On Monday, Occupy Wall Street celebrated its first birthday. As thousands descended upon Lower Manhattan and poured back into Zuccotti Park, home to the protest camp of last year, an interesting buzz has been doing the rounds in the media and blogosphere on where the movement currently stands — and where it might be headed in the future. Predictably, those on the right claim that Occupy is dead, while those on the left maintain that it’s only barely begun.
It’s all a familiar ideological gainsaying that will ultimately do very little to change the predicament in which we find ourselves. Whether Occupy is dead or not, the goal should be neither the revival nor the survival of the movement in its old form — the point is to perpetually keep evolving, devising new forms of action to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Interestingly, this is precisely what appears to have happened over the summer.
In a fascinating article for a special “occupied” edition of The Nation, Astra Taylor writes how organizers in the Occupy movement have been actively laying the groundwork for the emergence of a nationwide debt resistance movement. While the issue of debt has prominently featured in the background of the Occupy protests as one of the key grievances of the 99%, it has so far not been explicitly connected with the aims of the movement as such. That is changing.
This weekend, as protesters returned to Wall Street, a group of activists distributed over 5,000 copies of an enticing new 132-page manifesto: The Debt Resistor’s Operations Manual. According to its anonymous collective of authors, organized through the Strike Debt platform, the Manual “aims to provide specific tactics for understanding and fighting against the debt system so that we can all reclaim our lives and our communities.”
Strike Debt describes itself as a “network of students, artists, academics, and organizers who are sparking conversations about how debt affects us all and what we can do about it. Through militant research, direct action, and mutual support, we are exploring ways that we can break the chains of debt and create new bonds of solidarity.” The goal of the network is strikingly straightforward: to organize and spark a “mass upsurge of debt resistance.”
In her article for The Nation, Taylor writes how activists have increasingly come to realize the potential of debt “to serve as a kind of connective tissue for the Occupy movement, uniting increasingly dispersed organizing efforts around a common problem (debt) as opposed to a common tactic (occupation).” The challenge, in this respect, is to turn the overly moralized and profoundly individualizing everyday reality of debt into a catalyst for collective action.
Also in The Nation, David Graeber asks if debt can spark a revolution. Earlier, in his award-winning book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber already showed how, historically, most revolutionary movements have revolved around the dual objectives of debt cancellation and land redistribution. From Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece, the fear of autocratic rulers for debt-fueled revolt was such that debts would regularly be forgiven in order to stave off social unrest.
That debt could provide a potent combustible for a popular upsurge in our times as well was already obvious from the many debt-related stories on the We Are the 99% website. Debt also features prominently in a more recent initiative by the editors of N+1 Magazine, who launched a website called Occupy the Boardroom, which offered citizens the opportunity to send letters to important bankers and CEOs — promising to deliver the letters via post or email.
These letters have now been compiled into a book with the title The Trouble is the Banks. As the New York Times reports, “The more than 8,000 letters that resulted (to Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) supply some insight into the way different Americans experienced the financial crisis and recession since 2007.” One particularly harrowing story mentions a debtor whose father had a stroke upon realizing that the bank would seize his assets to fully reclaim his daughter’s college loans.
“Debt has become the means of subjecting everyone — from sovereign nations to homeowners and victims of payday loan sharks — to a mixture of ersatz morality and threats,” NYU Professor Nicholas Mirzoeff told Taylor. “‘Pay your debts or else you’re a bad person or bad country, and so bad things will happen to you,’ is the message that creditors send debtors to maintain control. Individuals are kept in line through the prospect of foreclosure, higher interest rates and damaged credit scores, while entire populations from countries teetering toward collapse have been punished with cuts to wages and social welfare programs.”
“This is why we’re not talking about a debtors’ movement, but a debt resistance movement,” activist Winter said. “Debt resistance is more inclusive, more accurate, and moves from the personal to the structural. When we say ‘debt resistance,’ we think of people forced to go into debt to survive, but also everyone else who is affected by their towns, cities and countries owing money to Wall Street—not to mention both those excluded from credit altogether and those thrown to payday lenders and other predatory scams.”
According to a report by Yates McKee of Waging Non-Violence, “Strike Debt organizers have strategized all summer about launching a multi-pronged offensive against the predatory debt system, with the eventual goal of sparking a nationwide debt-resisters’ movement that would strike at the foundations of capitalism as a whole.” To this end, it has created “a sophisticated press and propaganda unit” and “seeded” the media landscape with articles and interviews.
One important node in this mediatic offensive is the third edition of Tidal, the Occupy Theory journal, which contains powerful contributions on debt by Graeber and the Strike Debt collective. Under the slogan You are not a loan! the activists call for a debtors’ strike — a refusal to honor debts. For as Graeber points out, “the last thing the 1% wants … is to give up on one of their most powerful moral weapons: the idea that decent people always pay their debts.”
Debt is not personal, it is political. The debt system aims to isolate us, silence us, and scare us into submission with the all-powerful credit rating. Now is the time for us to step out of the shadows together in public. Debt is immoral. It is indentured servitude, a type of bondage. We are forced onto a path of endless repayment and are supposed to be ashamed when we can’t climb our way out of debt. We have to sell our time, our souls, working jobs we don’t care about simply so we can pay interest to the bank. Now that debt is so rampant, many of us are ashamed for putting others in debt. Our professions from teacher to lawyer and physician have become means to direct more victims to the loan sharks. So perhaps above all, we strike the fear, refuse the shame, end the isolation. When we strike debt, we are giving ourselves permission to be more than a set of numbers. In a sense, we create the possibility of an imagination. We are not abdicating our responsibility, we are exercising our innate right to refuse the unjust.
In this respect, the vastly expanded field of possibility generated by Occupy provides unique avenues for future waves of direct action. “Occupy unleashed this heightened sense of resistance,” OWS organizer Chris Longenecker told Nathan Schneider in an interview for The Nation. “We’ve formed really close bonds.” Or as another activist pointed out, “the idea of occupation as a tactic — it had an expiration date… But what doesn’t are all the networks we can build.”
Similarly, as the activist rock-star Tom Morello told the Rolling Stone, “the one thing that Occupy has been very successful at is forever changing the dialogue around the great, unspoken five-letter word in American politics, and that’s ‘class.’ The people who were in the streets — whether it was 100,000 people in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, or the months-long occupation of Zuccotti Park — those people haven’t gone away. Their ideas haven’t gone away.”
That the notions of class and debt are closely intertwined was clear from the start — but that this could be harnessed into a movement by no means was. “What was remarkable,” Graeber writes, “wasn’t so much the fact that the [protest] camp began to fill with so many debt refugees, but how much their plea resonated across the political spectrum … Something clearly had changed. We had come to see ourselves as members of the same indebted class.”
“Of course people are outraged,” said Jerry Ashton, who has long been involved in debt activism. “The problem,” however, is that “everyone is fragmented — whistleblowers in their world, victims of debt collectors in another. How do they communicate with each other and create a united front? It will take something like Occupy and the enthusiasm Occupy can engender to get this in people’s faces.” In other words, it will take a movement to realize that you are not a loan.