Insolvent Workers of the World: Interview with Andrew Ross of Occupy Student Debt

This is a short interview by Anna Curcio and Gigi Roggero of the Knowledge Liberation Front (website still being constructed available here) with Andrew Ross who has been involved in Occupy Wall Street and in Occupy Student Debt campaign. OSD is an example of the relationship between the occupy movement and new struggles against debt. Similarly, in Spain the Platform of Mortgage Holders (my rough translation – Platforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) has built up a constructive relation with the 15M movement. In conjunction, the two movements have successfully resisted over 170 evictions and forced debt forgiveness (which they describe as the ‘right to start over’) firmly on the political agenda. This is no coincidence: debt (national and individual) is the principle form of exploitation and domination under financial capitalism.


Anna and Giggi: How was OWS possible, and in which ways is it changing the American context?

Andrew: Spontaneous political events are always “possible,” it’s just not easy to predict when and where they will get traction. I think if Occupy had occurred a year, or even six months, before, it would not have taken off in quite the same way. One factor was U.S. belatedness–when, we all wondered, would we see the global protests spreading to American locations? Another factor was that popular disgust with Wall Street’s occupation of the American political process reached a critical mass. I recall that just a few weeks before the occupation began, Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone sent out an invitation to selected New York lefties to contribute to a symposium called Why Fucking Bother? It was intended to channel, or mitigate, the sense of despair many of us shared that anything would or could happen over here. Needless to say, there has been an 180 degree shift in morale over the last few months. I myself have been in the US for 30 years and have never seen anything like the momentum or sense of destiny that this movement now has. Those 30 years have belonged to Wall Street, the next 30 years could and should belong to us if Occupy maintains its energy and creativity. My own involvement in the movement is not untypical. It began for me as a resident–I live not far from Zuccoti Park–and then made a rapid transition to a participant–in the early mass marches and in the Empowerment and Education working group–and then as an organizer–on our Occupy Student Debt Campaign. Like many others I know, it’s been all too easy to get swept up into the movement, which is how a movement should feel. Many people talk of OWS as a sort of unpredictable event. But there are many struggles in the background of the movement: just to quote a couple of examples, we think of the NYU graduate students strike and the transit workers strike in 2005.

Do you think there is a process of sedimentation of political practices and subjectivity in the genealogy of OWS, or there is a predominance of new elements?

There are many tributaries that have flowed into the Occupy river.–the global justice movement being the most important. On the labor side, I think the capacity of the urban unions to embrace the academic labor movement has been a significant backdrop. As for the new elements, surely the burgeoning consciousness about debt is a primary factor. Responding to debt bondage has been a way of life in the global South countries for the last 30 years. In the last few years, the consequences of living in a debt trap has hit the countries of the North. It’s an example of the chickens coming home to roost, as Malcolm X once put it.

What is the composition of the movement in terms of class and race, as well as age and generations? And what about its forms of organization and communication?

The demographics of the initial occupiers was quite circumscribed–mostly educated, white, young people, many of whom had cut their teeth on the global justice movement, others for whom this was their first political movement. And then there was a quota of “travelers,” not necessarily all that political, who slept over in the park from early on. At this point, however, the composition is much more diverse–the public unions are more and more involved, there is a fully intergenerational cast of characters, and the People of Color working group has been a powerful presence. The consensus process of the general assembly (GA) is the organizational DNA of the movement, and it is beginning to penetrate parts of mainstream civil society. For example, some of the city’s high schools have replaced their representative forms of student government with the horizontal mode of the GA. It’s proven to be an infectious set of cultural norms. And, since any group can generate its own GA (there are many throughout New York City), it is an organizational structure that encourages and generates autonomy. So, too, the face-to-face nature of this form of decision-making complements the widespread use of social media to disseminate information. In fact, I’d say that the balance between the face-to-face meetings and use of social media is a key element.

