Thursday, May 31, 2012

Crucial Read: A Statement from the Occupy Student Debt Campaign

Occupy Student Debt Campaign recently released a lengthy statement about their mission. They differentiate themselves from other groups - who are, in my view, reformist - quite well in this manifesto. I applaud their efforts, and encourage you to get involved with supporting and promoting their collective activism. The group truly understands a horizontal approach to attacking this monstrous problem. More than anything, the principles explained below demonstrate a keen awareness of how neoliberalism has destroyed higher education (and education overall) as a public good. This is at the heart of the problem, so no type of reform, which if anything were to pass would be utterly watered down, will suffice. Reform through legislation, though admirable, will not adequately address the crisis we are now facing. 

Here's their statement:

Everybody is now talking about the student debt crisis, but nothing is being done about it.

Thanks in large part to the great public amplifier of the Occupy movement, this year’s presidential contenders have been forced to embrace student loan reform as a talking point in their respective campaigns. But the debt relief being pushed by the Obama administration is a token gesture, aimed at getting some traction on the youth vote -- especially the more disillusioned or alienated student constituencies. Recent bills introduced in Congress -- Student Loan Forgiveness Act (H.R. 4170) and the Private Student Bankruptcy Fairness Act (H.R. 2028) -- have zero chance of passing in anything like their current form. Practically speaking, no reform program of any substance is on the legislative horizon, least of all one that would regulate the predatory lending practices of Wall Street banks.

The truth is that student debt relief is too important to be left to elected officials. They are chronically dependent on the financial backing of the lending industry, and are structurally incapable of addressing this crisis, let alone resolving it. As a result, reform initiatives such as Student Loan Justice and Forgive Student Debt (to Stimulate the Economy) that have been aimed at petitioning lawmakers have very little to show for all their hard effort.

The recent federal modifications in payment schedules are micro-cosmetic compared to the sea-change that is required to free debtors of their intolerable burdens and rescue higher education from its increasing use as a profit engine for financiers, asset speculators, and real estate developers. The pathway to this outcome does not lie in futile pleas for economic reform, but through a political movement, driven by self-empowerment and direct action on the part of debtors.

The Occupy Student Debt Campaign was launched at Zuccotti Park in November 2011 with the goal of building a student debt abolition movement. Our campaign is based on principles for which we believe there is widespread support

1) Free public education, through federal coverage of tuition fees.
2) Zero-interest student loans, so that no one can profit from them
3) Fiscal transparency at all universities, public as well as private
4) The elimination of current student debt, through a single act of relief.

These are interlocking principles, and should not stand on their own. Imagine a world in which lawmakers were to respond positively to the current calls for debt “forgiveness” (an unfortunate term that implies the debtor has sinned). Such a measure would offer much-needed relief, but it would still disadvantage future debtors if it were not complemented by remedies that brought to an end the practice of compelling students to privately fund higher education by going into debt bondage. So, too, a singular focus on reducing interest rates (even to zero) is more likely to encourage colleges to increase their fees than to open up equitable access to education.

In light of Wall Street’s stranglehold on Congress, the Occupy Student Debt Campaign holds that alternative strategies are necessary to promote and publicize our principles. That is why it endorses the practice of debt refusal as a legitimate response to the predicament of individuals and communities targeted by predatory lenders, or by state officials seeking to pass on the costs of the financial crisis in the guise of austerity measures. Greece, Chile, England, Italy, Spain, and Quebec have all seen popular revolts against government efforts to preserve, and extend, the power of financial elites to discipline selected populations. With each new outbreak of people’s voices, the imposition of debt is publicly exposed, not simply as a means of redistributing wealth upwards, but also as an instrument of social control.
Under current U.S. laws, defaulting on a student debt carries serious penalties. These laws are unjust, but they are a sharp deterrent to individuals who might otherwise consider refusing their debts. In response, our campaign advocates collective action. Even in its absence, the default rates are accelerating, with alarming consequences. Our Pledge of Refusal is framed as a debt strike threat (debtors pledge to withhold payments once a million others have signed). We welcome, and will support, other forms of debt refusal/strike that are consistent with the aim of building a broad political movement.          

The culture of honoring all debts, even those unjustly incurred, is not universally respected, least of all on Wall Street. Loans are new forms of money and credit. They are created from nothing for the ultimate benefit of the lender; they are little more than numbers on a computer screen. Bankers know this, and so they treat their own debts accordingly, as matters to be renegotiated, restructured, or written off. Only the little people are supposed to pay in full. As this double standard becomes more and more apparent, debt refusal will emerge as the most rational response to an immoral predicament.
The struggle over wages was a defining feature of the industrial era. We believe that the struggle over debt will play a similar role in our own times. Not because wage-conflict is over (it never will be), but because debts, for most people, are the wages of the future.

