East Bay Fights the Creditor Class

By Keith Spencer

There is an old one-liner that goes, “Buy this car to drive to work; drive to work to pay for this car.” Nowadays, a similar reasoning could be applied to college: “Take out loans to pay for college; go to college to get a job to pay off loans.”

Mountains of student debt change the purpose of college—from a time of intellectual exploration and cultivation of critical and humanistic thinking to career training. Student-loan debt—which doubled from $55.7 billion (in 2011 dollars) in 2001–2 to $113.4 billion in 2011–12—discourages students from studying any field that is not applied and encourages the perception of college as a private good rather than a social one. This attitude erodes democracy, which is predicated on having an educated citizenry capable of making informed voting decisions.

DSA is targeting student debt, which is a crucial part of a four-walled debt prison that traps us all. The image of a “debt square,” appropriately colored red, was adopted by the activist group Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, in 2011. The four corners symbolize student, medical, housing, and credit card debt, obligations that create virtual debt bondage for large numbers of people. Debt bondage—working in bondage to one’s creditor—stretches back to recorded history. In our own country, some estimate that almost half the colonists in what became the United States arrived as indentured servants who worked to pay off the price of their passage. But debt bondage wasn’t limited to ocean passage, and those whose crops or businesses failed or who suffered reverses could end up bound to work for their creditors until their debts were paid off. Sometimes, because of interest, this could mean their whole lives. Often, the debts of indentured servants could be passed on to their children.

Although indenture was outlawed by the 13th  amendment, as Carnegie Mellon University professor Jeffrey J. Williams notes, students are, in effect, the new indentured servants. Public student loans will be forgiven upon death if there is no money in the estate to pay them, but private, unsecured student loans are one of the few types of debt that cannot be abolished even in death. Bankruptcy does not discharge either private or public student debt. Like the indentured servants of the colonial age, many young Americans will be legally bound to assume the student debts of their parents if their parents’ estates do not leave enough to pay them off.

Almost half the country lives beyond its means and owes more than $10,000 per person in personal debt (not even counting cars and mortgages). This makes us a debtor nation or creditor society, but whatever you call it, creditors have the upper hand. And to a creditor, basic human rights—to education, health and housing—are private goods that we must spend a lifetime paying for.

We can see the end game by looking at Detroit, where the state, under right-wing Governor Rick Snyder, appointed an unelected manager who chose to pay off creditors—rich financial institutions—before paying the pensioners and city employees who spent years working for the city. Similarly, in the 2008 and ongoing financial crisis, the U.S. government bailed out banks—creditors—over people who suffered from their predatory actions.

 Resisting

In the Bay Area, a network of debt activists has been fighting across multiple fronts to educate about the issue of debt. The East Bay DSA chapter is involved with a number of groups related to student and household debt activism, including Strike Debt and East Bay Solidarity Network. One of the main goals of debt activists is to illustrate how personal and institutional debt connect. Speaking recently in Berkeley, Strike Debt activist and New York University Professor Andrew Ross blasted the double standard for banks and people: “Banks take out loans which they are never expected to repay, whereas individuals are held responsible and pressured to repay or suffer consequences.”

Berkeley_Post_Office_Defense__by_Sandy_Sanders.jpg

The power of creditors is also used to promote privatization.  Financial institutions fought for and won the Orwellian-named Postal Pension Reform Act of 2006 that would artificially bankrupt the United States Postal Service (USPS) by requiring prepayment of pensions for 75 years into the future. East Bay DSA has been closely involved in the struggle against privatizing the Berkeley Post Office. Protesters, including many DSA members, camped outside the beautiful Art Deco building in downtown Berkeley, leafleting passers-by and encouraging them to activism. Their efforts and those of others around the country have paid off. In response to public and union resistance, Congress blocked the immediate sale of USPS buildings. The fight against debt is difficult to wage.

We live in what Ross calls a “creditocracy”—a society in which the money-lenders possess the power and their ideology goes unquestioned; hence, activists must work to fight the shame that comes with having debt, encourage openness about one’s debts, and point out the hypocrisy and immorality underlying the logic of the creditor class.

 

Keith_Spencer2.jpgKeith Spencer is the executive editor of PopFront, a left coast political magazine. He has also written for Full Stop and Dissent. He lives in Oakland, Calif., and manages the Facebook page for national DSA.

 

 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

 

LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
· 66 rsvps

Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. John co-authored Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, which was quoted by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that ruled state sodomy laws unconstitutional. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Peg Strobel, peg.strobel@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 30 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT. Here's a blog post about PHIT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

April 04, 2017
· 85 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz, schwartzjoem@gmail.com.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

What Is DSA? Training Call

April 05, 2017
· 9 rsvps

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Feminist Working Group

April 12, 2017
· 28 rsvps

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

April 16, 2017
· 23 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 10 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.