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Why the Debt Strike is Not Impossible
With Joshua Ramey | March 21, Saturday, 10am EST
Debt destroys solidarity. Because we are all drowning in debt we can’t support one another, let alone our own children, in the simplest and most basic ways. But this is an ancient problem—we don’t need loans because we’re poor, we need loans because there are creditor classes who own wealth hordes. Inequality is the effect of an illusion, a kind of optical illusion: what is actually an effect of the breakdown of social life (the very existence of a creditor class) is taken as the cause of social life itself (lending as “investment”), and since there is no access to society, or life, outside of one’s ability to take loans, to be creditworthy, this illusion is self-confirming. If you can’t depart from meeting the demands of the creditors in order to live, you help others at the direct cost of your life. The only solution is to break the power of the creditors…
This seminar is about the “impossibility” of a general debt strike in the sense that it seems impossible to most people—unrealistic, terrifying, hopeless, insane—and that the psychic and even religious bondage that submission to the creditors carries with it is what makes a strike impossible. So the debt strike is not metaphysically or physically impossible. It’s ideologically uncomfortable and logistically challenging. It feels impossible.
The seminar is about what holds us back. Why haven’t we used debt strikes already? There are tactical difficulties with it—getting enough people to do it, altogether, at the same time, so that the repressive apparatus of the state cannot pick off isolated individuals. (From an interview. Read the entire interview below)
Facilitator: Joshua Ramey is a writer, teacher, and activist who studies political economy and anti-capitalist political theory. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Villanova University (2006) and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor in the Interdisciplinary Concentration in Peace, Justice, and Human Rights at Haverford College. He is the author of The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal and Politics of Divination: Neoliberal Endgame and the Religion of Contingency.
Online time: Saturday, March 21, 10am-2pm (EST- Eastern Time Zone). A Zoom link will be available on registration.
Cost: Free. For those of you able to pitch in for expenses, please consider making a donation of $10 or more. You can “buy” multiple $10s by entering the corresponding number into the box. For example, 6 = $60, etc.
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Interview with Joshua Ramey
You’re about to give a seminar on “Why the Debt Strike is Impossible.” [That is the working title for the overall project.] What are we talking about here? What debt strike? And why is it impossible?
JR: The title is a joke, or at least ironic. People are actually striking against debt. A student debt strike started in early February, with at least 250 people declaring they were refusing to pay. Strike Debt was a movement that came out of Occupy Wall Street and led to the Debt Collective, which is helping people organize and collectivize around unjust and unpayable debt, forming networks of support that, among other things, create funds that can be used to buy bad debt off the books of creditors for pennies on the dollar. Bernie Sanders is proposing to cancel all student debt. So it’s not impossible.
But a debt strike is different from debt forgiveness or debt cancellation. It’s also somewhat different from simply refusing to pay, altogether. A debt strike would be a refusal by debtors to pay creditors until and unless certain demands were met. In Debt as Power, Tim DiMuzio and Richard Robbins have outlined very clearly how a debt strike could be a powerful political tactic.
In other words, a debt strike would be like a labor strike, a collective and sustained opposition to the interests and priorities of the creditor classes by the debtor classes. Dimuzio and Robbins point out that debt strikes could be launched to demand any number of political goals—universal free health care, universal free higher education, public banking, even a defunding of the military.
But being able to use our power as debtors requires a lot of undoing of the shame and ignominy associated with debt and an understanding of debt as power. In the same way that Marx revealed that the power of capital is the power of labor, of the proletariat, which was extorted from them, we need to see our power as debtors as constituting the livelihood and power of the entire global economy, itself. It is only our willingness to continue to make payments over time that gives finance power its hegemony.
What my seminar is about is the “impossibility” of a general debt strike in the sense that it seems impossible to most people—unrealistic, terrifying, hopeless, insane—and that the psychic and even religious bondage that submission to the creditors carries with it is what makes a strike impossible. So the debt strike is not metaphysically or physically impossible. It’s ideologically uncomfortable and logistically challenging. It feels impossible.
My seminar is about what holds us back. Why haven’t we used debt strikes already? There are tactical difficulties with it—getting enough people to do it, altogether, at the same time, so that the repressive apparatus of the state cannot pick off isolated individuals.
