Education as debt bondage

Government by debt subjects populations to a particular regime of submission, submission of the present to a future which is nothing more than an extension of the present.  The present in fact vanishes before a kind of eternal “now” in which the past and the future fade into an indifferent temporal continuity of the present.  Without past or future, human subjectivity is robbed of creativity, of the capacity to generate something new; the future, once stabilised, destroys the imagination, the possibility of dreaming otherwise than what is.  Politics as a contest between ways of life is thus replaced by a management of credit and debt flows. (Maurizio Lazzarato)

At the end of 2014, in the united states, post-secondary student debt reached the astronomical sum of 1,160 billion dollars, roughly 30,000 dollars for each debtor (some 40 million persons today, as compared to 11 million just seven years ago); a sum greater than the national credit card debt or all of the automobile credit debt.

This pharaonic debt of u.s. students can be explained by a number of factors: an exponential growth in tuition fees for BA level studies: in 35 years, they increased 1,120 %, twice the increase of the country’s health costs and three times the cost of food; a drop of 40%, during this same period, of federal state support for education (e.g. the federal government’s Pell Grants, created in 1965, could originally cover the totality of school costs, but today on average cover only 40%), which amounts to a slow, surreptitious privatisation of post-secondary education; financial loses in the post-2008 crisis period, forcing further tuition increases (e.g. the University of Virginia, since 2008, lost 100 million dollars of public funding, compensated by a 28% increase in tuition); competitive, massive debt driven infrastructure investments by educational institutions (e.g. the University of Missouri: 72 million dollars on a student leisure centre; the University of Minnesota: 303 million dollars for a new american football stadium), doubling their global debt in ten years.

If education costs have increased in the country, it is anything but obvious that what is bring purchased is of a superior quality.  Student and university debt alter the very nature of post-secondary education, forcing it to be more market relevant, to dedicate itself exclusively to the goal of producing human capital, a demand sometimes rather sadly made even by students themselves.  And yet those indebted leave university with no guarantee of employment, or should they find work, of earning enough to pay their debts.

What is at stake here is not simply economic, in the traditional sense (the risk of personal bankruptcy, the increase in the federal national debt due to the u.s. government’s guarantee of all student debt, the burden on consumption, etc.).  Nor is it simply a matter of defending the sacrosanctness of state-public education against the ravages of privatisation (though the former should at least be defended against the latter).  Rather the issue is eminently political, for national education systems have as their principal social effect that of shaping and moulding subjectivities for submission to relations of power: the indebted student is then the precursor to the indebted worker-consumer, the indebted “citizen” to state power security, in sum, the student is the parent of the docile subject of neoliberal capitalism.

If the scale of student debt in the u.s. is unique, the phenomenon is today global and expanding and the recent student movements in chile, quebec and the netherlands testify to the fact that debt does not go unchallenged.  (On a smaller scale, but of great interest, is the student debt strike, the first ever debt strike in the u.s., organised by former students of the private Corinthian Colleges.  Click here!).  And as student debt is part of a larger governance by debt, the challenge to the privatisation of education has the potential to very quickly resonant with other, anti-capitalist movements.

As for the university, perhaps it is time again to think of “deschooling” education, of creating what in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were called popular universities, spaces in which knowledge and skills were shared freely and equally with anyone; “universities” which sought not to school but to liberate.

(All statistical information cited above is taken from Le Monde 28/04/2015)

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One of the children of Occupy Wall Street was the movement Strike Debt!, which through direct action, research and education, have sought to organise resistance to debt.  We publish their statement of principles:

Principles of Solidarity

Adopted by consensus of the Strike Debt NYC general meeting of January 6, 2013

Strike Debt is building a debt resistance movement. We believe that most individual debt is illegitimate and unjust. Most of us fall into debt because we are increasingly deprived of the means to acquire the basic necessities of life: education, health care, and housing. Because we are forced to go into debt simply in order to live, we think it is right and moral to resist it.

We also oppose debt because it is an instrument of exploitation and political domination. Debt is used to discipline us, deepen existing inequalities, and reinforce gendered, racial,and other social hierarchies. Every Strike Debt action is designed to weaken the institutions that seek to divide us and benefit from our division. As an alternative to this predatory system, Strike Debt advocates a just and sustainable economy, based on common goods, mutual aid, and public affluence.

Strike Debt is an offshoot of the Occupy movement. It respects many of the principles that were adopted by Occupy participants from other non-hierarchical movements. These include: political autonomy; direct democracy; direct action; a culture of solidarity, creative openness, and commitment to anti-oppressive conduct and language. We struggle for a world without ableism, homophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, and all forms of oppression.

Strike Debt holds that we are all debtors, whether or not we have personal loan agreements. Through the manipulation of sovereign and municipal debt, the costs of speculator-driven crises are passed on to all of us. Though different kinds of debt can affect the same household, they are all interconnected, and so all household debtors have a common interest in resisting.

Strike Debt engages in public education about the debt-system to counteract the self-serving myth that finance is too complicated for laypersons to understand. In particular, it urges direct action as a way of stopping the damage caused by the creditor class and their enablers among elected government officials. Direct action empowers those who participate in challenging the debt-system.

Strike Debt holds that we owe the financial institutions nothing, whereas, to our communities, families, and friends we owe everything. In pursuing a long-term strategy for national organizing around this principle, we pledge international solidarity with the growing global movement against debt and austerity.

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See also Strike Debt’s The Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual, as well as The Debt Collective.  For a very good discussion of the Corinthian Colleges student debt strike, see Democracy Now (02/04/2015) …

… and lastly, the Rolling Jubilee

 

 

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