Donald Trump is hardly a grand symbol of democracy. He lost the popular vote in the U.S. by millions of votes and became president through the arcane, right-wing giving tree that is the Electoral College. He is clearly using the office of the presidency to promote his family business and wage war on his political opponents. He has advocated for xenophobia and sexism and racism from the most powerful podium on the planet. His entire career has been based on being born into extreme wealth, exploiting poor people, taking advantage of tax loopholes, and engaging in crooked scams and schemes. But, there is a real danger in assessing Trump as an American anomaly — that one really, truly corrupt president we had after Richard Nixon.
The assertion that Trump is an aberration in this nation’s history presupposes that the U.S. system is actually based on democracy, or that the country functions as a democratic state and that Trump is trashing that great tradition. It is more accurate to say that Trump is a manifestation of the very type of product that the U.S. system is capable of churning out.
The 2020 presidential campaign is the perfect laboratory to analyze this. On the one hand, you have Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Warren, offering up some pretty serious challenges to the ultra-corporatized, legalized bribery and corruption systems on which this country, under both Democrats and Republicans, operates. Their candidacies and ideas and proposals are not just scary to Republicans and Trump. They are terrifying to the Democratic Party establishment and its preferred candidates in this race. On the other hand, you have Joe Biden, the Clinton machine, and the ascent of the candidacy of someone like Pete Buttigieg, all of which feel a lot like a corporatized version of activism on behalf of entrenched power and corporate interests.
This really comes into sharp focus in the discussions on Medicare for All, or abolishing medical and student debt, or taking on so-called free trade agreements, not to mention the climate crisis.
Last month, ProPublica reported that debt collection is now “an $11 billion industry” and that “medical debt makes up almost half of what’s collected each year.”
Medical debt is also the most common financial burden affecting American families. Up to 79 million people are in a lethal debt trap.
When it comes to health care, housing, and education debt in particular, the United States is a dystopian nightmare that has no relationship whatsoever to democracy. Trump didn’t create that reality. It was built up by Democrats and Republicans.
Under our current, duopolistic political system, the partisan alternative to Trump’s presidency is not democracy. On a whole range of issues, almost any Democrat may likely be better for many, many millions of people than Trump, but it doesn’t mean establishment Democrats are, on their own merits, good for the masses. Far from it.
Filmmaker, author, and organizer Astra Taylor has spent a lot of time analyzing these issues and fighting against the bipartisan system that masquerades as democratic. After organizing with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, Taylor co-founded the Debt Collective, an organization that has developed some very effective tools to help people dispute and challenge their debt. She is also a documentary filmmaker and her latest project is titled “What is Democracy?” Her latest book is “Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.” An excerpt of this conversation aired on Intercepted. What follows is the complete, extended conversation.
This interview begins at 07:00.
Jeremy Scahill: Astra Taylor, welcome to Intercepted.
Astra Taylor: Hey, thanks for having me.
JS: So, I wanted to ask you just because there’s all this discussion about polls, and the Democrats, and everybody was in Iowa recently, and I don’t want to get into the poll thing with you, that’s boring beyond belief. But the response that we’ve seen to the candidacies of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and specifically their proposals on issues like health care, debt elimination, increasing social services, and going after radical privatization or corporate influence, not the reaction from the GOP and Trump but from the Democratic establishment. Given the work that you’ve done in your new book, and on film and the other writing you’ve done over these years, what does it say about the nature of power in the system in this country, the kinds of attacks that we’re already seeing — from the Pelosis, the Bidens, the Clintons of the world — on some of the ideas being put forward by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?
AT: I think we have to be skeptical of the polls, we’ve all learned that since 2016, but I think these numbers are so overwhelming. What they show us is there’s broad majoritarian support for progressive social policy. This is what the people most want. And we’ve entered a phase where that is sort of undeniable, if you look at the numbers. But as you just pointed out, there is a whole establishment, centrist Democrat, corporate establishment that absolutely is opposed to the will of the majority. So I think that’s how we have to think about this. Right now, it’s commonly said, we’re in a moment of democratic crisis.
And that conversation has been framed around populism, warnings about unruly people we can’t trust. But I think for me, the problem is actually that we’re living in the age of minoritarian politics, minoritarian control. You see that very strongly with the GOP and the fact that they want a politics of hierarchy, basically a return to aristocracy, right? They’re willing to gerrymander and disenfranchise voters — they absolutely don’t want people to go out and vote. But we see it with the Democrats as well, right? We see that they want to tell their constituencies, sorry, you can’t have these things that are not only popular, but actually pretty commonplace in other industrial democracies.
