Image courtesy of reclaimuc.blogspot.com
Special Issue on Debt (August-September 2011)
Insolvent Futures / Bonds of Struggle
Throughout the early 1970s, workers at US auto
plants suffered speedup, forced overtime, a spike in racist harassment,
and layoffs. Like students and workers elsewhere at the time, they responded
with a string of wildcat strikes. In some, they walked out of factories
for days at a time. In others, they locked themselves within plants’
interior cages, which supporters then blockaded. None of these actions
were sanctioned by the autoworkers’ union, the UAW. Rather, the
union sent men to dissolve the strikes like
This history of layoffs and wildcats is our present, and not simply because now and then seem to mirror one another. Rather, the austerity measures we resist today are direct reverberations of the speedups and shutdowns that struck the 1970s; they flow from the same crisis of profitability, although this time all the debt and deferral that allowed capital to inflate itself as it passed from there to here has reached its limit. The future has disappeared, shielded by a wall of debt.
Our political lives are now shadowed by debt:
bailouts trail subprime loans; a reactionary party has emerged to demand
sovereign deficits be traded for workers’ further immiseration;
student loans are bundled into a speculative bubble threatened by mass
default; and the force of uprisings in
Greece can be measured by fluctuations in the State’s bond rating. The case of Greece is particularly illustrative. Over the past year, a near-revolutionary force has taken shape through a series of general strikes; and yet, the State has carried on with its austerity measures, shifting sovereign debt burdens to the dispossessed majority. Surrounded by an ungovernable mass of workers, students, and the unemployed, parliamentary representatives still refused to repudiate Greece’s creditors, even as these
same creditors admitted their prescriptions were a recipe for stagnation and further unemployment. Everywhere capital is bankrupt, yet still we owe it our lives.
Each of us individually, and some more than others, are facing a future of indebtedness without employment. While debt conjures phantom labor—work that we’re expected to perform in the future—joblessness turns this spectral labor into an unshakeable nightmare. Underemployed and broke,
unable to make our monthly payments, we are pursued by loan agencies and government agents. And they have the power to seize bank accounts, to garnish wages, or to repossess property. As individual carriers of unpayable debt, we face futures strung from loss to loss. And the latest round of austerity measures—resulting in tuition hikes, child care closures, and the evaporation of pensions—would appear only to lock in this bad infinity of debt, default, bankruptcy, and insolvency.
Generally speaking, debt is a collective phenomenon
suffered individually. Our monthly loan statements are like nineteenth
century serialized novels—mass reading material, anticipated by
all but read alone.
When experienced in this way, by dispersed individuals, debt appears to be merely a fact of life; a kind of required reading material. It can be nearly impossible then to imagine how our personalized loan statements or individual defaults could be fought in a way that forges bonds between us. How loans could produce more than isolating shame, anxiety, and loss. Or how, in a word, we could collectivize struggles against indebtedness and unemployment, and in doing so open the horizon of our futures.
In recent years, home foreclosures have overwhelmingly
been suffered silently and in isolation; however, a few notable exceptions
to this pattern provide clues as to how we might collectively counter
mass indebtedness and default. Recently, an 82 year-old woman in Brooklyn
was able to push back an imminent eviction, in part because hundreds
of her neighbors surrounded her property, showing cops and collections
agents that they would need severe force to evict Mary Lee Ward. This
kind of collective,
direct action against foreclosures, while taken only infrequently today, constituted a ubiquitous working class tactic during the depression of the 1930s, as did factory occupations, various forms of mutual aid, sit down strikes, and the direct appropriation of goods. We’ll need to employ such tactics in order to counter the economic immiseration that will follow from austerity measures and looming defaults. But blockades and mutual aid will become effective in our moment only if they set off and/or emerge
from a wider political rupture—a break that reverses and radically expands the coordinates of our lives, allowing us to sustain ourselves and each other in the midst of and through shared struggle. Such a rupture will protect those who resist from becoming isolated and fenced in by police powers.
While we can’t know how and when our political
lives will open onto something new, there is some reason to think it
could begin on our campuses—with student strikes, occupations,
and blockades—as occurred in Chile this summer and France in ‘68.
Students are already suffering the effects of the latest speculative
bubble in the form of ballooning loan debt and predatory, for-profit
education. We’re also looking out on a wasteland of low-wage jobs,
exploitative adjunct work, unemployment, and
bankruptcy. Our universities are preparing us for isolated and immiserated futures. But
right now, we’re living and working on our campuses, together. And we have other plans.
Amanda Armstronng is a graduate student at UC Berkeley and is involved in student and labor movements against austerity.