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“It’s not that we don’t have demands… We speak them with our struggle. Our movement is made up of people fighting for jobs, for schools, for debt relief, equitable housing, and healthcare… We are … democratic, fierce, and unwavering.” And “we aren’t going home.”
These statements by Occupation Wall Street (OWS) activists remind us that while there’s no shortage of policy ideas and demands from the left, what’s been absent is the power to make these policy ideas a reality in corporate America. The growing Occupation Wall Street movement now offers an opportunity to seize that power. This is its greatest significance.
I propose here a strategy for using that power, not by lodging futile demands on unresponsive governments or corporations, but instead by taking control of what we can control ourselves within this political economy: the repayment of our own debts.
Consider this from David Graeber, anthropologist, author of Debt: the First 5000 Years, and OWS activist: ”A debt is just a promise… It has no greater moral standard than any other promise that you would make.”
Yet politicians insist that they can’t keep their promises, their political debts, to the public for education, jobs, or healthcare because they can’t break their sacred monetary debts to the bankers, with interest.
But in the history of world religions and social movements, what was sacred was not monetary debt, but the ability to make debt disappear, to forgive it, as in redemption. In the ancient Middle East, new kings would simply declare a clean slate and cancel all debts. The Biblical “Jubilee” was a way of institutionalizing that, to refresh a stalled economy of lending and borrowing. More recently, Saudi Arabia, in reaction to the Arab Spring, declared a debt cancellation. So there are precedents. Debts can be renegotiated. Trillions of dollars of debt can be made to disappear. The European Union has just arranged for banks to cut Greece’s debt in half, in order to save it from default.
How about doing the same for student loans and home foreclosures in this country? Graeber explains:
“Debts between the very wealthy or between governments can always be renegotiated and always have been throughout world history. They’re not anything set in stone. It’s, generally speaking, when you have debts owed by the poor to the rich that suddenly debts become a sacred obligation, more important than anything else. The idea of renegotiating them becomes unthinkable.” And yet, insists Graeber, “if democracy is going to mean anything now, we’re all going to have to be able to weigh in on what sorts of promises are made and what sorts of promises are adjusted.”
So let’s weigh in!
Let’s we the people decide what we will pay and what we won’t pay on our debts. And let’s do so with heads held high, with no greater moral stigma than that affixed to the billion-dollar defaults of the banks and bankers.
Besides, as William Greider writes, “Debt forgiveness is not just a moral imperative; it’s also an economic necessity.” Bad debt is suffocating the nation’s economic activity. Morality aside, even finance industry insiders argue that general debt reduction schemes make economic sense: write down loan principals, reduce interest rates, set manageable monthly payments. That way homeowners under water and students burdened by impossible loans can begin to spend money on new things, encouraging companies to hire more workers to meet new demand for goods and services.
But if the government won’t take these steps itself, we must do it ourselves. And if the government won’t honor its societal obligations or make corporations pay their debts to society for the mess they made, then let’s not honor our own debts. As the Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The government has certainly forgiven our creditors their debts, so it’s high time that we start forgiving our own debts. Occupy Wall Street activists decry, “THEY GOT BAILED OUT, WE GOT SOLD OUT!” So let’s bail ourselves out.
Let’s declare ourselves a Jubilee of debt relief and forgiveness.
Two possible strategies come to mind:
1. Force the banks to try to collect from millions of us who default.
We might all agree to one or more of the following:
· Don’t pay our mortgage (or interest).
· Don’t pay our college loans (or interest).
· Don’t pay our credit card bills (or interest)
· Don’t pay our medical insurance premiums.
Instead of paying any one or more of these payments, we can put the money into a fund for those unable to take such risks or for those penalized for doing so.
Of course, any such steps by individuals will require assurance that they are indeed not acting alone but are instead participants in a massive act of collective default.
2. Interfere with the collection or accounting of people’s debts.
Groups such as Take Back the Land have been obstructing the execution of foreclosures against people unable to pay their exorbitant, often disreputable mortgages. Obstruction of other forms of debt collection might also be possible. David Graeber reminds us that “for the last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun … with the ritual destruction of the debt records …” This might be another such time.
There are possibly many creative ways for hackers and others to interfere with the accounting processes of debtor banks in our computerized economy, voiding or altering the debt records of millions.
Occupy Wall Street activists throughout the country might consider leveraging the power we have mobilized in the streets, not to make demands on corporate America but instead to wrest from it some control over our own lives.
Doug Noble is an activist with Occupy Rochester NY and Rochester Against War.