“This operations manual — written by an anonymous collective of resistors, defaulters and allies from Strike Debt and Occupy Wall Street — is for all those being crushed under the weight of debt. It aims to provide specific tactics for understanding and fighting against the debt system so that we can all reclaim our lives and our communities. It contains practical information, resources and insider tips for individuals dealing with the dilemma of indebtedness in the United States today and also introduces ideas for those who have made the decision to take collective action.
The system of mafia capitalism has made it difficult, if not impossible, for us to meet our basic needs, whether we have debt or not, whether we pay it back or not. We recognize that it is not easy to fight this system, that it is not easy to withdraw consent from a financial world gone mad. Make no mistake: the odds are stacked against us. Laws surrounding debt lending, collection and buying are notably complex, designed to keep debtors confused and afraid. This manual is not designed to provide legal counsel; it is a political act of mutual aid. We are not lawyers; you may want to consult one before doing anything that you think might be illegal. Look seriously into any of the options we present before taking action. Be smart. As with any operations manual, this is a living document. We don’t claim to have all or even most of the answers regarding debt. To produce this manual, we have reached out to our networks to the best of our ability. Some sections barely scratch the surface and in fact deserve their own book-length treatment. Researching debt has uncovered many connections we didn’t expect, and we know there are types of debt we haven’t addressed. It is our hope that readers will have their own strategies to contribute to future versions of this manual. The contributors envision this first edition not simply as a document that we have made for you, but rather as the beginning of a project that we will all build together—a collectively written manual for collective action.
An online version will be updated frequently and available at strikedebt.org. Any ideas, plans, tips, corrections, resources, schemes—legal or otherwise—should be sent to DROM[at]riseup.net; anonymity is the norm by which we operate. Because there is so much shame, frustration and fear surrounding our debt, we seldom talk about it openly with others. An initial step in building a debt resistance movement involves sharing the myriad ways debt affects us, both directly and indirectly. You are encouraged to share your experience at Debt Stories, occupiedstories.com/strikedebt.
INTRODUCTION : an ODE to the DEBT RESISTOR
“Everyone is affected by debt, from recent graduates paying hundreds of dollars in interest on their students loans every month, to working families bankrupted by medical bills, to elders living in “underwater” homes, to those taking out payday loans at 400% interest to cover basic living costs, to the teachers and firefighters forced to take pay cuts because their cities are broke, to countries pushed into austerity and poverty by structural adjustment programs. Everyone seems to owe something, and most of us (including our cities) are in so deep it’ll be years before we have any chance of getting out—if we have any chance at all. At least one in seven of us is already being pursued by debt collectors. We are told all of this is our own fault, that we got ourselves into this and that we should feel guilty or ashamed. But think about the numbers: 76% of Americans are debtors. How is it possible that three-quarters of us could all have just somehow failed to figure out how to properly manage our money, all at the same time? And why is it no one is asking, “Who do we all owe this money to, anyway?” and “Where did they get the money they lent?” At the same time, we keep hearing about financial capitalism: the fact that most of the profits on Wall Street no longer have much to do with producing or even selling anything, but are simply the fruits of speculation. This is supposed to be very complicated—“Somehow they have just figured out a way to make money out of thin air; no, don’t even try to understand how they do it”—and very distant from our everyday concerns. In fact, bankers are allowed to make money out of thin air—but only if they lend it to someone. That’s the real reason everyone is in debt: it’s a shakedown system. The financial establishment colludes with the government to create rules designed to put everyone in debt; then the system extracts it from you. Overseas it operates through financial scams that keep cheap goods flowing into the United States in a way that would never be possible if not for the threat of U.S. military power. Here at home it means endlessly making up new rules designed to put us all in debt, with the entire apparatus of government, police and prisons providing enforcement and surveillance. Instead of taxing the rich to generate money to build and maintain things like schools and roads, our government actually borrows money from the banks and the public pays the interest on these loans. As we’ve learned through scandal after scandal, this process is riddled with fraud, rigged from the start to steal money that should be going to social necessities. Financial capitalism is mafia capitalism. We gave the banks the power to create money because they promised to use it to help us live healthier and more prosperous lives—not to turn us into frightened peons. They broke that promise. We are