View all of Issue 4: "Governance Reimagined"

Debt as Power: From Shame to Possibility

a campaign to buy debt for pennies on the dollar, with a variety show and telethon in 2012.

Strike Debt launched The Rolling Jubilee, a campaign to buy debt for pennies on the dollar, with a variety show and telethon in 2012. Photos courtesy of Not An Alternative.

Editor’s Note

The Debt Collective is a pro-union membership organization consisting of debtors, activists, and academics that has successfully eliminated over a billion dollars in debt and boosted collective bargaining as a key weapon in the fight to end Americans’ financial despair. It developed out of two previous campaigns that came out of the Occupy movement, Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee: the former encouraged collective action and offered advice to escape the predatory debt system; the latter bought medical and student debts for pennies on the dollar to write them off. While both provided some good wins, these strategies had limits.

A new idea, Debt Collective, was established in 2014 by Hannah Appel, Thomas Gokey, Laura Hanna, Luke Herrine, Ann Larson, and Astra Taylor to make further progress. The Debt Collective helped aggrieved students from the for-profit Corinthian College to go on strike by withholding loan payments and won cancelation for about $1 billion. That protest helped build the foundation for the new loan-cancellation plans popular today. 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren proposed eliminating up to $50,000 of debt for each student, and soon after Bernie Sanders proposed eliminating all of it. We asked Thomas Gokey and Laura Hanna, two of the co-founders of Debt Collective to talk about the evolving language around debt and the organizing potential of debtor unions.

THOMAS GOKEY: Looking back to the founding of Debt Collective, the thing that I was just totally wrong about was this emphasis on scale—this idea that we would need millions of people to go on strike to have any real power. When we actually did launch the first student debt strike a few years after that, it started small with 15 people and then it quickly grew to a couple thousand people, which was still a relatively small number of people. But it had such moral force behind it, and it had such media attention behind it, that a strike that started with 15 people has now resulted in over $1 billion worth of debt discharged. That is a pretty good ratio for the number of strikers to the amount of debt! So, it makes me think that if we are going to get rid of all $1.7 trillion of student debt—or $80 billion worth of medical debt—so long as the moral force is there, the numbers can start out smaller potentially. I still think the sky’s the limit if we can get millions of people to go on strike though!

LAURA HANNA: Yes, that’s interesting… there’s slippage between what we would perceive as symbolic power or symbolic gesture versus real power. That was something we definitely worked with and learned from in our earlier work. I think we need to understand power in different ways and leverage speech through different platforms, and really continue to build and leverage collective speech. It reminds me of a conversation that I had with Debt Strike co-founder Astra Taylor where we were talking about speech within labor organizing and that collective bargaining in a strike was considered speech. We can get so caught up elevating individual activists, writers, or so-called thought leaders speaking their mind—the individual—that focusing on what collective speech is and how to build power using it is interesting to me. I think that that’s a different type of power.

I’ve also been thinking about the language. Our work has basically entered into the electoral cycle and that’s a really important thing to celebrate and continue to think critically about. There is a difference in the language we use. While we think and talk about debt abolition, the mainstream political and electoral space talk about debt cancellation. We’ve had a lot of conversations with other activists or advocates around that language. I still prefer “abolition” because the language points to ending a systemic harm rather than simply cancelling out an action. I also like the language of “reparative public goods.” There are also other good organizers and activists working on reparative public goods as a project, and I think that our work fits into that. Reparative public goods puts race at the center of the demand for public goods. So the debtors’ movement recognises that not all debt is experienced in the same way because of racialized capitalism and the privatization of public goods as an attempt to deny people access to their rights. While we are challenged around a whole set of problems, I do feel like there is much more action and a kind of coordinated opposition. We have a campaign that we are about to launch on the next student debt strike, and we are always thinking about what motivates people to make demands for public goods and whether people will be willing to stop cooperating in a certain way.

a campaign to buy debt for pennies on the dollar, with a variety show and telethon in 2012.

Strike Debt launched The Rolling Jubilee, a campaign to buy debt for pennies on the dollar, with a variety show and telethon in 2012. Photos courtesy of Not An Alternative.

I think that climate change is a very large factor now, and that student debtors might be more likely to go on a student debt strike in connection with a Green New Deal or a broader transition; so that’s something that we need to think about and, of course, how we talk about those connections is critical for organizing purposes. Climate change activists are looking at the economy and thinking about strikes in different ways, many activists are younger, and people are searching for new ways to assert power and build leverage. That’s on my mind a lot lately. But noting that debt cancellation is now mainstream, that two candidates have talked about it, that they have relied on our work specifically to address solving the problem is really exciting.

THOMAS: The landscape really has shifted dramatically. And, you know, even people like Sanders and Warren have shifted dramatically. If you look at some of the legislation that they were introducing several years ago, it wasn’t that great. But I certainly welcome the massive shift in the landscape.