In the transnational struggles around debt, the privatization and financialization of the welfare and social needs (education, housing, healthcare, mobility, etc.) is paramount. Also in Europe there is a claim for a “right of bankruptcy” for the workers, precarious and poor. It sounds very similar to your slogan “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, Don’t Pay”. Can you explain the “Occupy Student Debt” campaign?

From the outset, the agony of student debt has been a constant refrain at OWS and other Occupy locations. George Caffentzis, Silvia Federici, and myself all held open forums at OWS about debt during the same week in mid-October. We invited attendees to form a group to work on an action initiative that would bind the issue of student debt to the larger structuring of higher education. The central recognition was that U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly dependent on the debt bondage of the people they are supposed to serve. So we crafted a campaign that resonated with our political principles (the act of refusal, the threat of a debt strike, and the justice of a debt jubilee) that was designed to give debtors an opportunity to act collectively rather than suffer the torment and humiliation of debt and default in private. The campaign basically asks refusers to stop loan payment after one million others have signed up, and it is tied to four principles–all public universities should be free, students loans should be tuition-free, private universities should open their book, and the current debt load should be written off.

The social-democrats and liberal politicians and thinkers (for example, Paul Krugman) say: you’re right. But this aims exactly to reduce the radicalism of the movement to some specific demands, i.e. to the public opinion. On the contrary, it seems that the occupy movement represents also the end of the Obama’s hope, or it’s better to say of the hope in Obama. He has no demands for government change, but it’s immediately acting for a global change. So the claim against debt is first of all a practice of re-appropriation of the social richness. On this point of view, we could say that this is a constituent movement. What do you think about?

I agree. Our campaign is framed as an action initiative, not a set of demands, since we share the Occupy ethos that demands cannot be adequately addressed by the current political system, not when it is under the baleful influence of corporate dollars. Actions taken to re-appropriate wealth and power are not only empowering in themselves, they are also constituent, as you put it, of a new kind of political culture. Most Occupy participants will testify about their feelings of personal transformation–the language is often one of radical innocence, a manifest symptom of the birth of a new “structure of feeling” as Raymond Williams once put it. For sure, the political class will try to co-opt some of this, and, unlike some folks, I don’t see that as an unwelcome response–you cannot erect a nonporous boundary between a movement and the political establishment.

Recently we saw the active solidarity of the Transit Workers Union 100 to the OWS. What are the relationship between the labor movement and the occupy movement?

The public employee unions, at least, have been not only supportive, but also fully participatory at times. The solidarity shown for the Zuccotti Park counterculture by the “hard hats” working on the World Trade Center site just up the street was especially notable. Trade union leaders, and even more so their rank and file members, have been quite vocal about their respect for Occupy’s tactical successes in amassing attention and generating a political impact. There has been an established Labor working group at OWS, and the overlap with, and outreach to, labor has been impressive.

What are the relationships between OWS and the university as a site of production and conflict, as well as the university activists?

The Occupy Colleges phase of the movement is just beginning, but it is a natural next step. The evictions at Zuccotti Park coincided with this move into the universities themselves, here in the city, in California and elsewhere. In New York, at least, there had been an all-city student GA which met every week, regular People’s University events at NYU and the New School, and a series of mass student marches and rallies, including a one-day strike. Much of the attention has lately shifted toward the protest against tuition hikes at CUNY. Hitherto free (which helped make it one of the world’s greatest working class universities) fees were first imposed on CUNY students in the wake of the fiscal crisis in 1976. This move is generally regarded as the first strike of neoliberalism in public education in this country. All the more reason to focus on CUNY at this highly symbolic moment in order to turn the ship around. Right now, the Occupy Colleges movement is establishing a nationwide network. Some university presidents, notably at the New School, have been very accommodating, others have been damaged badly by their resort to police repression of free speech. As with Occupy in general, every time the police swing their batons or violently evict peaceful protesters, it has ruined public support for the authorities and increased sympathy for demonstrators. More than anything, perhaps, this is proof of the successful momentum of the movement at this point in time.


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