At a certain moment during last night’s Rolling Jubilee, MC David Rees announced to the cheering crowd that the group had raised enough money to purchase and abolish $5 million of medical debt owed by ordinary Americans. As the folks standing behind him tossed sparkling confetti out over the crowd, I realize that I was watching something I hadn’t seen before.
It’s been said that David Graeber’s book Debt: the First 5,000 Years was required reading for participants in Occupy Wall Street. But now we’re seeing the consequences of having a mobilized political movement that actually understands how the complex economics of Wall Street work. By raising $292,000 and turning it into $5.9 million dollars through the banker’s craft (as of the time of this writing, updated numbers are available at www.rollingjubilee.org), Strike Debt has captured the basic unfairness of the economy and made it work against itself. Bankers, beware.
The plan was simple. Use OWS’s impressive communication skills to promote a “People’s Bailout.” Then encourage everybody to give just a little money, telling them that Strike Debt would make it worth 20 times more to some stranger being pursued by a collection agency for medical debts. People donated more than a quarter million dollars, aided by a telethon featuring left-leaning celebrities like Jeneane Garofalo and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. The plan is to send the randomly selected recipients of the bailout a note telling them that Strike Debt has abolished their debt, along with a copy of the Debt Resistors’ Operation Manual.
It sounds somehow shady, or least like “civil disobedience,” as Graeber himself said when speaking from the stage early in the Rolling Jubilee telethon. But people in various parts of the economy buy debt all the time and get rich doing it. After a hospital or a university or other business gets tired of trying to get you to pay for something, they sell your debt to collection agencies for “pennies on the dollar.” The debt is cheap because there’s no certainty that the collectors will get their money.
In transactions like this, the economy has a kind of relativity to it. Money is worth more in certain places than it is elsewhere. Your debt might be worth $100 to you (plus collection fees, of course), but someone can buy it for $25.
This system creates a lot of inequality because there is a kind of fence between the place where your money is worth a lot and the place where it is worth a little. Most of the time, bankers, hedge funders, insurance executives, and other kinds of Wall Street finance workers can get the money where it’s cheap; ordinary workers and students cannot. They look on in despair as their money keeps flying over to the other side of the fence.
With the Rolling Jubilee, we crossed that fence. And we did it through solidarity between Strike Debt followers and unfortunate Americans who were being hounded by collection agencies for their medical bills.
There were times during Occupy when I wondered if “the 99 percent” really meant anything. Was there any real solidarity in the 99 percent, any chance that we would actual help one another out? If Strike Debt is any example, then the answer is yes.
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