Are Debtors the New Workers of the World?

Mass household indebtedness is a key feature of financialized capitalism, driving insecurity and sustaining poverty around the world. Could a union of debtors join forces to agitate for the abolition of all consumer debt?

The Debt Collective sets out to convince us that one identity is worth fighting for, organizing around, and forcing to the front of the line: that of the debtor. (Shunya Koide / Unsplash)

President-elect Joe Biden is considering plans for unilateral student debt cancellation. But it’s not just Biden: 235 organizations across the United States are united in calling for an executive order to erase student debt on day one of his presidency.

The debate now rages between those who believe its impact will be progressive or regressive, whether it will help high-income lawyers or low-income plumbers. But the salience of debt cancellation in the Biden transition makes one thing clear: debtors have arrived as a distinct constituency in American politics.

In the foreword to Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition, Astra Taylor describes the book as a “resource for everyone struggling to build a better world.” Coauthored by various members of the Debt Collective — founded in 2014 against the backdrop of the Occupy movement — Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay offers a powerful and concise account of finance capitalism and the dynamics of “accumulation by dispossession” through which mass indebtedness drives insecurity, sustains poverty, and generates massive inequality around the world.

True to its title, the book is also a rousing call to disobey the rentiers, building on the Debt Collective’s own experience winning over a billion dollars in debt cancellation — and to use this rebellion as a springboard to a new economy based on collective notions of “redress and repair.”

But the core of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay is a radical claim about political identity. In particular, the Debt Collective sets out to convince us that one identity is worth fighting for, organizing around, and forcing to the front of the line: that of the debtor. “We see indebtedness as a bond that ties us together across borders,” they write, “and we must use those bonds to push for a new social contract.”

To make this case, the authors of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay offer an analogy between the role of the worker in the age of manufacturing and the role of the debtor in the age of financialization — namely, as the key source of collective strength, the umbrella identity that can hold together an anti-capitalist coalition.

Imagine teachers, who are often buried in student debt, organizing along with their students for debt cancellation and free education. Imagine nurses organizing alongside their indebted patients for universal health care. Imagine borrowers acting in solidarity with striking workers. Imagine workers of all kinds refusing debts, in connection with a campaign for a federal job guarantee that promises everyone dignified, meaningful, well-paid, and ecologically sustainable work.

The solution? Debtor unions. “Taking inspiration from the labor movement, we believe debtors organized in a union can exercise material power over their common circumstances,” Astra Taylor writes in the book’s foreword.

The call for debtor unions marks a critical advance in the legacy of Occupy Wall Street. The dominant identity of the Occupy movement — that of the 99 percent — promised to congeal the country into one great mass, ready to be mobilized in a New Populist politics. Alas, that populist moment has come and gone. And perhaps good riddance: the identity of the “people” often obscured more than it revealed.

The identity of the debtor, by contrast, centers the experience of exploitation and — just as important — identifies the creditor as its antagonistic opposite. This spirit of antagonism arrives not a minute too late. With the 2008 financial crisis fading into distant history, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay offers an important reminder that the banks are still, in fact, screwing us — harder than ever.

But the simplicity of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’s core claim about political identity demands closer interrogation: What are we to make of the comparison of the worker and the debtor, of the labor union and the debtor’s?

The similarities are compelling. Like labor, debt is a fictitious commodity that is controlled by the very few and against the best interest of the very many. And like labor, debt is ultimately owned by the debtor, who — in association with fellow debtors — can go on strike to reclaim control of their conditions.

Alone, the debtor — like the worker — is a target of exploitation; together, debtors command great collective power. “Never forget: your debt is someone else’s asset,” the authors write. “Bits of our student loan, mortgage, credit card, and auto loan payments are pooled in order to make money for investors around the world.” If the financiers of today want to dress themselves up as the capitalists of yesterday — buying and trading financial instruments as if they were meat and milk — then debtors should dress themselves up as workers, and fight back just the same.

Critical differences between the worker and the debtor, however, sometimes strain the comparison. Consider the two dominant sources of household debt in the United States: the mortgage and the student loan. In both cases — homeownership and university education — the origins of debt accumulation appear as a secondary, rather than primary site of exploitation, less born of the imperative to survive than the aspiration to climb.