Join Us!

The Occupy Student Debt Campaign
Twitter: @StdntDebtPledge
Facebook: OccupyStudentDebtCampaign

(N.B. Our campaign tactics differ from those who own the Occupy Student Debt domain name, and who have no relationship to Occupy Wall Street)


Anonymous said...


I know you have a tendency not to post comments that are not in agreement with your views but I will comment anyway. Hopefully you have changed that vice. I will attempt to give my thoughts on this subject because it is so personal to me.

My first thought: Is this some sort of a joke? Why would I voluntarily default on my loans when the end result is so dire?

Why would you promote this idea when it was promoted months ago and less than 4K out of 1 million signed? Various economists, student loan advocates, and speakers who all sympathize with student loan debtors agreed this was a bad idea.

Why would you actively support this idea when you personally have heard stories of the end result from so many borrowers who have defaulted?

Why would anyone default on a loan and put the financial health of their family (spouse and/or children) in jeopardy?

Why would I default on a loan when I have already paid tens of thousands of dollars on it...only to watch everything I paid eaten up in fees?

Is this an attempt to make a name for yourself?

Cryn Johannsen said...

@Anonymous - I post everything on this blog unless I am being defamed by my enemies who are intent on spreading lies. You know who they are . . .

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I could ever think of any reason why I would voluntarily default when it destroys your credit so much and your financial future.

Jurgis Rudkus said...

So, if you lost your job, had to live on less than $200 a week of unemployment insurance, and had to choose between eating and paying your rent and making those loan payments, you'd starve to death to keep from defaulting?

Cryn Johannsen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cryn Johannsen said...

@Jurgis - good question. The tone of these remarks, and they aren't just here, is judgmental. It is clear that those who are FORCED into default aren't thought about by such individuals. At least it seems that way. They also didn't read the statement that closely, because the concept is COLLECTIVE. Plus, this is not uncommon. This can be done, and it HAS been done.

Anonymous said...

A lengthy response could be written as to why 3 of the 4 principles won't work in reality, but to put it briefly - nothing is free.

If the movement is asking taxpayers to pay for all public higher education tuition, give out 0% interest loans (BTW, it's not accurate to say that no one would profit - the borrower is much better off), and write-off $1 trillion in student loan debt, it's unlikely to garner widespread support.

Bottom line - the movement is justified in pointing out the outrageous costs of higher education, but if they're asking other people to pay for practically all of their college expenses, this campaign won't be successful, to put it kindly.

Cryn Johannsen said...

If you are trapped in a neoliberal mindset, you say things like, "nothing is free." In fact, higher education in a number of other countries IS free, and better yet, they PAY for people to be educated! Here, the UC system USED to be free, and so was - if memory serves me - CUNY. So, you're wrong. It is possible to make higher ed free. This is not some fanciful idea, and there are models we could follow. We need to stop the wars and reallocate those funds.

Anonymous said...


The answer to your question is no. Eating is more important than paying student loans. The tone of this Statement is that people should default even if they can still pay. Hence, "voluntarily default" not stop paying if you cannot pay as you suggested. There is a huge difference.

Cryn: the tone of the comments may be judgmental (I don't read them that way but I guess you do) but I think this is ok because the topic is so serious and the idea proposed is very dangerous. One more thing: Collective action or not, people have read it closely. Collective default of one million DOES NOT EVEN GUARANTEE that it will work. One thing is for sure: one million people WILL put themselves and their families in financial peril.

As far as not seeing defaulters as individuals, I am not sure of your point here....wouldn't a strategic defaulter become an unperson as well?

Anonymous said...

All education does matter. Let's start with an education in economics.

Nothing is free.

Somebody has to pay for it.

Taxpayers do not want to foot the bill for every kid's college education. In case you didn't notice, the nation is already bankrupt.

Cryn Johannsen said...

So, you prefer that your tax dollars go to pay for wars and killing people?

Your tax dollars also go to fund the lending industry and pay collectors hefty salaries to go after borrowers.

I know economics, but thanks for the condescending remark about that. I urge you to read some Krugman and Keynes.

And you are aware that the UC system here, and also CUNY, were free, right? There are other countries that fund higher education, and we used to be one of them.