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Today the burden of debt unites millions in common struggle, providing the basis of a new mass movement and new forms of large-scale organizing.
From 2009 to the present, countries from the UK to Chile have seen an upsurge of student strikes and school occupations to protest raising tuition fees. The 2011 Spanish indignados uprising began under the slogan “we are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.” A few months later, encampment protests began in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard demanding public housing. Student debt and housing debt are central themes in the Occupy movement, which from a few tents in New York City spread worldwide.
These movements were able to build popular support because they focused on specific conditions. Many people are unable to afford education, health care, housing and child care. These conditions all reflect the growing debt burden that many carry. Essential goods like housing, education and health care have relatively inelastic demand, which means the limit to their price is basically everything you have plus everything you can borrow. Meanwhile, consumer spending, the engine of the economy, is increasingly fuelled not by rising wages, but by cheap credit, resulting in greater and greater levels of consumer debt. Today the issue of debt unites millions in a common struggle.
Building a mass movement around debt, like building any mass movement, is a consciousness-raising process. For the people to be united in a movement, they must possess a consciousness of their common interests and their common enemies. There must be a consciousness of class, and a willingness to understand that the only way to change class conditions is to unite and fight. Major social changes occur when people unite around a common cause.
Debt is at the core of the market system itself, and the solution is not better terms alone, but alternatives to that system. Instead of the conservative motto “fair financial terms from honest bankers,” we must paint our banners with the words “Abolition of the debt system.” Debtors of the world, unite!
New forms of struggle require new forms of organization to directly fight for changes. Debtors’ unions are one such form: organizing debtors to collectively bargain for favorable terms for existing debtors. Just as labor unions bargain for improved wages and working conditions through the threat of refusal to work, debtors unions could use organized refusals to pay debts to bargain.
Drawing on mass support from millions of people struggling to pay their bills, we can build a movement that aspires to far more than small reforms to banking and bankruptcy rules, but that challenges the entire capitalist system and its drive to profit from imposing scarcity on essential goods like education, housing, child care and health care. As we find our way across this new terrain, we must keep our eyes on the big prize: not better terms alone, but alternatives to the market system.