Strike Debt 26 Feb 2013 George Caffentzis Talk

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26 Feb 2013 George Caffentzis Presentation to Strike Debt

Around 30 people came out for tonight's presentation.

Local Strike Debt summary

Dana Summarizes the work of Occupy Boston's Strike Debt working group.

Occupy Boston's strike debt group wanted was inspired by NYC; we wanted to do some organizing around student debt. We're planning an event for 2-5pm on April 6th at the Middle East, in Central Square. There'll be music, and information people can use to deal with debt collectors. Dan Clawson will do a talk about how student loan debt is structural, and the result of neoliberalist policies. We think it will be a fun event. If you'd like to get involved, we invite you to come to our next meeting; Monday March 11th 7pm, at the Community Church.

Main Presentation

George Caffentzis is a professor of philosophy in Maine, and a major figure in Strike Debt's NYC organizing.

This gathering is an important moment for me. It's part of a tour; I gave a number of talks in Providence recently. I've known about Occupy Boston and I'm interested in development of strike debt affiliates across the country. We're in the age of electrons, but we have to get beyond the electrons. Face to face connections will be very important for us. I'd like to bring together different strike debt groups. Maybe a regional meeting in the next month or two, so that we can see each other and have a direct discussion about the initiatives we're following, and the plans we have to move ahead with this project. In NYC, we have a lot of different projects, and it's difficult to bring groups together. It's important for us to be in touch, and not just through the internet.

I've developed a lot of thinking about debt over the past few years. It's been an exciting, but very disturbing political experience. I started with a deep question: when the 2009 bailouts occurred, I expected a major movement to say "no" to trillion-dollar handouts that saved the necks of large financial capitalists, but didn't give a cent to people facing foreclosure and debt. Their lives are under the thread of continued disaster due to indebtedness; large corporations got the largess of the government. There was a moment (a week in September) where TARP was put into question. It was only a week, then the decision was reversed. The form that "no" took was not adequate for the job.

For three years (2008 to Sept 2011), there was mass suffering, but little mass reaction. Millions faced foreclosure. Millions faced medical debt. We're all familiar with this story, but I wanted to pose the issue I confronted; I was confronting the lack of something. That's more difficult to think about than something that is happening. Why did it take three years for a major coordinated opposition? Debt resistance organizations are taking root, but it's taking a very long time. I'm always interested in getting more help thinking about this issue. The political ground for this movement is there, but we're having difficulty launching it.

Over the last few years, I've been doing two things: (1) studying the history of debt resistance, going back to ancient Greece and Rome, and (2) rethinking our own experience, with Occupy and Strikedebt.

I'm a philosopher and a Marxist. I disagree with Marx's "philosopher's have only interpreted the world, the goal is to change it". Philosophy has been important in development of oppressive systems, but it can also be involved in liberation. It still has a long way to go on the liberation side.

This evening, I'd like to think more about the question "why has is been difficult to launch the debtors movement", and to think about history of debtors movement, and see if we can draw generalizations from them.

First, why do we have some much difficulty developing a debtors movement? Debt itself is really complicated. There are two kinds. (1) "Profit debt" (corporations borrowing money in order to make money) is the largest form of debt in our society; around 26 trillion dollars. That is not the kind of debt we're involved with. (2) "Use value debt", where people borrow money and become debtors in order to purchase an item that they need or desire. Use value debt doesn't mean that new money will come out. In health related debt, you purchase operations, drugs that will bring you back to health. In housing debt, you borrow money to have a roof over your head. It looks like there should be a 1:1 correlation between these two kinds of debt. Profit debt goes to capitalists, use-value debt goes to the workers.

When we say strike debt, we're usually talking about use value debt. To satisfy the most basic requirements of life, you'll be trapped into taking on debt (education, health, etc). These sources define us as debtors and put us into a situation of oppression.

In fact, the actual story is not so straightforward. The lines get a little bit messy. Capitalists have needs and desires as well; they like beautiful paintings, beautiful homes. In that sense, we have capitalists dealing with use-value debt. They might not be the same use-values that workers have, but that's what they're dealing with. Secondly, there are small business people and small farmers. In order to satisfy basic needs, they open businesses and take out loans. Often, these people default and find themselves in problematic situations. Are these people really capitalists, or are they running businesses to satisfy their own needs and desires? Many debt resistors movements have been led by small businesses and small farmers, especially in the US.

