Of what is private property the name? When so-called chains of ownership on abandoned, foreclosed tracts of houses in cities all over America are so complex as to amount to de facto collective ownership, how do we differentiate ‘civil individual’ claims to property from the violence of mass speculative markets? In the case of commodified housing, the specific form of violence is deployed by ‘collective’ market owners through an opaque exchange of fictional values; derivatives, credit default swaps, other forms of futures and various ‘market making’ activities. This ethically barren form of market exchange could easily be overtaken by a radically open relation of self-determined values (and/or non-values). The embodied collective of housing is any group of people sharing living space, broadly defined. Why should the designation stop at the household (oh holy unit of economic statistics) or at the amorphous neighborhood (thanks to endless real estate speculation and rampant gentrification)? We can also speak of the space of the laptop, the convenience store, the patch of sidewalk in front of an abandoned dry cleaner, the city, or, as Henri Lefebvre might have it, the urbanizing planet.
Rather than delving into urbanism, I’d like to take the specific example of student debt and the commodification of education in the context of global austerity and state repression of social movements. I am writing from Toronto, the austere British cousin of Montreal, just six hours to the northeast. In the latter city, a social movement departing from struggles for free, universal education has diffused into a generaliz(ed/able) strike and wave of spontaneous public collectivity. While several organizations and the state all claim ownership to the right to define the price of education, the students are uniquely positioned as creators of the commodified value which the state is attempting to define. Nevertheless, their movement doesn’t appear to be primarily concerned with the correct state-market value for education. They appear to be equally concerned with the university as a malleable organism for social movement, for physical movement, and for intellectual divulgence. I am not an expert – merely competent and interested – so I would certainly not attempt to ‘dissect’ the Montreal movement.
What I can speak to more directly is the experience of being an American in massive educational debt living in a Canada fighting the specter of massive educational debt. I grew up just three hours from Niagara Falls, a wonder of the world shared by the U.S. and Canada. The American’s have a park surrounded by economically depressed neighborhoods. The Canadian’s have built an entire industry: wax museums, casinos, towers, shops selling ‘native wares.’ Meanwhile, the waterfall still pretends to be natural, posing very well for numberless photos.
Having been born in Cleveland, Ohio, abandoned warehouses were my teenage playground. After several years of nomadism – Austin, Washington, DC, New York City, Budapest, and now Toronto – I arrived finally into a long period of delay on my debts. As a PhD student, I’m entitled to allow interest to accrue while I continue to develop my capacity to participate profitably in an ever-commodifiying academic and intellectual market. Risk deferred. My debts live in the U.S.A.; they don’t have a passport, so my credit in Canada is connected only to the great optimism of this land. So many resources to exploit, so many towers to build, so many educations to sell. Here the abandoned factories, mines, timber fields all hide in endless exurbia and the great North. The center is a gleaming excess, where abandonment itself is bought and sold with the promise of a gentry filled urban utopia. Back home, my native city is shrinking. These houses, stripped uncarefully of copper pipes, sinks, nice enough floorboards. Do my debts live here now?
So I sit at my desk in my old, cheap, beautiful house – which will soon be sold (gentrification marches on, one of the holdouts is selling) – my debt cloud raining red dollars down somewhere between Cleveland and New York City. The owners of my education, the speculators of my future earning potential, rush from dinner to a cab, trying not to get soaked. Me, I’m waiting for the law to change. Currently, it is impossible to discharge student debt in the U.S.A., even declaring bankruptcy doesn’t work. Death can help, but they might try to make your family pay. There are some ambitious bills before Congress, hoping to grant us the merciful right of consolidation or the glorious exculpation of bankruptcy. Should these noble representatives succeed, I will be free to declare myself worth nothing in America, a total broke. As it stands, I’m a sort of financial zombie. Somewhere between viable metric and indeterminate form of potentially toxic asset. The cure is always profitable, guess for whom?
Returning to the question of property and its ostensible cancellation in the collective. I think we might be missing the point when it comes to markets. It is not interesting or innovative that markets commodify; we know this from Marx but also the neo-Classicists. Phenomenally, markets are often engaged in collective activities of speculative risk assessment. This activity establishes panic as the appropriate response to lack of information, thereby contributing to the ever increasing demand for ‘accurate information.’ Such demands don’t take long to reach even the more radical of the humanities and social sciences in the academy, in the public university, in the private university, especially. Of course it is very easy to call for an abandonment of panic and the obsession with information compiled to avert panic. Perhaps we need to panic a bit. We’ve been locked so firmly into patterns of risk aversion that it is too easy to forget to unvarnished terrifying pleasure of the so-called risk. What they call risk is easily named experience, sensation, intensity; together: embodiment. Naturally, the market protests that it values entrepreneurship and risk-taking, but always embodied in the stale form of a normatively gendered and sexualized subject, aspiring to self-improvement through narcissistic investment activities, personally and professionally.
In what universe do these figures own my education? Of course the state has a strong claim to make as well. And, acting together, as they attack housing, services and all the rest, they necessarily need to co-opt the university. Having instilled the ‘liberal value’ of education for a generation in North America (since WWII), the state gradually diffused the war machine that guaranteed it for young men (mostly). Then, they were deferred from draft. Now, we are deferred from debt. Our everyday life is more militarized than ever and, since we don’t ‘go to war’ but war ‘comes to us’ we are not entitled to the right of education upon return. Instead, we must contribute to the speculative spending spree that is, at least in part, justified by an ever expandable Global Contingency Operation. We are entitled to feel the sting of this operation if we attempt to dissent, if we dare enter the street, if we collectivize ourselves.
I’ve gone afield. But militarism, debt, housing, education, social life are all interconnected, as we increasingly know and feel. As long as we are supposed to ‘avoid risk,’ it is difficult to find the courage to explore the immanent possibilities of even the most intractable positions. I do not mean to preach a struggle which is not my own, which is why I wanted to follow the through-line of student debt to this point: We must start where we are; to move we must excavate ourselves from the fear of risk, from the pricing of risk, from the definition of risk as a key factor in our existence. Aversion is not the same thing as risk; collectively decided-upon avoidance is not the same thing as risk; confronting the conditions of our existence in a radically open manner is not the same thing as risk. What must change is our feeling that this world is undertaken alone. We are impacting and impacted on every level, at every perceptual moment. This possibility for infinite becoming smacks strongly of utopia, a concept of which I am not totally afraid. Though, we may need to discuss holding utopia in abeyance for the moment. Before then, we need to reach for the same space, we need to call into being the energy which is immanent in nearly any bounded territory – Montreal, Toronto, Canada, beyond, beyond.
Tonight I banged on a pot for one hour in the middle of Toronto’s busiest intersection. It was affirmative, easy, open, noisy, visible, an excuse to talk to strangers. I will do it again in a park on Wednesday. I walk across the ‘pedestrian scramble’ at Young and Dundas, over and over. Two weeks ago I crossed a canyon in Northern Ontario over and over. The wind was raging through the canyon at points. Precarity here is deeply physical. It’s not so different walking through the canyon at Young and Dundas. The rush of encounter in the latter is brought on in the sheer unpredictability of a response.
See what happens when you smile.
See what happens when you don’t.
See what happens when you can’t see what is happening.
Hear who hears you.
Follow that person.
Close your eyes.
Change the rhythm.
Are you still standing?
From here, it’s easy to start a movement.