The average US household debt burden has reached oppressive and unprecedented levels. According to the Federal Reserve, in 2010, total US household debt stood at $13.5 Trillion. This calculates to over $44,000 per person, or about 122% of total disposable income. Increasingly Americans owe more than the own in this world (even as the top 1% owns more than ever). Why are people in so much debt in the first place? This rising debt is the effect of an exploitative and unsustainable system.
Contrary to those who moralize about “irresponsible” consumer spending, the single largest cause of the rising average US debt-burden is a rise in workplace exploitation. Despite working harder and more efficiently year after year, US workers—those of us who are “lucky” enough to find jobs—continue to see our wages stagnate, or even decline. Corporations and employers (aka “the 1%”) are getting more out of us, while paying us less. Profits have gone through the roof for capitalist firms, while workers have been compelled to borrow to maintain the markers of “middle class” life: a car, a house, a college education for their kids.
Rising college tuition and healthcare costs are important secondary causes of the debt-boom, as are government policies that have replaced federal educational grants with loans. (As recently as 1980 Pell Grants covered 69% of public college costs; now they cover less than 35%.) Federal “Student Aid” has ceased to be a subsidy for education, and become largely a subsidy for the Finance Industry.
In this context of stagnating wages, the credit-debt complex came to the rescue as a double “solution,” at least for a time. On the one hand, credit served as a means of buoying consumer demand across the system (allowing people to buy more from businesses than they could without the loans). On the other hand, it gave finance capitalists one more easy way to profit (via interest) off of the very worker deprivation being created by heightened workplace exploitation.
But all this debt makes a volatile economic foundation. As we saw in 2007 with the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble, when poor and working-people become unable to repay their debts, the whole elaborate financial edifice can come crashing down.
What if we harnessed this power of debt refusal in a politically conscious way?
There is nothing like being deep in debt to make you feel completely alone and powerless. Increasingly, however, this isolation is an illusion. The numbers of people drowning in debt in this country is growing all the time, as is the amount of US debt per household. (The average college graduate now enters the “real world” already $30,000 in debt, the average graduate student, with far more than that.) There is potential power in these numbers.
There is a saying that goes: “If you owe the bank $100,000, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank $100 million dollars…You own the bank.” It is long-past time that those of us whose lives are crippled by chains of debt took this idea to heart. Student loan debt alone is estimated at over $1 Trillion. Together, we, the student debtors united, could own the banks.
The basic premise of collective bargaining, that workers can (only) gain equal power with employers by coming together and threatening to withhold the source of the employers’ profits (namely, our labor)applies to debtors as well. Banks are dependent on our debt payments. Thus, the debt that individually makes us feel helpless, if pooled and wielded collectively, can become the source of great power. Weakness, combined, can be flipped into strength.
Such a debt-refusal need not be an act of random sabotage, aimed simply at disrupting bank operations, or at “sticking it to the man.” Rather, our debtors union could project demands that would unite broad sectors of the 99%. We could force the Banks to reduce their interest rates, to cancel the principle they are “owed,” to renegotiate underwater mortgages, etc. We might even use this debtor-power to leverage more aggressive political demands: like getting the banksters to cough up the funds necessary to fund free public education (estimated at approximately $50 Billion per year). Compared to a traditional labor union, a debtors union could have the benefit of bringing together people across traditional workplace lines, while rallying the public against some of the most unpopular institutions in our society.
A student debt revolt can be the spark. Targeting those who are profiting from our financial slavery, we can help catalyze a broader debt resistance movement, one encompassing medical, housing, as well as education debts. The bonfire of student debt statements can light the sky, hearkening rebellion in other parts of this debt-chained world. Even fairly small groups of well-organized debt-resisters could have such a catalyzing effect, sparking broad conversation about the oppressive role debt plays in all our lives. Such an act might resemble the burning of draft cards during the Vietnam War; it moves beyond protest and complaint, towards resistance, courageously marking a refusal to participate in an oppressive and irrational system. And rallying others to do the same.
Fundamentally, the goal of such a debt refusal campaign should not simply be to “mess shit up” but to expose the inhumanity of the way the current system operates. Education, Healthcare, Housing: these are things that should be considered rights, guaranteed to all. Through our debt-refusal we will be dramatically asserting that people should not have to go into debt to have their basic human needs met. People should not be forced to go into debt to receive medical treatment, to have shelter over their heads, or to attend college (especially when attending college is considered a prerequisite for landing a job in the first place). A social system that provided these necessary goods to people as a matter of right would be one in which the sorts of debt burdens that fill our lives with dread and anxiety could be abolished for good.
With high debt loads and high unemployment rates facing most college graduates, let’s face it: many of us are going to be defaulting on student loans anyway. It is long past time that we shred the shame of default, that we recognize the systemic causes of this debt, and that we refuse to treat this dream-strangling system as legitimate. If we Occupy Student Debt and as one, we can burst the chains of mental slavery. Together, we can own the banks.