A Guide to Resisting Debt -- For Students and the Rest of Us

If you want a print copy of Occupy Wall Street offshoot Strike Debt’s first publication, you’ll have to wait. The 5,000 first-run copies of the Debt Resistors' Operations Manual vanished into backpacks, purses, jacket pockets, and tote bags over Occupy Wall Street’s anniversary weekend, and until a second printing, the Occupy guide to debt in America can only be acquired online.

The guide has 122 pages of information about the vagaries of debt. Consider it a manual to the surprisingly secretive world of financial trouble, where more and more Americans—and especially students—are disoriented and lost. 

Nearly 20 percent of American households have student loan debt; last year, student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time in American history. Graduates who find themselves with incredible financial burdens and few job opportunities face isolation and uncertainty. Though burgeoning student debt played a key role in its inception, the book takes a broader approach, castigating the current economic system for forcing poor and middle-class people to increasingly rely on debt to finance daily necessities.

“The manual developed out of early conversations we had about mutual aid,” Occupy Student Debt Campaign member and organizer Pam Brown told Campus Progress. “This is just the first thing we're doing in terms of mutual aid and support to help people who find themselves indebted, to provide a systemic analysis and also simultaneously that support for people who are really, truly suffering.”

Brown, deeply in debt from her first attempt at graduate school, calls herself the victim of a “predatory situation.” It’s one that the manual describes in detail:

Neoliberal policy-making has transferred the financial burden [of higher education] onto individual students. This means your future salary will be used to pay back the debts you got stuck with to prepare yourself for employability in the first place. Having to pay for education through debt is a form of indenture. And unlike traditional forms of indenture, it can take a lifetime to regain your freedom…

Chances are your university financial aid officials are in cahoots with private lenders. A 2006 investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s Office concluded that the business relationship between lenders and university officials amounted to an “unholy alliance.”

And other forms of credit are no less exploitative, according to the manual. It contains comprehensive advice for people facing down student loan default (find out the loan servicer, be aware of illegal practices, know your rights), but also for those struggling with medical debt, credit card debt, and housing debt; there are form letters for challenging credit reports and collection attempts. Poor, middle-class, black, or white, “debt binds the 99%,” says the Strike Debt web site. And through conversations and forums, people involved with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Theory began to make plans.

Activists have undertaken several projects: a student debt resistance pledge (which commits signers to taking action if and when the project reaches critical mass); a “rolling jubilee” to buy up medical debt and forgive it; a compendium of stories; and another 10,000 copies of the manual, this version with chapters on sovereign and tax debt. All of these head toward one lofty dream, shared by everyone involved with the Strike Debt campaign. 

Here it is, from its deep roots in the Bible and the work of anthropologist and Occupy Wall Street visionary David Graeber: A debtors’ union, and, eventually, a Jubilee—complete debt forgiveness.

Brown acknowledges it’s a radical, far-off goal. But if the conditions were right, she says, “it would also be an acknowledgment that there's something very broken with our system.” It is this system that the Debt Resistors' Operations Manual hopes to confront, by giving people the education they need to fight back—and a bit of inspiration, too.

“We are morally obligated to find a way to stop this system rather than continuing to perpetuate it,” the manual’s introduction reads. “To the financial establishment of the world, we have only one thing to say: We owe you nothing. To our friends, our families, our communities, to humanity and to the natural world that makes our lives possible, we owe you everything.”

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