Very few academics are willing to step out of the classroom and into the world of direct action. Angela Davis, B. R. Ambedkar, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Cornel West, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Charisse Burden-Stelly, Garrett Felber come to mind. But we must not forget Andrew Ross, a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU.
Although Ross is not necessarily a household name, he should be. It can be argued that without him, President Biden would not be on the verge of abolishing federal student loan debt for millions of people.
When Occupy Wall Street erupted in September 2011, Andrew Ross was there. It was a moment he had “been waiting for,” he told me, “for decades.” And on October 16, 2011, Ross seized the moment and delivered a lecture to the Occupy protestors called: “Is Student Debt a Form of Indenture?”
Professor Ross was not just there to teach; he was also there to recruit strikers. Ross had just co-founded Occupy Student Debt Campaign and was planning to launch a student loan debt strike in the weeks to come.
Over the past 11 years, that first strike evolved into a second organization, Strike Debt, then a Rolling Jubilee, which canceled debt for thousands of students. From there, Ross helped organize a successful direct action against Corinthian College, and most recently, the creation of a third organization, the Debt Collective, who are fighting to abolish all $1.7 trillion of student loan debt.
The aim has always been the same: transform debt from an individual burden into a collective power. I asked Dr. Andrew Ross to talk about his history in the debt resistance movement and explain how debt has been used to suppress social movements and dissenting voices.
-Mordecai Lyon, Editor in Chief
A HISTORY OF DEBT RESISTANCE
MORDECAI LYON: Dr. Ross, welcome to The Boycott Times. Thanks for joining us today. I was hoping you could talk about some of the projects that you entered into as an academic – I’m specifically thinking about debt, and your book Creditocracy – and how that morphed into you becoming an advocate for debt abolition.
ANDREW ROSS: Yes. The debt resistance movement as I think of it, is something I’ve been involved in for the best part of ten years now. Previously, I’ve done a lot of work within the anti-sweatshop movement in the 1990s. And also within the academic labor movement, towards the end of the 1990s, especially advocating for the unionization of graduate students. But it wasn’t really until Occupy came along, that I got more involved in what I would call “direct action,” because the work I’d been doing previously did not necessarily involve direct action and was probably more advocacy research.
And Occupy was something . . . you know, I live in New York City and I live in the neighborhood very close to Occupy Wall Street – Zuccotti Park – and I felt as if it was something I’d been waiting for, for decades, to happen in New York. And it made perfect sense to me. For quite some time, I had certainly been aware of the very high student debt burden borne by students in my classes at NYU.
NYU at the time, was sort of the national poster child for student debt. I had noticed that whenever I brought up the issue there was a very strange silence in the class and an obvious reluctance to speak about this issue. And that’s something that intrigued me for a while.
When I got involved in the movement itself, I was one of the founders of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign in the fall of 2011. It was our first initiative to launch a national campaign based around debt refusal. In the course of that campaign, I think myself and comrades who were involved in the campaign, learned a lot about student debt psychology and the psychology of debtors.
We didn’t achieve the goals of the campaign itself, which was to locate one million student debtors who were willing to default collectively. And we failed in that campaign for all sorts of reasons. Some of them had to do with sabotage from the financial industry, others, we just didn’t have the resources to run a national campaign. But the irony is that one million student debtors did actually default on their debts that year, and have continued to do so every year. They just didn’t default together. When you do it individually, it doesn’t have any impact. But if it happened collectively, as we had tried to bring about, then we’d be having a different conversation, today.
ON THE VERGE OF ABOLITION
ROSS: We learned a lot in the course of the campaign. And I think we helped to raise the level of public consciousness about student debt and the student debt crisis to a sufficient level. In the years since then, of course, the issue has moved from the very margins of society, something almost ludicrous “the abolition of student debt” and “tuition-free education,” has moved to a position much more central to the political mainstream. And now even as I speak, we’re on the verge of seeing an abolition of student debt. I’m not sure what amount of debt will be abolished by the Biden administration, but some of it will be. And that will be the first time the U.S. has abolished household debt.
So, it’s a significant win, but it’s happened in the course of ten years, very, very quickly. And there were a number of groups that evolved from that initial campaign. Strike Debt was the successor group, the year after we ran the Rolling Jubilee, which abolished a lot of debt. And then the Debt Collective was the successor group to Strike Debt. And the Debt Collective is very much alive and well at this point. I’m very much involved in that work and will continue to be so.
LYON: Staying on student debt, professor, explain what you mean by defaulting together?
