Occupy’s “Strike Debt” Campaign

Nov. 2012 Debt


From its beginning Occupy Wall Street has had a focus on debt—student, homeowner, health care, etc.—and has encouraged debt refusal and resistance. Part of the logic behind that focus is the tens of millions affected by debt, and their common interest in rejecting the misery imposed on them by the huge financial firms holding their debt.

But OWS had never grappled with the difficulties of building a movement centered on such an atomized, amorphous group: debtors, like the middle class, lack the social cohesion and strategic weight of the working class, which shares a common place in the sphere of production, drawing both potential collective consciousness and strategic weight from that positioning.

But the Strike Debt Campaign—which has been initiated by and drawn most of its activists from Occupy Wall Street—has recently broadened its focus, tactics, audience, and even (take a deep breath) its demands. By doing so it is providing opportunities to involve workers as workers, and to reach out to those fighting “sovereign debt” in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere. What’s more, sinking roots in those new bases can lend added force to the other components of the campaign, those around student or homeowner or other forms of debt.

As we’ll explain in the last part of this article, that is not to say that all the theoretical problems behind Occupy’s debt focus have been addressed, but rather that the door to such a discussion has been flung wide open.

A new campaign launched

On the September weekend marking its one-year anniversary, OWS held a forum to discuss its newly released “Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual.” Speakers discussed what until now has been the core of the campaign—individual debt refusal—and described the sections of the manual containing detailed advice on the origins of such debt and what the options were for resisting or even defaulting on it. But the speakers, and the manual itself, went way beyond that.

The manual notes: “Everyone is affected by debt, from recent graduates paying hundreds of dollars in interest on their students loans every month, to working families bankrupted by medical bills, to elders living in ‘underwater’ homes, to those taking out payday loans at 400% interest to cover basic living costs, to the teachers and firefighters forced to take pay cuts because their cities are broke, to countries pushed into austerity and poverty by structural adjustment programs.”

After describing the financialization of the economy, the manual points out: “Although American workers continue to lead the world in productivity, we haven’t had a raise since the early 1970s. Over the last four decades, we’ve been working longer and longer, trying to keep up with the rising costs of living—housing, health care, education. Yet we haven’t actually managed to keep up without plastic. … So, despite all our exertions over the last four decades, the 99% have only gone deeper into the red, in debt to the 1%. The reason is clear: we’re in debt because we’re not paid enough in the first place and there’s barely any ‘welfare state’ left to pick up the slack. This setup is called financialization.”

And Strike Debt doesn’t stop at just encouraging debt resistance to address this financialization. For instance, one of Occupy’s leading theorists, David Graeber, has begun to promote the idea of a shorter workweek as one measure to address this situation (see our own article on this demand in the last issue of Socialist Action).

In the same spirit, the manual, after recounting the horrific impoverishment due to mushrooming health-care debt, calls for introduction of a single-payer health-care system: “The only real solution [to “medical debt”] is to change the system from its current for-profit model to a nonprofit model.” Activists are encouraged by the manual to work with such single-payer advocates as Healthcare-NOW!, Physicians for a National Health Program, National Nurses United, and OWS’s own Healthcare for the 99% and Doctors for the 99%.

Similarly, the section on student debt takes on a new, more collective approach. Most attention in this area until now was given to encouraging student debtors to pledge that they would default on their loans once a sufficient number of pledges had been gathered. But the manual goes further:

After recounting the failure of lawmakers to respond to a petition signed by over a million asking for bankruptcy protection and partial debt forgiveness, the manual notes that even had such measures passed, they would not “de-commodify education nor claim it as a public good.” It declares that the Occupy Student Debt Campaign “believes that our public education system must be free, that any future student loans must be offered at zero interest, that all university institutions must be transparent and accountable, and that all current student debt must be cancelled.”

Other sections of the manual analyze forms of debt that by their very nature are imposed on whole groups of people rather than individuals. It introduces those sections this way: “What about those who don’t have debt in the traditional sense? Are they debtors too? Our answer is clear: Yes. We are all debtors, whether we have debt or not. Debt affects us all. But how?”

One way to see that, says the manual, is to look at municipal debt: “Is your city experiencing a budget crisis? Is your town laying off workers and cutting services? Are local hospitals understaffed and underfunded? Do you worry about whether your child’s school will have enough money to provide students with a quality education? If this is happening in your community, you are a debtor.

“Over the last forty years, our common goods and resources have been privatized to profit the 1%. In the wake of reduced public funding, cities and towns have taken out more and more private loans to pay for everything from basic operations, like sewers, to large developments, such as sports arenas. Municipalities are forced to partner with Wall Street to tap revenue streams because Wall Street controls access to credit markets. The only way cities and towns can win access to those markets is by issuing tax-exempt municipal bonds. But that means Wall Street profits from those bonds through interest payments and through securitization, as traders repackage bonds into debt bundles that are sold and resold on the global market. … After Wall Street’s mortgage-lending practices crashed the economy in 2008, many municipalities were unable to pay their debts.

