Occupy Wall Street’s debt buying strikes at the heart of capitalism
Across the United States, 2,693 people have received a letter in the last few months, which identified a debt and read: “You are no longer under any obligation to settle this account with the original creditor, the bill collector, or anyone else.” This is the work of the Rolling Jubilee project – a non-profit initiative which buys personal debt for pennies on the dollar in the secondary market (where debt is sold to companies who then resell it to collection agencies) but then simply cancels it.
When the Occupy movement came into being in the summer of 2011, its critics said that a lack of identifiable objectives and strategy for achieving them meant it was doomed to fail. This was a monumental underestimation of its potential impact. Two years on, the debate about the ethics of corporate capitalism in its current form, the fairness of the remuneration of those at the top, the widening wealth gap and the morality of tax avoidance is alive and well. The concept of the “99%” is now part of the collective consciousness. All this is, in no small part, down to the fuse lit by the Occupy movement.
However, another significant aspect of the movement – dismissed as being woolly – was that it brought like-minded people together and allowed a dialogue which identified common strands. This appears to have evolved into several focused and practical initiatives. One of the most significant, and perhaps the most threatening to the status quo, is the Strike Debt group, of which the Rolling Jubilee project forms part.
The idea is that, those freed from debt and those sympathetic to the movement, then donate into the fund to keep it “rolling” forward; hence the name. The fund has already raised $600,000 and has used $400,000 of this to purchase and cancel an astonishing $14.7m of debt, primarily focusing on medical bills. This strikes at the very heart of the system, not only by using its own perverse rules against it, but critically by revealing the illusory and circular nature of debt.
Capitalism requires a layer of cheap, flexible labour to operate optimally. It is not a coincidence that the most successful global economy, by any traditional capitalist measure, is an authoritarian quasi-communist state. Many, myself included, have been arguing that our current predicament is not crisis-consequent austerity, but a permanent adjustment. David Cameron on Monday confirmed as much. The great lie, peddled by Thatcher and Reagan, was the idea that we could all be middle class, white-collar professionals within a neoliberal economy. It was simply not true.
David Graeber, one of the original members of Occupy Wall Street writes: “[A]lmost immediately we noticed a pattern. The overwhelming majority of Occupiers were, in one way or another, refugees of the American debt system … The rise of OWS allowed us to start seeing the system for what it is: an enormous engine of debt extraction. Debt is how the rich extract wealth from the rest of us, at home and abroad.” Western capitalism is running out of serfs, slaves, colonies, immigrants, child labour and women as chattels. A new underclass must be created. Debt is the weapon of choice. Medical bills underlie more than 60% of bankruptcies in the US. The level of student debt has reached an eye-watering $1.2tn.
This is why the debate on the back-door privatisation of medical and education services in this country matters so much. The extraction of profit from these two key areas changes the social contract in a fundamental way. The idea is no longer that the state will educate you and keep you healthy, so that you may continue to contribute with both your work and your taxes. It has mutated instead into “you will borrow money from the state’s private partners in order to become educated and stay healthy, so that you may continue to contribute to their bottom line”. All of the 99%, in a very real way, work in part for an assortment of financial institutions, largely invisible and certainly unaccountable.
Iceland’s – strangely unreported – decision to write down mortgage debt for its citizens, undermines that notion. A rejection of traditional systems of credit and money as a response to austerity, such as in the barter markets of Volos in Greece and Turin in Italy undermines that notion. The Rolling Jubilee project undermines that notion in a significant way, by asking the sizzling question: “If a corporation is prepared to accept five cents on the dollar in exchange for our debts, if that is our debt’s open market value, how much do we really owe?”
And if your instinct is to point out that $15m is so small a drop in the ocean as to be insignificant, my response would be: not to the 2,693 people who received that letter. The sparkle of a lit fuse is, by its nature, humble.
[Image via David Shankbone, Creative Commons licensed.]