The Debts That Bind

The Debts That Bind

Strike Debt’s insistence that debtors “owe each other everything and owe Wall Street nothing” remains a potent rebuke to a financial system dependent on the narrative of individual responsibility and personal fault.

At an Occupy DC protest in October 2011 (Flickr/thisisbossi)

This article is part of a series on the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.


The late anthropologist David Graeber often likened indebtedness to a network of promises—a “series of IOUS we make with each other.” If you lend your neighbor $50 for groceries to be paid back in a week, and your neighbor gets sick, the terms of the agreement may be renegotiated. But under contemporary conditions, the details of the transaction—what promises are being negotiated, who makes promises to who, what promises are kept—are in the hands of the ruling class. When rooted in mutual trust and commitment, debt is a critical tool in building networks of collective power. But under what Wall Street occupiers called “mafia capitalism,” debt is an agent of violence.

Strike Debt, an early attempt to create a debt resistance movement, emerged out of Occupy to build the former and to fight the latter. A decade later, with overall U.S. household debt at a record-breaking $15 trillion, Strike Debt’s insistence that debtors “owe each other everything and owe Wall Street nothing” remains a potent rebuke to a financial system dependent on the narrative of individual responsibility and personal fault. Debtors are told they have only themselves to blame. But where some see shame and dishonor, many debtors today see the potential for solidarity and collective action.

Emerging out of the ashes of Occupy, Strike Debt’s actions produced serious material results. Its Rolling Jubilee used crowdsourced money to purchase defaulted medical and tuition debt for pennies on the dollar, making over $30 million in debt disappear. After Strike Debt dissolved, some of its members founded the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union that has secured debt relief for tens of thousands of people. The Debt Collective saw its organizing as connected and complementary to other movements; debt was a lens on income inequality, racial injustice, privatized education, the housing crisis, and more. Its work was led by debtors who believed the only path to real change was to provide the resources and spaces necessary to empower others in similar situations.

In 2015, the Debt Collective sought out students who had attended the now defunct for-profit Corinthian Colleges. After legal workshops, leadership development, political education, story sharing, and media training, the “Corinthian 15” held the first debt strike in the country, demanding that the Obama Department of Education cancel their fraudulent student loans. The campaign involved the creation of an online tool that used a little-known legal provision, the Borrower Defense to Repayment (DTR). The tool allowed borrowers whose schools had scammed them to submit claims challenging their student loans. Much like a union, it brought debtors to the bargaining table. The DTR tool is now a permanent fixture on the DOE’s website, and this past July, the Department of Education announced that it would comply with a federal court order to effectively clear 7,200 former Corinthian Colleges students of their debt. Aided by the legal mechanism the Debt Collective and Corinthian strikers uncovered, the Biden administration has eliminated nearly $10 billion of student debt for people who attended for-profit colleges and those with disabilities.

Ten years after Occupy, and despite the anti-electoral stance of many original Strike Debt founders, the Debt Collective’s influence in Washington is undeniable. The once marginal vision of a student debt jubilee and free public education has grown in visibility and moved to the edge of possible. “I was feeding into a broken system which actively penalizes people like me. So, I refuse to pay it,” Umme Hoque, Debt Collective’s organizing director, announced in January, as she and ninety-nine other members went on the second organized mass debt strike since Corinthian, pushing Biden to use the executive authority granted to him to erase all student debt within his first 100 days in office. In a coordinated week of action, branches held rallies across the country. In New York, passersby were encouraged to burn metaphorical debt by setting pieces of paper on fire in front of Senator Chuck Schumer’s home; in Philly, an oversized inflatable ball and chain was erected in front of Centre Square. In reality, debt “strikes” are happening everyday: one out of every ten Americans have defaulted on student loans. But when inability to pay is organized into collective action, when those who must default recognize their insolvency as a shared and common reality, failure to pay becomes refusal to pay.

Though he campaigned promising a degree of student loan cancellation, Biden remains firmly resistant to full relief. Yet there have been real wins: billions of dollars of fraudulent debt erased through DTR, a four-month extension on the debt moratorium, and a viable updated version of Bernie Sanders’ College for All Act, which includes canceling all $1.6 trillion in student debt on top of free tuition for public two- and four-year colleges, paid for by a tax on Wall Street. The Debt Collective is growing its movement, too, building coalitions with graduate workers’ unions to discuss other facets of the higher education crisis and assembling committees focused on all the ways that debt and financial instruments like bonds turn spaces of learning into Wall Street profit centers.

I joined the Debt Collective in 2019, but I have lived under debt for nearly my whole life. As a first-generation college student from an immigrant, single-parent-income household, I was exposed to class politics and economic inequality early on. But my parents and I bought the idea that if I worked hard and got a foot in the door with the elites—attended their universities, mimicked their lifestyles—class lines would be blurred. It soon became clear that my ticket out of the working class would be impossible to redeem when the economic system is set up to trap people like myself. I experienced class as a limiting factor on my freedom of choice: what I did with my time became inextricably tied to and in service of my debt.

During my new member orientation with the Debt Collective, I went into a breakout room where all the attendees’ cameras were off. Debt is a shameful thing. It forms the backdrop to your life and your commitments. To know and speak about it with others is to recognize its deplorable nature, instead of your own. In the Debt Collective, we were bound not only by debt, but by our commitments to each other and to building a better world—turning a source of exploitation into power, and bonds of oppression into bonds of solidarity.

Wen Zhuang is a writer and a member of the Debt Collective.