On Saturday July 14 David Graeber gave a teach-in on debt at Washington Square Park. The teach-in followed a meeting regarding upcoming ‘Strike Debt’ actions, including those planned for S17. The current debt crisis, including student debt, is now the focus of several Occupy groups. This coupling of planning the action and learning about the issue has been done before, it is one of the strengths of Occupy. Our actions have not only been cries of outrage, but calls to awaken, to become aware of what is going on in our society. We have shown that the economic and political turmoil that affects us, causes us so much harm, is not just some unavoidable natural occurrence, a storm that strikes then moves on, but actually results from the manipulations of individuals driven by unmitigated greed. We need to keep up the education and outreach. Informing people about why we do actions is as important as the actions themselves, and spreading the truth may be just as frightening to the Neo-Liberal elite as direct action and civil disobedience.
One thing people must come to realize is that this elite, this 1% we always talk about, is not necessarily that smart. They are clever, they are cagey, but all they do is pursue profit while blind to other important concerns of human life. The economic collapse exposed their ineptitude, revealing the fact that these masters of the world are not all-wise. Neo-liberalism is like a wild beast they ride, but do not control, it does not respond to the reigns of the so-called masters, and inevitably the beast will rear up and toss them (and the rest of us) into the dirt. The greatest talent of the 1% is not their mastery of finance, but their ability to transfer the penalties and pain of their losses onto the rest of us. The true foundation of modern capitalism is not free market ideology, it is the mitigation of risk to the capitalists by using the state and the people to cover their losses. Pure capitalism lost all credibility with the crash of 2008 and the subsequent bailouts; it died in the embrace of its archenemy, socialism. Now we have zombie capitalism; mindless, soulless financiers who stumble around as if still alive, seeking to eat our brains.
Debt is one of the powerful weapons the Neo-Liberal zombies have perfected in order to feed off the rest of us. David Graeber’s expertise is the study of debt. He has written on it extensively and his massive examination of the rise and evolution of debt, Debt: The First 5000 Years, reveals much about the nature of commerce, currency, and debt. Far from just some natural evolution of self interest and exchange of goods, Graeber shows how economic systems are mechanisms of oppression. Economists often speak of the ‘invisible hand’ of free market capitalism which divinely and rationally orders all things. The truth is the hand is not invisible, it is behind you, ready to plunge the knife in at any moment. And the blade’s tip has been dipped in the poison of debt.
The teach-in took place on the grass under a tree, like some Rousseauist idyll. There were about fifty in attendance. Graeber would speak for a while on some issue of debt in our society, then questions would be taken, written down and refined into a few key queries. Graeber would then give responses. There was also a great deal of open discussion and input from the attendees. Graeber and the facilitator did not so much lead the discussion as guide it. It was a glimpse at what a truly open democracy or even anarchist community might look like. That Graeber is a well spoken expert on the issues is a given, and it was the acumen of the other participants that really stood out. It was encouraging to see so many astute people discussing an issue that they are not only informed about, but actually deal with in their everyday lives, and are prepared to do something about. If only more people could see this side of Occupy instead of the exaggerated and deceitful grotesqueries paraded around by the corporate media. One of the great joys of Occupy is to be amongst such informed and courageous people.
The teach-in focused on the relationship between corporations, the state, the military, and debt. One key moment was when Graeber explained how the federal surplus of the Clinton era freaked out the financial industry. Bankers don’t reap profits when the government has plenty of money to spread around. The solution – The Bush era tax cuts. That and a couple wars set things right for the bankers. One has to wonder if there was another nefarious motive behind the delusive rush into Iraq and the (seemingly) bungled war in Afghanistan. In Debt Graeber points out that in 2000 Saddam Hussein switched from the dollar to the euro, shortly followed by Iran (Debt 367). Since all the other reasons for going to war with Iraq proved false, could the real reason for the war have been military enforcement of the financial status quo? Could the increasing call for war with Iran also have a similar basis? As mentioned above, the capitalists are clever, and may be able to conveniently bundle together motives for war. Graeber says it is impossible to know such things for sure, but, tellingly, similar U.S. military actions of the past few decades have connections to such issues. Graeber maintains that there has been a “militarization of American capitalism.” (Debt 382) Our vast military apparatus prevents alternative possibilities to Neo-Liberalism from taking hold, and acts as an international collection agency.
