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In January, 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, founder of Reddit, co-creator of RSS technology (on which much of your internet experience is based), and collaborator on the Creative Commons project, killed himself. As with many of the revolutionary self-immolations in recent and not-so-recent memory, Swartz’s suicide refuses the imposition of anti-terror and late liberal market logics barring the open exchange of information on the internet. These recently released documents (below in Scribd) reveal details of the the FBIs 2008 investigation of Swartz. The FBI was tracking Swartz because he legally downloaded documents which were being offered for free on a temporary basis by the otherwise pay-for-play Public Access to Court Electronic Records repository. Alongside Aaron’s downloading, there were calls for the information, which is technically part of the public record, to be maintained as a commons. The FBI did not pursue charges based on their investigation.

In 2010 and 2011, Swartz had legal access to the JSTOR database through his fellowship at Harvard and through MIT’s so-called Open Campus initiative. Despite being permitted to view and download documents, which he did in great quantity, Swartz was arrested in January 2011 for criminal intent. He was later released and it appeared that the charges would be held in abeyance provided Swartz returned the documents to JSTOR. Rather than rolling over to this indeterminate administrative judgment, Swartz fought the implication that his actions constituted stealing or fraud. He ramped up his advocacy and discourse around freedom of information and access to research products produced and disseminated with substantially public funding. Nevertheless, in July 2011, Swartz was indicted by a grand jury and faced a bevy of fraud and malfeasance charges. Amid much back-and-forth, JSTOR, MIT, and the U.S. Attorney’s office attempted to force Swartz to face charges to which he pled not guilty and for which many prominent voices maintained the possible maximum sentence was highly disproportional. Swartz himself maintained that he should not be considered a felon for legally obtaining any number of documents from JSTOR. And, while the database was willing to accept a more moderate punishment, MIT wouldn’t budge; they wanted full prosecutorial weight.

On January 11, 2013, Swartz was found dead in his apartment by his partner.
He hanged himself.

I have followed this story with great interest not only because of the general importance and underreporting of information freedom and internet access issues, but also because Swartz’s suicide struck me as a revolutionary act, especially for academics, researchers, and ‘knowledge workers,’ whose labor products become commodities for warehouse databases and universities, often at the cost of wide public accessibility. The logic of intellectual property has been the subject of academic debate across the political spectrum. But I don’t I write as an expert, only as someone wading into the waters of intellectual property and knowledge production for (somebody’s) profit. So far, it feels like another form of indentured servitude, much like my student debts.

The creeping commodification of the ‘space inside our heads’ demands that we be willing to sign over significant rights to our work in order to participate in the professionalization of academic life. Granted, there are occasionally material (more often symbolic) benefits for such exchanges, but it is more often the case that few people can access our research because the publishing logic is more beholden to property concerns than to any notion of the commons or of public good. Such tendencies play into conservative critiques of the academy as willfully obscure, seeking only tenure and cloistered conversation. Granted, there are no shortage of certainly armchair academics who want nothing more than to be insulated from any democratically inclined forms of knowledge production and exchange. Nevertheless, the debate on open access continues to displace the slowly yawning gap between the model of traditional publishing and patronage and the willingness of more and more knowledge workers to seek their own open source outlets, like blogs and open source journals. On the other side of things, debates regarding the admissibility of such publications for professional ‘credit’ also continue.

What does all this add up to when we consider Aaron Swartz’s suicide? We should not yield to the narrative which suggests that it is the U.S. Attorney and MIT alone are the agents of his death. Surely, they have blood on their hands. Perhaps it is more relevant to point out that their actions create and maintain a normalized atmosphere of suspicion regarding open uses of the internet and participatory forms of knowledge production. Along with corporate interests, the state creates the very conditions in which Swartz can be suspected as a terrorist whose ‘intended’ crime is dissemination of goods temporarily or normatively in the public realm. The role of temporality and transferability of rights is one central theoretical question: If Swartz – or any member of the public – is afforded the right to access information, is the expectation that it will remain ‘within’ their head? One powerfully mundane analogy asks how Swartz’s actions are any different than taking too many books out of the library. The sins of the curious. Yielding the causality of Swartz’s death to the state or corporate interests misses sidesteps the potentiality that his willful act serves as a call to action on information sharing, non-commodified knowledge production, open source platforms, and anti-authoritarian spaces, digital and otherwise.

