Early on in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes a scene in which officials from the bank come to repossess a farm in Oklahoma. The prelude to this confrontation is not described but we are told that the land has turned to dust. Most of the cotton farmers, and their families, did not profit from this ecological exploitation. But as times became hard and the production dwindled they were forced to borrow from the bank. As the cotton crops continued to fail the farmers were forced to borrow again. Now the land was dead and the farmers were left with no way of making an income and a debt to the bank. When the bank officials arrive to make good their debt they tell the farmers that they have to leave their homes and their land. The farmers cry out that it is their land. But the bank officials are not for moving:
‘We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you're wrong there - quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's a monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.’
The bank does not operate like a man. It acts from cold calculation. It does not feel the memory of generations or the knowledge of place. It extends credit to a farmer under pressure not because it is kind and generous but because it exists to make a profit. The farmer was never going to be able to repay that debt. But the bank has no problem dispossessing the farmer and his family, and taking over the land. The house is bulldozed and the land is re-organized for new forms of production and the memory of the farmer and his family is erased.
This monster is alive and well today. However, unlike in the 1930s the issuing of credit and the accumulation of debt has become more entwined with the way our economy operates and the way our society is being undermined.
The withering of the welfare state since the 1970s has meant that access to credit has increasingly become the only way for large sections of the population to access basic social goods such as housing (mortgages), education (student loans) and transport (car loans). Those with no credit history, no secure income, no hope of repaying, have been extended the 'helping' hand of credit. Access to this credit is controlled by private banks and financial institutions (rather than democratically elected and accountable governments) who come to own our futures through the dominion of debt. Perhaps the clearest example of this dynamic and its consequences is the housing market. The expansion of the mortgage market allowed private banks to extend credit to the most vulnerable in society, enabling them to buy their own houses. This required the expansion of the financial system in general as new ways of absorbing, managing and commodifying the growing amounts of high-risk debt emerged. This was considered 'progress'... private home ownership for everyone!
But what happened when the bubble burst? In the wake of the property related financial crisis home owners, many of whom were already struggling to make payments in a stuttering economy, were left with greatly devalued properties and an inflated mortgage debt that they were unable to pay. These were not the people governments decided to bail out. Instead they stood by the banks, ensuring that credit would still flow, that the life force of money would not dry up. This effectively turned a private debt crisis into a sovereign debt crisis. Now governments, such as Greece and Ireland, are in the same position as heavily indebted individuals. Default beckons. Only the intervention of the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund have prevented this, by once again channelling billions of euros into the hands of international bondholders and financiers.
The terms of the bailouts have meant violent austerity measures imposed on citizens already mired in their own personal debt and a precarious job market. Savage cuts in public services and welfare, privatizations and tax increases, represent an unprecedented act of dispossession inflicted by elected representatives on their own people: the transfer of public wealth to private banks and bondholders.
Financial Debt has become so much a part of our economic reality that the tragic consequences playing out before us are explained as the unfortunate consequences of reckless borrowing and irresponsible individual behaviour. This moralizing appears to justify the everyday injustice of some people eating out of bins while others collect bigger bonuses. It obscures the economic dynamics which have made financial debt the dead-beating heart of contemporary capitalism. It is both deadening and life-giving in that powerful financial institutions increasingly control access to money (life support for chronically stagnant western economies) while operating outside of the actual activities which produce goods and services. The monster does nothing to enrich the land or city from which it ultimately extracts its payments. It is not interested in stable jobs or decent wages. It is external to all life, except the life of money.
The consequences of this logic are reminiscent of 1930s Oklahoma on a far bigger scale. Just as the crops failed in Oklahoma and the farmers could not meet their loans, so the property-related financial crash left many with debts to pay and no means to pay it. Just as the lands of Oklahoma were left desiccated and unlivable, so too have parts of our cities become like urban dustbowls: the price of rent forcing out all but the wealthiest; neighbourhoods boarded up; developments left unfinished or empty, and, as in Oklahoma, a growing number of the dispossessed left homeless and precarious. The monster does not shed a tear.
We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. This everyday cycle of fear and frustration is shared by students facing a desolate job market; home owners struggling to pay vastly inflated mortgages; precarious workers, all of us, who are forced to borrow to maintain a decent standard of life. As these fears mount and inequalities multiply it is not surprising that questions arise out of anger; questions which begin to ask how we can participate in a different world free from the burden of debt and a future of precarity.
