Buying And Relieving Debt: A Great Start But Not A Solution

Buying And Relieving Debt: A Great Start But Not A Solution

The Article: Rolling Jubilee The Spark, Not The Solution by Andrew Ross and Astra Taylor in The Nation.

The Text: We don’t speak for Strike Debt, but as members of the team that helped organize the Rolling Jubilee, a campaign that buys and abolishes debt, we are happy to report that the project is already a phenomenal success. In two weeks, the Rolling Jubilee fund has raised ten times more than we expected (it is now rapidly approaching $450,000), and some debtors will be genuinely elated when the first letters from Strike Debt arrive informing them they are off the hook for medical bills they have been unable to pay. Debt relief, by any means necessary, is a lifeline to desperately overburdened people. It is also a first strike against the predators who feed off the debt system.

The Rolling Jubilee team has received tens of thousands of messages from people whose spirits have been raised by this example of mutual aid in action. Their heartfelt letters remind us that political change rests on emotional stirring among ordinary people, just as much as it is driven by debates among full-time leftists.

Hardened cynics might not be moved by comments like the following, which we received in droves:

“This gives me hope because I sincerely had none.”

“I CRIED reading about your fundraiser.”

“THIS is the America I used to believe in. I’m ready to believe again!”

Though they might be cheered by more militant ones like this:

“This is like a going-out-of-business sale at the ‘Fuck Capitalism’ store”

And for the strategy-minded, there have been a gamut of useful responses. The Rolling Jubilee kicked off a lively debate about the root causes of mass indebtedness, the government’s double standard where debt relief is concerned (why do banks, not people, get bailed out?), the powerful, coercive morality of debt repayment and the significance of activists entering the debt-buying industry. Looking ahead, the Rolling Jubilee has served as a kind of beacon, inspiring experts and laypeople alike to share their ideas for the next wave of the movement.

The Rolling Jubilee is proving to be wildly effective public education, exposing the seedy underbelly of the debt system and the inequities it perpetuates. For the best part of a week—an eternity in the world of social media—regions of the Internet vibrated with discussion and crowd-sourced information about the internal workings of this murky marketplace. How many borrowers, hounded by collection agencies, knew how cheaply their harassers had bought out their loans? How many knew that original lenders get to “charge off” their defaulted accounts and take a tax break—another kind of bailout—before bundling them into portfolios for sale on this shadowy, secondary market?

The Rolling Jubilee was not designed to be a feasible, long-term solution to the debt crisis in and of itself. Instead, it is a “bailout by the people, for the people,” a chance to offer others support and solidarity where the government has failed them. While critics like Yves Smith and Doug Henwood have focused on the limits of this tactic, what interests us are the possibilities this experiment opens up, the good will that is fostered, the conversations that it sparks and the new ideas and action plans that are percolating. Who knows where the jubilee will roll next or what its impact will be? Regardless, organizers are well aware that the result of debt cancellation, even on a mass scale, would be negligible unless it was coupled with a far deeper restructuring of our economic system. That is the prize our eyes are on, and that’s why Strike Debt chapters are now springing up in cities all across the country.

What other forms can debt resistance take? There are many ways to “strike debt”: demanding a people’s bailout; collectively refusing to pay illegitimate loans; targeting and shutting down collections agencies or for-profit colleges; regulating loan speculators out of business; reinstating limits on usurious interest rates (which were struck down in the late 1970s); fighting for free education and healthcare; defending foreclosed homes, and more. On the constructive side, building an alternative economy, run for mutual benefit and not for profit, is the long-term goal. The Debt Resistors Operations Manual, Strike Debt’s first public service project, lays out more advice along these lines.

Organizing around debt may not immediately make sense to some progressives. After all, it is the Right that traditionally harps on debt, and they are currently using the deficit as an excuse to push through cuts to “entitlements.” All the more reason to steal their fire and fight back with the opposite message. After all, most of us are in hock because more and more life-sustaining necessities are debt-financed. Nor is debt resistance disconnected from more staple progressive concerns like campaigning for higher wages or raising taxes on the rich. Given that predatory lending of all sorts—from subprime mortgages to payday loans—disproportionately affects low income and people of color communities, debt resistance naturally dovetails with broader struggles for racial equality and economic justice.

We believe that the struggle over debt is one of the frontline conflicts of our times, and that the new version of the American Dream will be to live free of debt. The Rolling Jubilee is a glimpse into that future and is showing us—once again—that the first task of any political movement is to meet and touch people where they are.

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