Posted by: Doug Henwood | November 14, 2012

Rolling Jubilee: PS

Some follow-ups to yesterday’s Rolling Jubilee post (“Rolling where?”):

• A correction: they’re not buying credit card debt—they’re buying medical debt to start with. Several RJ people complained about this bit of misinformation, saying that it was “widely known.” It’s not on their rather sparse website though, so it’s not clear how this widely disseminated information has been disseminated.

• There were also quite a few complaints about my missing how the campaign did indeed point to a larger strategy, including a wider conversation about debt as a symptom of a larger disease rather than the disease itself. Partisans point to this sentence on the website: “We believe people should not go into debt for basic necessities like education, healthcare and housing.” Well, yes, but that’s 16 words—and it immediately segues into “a growing collective resistance to the debt system.” But debt is only one part of the system—a competitive system built around wage labor which is always, by definition, inadequate to needs. Debt can often be a supplement to paltry wages, but that doesn’t make this a debt system.

• As I said yesterday, this obsession with the centrality of debt reflects Occupy’s inheritance of American populism’s emphasis on finance at the expense of how finance fits into a larger system of production of ownership. But I suspect it’s not just populism—it’s the influence of David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Graeber’s book has many virtues—and I mean that, it’s not just boilerplate—but it offers somewhere between little and no analysis of how debt works in capitalism. (See Mike Beggs’ review for more.) Debt (or credit, to use the more upbeat word) allows people and businesses to buy things beyond the limits of current income, which means that while many people view it as nothing but a burden, many others view it as a way to buy cars, houses, and capital equipment that they couldn’t afford out of the cash lurking in their pockets. And since one person’s debt is another’s asset, it becomes a repository of savings, and not just the savings of the proverbial 1%. Any serious debt strike—one that was more than symbolic, meaning measured in the billions and not the millions, much less the thousands—would threaten those savings, and be greeted by a large chunk of the population as not liberating, but dangerous.

• Speaking of popular opinion, people who have been sweating to pay their debts might not view the deliverance of the heavily indebted as a cause for celebration. They might view it as unfair. Debt aggregates are typically driven by a minority of very heavily indebted people or businesses, and simple averages can be very misleading.

• It’s really difficult to see how the buyback scheme leads to a larger conversation about debt. It’s also difficult to imagine an organized political movement emerging from it. One of the beauties of the various Occupy encampments around the country is that it created deep bonds among participants that last to this day. These ties were the reason that Occupy Sandy emerged so quickly in New York in the wake of the hurricane. But the Rolling Jubilee operates largely through murky, near-anonymous secondary debt markets and through the media. It’s difficult to explain in itself, and it doesn’t lead easily into a discussion of larger issues of political economy. And it doesn’t create organization or social ties: even if the relieved debtors knew about their liberation, which they well might not, it would be viewed more as a deus ex machina than a political act.

• Call me old-fashioned, and I’m sure many have already done so, but I think that a discussion of those larger issues—stagnant wages, high unemployment, a crazy system of health care finance, madly expensive higher education—would lead inevitably to making demands on the state. (So too would debt relief: it would be a lot more powerful and effective if the Federal Reserve and the Treasury were buying bad debt and liberating debtors with their vast resources rather than a volunteer effort raising funds through Paypal.) And given the prominent role that anarchists and anarchism play in the Occupy movement, there’s not much inclination to make demands on the state. But what other institution in this society could raise the minimum wage, make it easier to organize unions, fund a Green New Deal to address climate change and create decent jobs, create a single-payer health care system, and provide universal free higher ed? The lack of those things in this very rich society contribute a lot to debt and deprivation. But that lack is not the product of a “debt system.”

I am very willing, eager even, to be proven wrong. So should this thing take off in fruitful ways, I will happily eat my words—and my hat too, with a side of crow.

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Responses

  1. If you can point to any creation of money which is not accompanied by a creation of debt, then your criticism of the “debt system” label is valid.

  2. I agree with a number of your points Doug, particularly the one about making demands on the state. This one, however, surely misses the mark: “people who have been sweating to pay their debts might not view the deliverance of the heavily indebted as a cause for celebration.” Isn’t the point of the political economy perspective you are advocating to break with the individualist point of view and see things like individual debt as manifestations of much broader structural problems? You might as well say that the problem with a WPA-style jobs for all program is that people who already have jobs and have been sweating to pay their taxes won’t appreciate it being used to dole out jobs for others. Maybe most people do view it that way, but what is the point of a social movement if not to reframe the dominent individualist ideology and show ways that we can solve our problems collectively?

  3. As an OWS supporter, I appreciate this commentary and I think it would serve the good people from Rolling Jubilee well to read and digest.

