Life or Debt

What’s next for the fight to abolish debt?

By Eleni Schirmer

Art By Vanilla Chi

In August, when President Joe Biden finally announced a plan to cancel some student debt, we at the Debt Collective, the nation’s first union of debtors, had mixed reactions. After years of hemming and hawing, this was the best he could do? Ten to twenty thousand dollars of cancellation and a wonky process to get it? For many, the relief would barely scratch their loan balances or change their monthly payments. For days after the announcement, the Department of Education’s website kept crashing. It took two months for the application for cancellation to be made public. In the meantime, several right-wing groups have filed lawsuits, which could block the program altogether. Still — assuming the policy survives the legal fight — some 20 million people are supposed to have their student debts completely disappeared. Organized debtors opened a major crack in the logic of debt’s rule. 

At the Debt Collective, we were proud, but also angry and tired. We needed to take stock, assess our next moves. So, in early September, the national organizing staff made our way to Oxnard, California, a faded, working-class beach town just north of Los Angeles. Manny, an organizer who lives in South Central L.A., picked Braxton and me up from the airport to drive up the coast. When we took the Oxnard exit from the freeway, we unrolled the windows and let the night’s thick, salty air tell us the ocean was close. But it wasn’t until the next morning, when I shuffled outside with a cup of coffee and jet lag, that I understood where exactly we were. The Pacific Ocean, swollen from a recent storm, heaved in and out, and every so often, a pelican threaded itself through the curl of a wave. I squinted at the horizon, trying to tell if the tide was coming in or going out. 

By the time everyone else woke up, the sun had started to clear the cloud cover. We spread out on chairs, an oversized couch, and the floor. Paul, a tech genius, fiddled with a projector, and soon our agenda glowed on the wall. Meanwhile, I kept stealing glances at my comrades, half of whom I was meeting in person for the first time. Faces that had been flickering pixels were now flesh and blood, sitting next to me. I couldn’t stop grinning. A long year of Zoom meetings and Google Docs and Slack threads came into new focus. We had helped to make something happen that wasn’t supposed to. 

For many, debt is a private, shameful matter, endured painfully and alone. Creditors invoice for monetary sums and a moral order. Debt imposes guilt upon the borrower. “If history shows us anything,” explains David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt — above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.” 

To organize around debt is to assert otherwise: that we are not a loan. At the Debt Collective we say phrases like this a lot, because they’re true. Here’s another one: People aren’t in debt because they’ve lived beyond their means; people are in debt because they’ve been denied the means to live. Most Americans have no choice but to borrow money to go to college, to visit a doctor, to stave off eviction notices, to release a loved one from prison, to keep a car that might also be our means to a job (or even our home). 

Of course, organizing debtors who are often cloaked in shame poses some practical, if not ontological, challenges. How does one call a meeting of debtors, when debtors are typically reluctant to even see, much less publicly reveal, themselves as such? It’s a funny thing to say to people: That secret balance that wakes you up in the middle of the night? That is actually a basis of power. Those unopened notices shoved in a drawer? These are tickets to our freedom. 

The point of organizing isn’t to produce a one-person protest; it is to turn all the little wavelets into a collective tide.

The student debt fight has encouraged people to eschew the trap of the pathologized, individual debtor and see themselves instead as part of a broader class. When I wrote an article about the rise of aging student debtors this year, messages from older people in the same situation flooded my inbox. Many had read the piece holding their breath, choking back tears. They had thought they were alone. Newly inspired, hundreds of people over age 50 have since pledged to go on “debt strike” — to not make loan payments — if a three-year payment pause ends in January, as Biden’s current plan would have it. [Ed. note: Biden has since extended the pause into summer 2023.

In that living room in Oxnard, we considered how to use momentum from the student debt win to build the fight for other debt abolition. We often quip that we wish student debt would be canceled not just because it is a bullshit, regressive, reactionary commodification of knowledge, but also because it’s taking up all of our time that could be used to tackle other odious debts: bail posted by a mother for her incarcerated child, the cost of detox treatment for someone gripped with addiction, the rent a woman puts on her credit card after finally leaving a bad relationship and getting her own place. 