under no moral obligation to keep our promises to liars and thieves. In fact, we are morally obligated to find a way to stop this system rather than continuing to perpetuate it. This collective act of resistance may be the only way of salvaging democracy because the campaign to plunge the world into debt is a calculated attack on the very possibility of democracy. It is an assault on our homes, our families, our communities and on the planet’s fragile ecosystems—all of which are being destroyed by endless production to pay back creditors who have done nothing to earn the wealth they demand we make for them. To the financial establishment of the world, we have only one thing to say: We owe you nothing. To our friends, our families, our communities, to humanity and to the natural world that makes our lives possible, we owe you everything. Every dollar we take from a fraudulent subprime mortgage speculator, every dollar we withhold from the collection agency is a tiny piece of our own lives and freedom that we can give back to our communities, to those we love and we respect. These are acts of debt resistance, which come in many other forms as well: fighting for free education and healthcare, defending a foreclosed home, demanding higher wages and providing mutual aid. The fact is, most debtors dare not reveal their names nor show their faces. Those who struggle to stay afloat or who have fallen into default are told that they are failures, inadequate and abject, and so they do not speak out. There are literally millions of people who cannot pay the enormous sums that the financial elites claim they owe. They are the Invisible Army of Defaulters. Instead of a personal failure, refusing to pay under our current system is an act of profound moral courage. We see our situation as connected, and we can look for ways to step out of the shadows together. The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual is an attempt to assist this invisible army and all other debt resistors in this struggle.”
“From ancient times to the present, there have been powerful debt resistance movements that have challenged the harsh penalties associated with debt default, including debt enslavement and debt incarceration. In ancient Athens there was a practice of enslaving either the debtor or one of their family members if their debt was unpaid. This practice expanded to the point that civil wars broke out between debtors and creditors so often that the very survival of the city-state of Athens was in question. This crisis stimulated a major change in the Athenian legal system that outlawed the debt enslavement of fellow citizens and became a model for many societies down to the formation of the American republic. There was still widespread debt incarceration in the United States after the “American Revolution.” (Even two signers of the Declaration of Independence were later imprisoned!) The first major rebellion in U.S. history after independence, Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, was against foreclosures and debt imprisonment. It took many struggles throughout the first half of the nineteenth century to end the practice of debt imprisonment. The great post-Civil War struggles against foreclosures on small farmers in the Midwest and South were moments of insurrection against the rule of the creditors’ logic. During the Great Depression, urban workers and rural farmers banded together to block home evictions and farm foreclosures. Workers also organized their own credit and mutual aid associations to create alternative ways to borrow and lend without the threat of slavery and torture. Finally these insurrections forced the federal government into passing “personal bankruptcy” laws that limited the “pound of flesh” some capitalist creditors were demanding from workers who defaulted. Debt resistance movements have been the driving force behind many of the most important struggles in the last twenty years. For example, the alter-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s was a broad constellation of social struggles against paying “odious” national debts to international banks. The global justice movement that emerged in much of the global south forced many banks (both private and international, like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) to renegotiate the loans by cutting their interest rates, reducing the principal, and in some cases simply “forgiving” the loan. Along with these struggles against “national” debts there have been remarkable recent struggles against personal debt like the movement of El Barzón in Mexico. In 1994, the Mexican peso dramatically lost value compared to the dollar, which set off a steep inflation that increased the interest on variable-rate loans and often made loans, including mortgages, that were denominated in U.S. dollars (as many were) ten times larger. This brought nearly 30% of the people indebted to banks into default. The El Barzón movement began by claiming that the loan repayment conditions after the collapse of the peso were the fault the government and the banks, and that it would be unfair to hold the debtor responsible. Their slogan was, “Debo, no niego, pago lo justo” (“I owe, I don’t deny it, I’ll pay what is fair”). The movement grew rapidly across the country and was known both for its practical approach (by setting up legal consultation services for debtors) and its riveting tactics. It forced the government to come to the aid of the embattled debtors and had a definitive positive impact on their situation.