ROSS: We emphasize collective action because it gives people economic power. It gives people leverage. If you are in a multitude of debtors that owe a creditor in the aggregate a large amount of money, then, in a sense, you own the creditor, the creditor does not own you. And it makes all the difference.
In the work that we’ve done over the last decade, we’ve tried to provide what we call “proof of concept” for this principle that collective action can get results. With a Rolling Jubilee that I mentioned. It was a mutual aid project. We bought up a lot of debt on the secondary debt market and abolished it – more than $30 million.
That was the first, very limited but highly symbolic, proof of concept. And then with the initial debt strike of Corinthian College students’ for-profit college system, we ended up getting debt relief from the Department of Education, which is a somewhat bigger proof of concept. And this time around, the Biden 100 debt strike was aimed at a much larger goal. Total debt abolition of the $1.7 trillion owed.
THE IMPOSITION OF DEBT
LYON: You first popped on my radar during Occupy. And one thing that you said that always stuck with me was that “student debt was a way to suppress student protests and to suppress movements,” which were often, especially in the 60s, born on college campuses. I remember researching it and finding out about the Federal Family Education Loan Program of 1965, which would guarantee student loans under the guise of opportunity for all. But what it really did was it guaranteed debt for all.
And if I have the numbers correct, it looks like in 1960, there’s $0 of student debt, in 2000, $200 billion of student debt. When you wrote Creditocracy in 2014, $1.2 trillion. Today, they’re saying $1.7 trillion, but it’s probably more than that because we’ve been using that number for a while.
So, I was hoping you could talk about that. Is what I just said correct? Did I learn that from you correctly? And can you talk a little bit about that, how debt was used as a weapon of power to silence dissenting voices?
ROSS: It’s not simply an armchair speculation. I mean this is a well-documented principle, the imposition of debt on a household or a community is a very effective form of political power. Foreclosures, for example, we’re looking at another mass wave of evictions and foreclosures in this country. If you look at the history of mortgage foreclosures, they originated in the colonial era, as a way for settlers to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land. Simply by extending credit, which cannot be repaid, is a way of seizing control of an asset.
And you can make a similar argument to the student debt situation and look at the 1960s, especially when places like Berkeley, with the “Free Speech Movement,” a widely publicized protest movement. Ronald Reagan, when he was elected governor of California decided to crack down on Berkeley and very openly declared that he would do something about this. The easiest technocratic way of doing it was to raise the fees. And for the first time, it became considerably more expensive to attend the University of California campuses, which up until then had been more or less free.
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
ROSS: These fee hikes, of course, continued. And not just in the University of California, but all across the country. And it’s pretty obvious if you’ve been an educator for a long time, as I have, that what we’ve seen is a shrinkage of students’ optional political imagination as student debt has increased. Just one of the most immediate explanations for that is that a lot of students have to take on a job, or more than one job, sometimes three jobs, in order to keep their bills lower, and to stay in college.
They just don’t have the time to be politically active on campuses. But also, the psychology of taking on more and more debt introduces, not just a transactional mentality about education, but also the sense that your future is somehow foreclosed or foreshortened. And again, that limits the options for the political imagination of students in the short term and also in the long term.
LYON: And what can people do who feel alone and powerless?
ROSS: Timing is very, very important in any movement. The temporality of any movement includes a lot of utopian thinking and a lot of day-to-day organizing. And, ultimately, a lot of preparing for the right moment, when your cause and your goals and your vision somehow reaches the point where it’s not only in the public eye, but where the levers of power are in a position to elevate that cause.
And right now it seems we’re in that place with student debt. It’s taken ten years to get there. But there’s been a lot of preparation for it. And it does seem as if all the stars are aligned at this point. That’s why we’re pushing really, really hard. But that’s just one example. You have to be prepared for the moment when it comes. And often that means, voices in the wilderness for many years.
LYON: Dr. Ross, thank you so much for being a voice in the wilderness and being a beacon of light for so many of us when confronting debt and looking at different options of fighting back. So, thank you for all your work and thank you for joining us here today.
ROSS: It’s been a pleasure, Mordecai. Thank you.
Mordecai LyonEditor in Chief
Lyon is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a contributor at The Undefeated & Boston Review . As a researcher he contributed to the publication of Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It by Wendell Potter and Nick Pennimen. Lyon spends his time between New York City and Cambridge, MA. Read Lyon's Boston Review interview with Cornel West here and his interview with Lorgía Garcia-Peña here.