By the wonderful George Caffentzis. Excerpt:
The El Barzón movement in the 1990s had a significant impact on Mexican society and is close enough to us in time and space to indicate some of the perennial problems and possibilities of debtors’ movements that are relevant to Strike Debt.
Prolegomena to a History of Debt Resistance
El Barzón is a mass organization of debtors that, at its height, had half a million members and chapters all over Mexico. It provided to its members both legal aid and “muscle” to resist foreclosures and repossessions due to debt default. Before we re-create and review El Barzón’s story in thought, we should recognize that there are many forms of debt and many different kinds of debtors. As a consequence there are many forms of debt resistance. One of the most important distinctions is that of debt contracted in order to make more money, what I call “profit debt,” and debt contracted to purchase a commodity that satisfies some nonmonetary need or desire, what I call “use-value debt.”
To get our bearings, let us see how these kinds of debt appear in the world of contemporary economics statistics. “Profit debt” is called “corporate debt” (comprising the debt of both “financial” and “nonfinancial” corporations), and “use-value debt” is called “household debt.” Contemporary US “corporate debt” is approximately $26 trillion, while “household debt” is approximately $13.5 trillion.
There is a caveat that I should make at this juncture. Although, for the most part, proletarians take on use-value debt and capitalists profit debt, in the history of debt resistance these debt categories do not always coincide with a simple class dichotomy. Let us take a moment to examine these “failures of coincidence” between class and debt.
There are many noncapitalists who take out loans “to make money” in order to supplement a largely subsistence livelihood (for in a monetary society some money is necessary even for a subsistence life). Many debt resistance movements have been led by small farmers or small businesspeople who had some kind of collateral (usually land) and were producing for or selling in a market in order to earn their livelihoods. Another failed coincidence arises because capitalists act as consumers as well. They can get into debt in order to purchase commodities for their use value—that is, they buy yachts, expensive vacations, and so on—without an immediate intention to gain some profit on the commodity purchased. They do, of course, recognize that some commodity purchases for the purpose of enjoyment such as a Basquiat painting can eventually become “good investments.” Indeed, some capitalists can become so indebted due to their “use-value debts” that they organize against their class colleagues.
Still another failure of coincidence arises because some proletarians (who are not always class-conscious angels) attempt to transform use-value debt into a form of profit debt. Thus, although much of the real estate speculation in the 2000s was due to capitalists (in financial institutions), some proletarians became indebted in order to speculate on the prices of second or even third homes. Clearly, they were trying to use debt as a way to make real estate profit and were not using these homes as a means to satisfy their need for housing.
An even more troubling case of this failure of coincidence is the question of student loan debt. Most contemporary proletarians are told that they have to “invest in themselves” and pay for postsecondary education in order to earn higher wages than their friends who only graduate from high school. Since they do not have the immediate funds to pay the high tuition fees, they often have to take out loans. Are these use-value debts or are they profit debts? Doesn’t student loan debt imply a way of borrowing money to make money, that is, a profit debt? But, at the same time, the “more money” in question is in the form of wages not profits, so is one’s labor power a form of capital? Just because neoliberal economists say it is does not make it so. They do not have the power to magically transform every worker into a little capitalist! Nor can they, with the same wand, transform wages into profits. On the contrary, the labor power that is sold in the labor market is a commodity simply because workers have no choice but to sell it to live. The profits that labor power generates when put to work (both in the sphere of production and reproduction) are only for the employers and their class.
The point of these prolegomena is to show that, due to these failures of coincidence, one often finds complex interclass alliances in debt resistance movements. For example, in the struggle against debt imprisonment in the US in the nineteenth century, formerly wealthy capitalists and dirt-poor farmers fought in the same campaign because they both were liable to find themselves in the same prisons.