Debt jubilee: Revolutionary change or reform to stabilize capitalism?

Debt has been a crucial lever in implementing austerity, both as an instrument and a moral cudgel. Eliminating debt, private and public, would have transformative effects — but would doing so be revolutionary or merely a reform to stabilize world capitalism?

Those are not the only two choices, of course, and the mere thought of a debt jubilee would send many a set of teeth gnashing. Debt jubilees are not a new idea; in fact they have existed since long before capitalism was born. But given the unprecedented level of debt, a jubilee today would entail unprecedented complexity.

The Australian economist Steve Keen has for several years energetically promoted the concept of a debt jubilee. His concept is to bail out people instead of banks, reasonably arguing that people would spend the money, reviving the economy. So in this formulation, radical as the concept of a jubilee is (and radical as the idea of helping working people instead of the super-wealthy is), it is conceived as a reform.

Professor Keen conceptualizes a jubilee in a form that would not cause damages to debt holders not responsible for the crisis, such as pension funds:

“Whereas only the moneylenders lost under an ancient Jubilee, debt cancellation today would bankrupt many pension funds, municipalities and the like who purchased securitized debt instruments from banks. I have therefore proposed that a ‘Modern Debt Jubilee’ should take the form of ‘Quantitative Easing for the Public’: monetary injections by the Federal Reserve not into the reserve accounts of banks, but into the bank accounts of the public — but on condition that its first function must be to pay debts down. This would reduce debt directly, but not advantage debtors over savers, and would reduce the profitability of the financial sector while not affecting its solvency.”

large money bills“Quantitative easing” is a government program of massive buying of assets from banks in an effort to promote increased lending and liquidity through increasing the money supply. A “quantitative easing for the public” would give money to everybody. Those with no debt would be free to spend it as they wish, and those who received more money than the size of their debt would similarly have no obligations once they wiped out their debt. Dramatic as this idea is, Professor Keen is no revolutionary; he seeks to put capitalism on a firmer footing:

“Returning capitalism to a financially robust state must involve a dramatic fall in the level of private debt — and the size of the financial sector — as well as policies that return the financial sector to a service role to the real economy.”

His reasoning is that economic recovery is impossible until private and government debt is paid down:

“The standard means of reducing debt — personal and corporate bankruptcies for some, slow repayment of debt in depressed economic conditions for others — could have us mired in deleveraging for one and a half decades, given its current rate. … That fate would in turn mean one and a half decades where the boost to demand that rising debt should provide — when it finances investment rather than speculation — will not be there. The economy will tend to grow more slowly than is needed to absorb new entrants into the workforce, innovation will slow down, and justified political unrest will rise — with potentially unjustified social consequences. … We should, therefore, find a means to reduce the private debt burden now, and reduce the length of time we spend in this damaging process of deleveraging.”

A radical idea, then, to save the system. A radical idea that is not at all revolutionary in the hands of Professor Keen. Considering the mass political movement required to force what would be an extraordinary change in the policies of the world’s central banks and finance ministries — institutions staffed by and run on behalf of financiers — would we be simply content to say, “Well, that’s it, then, we can all go home now”?

Revolutions as ‘transformations of common sense’

The U.S. activist and economist David Graeber also calls for a debt jubilee but, in contrast, conceives this as a revolutionary demand. Writing in the latest edition of The Baffler, Professor Graeber argues that world revolutions consist “above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.”

Drawing upon the works of “world systems” theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, he argues that the revolutions of 1848 were successful even though none took power because the ideas behind it and the French Revolution widely took root. He similarly sees Russia’s October Revolution as responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states and, on less firm ground, that 1968 “changed everything” because of the personal liberations that grew out of it, including feminism.

Fear of communist revolutions, and large mass movements, did lead to the many advances of the mid-20th century. But as most of those advances have been reversed, it is more realistic to see them as simply reforms — and reforms can, and will, be taken back when movements subside. People can’t stay in the streets forever. The changes of personal liberation spawned by 1968 and beyond are not as susceptible to reversal, and, as with LGBT movements, continue to advance in some ways but, nonetheless, feminist gains in particular are under sustained assaults.

We should be careful to differentiate advances that threaten the system — such as major structural changes in the economic sphere — and those that don’t, such as same-sex marriage or women shattering glass ceilings, however much individual religious fundamentals or tradition-minded men believe themselves to be “threatened.” In no way do I wish to minimize the social gains made by women, LGBT communities, and racial and national minorities, nor ignore that social divisions are integral to the functioning of any system based on inequality and hierarchy. Such freedoms — still only partially attained and still requiring organized defense — are prerequisites for any concept of a better world to have meaning.

Economic inequality has steadily widened as class repression intensifies; objectification of women in mass media is ubiquitous, as exemplified by the pornification and coarseness of corporate-controlled mass culture; and nationalist and other xenophobias are gaining new traction under the impact of economic disintegration and the accompanying social disruptions. It seems premature to declare everything has changed, even keeping in mind that leaps in social zeitgeists are a process rather than a sudden jump.

A jubilee linked to other demands

Given the interconnectedness of struggles, is the idea of a debt jubilee in itself a “revolutionary demand,” as Professor Graeber declares it? In other words, would it actually overturn the current world system, or would it be simply a reform, albeit a welcome and thorough-going one on the scale of the New Deal? He does link the idea of a jubilee with the necessity of slowing down growth:

“We seem to be facing two insoluble problems. On the one hand, we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies, to the point where the overall burden of debt — sovereign, municipal, corporate, personal — is obviously unsustainable. On the other, we have an ecological crisis, a galloping process of climate change that is threatening to throw the entire planet into drought, floods, chaos, starvation, and war. The two might seem unrelated. But ultimately they are the same. What is debt, after all, but the promise of future productivity? … [Producing more is] precisely what’s destroying the planet, at an ever-increasing pace.”