Almost two decades later, Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, emerged out of a series of open assemblies. It continues to spark conversations about debt as a global system of domination and exploitation. Debt binds the 99%—although as we’ve seen in this manual it binds some people (women, people of color, and the poor) more tightly than others. Debt resistance can take many forms and Strike Debt is developing tactics, resources and frameworks for generalizing the fight against the debt system. These initiatives include publishing this manual and hosting debtors’ assemblies; supporting the work of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign and their Pledge of Refusal; launching the “Rolling Jubilee,” a mutual-aid project that buys debt at steeply discounted prices and then abolishes it (to learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org); and planning direct actions across the country, ranging from debt burnings to targeted shutdowns of predatory lenders of all kinds. Planning for the slightly longer term, Strike Debt is focused on bringing debt resistors together with the aim of growing the struggle against debt into a force to be reckoned with. Imagine, if you will, a global Debtors’ Union made up of a network of lender-specific sub-unions. For example, if someone had a mortgage with Bank of America, tuition debt from Sallie Mae and Citibank, and credit card debts with Wells Fargo and Chase, when this person joins the union they automatically join the sub-unions for Bank of America, Sallie Mae, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Chase. These unions could, eventually, be platforms for sustained agitation, providing support for strategic actions, including debt strikes, akin to the labor battles of earlier eras. Underlying all these projects is Strike Debt’s support for a Jubilee — a full cancellation of all debts. Civilization after civilization has recognized that when debt gets unmanageable, it must be cancelled. This has happened many times throughout history. We should remember that there are conservative as well as revolutionary jubilees; debt cuts can save the system if what follows is business as usual. A Debt Jubilee needs to be accompanied by a program of social transformation. Consider this call for a global jubilee from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years:
We are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way. It is significant, I think, that since Hammurabi, great imperial states have invariably resisted this kind of politics. Athens and Rome established the paradigm: even when confronted with continual debt crises, they insisted on legislating around the edges, softening the impact, eliminating obvious abuses like debt slavery, using the spoils of empire to throw all sorts of extra benefits at their poorer citizens (who, after all, provided the rank and file of their armies), so as to keep them more or less afloat—but all in such a way as never to allow a challenge to the principle of debt itself. The governing class of the United States seems to have taken a remarkably similar approach: eliminating the worst abuses (e.g., debtors’ prisons)*, using the fruits of empire to provide subsidies, visible and otherwise, to the bulk of the population; in more recent years, manipulating currency rates to flood the country with cheap goods from China, but never allowing anyone to question the sacred principle that we must all pay our debts. At this point, however, the principle has been exposed as a flagrant lie. As it turns out, we don’t ‘all’ have to pay our debts. Only some of us do. Nothing would be more important than to wipe the slate clean for everyone, mark a break with our accustomed morality, and start again. What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, just as no one has the right to tell us our true value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe.
We all know that promises have been broken. The 1% have gambled with our livelihoods. In contrast to their recklessness, those of us who advocate debt refusal take our collective responsibility very seriously. By dissolving the bonds which bind us to the 1%, we seek to forge new and equitable bonds with one another. We recognize that everyone deserves adequate housing, meaningful work, short hours, fair wages, access to health care and a truly liberating education. We cannot fulfill these obligations if we continue to cooperate with the system as it currently exists.
