Email this article to a friend


Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012, 4:05 pm

Fanning the Flames of Debt Resistance

By Rebecca Burns

Following a weekend of coordinated global demonstrations against austerity, Occupy Wall Street is rolling out a series of “Occu-Debt” seminars this week on topics such as race and debt and the history of debt resistance. Students at Queens College today, meanwhile, held a “tear up your student debt” day of action.

One year into Occupy, the movement has gone through something of a rebranding around the theme of debt. An offshoot of Occupy Wall Street called “Strike Debt” has issued debtors' communiqués and distributed thousands of copies of a “Debt Resistors' Operations Manual.” This has global resonance: “Don't owe, won't pay” has become the refrain of movements in Spain and Greece pushing back against the claims to their jobs, pensions and social services in the name of debt reduction.

John Holloway, Nick Mirzoeff and others have located this growing convergence around debt resistance in a politics of “creative refusal.” By denying and disrupting the narrative of crisis being imposed, they emphasize, movements can work to stave off the austerity and impoverishment that such a narrative demands as resolution.

This assertion of the radical possibilities of refusal is how we frequently find Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville’s anti-hero, as a sort re-imagined mascot for Occupy. Bartleby’s refusal to continue completing tasks in his dreary office takes the form of a passive refrain, “I would prefer not to,” that is deeply disruptive precisely because it is so inscrutable. The idea of a “politics of refusal” comes first from the French philosopher Etienne de La Boetié, whose Discourse on Voluntary Servitude is concerned with the ways that the oppressed are bound up in their own domination: “Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed.”

Seem simple enough? This is the thrust behind symbolic actions like the “debt burnings” held in several cities during Occupy's one-year anniversary celebrations. It’s undeniably a powerful statement to the homeowner wracked with shame that they are unable to pay off their underwater mortgage, or to the graduate preparint to dutifully face down a lifetime of repayment. But behind the moral compulsion through which debt operates are varying forms of legal and economic compulsion which such a politics can't yet address so easily.

Debt as an organizing principle for Occupy is therefore fraught with challenges. Early on in the movement, the easy equivalence drawn between debt and slavery by some organizers sparked backlash. While other movements have had their share of offensive metaphors based on the experiences of oppressed groups in the mix, this rhetoric underlies a bigger analytical problem: “Debt” may be a good gloss for the way that late capitalism exploits us all, but it still exploits different people in very different ways.

Responding to the charge that debt is merely a problem of the declining middle class, the Occupy Student Debt Campaign has argued correctly that student loans cannot be dismissed as an exclusive problem of the privileged since higher education is now a condition of entry into much of the labor force. But this doesn't erase the differences between those with student debt, those with payday loans, and those excluded from the credit system entirely. Anticipating and building solidarity across these differences is exactly what a movement must do if it hopes to persuade these groups of their shared interests.

One of Occupy’s strengths has been the ability to create powerful narratives and introduce new methods of resistance. This is insurrectionary organizing in its truest sense—not because the people in this video are wearing black and burning things, but because these methods resonated broadly and spread rapidly absent a political program. But in many of its campaigns, the movement has quickly reached a point where the number of people willing to take part in such tactics levels off. At this point, symbolic actions like debt burning that dramatize our ability to say “no” to our own oppression may do little to move a mass of us toward taking collective action together.

This is not intended only as another rant about how Occupiers need to eat their vegetables, read their Marx and come up with an overarching strategy already. It is difficult to resist debt collectively precisely because the acceleration of our indebtedness has obstructed the traditional avenues for collective action. Though consumer debt is in many ways a uniform condition of the labor force—workers have financed their lives on debt as wages have remained stagnant—it is borne as an individual burden. But for these reason, as Hardt and Negri outlined in Empire, a politics of refusal is not enough:

This refusal certainly is the beginning of a liberatory politics, but it is only a beginning. The refusal in itself is empty. … The lines of flight from authority are completely solitary, and they continuously tread on the verge of suicide. In political terms, too, refusal in itself (of work, authority, and voluntary servitude) leads only to a kind of social suicide. As Spinoza says, if we simply cut the tyrannical head off the social body, we will be left with the deformed corpse of society. What we need is to create a new social body, which is a project that goes well beyond refusal.

The anti-foreclosure movement, one of the most vibrant projects to come out of Occupy, has already had to contend with this problem of resistance that ultimate returns us to isolation and individualism. Though the growing number of homeowners ready to stand up and fight for fair mortgage negotiations is exhilarating, this won’t necessarily translate into any kind of collective good. And if the end result of the movement is a return to the system of American homeownership that existed prior to 2008, it will have shored up some of the same dynamics that also fuel gentrification and a shrinking stock of affordable housing for all. This has led to a search among many groups for ways not refuse mortgage debt as individuals, but to unite communities to fight for new neighborhoods. Take Back the Land and the Right to the City Alliance, for example, have started to push for the handover of large numbers of bank-owned foreclosed homes to newly-formed community land trusts or non-profits.

There are some intriguing projects in the work from Strike Debt as well—discussions, for example, about how to form a debtors’ union, and to connect struggles around housing and student debt. The news that mayors in a handful of French towns are currently engaged in a “debt strike” of sorts, refusing to repay loans that they say they were tricked into taking out by a state-rescued lender, suggests exciting possibilities for linking resistance to household debt to municipal or even national debt. But there’s a lot to think through as to what kind of organization can support these efforts.

The current issue of In These Times features a roundtable discussion of the reasons behind and prospects of Strike Debt—watch for that to become available online next week, and stay tuned as we continue to cover this important new area of organizing.

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

View Comments