Crisis,” Midnight Notes, 1990
Silvia Federici, “African Roots of US University Struggles: From the Occupy Move- ment to the Anti-Student-Debt Campaign,” unsettling knowledges, January 2012 (ti- nyurl.com/DROMFederici1).
Silvia Federici, “The Debt Crisis, Africa and the New Enclosures,” Midnight Notes,
Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis, and Ousseina Alidou (Eds.), A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities, (Trenton, NJ: Af- rica World Press, 2000).
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, (New York, NY: Melville, 2011) (tinyurl. com/DROMGraeber).
Midnight Notes Collective and Friends, Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons,
1. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, (New York,
NY: Melville, 2011) (ti- nyurl.com/DROMGraeber), 390–391.
lding relationships that will one day come back to serve us in our own time of need? Wouldn’t this way of doing business, following a debt jubilee, make your heart sing?