But where can we bring our petitions? Where can we make our voices heard? The onslaught of austerity has made it clear whose side elected governments are on. The gap between the needs and interests of the people and the interests of private banks and financial institutions supported by political elites is widening. This gap is seemingly unbridgeable through existing channels of participation.
The immediate response to this apparent impasse is anger and depression. Before shooting himself in Syntagma Square the 77 year old ex-pharmacist, Dimitris Christoulas, whose pension was wiped out by the austerity measures, wrote: ‘I can find no other solution than to put an end to my life before I start sifting through garbage cans for my food’. This is the tragic outcome of financial debt and state imposed austerity, yet it hardly made a ripple in the parliaments of Europe- in stark contrast to the urgency created when the high-priests of finance - the credit rating agencies - make pronouncements on sovereign debt. The only conclusion to draw from this is that people do not count for anything. They are, again, the 'swinish multitude' placed outside spaces and times of decision-making and wealth production. To paraphrase the sociologist Richard Sennett: the system is not broken - indeed it is working extremely well - it is just that the majority are excluded from it.
The dignity of refusal
But even in the nihilism of suicide there is the dignity of refusal. The refusal to accept the subordination of social life to financial profit. A refusal of the economic and political system that is cracking under the weight of its own contradictions. And from this refusal springs creation, the opening up of new possibilities for participation. As well as personal tragedies and violence the refusal to accept the burden of the crisis has produced new experiments in political participation and social commons in squares and streets around the world. Navarinou Park, Milbank, Tahrir square, Syntagma Square, Puerta del Sol, Wall Street, the streets of Quebec. All these political gatherings producing genuinely public spaces through the appearance, and return, of the people: the end of the end of history. These struggles have shown that people matter both through their demand for new social rights (right to decent housing, a safe environment, stable income) and by their capacity to generate material supports that enable such demands to be nourished. As the indignados declared: '[t]he struggle for our rights as human beings underlies everything we have demanded in every square and every demonstration in this historic year of global change.'
While the heat of these struggles has subsided in many places (with the inevitable criticism of incoherence and political ignorance from those on the left and the right) their continuing significance lies in their refusal to adapt their expressions of anger to the all too familiar media-politics of sound-bite and latest trend. While they refuse the crisis ('We will not pay for your crisis') and existing forms of representative democracy ('They don't represent us') they do not, and cannot, have a clear alternative already formed. There is no returning to the 'security' of the 'real' economy (pre-finance), or the patronage of a dominant state (social democratic). History is at a turning point in this respect. The movements of refusal and creation are pushing beyond the horizon of the possible and in so doing constituting forms of democratic and material participation that are characterized by their openness to experiment and their respect for each who takes part.
The actual being present at assemblies, forums and meetings brings together the political and the material, the opportunity to speak and the need to eat. This is a living pre-figurative politics rather than the ossified representational politics of old. Through this form of participation the subject is constituted through the process of taking part. The importance of this living-ness, of participation as process, is encapsulated by the decision made by the Madrid Puerta del Sol Commission for International Outreach on December 19th, 2011. After an assembly discussion the group decided to suspend its activity and declare itself on indefinite active reflection:
‘The public space we had rediscovered has been replaced once again by a sum of private spaces… The success of the movement depends on us being the 99% once again. Although we do not have the answer to what has to come next, what shape the restart we need can take, we understand that the first step for escaping from the wrong dynamic is to break with it: to stop, hold back, and get perspective.’
This modesty reflects a recognition that politics is a process of individual and collective transformation not an urgent rushing forth dictated by the temporality of the crisis. Such transformations do not begin from any prior position or claim but from an openness; a beginning not an end.
Nor is this openness for openness' sake (a criticism often directed at the new forms of politics). The ruins from which alternatives must be fashioned are not only the ruins of a destructive capitalist economy but equally, or more so, the ruins of traditional forms of politics. The ideas, metaphors, categories and identities inherited from this past saturate our imaginations and actions. Accepting that there is no historical subject waiting in the wings, no agent who we can look to, requires recognizing that we are the ones we have been waiting for. The importance of openness lies in creating spaces and times outside the dominant architecture and temporality of the past and present in order to create new alliances and subjectivities based on a common dignity. These forms of politics must be able to find the space and time for all people, producing new forms of commonality which are not based on nationality, occupation, ethnicity, intellectual capacity or any of the other identities which drive us apart. This form of participation springs not from pre-existing ideas or forms of organization but from the immediate and naked recognition of ourselves together.
‘I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate - “We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one.’
This article is part of an editorial partnership called 'The Struggle for Common Life', which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.