Anti-Capitalist Meetup - Debt: That shit we all gotta deal with by AoT

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


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.

Debt Strike

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.





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Debt = Enslavement

geomoo's picture

I'm still far from an expert, but the more I've learned, the more it has seemed clear to me that debt is the preferred method of control and that, given this, most of the oligarchy's machinations over the last few years has been to in order to increase indebtedness.  Today, trillions of dollars are being kept out of circulation.  The best explanation for why this is so seems to be in order to concentrate ownership of capital assets (municipal parking garages, the postal system, social security) and to control through impoverishment and indebtedness.

There are a lot of homeless people in my town and for the most part, they are an accepted feature of life here.  Recently my wife and I were walking by a place where the homeless often hang out and a very unpleasant fight was going on, a fight in which violence was threatened.  As I returned later by the same way, one of the homeless people apologized to me for it.  This morning I was thinking back to that and thinking how that person, as bad as his life circumstances, still felt some debt to his community, still felt an obligation to me who has a comfortable home and plenty of food.  We do owe this debt to one another, to all of us who temper our own needs and wants in order to be better citizens.  But we own no debt to those who believe the entire world is merely for their exploitation and that the mutuality of society is merely a hindrance to their own enrichment.

The theolgian David Griffin claims that one of the burning issues during Jesus' time was that the Romans had cancelled the periodic debt jubilee and the results of that was increasing suffering among the occupied peoples.

As to the violence, while it is nearly always implicit, the response to the Occupy Movement brought the tip of the threatened violence into the open.  In fact, the cornerstone of non-violent resistance is to expose the implied violence by refusing to comply.  This is how the friendly facade of exploitation is exposed as based not on mutual agreement but as on threat of violence.

Good essay.

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More than a debt bubble: a democracy bubble about to burst

geomoo's picture

Degrees of Debt by Christopher Petrellam as published on Nation of Change:


In a forceful critique against the single mindedness of late-capitalism Frankfurt School, theorist Theodor Adorno once said that happiness is obsolete because it’s uneconomic, but had he lived past 1969 he may have theorized “the public sphere” in the same way. As I have written before, “the public sphere theoretically remains a space punctuated by elements of universality, openness, and accessibility.”  But the accountable and accessible nature of public institutions— and explicitly, public higher education— upon which the economically marginalized and the racially oppressed often rely, has been systematically disemboweled by corporatists who confuse course credit with credit cards, private investment with public engagement. To paraphrase Marx, it seems as though all that is public has melted into air.

Against this historical backcloth, Forbes recently projected that total U.S. student loan debt is expected to exceed $1 trillion by early 2012. And just weeks ago the U.S. Federal Reserve reported that the total amount of student loan debt finally surpassed that of credit cards. According to their figures, Americans owed $826.5 billion in credit card debt while outstanding student loans, both federal and private, totaled $830 billion.


Since 1980 state and local funding for higher public education has fallen dramatically. Between 1980 and 2008, the share of public higher education expenditures allocated by the government fell by almost 19%. And who picks up the tab? College students. Perhaps this helps to explain why, according to the Project on Student Debt, students who graduated in 2009 carry an average debt load of $24,000?


Ours is more than a debt-bubble; it’s a democracy bubble, and it’s about to burst.

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Graeber's a great read.

chipmo's picture

I suggest reading the correspondence that Graeber had with several Jacobin/Crooked Timber writers late last year, wherein Mike Beggs gets super-defensive about mainstream economics, J.W. Mason points out that Beggs doth protest too much, and Graeber chimes in himself.

After finishing the book a couple of weeks ago, I had a series of thoughts about the nature of debt, money, and power in the modern system.  I'd love some feedback on what I've thought through so far and perhaps recommendations on writing that may have explored this line of reasoning before.

Here's what I've got:

  • Money = Power = Asset
  • Debt = Responsibility = Debit
  • Power - Responsibility = Wealth
  • Change in Power - Change in Responsibility = net profit
  • Therefore, profit and growth are an increase in power without the associated responsibilty.
  • Therefore, profit and growth are the definition of irresponsibility.
  • It is only by keeping power and responsibility tightly coupled that the exploitation that is prevalent in hierarchical systems can be avoided.
  • This is impossible as long as the profit motive is the driving force of capitalism and capitalism is the nature of our economy, as profit seeking can be retermed a means of increasing an organization's NET IRRESPONSIBILITY.
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This is very interesting

geomoo's picture

I would love to read your ideas.  Without knowing much, I would look at the third line defining wealth as power less responsibility.  I don't fully get that, but that doesn't seem like a necessary connection to me; it seems one likely dependent on the culture.  This is just off the top of my head, but that's what strikes me as the challenge, to show how these relations are either necessary or how they are so in our current culture.

I've been thinking a lot about debt, too.  Perhaps I should read that book, but I likely couldn't follow it.  It seems that debt is the preferred tool of social control and that the creation of debt is done consciously just so things like so-called austerity can be imposed.

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