Can Debt Spark a Revolution?
by David Graeber / September 5, 2012
The idea of the “99 percent” managed to do something that no one has done in the United States since the Great Depression: revive the concept of social class as a political issue. What made this possible was a subtle change in the very nature of class power in this country, which, I have come to realize, has everything to do with debt. As a member of the team that came up with the slogan “We Are the 99 Percent,” I can attest that we weren’t thinking of inequality or even simply class but specifically of class power. It’s now clear that the 1 percent are the creditors: those who are able to turn their wealth into political influence and their political influence back into wealth again. The overriding imperative of government policy is to do whatever it takes, using all available tools—fiscal, monetary, political, even military—to keep stock prices from falling. The most powerful empire on earth seems to exist first and foremost to guarantee the stream of wealth flowing into the hands of that tiny proportion of its population who hold financial assets. This allows an ever-increasing amount of wealth to flow back into the system of legalized bribery that American politics has effectively become.
When we were organizing the Wall Street occupation in August of 2011, we really didn’t have any clear idea who, if anyone, would actually show up. But almost immediately we noticed a pattern. The overwhelming majority of Occupiers were, in one way or another, refugees of the American debt system. At first, that meant student debt: the typical complaint was “I worked hard and played by the rules, and now I can’t find a job to pay my student loans—while the financial criminals who trashed the economy got themselves bailed out.” What was remarkable wasn’t so much the fact that the camp began to fill with so many debt refugees, but how much their plea resonated across the political spectrum. In the 1960s or early ’80s, the plight of a college graduate juggling loans wasn’t the sort of thing most likely to wring the hearts of transit or sanitation workers. But Occupy received warmth and solidarity from organized labor. Something clearly had changed. We had come to see ourselves as members of the same indebted class.
This was possible only because of a number of changes in the very nature of American capitalism. For decades now, we’ve been hearing about the “financialization of capitalism.” But this is always framed as an abstract process, almost akin to magic, whereby Wall Street no longer needs to extract most of its profits from the fruits of commerce or industry because it has figured out a way to produce wealth from sheer speculation. Meanwhile, the financial industry actively discourages us from scrutinizing the actual social relations on which its wealth is based. What happens on Wall Street is supposed to be too complicated and advanced for regular people to comprehend. The rise of OWS allowed us to start seeing the system for what it is: an enormous engine of debt extraction. Debt is how the rich extract wealth from the rest of us, at home and abroad. Internally, it has become a matter of manipulating the country’s legal structure to ensure that more and more people fall deeper and deeper into debt. As I write, roughly three out of four Americans are in some form of debt, and a whopping one in seven is being pursued by debt collectors. There’s no way to know just what percentage of the average household’s income is now directly expropriated by the financial services industry in the form of interest payments, fees and penalties. What statistical information is available suggests it is somewhere between 15 and 20 percent—and, of course, if you factor out the quarter of the population who are either too rich or too poor to owe anything, it becomes considerably more. “Financialization,” then, is not just the manipulation of money. Ultimately, it’s the ability to manipulate state power to extract a portion of other people’s incomes. Wall Street and Washington, in other words, have become one. Financialization, securitization and militarization are all different aspects of the same process. And the endless multiplication, in cities across America, of gleaming bank offices— spotless stores selling nothing while armed security guards stand by—is just the most immediate and visceral symbol for what we, as a nation, have become.
Most revolutions, revolts and insurrections in world history have revolved, at least to some degree, around debt, from the uprisings that created the Greek democracies to the American Revolution—or pretty much any other anticolonial revolt. We may be standing on the brink of a similar juncture. Yet history shows it’s notoriously difficult to assemble debtors into a coherent movement; indebtedness is isolating by nature, and the very feelings of anxiety and humiliation it sparks have made it a potent ideological tool. But history also reveals that when such movements do form, the results tend to be explosive. What are the prospects for Occupy if it evolves into an explicit movement of debt resistance? If that happens, the battle will not be won by proposing policy changes. The power of Occupy was always that of delegitimation: an appeal to the profound feeling, shared by so many Americans, that our political class is so corrupted that it’s no longer capable of addressing the problems faced by ordinary citizens, let alone the world. To create a genuinely democratic system could only mean starting over entirely.