“From coast to coast, cities have become completely beholden to big banks. The result is shuttered schools, smaller fire departments and block upon block of abandoned homes in foreclosure.

And the manual gives examples of resistance by municipalities to such policies: “Some municipalities are fighting back against the big banks. After their pay was cut to minimum wage, Scranton’s municipal unions sued the city, and their wages were restored. Years of community resistance delayed the construction of Barclays Arena in Brooklyn because the stadium was financed with tax-exempt bonds and built on land seized by eminent domain. Baltimore is suing more than a dozen big banks for manipulating LIBOR, a benchmark for interest rates. In July 2012, Boston activists held subway turnstiles open to protest Wall Street’s vise grip on their city’s transportation budget. After a toxic interest-rate swap deal sent it off a fiscal cliff, Oakland, California, is trying to take the dramatic step of severing its relationship with Goldman Sachs for good.”

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of propaganda demanding that city workers’ pensions be cut is growing ever louder. Some municipal unions have resisted attacks on their pensions, as well as on jobs, wages, and services provided. The recent victory of the Chicago Teachers’ Union could provide inspiration for other unions to wade into the battle. In fact, this is not just an opportunity but a dire necessity, as seen in Chicago itself: In a clear act of retaliation, just days after the CTU victory Chicago bosses threatened to cut CTU members’ pensions and jobs.

The manual argues: “We must also insist that the 1% is no longer allowed to write the laws dictating how our communities will be financed. We must insist on an end to the debt-financing of U.S. cities. This case for ending Wall Street’s control over our lives should also be made through direct action. We can target the banks profiting from the corrupt bond market with actions such as sit-ins and marches. The most important thing we can do as occupiers is refute the myth that the 99% are to blame for the fiscal emergencies that are declared when the bond vigilantes come knocking.”

Even when addressing the plight of individual debtors, the manual argues for the need of those in debt to develop a collective sense of their plight. It says, for instance: “[W]e’ve struggled to balance advice that you, the reader, can use to survive under this debt regime with a structural analysis of the system that put you in debt. The reason you have tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt or medical bills that you cannot pay is because we live in a society that refuses to make education and health care accessible and free to all.” It encourages debtors to share their stories in order to overcome this sense of isolation and even shame, an effort captured in the Campaign’s witty slogan: “You are not a loan!”
The manual also draws connections to mass struggles around the world in countries where bankers have ordered governments to impose austerity plans to make sure their loans are repaid.

Weaknesses of “strike debt”

While noting the new and praiseworthy aspects of Occupy’s anti-debt campaign, we must still address its continuing theoretical weaknesses, and the resulting strategic shortcomings. It appears, in fact. that the campaign’s broadened focus is more the product of an admirable nonsectarian inclusion of other activists’ and movements’ perspectives, rather than a rethinking of the anarchist ideology at the heart of Occupy.

In the section on housing debt, for instance, the manual notes the difficulties now and in the past in unifying the tens of millions of homeowners who share a common fate: “However, although there is a lengthy history of ‘rent strikes’ to gain repairs and other concessions from landlords, there is little history of mortgage refusal. There are many reasons property owners might be unwilling to strike—from the glorified perception of ownership to the taboo against failing to pay debts, to the fear of bad credit, to the belief that the market will improve. Yet as more and more victims of the housing market understand the complicated details of the game our government played with the banks at our expense, the potential for collective action grows.”

We would argue instead that such potential among homeowners as homeowners is inherently limited, as opposed to the strategic potential of workers sharing a similar class position. This is not to say there is no potential for organizing among those burdened with mortgages, rather that only a revived and militant labor movement can provide the inspiration to encourage homeowners and other isolated social groups to see the potential of collective action, and that only the strategic weight of the working class can forge a movement strong enough to seize power from those who create all these forms of debt—and who rule the system of exploitation at the point of production on which it is based.
Strike Debt also shares Occupy’s one-sided interpretation of the roots and character of “financialization.”

For Marxists, this term refers to a shift in the relative weight of profit-seeking from production to investments in other sectors. As the rate of profit has fallen in recent decades, opportunities to invest profitably in goods-producing sectors have shrunk. This has led, on the one hand, to diversion of trillions of dollars into speculative investments. It has also led, however, to the commodification and/or privatization of such sectors as health care, education, child and elder care, etc.

But none of this has eliminated the core and inescapable requirement of the capitalist system if it is to stop from going under—the making of profit at the point of production, or, put another way, the extraction of surplus value in the making of commodities.

