By Nicholas Smaligo and James Anderson
How did the student debt regime come to be?
The question was posed as the first debtors’ assembly of the fall semester got underway on Southern Illinois University campus.
The following analysis is derived from the talk that took place at the beginning of the assembly held September 17, on the third anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
To begin, we pose as a problem the $1.2 trillion cumulative student load debt supposedly owed to the government and financial institutions and the almost 30 grand graduates owe on average in student loan debt.
Student loan debt is a relatively new phenomenon, and a product of what we call the prevailing debt regime.
Just a few decades ago, prior to the advent of this new regime, accumulating debt in and as a result of attending college was virtually unheard of. The University of California charged only $647 in tuition annually in the 1960s, and there was little need or even the opportunity to go into massive amounts of debt.
After World War II, when the GI Bill provided free tuition for veterans, higher education could be seen as a public good and a way for empowering the population to create a better world with ideas and ideals in mind. This is not to say that the United States government had such aims in mind for its massive investment in higher education. But a significant shift to conceiving education as a personal career opportunity occurred after and as a response to the social movements and organizing of the 1950s through the 1970s.
During the 1960s especially, the structures of governmental authority were challenged to their core. In every segment of American society people were questioning authority and acting on that questioning of authority.
In the South people eschewed appeals to politicians and took direct action for desegregation. In the workplace workers went on wildcat strikes unauthorized by formal union authorities. Women’s movements challenged patriarchy with consciousness-raising groups, consensus-based decision-making and direct action. Students were also breaking down the structures of authority within the University, and connecting the smooth function of everyday life in the United States with the function of an imperial war machine that was killing millions of people in Vietnam.
The university here in Carbondale even closed under pressure from mass student protests in May 1970. Historian and journalist Allan Keith, who was a graduate student at SIUC at the time, later documented events during the tumultuous period in his book “SIUC’s Days of Dissent: A Memoir of Student Protest.”
The university became one hotbed of what those in power call ‘civil unrest’ or ‘chaos,’ but from the perspective of people that are trying to struggle for a better world, it was really just a hotbed of democracy.
The popular desire for direct democratization did not go over well with everyone, however, especially not with those who benefited from the authority structures that prevented people from having a say in the decisions affecting their lives.
Ronald Reagan vowed “to clean up that mess at Berkeley,” which was the home of the Free Speech Movement that started in 1964. Reagan proceeded to hike tuition and fees as governor, and using the University of California as his ideological target, set the course for large-scale privatization of education.
This was an important moment in the use of debt as a political tool. It was the initial step in constructing the regime of debt we live under today.
Reagan recognized the connection between forcing students to purchase their education as a pricy commodity and obtaining their obedience. These conditions would eventually lead to people pursuing education in order to get a job to survive and pay off loans. The conditions consigned the intention of learning about the world in order to change it for the better to the extreme margins of University life.
Reagan was just one politician, but his political reaction typified a growing trend.
The infamous “Powell memo,” sent by Lewis Powell Jr. to the Chamber of Commerce in 1971, further illustrates the felt need on behalf of the ruling class to tame the University. Powell referred to the college campus “as the single most dynamic source” of the attack on the “free enterprise” system.
In his concluding thoughts on the problem of the University campus, Powell fallaciously assumed that every position must be put on a continuum of moral equivalence – even the position of those imperialists and capitalists who kill and exploit others. His conclusions foreshadow the rhetoric of Fox News by claiming the problem is that University discourse about the “free enterprise” system is not “balanced” enough, and he recommends a propaganda campaign for influencing the discussion.
In the memo, Powell also urges no reservations in attacking those within academe critical of the system, like Herbert Marcuse, and “others who openly seek destruction of the enterprise system.”
