Brian Holmes on Tue, 22 Nov 2011 04:42:24 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Debt Campaign Launch

On 11/21/2011 11:30 AM, Sascha D. Freudenheim wrote:

this feels less like a protest of and for the 99% and more like
"entitlement" under another name.

Sascha, you may or may not be interested in a radical change of the system we live under, but consider the views of someone who is.

Student loan debt, like home mortages, is is now an enforcer of the American Nightmare. Under this system, you work, not only to kill yourself, but to destroy the entire planet. To pay your student loan, you must work for a corporation and therefore abdicate all politics except that of compliance. To live in your suburban house you must have an automobile, and to afford for both of those you must rise through the corporate ranks. The job no longer covers your bills plus your debt so you must always borrow more. Those who are able to make such a lifestyle work (relatively few, in fact) are taken as the norm by a media oligopoly that numbs your mind and senses with incitements to consume, and therefore borrow. By abdicating all politics, accepting the dulling of your imagination and sensorium, and spending all your time working and driving in the car to pay back your loans, you participate in the system that leaves you void inside, generates deadly pollution in the air and water, and makes war for oil and other resources all over the world.

The greatest indignity is that they call this nightmare "the American Dream." Tellingly, some Republican senators even denatured the so-called "Dream Act" for the legalization of immigrant children with a clause that would allow those children, when they reach young adulthood, to gain American citizenship either by going to the university for two years or by going over to the Middle East and killing innocent people. This modification of the proposed legislation makes it crystal clear that the ticket to the American Dream and the functional equivalent of a college education is a gun in the service of empire.

Of course is not necessary to actively participate in the American Nightmare, and some have been able to largely avoid it. However, please do look at this story from the point of view of the people actually involved, who go to "public universities" that charge up to $10,000 a semester, plus all the other expenses. At the age of 20 everyone is told that going to college is exactly what they should do So they take the offered loans. After finishing, everyone who has done well is similarly encouraged to go on to grad school. So, with a good deal more nervousness, they take the offered loans. Until very recently everyone was constantly assured that college is the single most secure investment in your future (until you can afford a home, of course). Gary S. Becker, one of the high priests of neoliberal economics, even claims to have proved it. Therefore this system has reproduced itself at rising levels of self-contradiction, with the average sum of loans getting higher and higher and the compulsion to join the rat race getting firmer and firmer, while our entire culture has become a dog-eat-dog world of hyper-competition, frenetic Republicans, oppportunistic Democrats, predatory bankers, and always another boom, always another war, always another crisis.

Only after living through a decade with a fascist president and then electing a reformer who turns out to have much the same politics, while at the same time watching the ruling class ("the 1%") brazenly steal from the poor to give to the rich, have any significant number of people come to realize that they are "buying in" to a system that will make them "pay out" until they are just a withered husk of a meaningless life. In fact it begins making them "pay out" with usurious interests rates immediately upon graduating, especially if you happen to miss a month. Oh, and by the way, throw in the sheer impossibility for most people of ever getting a job that matches one's qualifications, or at this point, of ever getting a decent job of any sort, and there are really a lot of good reasons for not paying that loan.

Now, it is true and I do agree with you that the proposal to opt out of this system is often framed as something of little consequence: Just don't pay! You'll get off easy! But in reality, there will be great consequences. The refusal to pay is the refusal to be integrated to the American Dream Machine; and therefore, the beginning of a season of chaos here in the United States. 'Cause how can the Dream continue if everyone wakes up? There is a nascent understanding of these consequences, and it should be encouraged. It was said until two months ago that young people would never again revolt as they did in the Sixties, because there is no draft anymore and so the system does not affect them personally. But it turns out that unpayable debt affects not just students but also huge amounts of other people, very personally indeed. And when they go out to raise some questions about it in public space, the policeman's club and pepper spray and the ride in the paddy wagon where they are essentially told they have no rights also affects them very personally. So it looks as though this season of chaos, like a kind of political Indian Summer, is set to go on creating tumult for a while. When banks fail because students massively default on their loans, the economic crisis will deepen and more people will be out on the streets. It will become very important to decide which side you are on - and to have some influence on the side where you find yourself.

What I am trying to say, Sascha, is that this proposal for people not to pay their student loans is maybe something worth supporting, because rather than being about individual entitlement (entitlement to what exactly?) it could be part of a game-changing proposal for all of us. What's brewing in this "season of chaos" looks quite likely to be a disturbance of business-as-usual on the scale of the Sixties, but under much darker conditions, with climate change advancing and no option to believe in a new wave of industrial production and technological salvation. If you try to stop the process of social change because it oversteps the bounds that you consider normal and decent (as so many right-thinking liberals did in the Sixties) then you end up on the side of that "Silent Majority" in whose name Nixon unleashed incredible repression and outright class and race hatred, creating the conditions for the rise of the neocons who have done major damage to this country and the rest of the world. Instead of joining or even just silently condoning the conservative reaction which clearly will not be long in coming, why not think about the possibilities for actually changing the system? Why not work on positive proposals, not to keep people in their place, but to create new places, new life chances, a new and better organization of society? Why not encourage people to a revolt that can get us all out of the American Nightmare?

I understand your perplexity and that is why I am asking what I believe to be real and serious questions. I think this is a major crisis, and once again, the system has to change -- debts and all. The question is whether once again, everything will change so that everything stays the same (that was called neoliberalism), or whether we can actually solve some of the problems that were inherent in the American Dream.

best, Brian Holmes

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