From Commoning to Debt: Financialization, Micro-Credit and the Changing Architecture of Capital Accumulation

14 June by Silvia Federici

CC - Commondreams

Introduction. Financialization and the rise of the ‘debt economy’

Debt, as David Graber so powerfully reminded us, |1| has a central place in the history of humanity and the class struggle. Debtors’ revolts were frequent in ancient Athens as early as the 6th century B.C., forcing debt cancellations and prohibitions against debt enslavement. |2| In Rome, in 63 B.C., the head of the populares, Catilina, led an army of debtors against the patricians. |3| In modern times, public debt has become “one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation” as Marx pointed out in his chapter on the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist.” (Vol. 1, 919) |4| Shays’ rebellion of 1786, in Western Massachusetts, three years after the end of the War of Independence, had as its target the debt collectors. |5| A hundred years later, the Populist Party expressed the rage of the farmers at seeing their farms taken away by the bankers because they could not pay their debts. |6| Also the “penny auctions” that spread from Wisconsin to much of the Midwest during the Great Depression were responses to the threat posed by debt and foreclosures. In sum, as a means of exploitation and enslavement, debt has been an instrument of class rule through the ages. It would be a mistake, however, to conceive of it as a sort of ‘political universal.’ Like the class societies in which it has thrived, debt itself has undergone significant transformations.

This is especially true of the contemporary situation, as a new ‘debt economy’ |7| has come into existence, with the neo-liberal turn in capitalist development, that is changing not only the architecture of capitalist accumulation but the form of the class relation and debt itself. Debt has become ubiquitous, affecting millions of people across the planet who for the first time are indebted to banks, and is now used by governments and financiers not only to accumulate wealth but to undermine social solidarity and the efforts movements are making worldwide to create social commons and alternatives to capitalism.

It was through the “debt crisis,” |8| triggered in 1979 by the Federal Reserve FED
Federal Reserve
Officially, Federal Reserve System, is the United States’ central bank created in 1913 by the ’Federal Reserve Act’, also called the ’Owen-Glass Act’, after a series of banking crises, particularly the ’Bank Panic’ of 1907.

FED – decentralized central bank :
’s rise of interest rates Interest rates When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as a supplementary sum known as interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial operation. The interest is determined by the interest rate, which may be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows 100 million dollars for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, the first year he will repay a tenth of the capital initially borrowed (10 million dollars) plus 5% of the capital owed, i.e. 5 million dollars, that is a total of 15 million dollars. In the second year, he will again repay 10% of the capital borrowed, but the 5% now only applies to the remaining 90 million dollars still due, i.e. 4.5 million dollars, or a total of 14.5 million dollars. And so on, until the tenth year when he will repay the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of that remaining 10 million dollars, i.e. 0.5 million dollars, giving a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will come to 127.5 million dollars. The repayment of the capital is not usually made in equal instalments. In the initial years, the repayment concerns mainly the interest, and the proportion of capital repaid increases over the years. In this case, if repayments are stopped, the capital still due is higher…

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is contracted. The real interest rate is the nominal rate reduced by the rate of inflation.
on the dollar, that the World Bank World Bank
The World Bank was founded as part of the new international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its capital is provided by member states’ contributions and loans on the international money markets. It financed public and private projects in Third World and East European countries.

It consists of several closely associated institutions, among which :

1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, 180 members in 1997), which provides loans in productive sectors such as farming or energy ;

2. The International Development Association (IDA, 159 members in 1997), which provides less advanced countries with long-term loans (35-40 years) at very low interest (1%) ;

3. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which provides both loan and equity finance for business ventures in developing countries.

