By Alex Riccio
On March 3rd student organizers from Allied Students for Another Politics (ASAP!) hosted an ambitious event: a Strike Debt Assembly. The core purpose of this assembly was to gather together students with like-minded opponents of rising tuition costs and debt oppression (specifically student debt oppression) in order to envision a world with open and accessible colleges, then develop strategies for attaining our vision. While successful to a degree, a glaring oversight was exposed on the part of ASAP!, and it should be recognized as the most formidable obstacle against debt mobilization: public ignorance.
An analytical framework necessary for developing a strategy against debt and the corporatization of college has not been popularized in the town of Corvallis, and in particular the student-body that ASAP! has as its target demographic is tragically uninformed over the topic in every aspect. Students in Corvallis, however, are aware of debt and tuition costs in one important way: their personal experience. It is necessary for organizers against the culture of neoliberalism to understand the ways in which debt chains the collective human population so that these students experiencing debt can be reached, and my hope here is to begin the process of initiating such a project. For the purposes of this article I will make explicit the ways in which debt is an intersectional phenomenon, and I will strive for a language that is both crystalizing and approachable owing to the recognition that analytical jargon contributes to the reproduction of class division.
It is my belief that the first and most important aspect about debt resistance is that it is anti-capitalist. When calls for debt abolition cause outrage, it is because opponents of debt abolition are believers in capitalism—it is the philosophical worldview of capitalists that believes debt is moral and just. Radical groups should acknowledge the anti-capitalism of debt resistance and be proud of such a philosophy. But equally important is the recognition that ideological walls are guiding the outrage of our opponents. We must locate the moral beliefs inside the arguments of our adversaries, and expose these moral standards as the unjust position of oppressors.
Stemming from capitalist debt defenses are a number of illogical, and therefore ideologically driven, assumptions about debt abolition and tuition-free college. The most common of these assumptions is the view that a college that does not charge tuition will render a college education meaningless—after all if everyone can access education, then what value would a degree hold? Here is an ideological view that cannot go unchallenged by debt resisters, because what this assumption makes clear is the belief that value is only those things with a price tag—if you can’t make a profit then it must be worthless. Not only is this view driven by capitalist philosophy, it is also completely false. A large number of nations provide tuition-free college, and among them are some of the most prestigious and respected universities in the world. Need we point out that Germany has the world’s most efficient economy with some of its best colleges, and those institutions are tuition-free? The lack of knowledge here for reactionaries is less about being ignorant (which it is), and more about passively accepting, or even actively accepting, capitalist ideology that would hold this assumption to be common-sense.
Another core assumption constantly floated is the allegation of entitlement. Entitlement?! This is probably the most explicit and perverse of capitalist logic concerning debt abolition, because it is based on a notion of meritocracy—you have to earn the privilege of education, it isn’t for moochers, poor people, or individuals with any sort of defects. Again, within such logic the concept of ownership and property is evident, and anti-capitalists would be wise to remember that capitalism revolves around presumptions of property—Locke even tangled this capitalist credo together with democracy claiming that a true democracy is one that best protects property. But herein lies the real kicker to the assumption of entitlement: it makes a claim of ownership over knowledge. Are we expected to accept that some entity has property rights over Pythagoras’s theorem? Or that we should be excluded from learning the philosophical treatises of Plato because we don’t have enough money? Or, more accurately, that we should be denied a certificate that recognizes we are informed about Plato and Pythagoras. This is the reality of upper education; it is not a reflection of what one actually has learned or informed themselves of, but what one has been formally permitted to claim they are informed about—it is a cultural ritual that demonstrates we have gone through proper cultural growth. And this is what we are being denied, the right to participate in rites of passage! All this says nothing about the underpinning error that overlooks the readily available tax-payer money easily repurposed for higher education, which undermines the concept of entitlement—tax-payers have already paid for higher education, so why should they be getting ripped off so that corporations and banks can continue receiving handouts? For capitalists, the ones that deserve handouts are the ones with property (banks and corporations), not people without property.
