Beautiful Trouble is one of my most dog-eared books!Mary DeMocker, Co-founder and Creative Director of 350 Eugene
“I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life.”Woody Guthrie
Today’s class consciousness falls increasingly along debtor-creditor lines rather than worker-capitalist lines.
Many activist communiqués employ the classical language of class struggle. This language not only often fails to engage, it may even alienate people who might otherwise be sympathetic. The majority of people in the global north do not identify as workers, and thus any appeal addressed to workers is unlikely to achieve results in these societies. As the industrial base of the economy has moved east and south, the language of class politics in the global north has gotten much murkier and more complicated. I propose that debt-centered organizing offers the potential to reinvigorate radical struggle in the twenty-first century.
The language of the labor movement emerged in an era when the power loom was the driving force of industry, nobility controlled the land and the state, and being a worker in early industry was torturous and inhumane. Most working people were direct producers. Today, most people in developed nations are non-direct producers, working in customer service, finance, and other administrative or technical fields. They are, therefore, no longer direct witnesses to the fruits of their labor being stolen from them and hoarded by capitalists, but rather are divided and subdivided in increasingly insidious ways.
People today don’t conceive of the “product of their labor” as the actual goods sold by their employers; in their minds, the product of their labor is their paycheck. That is what they produce, that is what is taken from their hands, not by their boss, but by their bills, their debts, their taxes. This is one reason the right has been so successful at channelling populist rage away from big business and toward big government.
Two decades of easy credit and bubble economics have left most people deeply in debt, often as a result of having to pay for essentials like education, childcare, housing and health care. This is a real opportunity for activists to make the case that capitalism simply can’t provide essential goods fairly and efficiently, that their debts are unjust and were forced on to them. People are broke because the system is broken. We have no moral obligation to keep paying into a system that is not working.
The labor movement transformed the working conditions in developed nations and built the welfare state, and did so by championing the demands of the organized working class. Today, we have a debtors’ consciousness, united by financial stress and economic precarity, with debt its measure.
Realizing our collective power to withdraw our willingness to pay debts see TACTIC: Debt strike is potentially as system-shaking today as the power of the industrial working class to withdraw its labor power a century ago. Debt is a uniting condition that can mobilize the masses to fight for change.
The debtors of the world have nothing to lose but their chains. Debtors of the world, unite!