As Third World Debt gets worse, the World Bank (along with the IMF) tends to adopt a macro-economic perspective. For instance, it enforces adjustment policies that are intended to balance heavily indebted countries’ payments. The World Bank advises those countries that have to undergo the IMF’s therapy on such matters as how to reduce budget deficits, round up savings, enduce foreign investors to settle within their borders, or free prices and exchange rates.
and the International Monetary Find (IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
), as representatives of international capital, ‘structurally adjusted’ and de facto re-colonized much of the former colonial world, plunging entire regions into a debt that over the years has continued to grow rather than becoming extinguished. |9| In many countries, due to the ‘debt crisis,” the gains obtained by the anti-colonial struggle were nullified and a new economic order was forced into existence that has condemned entire populations to a poverty never before experienced. On its basis, a restructuring of the world political economy has been founded that has systematically channeled the resources of Africa, Latin America and every country in the grip of the ‘debt crisis’ towards Europe, the U.S. and more recently China.

So successful has the ‘debt crisis’ been in re-colonizing much of the ‘Third World’ that its mechanisms have since been extended to the disciplining of North American and (more recently) European workers, as demonstrated by the drastic austerity measures imposed on the populations of Greece, |10| Spain, Italy, the UK (among others), and the fact that public debt is now plaguing even the smallest municipalities |11| and “through [it] entire societies have become indebted.” (Lazzarato 2012: 8)

But the clearest expression of the logic motivating the new debt economy is found in the new forms of individual debt that have proliferated with the neo-liberal turn —student loan debt, mortgage Mortgage A loan made against property collateral. There are two sorts of mortgages:
1) the most common form where the property that the loan is used to purchase is used as the collateral;
2) a broader use of property to guarantee any loan: it is sufficient that the borrower possesses and engages the property as collateral.
, credit card debt, and above all micro-finance debt now affecting millions across the planet.

What is specific about the new use of debt, considering that debt is the oldest means of exploitation? In what follows I investigate this question and argue that individual and group debt not only amplifies the economic effects of state-debt, but change the relation between capital and labor and between workers themselves, placing exploitation on a more self-managed basis and turning the communities people are building in search of mutual support into means of mutual enslavement. This is why the new debt regime is so pernicious and why it is so crucial for us to understand the mechanisms through which it is imposed.

2. The end of the welfare state and the crisis of the wage-common

Brought to public attention by the sub-prime crisis of 2008, individual and household debt is already the object of a large body of literature investigating its causes and social effects, its relation to the increasing financialization of everyday life (Martin 2002) and reproduction (Marazzi 2010), its determination of new forms of subjectivity (Lazzarato 2012), and above all the forms of mobilization most effective against it (Caffentzis 2010, 2010a, 2007).

There is a broad consensus that the institution of a debt-based economy is an essential part of a neo-liberal political strategy responding to the cycle of struggles that in the 1960s and 1970s put capitalist accumulation in crisis, and that it was triggered by the dismantling of the social contract that had existed between capital and labor since the Fordist period. Plausibly, the struggles of women, students, blue collar workers showed to the capitalist class that investing in the reproduction of the working class ‘does not pay,’ neither in terms of a higher productivity of labor nor in terms of a more disciplined work-force. Hence not only the dismantling of the ‘welfare state’ but the ‘financialization of reproduction,” in the sense that an increasing number of people (students, welfare recipients, pensioners) have been forced to borrow from the banks to purchase services (health care, education, pensions) that the state formerly subsidized, so that many reproductive activities have now become immediate sites of capital accumulation.

