The Politics of Debt Resistance
By Andrew Ross
Like others who committed themselves to the fledgling debtors’ movement, I have experienced the major occupational hazard of single-issue activists—we tend to see our issue everywhere. Oftentimes, it’s the only thing we see, and our more ecumenical allies have to find ways to remind us, either gently or more rudely, that issues and struggles are always connected. That said, debt really is everywhere right now. No one can ignore how prominently it is featuring in the public politics of our time or how sharply etched it is on the daily economic landscape of almost every household. Democracies—and not just those in the Southern Eurozone—are failing because the claims of creditors are prioritized over the needs and rights of citizens. More and more individual debtors are sliding into the emotional netherworld of mass default and many are being packed off to the newly resurgent debtors’ prisons all across the U.S. National economic managers are hard-pressed to figure out how to sustain a consumer society when there are still mountains of toxic debt left over from the housing crash, and when the steadily rising burden of student debt is blocking the access of a generation of graduates to the standard components of the American Dream—homeownership, children, and middle-class status.
So ubiquitous are the hardships generated by indebtedness that the struggle between debtor and creditor can often appear to be casting a larger shadow than the grand conflict between capital and labor. This is illusory, of course; the debt relation and the wage relation are fundamentally entwined, and always have been. The use of debt to deepen every form of labor exploitation has been systematic; from the debt peons and debt slaves of antiquity, forced by creditors to bond their labor through servitude; down to the sharecroppers of yesteryear, unable to pay off loans advanced on their harvests, or the factory workers subsisting on company scrip; to today’s transnational migrants, toiling to work off their transit and recruitment fees, or the payday loan borrowers, targeted because they are the least likely to afford the extortionate interest rates; or victims of wage theft, who are effectively financing their employers. Debt bondage or bonded labor is a predicament that still affects tens of millions today worldwide.
New Labor Forum 22(3): 12-15, Fall 2013
Copyright © 2013, The Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960, DOI: 10.1177/1095796013496982
Getting the Left out of Debt
By Samir Sonti
The problem with attempting to build a politics of debt resistance is that our crisis of personal indebtedness isn’t really about debt. It’s about neoliberalism, the inequality it reproduces, and the borrowing it necessitates. This isn’t to say that debt itself is irrelevant. A generation of college students and subprime mortgage holders can testify otherwise. It is, however, intended to suggest that mitigating the anxiety and material hardship that debt is inflicting on increasing numbers of us will require focusing less on the fact that we owe loads of money and more on why we owe it. And the reason we owe so much isn’t that we’ve borrowed excessive sums, it’s that we can’t afford the things we need without borrowing.
Our success in ending the nasty social impact that crushing levels of personal debt now effects will thus hinge on our ability to build a movement around access to basic necessities—jobs with a living wage, housing, education, healthcare, transit, childcare—so we don’t need to rely on credit to get by. Instead of a politics against debt, that is, we need a politics for a social wage.
A historical perspective helps to clarify this point. Personal debt really began to balloon in the 1970s, when inequality started to increase after a generation of reasonably distributed economic growth. As historian Louis Hyman has noted, the key change in the 1970s was that, for the first time since consumer credit had become widely accessible in the years after World War II, people found themselves unable to repay what they owed.
Between 1948 and 1973, real wages for the average worker grew at an annual rate of 2.6 percent, almost as fast as productivity improved during that period. This rising income enabled working-class Americans to secure the credit needed to purchase homes, automobiles, and all those household amenities, like televisions and washing machines, that were previously out of reach.
New Labor Forum 22(3): 16-19, Fall 2013
Copyright © 2013, The Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960, DOI: 10.1177/1095796013496986