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.