These developments are well understood. It is agreed that debt serves to impose social austerity, it serves to privatize the means of reproduction, and intensify the mechanism of domination. |12| It is also agreed that the financialization of reproduction by which much individual and household debt is produced is not something super-imposed on the real economy, but is the “real economy,” insofar as it is the direct organizer of people’s labor. But what the new literature on debt has not sufficiently highlighted is the role the new forms of debt play in the destruction of communal solidarity, an element which differentiates them from previous forms of proletarian debt. We must remember, in fact, that debt has always been one of the most common aspects of proletarian life. From the 19th century until the post WWII period, working class communities have lived for a good part of their year on credit, paying shopkeepers on payday and borrowing from each other to make ends meet. In this context, debt has often functioned as a sort of mutual aid, a means by which communities circulated their scarce resources to those most in need. Even in company towns, debt did not isolate those burdened with it, as the common bondage unified in the resentment against the exploiters. Debt began to change its connotation first with the creation of purchase by installment that became a habitual practice already in the 1920s, |13| and later, in the post-WWII period, with the extension of mortgages especially to white male workers, with wages, guaranteed by the state and the unions, functioning as the collateral Collateral Transferable assets or a guarantee serving as security against the repayment of a loan, should the borrower default. . Debt for mortgages and consumer spending was both a victory and a defeat. A victory because the extension of credit to workers reversed the ontological capitalist principle according to which you work first and then you get paid: that is, proletarians must work on credit. A defeat because to the extent that it was tied to availability of wages, to performance, and in many cases to racial privilege, it contributed to diminish communal cohesion. |14|

By the 1980s, however, workers’ debt had become a sure measure of their loss of social power. The 1980s was the time of the Great Transformation that built the infrastructure for the new debt economy. By this time, the extension of bank credit to workers through expanded access to credit cards, coupled with the precarization of work, the removal of anti-usury laws in most states, and the increasing commercialization of education and healthcare, changed the nature of debt as a social relation. As credit grew in the face of both diminishing wages and of increasing incentives to turn to the market to acquire the necessities of life, the material bases of solidarity were further undermined. It is quite ironic that, while access to employment became more difficult to obtain and insecure, indebtedness was immensely facilitated. As we know, much fraud was employed to bring multitudes under the control of the banks. But what matters, for my point at least, are not the manipulations of the financial world, but the fact that a debt economy was consolidated that has disarticulated the social fabric, not least with the illusion that the financial means that the international banking system has manufactured could be used by workers as well, and not only to purchase the necessities of life but to come ahead of the system.

It is not my intention here to examine the complex class dynamics that have enabled this process. Suffice it to say that mass indebtedness and the neo-liberal assault on wages and ‘social rights’ would not have been possible without the acceptance by some workers of the neo-liberal ideology of prosperity through the market. From this viewpoint, we can place the escalation of indebtedness to the banks on a continuum with some workers’ acceptance of company stocks in the place of wages and benefits and their attempt to improve their declining economic condition through equity Equity The capital put into an enterprise by the shareholders. Not to be confused with ’hard capital’ or ’unsecured debt’. raised on their homes, in part explaining the lack of mass resistance in front of the refusal by the state to use its accumulated resources to guarantee our reproduction.

As the 2008 Wall Street Crash however has so dramatically demonstrated, the hope that ‘financialization’ might provide a solution or an alternative to the vanishing jobs and wages has failed. The decision to bail out banks but not working class debtors has made it clear that debt is designed to be a standard condition of working class existence, no less than in the early phase of industrialization, though with more devastating consequences from the viewpoint of class solidarity. For the creditor is no longer the local shopkeeper or the neighbor but the banker and, due to the high interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. rates, debt, like a cancer, with time continuously increases. Moreover, since the 1980s, a whole ideological campaign has been orchestrated that represents borrowing from banks to provide for one’s reproduction as a form of entrepreneurship, thus mystifying the class relation and the exploitation involved. According to it, instead of the capital-labor struggle mediated through the debt, we have millions of micro-entrepreneurs, ‘investing’ in their reproduction, even if in possession of only a few hundred dollars, presumably ‘free’ to prosper or fail as their laboriosity and sagacity allows.

Not only is ‘reproduction’ presented as a ‘self-investment.’ As the lending-debt machine becomes the main means of reproduction, a new class relation is produced where the exploiters are more hidden, more removed, and the mechanisms of exploitation are far more individualized and guilt producing. Instead of work, exploitation, and above all ‘bosses,’ so prominent in the world of smoke stacks, we now have debtors confronting not an employer but a bank and confronting it alone, not as part of a collective body and collective relation, as it was the case with wage workers. In this way, workers’ resistance is diffused, economic disasters acquire a moralistic dimension, and the function of debt as an instrument of labor-extraction is masked, as we have seen, under the illusion of self-investment.

