Anti-Debt Struggles, Occupy and the State: A reply to Maisano

In a new Jacobin article, Chris Maisano takes issue with the way Occupy is supposedly approaching the issue of consumer debt. He writes:

As Doug Henwood pointed out in his critique of Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee initiative, debt is not a system. It’s a symptom of the restructuring of the U.S. state and its priorities away from social provision toward capital accumulation, both at a national and a global scale. If the scourge of student debt is to be confronted in any kind of meaningful way, Occupy and its offshoots will need to struggle on a terrain that they have assiduously avoided – that of politics, public policy, and the state.

True, debt is not an independent system, but rather a critical component of the neoliberal accumulation regime. And this has implications for political strategies. But like many critiques of the Occupy movement, Maisano slips into simple mischaracterizations. Yes, Occupy has expressed its desire to be an autonomous movement. But in practice, the movement is less ideological.

Look, for example, at the Principles of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign (OSDC), one of the group’s behind Strike Debt!. It explicitly calls for policy changes that Maisano might agree with: Tuition-Free Public Higher Education, Zero-Interest Student Loans, Private Colleges Must Open Their Books, Student Debt Written Off In The Spirit of Jubilee.

Maisano’s alternate suggestion, that Occupy should focus on reforming bankruptcy laws to “make it easier for student debtors to file for bankruptcy and to win at least a partial discharge of their debt” is nothing qualitatively different than the demands of the OSDC. Both are demands on the state; both seek policy reform. While OSDC’s demands are further going than that called for by Maisano (and Henwood), I imagine Strike Debt! and other Occupy activists might applaud such an initiative, and would welcome its inclusion in their own literature and campaign.

The only major difference then, between the position of OSDC/Strike Debt! on the one hand, and Maisano, on the other, is of political strategy. I don’t think Occupy and Maisano necessarily disagree with the need to “struggle on [the] terrain [...] of politics, public policy, and the state”. Or rather, the difference has more to do with how and in what form this struggle ought to advance.

Here it is true that OSDC and Strike Debt! are vague; they are inspired by the anarchist movement’s desire to fight at a distance from the state, rather than through direct reform strategies, but this doesn’t mean they want to leave politics and the state alone, and merely want to build a harmonious new society in the interstices. In fact, OSDC says this explicitly that it is a matter of the form of struggle:

The pathway to this outcome [ie, towards free public education, zero-interest student loans, fiscal transparency, and cancellation of student debt] does not lie in futile pleas for economic reform, but through a political movement, driven by self-empowerment and direct action on the part of debtors.

Yet while many criticize the anarchist influenced form of struggle that OSDC and Strike Debt! take, most Occupy participants would probably agree with Maisano on the value of the Quebec student movement’s victory for struggles in the U.S. Yet, theirs was a clear and limited struggle against a particular, and harsh policy reform. The Quebec movement did not emerge with the notion of using politics and the state to advance class struggles. It was a direct response to an example of political class struggle from above, just as Occupy‘s precursor in the Wisconsin uprising of early 2011 was. The situation of debt and student debt in the U.S. is however clearly different, trends which have developed over the course of three decades. In this context, you are going to have to build a base for long-term struggle, and can not simply chip away at the debt-based aspects of this accumulation regime.

Maisano’s problematic might therefore be reframed, with the help of OSDC’s emphasis on direct action: How can forms of self-empowerment and direct action be developed as both forms of struggle towards the achievement of political reforms, and as new robust forms of mutual aid and self-governance in everyday life?

A closer look at the Occupy movement reveals that it is not dominated by an anarchist purity of purely outside struggles, but seeks deep transformations of both civil and political society. Instead of false portrayals and false dichotomies, this question is on the horizon.

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One thought on “Anti-Debt Struggles, Occupy and the State: A reply to Maisano

  1. Bob Hertz says:

    In the 1930’s, millions of homeowners were saved from foreclosure by the HomeOwners Loan Corporation. This was an agency with federal funding that went to banks and restructured loans based on the ability to pay.

    I believe that its budget was $8 billion, which today would translate to $800 billion.

    We need something similar to drive down what is owed in student loans, medical debt, etc.

    The HOLC described above happened because FDR had a Congress that was about 75% Democrats.

    But it is a good example of public policy on the side of social justice.

    If student loans are going to be forgiven, and of course they should, then the federal government itself will take a hit. We must be prepared for this. We should also assess colleges, who have been glad to raise their salaries and raise tuition, and then inflict 18 year olds with predatory loans that could last all their lives.

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