With SCOTUS Poised to Block Modest Debt Relief, What's Next for Debt Abolitionists?Roundup
tags: debt, student debt
Eleni Schirmer is a writer and a postdoc fellow at Concordia University’s Social Justice Centre in Montréal, Québec. She organizes with the Debt Collective.
In August, when President Joe Biden finally announced a plan to cancel some student debt, we at the Debt Collective, the nation’s first union of debtors, had mixed reactions. After years of hemming and hawing, this was the best he could do? Ten to twenty thousand dollars of cancellation and a wonky process to get it? For many, the relief would barely scratch their loan balances or change their monthly payments. For days after the announcement, the Department of Education’s website kept crashing. It took two months for the application for cancellation to be made public. In the meantime, several right-wing groups have filed lawsuits, which could block the program altogether. Still — assuming the policy survives the legal fight — some 20 million people are supposed to have their student debts completely disappeared. Organized debtors opened a major crack in the logic of debt’s rule.
At the Debt Collective, we were proud, but also angry and tired. We needed to take stock, assess our next moves. So, in early September, the national organizing staff made our way to Oxnard, California, a faded, working-class beach town just north of Los Angeles. Manny, an organizer who lives in South Central L.A., picked Braxton and me up from the airport to drive up the coast. When we took the Oxnard exit from the freeway, we unrolled the windows and let the night’s thick, salty air tell us the ocean was close. But it wasn’t until the next morning, when I shuffled outside with a cup of coffee and jet lag, that I understood where exactly we were. The Pacific Ocean, swollen from a recent storm, heaved in and out, and every so often, a pelican threaded itself through the curl of a wave. I squinted at the horizon, trying to tell if the tide was coming in or going out.
By the time everyone else woke up, the sun had started to clear the cloud cover. We spread out on chairs, an oversized couch, and the floor. Paul, a tech genius, fiddled with a projector, and soon our agenda glowed on the wall. Meanwhile, I kept stealing glances at my comrades, half of whom I was meeting in person for the first time. Faces that had been flickering pixels were now flesh and blood, sitting next to me. I couldn’t stop grinning. A long year of Zoom meetings and Google Docs and Slack threads came into new focus. We had helped to make something happen that wasn’t supposed to.
For many, debt is a private, shameful matter, endured painfully and alone. Creditors invoice for monetary sums and a moral order. Debt imposes guilt upon the borrower. “If history shows us anything,” explains David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt — above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”
To organize around debt is to assert otherwise: that we are not a loan. At the Debt Collective we say phrases like this a lot, because they’re true. Here’s another one: People aren’t in debt because they’ve lived beyond their means; people are in debt because they’ve been denied the means to live. Most Americans have no choice but to borrow money to go to college, to visit a doctor, to stave off eviction notices, to release a loved one from prison, to keep a car that might also be our means to a job (or even our home).
Of course, organizing debtors who are often cloaked in shame poses some practical, if not ontological, challenges. How does one call a meeting of debtors, when debtors are typically reluctant to even see, much less publicly reveal, themselves as such? It’s a funny thing to say to people: That secret balance that wakes you up in the middle of the night? That is actually a basis of power. Those unopened notices shoved in a drawer? These are tickets to our freedom.
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