Workers get involved in speculation themselves (e.g., houses during the housing boom, buying two or three homes, or speculating on their own homes). Who are these people? That's an important question, especially for this movement. Who are people that are part of the debt resistance movement? In history, debt resistance movements have a very mixed class character. They can involve upper and lower classes. It's important for us to think about who's involved.

After hurricane Sandy, many people who lost homes are also people who lost their stores. Small shop owners. Are they part of this movement? Yes, but they pose a certain kind of question for us. There are contradictions about people who use money to make money. In previous debt resistance movements, these issues came up quite dramatically, and had a profound effect on the movements.

Another issue: in the history of capitalist societies, wages have been one of the most important relationships between classes. Not just how much wage, but who got the wage, and what kind of the thing the wage was? Wage relationship, since middle of 19th century, has been the fundamental lever between classes, where we have these confrontations.

We're familiar with wage struggles and organizations that arose from them. Trade unions, for example. Political parties, which put forward programs that might change wage relations, change the minimum wage, create a living wage. You might not be able to win wage struggles (e.g., strikes). Wage struggle continues, but it's not always on the picket time. Has many different forms and shapes, often unspoken (e.g., small cases of refusal of work, of sabotage).

We're familiar with wage struggles, but not so familiar with debt struggles. There are lots of histories of wage struggles, but very little history about debt struggles. Shay's rebellion and the populist party are examples. Movements transform our understanding of history. If the movement we're a part of developments and grows, then we'll also develop a history of debt resistance.

The relationship between wage and debt struggles is very important. Wage and debt relationship have similarities, but important differences.

Time is one difference. With wages, you work then get paid. With debt, you're given a loan that you have to repay. It's a simple, but profound difference. Between taking of a loan and repayment, the debtor is on top; you have the purchase that you wanted. The creditor wants to be sure of repayment, and has an interest in terrorizing the borrower. Debt is filled with anxiety and psychological terror.

My father gave me two pieces of advice:

  1. Marry a Greek woman, and
  2. Never get into debt.

He was born in Greece in 1893. In Greece, people who worked the land would lose their land if they got into debt. That terror is very deep, and you'll find it all over the world.

Another example: there's a difference between wages and debt in terms of recognition. When you work with another person and are paid by the same boss, then you see each other as fellow workers. You're in a collective situation; you're in the same boat. But if I sit on the bus next to you, I have no idea of whether we're debtors to the same bank. You have to share that information, and you have to trust the person you're sharing it with. Debt struggles are not immediately collective. The whole relationship around debt is a very de-collectivizing experience.

In a debt struggle, you have more work to do. Very often people don't want to say what their debt is. They're ashamed, they're anxious.

Comment: Being a wage earner can be a terrifying experience. You've given something and you don't know whether you'll be paid. There can be competition between workers (e.g., for hours). There are a lot of ways where wage competition can be terrifying. Our unions haven't been organized for debt jubilees. We're used to dealing with wages; we're not used to dealing with debt collectively. I'm interested to see where you're going to go.

That's the point I'm trying to make: wage struggles are not easy.

Comment: I think the two are linked, more than they ever have been. If you don't pay your taxes, you have a debt, and they take your license away.

Comment: Don't we have debtors prisons in a way? For example, men who don't pay child support can be sent to jail. I've been very lucky; I don't have debt, never have. I've always looked at wages as control of the masses. We won't be able to tear the system down, we have to learn to take care of ourselves.

Why has it taken so long for us to respond to the shock of Sept 2008? Trillions of dollars were injected into the banking and insurance systems, and almost nothing went to people. Why are we having such difficulty launching this movement? I'd like to think it through, and see what things we need to deal with, aside from wages.

Comment: If I think of American history, people in England who had debt were exported here for labor. If you were at the bottom, you sold yourself into slavery, and that's all. In America, banks will loan money to farmers, because the farmers have the bare minimum asset - a farm. If you have an asset, then bankers are interested in getting their hooks into you.