The financial system isn’t really any different. The first step is to state the problem clearly: our current economic arrangements can barely even be called “capitalism,” unless it’s some form of Mafia capitalism based on loan-sharking, extortion and fixed casino games. The second is to hammer home just how much the system’s illegitimacy undermines the moral force that debt still holds over so many Americans, thus fostering a gradual withdrawal of consent from the system. Increasing numbers of us are already doing this by refusing to pay our debts, whether out of necessity or by choice. Even those at the top are increasingly willing to admit in private that the current situation is untenable. Debt cancel-lation of some sort is going to take place (as we’ve already seen with the bailout of the big banks). The real struggle will be over the form it takes—above all, whether it’s a last-ditch attempt to salvage the system of Mafia capitalism or an effort to move us sharply in the direction of something else (perhaps taking a cue from Iceland’s forgiveness of loans held by more than a quarter of its population). A debt jubilee, after all, affords the possibility not just of economic renewal, but of intellectual and spiritual renewal as well. Even imagining such a possibility opens the door to an understanding that debts are simply a kind of promise we make to one another, and that a true democracy is one in which everyone weighs in on the broader questions. What kind of promises do we want to make as a society? Seen in this light, the problem economists like to call “debt overhang” (when debt levels are too high to permit access to credit even for smart investments) is far more profound. The debt we collectively hold obligates us to make promises we cannot keep. We continue to increase the rate of production, the level of exploitation and hence, as an inevitable consequence, the pace of ecological devastation at just the point where even present levels are clearly unsustainable—all to pay interest to the creditor class. At this moment, what could be more obviously insane?
This is why organizing a movement of mass resistance is so important. Our leaders have long since demonstrated that they are no longer capable of thinking big. Technocratic tinkering will get us nowhere. Only a social movement can change our moral and political horizons of possibility—and those horizons desperately need to change. Occupy was right to resist the temptation to issue concrete demands. But if I were to frame a demand today, it would be for as broad a cancellation of debt as possible, followed by a mass reduction of working hours—say to a five-hour workday or a guaranteed five-month vacation. If such a suggestion seems outrageous, even inconceivable, it’s just a measure of the degree to which our horizons have shrunk. After all, only fifty years ago many people assumed we would have gotten to such a point by now. It is only by breaking the power of the engines of extraction that we can once again begin to think on a scale and grandeur appropriate to the times.
Both sample letters have been modified from those made available on Debt
Consolidation Care (debtconsolidationcare.com/letters).
[Collection Agency’s Address]
Dear [Insert Name of Collection Agency]:
I am writing in response to your [letter or phone call] dated [insert date], (copy enclosed) because I am disputing the alleged debt. Before you contact me again, please provide me with the following documentation:
– proof that you own the debt and/or are authorized to collect on this debt on behalf of the current owner;
– proof that the debt was actually incurred by me with respect to the
– a copy of any judgment (if applicable);
– proof that you are licensed to collect debts in [insert name of your state]
Be advised that I have documented all correspondence with respect to
this debt and will not hesitate to report any violations of the law to my State Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau. Finally, if you are not authorized to collect this debt thereon, I demand that you immediately forward this dispute letter to the original creditor to inform them of my dispute.
[Your Printed Name]
CEASE AND DESIST LETTER
[Collection Agency’s Address]
Dear [Insert Name of Collection Agency]:
This letter comes in response to your repeated attempts to contact me
regarding an alleged debt, which I am contesting. I demand that you cease and desist from any further attempt to contact me at work or by phone.
Please be aware that I will continue to document all attempts to communicate with me with respect to the alleged debt, and that any further such attempts may constitute a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). I will not hesitate to report violations of the law to my State Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission and the national Better Business Bureau.
