Debt Versus Democracy: A Battle for the Future

23 January 2013 by Marisa Holmes

Strike Debt on Fifth Avenue for Global Noise Demo. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

In the US and Europe, the movement of squares has responded to attacks on the social good by debt resistance and direct democracy. In assemblies, mic checks and self-organization, they demonstrated that another world is possible. Now the movement is articulating full-scale resistance.

The movement of squares was born of the crisis of debt and democracy. In the wake of the global financial crisis, debt has been used by the 1 percent as a tool of oppression against the 99%. The corruption of so-called democratic governments has been laid bare and their rule delegitimized, and now it is Phase Two. Activists from this new social movement are building a global resistance.

The crisis began in the mid-1970s when the US went off the gold standard and pursued policies of inflation Inflation The cumulated rise of prices as a whole (e.g. a rise in the price of petroleum, eventually leading to a rise in salaries, then to the rise of other prices, etc.). Inflation implies a fall in the value of money since, as time goes by, larger sums are required to purchase particular items. This is the reason why corporate-driven policies seek to keep inflation down. , effectively plunging the Third World into a debt crisis. From Burkina Faso to Argentina, countries took out predatory loans from the 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.
and 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, 189 members in 2017), 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.

to pay the difference, but they could not pay and, in many cases, did not pay back these loans. Domestically, the US experienced decades of deregulation, which expanded the financial sector and allowed for increased speculation.

By 2006 and 2007 the housing bubble was already in the making. Market rates had begun to fall, causing subprime 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.
holders to default on their loans. Major financial institutions that held these mortgages with other assets overvalued them and repackaged them, but that couldn’t last. The bubble burst in September 2008.

Despite public outcry, Congress responded by approving the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 and they effectively socialized the private debts of the financial sector and placed the burden of these debts on taxpayers. Very little has been done to help the 99%, who were already burdened by crushing personal private debts including medical, student, credit debts and other financial instruments Financial instruments Financial instruments include financial securities and financial contracts. .

Strike Debt in Central Park for Global Noise Demo. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

The average American has a double debt burden. First, there is their personal debt. Then there is the public debt taken from the private losses, which, in turn increases personal debt. Why? The federal government uses the increase in national debt as an excuse to make cuts to social services. If the social welfare is not provided for, then the burden is placed on the individual. This is the failure of the modern liberal democracy.

In Europe, they also experienced a private debt crisis that caused banks to be bailed out and consolidated. Economists and politicians call this the “sovereign debt Sovereign debt Government debts or debts guaranteed by the government. crisis.” Euro zone countries, mainly in the south, have been underwater and seeking bailouts from the Troika Troika Troika: IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank, which together impose austerity measures through the conditions tied to loans to countries in difficulty.

. This has been undermining the sovereignty of EU members and has essentially meant a “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).

” of the member states. The southern countries are making cuts to social services and effectively disassembling the European welfare state.

The movement of squares responded in the US and Europe by reclaiming the public sphere and demonstrating an alternative to a failed economic and political system. But it is only now, after the first wave of occupations, that the movement is articulating a real resistance.

I was privileged enough to attend Agora 99, held in Madrid in early November, as an emissary from Occupy Wall Street. The convergence was the first meeting of the Occupy, 15M and Bloccupy networks in Europe and was held in an archipelago of social centers throughout the city. The conference organizers framed the event around debt, democracy and rights.

Agora 99 closing assembly at EKO. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

I participated in the debt and democracy axis. The debt axis was composed of groups from ICAN (International Citizens Audit Network). The democracy axis reflected the interests of various occupy groups, 15M commissions, assemblies. Each axis met throughout the course of the weekend and developed statements and roadmaps for action. It was a beautiful exercise in consensus-building from the movements who do it best.

The closing assembly was held in EKO (espacio sociocultural liberado autogestionado), a self-managed squatted social center run by the Popular Assembly of Carabanchel, which houses a café, library, free store, and assembly space. On the third floor the facilitation team huddled before the assembly began drafting an agenda that would meet the needs of all axes. They also arranged translation in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French.

Agora 99 Roundtable. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

Hundreds of people gathered in the drafty third-floor meeting space, where an Agora flag hung from exposed rafters. Each axis was given time to present their declarations. The debt axis presented and read, “debt has proven to be the most powerful domination tool of the capitalist system.” The democracy group read, “We need a new people’s sovereignty and a constituent process, and by this we don’t mean constitution.” There was a very clear sense that debt was the problem and direct democracy was the solution.

