Next Step: Strike Debt

October 16, 2012

Strike Debt

When we arrived at 7.30am, the NYPD had already locked down much of the centre of New York’s financial district. This prevented some of the more set-piece actions from taking place, such as the “human wall” to block off access to the New York Stock Exchange. Many of us were kettled at various intersections and entry points, and the police’s Catch-22 tactic of arresting anyone in the street and then arresting people for “blocking the sidewalk” had begun in earnest.

The action was split into four themed groupings – education, environment, debt, and the 99% – all of which had their own planned actions and affinity groups. Elsewhere, throughout the morning, motorways were blocked, bank lobbies were turned into glitter parties, and high class restaurants were invaded and mic-checked. Many who were blocked off split into smaller groups and began circling the cordoned perimeter looking for openings to where they thought the action was taking place, but the NYPD had sewn this one up. Large scale direct actions all over the world are continually coming up against highly militarised police forces, automaton shock troops standing as the first line of defence for a crumbling status quo. This weekend of action in New York saw over 180 arrests without a hint of violence, or even property destruction, on the part of protesters.

In OT16, the comedian Stewart Lee wrote a satirical piece that is as true a piece of analysis as we’ve printed, about how modern protest actions seemed to him like “bows and arrows against the lightning”. He wrote: “Global capitalism has moved beyond space and time into a theoretical abstract region unfettered by the laws of either physics or common decency.” How much effect would it have had even if we physically blocked the NYSE or indeed the London Stock Exchange, when millions of transactions would continue to digitally flit around the globe, trading futures in North African wheat prices or betting big on some new internet trend?

This isn’t to say that it’s all pointless, or that Occupy is a failure; the one year anniversary should be a time to celebrate achievements first of all. A change in discourse (to what extent and for how long remains to be seen) is rightly often credited to the actions of occupiers stubbornly pitching their tents in a thousand cities worldwide. Inequality, a lack of political agency, and economic and environmental injustice have been pushed higher up the agenda. Occupy has also had more imperceptible consequences. In the US, it has enlivened a slumbering, non-institutional left into a genuinely radical movement acting as a big tent for various causes. And a very big tent it is, with a far greater spread across age, gender, class and race than any other political group. (though they would themselves admit that there’s still some way to go on that front.)

Occupy Wall Street does spectacle better than anyone. This was there for all to see on the night of S17, when Zuccotti Park was reoccupied for several hours. A three person-operated model of the Statue of Liberty holding a sign which read: “all our grievances are connected,” did battle with the hulking figure of Bane from the new Batman movie and his fearsome “boulder of debt.” A troupe dressed in a near-identical uniform to that of Major League Baseball team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, came to the party as the “Tax Dodgers”, accompanied by two women with hula hoops as the “Loopholes”, while others performed street theatre satirising the absurd violence of the NYPD.

The now infamous OWS drum circle kept an intoxicating beat as capoeira players played, while others chanted “All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street!” An amputee in a wheelchair had an electronic ticker attached overhead with messages like “Charge your cellphones here,” “tax deductible donations welcomed,” “Cancel all debt,” and “The Ten Commandments are evil and un-American” scrolling across on a loop. This is important because it is creating commons: reintroducing the idea of public space to places where neoliberalism has extinguished the very concept. New York City, where strangers play chess with one another in every park and artists perform on subway trains, has stubbornly maintained aspects of a culture of common ownership, but it feels more like a remnant when it needs to be a harbinger.

In Britain, a political culture with more well-established left activist groups and infrastructure, Occupy has nevertheless provided an open platform to debate all the issues facing the left, even if at times that platform has been used simply to critique where people think Occupy has gone wrong. This is useful in itself; everyone knows that people within the movement have disagreed massively and destructively on all manner of issues regarding both process and principle. This first birthday shouldn’t lead to self-indulgence or the fetishising of all things “Occupy”; instead we should be continuing to reflect, to challenge and critique ourselves, because undoubtedly we could be so much more.

A key flaw is that, as Slavoj Zizek warned and so many have said, Occupy fell in love with itself. It fetishised its processes and how inclusive they were, but on September 17 a 500-600 person general assembly was held up because one woman wanted everyone to sing “Imagine.” The movement is too self-referential: Everything has to be branded Occupy this or Occupy that. A temporarily effective tactic has morphed into a seemingly permanent prefix.

Amidst the backbiting and puerile media froth there is genuine analysis, but quite how hard a task it is for any group to take on the established order is rarely mentioned. To overthrow the current order within just one year (often the criteria by which Occupy is judged) is to ask too much. Besides, those who pointedly pose the challenge “what is your alternative?” are people entirely disinterested in alternatives or the need for them and are instead solely concerned with reinforcing the seeming impenetrability of the existing paradigm.