[Your Printed Name]
‘CERTAINTY of HOPELESSNESS’ vs RIGGED MARKETS
“Federal bankruptcy law requires those who wish to erase that debt to prove that repaying it will cause an “undue hardship.” And one component of that test is often convincing a federal judge that there is a “certainty of hopelessness” to their financial lives for much of the repayment period.”
by Wael Gamal وائل جمال / Oct 28 2011
“In the transition from an oligarchy or a tyranny to a democracy…persons refuse to fulfill their contracts or any other obligations, on the ground that the tyrant, and not the state, contracted them”—Aristotle.
Egypt owes about thirty-five billion USD (or 210 billion EGP) in foreign debts, which impose on us an annual burden of about eighteen billion EGP. These debts were accumulated under the previous regime in accordance with its political and economic priorities. We are paying off these debts from our own pockets instead of spending on healthcare, education or social services. A number of activists and civil society organizations inside and outside of Egypt have, therefore, designated 31 October the global day for Egyptian debt cancellation This is a prelude to a popular campaign that aims to remove this burden off the shoulders of the Egyptian people, who were neither responsible in any way for the decision to take on these debts, nor were they ever consulted in how these funds were spent.
Dropping Odious Debts
“Odious debt” is a legal concept coined by theorist Alexander Sack, who served as Russia’s minister of finance in 1927 during the aftermath of the Russian revolution. The concept seeks to extend to government-initiated contracts a legal principle that governs private borrowing. It stipulates that for any debt to remain legally binding it must serve legitimate ends. In this context, odious debts are understood to be commitments made by a dictator or an illegitimate government in the name of the nation in order to enrich the ruler (i.e. to enhance his personal bank accounts and those of his sons), or to fund the repression of his people (through, for example, the procurement of tear gas or sniper guns such as the ones used to murder the revolution’s martyrs). Odious debts are often associated with financial looting on many levels, such as: financing failed investment projects (like Toshka, the Abu Tartour phosphate project, the Aswan iron project, etc.); supporting corruption-ridden development projects (such as the privatization of public lands and state initiated contracts with private firms); as well as a despot’s control over the resources of the state treasury and mobilizing them in the service of his associates among businesspersons and their companies, all at our expense.
An odious loan is one that is extended to a regime that does not represent its people, and that—with the full knowledge of the lender—serves purposes that do not benefit public good. Thus, some deem loans that contribute to society’s impoverishment as odious. This is because they force the nation to channel all of its resources toward paying off existing debts, thereby limiting society’s ability to develop. Based on this logic, the idea was proposed that such loans would be dropped with the fall of the indebted dictatorship or autocratic regime, such as the case of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and South Africa following the end of the apartheid regime. From a legal standpoint, this concept presents a challenge to a longstanding principle in international law, specifically one that requires states to take responsibility for loans that were acquired by previous regimes. Yet this principle was invoked in numerous historical cases. Some cases date back to the nineteenth century, most notably the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the legality of Costa Rica’s non-payment of debts to Britain and Canada on grounds that these debts were acquired under dictatorial rule. Ecuador, however, provides a more recent example of a successful model.