But can all debts be approached in the same manner? Carceral debts — the debts assumed from contact with the criminal legal system — are most often held by people who are not themselves incarcerated or charged: mothers, partners, siblings. The Debt Collective has developed a legal toolkit to help Californians challenge their bail debt, but projects like that are just a start. For Manny, our carceral debt organizer, merely finding eligible debtors is itself an organizing project. Housing debt is different. Typically, the métier of debt is time: Creditors strive to prolong indebtedness in order to trap borrowers in a profitable cycle of fees and interest. But René, our housing organizer, noted that with housing debt, the point is to force an eviction: to dispossess rather than indenture. So the necessary tactic here may be to occupy, to squat, to rent strike. Medical debt, on the other hand, saddles itself to the body, as Lindsey, our medical debt organizer, explained. Past-due medical bills often prevent people from seeking care, just as the fear of hypothetical future medical bills dissuades them from accessing care to begin with. People remain sick to evade debt. The terms quickly become stark: life or debt. 

While the debt types may be different, the creditors are often the same. René put up a slide of a bunch of old white men in suits. This is the legion of doom, he said, the owners of the world’s largest private equity companies. We laughed, but his point was important. The same major private equity firms that invest in prisons and for-profit colleges also privatize emergency room services and own the world’s stocks of rental housing. Debtors, when united across debt types, could dethrone the legion of doom. The question is how, and through what means. Up to this point, the Debt Collective has approached debt sector by sector — isolating a debt type’s specific wiring in order to deactivate it. In the student debt fight, for example, we’ve gone after the federal government’s executive office because the president has legal power to cancel student debts. For medical debt, we’re aiming at the nonprofit hospitals who receive millions of dollars of tax breaks for supposedly providing free medical care, but in fact load their patients with debt. Through medical debtors’ assemblies and community debt clinics, medicals debtors are starting to collective assert they can’t pay — and they shouldn’t have to. Eventually, we hope to target a strike not around debt type but against a creditor — to withhold payment on all accounts owned by, say, the global investment firm Blackstone, be they medical bills or apartment rents. This is the long game. 

The creditors are the same, and the debtors are too. At some point, debt’s divisions collapse. Student debtors are medical debtors are housing debtors are carceral debtors. We organize specific strategies for specific debt types but aim for more: to create an overarching political identity for all debtors. But how? We work to dial our identities into both finer and broader terms. Debt does not yoke us all equally. Black women face higher student debt costs than white men — yet solidarity may be forged, nonetheless. At the Debt Collective, a signature organizing strategy is a debtor’s assembly, a gathering where people publicly reveal their debts. Earlier this year, hundreds of student debtors gathered at the Department of Education for one such assembly. Person after person took the mic to share their loan balance, the numbers of years they’ve carried it, the freedoms it has obliterated. But surely many of these people also had credit card debt, auto debt, medical debt, bail debt. We just didn’t ask.

At the retreat, we joked that in our next phase of organizing, we will need to facilitate one-person debtors’ assemblies in which a single soul testifies to their many debt types. “My name is Mark, and I am a housing debtor, a medical debtor, and student debtor,” the assembly would begin. It’s a funny image because it sort of gets at the idea, but also not at all. The point of organizing isn’t to produce a one-person protest; it is to turn all the little wavelets into a collective tide. 

Creditors invoice for monetary sums and a moral order. Debt imposes guilt upon the borrower.

More than organizing for all debts disappeared, we are organizing for the world beyond debt. Free college for all, universal health care, affordable social housing, no prisons. Debt is the cost we all pay for not having public, democratic, reparative social goods to begin with. What are the debts we actually owe each other? Organizing debtors is a path to a world built around these questions. Hopefully it takes less than 5,000 years to get us there. 

After the first day of the retreat, I took a walk on the near-empty beach. Quick little birds scuttled in the surf, and bouquets of algae lay strewn on the wet sand. I thought about what a union of debtors calls into being, a world that seems impossible until it becomes inevitable. I waded out to the place where the sand becomes the waves, and I cupped my eyes. The tide was coming in. 

Eleni Schirmer is a writer and a postdoc fellow at Concordia University’s Social Justice Centre in Montréal, Québec. She organizes with the Debt Collective.