Inspired by Strike Debt, we held our first Debtors’ Assembly a little while ago, outside of the Student Center on Southern Illinois University campus. Our only plan for the assembly was to come with some personal stories about how debt affects our lives and our visions for the future, and to invite others to share their own thoughts on these topics.
Speaking at the assembly, one organizer confessed that during the planning, he found himself at a loss as to what kind of “personal story” to share at the assembly.
So he called his mother.
Mom taught literature at a junior high school in rural Illinois for more than twenty years. She also raised two kids, with some financial help from grandma, a little from dad, and a lot from loans.
Stress, mom said, is inseparable from debt. It weighs you down; you feel it in your neck and back. Debt impresses itself onto our lives and our bodies through stress. This is one of the ways debt limits and controls our actions, thoughts, and desires. It changes us; we are less alive because of it.
The assembly against debt sparked recognition of that disciplinary function. We are wrapped in promises that are impossible to keep, owing our futures to banks whose power we abhor. The choice seems stark. Either we live out our lives as indentured servants, or we challenge the very principles that undergird this capitalist creditocracy.
“For me, what I like about this sort of collection—this collection of people that are also indebted—is that I can begin a transformation with myself and along with others to receive my debt as not a personal source of shame or guilt or embarrassment, but as a source of a sort of collective outrage,” said Philip Brewer, a graduate student studying philosophy. “I think that’s a really important emotion. That we need to be outraged at the creditor class that has fundamentally indentured thousands, millions of students. Our future has been erased.”
The university, an increasingly financialized capitalist institution, demands exorbitant tuition dollars from students while it sucks surplus value out of its workers. On average, graduate student workers at SIU pay more than two months of their salaries back to the university in fees. This means that even with a stipend, grad students often have to take out loans, promising to work in the future as a condition of going to work today.
Mitchel Morden, who helped coordinate the assembly, said he isn’t as directly afflicted by debt because he “sold his soul to Uncle Sam,” serving in the military, which paid him. But, Morden said, he understands the importance of consciousness-raising and solidarity in the face of such a sweeping “systemic problem.”
The aim of the assembly was to create a space in which students could concretely understand the systemic problem of debt through sharing and listening, while at the same time creating a disruption in campus life: a moment when school is interrupted so some real learning might begin. Toward the end of our assembly, spirits were so high that we decided to do it again next week, and to bring more of our friends. Our hope is that a regular, public assembly held outdoors will seduce the shy and become a body out of which new relationships are formed across ages, disciplines and employments.
We think the time is ripe for a new round of student struggles, and the issue of debt needs to be front and center. The debt assembly is one tactic that we hope will contribute to a movement of students and teachers looking to one another, and taking both their lives and the university back from a class of creditors, administrators, and corporate investors whose capitalist logic has erased the very idea of education and foreclosed on our future.
This was originally posted on Midwest Campus Crisis.