During the 1970s, Ecuador, like many other Third World countries, fell prey to the trap of external borrowing at low interest rates that quickly increased thereafter. Thus, due to rising interest rates in American banks (from six percent in 1979 to twenty-one percent in 1981), Ecuador’s foreign debt increased more than twelvefold its initial value: from 1.174 billion USD in 1970 to 14.250 billion USD in 2006. Moreover, only fourteen percent of foreign debt acquired between 1989 and 2006 was used for new projects, while the rest went toward paying off old debts. In the wake of the general strike that toppled President Lucio Gutiérrez in the middle of the previous decade, a commission was formed for the purpose of auditing the country’s debt. The commission provided the government of Ecuador with legal and political grounds for its decision to abstain from paying off its odious debts in November 2008. In June 2009, Ecuador reached an agreement that reduced its external debt by more than two-thirds. Specifically, in an agreement signed with ninety percent of its international lenders, Ecuador was to pay only thiry-five cents for every dollar it owed, thereby allowing the country to rid itself of this burden. In fact, the value of the debt securities fell sharply after the abovementioned incident, which made debt payments cheaper than before. Ecuador managed its battle in a prudent and informed way, giving hope to all Third World countires that have the political will to rid themselves of the burden of odious debts. At the present time, civil society and popular movements in both Ireland and Greece are organizing popular debt audit commissions and are pushing for the formation of official commissions. Tunisia has set up a commission to audit Zine Abdine Ben Ali’s odious debts with a view to getting them dropped. This gives us, here in Egypt, more room to mount presusre, coordinate efforts, and mobilize people for the sake of dropping the debts of the Mubarak regime.
Adam Hanieh, lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, notes that while Egypt paid 24.6 billion USD between 2000 and 2009, the debt level has increased by approximately fifteen percent during the same period. In an article on the ongoing transformations in the Egyptian economy after the revolution, Hanieh adds: “These figures demonstrate the striking reality of Egypt’s financial relationship with the global economy –Western loans act to extract wealth from Egypt’s poor and redistribute it to the richest banks in North America and Europe.” The odious debt is not only an enemy from the past that challenges our lives and livelihood, but also a burden on our future. Getting rid of it is an economic imperative, moral, and legal right. The battle, however, is unlikely to stop at international lending institutions and banks, and might require a domestic confrontation as well.
All Eyes on The Debt
“Open your eyes, the debt is covered from your pocket” is the motto of the Popular Campiagn to Drop Egypt’s Debts, which will be launched on 31 October to rid our revolution of a burden that was accumulated by a regime that did not represent Egyptians—a burden that continues to weigh heavily on our wages, our standards of living, and our future opportunities. The campaign will be launched in parallel with events in London and Berlin and will feauture the participation of civil society movements and organizations from Britain and Germany. The abovementioned slogan indicates that establishing an independent commission for auditing the debt, along with a popular campaign to drop it, are not the end of the road. Rather, they are the beginning of a radical change in the way the country’s economic policy is managed. The problem at hand is not just that we are paying international lenders interest that exceeds social welfare spending for eight-five million Egyptians in areas such as healthcare. Rather, the problem is the orientation of the country’s economic policies, the absence of transparency in economic policy-making, and the limited opportunity that citizens have to formulate these policies in accordance with their interests.
Dropping Egypt’s debt to the European Union was the first proposal advanced by Samir Radwan, who served as minister of the finance immediately after the revolution. Such demands, however, subsided a few weeks later and were replaced with the exact opposite: more borrowing from international institutions. A decision was later reached to freeze external borrowing, but at a huge price for the poor and the economy; namely an austerity budget that priviledged the interests of the wealthy, both in terms of taxation and in terms of the priorities awarded to government subsidies. This incident tells us that one thing is certain: If we are the ones responsible for paying off these loans from our own pockets, the decision to borrow from domestic or international lenders in the future must be subject to wider monitoring efforts with a larger role for civil society, including civil rights organizations, NGOs, consumer protection groups, trade unions, and the general public. This example also reveals that dropping the odious debts of dictatorship will not happen short of a confrontation with the economic order that we have inherited, a confrontation that wil not succeed without the participation of the majority of stakeholders. Thus, the debt audit may be a genuine gateway for a more democratic economy that reflects the needs of the people before the necessities of profitmaking for the few. It may even play a role in confronting the influence of the wealthy elite who hide in the trenches that this economy protects, along with the loyal technocrats who serve their interests. It may also counter the political leadership that uses the excuse of the debt of the Mubarak regime to conceal and justify its suppression of our right to a fair wage, to a suitable job, and to proper healthcare and educational services, all using the same failed slogan: “From where am I to provide for you?”
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