Farewell to the Working Class

Debtors of the world, unite?

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In his 1960 “Letter to the New Left,” sociologist C. Wright Mills chastised those “clinging” to the working class as the only possible agent of revolutionary change. Today’s workers, he argued, were screw-ups asleep at the switch. Pacified by the welfare state, they were no longer able to lead anticapitalist struggle. In their stead, Mills proposed the vibrant “cultural apparatus” of radicalized intellectuals and touched off a long search in post-Marxist theory for other replacements. The New Left looked to national liberation movements; Fanonites of the same era elevated the role of “the underclass.” In the past decade, academics have responded to the casualization of work by coining a new term, “the precariat,” — leaving behind boring, old Lenin to embrace boring, new Lena Dunham.

Occupy activists carried this trend further by staging a general strike reimagined as a “day without the 99%.” The move to expand resistance into everyday life — “no school, no shopping, no banking” — reflects in part the diminishing possibilities for workplace action. As the factory floor has given way beneath traditional models of left organizing, it’s unclear who might take the mantle from the industrial proletariat. “The people,” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari once proclaimed, “are missing.”

Strike Debt has set out to find them, proclaiming debt the “tie that binds the 99%.” The Occupy offshoot’s first communique gestures to an “invisible army of defaulters”: those who, already unable to pay their debts, could form the base of a new mass movement. Though some Marxists have given short shrift to secondary forms of exploitation such as credit, they’ve been key to capital’s recent advances. And though many critics have noted that “debt” is an imperfect gloss for “capitalism,” Strike Debt has rightfully identified an issue that touches nearly all working people.

Could the debtors of the world unite? The Left’s willingness to embrace new historical categories sets it apart from the Right, now in its third millennium of organizing affluent white men. But there’s an important distinction between new models that respond to categories generated by modern capitalism and paradigm shifts that jettison the baby, bathwater, and modern plumbing.

In The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual — an Emma Goldman-meetsSuze Orman self-help manifesto — we get a vision of history that is sweeping, but punctuated. Tracing the arc of “powerful debt resistance movements” from ancient Greece, to the 1787 Shay’s Rebellion, to the present, the manual says debtors are finally taking center stage in our financialized era. But in this story, the working-class hero is written out. Instead of a character defined by a web of interconnected exchange relationships — trading time for money, work for land, money for food, internship for resume filler, and so on — we get the debtor, defined by a single exchange of credit.

Could class power be organized around borrowing, rather than working? Last fall, the Occupy Student Debt Campaign issued an intriguing call for a “debt strike.” As soon as a “pledge of refusal” garnered one million signatories, graduates would launch an experiment in a new form of collective bargaining and refuse to repay their student loans together. Discussing the prospect of “debtors’ unions,” The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual notes that such institutions could “provide support for strategic actions, including debt strikes, akin to the labor battles of earlier eras.” Call this the relay-race theory of class struggle — though labor has collapsed, panting at the sidelines, a freshly warmed-up debtors’ movement is sprinting ahead.

Alongside new actors, Mills also called for new sites of action. The working class keeps the wheels of society turning; its power, by definition, stems from its ability to bring those wheels to a rapid halt. Feminists, anti-racists, and others have pointed to the wheels within the wheels of society, such as the reproduction of daily life through unpaid work. The move to acknowledge class politics beyond the workplace has helped correct the orthodoxy that limited meaningful struggle to certain “real workers,” and uncovered the leverage that various unwaged workers have to disrupt production. But by abstracting debt from labor, it’s unclear how a movement of debtors could wield power. Though ideas such as the debt strike posit an equivalence between withholding loan payments and withholding labor, the former, as the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal has noted, is often a boon for mortgage servicers and third-party collection agencies.

