Celebrating 50 years of publishing a Radical Journal of Geography, 1969-2019
by Sara Nelson, University of Minnesota
The question of how to build an effective movement amongst indebted students and homeowners has been central to ongoing campaigns that have grown out of occupations around the country. The Occupy Student Debt campaign for a student debt strike is ongoing; David Graeber has argued for widespread debt forgiveness for the poor; and Lawrence Weschler has advocated a coordinated debt strike uniting those with student and mortgage debt.
In Minneapolis and other cities, foreclosure defense campaigns have been mobilizing successful opposition to evictions and foreclosures through home occupations and solidarity demonstrations with threatened homeowners (e.g. Wheeler 2012). If there is one way in which those diverse groups that constitute ‘the 99%’ are connected, it is perhaps through those networks of debt that serve as an illusive foundation to our economic system. The simultaneous pervasiveness of debt as an experience and its abstraction as a financial relation is what makes debt such an important and challenging object of political organizing. In outlining some of these challenges, I want to point out how attending to the geographies of debt might help us to coordinate an adequate response to them.
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The first challenge to organizing around debt is in building a collectivity of debtors, a feat that is not as easy as it may seem in light of the general proliferation of debt (Read 2011). As a claim on future labor, debt feeds on our collective capacities without locating these capacities in any specific individual or group, without producing the visceral collectivity of the ‘shop floor’. This is enhanced by an individualization of debt at the level of guilt, as a moral obligation (ibid. – see also my previous post). A second difficulty is presented by the fact that as a collective problem, debt – like finance in general – appears as a dislocated abstraction. As geographers Shaun French, Andrew Leyshon and Thomas Wainwright (2011) have argued, existing literature on financialization has paid inadequate attention to the spatialities of finance, tending to reify finance as abstract and placeless. Thus even critical analyses of finance too often fail to attend to where global financial networks touch down, and where points of access might be. With such a massive and amorphous target, calls for a debt strike have emphasized the need for equally massive mobilization: Occupy Student Debt’s online pledge not to repay student loans will go into effect when one million signatories have committed to participate, and Weschler states that the coordinated debt strike he imagines would require the commitment of “hundreds of thousands, [even] millions”. Contrary to Wechsler’s unrealistic characterization of the ease with which debtors of all kinds could come to act in solidarity with one another, coordinating a campaign of this size is daunting to say the least (the Occupy Student Debt pledge currently has around 3,350 signatories – see here for an update). The risk of acting without an adequate understanding of the targets of a strike or without a collective capable of hitting these targets is – like all strikes and political mobilizations – that participants would simply be exposed to the harsh consequences of default while large financial institutions continued to reap profits from defaulters (Edudebtors Union 2011; Konczal 2011; Korn 2011).
This is where an attention to the geographies of debt would prove essential. Counter to the vision of global finance as abstract and placeless, French et al. (2011) advocate for an understanding of the financial system as made up of smaller “financial ecologies” that emerge in relation to specific places and which may be more or less successful at reproducing their dynamics in other places and at other scales. Interestingly, they draw their notion of financial ecologies from Andrew Haldane, the Executive Director of Financial Stability at the Bank of England, who refers explicitly to the financial system as a complex ecosystem that has become both more complex and less diverse, making it more prone to systemic crises. French et al. build on Haldane’s formulation to conceptualize how abstract financial dynamics touch down through the (re)production of concrete forms of life – offering as a prime example the “financial ecology of the middle-class suburb” on which the financial system as a whole remains dependent. Noting that the extent of the subprime lending that wreaked such havoc on the financial system was actually relatively limited, they argue that “a similar crisis in prime lending would be beyond catastrophic” (2011: 813).
With this perspective, it may be possible to imagine how a debt strike strategically organized at a relatively small scale could reverberate through the system as a whole. This certainly isn’t Haldane’s aim, nor is it that of French and his colleagues – but if this framework can help to locate and understand vulnerabilities in the system, it can also inform political interventions that would aim to exploit those vulnerabilities. This would involve knowledge-building activities that would aim to develop a strategic understanding of how particular concrete experiences of debt link up with broader financial dynamics, and how emergent events might present openings for intervention. Beginning with relatively small-scale interventions could make the possibility of a larger strike more real, by providing an opportunity to develop knowledge about the consequences of default and the ways one can avoid them, while bringing debt into the open as both a collective problem and a problem through which new collectivities can be built.
Edudebtors Union (2011) Student debt strike? Not so much. 26 November http://edudebtorsunion.org/wp/2011/11/26/student-debt-strike-not-so-much/ (last accessed 11 March 2012)
French S, Leyshon A and Wainwright T (2011) Financializing space, spacing financialization. Progress in Human Geography 35(6):798-819
Konczal M (2011) Some quick thoughts on the notion of a debtor’s strike. Rortybomb 9 November http://rortybomb.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/some-quick-thoughts-on-the-notion-of-a-debtors-strike/ (last accessed 11 March 2012)
Korn M (2011) Government sees high returns on defaulted student loans. Wall Street Journal 4 January http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704723104576061953842079760.html (last accessed 11 March 2012)
Read J (2011) Debt collectors: The economics, politics, and morality of debt. Unemployed Negativity 13 November http://www.unemployednegativity.com/2011/11/debt-collectors-economics-politics-and.html (last accessed 28 January 2012)
Wheeler J (2012) Occupy Homes buys time, gets jury trial for foreclosure case. Twin Cities Daily Planet 7 March http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2012/03/07/occupy-homes-buys-time-gets-jury-trial-foreclosure-case (last accessed 11 March 2012)