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Debt: What It Is and Why We Fight It

David Graeber, Mike Konczal, Sarah Jaffe and Brian Kalkbrenner discuss debt--what it is, why we're drowning in it, why it's a political issue. Moderated by Astra Taylor.

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Jaffe: I was not that recently a graduate student and also a teaching assistant. One of the things about these university tuition increases is that the place they’re not going is in professors’ pockets. The place that they are definitely going is in administrators’ pockets. Universities are moving in large part, especially public universities like the one I taught at, to teaching assistants and adjunct professors who don’t have health insurance, don’t have benefits, make three grand a semester, and they’re cutting down on permanent faculty. So this is the other part of that equation: you’re not only paying more money, you’re getting a worse product.

Konczal: I just want to throw out a quick point just as background—a lot of pre-Zucotti Park occupations, globally, have been about student debt. If you look in Chile over the last couple years, if you look in Puerto Rico—which is part of the United States, but—if you look at Britain last year, if you look at Berkeley in 2009, “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing”—student debt is obviously a real crucible of where a lot of this energy is, so it’s exciting to see it come back to the campus.

Graeber: I was involved in the occupations in the UK last year. It’s a basic moral question of value, of why we’re even here—not only here in this room, but here at all. It was fascinating to see, because they’re trying to put in place in the UK the system that we already have in America. It started with this thing called the Brown Report, where they did an analysis of educational efficiency, based on the assumption that no one would every pursue a degree in higher education for any reason other than increasing their average life income. Then they proposed all these horrific neo-liberal reforms, like, we’ll triple tuition and put in student loans, which basically had the effect of making sure that people actually would be forced to act in exactly the way that the Brown Report described. You really had no choice, now, but to calculate everything in terms of your life income, because you were going to be in debt for the rest of your life. That was the point. 

Every single occupation began with—it wasn’t a demand, but a statement—the statement that education is not an economic good, it’s a moral good: it’s a good unto itself. It’s crazy that positions that used to be conservative positions—I mean, you could say, “Education is necessary if you’re going to have a democracy; people need to be informed.” You could say, “Education is economically necessary,” if you’re a neo-liberal. But what about, “Education is good. It’s better to understand the world than not to understand the world”? That used to be what conservative people said. And now just trying to make this argument makes you a crazed radical. 

What I really think has happened to the talk of education in particular is a question of value. An educational system is where you explore any value other than the economic, where it’s okay to do so. For most people, you live a life for a few years where you get to think about something other than money. And the guys running the money completely fucked up the entire system. They almost sent the economic system of the world crashing to its knees. It’s clearly a moment where people start thinking of other ways of thinking about things, other things being important in life, other ways of imagining the economy—where’s that going to come from? The educational system. So the first thing they do is—splat—attack the educational system head-on, to make sure nobody in that system can think about anything except the terms that have already been set up. It’s just using brute force to enforce ideological hegemony. We need to recognize that that’s what’s going on.

 
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