The creditor class, in other words, preys on dreams of upward mobility. Students and homeowners are drowning in debt, but is their debt merely a symptom of the liberal market economics, or the disease itself?

Considerations of debt’s origin raise questions about its distribution. The crisis of debt is hardly confined to working people; on the contrary, it is corporate debt that has seen the largest expansion over the last half-century. The authors attempt to work around the question of distribution by pointing to the “double standard” that applies to the management of debt across classes. “At the very top of the wealth pyramid, the rules that keep the little people in line don’t apply.”

In the book, debt often becomes “exploitative” debt, or “unjust” debt, suggesting boundaries around the debtor identity that are never openly or conclusively drawn. Who can be a member of the debtor union? How capacious is this identity? Whom does it exclude?

These are fundamental criteria on which to evaluate Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’s core claim about the utility of the debtor identity — criteria that invite further comparison. Consider another identity that has become increasingly central to the politics of liberal market capitalism: that of the consumer.

Consumers, like debtors, are treated as solitary units with individual preferences, needs, and tastes. Consumers, like debtors, hold tremendous collective power to shape the production process in capitalist economies. And consumers, like debtors, can realize that power and strike against corporations to demand better conditions for themselves and for the factory workers on the other side of the supply chain.

Yet calls to rally around the consumer identity often yield skepticism, if not condemnation. Why? Possibly because the identity of the consumer lumps together groups that otherwise lock horns in class war. The same might well be said of the worker identity, which presupposes shared interests between all wage earners, regardless of occupation or income.

And the same still holds true in the case of the debtor. The authors see this as a strength: “Mass indebtedness is a social condition that lays the groundwork for the kind of cross-class, multiracial coalition we desperately need to actually target capitalism.” Others might question the prospects of a cross-class alliance dismantling a system that is premised on cross-class domination.

I suspect, however, that the more fundamental objection to the consumer is not its class composition, but the horizon of its ambition. Every political identity contains not only an analysis of the present, but a proposal for the future. The worker identity — for better or for worse — binds us to our productive capacity, and sets a utopian horizon on this basis: a future where we decide democratically what we want to produce, and own the fruit of that productive process. The consumer identity, by contrast, promises only a tweaked status quo. It is an identity so bound to capitalism that even a militant consumer movement would only serve to confuse our sense of worth with our capacity to buy.

What about the debtor? What is the vision of the future that is contained in this identity? And what is the horizon of possibility set out in Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay? Here, the book finds its true strength, because — against its title — the Debt Collective goes far beyond a call for disobedience, or debt forgiveness.

Instead, the authors advocate a radical form of “debt abolition,” which they define not only in the negative sense — a world without — but also in the positive sense, “a world with social housing, health care, education, art, and meaningful work, and a life free from state violence and material want.”

There is some conceptual slippage here. “Debt abolition” does not really mean the abolition of debt, but “a world without exploitative debt contracts.” Critics of the late David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years will find similar fault in Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’s slide into Manichean thinking, in which debt becomes something bad to be abolished, rather than something neutral that can be made bad under specific circumstances.

“There is a fine line between considering forms of money or credit as expressing our social relations, and producing them,” the Aufheben collective wrote in a withering review of Graeber’s Debt years ago. Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay will find similar criticism among a certain section of the political economy commentariat.

Luckily, the book really isn’t for them. Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay is less about the mechanics of finance than their meaning in the lives of billions of people around the world. And it is from this focus on personal meaning that the book derives its political power, plucking an identity that is associated with so much shame and silent suffering, and charging it with a new collective power to throw sand in the gears of capitalism.

It is all too easy to imagine that the identity of the worker is inbuilt, an eternal companion to the productive process. But this identity took centuries of thinking, writing, organizing, and fighting to come to the fore — and it has powered movements for justice, peace, and prosperity ever since.

Perhaps the debtor can do the same today, linking so many struggles against exploitation in a common identity, and powering our fight for a future based on mutual care and “reparative public goods.” Because, as the Debt Collective’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay reminds us, you are not a loan, and together, we own the bank.