One of the points that had the biggest impact on me during the workshop was made by Eric Pineault, the chairperson who teaches sociology in Montreal. In drawing a contrast between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of today, Pineault referred to the different forms that the attack on the working class took. In the 1930s, the problem was obviously massive unemployment but today working people are being crushed by debt much more than by joblessness. He used the term debt peonage to describe the problems faced by millions as they confront home foreclosure and collection agencies trying to get a worker to pay for a huge Visa or Mastercard bill.
In the 1930s, layoffs in a place like Detroit or Chicago would affect workers as a social layer. Since this was at a time when workers tended to live near the factory and even walk to work in many instances and when they hung out at the same saloons or parks, they tended to think in terms of joint action.
But today someone in debt will tend to see themselves as an individual whose adversary is another individual at a bank or a collection agency. Since going into debt often strikes people as a personal failing, they will also tend to blame themselves rather than larger social and economic forces. I was reminded of this the other day when I was speaking to a very old friend about my age who hasn’t worked in a couple of years. Not only is the job market poor, he has developed Parkinson’s, an ailment that will make getting hired as a salesman even harder. It doesn’t matter how good a salesman you are (and my friend was great at this) if your hands are trembling. That is the reality of a fucked-up system that places so much emphasis on appearances.
To keep a roof over his head and to pay for other basics, he has gone into debt—owing over $40,000 on various credit cards. He now pays $300 per month, the minimum required. At this rate he will be paying until he dies and have not made a sizable dent into a debt that mounts steadily as he continues to dip into Visa or Mastercard to pay for food or other necessities. This is the same treadmill that millions of other Americans are on, with no end in sight. We might be living under advanced capitalism, but the social relationship is not that different than the one described in B. Traven’s novels. Fortunately, there are no debtors’ prisons today—at least for the time being.
I was reminded of this at a panel discussion on Capitalism in India: Glitter, Commodities, and Blood presented by Sanhati, a network of academics and activists committed to social justice in India, and chaired by my friend and fellow Marxmailer Taki Manolakos.
Deepankar Basu, another good Marxist economist ensconced at U. of Mass., spoke on peasant suicides, a problem that Sanhati has devoted much attention to. During the discussion period, with Eric Pineault’s comments on debt peonage fresh in my mind, I asked Deepankar if the epidemic of suicides might be related to the phenomenon noted earlier in the day. Was debt peonage in India leading to mass suicide rather than mass struggle for the same reason that debt-burdened workers in the USA were tending to seek individual solutions?
A bit of research this morning turns up some evidence that connects the two societies. From a blog post by Barbara Ehrenreich on July 28, 2008:
Suicide is becoming an increasingly popular response to debt. James Scurlock’s brilliant documentary, Maxed Out, features the families of two college students who killed themselves after being overwhelmed by credit card debt. “All the people we talked to had considered suicide at least once,” Scurlock told a gathering of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in 2007. According to the Los Angeles Times, lawyers in the audience backed him up, “describing clients who showed up at their offices with cyanide, or threatened, ‘If you don’t help me, I’ve got a gun in my car.’”
India may be the trend-setter here, with an estimated 150,000 debt-ridden farmers succumbing to suicide since 1997. With guns in short supply in rural India, the desperate farmers have taken to drinking the pesticides meant for their crops.
Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can’t pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition – like an ever-rising number of Americans – you’re no longer needed at the workplace, then there’s no further point to your existence. I’m not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, “Just shoot me!”
We’ve lived so long under the spell of hierarchy—from god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses—that only recently have we awakened to see not only that “regular” citizens have the capacity for self-governance, but that without their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed. The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.
—Frances Moore Lappé, excerpt from Time for Progressives to Grow Up