The vast global archive of scientific, creative, and philosophical research should not be enclosed by a few private corporations so that they can continue to collude with universities to squeeze every possible drop of profit from an activity that is quite deliberately poorly adapted to market logic. I will not launch into a Sorkin-esque defense of academia for itself. Instead, I’ll offer an anecdote: I just came from a meeting with a mentor who made it clear to me that our ability to translate our work ‘outside’ the academy is critical to any scholarly praxis. What we do indeed does matter and the production of knowledge is a concrete activity with concrete results: our writing and our concepts. I know many academics who do not hold these as precious jewels or museum pieces, they want them to be susceptible to the world, to be vulnerable to use and misuse, to be circulated, stolen, hijacked, transformed, operationalized, and remixed. The logic of the market demands that we undervalue our work because it often isn’t produced according to profit models and because it isn’t visible. (Unlike a financial instrument? A derivative? A laborer in a windowless factory?) Meanwhile, market logics overtake university labor practices and create all sorts of concrete instances of commodification of knowledge and academic labor at individual institutions. We must continually name and refuse these logics to the best of our abilities, as

Aaron refused it.

Academics often engage in parallel universes. One of my old professors used to refer to us as the ‘dominated wing of the dominant class.’ We continue to seek acknowledged publications because we know they are necessary to compete and because they bring needed recognition and praise from our peers. Alongside the publish or perish game, many of us engage in informal information sharing, self-publication, facebook quoting, tumblr mashups, twitter conversations, and all sorts of other more-or-less open source exchanges and playful perversions of proper knowledge. In many ways, this is not different from pre-internet academic life, though we now ostensibly have more options. If this is the case, why does the pressure seem so much higher than our mentors and brass-ring-holding advisors remember? We’re dealing not only with the particular internal politics of an institution and the more amorphous dynamics of ‘a discipline,’ but also with the hysterical shrieking of profit-motive and metric-based managerial logics imposed on academic work models.

There are no obvious actions to resist the late liberal saturation of academia. This is why Swartz’s seppuku speaks so powerfully and so clearly. It is unthinkable and irrational, it is beyond comprehension that such a brilliant and visionary young activist would kill himself on the basis of suspicion alone. The whole cultural logic of suicide seems inappropriate to his action. We cannot read Swartz’s death as a ‘mere suicide’ – with all the guilt that carries – as this only reinforces the anti-terror discourse. If the system works today, it works because it prevented crime. This is not how it was designed. Swartz’s suicide challenges us to see that the black and white veneer of Justice thinly covers a very real and vast middle ground in which state, institutional, and corporate pressure can impose silence and fear upon anyone seeking to exercise their curiosity to the maximum extent of the law.

If this all seems a bit paranoid, read up on CISPA.

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.
Stop.
Close your eyes.
Change the rhythm.
Are you still standing?

From here, it’s easy to start a movement.

The newly introduced HR 4170 is an incredibly important piece of legislation for ANYONE with a student loan. It includes three key provisions that would be monumental.
1. The absolute forgiveness of loans after a period of 10 years in repayment
2. The inclusion of private loans in the forgiveness mandate
3. The ability to consolidate private student loans using Federal Direct lending programs
It DOES NOT include the restoration of bankruptcy protection to student loans, but there is a promise on the table to do so by Rep. Clarke (D-MI) who is responsible for this bill.
Oh yeah, and its funded by taking from the ‘overseas contingency operation’ AKA the endless war on terror. (In case you don’t make it to the end, in which case you might wonder why the bill must go before the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Armed Services.)
SURE, it is not JUBILEE. It is not DEBT STRIKE. But it shows that pressure on congress to deal with debt slavery is moving toward potential solutions for ‘everyday people.’
DO [at least] TWO THINGS:
1. READ THE BILL
http://www.forgivestudentloandebt.com/content/student-loan-forgiveness-act-2012-hr-4170-bill-text
2. SIGN THE PETITION
http://signon.org/sign/want-a-real-economic
3. SHARE IT WITH OTHERS
4. DON’T HIDE OR BE ASHAMED OF YOUR DEBTS
5. ORGANIZE AN ACTION; PARTICIPATE IN AN ACTION AS A ‘SURVIVOR’ OF THE STUDENT LOAN CRISIS

You should also be aware of the following campaigns and bills:

HR 2028 which is the Private Student Loan Bankruptcy Protection Act of 2011
Details here: https://www.popvox.com/bills/us/112/hr2028
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Restore-Student-Loan-Bankruptcy-Protections/175606192505132

S1102 Fairness for Struggling Students Act
Details here: https://www.popvox.com/bills/us/112/s1102
Dick Durbin’s page here to ‘share your story’: http://durbin.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=private-student-loan-stories

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.

Me and db protesting the bailout in 2008; the photo later appeared in Rolling Stone along with a Paul Krugman article

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 debtRefuse 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.

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