But there are other challenges too, mainly the sense of morality most people still have around indebtedness. People still think that being able to pay off your debts and doing so, makes you a good person, and if you can’t or don’t pay your debts that you’re bad, evil. As David Graeber argued so powerfully in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, this is partly because indebtedness is the primary way we think about social obligations in general—we tend to talk about our social obligations to one another, in general, as if they were debts that needed to be paid off. This is ironic, though, because if everyone “payed back” all their obligations to one another there would be no society anymore—we would all be isolated, starving. But of course we are isolated and starved, as we each individually try to meet the demands of the creditors, breaking down the fabric of the economy as almost all our disposable income goes to service debts.
Debt destroys solidarity. Because we are all drowning in debt we can’t support one another, let alone our own children, in the simplest and most basic ways. But this is an ancient problem—we don’t need loans because we’re poor, we need loans because there are creditor classes who own wealth hordes. Inequality is the effect of an illusion, a kind of optical illusion: what is actually an effect of the breakdown of social life (the very existence of a creditor class) is taken as the cause of social life itself (lending as “investment”), and since there is no access to society, or life, outside of one’s ability to take loans, to be creditworthy, this illusion is self-confirming. If you can’t depart from meeting the demands of the creditors in order to live, you help others at the direct cost of your life. The only solution is to break the power of the creditors.
What the idea that “everyone” has to pay back their debts obscures (besides the fact that that is never true) is that not everyone, in fact only a small handful of people, are ever in a position to lend for gain. Most people borrow because they have to, because it’s an economic necessity. But most people who are lenders do so not because they have to, but because they can and they want to. Their livelihood doesn’t depend on lending, but the debtor’s lives depend on borrowing. This means that the creditor class and the borrower class are literally not in the same economy, not even in the same world, which is why the economist Michael Hudson calls them parasites. The financial economy is parasitic, and this was as true in the ancient world as it was today.
The problem is how to differentiate debt from social obligations in general, so we can refuse indebtedness as a form of life and bring solidarity and cooperation back to the center. But this is not a matter of debate or argument or dialogue with the creditors. It’s a matter of organizing and solidarity and undoing ideological blockages to accessing our collective power.
You’re giving a six-week seminar starting in May, “For the Remains: Undoing Economic Sovereignty.” What is that about?
JR: This the first of a three-part seminar I’m giving over the next year, through Incite, as I write the book For the Remains: Undoing Economic Sovereignty. The overall argument of the seminar is that economics cannot be saved. We need to abolish “economics” entirely, as a discourse and practice of social organization. That’s what I mean by undoing economic sovereignty.
I say this on the hypothesis that the discourse and practice of economics, both ancient and modern, is part of the violent logic of what I call, in a nod to the work of François Laruelle, the “economy world.” The foundation of economics is the establishment and maintenance of households, and this is done by violence. Specifically, economics starts in the violence of border work—the erection of a boundary between what is me and my concern (usually my “family,” or tribe or nation) and what I can consider foreign or external to me and my household, and so beyond the remit of my care, concern, and in the last instance, my identity.
The fundamental issue in economics is not actually fair exchange or efficient production or smart investment, but how to justify the suspension of credit, how to refuse trust or mutuality to others. Economics is about how to suspend generosity and care, and thus how to justify something like toxic externalities (polluting downstream from where you live or work) or even the formation of scapegoats (ritually and deliberately sacrificing others to your gods, identifying permanent victims). It about how to belittle or demean others, or villainize them, so that they can be excluded from the distribution of wealth. Economics begin wherever trust has been broken. It’s a logic of how bounded households withhold care and concern from one another’s remit in order to distinguish themselves through violent competition. It’s warfare, ultimately between humanity itself and the planet. We see how that is going.
I’m trying to mount a very general critique of this “economy world,” a critique more general than a critique of a particular economic system (like capitalism), from the perspective of a critique of wealth as such, and from the “world” as a category first invented in apocalyptic Judaism and expressed in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This category that emerges in apocalyptic Judaism is that “the world” is human life ruled by a “Prince,” or “Prince of this World” –this is, as Adam Kotsko has argued, the earliest conception of what later became named Satan or the Devil.
I’m not interested, in this project, in analyzing or understanding the figure of the Devil, but in the logic of the “world” over which this figure supposedly rules—a world of violent domination by some humans over others on the basis of racialized, gendered, geographic, and many other exclusions, by demands for honor and prestige backed by (or staged as) ritualized harm (rape, plunder, pillage, etc.), and the exploitation of misfortune through systematic usurious lending.