So before we turn the page on the era of labor battles, it’s important to consider what debt is built on: our work. By commodifying our future labor, debt extracts the promise of more and more work from us. The interest on loan payments are an expansion of how many more hours we have to work — but the long hours are not crammed into the twenty-four-hour day, they’re parceled into manageable chunks of time each year, ten or twenty years down the line. At the same time, since lenders extend credit to a worker, her boss can justify keeping wages stagnant while productivity increases. In this way, lenders and employers collude both to garnish our wages through interest payments, and to compel us to continue laboring for the same wage years into the future.

The “debt system” is essentially an alliance between our banks and our bosses. At its most simple, this arrangement resembles a company store, where the owner sells workers everything they need to survive, often on credit, and profits doubly from their debt. Though the actual situation is more complex than this, the distinction between financial and non-financial corporations is thinner than we may often assume. Consider the example of Ally Financial, which began as General Motors’ division to make auto loans to consumers, expanded into home and commercial loans in the 1980s, and is now among the lenders being investigated by the SEC for mortgage fraud.

Is debt where we have power, then, or part of how we have lost it? Geographer David Harvey traces the roots of the foreclosure crisis in part to the dictum that “debt-encumbered homeowners don’t go on strike.” Federal programs to increase homeownership began as an extension of anti-Communist efforts in the 1930s, and homeowners have since spent ever-longer periods of their working lives attempting to pay off mortgage debts. Attacks on social welfare programs have left a “debtfare state” in their absence, where unemployed and underemployed people must borrow to live and accept any work they can get in order to continue borrowing. As Demos noted in its report “Discrediting America,” the “mission creep” of credit rating agencies means they now hold sway over not only employment decisions, but access to insurance and utilities.

The labor movement has rarely fought back against this multipronged attack. But the times when it has have been instructive. The movements of urban workers and rural farmers to block farm foreclosures and stop eviction during the Great Depression have been well documented, including by Strike Debt. In 1932 alone, unemployed workers’ councils in New York moved 77,000 evicted families back into their homes. But these groups didn’t fight debt exclusively: to preserve an alliance between the employed and unemployed, the councils often acted in coordination with striking workers. The support of thousands of the unemployed during the 1934 Milwaukee Streetcar Strike, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward note, “is what finally broke employer resistance.” These episodes illuminate the power of institutions that reach beyond workplace struggles, but remain connected to them.

The energy surrounding the issue of debt could reconstitute, rather than replace, a working-class politics. Debt is again being recognized as a labor issue, particularly as it relates to the issue of home foreclosures. We’ve seen a Detroit local of the United Auto Workers work with Occupy to stop two such foreclosures; AFSCME and SEIU join with Occupy Homes MN to reclaim a home under foreclosure; and ILWU organizing anti-eviction workshops with Occupy Long Beach. Campaigns like United Students Against Sweatshops’ “Kick Wall Street Off Campus” are making connections between students and workers and providing platforms to target one bank at a time.

By leaving us all in the red, the ruling class has provided us an opportunity to build a counterhegemonic bloc. For this, we owe them one. In debt resistance, the tried-and-true categories of classes, movements, and peoples can build a unifying program that simultaneously reveals and opposes the alliance of financial and corporate capital that keeps us working and borrowing.

But it’s a program that will appear contradictory unless it addresses debt at its root — in our work. Attacking the moral compulsion perceived to be at its center, Strike Debt has responded with declarations of refusal: “We owe you nothing.” “You are not a loan.” But the contradictions of debt — and the tendency to view it as the basis for our relations — are a form of its fetishism, the “thingification of social relations.”

When debt commodifies our future work into consumer goods like mortgages, car loans, and financial aid packages, it alienates us from this future part of ourselves, obscuring it behind a curtain of bills and statements. From this vantage point, it is easy for us to mistake these debts — though they will be realized as our future work — as alien, metaphysical forms hanging over us, which we can banish through a mass withdrawal of consent. This obscures our real role in the creditor-lender relationship: that our labor is made, daily, as an interest-free loan to capital. We instead might find ways to proclaim, as did one poster at a 2010 protest in Madrid, “Debt? We are the creditors.”