3. Micro-finance and Macro-debt

So far I have described in broad outlines how working class debt creation has functioned in the United States. However, the workings of the lending/debt machine are best seen in the politics of micro-credit or micro-finance, the much publicized program launched in the late 1970s by the Bangladeshi economist Mohammed Yunus with the foundation of the Grameen Bank, and since then extended to every region of the planet. Promoted as a means to ‘alleviate poverty’ in the world, micro-finance has actually proven to be a debt-creating engine, involving a vast network of national and local governments, NGOs and banks, starting with the World Bank, mostly serving to capture the work, energies, inventiveness of the “poor,” |15| women above all. As Maria Galindo of Mujeres Creando |16| has written with reference to Bolivia in her “Prologo” to La Pobreza: un gran negocio (2007), micro-finance, as a financial and political program, aimed to recuperate and destroy the survival strategies that poor women had created in response to the crisis of male employment produced by structural adjustment Structural Adjustment Economic policies imposed by the IMF in exchange of new loans or the rescheduling of old loans.

Structural Adjustments policies were enforced in the early 1980 to qualify countries for new loans or for debt rescheduling by the IMF and the World Bank. The requested kind of adjustment aims at ensuring that the country can again service its external debt. Structural adjustment usually combines the following elements : devaluation of the national currency (in order to bring down the prices of exported goods and attract strong currencies), rise in interest rates (in order to attract international capital), reduction of public expenditure (’streamlining’ of public services staff, reduction of budgets devoted to education and the health sector, etc.), massive privatisations, reduction of public subsidies to some companies or products, freezing of salaries (to avoid inflation as a consequence of deflation). These SAPs have not only substantially contributed to higher and higher levels of indebtedness in the affected countries ; they have simultaneously led to higher prices (because of a high VAT rate and of the free market prices) and to a dramatic fall in the income of local populations (as a consequence of rising unemployment and of the dismantling of public services, among other factors).

in the 1980s. Assuring women that even a small loan could solve their economic problems, it has subsumed their informal activities, made of exchanges with poor unemployed women like themselves, to the formal economy, forcing them to pay a weekly amount as part of their loan repayment. (p.8) Galindo’s observation that micro-finance is a mechanism to place women under the control of the formal economy can be generalized to other countries and so can her argument that loans are traps from which few women can profit Profit The positive gain yielded from a company’s activity. Net profit is profit after tax. Distributable profit is the part of the net profit which can be distributed to the shareholders. or free themselves.

It is significant that loans, usually involving very small sums of money, are mostly given to women and in particular to women’s groups, although in many cases it is the husbands or other men in the families that use them. |17| Financial planners prefer women because they recognize that they are more responsible in their economic transactions, being far more dependent on steady economic resources for the reproduction of their families and being more vulnerable to intimidation. They have also studied women’s communities and ‘appropriated their system of social relations for their objectives’ (Galindo 2007: 10), treating it like a social capital, so that when groups are not available women are encouraged to form them.

Micro-loans are given to groups because in this way each member becomes responsible for their repayment and, should anyone default, each member can be expected to intervene. Join responsibility, moreover, as Lamia Karim argues in her Microfinance and Its Discontents (2011), leads to a proliferation of disciplining technologies with women constantly monitoring, surveilling each other, notifying managers of potential problems. (pp. 73-4). “Through this system” –as Maria Galindo as well points out, “the social fabric that supports women in their everyday life is used to support the payment of the debt.” (p.10) This has proven to be a very effective mechanism, since micro-loans are given in societies in which rural codes—tied to ancient survival tactics—make repayment a matter of honor, and women’s honor in particular is essential to a family’s standing in the community. Indeed, as Karim writes, women’s honor operates as a sort of collateral (p.198). Thus, the paradox is that although the borrowers are the poorest of the world, the rates of repayment are the highest.

