Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Three texts on debt

[The first year of Occupy just finished, and many people are looking for meta-narratives - or "connective threads" - to tie the movement together. One prominent suggestion is the theme of debt. This idea is not without its critics. Two publications were released to bracket the September 17th OWS Anniversary, the 3rd issue of Tidal, from Occupy Theory, which includes 2 articles on debt, and the Debt Resistors' Operations Manual from the Strike Debt! group.

While I am dubious that debt can serve to effectively unite the movement, I do believe these works bring forward a number of important ideas - they have certainly resonated with a broad section of the Occupy Movement. This, alone, should cause us to think the issue over deliberately. Therefore, I'm reproducing the two Tidal pieces in their entirety, and an embedded link to the Operations Manual. Over the next weeks, I will try to produce a coherent presentation of what I regard as the weaknesses of the theory, but for now my only editorial intervention is underlining a few key passages. -Ed.]

“Strike Debt!”
by folks from strike debt

DEBT IS THE TIE THAT BINDS THE 99%. We must transform our failed economic system that impoverishes millions while destroying the ecosystem. Using a diversity of tactics that includes a Rolling Jubilee, a People’s bailout, and vigorous organizing towards a debt strike, Strike Debt seeks to abolish debt as it currently exists and reconstruct a just society where our debts and bonds are to one another and not the 1%. The 99% are forced into debt to pay for basic social needs like education, housing, and healthcare while the 1% profits. We can no longer afford our own oppression. We are citizens, homeowners, renters, teachers, students, parents, children, debtors, and defaulters who don’t owe the banks anything. We owe each other everything.

When you strike debt, know that:

1. You are not a loan.

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.

2. We live in a debt society, buttressed and secured by the debt-prison system.

$1 trillion of student debt. 64% of all bankruptcies caused by medical debt. 5 million homes foreclosed already, another 5 million in default or foreclosure. Credit card debt is $800 billion, generating an average 16.24% interest on money banks borrow at 3.25%. Permanent indebtedness is the pre-eminent characteristic of modern American life. Keeping all this in check is the peculiarly U.S.- specific apparatus, in which mass incarceration, racialized segregation and debt servitude are mutually reinforcing. The choice is stark: debt or jail. With 2 million in prison, seven million involved in the “correctional” system in various ways and sub-prime loans and other predatory credit schemes targeted at people of color, this is a system designed to disenfranchise and exclude.

3. There’s A Debt Strike Going On.

There is something happening in our debt society right now. 27% of student loans are in default. 10% of credit card debt has been written off as irrecoverable. Foreclosures and mortgage default are rampant. People are walking away from debt. These actions take place driven by necessity, by desperation but also by something else. What do we call this? We could call it refusal. We could also call it a debt strike. In this time of high unemployment, battered trade unions, and job insecurity, we may not be able to signal our discontent by not going to work, but we can refuse to pay. Alongside the labor movement, a debtors movement. For those who can’t strike, we propose a Rolling Jubilee in which we buy debt in default, widely resold online for pennies on the dollar: and then abolish it. It will be funded by the People’s bailout, and other forms of mutual aid that will prefigure alternatives to the debt society.

4. When we strike debt, we live a life rather than repay a loan.

We refuse to mortgage our lives. We reject the math that debt forces on us; math that says we cannot “afford” to care for our communities because we must “pay back” the banks forever, above and beyond what was borrowed. We question the dominance of the market in every aspect of social and cultural life. We abolish the trajectory of a life that begins with the assumption of debt before birth, and ends with a post-mortem settlement of accounts. This is financial terrorism. We intend to reconstruct a social world in which we see each other as people, recognize our differences, and acknowledge that the chimera of permanent economic growth cannot outstrip actual ecological resources.

5. We claim the necessity of debt abolition and reconstruction.

Abolishing debt is held to be an impossible demand. “Debt must be repaid!” Unless you are a corporation, bank, financial services company, or sovereign nation. We understand that debt is at the heart of financial capitalism and that the system is rigged to benefit those at the top. The question is not whether debt will be abolished but what debt will be abolished. The banks, the nation-states and the multinationals have seen their debts “restructured,” meaning paid off by the people, who now have to keep paying more. The debts of the people in whose name these actions were undertaken should also be abolished. Then we can begin reconstruction, transforming the circumstances that create the destructive spiral of permanent personal debt. Right now we must borrow to secure basic goods that should be provided for all: housing, education, health care, and security in old age. Meanwhile, around the world, debt is used to justify the cutting of these very services. We understand that government debt is nothing like personal debt. The problem is not that our cities and countries are broke but that public wealth is being hoarded. We need a new social contract that puts public wealth to equitable use and enshrines the right to live based around mutual aid, not structured around lifelong personal debt. §


