They hate us for our freedom
“If you owe the bank $1000, you’re at the mercy of the bank, if you owe the bank $1,000,000,000 the bank is at your mercy.”
A few weeks back, I attended an extraordinary event in New York organized by my longtime friend Douglas Rushkoff called “Contact.” It was a fascinating symposium about fighting corporate influence online and how to affect societal change using social media tools (more or less). The object of the day was to tease out four projects from the participants (a mix of 300 activists, tech entrepreneurs, intellectuals and media types) which could be practically realized, not just “pie in the sky” stuff. Four finalists got $10,000 awards from Pepsi to assist in concretizing these ideas.
At first, the conference, which took place at a stunning former synagogue on the Lower East Side known as The Angel Orensanz Center, got off to a bumpy start. Whenever someone would raise their hand and say something too fuzzy like “I’d like to start an online forum for people to discuss social issues” this got back a politely, yet dismissive “Uh, what, specifically, do you mean by that?” response from Rushkoff, who led the sessions. His firm conceptual herding caused a rapid focusing of the group mind into projects that had not just viability—and utility, of course—but that could actually be manifested within days or weeks.
There were a lot of worthy, even brilliant, ideas kicked around that day, but the first one that really caused me to take notice was when one of the participants stood up and said he’d like to create an online tool to facilitate and organize a mass debt strike against the banks and the government. There was an immediate “x factor” that this notion tapped into (my guess is that Occupy Wall Street was supported by 100% of the room) and “Kick-Stopper,” as the project was dubbed, became one of the four finalists.
When the conference broke down into smaller discussion groups—I was one of the judges of who would get the Pepsi cash—I silently observed the debt strike enthusiasts’ conversation with interest. I was somewhat less enamored of the concept when Thomas Gokey, an adjunct professor at Syracuse University who proposed the idea, said that maybe the money owed to the banks could be held in escrow accounts, eventually getting paid to the banks, but only after they’d agreed to certain demands and reforms. To some of the people seated on pillows in the venue’s balcony, this seemed like a reasonable approach, but at least half the group groaned and expressed the more punk rock sentiment of “fuck the banks, they’ll get NONE of it” which seemed like a much better position to take, to my mind.
Stiffing the fuckers is something they’ll understand…
I’m not sure where they got with it in the end with the escrow vs. the fuck the banks question, but Kick-Stopper, as I mentioned, was one of the four finalists and you can follow the progress they are making here. Sarah Jaffe, who was at the Contact event, wrote about the debt strike concept at length at AlterNet:
“I wanted to do this project because I kept having the same basic conversation with everyone at Zuccotti and everywhere else,” Gokey told me. “When I talk to people about what we could do that would really compel Congress and Wall Street to meet our demands or really alter the current system, we inevitably start discussing what non-cooperation with our own oppression would look like. What does it mean to stop cooperating with the banks? What we inevitably end up describing is some variation of a debt strike, simply ending our own participation in a system that exploits us.”
“The problem is that a debt-strike will take a lot of coordination to make it work,” Thomas Gokey points out, “It can’t just be one person who is willing to risk their financial life, it only works when there are millions of people who are willing to take that risk together, and they are only going to take that risk if they can feel confident that everyone else has got their back.”
That in part is what Gokey hoped to solve by bringing the debt strike idea to ContactCon, but it’s not the only one. Lerner points out that the debt strike also needs targets, demands and an answer to the question, “Who pays?”
“There should be debt forgiveness, but these guys—the student loan profiteers—should eat it, not the government and taxpayers,” he points out. “The banks should pay because they destroyed the economy, they sucked 18-year-olds into predatory loans they are stuck with for life.”
Hear, hear! Imagine the indignity of graduating from college with $100,000 of student loan debt nipping at your heels and today’s nearly non-existent job prospects. It’s absurd.
I’m not an expert in this sort of thing, but apparently you can’t charge off student loans in bankruptcy, they’ll just attach your wages, so a collective action to withhold student loan payments (and credit card debt) at a time when half the country is skint could gather critical mass rather quickly, I’d imagine. Everyone else got a bail-out, why shouldn’t you?
My prediction: You’re going to be hearing the term “debt strike” used a lot in the coming months.
(For the record, I have not a single cent of student loan debt. I didn’t go to college and I have no skin in this game. Education should be free for anyone who wants to learn and better themselves.)
Debtor’s Revolution: Are Debt Strikes Another Possible Tactic in the Fight Against the Big Banks? (AlterNet)