  4. “And given the prominent role that anarchists and anarchism play in the Occupy movement, there’s not much inclination to make demands on the state. But what other institution in this society could raise the minimum wage, make it easier to organize unions, fund a Green New Deal to address climate change and create decent jobs, create a single-payer health care system, and provide universal free higher ed? The lack of those things in this very rich society contribute a lot to debt and deprivation. But that lack is not the product of a “debt system.””

    How do you see that happening? The state is presently in the hands of the corporate masters, and this is the case whichever party is in power given the money that flows into politics. So how do you see the massive change in government you are asking for happening? It seems to me it could only happen by two means: 1) massive popular movement and/or 2) money entirely out of politics (but how do you see money out of politics happening without a massive popular movement? So maybe we’re back to square one). So how do you see building this massive popular movement? It’s a serious question, if you have ideas we all need them. But don’t be so quick to criticize anarchists who have ideas for working outside that system, however imperfect, if all you have is notions of how government should work, when it’s clearly not working that way now.

  5. Love the Mercedes add at the end of this, perfectly fitting.

  6. I really appreciate your perspective on this, Doug. I am glad to find out they are focusing on healthcare debt. That’s perhaps the most odious form.

    Otherwise, I think you’re spot-on: better wages, universal healthcare and education, and a better environment would do wonders to lift the real wealth of the nation as a whole.

  7. How did the people you spoke to demonstrate to you (or themselves) that they’re retiring medical debt? Why don’t they say that’s what they’re doing on the web site? I like the idea in the abstract — esp. if it really is medical debt — but there’s a “Pied Piper” feeling to just throwing $ at RJ and not having any clear idea at all what is getting bought with it. So I guess I’m in a “pent up demand” phase for this: waiting for a little more clarity and transparency.

  8. This critique is really helpful for someone like me who didn’t really understand from the campaign’s website what exactly was going on and how this debt stuff worked beyond what its like to payback a debt through the nose. I agree with much of what you say, especially the necessity of placing demands on the state, although such demands obviously can’t substitute for actual DIY reform campaigns like this. As Occupy has tried to generalize, we should understand this as a process, not a protest.

    I also think you’re pessimistic about this opening up wider conversations about the system of the whole. Among the circles of Canadian students and trade unionists I’m involved with, this campaign has struck a chord and there isn’t a single person I know, leftist or otherwise, who hasn’t grasped that the “debt system” is actually part of a wider system of economic exploitation. For the tens of millions of debtors in North America, this is a potentially attractive “red pill”. Most importantly, I can’t think of any campaign that has attempted to coordinate debtors this way. The next step is actual organization and this project opens up such potential. It’s always bothered me that student unions have not organized student debtors like unions used to organize the unemployed. Organized labour might also want to consider forming debtor unions.

    I appreciate the critique that this mirrors or draws upon the US populist tradition with its narrow focus on finance capital as the root of all evil. But these movements of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century emerged from rural farmers who could often fall back on subsistence farming in hard times as opposed to urban populations dependent on selling their labour power. And the rural farming population was enormous compared to now. And this didn’t stop farmers movements from gravitating towards a wider anti-capitalist analysis and programme, especially when they joined forces with urban (and rural) workers movements. The CCF’s Regina Manifesto, for example, explicitly sought to eradicate capitalism and was elected to power in 1944 in the profoundly rural province of Saskatchewan – with the support of a largely rural syndicalist workers movement of coal miners and transport workers. The cooperative movement was also involved in this project and it was something that spanned rural and urban divides.

    Things are very different today with the vast majority of North Americans being urban workers dependent on selling labour power. And debtors are also overwhelmingly urban workers, too. I believe this means there is a far greater potential that critiques of finance capital emerging from the experience of debt will intersect with critiques of the wider system emerging from experiences of wage labour. This obviously won’t be automatic, but we don’t really have the decades-long difficulties and numerous failures of forging a farmer-labour alliance anymore.

  9. Rather than eat your hat – which you might well – I suggest you consider donating the price of a new hat to this cause tonight. Will it make a difference? Ask the person opening up the letter advising them that the $$$ owed on their medical bill are now considered abolished.

  10. Aside from entirely ignoring what Doug has said, Jerry, it’s unclear whether such a letter would ever be sent. Your comment gets to the crucial distinction between political action and charity though, and reveals how this campaign’s popularity is bound up in the appeal of the latter.

  11. [...] 11/19/12]  Click on Rolling where? and Rolling Jubilee: PS  for thoughtful criticism from radical economist Doug [...]

  12. “Making demands on the state?” And you imagie the federal government buying people’s debt? The whole point of the Occupy movement is that the state has become utterly unresponsive and corrupt. And one point of this Jubilee, is to undercut the state’s recent attempts to make personal debt ever more permanent, intractible, and, for the underclass, even unavoidable.


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