Demanding Debt Relief

Demanding Debt Relief

Bhaskar Sunkara: Demanding Debt Relief

With Dissent and Jacobin‘s student debt panel coming up this Saturday, I visited the Occupy Student Debt Campaign’s website. The group headlines four “principles”:

1) Tuition-Free Public Higher Education
2) Zero-Interest Student Loans
3) Private Colleges Must Open Their Books
4) Student Debt Written Off In The Spirit of Jubilee

The accompanying text notes that the campaign is “translating the precepts and working ideals of the Occupy movement into an initiative for action.” The four action points are inclusive and eminently reasonable in the social democratic sense: they’re achievable within capitalism, but still manage to challenge corporate power, decommodify an important social good, and improve the lives of millions in the process.

Yet near the top of their Frequently Asked Questions section the authors feel the need to debunk any claim that their four “principles” are in reality a “thinly veiled set of demands.” They write:

Like others in the Occupy movement, we don’t think that an adequate response to our demands is likely within the current political system, not while it is under the baleful influence of corporate dollars. By contrast, we believe that action is empowering, and so that is why this campaign is presented as an action initiative—to give debtors a chance to act, collectively, in an area of their lives where they have been rendered entirely powerless.

Though the lack of programmatic demands has served the broader Occupy movement well, it is worth addressing this response’s incoherence.

Counterpoising working for change within the current political system and the empowerment that comes along with action, the text betrays a defeatist spirit. Cutting our hair, getting involved with local Democratic Party machines, studying some policy memos, running for Congress, and appearing on a few MSNBC roundtables with Ezra Klein isn’t likely to produce the higher education reform we want. Building militant movements from below will. But the point of such a narrow campaign—unlike the broader Occupy movement—should precisely be to articulate demands and force concessions from the state through extra-parliamentary action.

Their claims to the contrary aside, this is precisely how the Occupy Student Debt Campaign is organized. So why the hesitancy to state that they have a clear vision of what needs to be transformed, the ability to articulate the vision, and some idea about how it should be implemented?

The movement’s fear of co-optation cripples it. There is an idea that if people are mobilized to an end and then accomplish that end, they will be de-politicized. But in reality, winning empowers people. This is true in more respects than the benefits of soaring morale alone.

It harks back to New Left theorist André Gorz’s “non-reformist” reforms: certain reforms short of revolution, short of smashing the “current political system” like the Occupy Student Debt Campaign seems to think prerequisite for substantive change, not only improve the conditions of people in the present, they lay the terrain for more sweeping structural changes in the future.

It’s time that we acknowledge that the dichotomy between co-optation and marginalization is a false one. Protesting from outside to change policy is working within the system. And that’s okay.