After the Jubilee
by David Graeber

If you look just at how things look on paper, the entire world is awash in debt. All governments are in debt. Corporate debt is at historic highs. And so is what economists like to call “household debt” — both in the sense of how many people are in the red, and the sheer quantity of what they owe. There’s a consensus among economists that this is a terrible problem, even if, as usual, economists can’t agree as to why. The mainstream, conventional view is that the “debt overhang” from all three is so vast it is stifling other economic activity. We have to reduce all of them they say, largely by either raising taxes on ordinary people, or cutting their services. (Only on ordinary people, mind you — mainstream economists are of course paid to come up with reasons why one should never do either of these things to the rich.) More level heads point out that national debt, especially for countries like the US, is nothing like personal debt, since the US government could eliminate its entire debt overnight if it simply instructed the Federal Reserve to print the money and hand it over to the government.

No doubt, readers will object: “but if you just print trillions of dollars, wouldn’t that cause severe inflation?” Well, yes, in theory, it should. But it seems the theory here is flawed, since that’s exactly what the government is doing: they’ve been printing trillions of dollars, and so far, it hasn’t had any notable inflationary effect.

The US government’s policy, both under Bush and under Obama (on such matters there’s been almost zero difference in policy between the two) has been to print money and give it to the banks. Actually, this is the way the US financial system has always worked, but since 2008, it has been intensified with reckless abandon. The Federal Reserve has whisked trillions of dollars into existence by waving its magic wand, then lent it at almost negligible interest rates to large financial institutions like Bank of America or Goldman Sachs. The supposed purpose was first to save them from bankruptcy, then, to get them lending and jump-start the economy. But there seems good reason to believe there’s another purpose, as well: to flood the economy with so much money that it would, in fact, create inflation, as a way of reducing debts. (After all, if you owe $1000.00 and the value of the dollar falls by half, the value of your debt has just been reduced by half as well).

The problem is it didn’t work. Either to get the economy moving, or to increase inflation. First of all, banks did not invest the money. Mainly, they either lent it back to the government again, or deposited it in the Federal Reserve, which paid them a higher interest rate for just keeping it there than they were charging those same banks to borrow it. So in effect, the government has been printing money and giving it to the banks and the banks have just sat on it. This is perhaps not too surprising, since the Federal Reserve itself is governed by the very bankers that it is giving money too. Still, while a policy of allowing bankers to print money and give it to themselves can work quite well if your aim is restoring the fortunes of the 1% — and it has done quite nicely at this — and though it has also allowed the rich to pay off their own debts and sent a good deal of new money sloshing around in the political system to reward politicians for allowing them to do so, even the Fed itself now admits its done very little to get employers hiring, or even to create any significant inflation.

* * *

The conclusion is so obvious even the people on the top are increasingly beginning to recognize it — at least, that minority of them who actually do care about the long-term viability of the system (rather than simply being concerned their own personal short-term enrichment). There will have to be some kind of mass debt cancellation. And not just the debts of the rich, which can always be erased in one way or another if they become inconvenient, but the debts of ordinary citizens as well. In Europe, even professional economists are beginning to talk of “jubilees,” and the Fed itself recently issued a white paper recommending mass cancellation of mortgage debt.

The very fact that such people are contemplating this shows they know the system is in trouble. Up till now, the very idea of debt cancellation was the ultimate taboo. Again: not for those on top themselves. Donald Trump, for instance, has walked away from billions of debt and none of his friends find this at all a problem, but all of them absolutely insist that for the little people, the rules must be different.

One might well question why. Why should the rich care so much that the debt of the poor should never be forgiven? Is it simple sadism? Do rich people somehow get a kick out of knowing that at any moment there are at least a few hardworking mothers being kicked out of their homes and having to pawn their children’s toys to pay for the costs of some catastrophic illness? This seems implausible. If you know anything about rich people you know they almost never think about poor people at all — except perhaps as occasional objects of charity.

