Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Strike Debt Rolling Jubilee

David Graeber interviewed by Sam Seder re: Debt and Strike Debt Rolling Jubilee 11.14.12

Yves Smith over at Naked Capitalism has been having something of a peculiar and extended melt-down over the effort by the Occupy affiliated Strike Debt to commit financial/civil disobedience by buying up blocks of noncollectable mostly medical debt and forgiving the debtors from any further obligation to pay.

So far, they've managed to raise enough money to 'retire' around $9,000,000 in noncollectable debt; whether they have actually forgiven more than a small portion of that, I don't know. Exactly how they're going about their task is something of a mystery in that they say they buy blocks of debt anonymously (they don't know whose debt they have purchased, and their purchase of the particular debt is not publicized), then they forgive the debtors through direct contact.

Yves stridently believes that by doing this, Strike Debt is putting itself and the debtors it forgives at serious financial risk and that ultimately the program will be counterproductive.

Could be.

Given the level of overall American indebtedness and the amount of uncollected debt being marketed by the debt industry for bottom-feeders to go after (at about $.05 on the dollar), there's almost no way Strike Debt Rolling Jubilee can have more than a very marginal impact on the American debt problem and the industry that feeds on it. It's a scale issue.

Nonetheless, Yves is convinced that Strike Debt's Rolling Jubilee is the wrong approach to the problem and  that it is or might be dangerous to its participants and their beneficiaries.

Her particular focus has been on potential tax consequences, though perversely (a term she used with regard to those who objected to her tax focus) she denies it. Further, Yves and Lambert insist that Strike Debt is guilty of failing to fully disclose the risks to debtors involved in their efforts.

Yves can and does go into great and stupifying detail over the tax issue. Lambert just acts like a bitter old man yelling at those kids to get off his lawn. And he gets even crabbier when they don't do what he says.

The video above is taken from a radio interview of David Graeber by Sam Seder  in which the topic is addressed from the point of view of Strike Debt's interest in what we might call financial disobedience. Graeber of course is the author of "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" and is one of the prime movers of the Rolling Jubilee action. I've said that they are using the weaknesses in the debt-industry and the debt-system to throw a bit of sand in the gears that are grinding so many people into dust. They cannot have a huge impact directly -- which they seem quite aware of -- but indirectly, especially by highlighting the pervasive problem of household and personal debt in this country, they can have a tremendous impact.

Yves says "No, they're doing it wrong." After she tells them how she thinks they should be doing it, she then suggests that those behind Strike Debt have "another agenda" altogether, and implies that the project is somehow corrupt.

Having been more than peripherally involved with Occupy, I'm more than familiar with this argument regarding practically any project undertaken by or with or through Occupy. The idea that "someone with another agenda" is behind practically everything done with the Occupy imprimatur is unshakable and it has a certain kernel of truth to it, though typically not quite what the accusers believe. Because pretty much everybody who does anything has more than one motive for doing it, and often individuals are seeking to further "another agenda" simultaneously -- human nature and cultural conditioning tend to be darned strong -- the accusation that something done by or through Occupy or by someone or some agency associated with it is somehow tainted by self-interest (the typical charge) is relatively true. Sure. Just as it is true enough in just about any human endeavor. The notion that this is somehow corrupt doesn't scan, however, and there is no sign that any self-interest that may be involved in Strike Debt or the Rolling Jubilee is a priori corrupt or corrupting.

Yves and Lambert apparently want a debt project that plays by the rules, upsets no apple carts, does nothing on behalf of debtors directly, and employs squadrons of lawyers and tax experts to battle the bottom - feeders and the IRS.

Otherwise they claim that Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee puts themselves and their beneficiaries in dire jeopardy -- particularly of the tax man. Yves has personal horror stories that can curl your hair to support her case.

I don't doubt her sincerity, but it seems to me that she is vastly overreading the situation, and Lambert is just being stupid by demanding "full disclosure" and apparently condemning the project for not providing links to Yves Smith's extensive risk assessments.

None of the scenarios of potential horrors have played out, but if they do, it doesn't mean that no one associated with the Rolling Jubilee has thought about them before, or that no one is prepared to act to counter whatever takes place.

As an aspect of civil/financial disobedience, and as an "offshoot of Occupy", the project is bound to run into official disapproval and quite possibly cruel and brutal suppressive actions by Authority. Everyone should know that by now, given the outrageous overkill employed to suppress the Occupations. It's a given. Or it should be. The fact that it hasn't happened yet, however, is something to note and to take full advantage of. Strike while the iron is hot and all that. If suppression is going to come it will come, regardless of any efforts to avoid it.