JS: And it seems like the ascent of Mayor Pete, Pete Buttigieg, is largely linked to this idea that he’s emerging as like the grand pooh-pooh-er of all of the ideas of young people in this country that caused the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders after his many decades in politics to this household name status and potential to win the nomination.
AT: Okay, Mayor Pete, that guy. I mean, he’s like auditioning for the gerontocracy. He’s basically — like, what is motivating him to run, right, if you’re basically going to be the candidate of anti-transformation? But the thing is that people aren’t buying it. I mean, he’s incredibly unpopular with his demographic, with people under 40, and he’s not that popular overall. But the thing is, the media is invested in him and propping him up because that’s the message that wealthy, powerful people want to hear, which is, sorry lowly people, you can’t have nice things.
JS: Just to get more to the heart of this, Nancy Pelosi, you can tell she’s trying to be careful in some ways about how she talks about the primaries, but there has been this pretty militant pushback on the idea that health care should be available to everyone, Medicare-for-all, that it should essentially be socialized healthcare in this country and as we know, a lot of people in this country want that regardless of if they consider themselves a socialist, Democratic socialist, or even a Republican. When asked about it, people want that. This pushback, though, from the Democratic establishment a year away from the election seems to be really that they’re operating from a place of fear against this change. It’s clear what the GOP wants. But what do Pelosi and Biden and Clinton, what do these people want if they don’t want that kind of change?
AT: God, what do they want?
JS: I don’t mean get into their head. What is it that they’re saying then to the country by so quickly just dismissing the idea that we should eliminate debt, that we should have healthcare for all?
AT: I mean, it’s interesting because you can have a conversation that’s like, this is going to be difficult given the American political system and the number of veto points and the way that it’s structured and the way that money is a form of political speech, and the fact that we essentially have a system, an electoral system where bribery is legalized in terms of campaign contributions, right? You could say, there are lots of obstacles in the way of this. That’s not how they’re framing this, right? They’re framing this as just an impossibility and not driving home the point that, I think, Bernie Sanders is making beautifully, that Elizabeth Warren is making almost as well, which is that this is a basic democratic right and plenty of other societies work this out. So I mean, I think there probably is something deeper. There’s a threat to their authority, right, and to the system that helped them rise to power and stay in power.
I mean, look at Biden’s background from Delaware. What are his accomplishments? Overturning bankruptcy protections? In 2005 on behalf of the credit card companies, right? This is their constituency. Thinking about democracy writ large, I mean, there’s a bigger thing they’re afraid of though because what this means to have universal health care is to decommodify this huge industry, and it’s to connect decommodification with democratization, right? Maybe there are huge areas of social life that should not be not just subjected to the market extremes but actually taken off the market completely, right? And that’s very threatening to the status quo.
Because once you start decommodifying one area, well, why not others? Let’s take education off the market, right? Let’s take housing off the market. What would it be like to live in a home that you don’t have to pray appreciates in value that’s not actually a speculative asset or someone else’s speculative asset? So, I think to me, the deeper issue is that we’re trying to make inroads. We’re trying to say more of social life should be public, should be decommodified. That’s what democracy entails and that is deeply threatening to a ruling class.
JS: So much of your work takes place on a micro level in one way, but [is] very much concerned with the macro politics of our time. And I’m wondering if you believe it’s actually possible to fundamentally change anything about this country politically through the ballot box for president?
AT: I think you could change some things politically through the ballot box, right? Because we’ve seen that there are changes when Donald Trump gets elected, and he’s in the White House because he has the power of those executive orders and also he has the power that then [gets] the republican party to basically rally around him because we’re in a two-party, winner-take-all system. So, I think it really does matter. The problem is that for too long we thought democracy was just the ballot box, was just electoral politics, right? I mean, all sorts of forces have colluded to make that our impression of what democracy is. I mean, the media is obsessed over elections. Political scientists try to measure democracy through these metrics of like, does it have free and fair elections and can people vote?
So there’s been this reduction of democracy to that: to whether or not you can just get to the voting booth without even a deeper conversation of well, is your vote counted? How is the election structured? Is it winner-take-all? Is it proportional representation? Are you automatically registered? Or do you have to struggle to be registered? So there are all these deeper questions you can have around elections, and even those are off the table. So I mean, my view is that there’s a kind of dialectic, there’s a two-part process and we have to be attuned to that. I think if democracy — this is what I’m saying in my book “Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.” I’m saying democracy is paradoxical.