The second element of debt resistance I believe should be highlighted is that it is a position of anti-oppression. Debt connects varying forms of oppression by contributing to and maximizing different modes of discrimination. Statistics abound over the disproportionate income share held by people of color and women compared with white males, as well as lopsided debt burdens held by marginalized populations. A basic example of this is the fact that people of color typically leave college with more student loan debt than white people (80% of African-Americans graduate with student debt as opposed to 64% of white students). While these statistics highlight some of the current manifestations of inequality still prevalent in the U.S. they do not provide us information on the more impactful issue of wealth inequality. For context, 40% of U.S. wealth is held by only 400 individuals—this is in a country of 300 million people! The racial wealth gap is just as startling, where the median family wealth for whites stands at roughly $130K compared to the $15K median family wealth for blacks—an average disparity of over $100K. Yet this information in itself does little to explain why this is the case, and how debt preys upon our vulnerabilities.
Here we can reflect on issues of race, class, and gender to illustrate the development of debt oppression. The above trends are consistent, though varied, across racial, ethnic, and gender considerations, and what they hint at is the residual legacy of unchallenged white supremacy. Wealth is historically and presently fixed to identity—class identity, gender identity, racial identity, ethnic identity, sexual identity, and on and on. The exclusion of marginalized people from property ownership, job employment, labor profits, union membership, and free migration (just to name a few) has happened at the same time that privileged people were accumulating more property, more jobs, more profits, more benefits, and more land—and they were helped in the process (think here of the implications of OSU being a land-grant institution at the same time that Oregon was legally a white-only state). Some scholars describe this as the time when affirmative action was white; however, it would be better stated as the continued policies of white affirmative action.
Inheritance is the greatest safety net, and inclusion within advantaged circles blows any affirmative action policies out of the water in effectiveness. Sociologists have described this phenomenon as social capital—capital that is not reflected in dollars and cents but goes leaps and bounds toward maintaining wealth and power. This jargon term is not really so complicated; basically social capital is what we would largely refer to as networking. When you are born into an affluent family you automatically receive access to better schools, hospitals, and public resources. You also begin socializing with other affluent people you come into contact with, and from here you’re plugged in to all sorts of opportunities. We’ve all heard the old platitude about success being who you know— this would be better stated as socialism for the rich. Power takes care of itself, it offers free goods and services, recommends friends for jobs in high places, and it’s always looking for a handout that later will be justified as necessary for keeping society intact (this is precisely what the logic of “too big to fail banks” was all about; socialism for the rich). All the while Power ensures that only a select few are allowed in on their racket, so that access to public goods is persistently barred from those who have historically and presently been denied these things. So what do people do when they have no inheritance, no social capital, and no access? They borrow money. The leading reasons for going into debt include illness and education, meaning people are borrowing money because they are sick without medical insurance and they want an education to increase their chances of future success but do not have the means to pay for such an education. The lenders of these loans know the people taking them out have no real ability to pay back what they borrow, and they also know that these are the opposite of voluntary agreements (if we’re going into debt because we are sick, how is that voluntary?), but lenders would rather keep these populations dominated and squeeze short-term profits out of us. Debt takes control; its chains stretch out across the vast canvas of oppression.
This is only the beginning of an analysis that probes into debt working across identities and with philosophies. We should also begin to connect debt resistance with other movements that share common ground such as environmental movements, #BlackLivesMatter, No One is Illegal, the Global Justice Movement, and more. For my part, one clear way we can identify with the environmental movement is to connect issues of work and debt to ecological plundering and devastation—if our current global economic system is directly causing the destruction of our planet, then a mass-based debt cancellation would carry with it the greatest potential for slowing down the problem; debt, after all, is the guarantee of future work, so if we cancel debt then we will have a chance to step back and decide what forms of work we should really engage in (not ones that destroy the planet would be the conclusion). I’ll leave it for others that wish to continue this analysis to draw the other connections, but they are clearly there. But what I want to emphasize most is that this entire discussion really boils down to a question of vision and values—because what type of vision are we creating for tomorrow when our values today are directly causing the suffering and exclusion of people everywhere? It’s time for debt resistance.