Today I signed the pledge to refuse student debt repayments i.e. to participate in a debt strike. I have been very hesitant to sign onto this new campaign, which calls for a mass withholding of payments when 1,000,000 people have signed. It also calls for mass expressions of support from faculty and non-debtors. There are existing campaigns, such as the campaign to forgive student loan debt, which deal with many of the same issues in less radical terms. I still support the latter movements, but I also see the discourse promoted by the debt strike campaign as vital to moving beyond President Obama’s inadequate action toward a more radical agenda against long term debt slavery and austerity.
So why did I sign the pledge and why might you sign it?
1. It focuses on the existing crisis: $1 trillion in student loans with a default rate approaching 9% (or higher). As the pledge itself points out, whether or not the 1,000,000 potential signatories default, there are millions of students already in or approaching default. This is not dissimilar from the lead-up to the mortgage crisis when millions of homeowners were already underwater on their mortgages despite the fact that the ‘official crisis’ only started when the banks became insolvent or nearly insolvent in 2008. Collective action now will combat pressure from banks to direct bailout funds to their coffers. (In fact, they already owe $1.5 trillion, why don’t they just bail us out?)
2. Even if the pledge does not reach 1,000,000 signatories, it creates a political space for organizing which combats the isolation, shame, and embarrassment that is often associated with being a student loan debtor. We live in a society that individualizes problems that must be addressed through collective action. This is a strategy which is meant to silence us and it must be resisted.
3. We have nothing to lose by signing the pledge and everything to gain. Signing the pledge encourages cooperation, expansion of support, and knowledge of options and alternatives. Additionally, it helps me to confront the reality that, whether or not I sign, there is a strong chance that I will be at risk of default at some point in my life. Debt capitalizes and creates profit from the risks we cannot avoid in our lives. I might get in a debilitating accident. I might lose my job. And even if I avoid those tragedies, death is default on some private loans. That’s right. I die, I’m in default. Guaranteed. Rather than confront these injustices alone – or not at all – I want to work with a group of similarly impacted people to fight for radical solutions NOW. I also want to work to help those who have already defaulted.
4. Like the broader #OWS movement, the #OccupyStudentDebt movement is not a singular solution (there is no “one demand”), it is part of a radical struggle against widespread injustice in a particular form. It articulates our struggle with the struggle of people facing austerity at the hands of ‘their’ governments. It is not the ‘laziness’ of the Greek worker or the ‘complacency’ of the Italian student which is to blame for the crisis. Debt is a strategy for accumulation by the rich, whether that debt is ‘sovereign‘ or ‘student’. Debt embodies the desperation of the banker to make a profit; our education must not suffer their desperation.
We must reject the notion that profit should be individual and that loss, suffering, and pain should be collective. We deserve better and we must fight for better. Yes, we need the efforts of more ‘moderate’ organizations and efforts to continue. This is not an either/or moment, it is both/and.
Our generation was not only encouraged into college in pursuit of ‘higher incomes’ and ‘better jobs’ (or fulfilling our “dream school” aspirations; talk about phantasmatic fetishism of commodities!) we were also handed debt financing, effectively subsidizing over-inflated tuition rates. (Sometimes this financing was a result of collusion between universities and banks.) Student loans, increasingly private, were handed out at wildly inflated rates based not only – and perhaps not at all – on our speculative ability to repay or get jobs, but also based on the reality that protections for student loans had been stripped from bankruptcy laws, giving lenders unprecedented power to enforce collections conditions amounting to indentured servitude.
Like many, if I refuse to pay my debts I will be putting my credit and my ‘financial future’ at risk. The point of signing this pledge is not to be dominated by that fear, not to be silenced by that fear, not to financialize my future. The point is to shift my consciousness and to envision the world differently. Some have already been driven to suicide because of debt. Refuse this grave injustice. Default may be ‘foolhardy’, but it is also a truly radical form of financial self-immolation. Some have no choice. For those who do, I hope it does not come to that. I sign the pledge knowing that I must do everything in my power to ensure it doesn’t need to without sacrificing the one form of resistance I may actually have left.
My letter to the Occupy Student Debt Campaign and Andrew Ross.
I am the first person in my family to earn a college degree. I graduated from NYU with a BA Metropolitan Studies (summa cum laude) in January 2008. In September 2008, I sat outside the stock exchange with a sign that read “A 4.0 GPA, $90,000 in debt, and no job. Where’s my bailout?” (see attached). My debt now stands at $99,000. I signed the pledge today after much reflection. I still have my hesitations, but I am ready to fight for this cause.
The vast majority of my $99,000 student debt – both public and private – was incurred during only two years at NYU. I came to NYU as a transfer student, having left George Washington University (at the time the two universities were among the most expensive in the US) after two years of study. I initially accepted a disastrously low amount of non-loan financial aid – $2,000 in scholarship – on the premise (promise?) that I might be granted more in future years. That did eventually happen, but only after I fought day and night with ever higher levels of university administration, many of whom told me that I made a mistake coming to NYU and that I should follow the (inherently unsustainable) path of withdrawing from school, getting a job, and saving money before returning. I was working at least 20 hours per week to support myself at that time. Even after fighting for thousands of dollars in additional support, I was already deep in debt.
I’ve never paid for school since; I simply cannot afford to. I’ve worked harder and made difficult decisions, eventually leaving the U.S. all together. I recently completed a fully funded MA in Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University (CEU, funded by none other than George Soros! How’s that for irony?) in Budapest and I have just started a PhD in Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto, where I am funded by a Trillium Scholarship, an initiative just launched by the Ontario Government to support international students. (Though it was threatened by conservatives in the Provincial election this past October, they failed to gain a majority.)
My story and my prospects for repayment are not unlike many others. Like many of us, I am concerned about my credit and about what default would mean for my future. (I’ve already paid in excess of $10,000 to ‘service’ my debt. I never missed a payment. Now I’m in deferment and interest is accruing rapidly.) But I am far more concerned that the global real estate development corporation which granted my BA will continue to extort working class students they have lured with ‘dream school’ marketing and the promise of a ‘better life through debt’. I am far more concerned that public universities are following corporatist tendencies which are steamrolling higher education. I am far more concerned that my debts will haunt my family after I die. I am far more concerned that the best years of my life, the years when I can feed myself and clothe myself and shelter myself, are numbered by the term limits of my deferments. A debt strike is just the beginning.
What will I do?
Ask yourself the same question.