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Owe, No You Don’t

Issue 266

Astra Taylor explores debt and what we really owe each other in her wide-ranging new collection of essays.

Teddy Ostrow Sep 16

“Give me a break,” Joe Biden told the Los Angeles Times in 2018.

Break: a noun derived from the Old English verb brecan of Germanic origin, meaning to separate or cause to separate solid matter into pieces. Fast forward some centuries to the 1860s and we find an English noun that refers to an interval, or a pause in work, between lessons in school.

Biden’s use acquired its meaning in the early 20th century: “a stroke of mercy,” according to Online Etymology Dictionary.

“I have no empathy for it,” Biden continued, referring to the whiny political complaints of the “younger generation.” The soon-to-be presidential candidate asserted that he won’t hear of the struggles of today’s young. “Give me a break,” he repeated. They aren’t real struggles, like those experienced in the turbulent 1960s. “We decided we were going to change the world. And we did.”

Take the crippling student debt crisis. Forty-five million members of the younger generation would like a break
from that $1.7 trillion foot on the neck. The Biden administration recently canceled $9.5 billion of student debt. That figure represents a mere 0.6% of the total debt — and far short of the $10,000 jubilee he promised
to all student debtors on the 2020 campaign trail. Insufficiency aside, as Astra Taylor reminds us in one essay from her new book, Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions, it was Biden who, from his perch on the Senate Judiciary Committee, championed a 2005 law that robbed student debtors of bankruptcy protections. It
was Biden who saw an unprecedented ballooning crisis and decided it wasn’t students’ time to catch a break.

Remake the World is a trenchant collection of Taylor’s previously published essays that span from 2014 to the present. Ruminative and philosophical, Taylor explores a wide range of topics, from the political disenfranchisement of youth to the political necessity of listening, from the meaning of democracy and the rise of socialism to the false promises of “automation” and temporality of the climate crisis.

Debt, however, has a special place in the book. In the essay “Wipe the Slate Clean,” Taylor writes, “Debt is a power relationship built on the pretense of equality. In theory, a debtor and creditor enter into a contract on a level playing field and with fair terms; in reality, debts are often incurred under conditions of duress.”

As Taylor points out, not all debtors have to pay back their debts, yet the deck is stacked against most of us. While the Fed bought billions in corporate bond debt in 2020, household debt has been allowed to swell to nearly $15 trillion, strangling families, who in the face of compounding financial crises created by those very bailed-out companies, are unable to pay their mortgages or rent, their medical bills or college tuition, or their payday loans or probation fees.

The distribution of this debt has naturally skewed toward the working class and poor, and given the history of racist predatory lending and the racial wealth gap, Taylor explains that “Black and Latinx communities tend to be more economically precarious and indebted than their white counterparts.”

The perfectly reasonable solution Taylor offers, which is backed by significant historical precedent: abolish the debts. A tall demand, but Taylor is no stranger to the political will and organizing it would take to achieve the debt absolution needed to break Americans’ financial chains.

In “Against Activism,” Taylor traces the emergence of the “activist” alongside the decline in movement organizing. For Taylor, activism needs organizing, which “sustain[s] and advance[s] our causes when the galvanizing intensity of occupations or street protests subsides. It is what the left needs in order to roll back the conservative resurgence and cut down plutocracy.”

Taylor learned this firsthand as an organizer at Occupy Wall Street, whose legacy echoes throughout Taylor’s writing. For her, Occupy was “a welcome sign that the control mechanism was breaking down.” In one essay, Taylor reflects on its organizers’ fatal unwillingness to “exercise or take power,” a political attitude many American radicals have left behind in favor of joining groups such as Democratic Socialists of America, who have made winning and exercising power central to their political program. Meanwhile in another essay, she notes that Occupy’s seeds may have “scattered to unexpected places and lie dormant for long spells only to suddenly sprout and flourish.”

Indeed, two such seeds were Rolling Jubilee and the Debt Collective, two groups co-founded by Taylor and inspired by the late activist-scholar and catalyzer of Occupy, David Graeber. The former group, a mutual aid initiative that purchases and cancels people’s debts, directly abolished over $32 million in monetary debt, while the campaigns of the latter, a debtor’s union that uses its collective power to push for widespread debt cancellation, has helped relieve over $2 billion.

Graeber, Taylor tells us, pushed her to reimagine debt as something that does not have to be tainted by the soulless logic and burdens of capitalism. Rather, debt in a socialist world could be our collective obligations to one other, which can never be paid back in cash.

Taylor’s ideas are enough to inspire, submerging the reader in grave realities while uplifting their will to change them. But her writing itself is also a delight. Nearly all Taylor’s essays utilize curious etymologies like the one at the top of this review, but far more skillfully, to weave her use of history, reporting and analysis together into a coherent picture of a diversity of contemporary issues — and the outlooks we need to solve them. After the first couple of uses, one might sniff gimmickry, but her prowess as a writer quickly dispels such judgment.

Taylor is careful with her words. The reason the Debt Collective uses “abolition” and “cancellation” as their aims is to reject the language of “forgiveness,” which “implies a blameworthy borrower and a beneficent creditor.” “Break” in the context of mercy, as in “give me a break,” or “catch a break,” similarly suggests fault on the side of the breaker. Perhaps then, the younger generation doesn’t actually need a “break.” Rather, we need a reclamation: of our dignity, our livelihoods and our futures. We need to reclaim what is ours that the capitalists have held in their pockets for far too long.

Remake The World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions
By Astra Taylor
Haymarket Books, May 2021

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