LAURA: The Right has had the resources to build institutional power that the Left lacks. It is disturbing to see how rightwing mainstream media shapes our public. In the United States we do not use words like “austerity.” By focusing on debt rather than austerity one can cut off the possibility of a systemic narrative and instead tell stories about the individual and the individual responsibility. By not naming systemic harm the Right can always use the individual for any story it wants to tell. By creating shame and a stigma around indebtedness the Right effectively silenced large numbers of the population. I recall when we first started organizing, we were stealing the language of the Right in order to flip it on its head. Understanding the neoliberal rightwing narrative around indebtedness is really important and challenging the false morality is a necessary step. We started our organizing work by meeting people where they were at (experiencing debt as an individual) and then did the hard work to link those experiences to a broader struggle. By taking this approach we are able to break through the shame and translate that into a position of collective power. This is a big part of our political education project.

By not naming systemic harm the Right can always use the individual for any story it wants to tell. By creating shame and a stigma around indebtedness the Right effectively silenced large numbers of the population.

THOMAS: Since the Right is always framing the national debt as being this really important thing, and the reason why we can’t provide social goods or public goods, I was also interested in stealing or reframing some of the language of the Right. You know, just recently, for example, Elizabeth Warren announced that she’s going to use this mechanism that we have been pushing everyone for: a “compromise and settlement” to modify student debt so that you can just write it down. And the Department of Education’s official spokesperson, Liz Hill, said in their official response that “her colleagues and Congress would find it surprising that she has the authority to do so much spending.” But why is canceling debt considered “spending?” We don’t talk about a tax cut for the 1% as spending. So it really does clarify, for me at least, how this austerity language functions. When you are simply refusing to collect revenue from rich people it’s not counted as spending, but when you are refusing to collect revenue from poor people suddenly that spending!

LAURA: I guess we should explain what “compromise and settlement” is and why it’s important to communicate that it’s not about bypassing Congress.

THOMAS: So, what worked for us with the first student debt strike among former for-profit Corinthian College students was combining the pressure of a direct action—of a strike—with a legal mechanism to meet our demands. In that case, it was this very obscure legal mechanism called “Borrower Defense to Repayment” that almost nobody had heard about, and which had never really been used. But it is existing law that says these debts really should be eliminated. It turns out that even when the law and the facts are on your side, power has a tremendous way of being very reluctant about doing what the law requires… But moving forward, we are asking, “How do we get rid of all student debt or almost all of the student debt?” There is another legal mechanism called the “compromise and settlement” authority that we’ve put our fingers on. It’s a part of the Higher Education Act reauthorization. The law gives the Secretary of Education the authority to write down student debt for any reason, or no reason at all. And we have very good reasons to write down this student debt.1 It benefits everybody if we do that. But so far the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has refused to use that power. The way that I’ve been thinking about this is that it’s almost as if Congress, whether they intended to or not, created this giant debt trap of the student debt system and wired into it a self-destruct button…

I think about it like the scene from the first Star Wars movie where they got the schematics for the Death Star, and they realized that this massive planet-destroying machine has a fatal flaw in its design. And if you just puncture it in just the right place, the whole thing gets destroyed. And so that self-destruct button is called “compromise and settlement.” What we need to do over the course of the next year is organize and use direct action to build power and pressure so that the people can gain access to the levers of power to press that self-destruct button. It’s important that we press that self-destruct button in a way that destroys all student debt because only wiping away a small fraction will basically keep lower income working class people with high debt in the same position. They will still have tens of thousands of dollars worth of remaining debt, and the interest is just going to grow until they’re back at where they were before.

LAURA: If full cancellation were to happen, rather than just destroy student loans, we could also say that the button would help people start to repair their lives. That’s also critical.

THOMAS: Exactly. We can’t underestimate the social and the psychological tax that debt takes. A study was just released showing that for every dollar you raise minimum wage, the number of suicides dramatically reduces by a certain percentage.2 Poverty and austerity, they show up in so many different problems, that it’s hard to capture and calculate the total benefit of living in a society where you can be a dignified human being, where you are encouraged to flourish, and you are encouraged to produce wealth that doesn’t necessarily show up in the GDP. There ends up being multiplier effects that you can’t calculate. And I feel like we’ve been in this vicious cycle on the other side, where all of these problems compound and reflect one another. Something has got to give. Somebody online said, “Can you imagine the party in the streets that is going to happen when we have a student debt jubilee, and it’s all gone?” And I, for one, hope there are some massive parties in the streets. But to me, the thing that instantly came to mind is, “Oh, I’m not going to be partying in the street. I’m going to get my first good night’s sleep in my adult life!” Debt is such an immaterial thing but it shows up in your body. The phrase that comes to mind is “the body keeps score.” I feel like I’ve got my credit score but I’ve also got this other score that I am ready to settle. I want to sleep.

I’ve got my credit score but I’ve also got this other score that I am ready to settle. I want to sleep.

Thomas Gokey is a visual artist and an organizer with the Debt Collective.

Laura Hanna is a filmmaker, media activist, and organizer. She helped launch Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee initiative, produced The People’s Bailout Telethon at Le Poisson Rouge, and co-founded the Debt Collective, an economic justice organization that advocates for the rights of debtors.


1. A report by Debt Collective member Luke Herrine provides more detail:

2. Kaufman, John, et al. “Effects of Increased Minimum Wages by Unemployment Rate on Suicide in the USA.” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, vol. 74, no. 3.


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