Sovereignty, Debt, and Forgiveness: What Everyone on Wall Street Needs to Know
Of all the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, the one receiving the least sympathy is the crushing weight of student debt under which many of them (and many of the rest of us) live. It is frequently observed—in online discussion groups, in Starbucks in distant corners of the country, and on the sidewalk right in front of them—that taking out loans was their decision and that there is neither sense nor moral credibility in crying about it now. Leaving aside, for today, the moral arguments to be had about interest, it is unquestionable that, with regard to the principal of these loans, this criticism is true. What both protesters and critics have missed, however, is that the student debt crisis is indicative of a much more profound psychological, even spiritual, crisis on the part of our society—not consumerism, but consumerization.
In the past (and even in the present in many countries) young people who wished to learn a trade would be apprenticed to a master craftsman for a period of somewhere between three and seven years. During this time, the apprentice would perform real work in the shop gaining valuable hands-on experience under the guidance of a professional. Because the apprentices were doing real work, they also received real pay—a logical consequence of the apprenticeship model’s fundamental conviction that education is an act of production. The apprentice’s education is not something which he receives from the master so much as something which he builds in collaboration with the master, and he expects that the same dignity, embodied in his pay, accorded to any other act of building will be accorded to this. This idea has become so fundamentally lost to us that professors of education view the claim that children should be responsible for their own learning as a novel innovation and heap accolades on anyone who so challenges the supposedly ‘traditional’ belief (less than a hundred years old in many places) that teachers are responsible for children’s learning.
Virtually every human act can be viewed through the lens of production or consumption. These dual forces operate in nearly everything we do. The apprentice system was the fruit of a culture in which production was the dominant paradigm and consumption a kind of afterthought to it. But under the tutelage of Edward Bernays and other wizards of Madison Avenue we have been taught to think of ourselves, first and foremost, as consumers. Consumption and consumer confidence are the entire basis of our economic order, in which heaps of gold are made by a perverse alchemy from the iron treadmills of debt on which the average American runs. The belief that consumption is the central economic activity is so pervasive that it has taken over education. We are consumers of teaching, consumers of degrees who accordingly pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of being allowed to do the real work without which no learning can take place. In teacher education programs all across the country students are plunged into tens of thousands of dollars in debt while being made to work twenty to forty hour weeks ‘student teaching’. The effect is not restricted to the seemingly practical trades, either. The research conducted by graduate students in purely academic fields, such as anthropology or art history, is considered real work worthy of remuneration when done by their professors, but mere assignments that it is their privilege to pay to have graded when done by them. Most of the professions now have some equivalent to this—some form of unpaid internship in which students do real work that makes their bosses real money and are made to pay real money to do it.
What does this have to do, more broadly, with the Occupy movement? When I turn on the television and see any city in America now, there is a sea of signs demanding jobs. There is a sense in which we have become consumers of jobs. Just as the apprentices who were the co-producers of their educations have become students who are consumers of their educations, waiting for them to be handed down from on high by their professors, so too the worker of the turn of the last century, who saw himself as inherently embodying the productive capacity of society and who demanded acknowledgement as the true producer and source of all wealth—this worker has become the worker of today, running hat in hand to boss after boss, begging their permission to be a productive member of society. And just like the student, whether or not the worker of today gets a job, he pays dearly for it. Come to the belief that he is a consumer, and not a producer, the worker of today never truly believes that he has anything by his own right. Small wonder he is always in debt.
No, if we the working people of this country are to be liberated from our misery and are to know again the dignity of production, our demand must not be jobs; it must be land and factories, docks and warehouses. It must be the opportunity not to work for others, but to work for ourselves. It must be the chance that every peasants’ rebellion and workers’ uprising has fought for, the chance that drove men and women to the Oklahoma land races and the California gold rush—the chance to be the producers of our own wealth. To see ourselves as consumers is to see ourselves as the end of all chains of existence. It is to make all the processes of man and nature linear streams that end by pouring into the abyss of our stultified, gaping mouths. But to see ourselves as producers is to see ourselves in the image of the great Creator. It is to take our place in the cyclical flow of the universe, constructing the temple with our every breath just as God has drawn the plans. It is to make even our consumption the prelude to new creation, and thus to transmute death into life.
Only that race of men and women who build their own homes upon their own land and make their own living from their own capital, either alone or as equitable members of cooperatives of workers, will ever be truly free—economically, politically, or spiritually—just as only the apprentice who makes his own education by the master’s example will ever be a master himself. Immanuel Kant once wrote that enlightenment is the release from our self-induced tutelage, and we might as truly say that emancipation is the release from our self-induced bondage. In his own mind the consumer cannot help but be a debtor because he never sees himself make from what he has used or give from what he has taken. His very soul is a mortgage. To ask for the redistribution of wealth is simply asking for control over the means of consumption and does no more than sew velvet lining into our fetters. If we wish to be free, if we wish to be prosperous, if we wish even simply to be human, we must demand the means of production, for they are the means of man’s most essential act. Money can free our bodies from the need to work for others, but only the chance to work for ourselves can, in the words of Lennon and McCartney, free our minds instead.
If the grievances in Zuccotti Park have yet to congeal into a consistent message it is because of this essential confusion: the protestors are upset because the banks and the corporations and the government took their money, and they did, but the real crime is that they took our dignity. They took it in the internships they never paid and in the hours they cut that forced us onto government assistance. They took it when we were consigned to live on food stamps by the slave wages they paid us. We, the workers of this country, produce all its wealth and they, not content to return to us a fraction of what we had made as wages, created a welfare system to call the crumbs they tossed us from the bread we had baked handouts, lest we believe that we have anything by our own right. They are the parasites who live from our labor and they rigged the system to call us wastrels. They are the one in a hundred who have grown rich and powerful skimming off the top of our every day’s production and they accuse us of living off the public largesse.
Enough is enough. We must work for ourselves—in our own shops, in our own factories, on our own farms, on our own ships—not even so that we can keep all of what we have made (though this is what justice demands), but so that we can see that we have made it. We must remember that every stalk of wheat belongs to us, whose hands have planted and reaped it. We must recall that every steel ingot belongs to us, whose hands have mined and forged it. We must once again know ourselves as the producers of the universe, and not as its consumers. Only then, when we remember what is truly ours, will the debts in our minds be canceled so the debts in our accounts can be proudly repaid, once and for all.
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