You are a college student. You are probably totally in debt. Your family might have medical debt from when you got appendicitis last semester and had to be rushed to the emergency room in an ambulance. Or they might have housing debt after buying property in an expensive suburban area for the good schools. Automobile debt from when you got that car last summer. Credit card debt from Christmas. Student loan debt so you could be here, at this university. How much debt do you think your family has? Think of a number and remember that number.
Credit card debt for the average American is $15,191, mortgage debt is $154,365 and student loan debt is $33,607. In total, American consumers owe $11.68 trillion in debt. 46 percent of college grads are back living in their childhood bedrooms, so get excited.
Ali Aslam wants to know, “Are you surprised by these numbers?” He came to the University of Puget Sound on Wednesday, April 16 to give a lecture on the subject. He discussed what American acceptance and stigmatization of consumer debt says about our conception of democratic rule and freedom. Aslam is a political theorist and lecturer at Princeton University. He studies the relationships among contemporary architecture, democratic politics and ethics. His lecture, titled “Transforming Ordinary: Strike Debt’s Jubilee,” looked at the resistance movement Strike Debt and how it responds to contemporary democratic theory.
Strike Debt, an offshoot of the 2011 movement Occupy Wall Street, defines itself as “a nationwide movement of debt resisters fighting for economic justice and democratic freedom.” Strike Debt wants you to know that if you’re in debt, or your family is in debt, you’re not the only one.
Their slogan says, “You are not alone. You are not a loan.” The movement’s website offers an instruction guide called The Debt Resistor’s Operations Manual, which shows you how to negotiate with and resist debt collectors (you can read the manual online or buy a print copy.) Strike Debt also buys the debt of anonymous people for pennies on the dollar and instead of collecting it, they eliminate it. They call it their “Rolling Debt Jubilee.” So far, they have abolished over 14 million dollars worth of consumer debt.
What is interesting about the Strike Debt movement, Aslam says, is that it moves what Americans have for years considered a private issue into the public realm. Americans typically consider debt as shameful and believe that in acquiring it, they have failed. This is because we often take on debt as “rational self-investment.” We think of ourselves as capital and seek returns on investments in education, housing, automobiles and our health.
Aslam says that the Strike Debt movement is trying to mitigate this sense of failure by replacing it with a sense of solidarity. We are all in this together.
“[Debt] is who we are,” Aslam says. Debt dictates everything for us and has an enormous bearing on the possibilities we can cultivate for ourselves. And the capitalist mindset pervades the way we think about other non-market activities as well.
Aslam says that the three political questions Americans ask of any issue are: 1. Does this create jobs? 2. Does this grow the economy? 3. Does this make America stronger? Aslam wonders why are these the only questions we’re asking. We don’t ask what’s good for democracy or what’s good for equality. He questions what our passive acceptance of personal debt says about our conception of democratic freedom and our resistance to challenge the status quo.
Freshman Taylar Vajda attended the lecture and generally agreed with Aslam. “I think Ali Aslam presented a really interesting aspect of debt, and debt intervention, that I hadn’t really thought of before. I’ve never thought of the societal effects of debt and how we are taught to believe it is a shameful condition of our own choosing. Organizations like Strike Debt present a really unique outlook on one way to fix this problem nationally,” she said.
To find out more, you can go to StrikeDebt.org.