Collectively Building Power against Debt Regimes: A Public Discussion

April 28, 2019

By Jeff Shantz

 Over the course of four days spanning April 25-28, a gathering of academics, artists, and a few activists took part in a symposium entitled “Digital/Debt/Empire” held at Simon Fraser University and the Or Gallery in Vancouver. The last day saw a discussion on some collective approaches to building power against debt regimes. It featured Jerome Roos, Iolanda Fresnillo,  Ludovica Rogers, and Stephanie Rearick.

The session began with Jerome Roos (a founding editor of ROAR magazine) in an impromptu interview with academic Max Haiven (Lakehead University). Roos explained that his work, and ROAR magazine originated in coverage of the struggles of the squares—the struggles of the Arab Spring and the anti-debt struggles in southern Europe that drew from them. Roos spoke of the commonality between struggles for liberal democracy (as in Egypt) and against austerity (as in southern Europe). He noted that the Egyptian uprising was also about socioeconomic struggles and financialization while there were criticisms of liberal democracy in the European struggles, notably in Greece and in Spain.

Currently movements are still oriented against, and in response to, the bankruptcy of center-left social democracy. This is seen in France in the present struggles of the Gillets Jaunes (Yellow Vests). These are still, also, influenced by the 2008 crisis and French president Macron’s intensification of the neoliberal policies that led to the crisis in the first place.

The Yellow Vests have been complex in bringing together a range of social and economic issues. They have been used as rightwing symbol in the Netherlands and in Canada. Roos reminds the audience that the Netherlands was a focal point for development of the new Islamophobic far right. Earlier developments pint to the xenophobia and racism of political figure Pym Fortin and Geert Wilders. More recently are movements even to Wilders’ right. The county’s center-right president now has two far right figures pushing politics even further to the right.

Roos concluded by asking “How are emergent movements developing?” They are often outside and beyond traditional left organizations, particularly socialist parties and trade unions. Roos asks, “If no one speaks for you, how do you organize?” He suggests that in Greece and in Spain movements are orienting toward political parties. This is happening in the US too with the support around Bernie Sanders. Also, and more importantly I would suggest, are libertarian socialist forms. People are building organizations that can be more sustainable, and allow for more durable resistance, but which are not oriented toward elections. I have recently discussed these as “insurrectionary infrastructures.”

 The second speaker was Iolanda Fresnillo of the Citizens’ Debt Audit Platform in Spain. That work involves researching debt in relation to social movements in Spain. There people are looking to build something new—building economic power. She highlighted debt audits as part of that work. This involves civilian participation in auditing public debt and public policy. Fresnillo notes that such debt audits are first seen in Brazil in the 1930s but suggests here own inspiration comes from efforts in the 1990s.

The turn to debt audits in Spain coincides with the movements of Indignados and movements for non-payment of debts. It is about capacity building and political power. The audits allow for the detection of corruption, illegalities, and illegitimate debt. It allows for closer evaluation of government policy decisions. It makes injustice visible.

Fresnillo notes that illegitimacy is a political concept rather than a strictly legal one. Illegitimate policies are those that threaten human rights, economic, social, and cultural rights. This is also debt contracted without consent of the population or against the interests of the population. Audits take into account impacts of the debt and of debt payments. The debt practices could be legal—but they are unjust, unfair, harmful. Fresnillo argues that illegitimacy provides grounds for non-payment or renegotiation or cancellation of debts.

Fresnillo concludes by referencing debt audits that have happened in Greece, Italy, France, and Spain.

 Next up was Ludovica Rogers of Research for Action and Debt Resistance UK. She challenges the notion of debt as apolitical. The focus is on UK municipal debt and the impacts of debt on democracy, in particular the impacts of austerity cuts to local government (in a UK context that is highly centralized with local funds coming from central government grants, with councils also imposing cuts).

The projects involved filing objections to council financial decisions. They created a guide for people to file their own objections. They too ask about the illegitimacy of debts in terms of contracting terms, the purpose of the debts (and relation if any to benefits for the population), and the servicing of debt.

Recommendations included the suspending of interest payments and the canceling of contracts.

 The final speaker was Stephanie Rearick of Mutual Aid Networks based in Madison, Wisconsin. These started in a Restorative Justice Youth Court involving community attempts to develop alternatives to carceral systems and providing youth with alternatives that build their strengths and capabilities rather than taking a vengeful and punitive approach. A time bank for labor started to do this community justice work. This model raises many interesting questions, not least of which involve alternatives to police and steps to build transformative approaches to justice. Unfortunately, the practicalities of the network were left rather opaque and needed much fleshing out in specific terms in the discussion.

 On the whole some interesting examples were touched upon. There was perhaps too little structural analysis of class—and particularly of ownership and control and of exploitation and accumulation beyond debt. The responses were left seeming too artisanal and reformist rather than addressing issues of structured concentrations of power embodied in labor, land ownership, property regimes. And how they construct forms, practices, and outcomes of governance.


Further Reading

Jeff Shantz. 2018. Insurrectionary Infrastructures. Brooklyn: Punctum