Weekend Reading

Come and get it!

Let’s be clear: I am not arguing that Occupy is a revolutionary movement, aimed at the total destruction of capitalism, the wage relation and the State. This is obviously untrue: for the most part, Occupy has a reform-oriented horizon that is clear to all. It is about class inequality in the US, about the distribution of wealth between the 99% and the 1%. Its implicit demand is: Fix this. Make our society more equal. But this demand remains almost impossible to voice, since there is no concrete policy to recommend and, arguably, little outside a revolutionary movement is likely to significantly impact inequality in the US anytime soon. As such, any attempt to reduce this unspoken horizon to some concrete object, whether the Citizens United ruling or full employment, remains curiously both too specific and too vague, likely to fragment the 99% into competing factions.

Debt, a growing number of organizers believe, has the potential to serve as a kind of connective tissue for the Occupy movement, uniting increasingly dispersed organizing efforts around a common problem (debt) as opposed to a common tactic (occupation). Already, organizers on the East and West Coasts have taken up this idea. Activists from Occupy Boston are rallying around the city’s indebted public transit system, calling attention to the way state subsidies have been replaced with profit-hungry private capital by chanting, “Our trains, our tracks—get this debt off our backs!” Occupy activists in San Francisco are planning a debt burning for September 17, one that unites foreclosure fighters, student debtors and other drowning citizens under the motto “Hell no, we won’t pay!”

“Debt is the tie that binds the 99 percent,” Occupy organizer Yates McKee has written: from the underwater and foreclosed-upon homeowners who were first pummeled by the economic crisis, to the millions of debt-strapped students who are in default or on the brink, to all those driven into bankruptcy by medical bills, to workers everywhere who have been forced to compensate for more than thirty years of stagnating wages with credit card debt, to the firefighters and teachers who have had to accept pay cuts because their cities are broke, to the citizens of countries where schools and hospitals are being closed to pay back foreign bondholders. Given the way debt operates at the municipal and national levels, the issue affects us all—even those who are fortunate enough to be debt-free, as well as those so poor they don’t have access to credit. Debt is one of the ways we all feel Wall Street’s influence most intimately, whether it’s because of a ballooning mortgage payment or a subway fare hike or a shuttered clinic.

In an anguished essay in The New Yorker about the recent, racially motivated, killings of Sikhs at a gurudwara in the American state of Wisconsin, Naunihal Singh draws attention to their exclusion from mainstream American life. Both the political campaigns and the media, Singh notes, treated the killings “as a tragedy for Sikhs in America rather than a tragedy for all Americans.” Singh argues that this mean-spirited, blinkered reaction represents a bigger tragedy than the shootings themselves. The historian Gyanendra Pandey, in his book Routine Violence, describes a hierarchy of citizenship practiced by all nation-states, which is manifest in a distinction between its unmarked, seemingly “axiomatic” or “natural” inhabitants and its marked, “hyphenated” minorities. Extending Pandey’s insight, one might note that even as minorities are conspicuously visible and marked because of their difference, they remain paradoxically invisible as citizens (and some more so than others). They are condemned to invisibility because their very presence — as citizens — threatens to challenge the collective amnesia about histories of exclusion on which nations are founded.

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