It reminds me of the idea of avoiding any sort of confrontation with police, even to the wearing of bandanas, so as to avoid police crackdowns. I and many others pointed out it doesn't work that way. If the official intent is to crack-down or suppress (as it was with regard to Occupy actions and especially the Occupations themselves) there is no way to avoid it, there is no "making nice," and there is no action the demonstrators can take to prevent Authority from their chosen task. Thus, trying to avoid something that's going to happen no matter what you do can make the inevitable crackdown even worse.

As I pointed out at Yves' Place, it's unlikely that very many of the tens of thousands who were arrested or the thousands who were injured or had their stuff confiscated or destroyed during the Anti-Occupy crackdowns had "full disclosure" of what could happen even if they sat through some of the workshops presented by Legal. Some are still so traumatized by what happened and what they witnessed they can barely speak of it. There is no sign at this point that those who benefit from the Rolling Jubilee will be subjected to such official cruelty, but you never know. If word comes from On High to suppress Strike Debt, it could get very ugly indeed.

Has Rolling Jubilee failed because the participants haven't had adequate warning? Or because there are potential risks and pitfalls? Maybe. But from my perspective (well on the outside), it has a long way to go before it is even noticed beyond a relatively small circle of enthusiasts and nay-sayers...


  1. I've been following this saga as well. I guess I don't understand what Yve's hang up really is either. She's stated her case and should move on. I didn't realize Lambert was also on the crazy train as well. The strike debt idea is interesting but I'm not sure where it gets us. At this point anyone trying anything different than what is the status quo has my support. If it doesn't change anything, move on and try something else.

  2. It's distinctly odd.

    Yves has stated her case (exhaustively) and I think her points have been acknowledged -- at least by her readers. She seems to be frustrated, though, that Strike Debt isn't inclined to follow her advice or even to worry too much about her issues.

    Given the scale of the Rolling Jubilee at this point, she's over the top in my view, and yes, moving on is wise.

  3. Yves is probably genuinely worried about the people Strike Debt is trying to help. I suspect that's her whole motivation.

    Debt is frightening. My family is deeply in debt and struggling, and it fill me with fear and despair. The reason it does so is because I know something evil is waiting for me, but, struggle as I might, paying down these debts on my own is mostly a futile endeavor (my other family members simply work at increasing the debt, along with the magic of compound interest).

    I like to joke that I talked to my bankruptcy attorney and she advised me to commit suicide (rimshot!).

    (That's not actually true, she just said I was doomed. She may have actually used the word doomed, but I'm not sure. I was kind of dizzy when I got out of that meeting.)

  4. As I say, I don't doubt Yves' sincerity. She's been through the wringer as it were, and understandably doesn't like it -- and she doesn't want others to go through it needlessly.

    Her approach appears to be not to challenge the debt industry directly, and definitely not to do anything directly on behalf of individuals -- because there could be any number of severe consequences...

    I think most people know by now that that isn't the way Occupy operates. "Be not afeared..." is a prime directive. Their bold actions are what can make the difference.

    The way Yves wants to do it can make a difference, too.

    Meanwhile, I've listened to plenty of financial advisers and bankruptcy attorneys essentially declare that "ordinary people" should not carry debt at all. Only those who can afford to should do so, and those who can truly afford it don't need to, so nobody except the highest of the mighty should ever get into a debt situation, and that's limited to the kind of bonded debt that governments engage in.

    This advice is interesting because it parallels in some ways the anti-debt message of people like David Graeber -- though from a completely different foundation.

    Graeber argues that we shouldn't need debt; the financial advisors and bk attys say we shouldn't have it. For Graeber, it's practical; for the counselors, it's moral.

    I don't know what the point is of counselors saying to someone they are "doomed" because of indebtedness. I've heard them say that to people who are in a pretty good financial position or in a terrible one. So I don't know what their point is, except that apparently any debt at all is too much for the common people, and the only way out is bankruptcy.

    There are other ways out, however, ways which Our Betters have long utilized and consider their privilege and right.

    The system is stacked against the ordinary debtor by design. It's been getting worse rather than better for many or most people, and that helps keep the economy in doldrums. But some few are making out like bandits and like things just the way they are.

    If you haven't already, read David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5,000 Years." It's not going to fix anything, but it might give you some ideas!