Strike Debt seems to be resonating in the States, where an Occupy Wall Street spin-off sees the ‘Rolling Jubilee‘ project buying up medical debt and writing it off, releasing the poverty-stricken from slavery to loan repayments that they can’t hope to meet, on loans that they didn’t choose to take out. $7 million and rising of debt has been disappeared. In parallel with the Jubilee, a Debt-Resistors’ Operations Manual encourages debtors to recognise the illegitimacy of debt and gives practical advice on managing and resisting debt. The vision is of a support-network of refuseniks.
The underlying message is: We, the people, are in charge. We no longer accept that we owe anything to voracious and corrupt institutions. We refuse to be frightened into submission. We don’t believe in this system anymore, so it can’t control us.
I’m not so sure it’ll work in the UK, where we don’t have the same kinds of grossly unjust medical debt, where our student debts don’t have to be paid back until we’re earning enough to raise us out of poverty (and then are extracted from our pay packets whether we like it or not)… and where the buying-up of debt is not such a simple process.
Even in the US, some are sceptical. How many benefactors will pay into the Rolling Jubilee scheme? Not enough to make a difference, or too many? If the project becomes successful, won’t it just put up the price of debt? If it becomes really successful, could it vaporise hard-earned pensions – or even crash the economy? (A bigger question lurking here – would crashing the economy be a good thing or a bad thing?) How is debt-resistance different from personal bankruptcy? Are people going to risk losing their homes and possessions to the bailiffs, or is Strike Debt really only appealing to the desperate and destitute, who have no option but to default and lose everything?
Understanding the Strike Debt tactic may rest on understanding that debt has been more-or-less forced on vast swathes of the population (in the US and the UK) by capitalism’s relentless need for growth. Companies must keep selling stuff to keep the profits rolling in to keep the shareholders happy and the managers’ bonuses boosted. Who’s been buying all that stuff? Well, ordinary people have, because they were told by the media and the advertising industry that they needed or deserved it. How have they afforded it, given that wages have stagnated? By taking out loans. Banks and loan companies have been charging interest on those loans and so have been extracting money to grow the financial sector too. More and more money extracted from the poor in order to feed the rich in a sick Robin Hood reversal.
Then, well, the banks went bust, the banks got bailed out, but no one bailed out the people. The banks gobbled up public money, and now there’s no money for public services. The rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes, but the poor are expected to pay back the loans they were encouraged to take out (to keep the economy ‘healthy’), even though they’re poorer than ever now that benefits and services are being cut.
It’s not only individuals and communities that get crushed in the relentless scramble to ‘grow’, or prop-up, the economy [translation for economic growth = increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few]. The pursuit of infinite growth also has catastrophic environmental effects. It means plundering natural resources in entirely unsustainable ways, releasing carbon willy nilly and making things with built-in obsolescence instead of built-to-last robustness; and so, we have pollution, climate change and threatened biodiversity. A warming world, extreme weather events and sick bees. Which means there’s a very large debt owed to our children, and unless radical change happens very soon, we won’t be able to pay that back either.
It’s all wrong, it’s completely unfair, but is Strike Debt the answer? The Rolling Jubilee in the US should perhaps be seen as an awareness-raising tool as much, or more, than a genuine attempt to redress the problem. Whether the more challenging debt resistance movement can make a significant impact on the staus quo I don’t yet know, but it’s surely worth researching, testing, trying.
StrikeDebtUK are beginning to work out how the concept could be implemented here.
More info on debt, and a chance to join in the debate, at Up The Anti – Reclaim The Future on Dec 1, St Mary University, London.
Or read this thought-provoking piece by Sahil Dutta: Debt As Power.