Collective self-policing is only partially responsible for this “success.” Equally important have been the strategies used in case of default. Banks, international agencies, and NGOs have been engaging in a true ethnography of shame, studying the mechanisms by which different communities culturally enforce their ethical mores, which they apply accompanied by threats and physical intimidation. Home visits and a variety of vilifying methods are used to terrify debtors into payment. In some countries, like Niger, the pictures of women who have not repaid their debts are posted on the doors of the banks. |18| In Bolivia some micro-finance institutions have marked the houses of defaulters and put posters in the neighborhoods where they lived (Toro 2007: 135). In Bangladesh a standard method to punish defaulters is housebreaking, the practice by which NGO officers enter into a house and rip out the doors, floor planks, and roofs to resell them as payment for the defaulted loan (Karim 2011: 85, 117). However, “ Public punishments and sanctions also include…flogging, pouring pitch over bodies, tonsuring women’s hair……publicly spitting on a person every time she or he walks by…” (ibid.: 85) NGOs have also turned to the police, the courts, and the local elites. As a result, those in danger of default live in a state of terror that intensifies resentments and hostilities among the women themselves who at times cooperate in the housebreaking. This explains why repayment rates are so high despite the fact that few can claim to have had much success with the capital acquired.

‘Empowerment’ through micro-credits is not an easy feat, at least for the majority of recipients. The reality is that poverty and misery are not caused by lack of capital but by the unjust distribution of wealth and this is a problem that a few hundred dollars cannot resolve or mitigate. A few hundred dollars or even more in the hands of families who live daily at the edge of disaster quickly vanish and rarely are invested to make more money. The husband gets sick, the goat dies, children have no shoes to go to school: within a short time, loan recipients find themselves unable to meet their repayments and have borrow from moneylenders to pay back the loans they have taken. Far from lifting themselves out of poverty by some ‘ virtuous’ investment they plunge more deeply into it, going from a small debt to a bigger one in a sequence that often ends in a suicide. |19| Even when they do not die physically, many borrowers die socially. Some, full of shame for not been able to pay back their debts, leave their villages. In Bangladesh defaulting women have been abandoned by their husbands after they were publicly shamed. That many default is guaranteed not only by their perennial state of crisis, but by the high interest rates imposed on the loans, usually twenty per cent or more. (Toro 2007: 146-152) The justification given for these high rates is that lending to the poor is a laborious process presumably requiring a substantial social/work machine to ensure that they do not escape the hold of their creditors, and if they cannot repay with money they will repay with their last drop of blood, be this in the form of a small piece of land or a small shack or a goat or a pot and a pan. In Bangladesh, defaulting women are being punished by being deprived of the large pot for cooking rice that they use to feed her families, the ultimate shame a woman can suffer, an insufferable loss of face with respect to the community that can lead to abandonment from the husband and at times suicide (Karim 2011: 91). Yet, this is precisely what many women have been subjected to, their house being broken into and they themselves being at times physically assaulted.

This being the situation, why then are micro-loans still proliferating? What
induces people to take them and what is achieved by this generalized extension of debt? The answer is that few people today worldwide can live purely on subsistence, even in predominantly agricultural areas. Land expropriations, currency devaluations, cuts in jobs and social services, combined with the extension of market relations, are forcing even populations primarily engaged in agriculture to seek some form of monetary income. NGOs have also learned to combine lending with marketing schemes offering together with loans a variety of goods, like medicines or foods |20| the borrowers will be tempted to buy. It is also a fact that some borrowers do succeed in improving their situation, although they are a minority and often do so by collaborating with NGOs in policing other borrowers and debt collecting. |21| We see here a parallel between the situation of female borrowers in Bolivia or Bangladesh and that of students in the USA who are often ready to face very high rates of indebtment convinced that the degree thus purchased will fetch them higher wages, although in reality many, upon graduating, will have a hard time finding employment or finding it at the expected wage rates or at rates enabling them to pay back their debts.