No, the real answer seems to be ideological. To put the matter crudely, a ruling class whose main claim to wealth is no longer the ability to make anything, or even really sell anything, but increasingly on a series of credit-scams propped up by government support, has to rely very heavily on every mechanism that might make tend to legitimize the system. This is why the last 30 years of “financialization” have been accompanied by an ideological offensive unparalleled in human history, arguing that current economic arrangements — which they have rather whimsically dubbed “the free market” even though it functions almost entirely through the government giving money to the rich, is not just the best economic system, but the only economic system that could possibly exist, except possibly for Soviet-style communism. Much more energy has been put into creating mechanisms to convince people that the system is morally justified, and the only viable economic system, than has been put into actually creating a viable economic system (as its near collapse in 2008 clearly showed.) The last thing the 1% wants, as the world economy continues to teeter from crisis to crisis, is to give up on one of their most powerful moral weapons: the idea that decent people always pay their debts.

* * *

So: some kind of mass debt cancellation is on the way. Almost everyone is willing to admit this now. It’s the only way to resolve the sovereign debt crisis in Europe. It’s the only way to resolve the ongoing mortgage crisis in America. The real battle is over the form that it will take. Even apart from obvious questions, like how much debt will be cancelled (just certain mortgage debt? Or a grand jubilee for all personal debt up to say, $100,000?) and of course, for whom, there are two absolutely critical factors to look at here:

Will they admit they are doing it? That is, will the debt cancellation be presented as a debt cancellation, as an honest acknowledgement that money is really just a political arrangement now, and, therefore, the beginning of a process of finally beginning to bring such arrangements under democratic control, or will it be dressed up as something else?

What will come afterwards? That is, will the cancellation just be a way of preserving the system and its extreme inequalities, perhaps in an even more savage form, or will it be a way of beginning to move past them?

The two are obviously linked. To get a sense of what the most conservative option would be like, one might consult a recent report of the Boston Consulting Group, a mainstream economic think tank. They begin by agreeing that since there’s no way to grow or inflate our way out of debt, cancellation is inevitable. Why postpone it? However, their solution is to frame the whole thing as a one-time tax on wealth to pay off, say, 60% of all outstanding debt, and then declare that the price for such sacrifices by the rich will be even more austerity for everybody else. Others suggest having the government print money, buying mortgages, and giving them to homeowners. No one dares to suggest that the government could just as easily declare those same debts unenforceable (if you want to pay back your loan you’re free to do so but the government will no longer recognize its legal standing in court if you decide not to.) That would open windows those running the system are desperate to keep opaque.

So what would a radical alternative really look like? There have been some intriguing suggestions: democratization of the Fed, a full employment program to pull wages upwards, some sort of basic income scheme. Some are quite radical but almost all involve both expanding government, and increasing the overall number of jobs and hours worked.

This is a real problem because feeding the global work machine, increasing production, productivity, employment levels, is really the last thing we need to be doing right now if we want to save the planet from ecological catastrophe.

But this, I think, points us towards a solution. Because in fact, the ecological crisis and the debt crisis have everything to do with another.

Here it might help to understand that debts are, basically, promises of future productivity. Think of it this way. Imagine everyone on earth produces a trillion dollars worth of goods and services a year. And imagine they consume about the same — since of course that’s what generally happens, we consume most of what we produce, minus a little wastage. Yet 1% of them somehow contrive to convince 99% of them that they still, collectively, owe them a trillion dollars. Well, aside from the fact that someone is obviously being seriously overcharged here, there’s clearly no way these debts can be repaid at their current value unless everyone produces even more the next year. In fact, if the interest payments are set at, say, 5% a year, they’ll have to produce 5% more just to break even.

This is the real burden of debt we’re passing on to future generations: the burden of having to work ever harder, while at the same time, consuming more energy, eroding the earth’s ecosystems, and ultimately accelerating catastrophic climate change at just the moment we desperately need some way to reverse it. Seen in this light, a debt cancellation might be the last chance we have to save the planet. The problem is that conservatives don’t care, and liberals are still caught up in impossible dreams of returning to the Keynesian economic policies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which based broad prosperity on continual economic expansion. We’re going to have to come up with an entirely different kind of economic policy.

But if a post-jubilee society can’t promise the workers of the world an endless expansion of new consumer goods, what can it? I think the answer is obvious. It could offer security in basic needs — guarantees of food, housing, and health care that can ensure our children don’t have to face the fear, shame, and anxiety that defines most of our lives today. And above all, it can offer them less work. Remember that in the 1870s, the idea of an 8-hour day seemed just as unrealistic and utopian as, say, demanding a 4-hour day would seem today. Yet the labor movement managed to achieve it. So why not demand a 4-hour day? Or a guaranteed four months of paid vacation? It is very clear that Americans — those who do have jobs — are absurdly overworked. It’s also clear that a very large proportion of that work is completely unnecessary. And every hour saved from work is an hour that we can give to our friends, families, communities.