Thus, Professor Graeber argues:

“Why not a planetary debt cancellation, as broad as practically possible, followed by a mass reduction in working hours: a four-hour day, perhaps, or a guaranteed five-month vacation? This might not only save the planet but also … begin to change our basic conceptions of what value-creating labor might actually be. … The morality of debt and the morality of work are the most powerful ideological weapons in the hands of those running the current system. That’s why they cling to them even as they are effectively destroying everything else. It’s also why debt cancellation would make the perfect revolutionary demand.”

Such an outcome would require an extraordinarily strong global movement; in this conception a debt jubilee would be a means to an end and linked to broader structural change. For a debt jubilee to be “revolutionary” it would have to be one piece of a more comprehensive struggle. A debt jubilee by itself, in isolation, would be, as Professor Keen intends, a method of stabilizing capitalism. Indeed, he has shown that a jubilee could be brought about using standard capitalist-management tools in a different way.

Saving the current world system would be a temporary salve and nothing more; all the contradictions within it would resurface. But that system is of human creation. When new ideas gain secure social foundations, revolutions can happen — whether it is sovereignty residing in the people rather than a royal family designated by a god, or that democracy is possible only with everyone able to participate on an equal footing rather than only men of a society’s dominant ethnic or racial group, or that political democracy is an empty shell without economic democracy.

A better world can only arise from unleashed human imagination and creating unbreakable links among struggles.

6 comments on “Debt jubilee: Revolutionary change or reform to stabilize capitalism?

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    I’m wading in waters that are way over my head here but I do like the idea and actual practice of debt forgiveness. I believe the Occupy movement has recognized the crippling effects that debt has on the people and helped to buy up people’s medical and student loan debts for pennies on the dollar on their behalf. Whether a debt jubilee actually reforms or stabilizes capitalism, are there any downsides? At least, it may stop or slow the bleeding for some and buy time for the real change makers to come up with better plans.

    • Indeed, two Occupy groups, Rolling Jubilee and Strike Debt, are buying up debt for pennies on the dollar (it’s sold at a low price because the owner of the debt isn’t able to collect on it) and unilaterally retiring it. A fabulous idea, even if it barely makes a dent.

      As to any potential downsides to a general debt jubilee, I don’t see any downsides, and the mammoth movement to bring it to fruition would lead to, I would hope, a larger questioning of a system that creates such unsustainable debt. For these very reasons, finance capital would oppose a jubilee with every weapon at its disposal.

      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        A slightly different context but Arthur Silber comes to similar conclusions about the ultimate result of “reforms” that in the end only serve to strengthen the system rather than replace it:

        • Before I comment further, I should clarify that I don’t see a downside to a jubilee conducted along the lines outlined by Steve Keen; that pension funds and many other entities are tied up in markets is no small consideration.

          As to the article you linked to, I think I have less in common with it than might initially appear. First off, titling something, “For All the Deluded and/or Stupid People (which is most people),” is not an effective method of discourse, to put it mildly. Many people don’t understand what is happening to them, true enough, but the author does not seem to stop to think about the very elaborate and all-encompassing propaganda system that holds everything in place.

          The author also writes: “Any individual who rises to the national political level is, of necessity and by definition, committed to the authoritarian-corporatist state. The current system will not allow anyone to be elected from either of the two major parties who is determined to dismantle even one part of that system.” Barack Obama, and anybody else who would be president, wouldn’t rise to the White House without believing in the system and being determined to safeguard it. True enough.

          But the author’s writing indicates he sees the Democratic and Republican parties, or the political leaders within them, as some sort of caste above society. That is not true. Government, and the parties that contest for the right to operate its levers, are a reflection of the strongest socio-economic forces within a society — a funhouse mirror, however distorted. It is much easier for a government to rule through some sort of consent, even if that consent is based on distorted ideas that fall well short of reality, than it is to rule through brute force. It’s easy to throw up one’s hands and declare everybody “stupid”; it is much harder to do the work of understanding the structure of what one opposes, including the alignment of social forces, the interpenetration of causes and effects, the myriad of institutions providing reinforcement, and the layers and origination of cultural mores, ideas and theoretical concepts.

          Not that I don’t understand his impatience with all of this …

          • Jeff Nguyen says:

            Fair enough, Arthur Silber is definitely an acquired taste. To his credit, he had Obama pegged before his first election when most left-leaning pundits are just starting to grasp the horror show the POTUS has wrought. If you have the time to check out any more of his blog, I think you’ll find that he deconstructs the propaganda apparatus of the state better than most.

            Not that Sillber needs me to defend him but he has an incredible heart for people, the title of his post, notwithstanding, what I have detected in his writing is a disgust with the brutality of the American empire and the sycophantic nature of the media and public-at-large that celebrates our “freedom” that comes at the expense of millions of lives of the “others” around the globe.

            I didn’t mean to imply that your views are one and the same as Silber’s but merely that he seemd to come to similar conclusions about the nature of “reform of the system”. In layman’s terms, given the choice to “fix” the cancer in our body or remove it completely, which would be the wiser course of treatment? I think we’re all in agreement that it times to remove the cancer once and for all.

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