As for the reasons why investors insist in promoting this program —despite the growing criticism and evidence of its failure to end poverty |22|- these are quite varied. The good returns on the money invested is only one of the factors involved. Equally important are the changes in class relations and relations within the proletariat itself that debt is producing. Micro-finance enables international capital to directly control and exploit the world proletariat, bypassing the mediation of the national states, thus ensuring that any profit made accrues directly to the banks instead of being appropriated by local governments. It also enables it to bypass the world of male relatives as mediators in the exploitation of women’s labor and to tap the energies of a population of women who in the wake of “structural adjustment” have been able to create new forms of subsistence outside or at the margins of the money economy, which micro-credit attempts to bring under the control of monetary relations and the banks. Last but not least, like other debt-generating policies, micro-finance is a means of experimentation with different social relations where the tasks of surveillance and policing are ‘internalized’ by the community, the group, the family, and where exploitation appears to be self-managed and failure is more burning for being experienced as an individual problem and disgrace.

Here as well we can see a continuity between the experience of indebted women in Egypt, Niger, Bangladesh or Bolivia and that of indebted students or victims of the sub-prime crisis in the US.

In both cases, the state and the employers disappear as the immediate beneficiary of the labor extracted and therefore as targets of demands and conflict. We also have the ideology of micro-entrepreneurship that hides the work and exploitation involved. We have the individualization of the reasons of success and failure, the individually suffered shame, the politics of guilt leading to hiding, self-imposed silence, avoidance of disclosure.

This strategy so far has been very successful but it is clearly unsustainable in the long run and not only for the poor alone. In fact it is already beginning to show its limits. It is significant that as pauperization due to micro-finance is becoming ever more severe, and the ability to further squeeze the poor is reduced, micro-lending networks are redirecting their attentions to more affluent populations and increasingly moving to the global North. Significantly the Grameen Bank –literally the Village Bank—has opened branches in ten U.S. cities, starting with New York. |23| In the long term, the debt strategy puts capitalism in a bind, as in no part of the world can the absolute impoverishment of so many people be sustained if world production is not to further stagnate and retrench. Most important, capitalism is arguably reaching the point in which the advantage derived from the pauperization and expropriation of the world multitudes is offset by its inability to contain the resistance it is generating.

Anti-debt movements have already appeared in Latin America.

The most powerful in the 1990s, in Mexico, was El Barzon (the yoke) that in a few years extended nationwide, with the slogan “ I owe, I don’t deny it. But I pay what is right.” (Samperio 1996, Chavez 1998) A debtors mobilization also took place in Bolivia, where in May 2001 thousands of people, mostly women, coming from different parts of the country lay siege to the banks in the streets of La Paz for ninety-five days. (Galindo and Toro 2007: 137-144) Meanwhile, the Grameen Bank has become a hated name in Bangladesh, its founders and administrators been viewed as nothing better than money-lenders who have enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. (Karim 2011: 192-3). And an anti-debt movement is growing in the United States, as the formation of Strike/Debt |24| in an increasing number of U.S. cities, and the success of the Rolling Jubilee that was launched in New York in November of 2012 demonstrate. |25| While the outcome of these forms of resistance remains to be seen, it can be said that the formation of a liberation-from-debt movement is by itself a major victory, as the power of the debt economy derives in good part from the fact that its consequences are suffered in isolation; for as the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual (2012) states, “there is so much shame, frustration and fear surrounding our debt [that] we seldom talk about it openly with others.” (p.iv)

