A Student Debt Strike Force Takes Off
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Even as it carries with it a tone of negation or attack, the call to strike debt also has an affirmative dimension attuned to OWS principles of mutual aid. To strike debt in this context would also be to create infrastructures of support and care—legal, financial, and cultural—for those suffering from indebtedness or deliberately taking the risk of debt refusal. Mutual aid in this sense would be the prefigurative opposite of the atomizing, predatory, and fear-mongering debt system of Wall Street.
An intriguing mutual aid pilot project is the idea of a “debt fairy” campaign in which groups of private citizens would pool their resources to purchase defaulted debt for pennies on the dollar from banks —who typically sell to collection agencies—liberating the debtor from their burden. While not a structural solution — and not applicable to student loans — scaled up it could become what David Graeber imagines as a “moving jubilee” capable of both garnering media attention around debtors’ struggles and taking business away from the intermediary companies that profit from hounding and penalizing those unable to pay.
If debt is a gateway into a radical conversation about the capitalist system itself, strategic and analytical questions arise about the role of the state—questions that have always haunted OWS as a movement grounded in anarchist principles. What can we learn from the debt cancellation forced upon the Icelandic government by citizens earlier this year? How do we connect the dots between “personal” debt and the public debt of municipalities and governments subjected to corporate bondholders and credit-rating agencies? How do we link struggles against budgetary austerity with the grievances of the indebted? In the words of Andrew Ross, “How might debt be rethought as something socially productive and collectively managed, rather than as an engine of predatory profiteering for the 1 percent?” Can we think beyond existing models of public finance, planning, and infrastructure toward something closer to the ideal of “the commons”?
As activist and New York University professor Nick Mirzoeff has asked, in a speculative vein, if “slavery” to debt were abolished, what would a subsequent “Reconstruction” process look like? For ordinary people to delve into these questions is empowering in its own right, and for OWS they will continue to be explored through public assembly and direct action of the sort that began at Liberty Square 10 months ago.
The debt conversation has figured prominently in the messaging and planning discussions surrounding the September 17 anniversary (S17), which will involve a three-day national convergence in New York City encompassing conferences, assemblies, cultural events, trainings, and disruptive direct action. Organizers of S17 are wary of what F the Bank member Aaron Bornstein calls the “overpromise, underdeliver” expectations exemplified by the May Day general strike call, as well as the risk of falling into a backward-looking, self-referential celebration of Liberty Square. However, S17 and the build-up to it provides a spotlight that organizers are keen to take advantage of in order to roll out a multi-pronged series of documents, media campaigns, and creative actions that they hope will lay the groundwork for a full-fledged debtors’ movement that goes far beyond any single day of action or electoral cycle.
The coming months will see an escalation on the part of Strike Debt. The first of several projected non-Manhattan Debtors Assembly was held recently at Occupy Town Squares Bushwick in Brooklyn, where participants grappled with how to articulate the debt conversation with urgent struggles around issues such as the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, immigrant worker justice and radical community-based direct actions, such as the rent strike taking place in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. David Graeber will lead a debt-related teach-in at Summer Disobedience School this weekend, and the related action will target NYU as a warm-up exercise for a large-scale casserole march on July 22 called Red Sounds, in which Strike Debt will collaborate with activists from Free University and All in the Red. All the while, organizers will be sharing and strategizing for the S17 convergence and beyond.