It's important for us to deal with the kind of questions we're looking at right now. There will be 21st century versions of these questions that we'll have to answer. Will our movement involve small business people; not just wage workers, but people who employ wage workers. The biggest issues in organizing debtors is to get people to say that they're debtors. That's the first step that needs to be dealt with. How we deal with it will be very important politically. Creativity will make it possible for people to open up.

Comment: I don't see why it's important for people to know each others debt. It seems more important to educate the public about debt. We have to explain the issues and ethics of debt.

Comment: I worked with Acorn in the 90s. We did a lot of work on predatory lending. We shut down Wells Fargo in 2004. We did a lot of direct action. We'd target somebody every year, and we'd get thousands of people. We had the largest bank settlement in US history. We'd educate people on loans, and some of the tactics were very effective.

Comment: I think the distinction between debtors and non-debtors is an illusion. Unless you're in the 1%, you're just a few steps from being a debtor. Look at Greece. Wage earning is just a stop-gap before you fall into debt. For years we've been taught that if you're in debt, that it's your fault.

The whole issue of debt as a system that involves oppression, enslavement, anxiety has had a long history. The struggles against debt have been nearly as long. Debt comes from a breakdown of community. If you're in trouble, and there's a social surplus, then you have a right to some of that social surplus. The lack of that social surplus is where debt begins. Debt arises with the end of the commons. This can be shown for the distant past, and for contemporary life.

Do we want a society that is debt-free? We're arguing for a society where you can satisfy your basic needs without going into debt. Capitalists will always have debt.

Comment: I question whether it comes out of a social surplus. Do you need a surplus in order to have mutual aid?

Mutual aid is the key to the story. Debt, historically, arises in the breakdown of community. You don't have to have a utopian imagination for this kind of story. Think Cuba, or Denmark. You should have the confidence that you will be able to call on mutual aid. The beginning of debt is the end of communal life. This is the heart of tortures and anxieties that surround the debt relationship.

In ancient Greek and Roman society, the debt relationship was really the lever through which most class struggle took place. It wasn't wages. Debt is what led citizens to become slaves, which led to controversy, and to revolution. In ancient Athens, there were many revolutionary movements that came out of slaves, including slaves that were former citizens. They embodied the breakdown of the social cohesion that existed before.

In Athens, one of the most famous legal struggles came from Solon; he banned the enslavement of debtor citizens. My favorite is from Roman history. Catiline. Cicero accused Catiline of all the worst sexual crimes imaginable. Cicero was offended because Catiline had a political program that called for the cancellation of debts in Rome. Catiline was in line to become a consul, and there was a unified effort by the ruling class to stop him. He organized an army of debtors and marched on Rome, 25 years before Julius Caesar. Catiline lost the battle, and Cicero gloated over his death, but he was remembered with great sympathy. In last 10-15 years, a lot of interesting books have come out about Catiline. Rome had many social explosions coming out of the debt relationship. One of the developments that begins to happen was the arrival of Christianity; Christianity never banned slavery, but it banned usury. In that sense, the arrival of Christianity was a victory of Catiline.

Aristotle thought that money was barren. He rejected the idea of making money out of money.

Capitalism, once it started flourishing, banned slavery, but usury comes back.

In Islamic banking, banning of interest still exists to this day. If you take a loan, the bank becomes a partner. If you make a profit, the bank get parts of that profit. If you make nothing, the bank makes nothing. From the point of view of morality and banking and interest, there are other realities out there.

With the rise of capitalism, debt comes back, and interest comes back. Usury laws are thrown out the window. You begin to have debtors strikes. For example, Shay's rebellion, in Western Mass, three years after the American revolution. These were veterans who returned from the war to discover that their farms had been foreclosed or were about to be foreclosed. They fought the British for this land and they weren't about to let bankers and merchants from Boston take it away from them. This was an important segue from articles of confederation to the US constitution.

Comment: This is why we have federal bankruptcy laws, and not state by state (bankruptcy laws). So no state can be easy on their debtors.

