Rolling Jubilee: a distraction, or a way forward?

One of the offshoots of the Occupy movement is an intriguing project known as Rolling Jubilee. Billing itself as “a bailout of the people by the people,” Rolling Jubilee is an organization that raises money to buy the debt of random individuals for pennies on the dollar, thus wiping out the debt and freeing them from the harassment of bill collectors. They plan to start by buying medical debt and to branch out to other forms of debt (credit card, etc.) later. When the debt is forgiven, the debtor is informed of this by a letter, which explains what the Rolling Jubilee is and is accompanied by a copy of Occupy’s Debt Resistor’s Manual.

Like Doug Henwood, I have mixed feelings about this project. Raising awareness about debt is essential, and lending a helping hand to one’s fellow citizens who are being crushed by debt is a noble endeavor. Personal debt, and in particular student debt, is an ever-growing problem in our society and was a powerful motivator for many of the Occupy protesters. But it very much remains to be seen if Rolling Jubilee’s debt relief effort is a promising way to organize a political movement. As a community building exercise, it may prove a bust. The debtors who are being helped out have no organic ties to the movement and may not care to participate in it. Foreclosure activism, which is focused on keeping people in their homes and is community-based, seems much more promising in this regard.

Also, as Henwood points out, there’s the problem that if activists buy enough debt, they risk driving up the price of the debt, by increasing demand. However, it seems unlikely that they will raise enough money to do so, and at any rate the debt-buying is mostly symbolic. The point is not to abolish the debts of everyone in America, but to raise awareness of debt as an issue and to build a movement that brings about public policies that promote debt relief and other fundamental changes in our economic system.

Henwood’s most persuasive critique of the movement is his argument that in its narrow focus to debt, the movement unproductively addresses a mere symptom of our unjust and dysfunctional economic system, while ignoring root causes. He writes:

[T]he StrikeDebt! people have inherited from American populism an obsession with money and finance as the root of all our economic problems, while not paying much attention to the things they connect to in the real world. So, debt is a symptom of crappy wages, unemployment, expensive health care and tuition, and a cheesy welfare state. It’s fine to organize and propagandize around debt as long as you use it as a point of entry into that larger conversation—but the StrikeDebt! people have so far done that more in passing, while fixating instead on a so-called “debt system.” They say they’ll move on to that, and I hope that’s true.

So do I. I’m a skeptic about the movement’s potential for success, but I wish them well. Debt relief efforts may not necessarily lead to a movement that addresses the economic system as a whole, but it could get the ball rolling toward more humane public policies for our huge national problem of overwhelming personal debt.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee