Silvia Frederici, in the last number of Tidal, contends that “debt has become a key means of capital accumulation”. Having spread ever more broadly throughout the world, it has become the most “general category through which exploitation is organized”. The collective, always potentially conflict ridden space, of labour exploitation is ever more supplanted by the self-managed exploitation of the debtor. “In this scenario, as wages and jobs vanish and the lending/debt machine becomes the dominant work relation, exploitation is more individualized and guilt producing”. If credit-debt is increasingly the means of dominating populations in the “richer” countries (through debts for housing, education, health, and so on), the rapid expansion of micro-credit has brought about similar consequences since the 1980s in the “poor” countries. Yet it is in the latter that we find a lesson of resistance to debt.
The main obstacle to the spread of micro-credits are the commoning activities women in rural areas and shanty towns are creating, as they are pooling resources, setting up communal kitchens, occupying public spaces where to conduct various forms of micro-trade and urban farming, and forming community organizations to address the problems of everyday reproduction. Through these activities and the solidarity networks they generate—which parallel the solidarity economies developing across the United States—the new debt economy is being resisted, while a new society, based on the communalization of our reproduction, is being created.
Occupy activists have over the last year organised a resistance to debt (Strike Debt!), a resistance originally declared in a manifesto that appeared in Tidal 2:
Strike Debt !
1. You are not a loan.
Debt is not personal, it is political. It makes us isolated, scared and subjugated, unwilling to publicly challenge it for fear of the all-powerful credit ratings. The system of individualized debt is immoral. It is indentured servitude, a type of bondage. We are forced onto a path of endless repayment and are supposed to be ashamed when we can’t climb our way out of debt. We have to sell our time, our souls, working jobs we don’t care about simply so we can pay interest to the bank. Now that debt is so rampant, many of us are ashamed for putting others in debt. Our professions from teacher to lawyer and physician have become means to direct more victims to the loan sharks. So perhaps above all, we strike the fear, refuse the shame, end the isolation. When we strike debt, we do so together, creating possibilities for imagining ourselves as collectivities not reducible to a set of numbers. We are not abdicating our responsibility, we are exercising our innate right to refuse the unjust.
2. We live in a debt society, buttressed and secured by the debt-prison system.
$1 trillion of student debt. 64% of all bankruptcies caused by medical debt. 5 million homes foreclosed already, another 5 million in default or foreclosure. Credit card debt is $800 billion, generating an average 16.24% interest on money banks borrow at 3.25%. Permanent indebtedness is the pre-eminent characteristic of modern American life. Keeping all this in check is the peculiarly U.S. specific apparatus, in which mass incarceration, racialized segregation and debt servitude are mutually reinforcing. The choice is stark: debt or jail. With 2 million in prison, seven million involved in the “correctional” system in various ways and sub-prime loans and other predatory credit schemes targeted at people of color, this is a system designed to disenfranchise and exclude.
3. There’s A Debt Strike Going On.
There is something happening in our debt society right now. 27% of student loans not in deferral are in default. 10% of credit card debt has been written off as irrecoverable. Foreclosures and mortgage default are rampant. People are walking away from debt. These actions take place driven by necessity, by desperation but also by something else. What do we call this? We could call it refusal. We could also call it a debt strike. In this time of high unemployment, battered trade unions, and job insecurity, we may not be able to signal our discontent by not going to work, but we can refuse to pay. Alongside the labor movement, a debtors movement. For those who can’t strike, we propose a Rolling Jubilee in which we buy debt in default, widely resold online for pennies on the dollar: and then abolish it.
4. When we strike debt we live a life rather than repay a loan.
We refuse to mortgage our lives. We reject the math that debt forces on us; math that says we cannot “afford” to care for our communities because we must “pay back” the banks forever, above and beyond what was borrowed. We question the dominance of the market in every aspect of social and cultural life. We abolish the trajectory of a life that begins with the assumption of debt before birth, and ends with a post-mortem settlement of accounts. This is mafia capitalism. We will construct a social world in which we treat each other as human beings, recognize our differences, and reject the myth of permanent economic growth, which is destroying the possibility of life on this planet.
5. We claim the necessity of debt abolition and reconstruction.
Abolishing debt is held to be an impossible demand. “Debt must be repaid!” Unless you are a corporation, bank, financial services company, or sovereign nation. We understand that debt is at the heart of financial capitalism and that the system is rigged to benefit those at the top. The question is not whether debt will be abolished but whose debt will be abolished. The banks, the nation-states and the multinationals have seen their debts “restructured,” meaning paid off by the people, who now have to keep paying more. The debts of the people in whose name these actions were undertaken should also be abolished. Then we can begin reconstruction, transforming the circumstances that create the destructive spiral of permanent personal debt. Debt affects everyone. Right now we must borrow to secure basic goods that should be provided for all: housing, education, health care, and security in old age. Meanwhile, around the world, debt is used to justify the cutting of these very services. We understand that government debt is nothing like personal debt. The problem is not that our cities and countries are broke but that public wealth is being hoarded. We need a new social contract that puts public wealth to equitable use and enshrines the right to live based around mutual aid, not structured around lifelong personal debt.
The defense/creation/multiplication of commons against Capital appropriation through privatisation and debt reasserts itself as a central struggle of radical politics. Labour and labour exploitation do not of course disappear. But the crisis of labour that haunts contemporary capitalism requires capital accumulation from other sources, sources which both further commodify previously non-capitalist activities and spheres of life, as well as providing additional instruments of political control. And it is against this background that the central strategy of the rebellions of our time of occupation may be both understood and justified.
Occupy Wall Street is an example of such a politics. Originating in the occupation of public spaces, it put into question more traditional divisions of theories and practices of politics: the divide between the public and the private, and the different manifestations of this separation, between for example the State and private “civil society”. Occupying spaces (e.g. public squares, homes threatened with foreclosures, land occupations, establishing networks of solidarity, etc.) express a critique of both the State and Capital, of their failure to respond to human needs and aspirations and of the growing awareness that the only resistance to this violence is to re-appropriate collectively that which is necessary to live freely.
To fail then to see the political dimensions of the Occupy movement, to announce its death in celebratory fashion (Thomas Frank, "Occuper Wall Street, un movement tombé amoureux de lui-même", Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2013), is to not understand the kind of radical politics that the movement has continued to elaborate, as it has done since it began: Strike Debt!, Occupy Sandy, Occupy Our Homes, Tidal, Radical Resistance Tour and the like. (Nicolas Haeringer, "Occupy Wall Street: Fin ou Début d'un movement", La Revue des Livres, Mars-Avril 2013). Occupy continues to create worlds beyond State-Capital.
We have come to Wall Street as refugees from this native dream land, seeking asylum in the actual. That is what we seek to occupy. We seek to rediscover and reclaim the world.
Communiqué 1, Tidal 1