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The Rolling Jubilee — Occupy’s Most Conservative Action Yet?

Last week, Forbes’ Tim Worstall wrote a commentary titled “Finally, An Occupy Wall Street Idea We Can All Get Behind, The Rolling Jubilee.” Of course, I’m always wary of anything Forbes “gets behind.” And so as I read such a positive review of this new Occupy action by a capitalist, my initial concerns about the Rolling Jubilee grew.

In case you haven’t heard, the Rolling Jubilee is, according to its site, is a “Strike Debt project that buys debt for pennies on the dollar, but instead of collecting it, abolishes it.” So far, it has raised enough to forgive almost $7 million of debt.

So, I wonder, why is the Occupy movement, a movement whose most significant goal was being able to properly identify and speak out against the root cause of oppression — capitalism, hierarchy and the concept of a 1 percent, now meddling in the financial sector? Why is it acting as a charity, which can only ever provide reform, when it is supposed to be a group focused on revolution?

Worstall actually called the Rolling Jubilee “a profoundly conservative” idea.

He continued:

It isn’t Progressive, it’s not liberal (in the modern sense although it certainly is in the classical liberal or libertarian sense) it is conservative. And isn’t that wondrous? That the only time the progressive liberals of Occupy get something right is when they’re not progressive liberals?


But maybe he has a point.

In an enlightening email exchange between Andrew Ross, an organizer with Strike Debt, and Seth Ackerman, editor of Jacobin,Ackerman wrote that erasing debt is actually an essential part of capitalism.

He wrote:

Debt relief is an integral and recurring part of capitalism. Every so often, the burden of debt gets too high for the good of the creditors themselves, or for the interests of business as a whole, and with clockwork regularity debts are written off and forgotten.

But Ross insisted that the project isn’t meant to resolve the problems with our economic system. He wrote that the Rolling Jubilee was not:

…intended to be anything like a large-scale solution to the debt economy. Its primary purpose is to expose the depravity of the system while doing some good too. Based on feedback we’ve received, there are lots of people who get it, in that sense. Many others misinterpret it as a serious, potentially scalable effort to provide mass debt relief. We don’t have the resources to do anything like that, and, besides, we have more radical aspirations.

Through the Rolling Jubilee, the “depravity of the system” has certainly gotten much exposure. And the creators are well aware that the project is not going to change this system. So then, should Occupy participate in both radical revolutionary actions and reformative charitable actions?

Well, my inclination is “yes” under a few stipulations. One is that the charitable actions don’t take up much time. There are already hundreds of thousands of charities, non-profits, social workers, volunteers, etc. that provide charitable acts around the world. If we took all of the time and energy we spend on these acts and fought for real change, we might have had new economic, social and political systems already.

Therefore, it’s vital that charitable projects do not allow the Occupy movement to stray away from organizing the community and participating in direct action. Consequently, it’s just as important to always frame charitable projects in terms of the larger context of systematic oppression. For example, the Rolling Jubilee must always contextualize debt in terms of our lack of access to free health care and education — both of which cause huge amounts of debt. Occupy Sandy must always contextualize the disaster in terms of climate change. Occupy Homes must always contextualize foreclosures in terms of Big Banks. And they must all ultimately critique capitalism, for all these failures lead to Wall St.

Perhaps, most importantly, Occupy’s charitable actions must work to bring together communities, showing people that they are not alone in their struggles. After all, real change can only occur when we feel united. 

I’ve witnessed Occupy members achieve this. I’ve seen those whose homes were saved from foreclosure by Occupy groups join Occupy to fight against other foreclosures. And I’m sure Sandy victims helped by Occupy Sandy will also be more attuned to serving their community.

Will the Rolling Jubilee have the same effect?

Kathleen Geier of Washington Monthly shares my skepticism.

She wrote:

But it very much remains to be seen if Rolling Jubilee’s debt relief effort is a promising way to organize a political movement. As a community building exercise, it may prove a bust. The debtors who are being helped out have no organic ties to the movement and may not care to participate in it.

Still, I’m inclined to support the project in hopes that those who do get their debt paid off use the liberation of that huge burden to join the fight.

There has always been a tough balance between reform and revolution, especially as we see suffering all around us. But I think if we spend only a small amount of time on reforms, and with those make sure we are fostering a community that will help fight for revolution — for real change — they can be worthwhile.

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