Life After Debt: Why America Needs an Anti-Capitalist Left
Does America need a Left? Yes, very much. We need a Left that rejects a vision of politics based on the expansion of an unjust economic system, which is to say that we need a Left that rejects James Livingston’s advice that we “compromise with the world as it actually exists.” This is not a call to reject pragmatism, but rather to acknowledge that the “world as it actually exists” has for too long been defined through reactionary terms. We argue instead for an activist, avowedly anti-capitalist Left, one that seeks to tear away the constraints that have impeded necessary, fundamental change.
Unfortunately, this Left, though it exists in fragments, is overshadowed in the United States. Those who would claim the mantle of the Left have tried for too long to advance their goals by appeasing the Right, hoping, misguidedly, to find common cause and to compromise their way into a better world. The progressive movement—the institutions, think tanks, pundits, and politicians that currently stand in as the serious spokespeople of the Left—speaks of “good jobs,” “economic growth,” and “regulated markets,” appealing to a mythical middle ground that has never and cannot exist. By capitulating the very terms of engagement to conservatives, progressives have distorted their message and acted against the interests they purport to serve.
America needs a Left that does not, as Michael Lerner noted, approach the question of social change in an “economistic” fashion. The progressives that dominate political discussion and action share in common a vision of change as emerging via market mechanisms. This mainstream Left is beyond rehabilitation. We believe, like Eli Zaretsky, that “progress is blocked by the same internal capitalist dynamic that created progress in the first place.” We must counter capitalism not by appealing to it, but by opening space for people to no longer be dominated by its logics. The demand for such a Left is undeniable. What’s missing is only the political will to see it through.
The reactionary logic that defines the Right—and that a self-aware Left must struggle against—is most visible in appeals to market values. Most progressive individuals and organizations, including unions, Democratic lawmakers, and media personalities, cannot be counted on to promote systemic analyses that question whether human needs can be provided via market mechanisms. For example, Nation writer John Nichols recently critiqued Congress’s 2014 austerity budget because it fails to do what is presumably the only other option for countering inequality and human suffering: “promote economic growth [and] job creation.” Economist Jared Bernstein has repeatedly made the Keynesian claim that the solution to recession is “full employment” combined with expert oversight of markets. Nichols and Bernstein did not invent this rhetoric; these are examples of how progressive journalists and policy experts have generally come to accept that markets are the way to create a more humane world.
The Left we need can learn from and build on the Left of the past, but it also must be attuned to present conditions and circumstances and not be afraid to experiment with new forms of organizing and advocacy. The average young person is facing skyrocketing costs for education and a future of employment precarity. How can the Left speak to their urgent concerns and convince them that collective action is worthwhile? The progressive Left is not up to the job because they most fervently dream of a technocratic solution that preserves all of the structural features of the current state of affairs. Dominant themes of “job creation” coming from both major political parties make it seem as if access to a job—any job—is the only right we have.
The Individualization of Human Needs
Solutions to the horrors of finance capitalism that are predicated on providing basic needs via commercial transactions are embedded in market values that “crowd out” the values of fairness and justice that ought to form the foundation of a social movement on the Left. The contemporary twist of virtually requiring that most people go into enormous debt to secure those things to which every person is entitled has made markets even more deadly. Forty percent of households have used credit cards to pay for basic living expenses. When people are required to mortgage a sizable portion of their future earnings to pay for price-inelastic goods and services, a spiral begins that drives prices for those things ever upward, constrained only by the ability of lenders to offer longer-term, more “creative,” financing instruments. The story is familiar: as health care, housing, and education have become debt financed, their price has risen more quickly than the rate of inflation. It is no surprise that almost three-quarters of Americans are in debt, often for basic needs.
It was debt that prompted us to become more engaged political activists. After participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement and noting how many occupiers were in debt, we wanted to draw attention to how debt works as a tool of exploitation. In 2012, we helped launch Strike Debt and assisted in the creation of the Rolling Jubilee project. We used thousands of small, individual donations to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy distressed medical debt for pennies on the dollar, and then we abolished it.
Even before the campaign officially began, we started receiving desperate letters from debtors who wanted our help. We heard from people whose finances had been destroyed after a medical diagnosis. We heard from former students whose loan payments had ballooned to amounts unpayable in a lifetime. We heard from families trying against all odds to save their homes in foreclosure. Our experience organizing the Jubilee and hearing people’s stories demonstrated with sharp clarity how private markets have already failed to provide basic needs to millions.
What is most devastating about debt, from an ideological standpoint, is how it affects our understanding of social relations. Most people think that their own debt is unique, a product of their particular circumstances and choices. Of the thousands who wrote to Rolling Jubilee organizers asking for help, most didn’t understand that, while we all live unique lives, nearly everyone deserves personal debt relief. Instead, they saw their debt as their own “fault,” as a product of extraordinary circumstances that they must suffer through alone. Even though tens of millions of us are drowning in debt, we rarely see each other as in the same boat. The realization that individual suffering is a social problem prompted us to view debt as one tool in the ongoing individualization of human needs within capitalism.
This is a primary failing of the progressive vanguard: they have helped to further, not counter, the individualization of basic needs. Those who seek to provide and expand public services via market mechanisms are helping to spread the isolating and destructive message that we are all individually responsible for acquiring essential goods and services, and that whatever debt we incur for that purpose is our own burden to bear.