Indeed, the curtain of fear and guilt debt has generated all over the world must be broken, as it was in Mexico, with the movement of El Barzon in the 1990s and in Bolivia in 2001 when indebted women rallied in the street of La Paz and besieged the banks. Students, especially students in the United States have a special role in this process, as many of the cultural tools used by NGOs and banking systems to convince women to contract a debt and to shame borrowers into repayment even at the cost of their lives are forged in our universities. Anthropologists in particular “have played the midwife role” bringing to the world’s attention the ability of the poor to survive “in the face of alienation, deprivation, and marginalization.” (Elyachar 2002: 499) As Elyachar points out, it was anthropologists who alerted economic planners to the extraordinary ways in which the poor manage to survive against all odds, and the importance of networks of relationships to people’s survival. She adds that some of the effects of micro-finance may not have been what the researchers had intended. Nevertheless, it was a short step from the recognition of culture and social relations as economic resources to the definition of a ‘program of action.’ (Elyachar 2002:508)

Elyachar’s comments demonstrate the importance of our universities in the production of the new models of disciplining and labor extraction. |26| Thus, from the viewpoint of an anti-student debt movement, the task is twofold. On the one side, the movement must refuse the student loan debt as illegitimate, for education should not be a commodity to be bought and sold. On the other, it should refuse to collaborate in the production of knowledge producing the debt, as well as knowledge usable as an instrument of debt repayment and an instruments of psychological torture for those who fail.

The struggle against micro-credit is also intensifying. A “No pago” (“I won’t pay”) movement has developed in Nicaragua. Protests against microcredit have also spread to India (Bajaj 2011). In Bangladesh, the birth-place of Micro-finance, even the prime minister has accused it of ’sucking the blood of the poor.’ (ibid.) In Bolivia Mujeres Creando has made the cancellation of the debt one of the key tasks of the organization, accusing banks and NGOS of stealing women’s work, women’s time, women’s hope for the future, and urging women to recuperate their traditional forms of borrowing in which “money passes from woman to woman on the basis of friendship and reciprocity relations.” (Galindo 2012) More broadly, new movements are forming like Strike/Debt in the United States, later discussed in this journal, that view debt as a potential terrain of class recomposition, where those struggling against mortgages and foreclosures can meet indebted students, defaulting borrowers of micro-loans or credit cards holders. But as Galindo powerfully intuited, the success of these movements will very much depend on the degree to which they will not only protest the debt but recreate and reinvent the commons the debt has destroyed.


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|1| David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years. (2011)

|2| Graeber, op.cit.: 230-1, 427nn 24-5.

|3| George Caffentzis, “Two Cases in the History of Debt Resistance,” p.3. Manuscript based on a presentation made at the Occupy University Fall Series on Debt, presented at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts on October 17, 2012.

|4| “The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possession of a modern nation is the national debt.” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 919).

|5| Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States. 1492-Present. New York: HarpersCollins Publishers. Perennial Classics, 1999, pp.92-3.

|6| Ibid.p.284.

|7| I take the concept of a ‘debt economy’ from Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man. Amsterdam: Semiotext(e), Intervention Series 13, 2012.

|8| The literature on the debt crisis is now immense. For references I refer to: Altvater et al.The Poverty of Nations. A Guide to the Debt Crisis from Argentina to Zaire. London: Zed Books 1991. Also George Caffentzis, “The Fundamental Implications of the Debt Crisis for Social Reproduction in Africa.” In Dalla Costa and Dalla Costa eds.(1995), 153-187; Silvia Federici, “The Debt crisis in Africa and the New Enclosures;” and Harry Cleaver, “Notes on the Origins of the Debt Crisis. ” In Midnight Notes N. 10, Fall 1990.

|9| The exception is Latin America where, on average, the external debt has declined from 59 percent of GDP in 2003 to 32 percent in 2008. Source: Latin Macro Watch Database (LMW).

|10| On the ‘debt crisis’ in Greece see: The Children of the Gallery (TPTG), “Burdened with debt : ‘Debt Crisis’ and class struggles in Greece” and David Graeber, “The Greek debt crisis in almost unimaginably long-term historical perspective.” In A. Vradis and D. Dalakoglou eds., Revolt and Crisis in Greece, respectively pp. 245-278 and 229-244.