When the Situationists challenged people in 1968 to: “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible,” they probably could not have imagined how much more impossible that realism we seek could seem. The realism that we have now sees it as normal for an elderly woman to be sitting in the shadows of Wall Street’s towers, with bin liners filled with junk all about her, peeling back a makeshift bandage on her leg to reveal an open, infected wound – the mark of the uninsured, a punishment for poverty. This is a realism that sees healthy food sold more expensively, and a supposed measurement for progress (GDP) that values car crashes more than a parent caring for their own child or a family growing their own food. And still now, the realistic consensus dictates that we must expand airport capacity to meet the demand of the dozens of global business centres that have sprouted across the growth economies of China and India, in complete denial of climate change.

Surely part of demanding the impossible is to make ourselves, our families, our friends, our colleagues and our neighbours believe that another world really is possible, that it is possible to maximise human wellbeing rather than profit, to protect our environment not our privilege. What we are fighting for is to change reality itself, not just what the world has come to mean. To win the right to form a new reality, we have to expose this capitalist surrealism for what it is: a planet-devouring system that will burn our world and our hopes at the altar of ‘efficiency’ and false freedom.

With that in mind, by far the most exciting development within Occupy Wall Street is the emerging focus on the issue of debt. In the aftermath of the May Day actions, various activists from the Occupy Student Debt Campaign and the theory and strategy journal Tidal began to build a narrative around debt being central to the crisis, forming a new group called Strike Debt. Their thinking is that medical debt, mortgage debt, student debt, municipal debt, and money being created as debt are systemic issues that directly caused the crisis and affect us all – across class, race and even political hue. Everyone except the 1%, that is.

Here is a point of unity to organise around, a practical issue that can lead into larger questions about why there is so much debt and what can be done about it. They have published The Debt Resistor’s Operations Manual, which contains practical advice about how people can resist their debt, but the overall aim is to build a large scale debt strike or “Rolling Jubilee”, to begin working collectively towards liberating people from the debt peonage that they find themselves imprisoned in, usually through no fault of their own.

This is one of the key things that they highlight: with debt, as with mental illness, the most powerful inhibitor to action is the debtor’s own shame. Strike Debt has begun to hold ceremonial “debt burnings” and talks where people share and reveal their own debt stories in a fashion not dissimilar to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, an original Wall Street Occupier and author of Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, has himself been influential in this decision to zoom in on debt.

In a recent article in The Nation, he writes of how central debt is to modern American capitalism and therefore to Occupy: “As a member of the team that came up with the slogan ‘We Are the 99 Percent,’ I can attest that we weren’t thinking of inequality or even simply class, but specifically of class power. It’s now clear that the 1% are the creditors: those who are able to turn their wealth into political influence and their political influence back into wealth again.” He ends by underlining the centrality of debt: “Occupy was right to resist the temptation to issue concrete demands. But if I were to frame a demand today, it would be for as broad a cancellation of debt as possible, followed by a mass reduction of working hours – say to a five-hour workday or a guaranteed five-month vacation.”

This brings us back to contemporary notions of what is realistic. What kind of morality is this morality of debt that says paying one’s debts is more important than anything else? We are seeing a regression back to Victorian times when debtors were criminalised, jailed and branded with a stigma that couldn’t be erased. And yet, everyone is in some kind of debt because the system is built on it, none more so than the entire financial sector which can only survive on public bailouts.

Stewart Lee is probably right that capitalism can cope with people camped in parks and outside churches. It can live with sporadic marches on their patch and spectacular direct actions in their banks every so often. But could it cope without two things that it does still need us for: our tacit consent to its notion of reality, and our dutiful obeisance to pay our debts and taxes? In a world of disappearing surplus value and growth opportunities, it is increasingly our debt that Wall Street and the City of London use (and need to use) to inflate their new bubbles with derivatives like asset-backed securities on our mortgages and student loans.

In Ireland, over half of the population continue to boycott a new household tax levied to pay for the elite’s bailout. “I Don’t Pay” movements have sprung up in Sweden, Spain and Greece over the last two years where citizens are acting together to refuse to pay rising public transport fares, and in Greece in particular, there has been avoidance of paying road tolls and a widespread refusal to pay hiked electricity bills. The authorities can’t send everybody to prison. Not if enough people stick together, as they did with the Poll Tax. The next question becomes the most important: can you build a large enough movement for it to have a real impact? The first step is education, another thing they’ve started to get right in Occupy Wall Street.

In the week following S17, the Free University of New York put on five full days of lectures and seminars in Madison Square Park on a wide range of topics, completely free of charge. Talks were well attended, fully inclusive and attracted dozens of passersby, including a retired Wall Street executive who began as a heckler but became a regular attendee.

When anarchists talk of the ‘propaganda of the deed’, it means employing direct action as an example that you want others to follow. Reclaiming public spaces, even temporarily, for the purposes of radical education, and building toward a collective withdrawal from the 1%’s debt trap, are the best ways forward. At the moment, large one-off actions are good for spectacle and symbolism, but not much else.


By Michael Richmond (@Sisyphusa)