Medical Debt and Student Debt
Take, for example, the signature achievement of the Progressive President, the national health insurance subsidy known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This “solution” to the problem of tens of millions of Americans without access to quality medical care embeds market mechanisms at its very core: state and federal “exchanges” offer choices among profit-centric insurance plans. In subsidizing insurance companies and enforcing a tiered system, the ACA only cements the reactionary decree that health care is an individual responsibility and that medical debt is a catastrophe to be borne in private, at your own expense. It is instructive that the Massachusetts state health insurance system, upon which Obamacare was explicitly modeled, has not seen any reduction in the rate of medical bankruptcy in the ten years it has been in effect. Unfortunately, progressives have been the loudest voices in favor of the ACA. In one telling online interview, progressive economist and Obamacare supporter Dean Baker chastised Dr. Margaret Flowers, a vocal proponent of a single-payer health program, for not being “realistic.” This is the kind of “spineless” liberalism identified by Zaretsky.
Debt and the related individualization of public goods have also constrained the scope of possibility in higher education, where debt financing has become the norm. Higher education, once funded as a public good, is now widely treated as a commodity, as a product that individuals must purchase for themselves, in the hope of—again, in the language of the market—staying “competitive” against fellow human beings for the least inhumane jobs and for a chance at a decent life.
In 2013, President Obama utilized these themes when he vowed to address the exploding costs that have burdened two generations of families with over one trillion dollars in student debt. Obama’s plan, though, is little more than a neoliberal technocratic fix draped in the garb of progressivism. The administration has proposed ranking colleges based on various metrics such as each institution’s graduation rate and on graduates’ post-college earnings. In this scheme, colleges would be judged and funded based on their “value” to student-consumers. Obama’s proposal quite literally makes the case that the primary failure of the higher education system is that it is an inefficient communicator of economic value. If only students could better understand exactly how much money they will earn, he suggests, they could make better choices. Gone is the commitment, once strongly associated with liberalism, to value educated citizens as a benefit to us all.
The liberal project of pre-emptive compromise with the political Right has given us numerous market-based reforms that have contributed to the debt-financing of what should be public goods. This represents a fundamental failure of Left imagination. It seems that no matter what progressives promote, their proposals are routinely framed not as a call for justice but as a stimulus for what they presume we really need: a kinder, gentler—and most importantly, expanded—capitalism.
To what purpose? This strategy has certainly not borne its intended fruit of bipartisan harmony. As we described above, Obamacare is the quintessential submission to market logic, and yet the Right has launched an uncompromising assault: a withering media campaign, dozens of House bills and one government shutdown trying to defund it. It seems that capitulating to reactionary forces only compels them further into reaction. The result is that we have sacrificed real progress by hewing to a narrow definition of what is possible. Dreams denied would be preferable to these dreams aborted before even being conceived.
Making Utopian Demands
What might a positive Left program for the collective good, one that stops capitulating to logics of power, look like? We must have the resolve to insist that essential needs be located firmly outside of the marketplace. We favor solutions based on providing essential goods and services, not on charging individuals for them. In the case of health care, the benefits of a nationalized system would be enormous: Physicians for a National Health Program has shown that a single-payer program would save $400 billion per year. In the case of education, many analysts, included researchers at Strike Debt, have shown that the United States could have a true public option for tuition-free higher education simply by redirecting existing subsidies.
Critically, we recognize that arguing for single-payer health care and tuition-free education as money-saving alternatives justifies them in the language of economic benefits; ultimately, we must avoid that trap just as we must reject the language of “reclaiming” the past. Socialist scholars Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin have argued that “there is in fact no possibility of going back to the largely mythical ‘mixed economy’ [that the] the New Deal and the Keynesian welfare state are imagined to have represented.” Arguing for free public education and for the collective funding of essential goods and services is not a nostalgic call for a return to a golden age that never was. We know that public education was virtually free decades ago when many people, including African Americans and low-income students, were largely excluded. We do not yearn for a return to those days. Instead, we believe it is important to make the case for fully funding all essential human needs in the short term because such demands offer a new way of thinking about social relations that has been crowded out of public discourse. In other words, we are in favor of what political theorist Kathi Weeks has called “utopian demands” that lay the groundwork for the more radical changes to come.
Making utopian demands allows us to support concrete changes to the current system while always keeping the horizon in view. It is the lack of focus, even desire, for that view that is a key failing of current Left thinking. This is one way to understand Occupy Wall Street’s much-maligned refusal to issue calls for specific reforms. People came to Occupy for many proximal reasons, from better bank regulations and environmental protections to ending racist policing. But the animating premise that united them was the search for a new way of living outside the default logic of capital. That the current political system has failed to respond to that desire in anything other than the language of capital underscores its fundamental inability to meet any demands worth offering. This is our primary objection to the current mode of being: that it forecloses the possibility of even dreaming of alternatives. As Zizek noted, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.
In the post-Occupy era, questioning market fundamentalism requires learning a new language. The discourse of “jobs and growth,” for example, is a reactionary egalitarianism that forces the present to fit itself into a past that never existed, rather than trying to shape a future that meets our ideals. The Left we need must allow us to admit that the world we want has not yet been brought to life, and we won’t get there by making it possible for a few more people to work harder and consume more products. A truly democratic society must be brought into being by the actions of us, now, without the aid of an historical blueprint or a how-to manual. As political theorist Corey Robin wrote, the Left should want “to give people the chance to do something else with their lives, something besides merely tending to it.… The way to do that is not to immerse people even more in the ways and means of the market, but to give them time and space to get out of it.”
Many people, including trade unionists, students, and community activists, are part of a broad and diverse Left. These groups are often invisible to pundits because they operate outside of the world of position-taking that preoccupies intellectuals and policy makers. Freed of the need to market themselves to pay for basic needs, what new ways to live might this neglected Left create? Without the logic of Capitalism crowding out other values, how might we all choose to relate to one another and what new forms of class power might we develop? Markets attempt to prescribe a particular form of social relation. We envision a Left that sees its primary purpose not as devising programs for a collective future but in creating space for people to imagine their own.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2014 print issue: Does America Need a Left? Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/left2014 to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)