Debt is a tie that binds the 99%. As individuals, families, and communities, many of us are drowning in debt to Wall Street for the basics of life, food, housing, education, and health care. Even those of us who do not have personal debt are affected by predatory lending through our friends and families. Our essential public services are cut because our cities and towns are held hostage by the same big banks that have been bailed out by our government in recent years. Entire nations are suffering because of crushing debt to the World Bank and IMF, creating new forms of international slavery.
Debt keeps us isolated, ashamed, and afraid—of becoming homeless, of going hungry, of being crippled or killed by treatable illness, or of being trapped in poverty-level jobs. Those facing foreclosure, medical debt, student debt, or credit card debt feel alone, hounded by debt collectors, and forced into unrewarding work to keep up with payments.
In contemporary society, not only are students, consumers, home buyers, the sick and elderly drowning in debt, but also city and state governments, even whole nations, are in debt to the 1% and Wall Street. This is nothing new. Credit has played a crucial economic function for thousands of years. However, since control over the credit, banking and monetary systems has been in private hands, credit and debt have been used to enslave working people and the poor for thousands of years.
Resistance to such slavery is also as old as history. Debt cancellation is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian social teaching as well as socialist and anarchist thought. The Book of Leviticus refers to the Year of the Jubilee, in which all debts are cancelled, all slaves are freed, all land is restored to its original owners, and community is restored. Such debt cancellation is well documented in ancient Mesopotamian history.
This ancient social teaching has given rise to groups—such as Jubilee 2000 at the WTO protests in Seattle and the Jubilee USA Network—that call for the definitive cancellation of crushing debts to fight poverty and injustice in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The teaching of socialism also stresses the need for working class control over the credit system. The Communist Manifesto tells us that, as the working class organizes as a class, it “will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.” The specific measures include: “Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.”
The Paris Commune of 1871 attempted to implement this by issuing a decree providing for payment of all debts in installments over three years and abolition of interest on them. Marx termed this a “sagacious settlement” (The Civil War in France). The Commune was crushed by French troops within three months and therefore unable to implement this decree.
Also noteworthy is the work of the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, who played an important role in the formation of Occupy Wall Street. Graeber concludes his book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, by writing: “It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts in not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to arrange things in a different way.” (p. 390)
The Occupy movement has given rise to Strike Debt, formed to organize debt resistance and imagine and create a new world based on the common good, not Wall Street profits. Strike Debt Bay Area organized Oakland’s First Debtors’ Assembly on February 2, 2013, and is continuing to organize in the Bay Area.
Thus, the issue of debt cancellation is increasingly being raised within the social justice movement. The Platform of the Peace and Freedom Party does not as yet address the staggering student, consumer, and mortgage debts that are crushing working class families in California and elsewhere, but our Summary Platform already includes the following call to expropriate the banks: “Social ownership and democratic control of industry, financial institutions, and natural resources.”
Such socialization of the institutions of finance and credit would lay the basis for an open and democratic process to cancel those debts that are found to be illegitimate and unjust, a process that would undoubtedly focus on most student debt and the excessive fees, fines, and usurious interest rates associated with predatory lending. Perhaps this could be done through community Debt Cancellation Boards similar to, but more effective than, the Rent Control Boards in various cities in California and elsewhere. Or perhaps some other form of direct action might be appropriate.
The call for debt cancellation is a revolutionary proposal, appropriate for a socialist party such as Peace and Freedom. There have been significant efforts to reform the abuses of our credit and monetary systems, but such reforms can only temporarily relieve the abuses of what is essentially an exploitative, corrupt, unstable, and unjust financial system. These abuses, and the human suffering they entail, will continue as long as capitalism continues and as long as money, banking, and credit remain in the private hands of the 1% and are not under open and democratic control to serve the people. That’s why we need socialism. This call for debt cancellation is intended to move us toward this goal.
Eugene Ruyle, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies at California State University, Long Beach, was the Peace and Freedom candidate for State Assembly in 2012 in the 15th District (Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond), winning 25,167 votes, or 13.2% of the total. Ruyle is preparing another campaign for 2014. For further information, contact him at cuyleruyle [at] mac [dot] com or 510-428-1578..