That is why periods in which profits are disproportionately based on financial speculation inevitably end in crashes. From the speculative bubble that sprang a leak in 2008 and continues unplugged today, back to the equally manic Wall Street speculation of the 1920s and other similar periods, we have seen over and over that the fictitious nature of investments divorced from commodity production, and the profits resting on them, inevitably rebound back on the system. Financial institutions play an essential role in circulating and redistributing profits extracted in production, but when their investments are relied on to substitute for vanishing surplus value from investment in productive labor, that’s a sign that the economy as a whole is on its way to a devastating crash.

This analytical point has real-world impact. It allows us to determine the respective strengths and weaknesses of the two most important classes in society—capitalists and workers—as well as those classes and other social groups hovering between or around them. Such an analysis is crucial for forging strategies and tactics, based on an understanding of which forces are most capable of collective action. What’s more, without understanding the nature of the system one can’t understand what can replace it.

For instance, the Strike Debt manual calls for a “jubilee”—a one-time society-wide cancellation of debt. And it reminds us that “there are conservative as well as revolutionary jubilees; debt cuts can save the system if what follows is business as usual. A Debt Jubilee needs to be accompanied by a program of social transformation.

“By dissolving the bonds which bind us to the 1%, we seek to forge new and equitable bonds with one another. … We are not looking for debt ‘forgiveness’; what we seek is the abolition of debt profiteering and its replacement by a society that nurtures the common good.”

Yet the very next sentence shows that the Campaign has not evolved very far along the lines of how society could be reorganized to eliminate this problem: “We should be clear: we are not against all debt nor are we against credit. Rather, we call for new, fair arrangements that help us exceed the boundaries of the present (as credit does) without burdening the future in chains of compound interest.” Here the manual is paying tribute to the notion of a society built on federated mutual aid associations, a notion dreamed up by early 19th-century anarchists and still at the core of most anarchist visions of a post-capitalist society.

Even on the level of tactics for the present, Strike Debt retains a heavy focus on individual debt. And in at least some cases, the mobilizing potential of that issue is said to outweigh that of traditional, labor-based strikes. In the September issue of Occupy’s theory magazine Tidal, a collectively-authored Strike Debt article says: “We could also call it [individuals walking away from debt] debt strike. In this time of high unemployment, battered trade unions, and job insecurity, we may not be able to signal our discontent by not going to work, but we can refuse to pay. Alongside the labor movement, a debtors movement. For those who can’t strike, we propose a Rolling Jubilee in which we buy debt in default, widely resold online for pennies on the dollar: and then abolish it.”

Such attempts to conjure up panaceas to replace the supposedly lost potential of class struggle always surface in times of relative labor quiescence – often just before the labor movement breaks out once again with stunning size and militancy. And such pessimism about labor’s potential is also odd at a time when tens of millions of workers have engaged in general strikes and mass uprisings in recent years in Europe and the Middle East – and when, albeit on an as-yet far smaller scale, workers even in the US are showing their potential (think Chicago teachers).

In a similar vein to Strike Debt’s prescriptions, the manual announces that “Strike Debt is focused on bringing debt resistors together… Imagine, if you will, a global Debtors’ Union made up of a network of lender-specific sub-unions… These unions could, eventually, be platforms for sustained agitation, providing support for strategic actions, including debt strikes, akin to the labor battles of earlier eras.”
Exactly how “akin” such a proposal would be to such labor battles, and whether the potential for reviving the latter is really so hopeless, remains an important disagreement between socialists and anarchists within Occupy.

Despite these areas of continuing difference, the door, as we stated at the beginning, has been flung wide open, both for joint struggle over the impact of capitalist-imposed debt, and for theoretical discussions about its origins and how to uproot the system that continually and inevitably fosters it.

One area in which such joint struggle is direly needed, and as soon as possible, is on the level of the federal budget. Here we need to extend the steps forward taken by Strike Debt on issues affecting city workers and services to a national scale. Come Jan. 1, “sequestration,” i.e. across-the-board, fixed percentage budget cuts will take effect if there is no agreement on how to maintain or raise taxes and/or to cut spending by varying amounts for specific parts of the budget. Millions of jobs are expected to be lost in such a scenario, both from those directly laid off by the federal government and the spillover impact on the economy.

Of course, if Congressional agreement is found on targeted cuts, these will be on the same devastating scale. Either way labor needs to begin mobilizing against this threat. These cuts, as in the case of the municipal debt, will occur in order to satisfy financial and other corporate moguls worried that growing federal debt and deficits are hurting their profits.

Agitating for the labor movement to adopt a federal focus in a massive anti-debt, anti-cuts campaign has been made easier by the recent introduction in Congress of HR 6411, a product of National Nurses United’s campaign for a “Robin Hood” tax—i.e., a financial transaction tax of the sort which has often been coupled with anti-debt campaigns in Europe. While we have disagreements with the limited size and scope of this tax, it nonetheless opens wide a discussion of what labor and its allies could be doing in the run-up to the devastating cuts coming after the New Year.

For that reason, labor should be grateful to Strike Debt for broadening the terrain on which the discussion of an anti-austerity, anti-capital movement occurs.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action