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Debt Crisis and Class Struggle

Inspired by the Quebec student strikes, the Occupy movement will be focusing in on the issue of debt over the coming months. While the movement has in the past been criticized for its lack of a coherent message (often rightfully), this new focus on debt shows the signs of a growing political and economic maturity. This is because debt is essential to understanding the current capitalist crisis, and such an understanding can lead only to radical conclusions.

We are in an unprecedented global debt crisis, with debt piling up everywhere you look. Personal debt has been skyrocketing for decades. The ballooning student debt that was the impetus the Quebec “casseroles” movement has reached new levels of indentured servitude south of the border – just as opportunities for gainful capitalist laboring have vanished. Even the Wall Street Journal can’t help but note it:

Of course, the student debt is couch-change compared to the debt-fueled housing bubbles witnessed over the last two decades. Yet even after an extreme economic downturn and five million foreclosures in the United States, this has barely made a dent in private debt levels.

Importantly this debt phenomenon has been truly global, and several national housing bubbles appear to remain (e.g. Canada, Australia), threatening to throw entire countries and the global economy back into what even econo-shills could not deny is a “recession.”

Far from being a mere personal matter, war and the capitalist pillaging of the U.S. Treasury has led to an explosion of government debt at all levels in the United States, which has been greatly expanded by the collapse of the housing bubble and with it the entire global economy. This has given the most reactionary political forces the unprecedented opportunity of fulfilling their long-held ambition of destroying even the Dickensian American social safety net. The Tea Partiers and bipartisan corporate sock puppets are joined in this ambition by the most rapacious Euro-crats and the comparatively kinder, gentler pillaging of the Camerons and Harpers of the world.

As I discussed previously, we are now in a regime of absurdity where capitalism attempts to manage a “recovery” by shifting debt around from one location to another. The predictable result is trickle-down debt, with the bill eventually to be footed by the working class, who will pay it by selling the only thing they have left – their labor power.

By shifting the conversation to debt and these basic facts, two conclusions are inevitable:

  1. The problem is systemic. When there is debt everywhere, the “progressive” focus on greedy bankers, corrupt regulators, and corporate lobbyists must be seen as insufficient. It’s not that these things are not true, but there must be something else causing this seeming defiance of the laws of gravity. This is, of course, capital accumulation.
  2. A debt bubble is, by definition, a class struggle. At its most simplistic, it is a struggle of creditors against debtors, but such a reduction is insufficient.

Even the wealthiest capitalists have debt (while being net creditors), and even the poorest tend to be owed something by somebody (while being net debtors). Thus, if you analyze the debt crisis solely as a debtor-creditor struggle between “99%” and “1%” you are missing the fact it is capital accumulation itself that is the creditor, and the class struggle is a determination of who should be sacrificed to its vengeance.

This is a topic that deserves far more detail, but for now I will simply quote from a Brendan Cooney criticism of Occupy’s corporate personhood focus:

Marx tackles this very argument of Smith’s in Vol. 2 of Kapital. He shows that there is a rather significant part of capitalist production that does not resolve itself to wages, that does not go to serve workers at all. It does not exist to enrich the capitalist. It is merely self-perpetuating accumulation of capital for its own sake. This is the real nightmare of capitalist production, a greater nightmare than wealth disparity or deferred investment.

It is this "self-perpetuating accumulation of capital for its own sake" that has been running on credit for decades now, and it is the relentless engine to which everyone is indebted. Hopefully, those with an understanding of this will engage more fully with the Occupy movement this time around, to help create a mass movement that is truly conscious of capitalism and the ongoing class struggle.

Ben Campbell

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