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Debtor's Revolution: Are Debt Strikes Another Possible Tactic in the Fight Against the Big Banks?

What does it mean to stop cooperating with the banks? Some activists, organizers, and technologists think the answer might be mass refusal to pay debts.
 
 
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In the gorgeous, purple-and-green-lit Lower East Side headquarters of the Angel Orensanz Foundation, nearly 300 techies, activists and thinkers gathered, shouting out ideas for social justice-minded Web projects that they would break into small groups to attempt to hash out in a day.

A man in a plaid shirt stood up and told the moderator and the crowd, “I want to create a tool for organizing debt strikes.”

The man was Thomas Gokey, an artist and adjunct professor at Syracuse University, and his idea wound up one of the four  “winners” at ContactCon, a conference hosted by Douglas Rushkoff that urged people to think of solutions to the problem of the corporate-controlled Internet—and by extension, the world. The project, nicknamed “Kick-Stopper,” is in the works, but Gokey notes that he's far from the only person out there suggesting, especially in the wake of Occupy Wall Street's successes, that it's time for some more serious, organized direct action around the issue of debt.

“I wanted to do this project because I kept having the same basic conversation with everyone at Zuccotti and everywhere else,” Gokey told me. “When I talk to people about what we could do that would really compel Congress and Wall Street to meet our demands or really alter the current system, we inevitably start discussing what non-cooperation with our own oppression would look like. What does it mean to stop cooperating with the banks? What we inevitably end up describing is some variation of a debt strike, simply ending our own participation in a system that exploits us.”

Are debt strikes, then, the next logical step in the fight against Big Finance's domination of the 99 percent?

Republic of Debtors

One of the fascinating things about the media dominance of Occupy Wall Street has been how the conversation has shifted away from the deficit-obsession of the last few years. Suddenly the debt that everyone is talking about is personal, individual debt—student loans, mortgages, credit cards and other ways the big banks control our lives.

“That's one of the things, debt really does tie the 99 percent together. Everyone who is under the 99 percentile saw a debt runup in the 2000s,” Mike Konczal, finance blogger and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, told me. “You can talk about 'the richest 1 percent makes this much money,' but part of what they're making is debt. Their wealth is a claim on everyone else's future income.”

That debt was for many years a substitute for wages in the pockets of many Americans. As incomes stagnated or even shrank, credit cards and home equity filled the gap—until the housing bubble popped, leaving millions underwater on their mortgages, owing more than their homes were worth, and unable to get more credit cards or even make the minimum payments on the ones they had.

Many have noted that what happened in 2007 and 2008, when the banks were handed billions in bailouts and secret ultra-low-interest loans, was essentially a capital strike. Finance essentially said that if they didn't get bailed out, they'd shut down the system—stop lending, jam up the works, and make life miserable for everyone.

Yet those same banks, once bailed out, have flatly refused to do the same for a nation of borrowers thrown into crisis by their actions. Their argument seems simple—the borrowers knew what they were doing, it's their obligation to pay. Most borrowers agree, and struggle to make payments on credit cards with 20 percent rates and student loans for educations that didn't help them find jobs, on homes that have plunged in value thanks to predatory lending.