Of course debt is an issue right here in America. Many issues concerning debt were discussed, but student loan debt was paramount. Total student loan debt has now topped one trillion dollars and over five million people are in default; both numbers continue to climb. In the early days of the occupation student loan debt was a frequent subject, many people who came from all over the country described the hardship of paying student loans on a Starbucks level paycheck. Over time the focus on this issue has intensified, and numerous debt actions have been held over the past several months. A large action is planned for S17. The message here is very clear. Debt is a problem that permeates our society, millions are affected by it, and Occupy’s focus on this issue has the potential to resonate with a vast segment of the population. Of great concern is the fact that student loan debt is now being securitized and bundled like mortgages. We saw how the mortgage crisis nearly brought down the banks, ‘nearly’ because we bailed them out. A massive student loan default could precipitate another collapse. We cannot sit like fools and wait for another disaster. Be assured, the bankers will walk away rich as ever and we will take the hit. If you think the perverse bankers have learned their lesson just google Jamie Dimon or read up on the LIBOR scandal, which has revealed the heinous, irresponsible behavior of financiers and their disregard for the rest of us.
The Neo–Liberal capitalist model is a ravenous beast gone out of control. Its appetite is insatiable, there is never enough profit, and the zombies must always find new victims to feed upon. Much is made of the standard free market model and the potential for economic growth, but the word growth is misused in reference to the current capitalist system. It’s been a long time since the economy has truly grown, and ‘mutated’ may be a better term to describe so-called economic trends of recent times. First, because the economy is not growing for the middle class and poor, they are worse off than several decades ago, while the rich get richer. Second, the increase of wealth for the wealthy has come more from financial con games and outright thievery than from an expansion of industry.
In America, since the nineties, the real new ‘market’ is debt. The increased access to credit cards, mortgages, student loans, etc. has allowed banks to reap huge profits while plunging the average citizen into near servitude. Much of this is not accidental. Banks play upon peoples’ needs and fears, their lack of financial expertise, and their legitimate desire to have some nice things in their life. Significantly, all this has gone on while wages were decreasing. One poignant example is that before the collapse of the housing market, the main cause of bankruptcy was healthcare costs. Too many people do not realize that insurance runs out. Who would decide to let a loved one die in order to avoid debt? While self responsibility must be a part of a person’s financial decisions, the fact is that we have been trapped in an economy where one must go into debt in order to have normal things like a college education, housing, and a few of the amenities that bring some joy and relaxation to life. Again, this is no accident. It is part of the new world order, a world where a few privileged parasites will live lavishly off the sweat and blood of the rest of us. Graeber points out that many working class people go into debt thinking they will find a way out, create money out of nothing, which is exactly what the one percent does (Debt 379). However, when you are a member of the 99% and things go bad you are taken to court, treated like a criminal, and put in collection. If you’re a banker you get bailed out and walk off to get even richer.
David Graeber has described how, in the seventies, the Neo-Liberal elite realized that the economic progress made by the middle and working classes was not sustainable if they wanted to maintain their, hegemony (Debt 374). So they set about to create the new world order with themselves firmly ensconced at the top. They have done a very good job, their primary achievement being that most people do not even grasp what has been done to them. The economic collapse of 2008 raised the people’s awareness, but the propaganda machine soon put most of them back to sleep. Occupy has not gone to sleep. We continue to call attention to those behind the curtain, that pull the levers, blow the smoke, and try to delude us with illusions. One subject that came up at the teach-in was the fact that in the past many states, realizing that things were out of hand, have declared a debt Jubilee, erasing debt, setting the clock back, and making things right. Even the bible, which so many claim to adhere to, calls for the forgiveness of debt every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1). Perhaps this audacious idea should be promoted as the true answer to our economic troubles. Restoring the prosperity of the people is the real solution to our societal woes. For a society, by definition, means all the people. And if the one percent must give up a few mansions, yachts, Rolls Royces, and jewels, there won’t be many crying for them.
Link to clip from Graeber teach-in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrm4gj_eDGA