Examples of widespread debtors struggles are the populist movements of late 19th century. In the 1930's (great depression) there were efforts to have something like a rolling jubilee. One commonality: debtors struggles are an inter-class phenomenon. Both rich capitalists and poor workers found themselves in debtors prisons. Mixed class movement cause fundamental divisions, because different classes have very different interests at stake.

We have to recognize that victory is a very complex thing. Catiline was defeated in battle, but within a generation, efforts to cancel at least part of debt were put into practice. Shay's rebellion led to centralization of power, but also led to end of debtors prisons. (Shay's rebellion excarcerated prisoners). Often, debtors movements arise in periods of crisis, where there's an extreme and rapid increase in indebtedness, and where indebtedness becomes extremely widespread. In those periods, there's a window of opportunity to develop a moment. The crisis of conscious from 2008 is beginning to wither. If we don't move, we might lose a historic opportunity.

Comment: (missed part of this) Only when people speak, and say "I'm not afraid of my condition", then others feel unafraid about their condition. Speaking about our own debt was an integral part of what the organizing we've done in NYC. It's liberating for the person who speaks, and liberating for the people who hear it.

Comment: It's easier and more mobilizing to identify with human beings than with numbers. Knowing what kind of boat each other is in is a unifying experience. You don't exclude people or set up hierarchies, but it has a liberating an humanizing effect. During land reform in China, they had individual farmers directly yell and and confront the landlords. Who could ever think of confronting their debtor? It was risky, but it built momentum. Comment: Thinking about the HIV analogy, you can carry HIV for a long time and not have a problem. I like the phrase "I am debt positive".

Comment: Debt organizing reminded me of the Women's movement. Consciousness raising. I'd also like to talk about the question of where we go from here. Student debt is unsustainable. College debt is unsustainable. We have to be in some kind of bubble. How do we figure out how to seize the moment when the moment is there to seize?

The first Occupy Student Debt campaign started with some strength. Around 3000 people signed in the first few weeks. After the initial flurry, it started to die down. We did a number of events, got a lot of attention, and then more signatories. Although a few thousand people signed the pledge, millions defaulted on student loans, and did not sign. If all defaulters signed that petition, then we would've had more than a million signers. We're still trying to figure out why more people didn't sign.

Comment: As activists, we need to turn this around. Little countries aren't in debt to the world bank; the world bank is in debt for destroying these countries. Think about ways to change the language and change the discourse.

Comment: Pinpointing higher education as a profit center seems to be part of that. And medical too.

Comment: I like what you said about turning the language around; not choosing to engage on the conventional mindset. The LIBOR scandal was a moment. People were afraid that this would be the great unveiling, and the whole economic structure would go down like a deck of cards. The scandal revealed that it's just a figment of the powers that be. Debt needs to be quantified as resources and human labor that are stolen.

Comment: There are realistic fears for people. If you can't repay a debt, you might lose your license, and then you can't get to work. One mis-step and you're homeless, or you're on your way to jail. A lot of people can't get a lease signed or a job because they've got bad credit. It makes you a peon in society, which means you're not in a position to be very militant. Comment: Regarding the decision to move from Occupy Student Debt to Strike Debt and to the Debt jubilee. How did that transition happen?

There were a series of discussions. The political thought was that we needed to expand our numbers, and expand by recognizing that there is a debt system. We had a fixed and well-defined target, but we were not recognizing that student loan debt was one small part of a much larger cosmos. 20-25 people worked on Debt Resisters operations manual. Different chapters were written by different groups, and a few people edited the book, to give it a uniform tone.

Comment: It seems like StrikeDebt is a resistance and an action. What is the message, the education, and who are you trying to send the message to? The banks, creditors get bailed out. What about repeat debtors? We have to be in debt for one reason or another; it's a vicious circle.

It would be good to read the DROM, especially the last chapter. Unless there's a transformation of how fundamental needs in society are dealt with, the debt economy will continue. Fundamental needs are increasingly being financed through debt. If you're liberated from debt, then you have greater strength to resist in the areas of wages, workers rights, and other areas of society. We're trying to have movements that work together both locally and nationally. It's very important that we begin to see each other, and see that we're not alone. Individuals aren't alone, and debt resistance groups are not alone.