The Rolling Jubilee & Its Discontents

by Andrew Loewen on November 14, 2012Comments Off

By now your Facebook or Twitter feed has likely alerted you to the Rolling Jubilee (RJ) campaign, an Occupy spinoff whose hard launch is tomorrow. The concept of a networked “people’s bailout” of distressed private debt seems to have instant appeal. But there’s some misconceptions about the campaign it’s worth dispelling immediately: 1) It’s not intended to be – and could never be – a broad approach to private debt 2) The tiny fraction of debt it will “abolish” will be primarily medical, as student loans and mortgages are legally inaccessible 3) It’s only the first phase, a kind of consciousness-raising tool, in what organizers hope is an escalating series of campaigns. Before highlighting some excellent discussion of the RJ, I think it’s worth pausing on the campaign’s appeal. Framed as a form of mutual aid (not charity) the RJ underlines how government has bailed out banks and speculators – capitalists – at the expense of the people. And it seeks to break down the stigma of personal debt, which is itself only a function of savagely suppressed wages, predatory lending, and exploitative and inhumane systems of health care and education. The Rolling Jubilee appeals to Americans’ desire to care for one another and find common cause amidst shared circumstances of economic oppression. Whatever its technical or political failings, the campaign represents something socially profound.

So, what’s not to love about the campaign? Well, possibly a lot. To get a sense of the stakes, there’s a great dialogue between organizer Andrew Ross and labor historian Seth Ackerman at Dissent. Ackerman is skeptical of the focus on debt as a social lever and as such has a very lucid but comradely critique of the RJ campaign and the focus on debt more broadly. Next up, another friendly critique from Doug Henwood who highlights the technical trappings of the campaign and stresses that the most effective way to liberate people from debt is to educate about and advocate for personal bankruptcy (a much better option for many Americans than they’ve been led to believe). Finally, for a compelling overview of the history of US bankruptcy law and debt – like why is student debt, the cost of educating oneself, the most punitive and repressive debt there is? – Mike Konczal of The Roosevelt Institute provides the leading essay in a series on debt at The Boston Review.

In a panel discussion of debt hosted by n+1 magazine in spring, Konczal noted how thoroughly complicit Democrats have been in screwing over Americans on home and student debt:

For housing debt, you cannot reset a mortgage in bankruptcy. There’s a long debate why this is, but for a primary residence, you can’t do it. If you have a vacation home you can do it; if you have investment property, you can do it. If you’ve ever heard “cram down”–that’s one kind of inartful term–that is the change they were trying to make. They tried to make it in ’09. Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and President Obama chose not to push it. A lot of progressive senators tried to make it a condition for TARP. Larry Summers said, “No, it doesn’t need to be; we’ll get it later.” They showed no interest in doing this. An absolute shameful act of the Obama Administration.

Last quick point on student loans: If I am driving around while texting, and I negligently run over and kill a child, or if I am in a gambling institution and I have an 11 and the dealer has an ace, and I mistakenly double down and get a huge gambling debt—those kind of debts—hurting someone, killing someone, gambling debts—are treated less harshly under our bankruptcy code than the debts associated with trying to educate yourself. Student loans are the most repressive debts under the legal structures that we have. These are democratic bills! People voted for them. Hillary Clinton voted for the 2005 bankruptcy bill. Biden voted for it; Biden pushed it. These are things we have chosen, and they are incredibly repressive.

Meanwhile, as people embrace the admirable if problematic initiative of the Rolling Jubilee, the Obama Admin and House Republicans are busy negotiating some Grand Austerity for the 99%. Under bipartisan cover of the fictional “fiscal cliff,” President Hope Nope is almost certain to oversee significant cuts and/or regressive “reforms” to the crown jewels, the so-called “entitlements,” of American liberalism. Paul Krugman has been arguing to concede nothing and go over the edge, but I don’t think anyone – least of all military contractors – sees that happening. In fact, a recently leaked document has revealed the size of the axe Obama wanted to take to the welfare state’s skeletal frame in last summer’s scuttled “Grand Bargain”:

$25 billion in Medicaid cuts; $150 billion in higher Medicare premiums, deductibles, and co-pays; cuts in nutrition programs; increase in eligibility age for Medicare; and unspecified “benefit changes” to Social Security.

Thus contrary to Slavoj Žižek’s ill-timed and wrongheaded commentary about Obama in The Guardian yesterday, these days right-wing policy rules with the least opposition under a Democrat. As Corey Robin has explained so well: “Once upon a time Republicans were tax collectors for the welfare state. Now Democrats are the austerians of reactionary Keynesianism.” Let’s hope feel-good initiatives like the Rolling Jubilee don’t distract people from what’s coming down from on high.