Illustration by Jared Bajkowski, featured in Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition (Haymarket Books, 2020), by the Debt Collective (all images courtesy Haymarket Books)

Just reading the title of the new book Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition, written by members of the Debt Collective, brought up all kinds of feelings, including the memory of a particularly eye-opening conversation I took part in a few years ago.

When my friend proposed we all a small group of artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians living in New York City, then in our our 20s and 30s disclose the amount of our debt, my skin started to prickle. At its worst my number was right around $75,000, but by then it was closer to $40,000. Even as I slowly hacked away at the number over the years, I felt constantly ashamed of and burdened by it.

I was the third or fourth person in the group to go and my number was higher than all the people before me. I had briefly considered lying, but why? It wasn’t until two people across from me, both in their 20s, shared their numbers $250,000 each, all from art school alone that I realized I had no concept of what was going on with debt in this country. It’s precisely this kind of collective consciousness-raising — and the potential it carries for building solidarity — that drives the Debt Collective, whose clever motto insists, “you are not a loan.”

The cover of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition (Haymarket Books, 2020)

As both the BFAMFAPHD collective and The Washington Post reported back in 2014, the vast majority of the most expensive colleges and universities in the US (once you account for financial aid) are art schools. This fact has remained doggedly consistent over time. It’s also the case that at least one of the major chains of predatory for-profit colleges presented itself as an access point to careers in the arts and related fields. And now, in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, it’s these same staggeringly expensive art schools that are least able to deliver on their promises to students or manage their own outsized institutional debts.

It’s worth noting that the majority of the Debt Collectives writer’s bloc have some connection to the arts or art schools. Among them are two filmmakers (Laura Hanna and Astra Taylor), one MFA-educated artist who left the art world (Thomas Gokey, who famously came up with a scheme to render his $49,983 in student loans as a saleable artwork), one PhD-educated writer (Ann Larson), and an anthropologist (Hannah Appel). While I don’t know if all of them incurred educational debt, Taylor notes in the foreword that discussing her student loans with fellow Occupy Wall Street protesters helped lay the foundation from which the Debt Collective grew.

A quick and accessible read, the book is ultimately an extended pitch to readers to get involved in organized debt abolition. Having worked my way through the late David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years soon after its release — a much longer and denser book by the influential Occupy Wall Street activist that covers similar ground — it was clear that Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay aims less to be a comprehensive history and more an impassioned call to action. The authors highlight critical historical precedents for our indebted society, from Thomas Jefferson intentionally forcing indigenous people into unmanageable debts to enable the seizure of their land, to France’s “indemnity” payments imposed on Haiti after their successful rebellion against enslavement.

But there are two particularly impactful things that set this book apart. It’s clear from the outset that this is not a pre-pandemic book hoping for relevance in the post-pandemic world. This book is written in the present, highlighting everything the pandemic has revealed, from the amplification of inequality’s impact on people’s health and income, to the fact that “changing the rules that dictate our daily financial arrangements is possible after all, and it can happen with remarkable speed.”

Illustration by Jared Bajkowski, featured in Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition (Haymarket Books, 2020)

Equally notable is the fluid clarity with which the authors connect student debt to those tied to healthcare, fraudulent mortgages, payday loans, and incarceration. They even draw in municipal and sovereign debts that overwhelmingly impact cities with large BIPOC populations and countries in the Global South. And as the book continues, it astutely links the extraction of wealth and well-being from people to the extraction of natural resources from our planet.

“The Debt Collective is not advocating debt ‘forgiveness’ — which implies a benevolent creditor taking pity on a blameworthy debtor — but rather debt abolition and the creation of a new economic paradigm in which our individual well-being and shared liberation is a socially financed project,” they write (emphasis theirs).

There are a couple minor quibbles I had with the book. As an organizing tool, it lacked concrete information about the tactics the Debt Collective has employed, particularly in the fight to wipe clear the debts of those entrapped by Corinthian Colleges. Likewise, the chapter that covers the intersections of global finance and technology felt a touch technocratic at points, though it’s not easy to critique technology’s overreach while simultaneously pitching at least some tech-based solutions to the problem of tech.

Quibbles aside, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay is an otherwise compelling read, which drove me to the authors’ site, curious to learn more. As the Debt Collective reminds us, “Few are safe in today’s precarious, debt-fueled economy, and the majority of people […] have far more to gain from struggles for social change than they have to lose.”

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition (Haymarket Books, 2020) by the Debt Collective will be available on Bookshop starting September 29.

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She recently started a podcast, The Answer is No, focused on artists sharing stories about challenging the conditions under which they are...

One reply on “Making the Case for Debt Abolition”

  1. Educational debt is run up to such astronomical levels because people are not buying knowledge or training in a skill, but attempting to acquire an advantageous class position, manifested in credentials, contacts, and possibly borrowed repute. It seems likely that the chances of any payoff are inferior to those of the State lottery. Like much of the Art World, much of art schooling is thus a fraud, because it does not deliver. Maybe the schools could be sued? In any case, you’re not going to get rid of educational and other major debt systems without a revolution.

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