a few notes on debt
reflecting on Wednesday’s win and the life of the world to come
Debtors won big this week.
I spent my Wednesday in awe and thankfulness to the incredible advocacy of so many debtors, especially those organizing at The Debt Collective. (I just downloaded their book Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition for free as both an audiobook and eBook from the library’s Hoopla app!)
Additionally, there’s been something about the announcement I haven’t been able to shake: the unmistakable admittance, from the highest office in the nation, that the american dream is a myth.
I’m a Pell Grant recipient. I’m the child of a single mother. My childhood was marked with financial difficulty. We had it better than a lot of folks, of course, but there were many moments of economic precarity which— had we not (by luck or providence) had good family and friends ready to lend a hand — would have been ruinous.
I’m a Pell Grant recipient. I am from a poor working family. I received academic scholarships. I received first generation college student scholarships. I chose an in-state, publicly-funded college to minimize my debt. I worked all throughout college; I even worked four jobs my senior year. Despite my busy schedule, I did well in college. I graduated with a good GPA and a litany of leadership positions and awards. I had a plan to utilize my degree after school.
It’s been over 8 years since I graduated. I’m still working class. I haven’t had health insurance in years. My degree, my hard work — neither changed my circumstance. Generational poverty, as it turns out, isn’t broken by “the grind.”
And so Joe Biden is throwing me 20k as an admittance of this systemic failure. For most of us, to be born poor is to die poor. America does not reward hard work. She rewards greed and cheats. In the worship of Mammon, only pure sacrifices of sociopathic selfishness will appease the god. This 20k of jubilee is a coming-to-terms with the death of upward mobility in america. A small payout to acknowledge the lie we were peddled.
It’s been 12 years since I received a Pell Grant. I was 18 when I chose my college, my major, and borrowed against myself. My brain wasn’t fully capable of understanding risk and danger — which is why the government didn’t let me buy booze and private companies wouldn’t let me rent a car. Hell, when I graduated high school, South Carolina still wouldn’t let folks get tattoos without parental consent until they turned 21. The rationale: young people don’t understand the impact or risks associated with such life-changing decisions.
I’m 30 now, so my prefrontal cortex is developed (mostly, I think?); it has gifted me slightly better decision making, but the trade off has been many newly acquired fears. One of the strangest new fears has been collapse. I remember the first time I felt it: visiting a friend of mine in Columbia, she took a few of us to see her office a few stories up in a UofSC campus building. Stepping off the elevator, looking out her window, I imagined the building crumbling beneath my feet into a deep, inescapable sinkhole.
Now I imagine collapse all the time. Interstate overpasses, parking garages, rooftop bars. Somewhere between too many reels of building demos, bombings, and unmaintained infrastructure, my brain keeps these scenarios on constant loop. Of course, this new anxiety might be the cross-wiring between the bits of my brain anticipating the end of empire and the parts searching for images of that unimaginable and inevitable collapse.
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The writing collective Tipu’s Tiger1 ends their article “Dangerous Allies” with this jarring line, “The choice is not between danger and safety but rather between the uncertain dangers of revolt and the certainty of a world with no future.” We each stand at a crossroads: will we continue to move forward in the current way of the world, or will we reach for more? We know the way of this world will lead to death. But what about a different world? The road will be dangerous, yes, but what might lie ahead?
I’m finishing the last chapter of Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree. Simard is the scientist who broke open the world of forest ecology with her work on mycorrhizal networks. Western paradigms have sought to teach us that the most fundamental truth of nature is competition. Species live to struggle against one another for scarce resources; they battle one another for the right to live, eat, and breed. This paradigm assures us capitalism, with all the devastation it brings, is true to human nature because it works with this natural drive for competition, brutality, and selfishness.
Simard’s work shatters this paradigm. She demonstrates the interconnectedness of the forest, proving how trees and fungi work together to redistribute and share vital nutrients. Different species look out for one another, understanding, in their own way, their strength lies in cooperation and care. Simard writes,
“Somehow with my Latin squares and factorial designs, my isotopes and mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, and my training to consider only sharp lines of statistically significant differences, I have come full circle to stumble onto some of the indigenous ideals: Diversity matters. And everything in the universe is connected—between the forests and prairies, the land and the water, the sky and the soil, the spirits and the living, the people and all other creatures.”
Our survival and our liberation are both intertwined. Author M. out of Durham writes in “A Critique of Ally Politics” about the important distinction between charity vs. mutual aid and allyship vs. affinity. Allyship reinforces the artificial construction of I and The Other, it fails to recognize our interconnectedness of our struggles and our futures.
It occurs to me: there might just be something to the old line, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” and the promise of “the life of the world to come.” There’s a future world out there: a world where we have all we need. If the universe has a natural order, I imagine it a lot less like a geometry proof, and more like the natural wood grain of a beautiful farmhouse table. That grain is Love. There’s a world out there, just begging us to move along with this grain, instead of cutting against it.
Through fictional narratives of scarcity, competition, and innate brutality, “poverty was invented in the land of Europe.” (this line comes from Indigenous artist Bobby Sanchez’ track “We are still here”). Through the truth of our connection and the recognition that our liberation is bound together, there is abundance and life.
Let’s continue the conversation around organizing practices. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking through these days, so please leave a comment. Additionally, if you like what you’re reading, please share Forward Notion with your friends to continue the discussion.
Next week I’ll post a reflection on “Accomplices Not Allies” and “Coconspirators” from Taking Sides. I hope you’ll consider reading along!
I wasn’t familiar with Tipu’s Tiger. The writing collective took their name from the automaton tiger made for Tipu Sultan. The tiger is depicted mauling a british soldier. It is constructed such that the scene moves and makes noise, and the body of the tiger conceals a pipe organ. It was created for Tipu to commemorate his proud resistance against british imperial forces. When the East India Company stormed Tipu’s capital in 1799, they stole this piece of art and, as you could have guessed, it remains on display in London even today.