This is not the place to come up with a detailed economic program of how it could be done or how such a system could work — these are matters to be worked out democratically (myself, I’d like to see wage labor eliminated entirely. But maybe that’s just me). Anyway, social change doesn’t begin by someone mapping out a program. It begins with visions and principles. Our rulers have made it clear they no longer know what it would it would be like to even have either. But in a way even that doesn’t matter. Real, lasting change always comes from below. In 2001, the world saw the first stirrings of a global uprising against the current empire of debt. It has already begun to alter the global terms of debate. The prospect of mass debt cancellation provides us with a unique opportunity to turn that democratic impulse towards a fundamental transformation of values, and towards a genuinely viable accommodation with the earth.

It’s not clear if there’s ever been a political moment with so much at stake. §


Occupy Wall Street/Strike Debt: The Debt Resistors' Operations Manual

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Occupy Graphix

Here are two related graphics I've created over the last several months for various Occupy Wall Street events. Feel free to use them for anything you like :) below & you'll see that I have no real ownership over the image, anyway!

Read below the jump to learn how I made them...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A comment on the Con Ed struggle

[This piece is a little dated now - the Con Ed workers are back on the job, having voted in a contract with the main concession the company wanted, a "second tier" of pensions which are defined contribution instead of a defined benefit. The second tier will include only newly-hired workers, instead of workers hired after 2006 (as the company originally proposed).

The contract was voted in by the members, with 93% of votes cast. See:

That said, I think this is a very well-written piece, with important facts that never made the main-stream media, and a well-expressed, coherent point of view.

Now, without further ado, here is an article by Ben Fredericks, who describes himself as "a food service worker, CUNY student, and socialist" :)  -Ed.]

Con Edison Bosses Lock-out workers: a Capitalist Attack on the Entire Labor Movement
Urgent need for all-out labor mobilization to stop the scabs and “knock-out the lock-out”!
On July 1st, Con Edison, New York’s monopoly utility provider, took aim at its 8,500 person unionized workforce. The day after the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) contract expired, and in the middle of a heat wave, Con Ed locked out the workers. So far negotiations have gone nowhere as the company has given one concessionary “offer” after another, all of which would attack newly hired workers’ pensions and or healthcare, and could ultimately divide the union into two tiers of workers. The workers are 100% correct to reject these attacks. They are now into their third week without pay and need the immediate support of all New York Labor and allies.
Building Solidarity
Over 50 people packed into an SEIU conference room on July 13th to attend a meeting called by the Central Labor Council to build a ‘Solidarity Coalition with Con Ed Workers’. The meeting attracted workers from over a dozen unions including the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and Communication Workers of America (CWA), both of which are working without contracts, as well as non-union workers, community organizations and socialists. Many important ideas were raised about how to help the Con Ed workers, and how to conduct effective labor struggles generally. A sister from the CWA mentioned the importance that ‘mobile pickets’ had during the Verizon strike last year. People spoke about organizing a tour of locked out workers, bringing them face-to-face with the membership of other union locals to build solidarity. The connection was made that the Con Ed lockout is racist since the non-white Con Ed workers have less overall seniority and would be the ones hit hardest by a two-tier contract. It was also noted that Con Ed has specifically decreased power to poor and minority neighborhoods during the heat wave. Importantly, many people in the meeting seemed to agree on the need to build militant picket lines, broaden union support and stop the scabs from working.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

An Occupier's Job Credo?

Re-read this old post by an old friend of the blog...and it's really fucking good.

IMO, this lays out a possible basics of a jobsite code for Occupiers... (it is also, coincidentally, the 99th blog post at The House of Paine)

Reprinted in its entirety, Job McSoviets:

[one final note: it's not poetry, just staggered prose...-Ed.]


 on the job 


focus and direct 

all  10,000 contending
need to set up these

 each one a fucking 
shining  point of rage 


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

BOOK: Goodwyn - The Populist Moment

A ways back, I read a pretty decent blog post arguing that OWS should look to the successes and failures of the late-19th century populist movement for inspiration and direction. The author referenced a book by Lawrence Goodwyn, which turns out to be very good. So, here it is:

Goodwyn Populist Moment(1976) OCR

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Kim Moody: "The Rank-and-File Strategy"

This is quite an impressive booklet by Kim Moody. I'm not 100% in agreement with all of the interpretations contained within, but I think this represents the best modern effort to bring together the appropriate factors for reconciling trade union activity with class-wide organization. (For those scared of the "socialist" moniker, the existence of a class of wage-earners is the only "socialist" proposition which must be accepted in order to find value in the argument contained in the booklet).

Moody-rank and File Strategy(2000)-OCR

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

1 million participate in NYC May Day

Yes, you heard me right - one million people.

Before looking at the broader event, let me take a minute to comment on the size of the Unity Rally & March down Broadway. I have heard credible estimates of 30 to 100 thousand.

 The crowd stretched solidly from Union Square to below Canal
(click on picture for larger version)

That said, it was very difficult to assess exactly how many people participate. Conservatively there were 5-10 thousand in the park. This was over-capacity for the area the police had "penned off".

Exiting the park proved to be another gautlet. The police would only let 100 or so people out at a time - even people at the front of the march were not allowed to march out of the Square, so they essentially had to "re-assemble" after passing a police control point.

Naively, I had thought that when I heard that "14th Street will be blocked off" I imagined the march being directed out of the park, into the street, and down Broadway. Instead, the police blocked off 14th Street FOR THEMSELVES. They drove in a fleet of scooters, 6-8 SUV's, and a single line of cops on the curbs and crossings!

After milling back and forth, trying to get out one of the exits in the South of the square, the tail end of the march was not even allowed to leave by the South. Instead, a phalanx of cops and vehicles inserted themselves between the march and the remaining protesters. At least 2 large contingents had to march out of Union Square to the North, circle around to the West, and re-join the march. (I saw 500 or more marches join the tail end of the march at 9th street, and heard reports of other feeders). But, inevitably, some potential marchers got left behind.

This - together with certain areas of construction on Broadway which acted as pinch-points - meant that the march appeared "thin" or "small" in certain places. The funniest example of this happened as I was standing on the front steps of a bar where me a few other marchers had gone for a drink after the march. A small contingent - which had refused to stop at the "official" end of the permitted march and was one of the many milling all over the Wall Street Area - walked by, chanting. Wealthy-looking Mexican having a smoke on the steps turned to another well-heeled gent and says: "So this is what they've been making all the fuss about?!" :)

Zuccotti itself was shut off to the march. It seems there was some way to get around the police line, and some did, but I think this messed up the idea of having a general assembly after the march. [Please someone contradict me if I'm wrong - I was in a bar getting drunk! :P ]

So, anyway, the march officially probably stands at "over 30,000". Frankly, I think anything over 20,000 has to be counted a great success.

But this is only part of the larger May Day activities.

First of all, the 99 pickets were a HUGE success. We had at least 4 protests with well over 100 people - those on the "Immigrant Worker Justice Walking Tour", and dozens more with 25-100. The protest at the Strand Bookstore - located at 12th St and B'way - had a MASSIVE protest out front at 3pm, uniting the UAW (which represents the workers at the Strand), OWS Labor activists, and Occupiers. It was un-permitted, so we had to keep moving on the sidewalk, but the crowd was impressive:

(click on picture for larger version)

Outer Boroughs also had actions. Some sent contingents to the Unity March (Occupy Staten Island), while others stayed in their boroughs.

But 2 anecdotes carry a special weight for me:

1) An activist friend of mine, who works at a "Jiffy Lube" auto shop, told me that the workers staged a walk-out in the morning of May 1st. Apparently, it was in protest of sub-standard wages for part-timers, but full-timers walked out in solidarity.

2) Walking through the "urban mall" on lower Broadway was particularly inspiring. As a retail area, it was virtually shut down. This meant that many of the workers on duty stood in the doorways and cheered for the marchers, "joining in" as it walked past. A cook in an upper-floor kitchen held a piece of paper that said "99%" out the window.

A supporter hanging a sign out a kitchen window (click for larger version)

Although many of these people were not organized into the main events of the day, they nonetheless participated. Even those who just took small acts of protest, or even used the day as an opportunity to initiate real conversations among co-workers, friends, and family, have to be counted as participating.

This is why I maintain that it is probable that 10 (or more) times the number who marched must be counted as participating in May Day.

1 million. Even in a big city like New York, that's pretty impressive!