|11| State and municipal debt has been created, starting in the late 1970s, through the adoption of laws and provisions forbidding governments from addressing their money problems by coining new money, and forcing them therefore to resort to private financial markets. (M. Lazzarato, 2012:18)

|12| See Lazzarato (2012).

|13| See Gary Cross, Time and Money. The Making of a Consumer Culture. New York: Routledge, 1993, p.148.

|14| On the relationship between the growth of ‘consumer spending’ and the privatization of social relations in the working class see Cross, op.cit.:168-183.

|15| I place “poor” in quotes to highlight the mystification implicit in this concept. There are no ‘poor’, they are people and populations who have been impoverished. This may appear a minor distinction but it is a necessary one to prevent the normalization and naturalization of impoverishment which the concept of the ‘poor’ promotes.

|16| Mujeres Creando is the most important autonomous feminist organization in Bolivia. Based in La Paz, since 2002 it has been involved in the struggle against micro-finance debt and has been the promoter of the research on micro-finance from which the book cited originated. On this subject see Maria Galindo “La Pobreza Un Gran Negocio.” In Mujer Pública 7. Revista de Discusión Feminista, 2012.

|17| This is the situation described for Bangladesh by Lamia Karim who found in her research that “95 per cent of women borrowers gave their loans to their husbands or other male borrowers.” (Karim 2011: 86)

|18| I have obtained this information in an interview with Prof. Ousseina Alidou, Director of the Center for African Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, in September 2012.

|19| There have been many suicides, including of men who co-signed the debts of their wives. According to Vandana Shiva, many of the 15,000 and more Indian farmers who in recent years have killed themselves in India under the burden of debt belonged to this category. See Shiva (2009).

|20| In Bangladesh, NGOs have made deals with various companies such as Danone, promoting its yogurts as crucial for the health of children. (Karim 2011: 67, 196)There was a great protest in India when NGOs there tried to make a deal with Monsanto to combine the giving of loans with the marketing of its seeds. (UNIBIG 1998). See on this subject the letter that Vandana Shiva wrote on that occasion to the head of the Grameen Bank (Shiva 1998) and Karim 2011: xx.

|21| As Maria Galindo points out, those women who excel in their policing role take on a leadership role in the neighborhood and become collaborators of the NGOs. She adds that ‘empowerment’ has a specifically policing content. (Galindo 2007: 10)

|22| See, among others, Crossette (1998); Bateman (2010); Bloomberg Business Week (2010); Chant (2010); Kentaro 2011.

|23| As advertised, “Grameen America offers micro-loans, for a maximum of $ 1,500. It also offers savings accounts through commercial partner banks that members are required to make deposits into. Typically, in order to receive a loan an individual must be living below the poverty line, must be located in a community with a Grameen America branch and must be willing to create or join a five member group of “like-minded individuals.” Borrowers must also attend weekly meetings at which they make repayments on their loans.

|24| Strike/Debt is an organization first formed in New York as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. It is committed to challenging the legitimacy of the debt that people have contracted, on the premise that basic services like housing, education, healthcare should not be commodities reserved to those who can pay. See The Debtors Resistors’ Operations Manual (2012).

|25| Rolling Jubilee is a strategy Strike/Debt has opted for to publicize its program. It buys hefty debts at discount rates at secondary markets, a move intended to raise consciousness of the fact that millions of peopple are now enslaved to banks sometimes for the rest of their lives.

|26| Among the forms of knowledge instrumental to the management of debtors, is what Lamia Karim calls “poverty research” producing “an archive of intimate knowledge about the poor.” (2011, p.164ff.)The task here is that of “unmasking representations” making them legible to the broader public. (ibid.: 166)


Silvia Federici

is a feminist activist, teacher and writer. She is a Emerita Professor at Hofstra University (New York). Her work includes : “Revolution at Point Zero. Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle ;” Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation« ; “Enduring Western Civilization : The Construction of the Concept of Western Civilization and its Others” (editor) ; “Thousand Flowers : Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities » (co-editor).



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