I want to think (and write, and work) in view of the ruined lives, the externalities or refugees or wretched, the “remains” within the economy world. What would it mean to put the waste, the ruined lives, the disposables, the racialized, the homeless, at the center? What would it mean to live or survive or relate to one another from the point of view of the remains, of the fact that we are all—literally in our bodies—the remains of previous civilizations, previous families, even previous life forms? What would it mean to re-center social life on “dealing with the remains”—some kind of reparative or restorative practice that would not be the renewal of the world or the “balancing” of given conflicting interests, but a kind of alchemical transformation, a collective process of addressing what harm has been done in order to liberate and repotentiate life, even if into forms (maybe no longer “human”) we cannot yet recognize?
I think the starting point would be to understand the power of debt and debt as a form of social power. That is why the first part of the project is called “Debt as Original Sin.” This is the title of the first, 6-week seminar at Incite Seminars. We’ll be looking specifically here at the economist Michael Hudson’s argument, in . . . and Forgive Them Their Debts that the Jewish Biblical tradition put the forgiveness of debt at the very center of its teachings, but that this was and has been suppressed to this day, beginning with the suppression of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth against wealth (and, I will also argue, against economics or the “economy world” itself, since Jesus was clearly against work in general and against the family as a sacred form of social reproduction).
My hypothesis is that apocalyptic Judaism and early Christianity was itself a certain kind of revelation, namely the revelation of the “economy world” as the fundamental structure of evil, the basic problem of (at least human) life. What happens here, momentarily (in a way that is echoed in other places in human history) is less a fusion of religion and economics as a kind of reveal of their last-instance identity. Jesus is able to make a religious argument for the abolition of economics altogether, because he was part of a tradition that understood indebtedness to be something like “original sin,” in the sense that according to Mosaic law and the prophets who chastised the evil kings of Israel, it is the oppression of the poor by the predatory creditor classes and the onerous taxations of their rulers that leads directly to its punishment by their God and their outright destruction as a nation. Jesus’ teachings (and life) argue against the violence of state power from the point of view of all wealth hoarding as “sin” or disobedience to divine will, and points to a “kingdom of God” that is not an afterlife or different world (despite his sometimes apocalyptic pronouncement), but a paradise that has already been and would be here if and when liberated from “the world” as the economy world of imperial domination, work as bondage to creditors, and the restrictions placed on desire by the demands of the (patriarchal, nuclear, etc.) family.
The second seminar, “Production or Enslavement,” will happen this Fall. It’s about how the justification of mass production and mass consumption in terms of efficiency is as insincere and duplicitous as the justification of the need for “profitable” investment and the maintenance of a permanent creditor class. The model of productive labor for capitalism is racial enslavement—an enslavement that has never stopped happening, but has just become invisible in various ways (think of racialized prison labor)—just as the model of productive investment for creditors has always been, if not outright murder, than the social death caused by permanent indebtedness (which leads to the direct appropriation of the livelihood and lives of others by the creditor class). The only way you can organize a society around “productivity” is if you place the “unproductive” outside it or exlude that which in humans is unproductive, just as the creditworthy are included and those unworthy of credit excluded. At the limit, we literally exclude everything in the earth itself that we find unproductive, but we do this at the cost of poisoning the planet (a poisoning that has always happened to communities of color first, such as in “cancer alley” between Baton Rouge and New Orleans).
The third seminar, in Spring of 2021, is “Salvation by Grief.” It is a speculative attempt to envision a world without economy, a world that in the last instance would not be an economy world. I will try to work with insights from several sources as suggestive of what is needed in that world, but are also practices people have been engaging in for a very long time. Ancestral clearing and ritual inter-generational healing work as a way of undoing repetitive patterns of trauma is the central motif and model. Practices of “wake work” as envisaged by black feminist scholars like Christina Sharpe, Daniel Foor’s protocols for ancestral lineage healing, Martin Prechtel’s teachings on grief, Donna Haraway’s meditations on inter-species communication (and the trouble with it), Sylvia Wynter’s critique of Western white humanism all provide insights here. François Laruelle’s notion of salvation “for” the world rather than from the world (which always ends up renewing the world instead of abolishing it) will also be a insight, extending the teachings of Jesus against the world, against the economy world, and for what I call the remains.