On the weekend of the Occupy Wall Street anniversary I attended a meeting of the Strike Debt assembly in New York. The meeting was a book release for The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, but also a working meeting to get input from all that attended. At the onset of the meeting a couple of people shared their personal stories of debt with the group. This sharing of stories was intended to address the shame, frustration and fear that many feel in connection with their debt. I could understand the logic here, but I found myself having a very strong reaction to the idea of shame being a common reference point for our discussion of debt. I wanted to share my story, but I didn’t think it fit within this construct. I’m in debt, but it is not shame that I feel, it is outrage. I don’t buy into the common American debt narrative: you are in debt because you bought something you couldn’t afford, because you were living beyond your means, because you are lacking in personal responsibility, because you are lazy, etc. The underlying idea here is that debt is a product of choice. But debt is about much more than choice, it is a deliberate and coercive means of control.
After several people involved with Strike Debt had spoken about different aspects of the project, a facilitator asked us come up with a question concerning debt to be posed to the group. I wasn’t really sure how to frame my question, but I was eager to offer my input and get some feedback. So when the mic came around to me I asked, “How does debt relate to theft of resources by 1% corporations?” When corporations go into countries and steal resources to sell them on the global market, often back to those they originally stole them from, how does this relate to debt? The facilitators wrote down the questions people had posed, inviting us to break out into smaller groups and choose one of the questions to discuss. The group I was part of was interested in discussing several of the questions, one participant even adding a question of her own to the list. A few people in the group were particularly interested in the question I had posed and asked me to elaborate on it. I appreciated their interest and enthusiasm, but at the time I felt reluctant to do so. I was much more interested in engaging in dialogue and listening, than in elaborating on my question. Deference to leadership is common within our culture, a show of respect for those who appear knowledgeable and capable (or, in seeming contradiction to the origin of this nation, are divinely appointed). When this is coupled with individual ownership of ideas, another root tenet of our culture, it can be difficult to contribute to a conversation without appearing attached to the ideas one contributes. But if we are truly looking to evolve “our” ideas, and not simply own the soap box, perhaps we should be seeking to free them from ownership, to let them exist independent of individual ego and belief, to invite and encourage modification of the ideas through alternative perspectives.
When it comes to movement building I have always been a big proponent of broadening our focus to include allies internationally, to more objectively understand and address the obstacles we face, as well as to learn and share successful strategies for moving forward. While focusing on a single issue may seem like good strategy for mobilizing a specific group of people affected by and passionate about that particular issue, it can also create a kind of tunnel-vision, blinding us to the broader interconnectedness of multiple issues affecting our larger community. Similarly, we can become trapped inside our own cultural identities, unable to recognize that many of the obstacles we face are a function of these identities. Inclusion of alternative perspectives, free of this cultural bias, can often allow us to see past these obstacles.
International debt relief has been a focus of the global justice movement for many years, but that concept of debt appears quite different from the American (USA) model. It occurs to me that the major difference here is this American illusion of “choice.” When a Bolivian farmer is made to choose between paying for water or feeding his family – is this really a “choice”? When our seniors are made to choose between heating their homes or medicine to keep them alive – is this really a “choice”? When our youth are made to choose between getting an education or supporting their families – is this really a “choice”? All of these “choices” have something in common: resources that have been privatized and then sold off to make a profit. The corporations and financial entities (and governments that empower them) that have privatized (stolen) these resources have no intrinsic right to them and may have even received public subsidies to extract and/or refine them. We are so indoctrinated into a system of individual ownership in the US, the very concept of “property” enshrined in our Constitution, that we can scarcely conceive of the commons belonging to us. When we provide our labor, why do we not conceive of it as a resource? When we speak of success, why is it not as a function of the combined labor (physical and intellectual) of those who have come before us? When the air, water and land we need to live is jeopardized by corporate abuse, why do we not simply take it away from them? Even our genetic information, the very mystery of life itself, is but another resource to privatize and commodify. Key here is that, once the resources have been extracted, the people will require assistance to make up for the loss to their economies, their livelihoods, their ability to provide for their people’s basic needs. And, as if on cue, in swoops the benevolent benefactor (you know – the same one that stole all your stuff moments ago) to generously provide that needed assistance – at a price…
So how can we recast this American debt narrative of “choice” to be more in line with the one that is known throughout the world? One person in our break out group suggested that we might come up with a sort of overarching metaphor, something to cut through all the complicated financial bs that insulates debt from critique. I mentioned something about native cultures’ conception of land as communal, a gift from the creator, rather than as some thing to be owned. It got me thinking that a deeper look at the concept of ownership itself might be helpful when examining debt. As the break out groups were called on to report back to the larger meeting, I quickly jotted this down in my notebook:
I take your stuff, then I make you pay for it. I take the lion’s share then I make you fight for the crumbs. Then I offer you a “loan” to make up for your loss. Then I sell your debt/use it to make even more money.
I’m not an expert in finance or debt. I have a BFA, not an MBA. But swimming in this financial cesspool of intentional obfuscation, perhaps more expert testimony is not what we need. Perhaps a bit of intuitive common sense instead. When the banking/brokerage kings of finance are allowed to sell 30-40 times more debt (most of it in bundled home mortgages) than they can back up with actual cash money (liquid assets), turning profit on every sale along the way, knowing full well that our taxes will bail their asses out when the junk debt they’re selling goes belly up; maybe we need to be looking beyond the paltry sums that we “owe” them – to the massive amounts of profit they make dealing “our” debt. Whatever we decide to focus on, we should keep in mind: it is only through our common consent to their hoarding of our resources, that we remain indebted to them.