Student debt refusal is the most recent initiative to emerge fromOccupy Wall Street, and while justifiably celebrated, it could go in either an egalitarian or an inegalitarian direction.
It is not hard to understand why the demand to eradicate student loans has appeared. The number of student loans has reached the number of car loans and is nearing the number of mortgages; its value will surpass credit card debt this year. Moreover, an implicit collective promise has been violated. The American Dream, as Obama himself presents it, is that anyone who works hard and invests in their future will achieve success. In our times, this has meant that anyone makes the effort to go to college and then get a higher education degree will reach the promised land of the high status, high earning professions. Consider the well-known difference in life time earning potential dependent upon education degrees, which the government calls “the big pay-off”:
Underlying the expansion of student debt, especially the numerous legislative and administrative changes that expanded educational lending, was the idea that it opened up higher education, and thus the professions, to all – even those who could not afford up front to pay. This was real equality of opportunity. Now, of course, rising youth unemployment, even among those with many degrees, has given the lie to this arrangement.
But what to make of all this? After all, the student loan refusal initiative could merely be, or become, the actions of an interest group, resisting the worsening of its immediate economic situation. It could be a protest against their indebtedness, and against the terrible laws chaining them to their student loans for life. Or it could be a bit more – a protest against the economic inequality and regulations that make debt the only way in which higher education becomes available to most people. (Note that in standard poverty calculations, the ability to save each year for a child’s college education is not included as part of a family’s needs – so a family could be non-poor and unable to pay for their child’s college.) The criticism of the 1% here would be that the new inequality, when coupled with increasing competittion for the few high-paying, all-star positions, has somehow turned this society from a republic into a deeply hierarchical empire. The ruling positions are almost inaccessible, and those whoe dare bet on future success are much more likely to end up going nowhere. The ‘natural aristocracy’ leading the republic are no longer rewarded for their merit, and the offices of power are handed down dynastically, with a few squeezing in amongst the well-heeled.
That is an important critique, and if it is what the student loan refusal initiative becomes, then it would be a kind of progress. But it would only get us, so to speak, from empire to republic. It would shift us from the shaky foundations of equal opportunity back to the still deeply inegalitarian meritocracy on which the United Stateshas been based. The meritocracy is not an ideology of the 1%, it is the ideology of the top 20%. It says that the best positions, not just the vast majority of the wealth (93% on last measure), but also the concentrated status and power, will be in the hands of 1 in 5. Access to those positions will be more or less open on the basis of merit – basically educational performance – and access to education will be more or less equal. But ultimately, the talented fifth will rule and the rest get what they may. In fact, real equality of opportunity will be narrowly conceived in terms of access to education, but not understood in terms of the economic liberties and social and political power available to all. This will be a republic but not a democracy. Cicero, Jefferson, and Keynes, not Paine, Douglass, and Debs.
To be clear, a protest against our debt-based social contract and the failure of meritocracy to live up to its ideal would be a service. But Occupy is something more, or at least seems to us to be about something more. It is no mere immanent criticism, holding up the mirror to society and saying you have failed on your own terms. It is also a radical movement, going to the root of the matter to show the limits of those terms themselves. If that is the case, then the student debt refusal itself should be aware of its own limits, and should go beyond them. Its limits are really a single limit – the interests of students stand in uneasy relationship to the interests of the rest of the 99%. They could be the interests of the top 19% of the 99%, or they could be the leading edge of the 99% themselves. Students could represent the interests of the aspiring meritocrats, righteously and rightfully resistant to the 1% pulling the rug out from under the minimally egalitarian promise of meritocracy. Or they could be the ones leading the charge of all of those who have been sucker punched by the debt-based social model. To become the latter would not just be a matter of ‘consciousness’ but one imagines of actual claims. It is not hard, for instance, to see how student debt refusal links up immediately to seeking to refuse other kinds of debts, like those incurred because of medical need, or mortgages. That is, why not a nationwide movement against the indebtedness that is a product of wage stagnation and redistribution upwards? Or at least, why not demand that society be structured so that most do not have to go into debt to retain access to basic needs? Democracy was once a dangerous word – perhaps it can be so again.