Agora 99 Roundtable. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

Upon returning to New York I was able to reflect on the state of the movement and how this moment came to be. In the U.S. and Europe the language of debt and democracy had been building for some time.

In May 2012, Strike Debt formed from people engaged in Occupy Wall Street and the Student Debt campaign in New York City. Hundreds of people gathered in open assemblies held at Washington Square Park and discussed the formation of a debt resistance movement.

On September 17, 2012 (the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street), Strike Debt has issued the DROM (Debt Resistors Operations Manual), aimed at education and outreach. The introduction states, “To the financial establishment of the world, we have only one thing to say: We owe you nothing. To our friends, our families, our communities, to humanity and to the natural world that makes our lives possible, we owe you everything. Every dollar we take from a fraudulent subprime mortgage speculator, every dollar we withhold from the collection agency is a tiny piece of our own lives and freedom that we can give back to our communities, to those we love and we respect. These are acts of debt resistance.”

Strike Debt Assembly in Washington Square Park. (Photo: Marisa Holmes)

In March 2012, the Citizens Debt Audit Platform (PACD) began at a conference in Madrid. Activists gathered to decide on core principles and a roadmap for action. They decided on the slogan, “Don’t Owe! Won’t Pay!” The following month the ICAN (International Citizens Debt Audit Network) was formed to increase communication in primarily Europe and the Mediterranean. Now, there are dozens of groups working around debt in Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, UK, Greece, Egypt and Tunisia that are connected and building solidarity.

Emma Aviles from PACD Barcelona, an ICAN member, wrote to me and described the group as “a de-centralized network of activists aimed at exposing evidence of the illegitimacy of debt and calling for the nonpayment of all illegitimate debts, as well as denouncing the financial and economic system that is at the origin of this crisis, in order to advance together toward a change of the social, economic, political and human system.” The question of what makes a legitimate or illegitimate debt is not easily answered, for it varies depending on the context. Aviles said that illegitimate debts are those that “have a negative impact on the well-being of the citizens or the violation of their economic, social and cultural rights.”

This idea is not new. It predates the 15M and Occupy movements and, at its most basic level, is an idea as old as debt itself. Nick Deardon of the Jubilee Campaign in the UK, a member of the ICAN network wrote to me, “A jubilee is an ancient concept; every so often ancient monarchs in Mesopotamia would cancel the debts of their subjects. They realized if they didn’t do this, debt would go on getting bigger and tearing the structure of society apart. Peasants would have to sell their fields and families to pay the debts. Wealth and power would become concentrated. A jubilee returned the ancient economy to a kind of equilibrium and made amends for the injustice debt had caused.”

It is also not new to talk about debt in the context of neo-liberalism. In addition to the many anti-colonial struggles around debt, there has been international solidarity. For example, CADTM (The Committee for the Cancelation of Third World Debt), another ICAN member, started doing debt solidarity work in the early 1990s and continues to this day. Jerome Duval of CADTM wrote to me, “we try to link each struggle to debt liberation, but we want to go further than debt cancellation and suggest a radical change of the ’debt system.’”

What is new is the context of the global financial crisis and the new movements that have come about. They are breathing life into an old idea. Strike Debt continues to build their network. Most recently, the group took on the “rolling jubilee,” which launched with a cabaret-style telethon called The People’s Bailout in which people donated money to abolish personal debt. The project to date has abolished over $100,000 in medical debt, and is still going strong. Inspired by the DROM and Rolling Jubilee, dozens of Strike Debt affiliated groups have sprung up around the US forming their own assemblies.

The ICAN members are auditing their governments and financial institutions to evaluate illegitimate debts. The network is planning for a convergence in Greece in January, as well as a meetup at the World Social Forum in Tunis in March.

The 99% are all debtors, whether they live in an indebted country or hold personal debts. We are all affected by the debt system. A global crisis calls for global debt resistance and an embrace of direct democracy. It is a logical progression for 15M and the Occupy movement to make.

The 1% is betting against our future. If we are to have a world that is humane and just, and, really, to have a world at all, we must act democratically in the present and open the space for radical imagination. It is a battle for the future, and the 99% must win.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Marisa Holmes is an artist and agitator based in Brooklyn, NY. She has been active in Occupy Wall Street and Strike Debt and is currently an MFA/IMA candidate at Hunter College. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, Truthout, and the AK Press compilation We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy

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