Organizing around student debt

In “Is debt the connective thread for OWS?” Jodi Dean raises some important questions around debt as a locus for organizing.  Many of these questions confirm my own experience in organizing against student loan debt, others, others raise new matters, both which I want to talk about here.  And while Dean doesn’t talk about student loan debtexclusively, that’s what I’m going to focus on, because that’s what I’ve dealt the most with, both as an activist and as a debtor.  This is going to take the form of more disjointed thoughts than anything systematic.

Dean raises the tactical problem that relying on tactics such as people intentionally defaulting on loans relies on people following through with the individual action, i.e. actually defaulting.  “How can we insure that everyone who agrees to default…actually will default?” she asks.  She also raises the problem that certain tactics (not getting a credit card, for instance) err toward lifestylism.  First, the issue of people following through with the tactic, is a problem with any strike, labor or rent strikes included (I’m classifying intentionally defaulting as a genre of “strike”).  On the one hand, any revolutionary simply needs to have faith in people.  Before mass action is really on the scene, people will be more wavering in their commitment to collective action, I suspect.  However, people also know who’s on their side and who isn’t.  The bosses, banks and landlords aren’t.  And if people see that there’s a real opportunity to strike against them, people will find a way to take it (that is, a real opportunity, not an imaginary one, like the call for a general strike in May, which was ludicrous and everyone but the most dogmatic people knew it was).  On the other hand, this is also why you have pickets, rallies and protests of striking workers.  If all striking workers just stayed at home, the strike would have the appearance of just taking a day off of work, and further, there’d be no way for them to know who was scabbing and who wasn’t.  You want to show your numbers, and you want to show your union’s/organization’s capacity to actually mobilize and lead people.  So ideally, if there was an actual debt strike, there would be corresponding pickets, rallies, marches, demonstrations and manifestations of the strikers, showing their numbers.  Furthermore, you need those kind of public manifestations precisely because you want others to join you.  A picket doesn’t just want scabs to not scab anymore, they want to turn the scabs into allies and supporters of the union, and not just the scabs, but all the passersby, the shoppers or consumers, people living in close proximity, other union members, etc.  Strikes don’t win without masses of people.  A debt strike even more.  Debt strikers don’t have the benefit of things like, say, just-in-time production.  The banks can hold out for much longer time than a manufacturer.  So any debt strike would need to have at it’s center a strategy for growing beyond its own ranks into the millions.

The barrier to this sort of collective action isn’t that there’s no way to trust people following through the tactic.  It’s convincing people that the risks of the tactic are worth taking.  This has, of course, been a bigger problem than any other in producing any social movement over the past forty years.  This is precisely what is so attractive about individualist-lifestylist, so-called “prefigurative” solutions like community gardening, communes, eco-friendly shopping, etc.  For these things to work you don’t need to convince anybody else of anything!  You just need to “believe in yourself,” or something.  It’s very hard to get people to see the solution for their problems relying on collective action taken with others — but there is no way around it, either.

Occupy raised the profile of debt as a collective personal problem, that is to say, it showed people that they’re not alone.  The second mass movements were back on the agenda, the problem of debt took center stage.  Prior to this, getting people to take any action around debt was like beating your head against a wall.  For years organizing around my college campus against tuition hikes, I felt like Sisyphus.  You’d hand somebody a leaflet about stopping tuition hikes to a student taking out loans, and you couldn’t tell if they were confused or if they just thought you were confused, or both.  Even during Occupy it was hard to actually organize anything specifically around student debt.  The problem is one of lowered expectations.  Most students don’t expect higher education to be cheap, and they don’t expect to not have to take out loans.  That’s just what you do, right?  The movement around higher education at the University of California system was so explosive precisely because the incredible costs of higher education at the UC was a newphenomenon.  So what you see there is the potential that raised expectations have to act as a mobilizing force.

Then don’t organize the students, organize the debtors, right?  Except, the debtors are dislocated, i.e. they’re no longer centered around a single institution (like a campus), but they’re scattered everywhere.  So this is the biggest problem to overcome, I think.  On the one hand, students see debt as too far distant a threat to become anxious about, on the other hand, once they’re paying off their loans, they’re scattered about — not centralized around a single institution anymore, making them difficult to become organized.

There’s two solutions to this, one the one hand, the organization of student unions (like ASSE in Quebec) would unite both students and alumni, and unite demands around lowering education costs and fighting budget cuts, with demands to forgive student loans (which are often counterposed to each other).  On the other hand, a revitalized labor movement would provide a foundation for demands around personal debt.  Of course, a labor movement provides a powerful foundation for any social movement (consider the role labor played in the foundations of the early civil rights movement, or even the role the participation of labor played in building the Occupy movement, the UAW sent thousands of rank-and-file workers out to a Justice for Trayvon rally here in Detroit in February or March).  So I think trying to bringing unions into the fight against student loan debt would be a big boost for the whole movement, but even more so, looking toward rebuilding the power of labor period.  This would be a potentially key role for building student-faculty solidarity on campuses, acutally.  As faculty unions (both full time, adjunct and graduate student union) could play a key role in initiating this kind of activity.

Dean eventually seems to concede that debt is too individualized to produce the kind of movement we want to see.  But I think this is too pessimistic.  Her concerns and the problems with organizing around debt are real, but I don’t think it’s impossible to produce a mass movement in which combating the real problem of individual debt burden.  Dean, at one point, suggests that discussion of debt too closely mirrors the conservative frame around the national debt and big government spending.  I don’t think that has to be true.  Of course we need to talk about the national debt, but our answer to the problem is a socialist answer — no austerity, no cuts, no tax hikes on the poor and working class, and make the capitalist eat the debt.  It’s their debt, not ours.  This is a real solution being put on the agenda right now in Greece by the labor movement and by the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA).  The same could be possible here in the US both as a solution to the national debt, and as a solution to individual debt burden.

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2 Responses to Organizing around student debt

  1. kulanova says:

    This is a great article. What is your definition of “organize?” or maybe a better way to think about it is what are we doing when “organizing?”

    • Aaron Ptkf says:

      This is a great question. I want to try to respond more in depth in a future post maybe tonight or tomorrow. IMO, “organizing” means to me to try to bring people further to the left, through education and agitation. So both leafletting with like, a propaganda piece, or a flyer for a demonstration, could both be organizing, even though they serve two different purposes (one is strictly educational, presumably, while the other is agitational). The goal is the same, you want to bring people closer to your left politics.

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