11.13.2012

On Strike Debt: An Exchange with Andrew Ross

Dear Andrew,

One of the things Occupy has been criticized for — and I’ll admit, I’ve been one of the critics — is a lack of focus on strategy or organizing. The debt campaign seems like a real effort to grapple with those problems — to figure out how the movement can expand its numbers and strength so it might force some material changes to the social balance of power. Occupy is often tarred as the mountain that birthed a mouse, all spectacle and no substance; and there’s been more than a kernel of truth to that critique in the past.

But Strike Debt shows that there’s a real will among many activists to create something serious and lasting. To me, the greatest point in its favor is that it’s based on the fundamental principle of mutual aid — the motive force behind every successful mass movement.

That said, I have to admit I’ve watched the emergence of the campaign so far with some trepidation.

We’re faced with enemies far more powerful than us. We need to figure out where in the system we have some leverage, and where the system’s weakest and most vulnerable points are. I might be missing something, but consumer debt seems like the least hospitable terrain imaginable. It is, obviously, a highly atomized and dispersed form of social domination — a point that Strike Debt is well aware of, given the debt speak-outs it’s organized. It’s a social relationship mediated entirely by money, which they have lots of and we mostly lack. And the net result is that it’s a field of struggle where our leverage seems extremely slight.

Think of it this way: suppose 50,000 people did the unthinkable and organized a real debt strike: they linked arms, swallowed hard, and defaulted on, say, $10,000 in consumer debt each. As an organizing feat, it would be a spectacular coup. But while the personal consequences for the strikers would probably be dire, the total losses for the banks would be only $500 million. To put that in perspective, JP Morgan’s losses in the infamous “London Whale” trades this year have come to about $6.3 billion — and the company subsequently made up most of that with their third-quarter profits alone. Even worse, that’s just one company: our $500 million would be spread out over many different creditors.

I have other concerns that we might get to, but I guess the first basic question I have is: what exactly is Strike Debt threatening to do to the system, and what does it hope the result will be?

—Seth

Read more of the exchange between Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman and NYU professor Andrew Ross at Dissent.