Responding to Mike Konczal’s response
Mike Konczal responds to my criticisms of the Rolling Jubilee by rejecting arguments I don’t really make, though he runs some of them through a caricature machine, and then brings up other “more important” worries that bear no small resemblance to mine.
I can’t even make sense of some of the things he says. For example, I’m not sure what this even means, much less how it fairly represents anything I said:
Doug Henwood, for instance, believes that this is generated by activists’ uncritical populism, or the anarchist anthrology of David Graeber’s Debt, or the reification of Bowles-Simpson’s debt talk. But this is putting the carriage before the horse.
Just what is the carriage, and what is the horse?
The first part of this passage is a tendentious summary of my argument that the StrikeDebt! people have inherited from American populism an obsession with money and finance as the root of all our economic problems, while not paying much attention to the things they connect to in the real world. So, debt is a symptom of crappy wages, unemployment, expensive health care and tuition, and a cheesy welfare state. It’s fine to organize and propagandize around debt as long as you use it as a point of entry into that larger conversation—but the StrikeDebt! people have so far done that more in passing, while fixating instead on a so-called “debt system.” They say they’ll move on to that, and I hope that’s true.
Apparently Konczal actually agrees with me, because he says about 600 words later that it would be wrong to focus too much on debt itself, and declares himself happy that “the Strike Debt coalition has worked to link its concerns back to larger ones of public health care, free education, and a more robust safety net. Weaving these concerns with broader ones is precisely the work that needs to be done.” I’m not sure that the coalition is actually doing those things very prominently; almost everyone who’s commented on the scheme is talking about the buybacks, and not those larger issues.
Moving along, I assume the reference to “anarchist anthrology” is a typo, and not an invocation of Anthrax’s 2005 greatest hits compilation. Konczal is ignoring what I think is an important point: that the movement is influenced by Graeber’s analysis of debt, an analysis that really has little to say about how debt works in capitalist societies. It fixates on debt as a transhistorical category, encouraging an obsession with it to the exclusion of other economic categories.
Konczal is also skeptical about my proselytizing for bankruptcy. I hardly think it’s a “universal solvent” (solution?) and never said it was. But it could be used by a lot more people than are using it now. And, while it can be expensive, as I pointed out in the bankruptcy chapter of the Debt Resistors’ manual—a passage that thankfully survived the collective editing process—you can get free representation by contacting your local bar association. It’s a lot more promising way out of debt for more people than this debt buyback scheme. And here’s some testimony from someone who went through the process a bit over a decade ago—a passage that did not survive the manual’s editing process:
At the mere suggestion by a friend who claimed to know of a lawyer who could help me by declaring bankruptcy, I immediately felt a sense of relief. It made no sense that I was in this situation. I did not buy one thing that I didn’t need. It was extremely demoralizing. So I borrowed the amount for the small fee this lawyer asked for and was soon set free of that godawful ball and chain. And now my credit record is impeccable, and delivered from all that worry.
And another of Konczal’s “more important” worries is “whether or not this will build a community of people committed to the cause going forward.” Uncanny, since I said something very much like this myself:
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.
Finally, I resent the hell out of the implication that I don’t care about people’s suffering, assuming that’s what it is, since it’s often hard to parse the prose in this post (though the Marx-baiting sneer is clear enough):
It’s fun to imagine people writing hostile comments on that 99% tumblr saying that all these people’s misery is not useful to the cause because it focuses on the sphere of circulation instead of the sphere of production. But this is what is behind young people’s suffering and it is an important project to address it as such.
Really, Mike, if I didn’t care, I could have chosen a more lucrative and/or less aggravating line of work. I’ve tried to be very comradely in my criticisms; you could too.