Marcuse, then professor of philosophy at the University of California San Diego, recognized in his 1972 book, “Counter-revolution and Revolt” the impending efforts to beat back revolutionary democratization through counterrevolutionary organization. Marcuse observed how “bourgeois philosophy” once proclaimed the importance of education for a better humanity. In contrast and as of his writing, he noted how the Council of Higher Education had been “called upon to study the ‘detailed needs’ of the established society,” to know what sort of graduate students to churn out. To make the “the university ‘relevant’ for today and tomorrow,” he argued, “means presenting the facts and forces that made civilization what it is today and what it could be tomorrow,” which requires effort to halt the “repetition of domination and submission” by recovering “knowledge of its genesis and of the ways in which it is reproduced: critical thinking.”
But defenders of domination had different ideas about what needed to happen with respect to education and democracy.
The conclusions of the Trilateral Commission, a think-tank founded by David Rockefeller in 1973, offered further evidence of why critical questioning and disruption of institutional authority could not be tolerated. The commission issued a report titled “The Crisis of Democracy,” citing the failure of institutions, and universities in particular, in fulfilling what was assumed to be their task – “the indoctrination of the young,” as the report stated – deemed necessary for social order, control and “democracy,” doctrinally defined.
These reactionary ideas were generated in response to the democratizing efforts of social movements, many student-based, geared toward challenging concentrations of power. The breakdown in the structures of authority and the reactionary response is the beginning of the story of the student debt regime. Debt today has tamed the university. It has sucked the life and the relevance out of thought.
Those in power continually invent new snares in response to uprisings and escapes of those they control. It is the responsibility of each generation to grasp the trap in which they have been caught. Today, we need to break the power that debt has over our lives. There are a number of reasons why we need to do this, but we’ll focus on just one: the relation of debt to climate change, which David Graeber has already pointed out.
To be sure, the climate catastrophe we are facing is directly related to the way the economic system is organized today.
Illuminating the implications of that ensuing catastrophe, a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that “the current trajectory of global annual and cumulative emissions” of greenhouses gases remains “inconsistent with widely discussed goals of limiting global warming at 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level.” The IPCC report stressed necessary “changes in human behaviours” – human habits of course conditioned by the institutions in place and the forms of social control enabled by them.
Debt, as a mechanism for social control, prevents people from really solving problems that people as a whole are causing, like Anthropogenic Climate Disruption, our present-day existential threat. Students can go to school and learn about how we are condemning species to extinction while disrupting the climate at an unprecedented rate and destroying the conditions for any decent civilization. However, most who go to school and learn this also accumulate sizable debts they must pay off; they are thus compelled take whatever job is available.
But who has the jobs? Easy answer: the people with all the money. The people with all the money in this context are the people who are benefiting from things being exactly as they are, or from making them worse and more exploitative. So our debt in this case actually limits our ability to address the problems that are really facing us as a generation.
Debt constitutes a kind of oppression, and it is a form of oppression not always readily recognized as such. Paulo Freire once wrote that those who are oppressed “must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exist, but as a limiting situation which they can transform,” and that “perception is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for liberation.”
Liberation from the hegemony of debt requires overcoming the contradiction embedded in the social relations that constitute it, which cannot be resolved in the realm of ideas alone, as important as the imagination is for thinking beyond what exists and about what could be.
One participant in the debtors’ assembly said people should think about “opposing that oppression,” which is what the Strike Debt movement “for economic justice and democratic freedom” is endeavoring to do. The Rolling Jubilee project that just abolished $4 million of student debt owed by almost 3,000 people in the US, and the Debt Collective with the call to “Organize, Resist, Reimagine,” are likewise attempting to oppose the oppressiveness of the reigning regime.
Prior to the assembly, some students also mentioned the People’s Climate March taking place September 21 in New York City with 250,000 expected participants and many unsanctioned direct actions anticipated.
If the interlocking oppressions connecting climate destruction with the debt regime and the related crisis of real democracy at the university are to be challenged, those involved in the September 17 assembly at SIUC seemed to suggest future debtors’ assemblies and direct actions on campus – and on campuses across the US – are needed.
Nicholas Smaligo is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He is the author of The Occupy Movement Explained: From Corporate Control to Democracy, published by Open Court.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.
Photo of Carbondale street protest circa 1970 provided by Allan H. Keith.