A man, being born, is a debt; by his own self he is born to Death, and only when he sacrifices does he redeem himself from Death.
-Satapatha Brahmana 22.214.171.124
I owe somewhere around ten thousand chickens for my education. Or possibly a hundred to a hundred and fifty cows. Or about fourteen hundred hours of work. I'm like the vast majority of humans now and throughout history; I owe. I also owe more cigarettes than I can count, I owe my mother and father for how well they raised me. I owe the people who came before me for what they've left me, physically, intellectually, and socially. I could never hope to make good on all the debts I owe. The best I can hope for now is to put future generations in my debt through some contribution of my own. Most of all, right now I owe a damn good essay about debt. I don't know anyone that doesn't owe, and in fact, I think I never have. Certainly there are those rare few who are all paid up to the bank and the government and various other people and groups to whom one may own money, but to owe someone something is more than that.
Debt is in many ways the basis of our society, both immediately and historically. Immediately in that our economic system is based on debt, in both obvious and hidden ways. Credit cards, home loans, car loans, and student loans are the obvious debt we run on. Stock, bonds, family obligations, ties of friendship, and money are the more hidden.
The idea that I have to *earn* a living is both ridiculous and disgusting at the same time. Ridiculous because we here in the US have one of our founding documents that says we have a *right* to life. Disgusting because we're a country that takes that to mean that no one should arbitrarily kill us, as if that's an issue that we should have to deal with in a reasonable world. The problem of course is that the idea of what constitutes a right is incredibly confused. As Graeber puts it: "Most of our most precious rights and freedoms are a series of exceptions to an overall moral and legal framework that suggests we shouldn’t really have them in the first place." When we talk about freedom of speech we aren't talking about what we *can* do, we're talking about the obligations(responsibilities or debts) of others to allow us to say what we think and what we want to. When we talk about rights in the US what we mean is "Even though it clearly should have the power to arbitrarily kill people the government can't."
Of course, what this ignores, and what Graeber points out, is that these relations are not based on obligation or responsibility or debt, but instead are based on violence. Without violence we would not have money. Money = debt + violence. That's the takeaway from this book. What's left unsaid, both in the book and elsewhere, is what the course of action is that arises from this knowledge.
The Conversion from Commons to Debt
Here's where the history of debt matters. And why. What happened with education in the US, and specifically California in my case, is that education is suppose to be free. Education *was* free for such privatizationist as Ronald Reagan. All these politicians that went to public higher education and that then decided to charge tuition for public higher education got a free ride through school. These are the people that decided that I owe them and their friends a debt for learning about how they took over this country. How they turned this country into a pretend intellectual state, where neocons use post-structuralist ideals to pretend that it's totally okay to bomb other countries because they disagree with western capitalism.
And that's why I owe all those chickens, or cows, or whatever. Because knowledge equals power and power equals money. But not really, as any grad student would tell you. Most of the time now knowledge equals debt and debt equals power. And power equals telling people what they have to do.
"It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor."[Graeber]
But seriously. Don't we all know that we don't give our labor freely? We give our labor because if we don't we will be dispossessed of our ability to live. That's why we give our labor. No more, no less.
Because it's nonsense. Because we know it's nonsense and the only reasonable way anyone can pretend otherwise is because violence says otherwise. Violence against you and me. This violence is what allows the government to transfer debt from itself to its citizens. It's clothed in bureaucracy and couched in monetary terms, but behind both of those things lies the violence of the government. In the case of money it is taxes that forms the basis of that violence. If I don't pay my taxes I can and will be the target of state violence, and I can only pay taxes in money, specifically dollars in the US. Because of that I'm forced into debt.
Given that this is my relation to debt, here is what can be done.
The Debt Jubilee is a traditional way of dealing with a level of debt that is crippling society. Jubilees have a long history, and I must admit that I'm fairly disappointed that the queen didn't actually forgive her debtors in the most recent one. Indicative of the state our society is in right now. Of course, the majority of people would be both delighted and appalled by the idea of a Jubilee. Delighted because it would mean that their debts are wiped clean, and appalled because for god's sake how can we have a functional society if people don't repay their debts. The fact of the matter is that the bankers have convinced us that there is a "moral hazard" if we let anyone *not* pay their debts. Of course, they never talk about people who refuse their debts. Like me.
A debt strike is the most likely and functional way to a Jubilee. When I went on debt strike last year I got yet another call from a collection agency. This time I decided I was sick of it. I told them no more. I said "I'm not going to pay." Of course, I didn't actually owe the person I was talking to anything. I was probably talking to them because they owed someone something, even if it was just rent. But what was most amazing was their reaction. No one ever tells them that, at least not in that way. Certainly the debt collectors get told that people *can't* pay, but *won't* pay, no. They didn't know what to do. They told me that they were just informing me, as if it weren't a veiled threat.
The point being that the idea of people not paying their monetary debts is so amazingly wrong in our society. When I tell people about this they're amazed, even when they're people who have debt they refuse to pay. Because in this society we have a moral obligation to pay debts, ironically more so to people we don't know than to people we do. How can I ever repay my mother and father? Seriously though, it isn't possible. Nor is it possible to pay back my debt to society, whatever that may mean. As if I could pay back all those who died to gain us the weekend. The best I can hope for is to gain more weekend, or to keep the weekend.
And this is why I'm on Debt Strike. It can't be a coincidence that a few months after the petition reached a couple million it's now gone from the internet. I can't even find a reference to the original student loan strike petition, although I know when I signed it there were 300k+ people who had already signed it.
Here's the thing to remember. If a thousand of us refuse to pay we may have some minor consequences. If a million of us refuse to pay we will have nothing but positive consequences.
Debt strike now.