Creditocracy: making the case for debt refusal

  • February 10, 2014

Capitalism & Crisis

In his latest book, Creditocracy, scholar-activist Andrew Ross makes a compelling case for debt refusal as “a protective deed on behalf of democracy”.

“Andrew Ross is the very model for a scholar-activist, and Creditocracy, his latest book, is as compelling as it is important. Let’s hope this makes a difference in the world. It really should.”

— David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

If the 2007-’08 financial crisis and its aftermath have shown us anything, it is that our economy is essentially a debt economy, one that grows, thrives, and benefits the few through the creation and extension of credit and, conversely, debt. A number of important books in the past few years have drawn attention to the various ways in which debt functions economically, politically, morally, and theologically in our global economy. David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years and Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man come to mind.

Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and veteran of the Occupy movement, makes a significant contribution to this literature with his recently published Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books, 2014). The bulk of Creditocracy provides a concise, polemical analysis of the various ways in which the creditor class preys upon the majority through the creation and maintenance of debt.

Ross is, however, mindful of Marx’s dictum in his Theses on Feuerbach that the point of criticism and analysis is not simply to interpret the world but to change it. Ross thus considers his analysis as a necessary means to an end: to make a moral case to his readers for collective debt resistance. Indeed, insofar as the creditor class rules through the debt it forces on individuals and groups to gain access to even the most basic needs, debt resistance, Ross suggests, is a potent political weapon. Since being in debt in one way or another is now the norm for most of us, focus on debt resistance has the potential to cut across political and other allegiances, providing something of a common banner for collective action. The latter is, of course, sorely needed, and without it, we debtors are more than likely doomed to subservience to an economic system that primarily benefits the few at the expense of the rest.

Ross is not, however, utopian in his call for debt resistance. The ways in which our current economic system functions and rules through debt creation certainly require opposition, but Ross is not calling for the cancellation of all debts. Ross seems to take for granted that debt in some fashion goes hand-in-hand with social organization, so to argue against all debt does not make a whole lot of sense. Ross, instead, wants to open a discussion about legitimate debt, about which debts are moral, serviceable, and work toward individual and common goods, and which are not. Legitimate debts have their place, but illegitimate debts demand resistance — a resistance that is, for Ross, morally justified.

Ross doesn’t weigh the legitimacy or illegitimacy of debt on some simplistic, merely formal notion of individual freedom, one that assumes that a mere signature on a loan or credit card document is enough to justify the debt incurred and its terms. To understand debt along such lines makes almost all debts legitimate by default, and throws the responsibility for debts solely on the debtor, absolving the creditor of any blame. Without taking into account the material conditions of debtors, the intent of creditors, and the terms of the debt undertaken, freedom — especially the freedom to enter into contractual economic relationships — comes off as little more than an ideological mechanism designed to justify current arrangements. Ross, in contrast, turns the tables, shifting responsibility to the creditors. Given his criteria, it seems that many of the debts that individuals and groups now bear can be considered illegitimate.

Throughout Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal, Ross provides and puts to use numerous moral criteria for determining whether or not a debt is legitimate. Generally speaking, these criteria concern the type of loan involved and its effect on individuals, communities, society as a whole, and the environment, all of which have priority over the financial benefits that crediting individuals and institutions receive from the debt created. Loans extended to borrowers who cannot possibly afford them fall into this category for Ross, but so too do loans which either provide benefit only to creditors or inflict social and environmental harm. Likewise, Ross labels debt related to access to basic necessities or common goods, such as healthcare or education, as usurious, in that it seeks profit from the needs and misfortunes of others.

Ross discusses the ways in which creditors and financial institutions reap monetary and political gain from such illegitimate debt in various domains: sovereign debt (Chapter 1), household debt (Chapter 2), student loan debt (Chapter 3), labor and wage theft (Chapter 4), and climate debt (Chapter 5). Ross, in these chapters, effectively exposes how the financial sector exploits the livelihood of individuals, communities, nations, and the environment for its own gain, with little to no concern about the long-term effects of such behavior.

Because of the calculated ambivalence and, at times, open disregard that the creditor class shows towards its debtors and their livelihood, such debts should have no real purchase. Insofar as they prey on the welfare of others for the sole purpose of creating money for creditors, such debts should be actively resisted. It’s not as if the creditor class needs the money, Ross insists: “The banks, and their beneficiaries, awash in profit, have done very well; they have been paid enough already, and do not need to be additionally reimbursed.” When debt primarily functions as a means to line the pockets of the few, as it is packaged, bought, and sold using complex financial instruments and mechanisms in various markets, it “should not be recognized as binding.”

Ultimately Ross’s call for debt resistance is about energizing democracy, since debt stifles “our capacity to think freely, act conscientiously, and fulfill our democratic responsibilities.” Because debt limits democratic participation and decision-making, “economic disobedience is justified as a protective deed on behalf of democracy.”

Although it has material effects, debt resistance, then, also functions symbolically, providing an image of true freedom, one that gestures toward a real democratic future, as Ross discusses in Chapter 6 in relation to the Occupy movement and the initiatives that have grown out of it. Indeed, for Ross, “democracy has no tenable future unless creditor power is broken apart and dispersed.”

Since it’s unlikely that the creditors will willingly cede power anytime soon, it falls to us to resist and refuse, and that starts with debt. Ross has provided us with an important manifesto for the necessity of resisting the illegitimate debts that we owe. Perhaps then we can begin to think a different economy, one that — as Ross suggests — understands credit in socially productive terms, for the common good of all rather than just the few.

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Hollis Phelps

Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Mount Olive. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (2013).

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