Now, first and foremost, I see there’s a class component to democracy. The best definition of democracy in my mind comes from Aristotle and he said, democracy is the rule of the poor because poor people will always outnumber the rich. And if democracy is rule of the many, then it is by definition, the rule of the poor. So that’s something we’ve definitely forgotten today because we live in something much closer to an oligarchy, rule of the rich. So beyond that class dimension, I look at democracy as this series of tensions. So, the tension between freedom and equality, between the present and the future, between the local and the global, between choice, but also coercion. When is coercion legitimate?
So democracy has to wrestle with these tensions and one that I think is really important is spontaneity and structure, revolt and then ruling, right? So we have to do them at the same time. Somehow we have to be completely ungovernable while also seeking to govern. I think we see activist movements getting that right now with people engaging in climate strikes while also pushing for candidates who want a Green New Deal. We have to be able to think, yeah, it matters who represents us in this system that falls so short of any definition of true democracy. And yet, we also need to be in the streets, emboldening, whoever it is who’s there, because one side isn’t going to get us to a more just world.
JS: On that point, and in reading your work and also watching some of your films, if we were to erase all of the pretenses and propaganda that are woven into the story of what America is, what the U.S. is, and we acted as though we were just aliens that landed here, how would you describe the form of government that we have in this country?
AT: Oh, I love that idea. I mean, it’s difficult for me to get in the mindset of it, of an alien. How would I think we were governed? I mean, can I change your question a little bit?
JS: Go ahead.
AT: Let’s imagine that I was someone coming from ancient Greece, ancient Athens. So, a time traveler from 2,500 years ago, and of course, the Athenians didn’t give us the practice of self-government or democracy, but they gave us this word that we come back to the demos, the people, kratos, or rule. So I think you can safely say that if an Athenian was plopped down in Washington, D.C. in 2019, they’d be like, this is not democracy. Like, no way. Because, yes, that society had major problems, was built on slavery, women were completely excluded, foreigners were excluded, but they absolutely again, thought democracy was the rule of the poor.
They compensated artisans and farmers to participate in the assembly, right, this idea that you couldn’t go vote because you have to work your job, or you can’t keep a roof over your head, would have struck them as crazy. But more than that, they would have thought that our obsession with elections was just a sign that we were actually living in an aristocracy. Aristotle said very clearly, elections are aristocratic selection, or basically mass participation is democratic because who wins elections? Rich people, charismatic people, well-born people, right? I mean, look at who is actually in Washington today. The average Congressperson or senator is an aging, white male millionaire. That is not who he’s ostensibly serving, right?
And the Greeks totally knew. They were like, that’s the problem with elections so what we have to do is create all these strategies to encourage participation from every class, right, within their limited idea of what citizenship was. I mean, to me, that’s a helpful mental experiment. It’s like, we invoke this word, this Greek word and play around with that tradition, but they would have absolutely thought that we were out of our minds to think we’re living in democracy. They would have seen that this is an oligarchy.
JS: It’s also when you talk about Republicans — and I’ve read some other interviews with you recently — you’ve described the current GOP, but also it’s ideological figures, conservative columnist, pundits and others as being, and this is how you describe it, “tired of democracy and the equality that it demands.” I want you to explain that but at the same time, aren’t they continuing to win?
AT: Oh, yeah, right. Because the thing is, they have power. I mean, this is the thing, this is what the left always says, right, yes, they have money, but we have the many, right? [But] somehow we need to organize. It’s a collective action problem. I think we’re in a really interesting moment. And we’re similar ages and so yeah, we grew up under this neoliberal, end of history hegemony, right, this idea even if we didn’t believe it, but it was there in the ether with capitalism and democracy go together. This is liberal democracy, markets, increased prosperity, lift people up, elections will follow. And that’s it, right? This is the pinnacle of human evolution [and] that marriage is breaking apart.
And we see that in some really positive ways, I think, with the resurgence of socialism as something not only that we can discuss, but it’s actually gaining traction, politically. But what I found when I went out with the film, and I started interviewing people and just talking to people from all walks of life is that young conservatives, people in their early 20s, I just assumed that as Republicans, they would still speak in terms of the link between capitalism and democracy, right? They would still say, hey, markets are democratic. We get to choose. Choosing is good. Choosing is what democracy is all about, and talk in terms of a kind of Reagan freedom of the marketplace kind of rhetoric.
That’s not what I found at all. I found young people who are keenly aware of their own status as an economic and social elite, who recognize — they had no delusions — they recognize that the empowerment of the majority of people would mean that they would lose some of their privilege. They would lose their economic privilege, that they would lose what is essentially the sort of affirmative action that they take for granted. It’s just how the universe should be. And so they mock democracy outright. They mock democracy, they mocked urban centers with their large populations. And they basically said, we don’t want democracy. We want the Electoral College. We want the Senate. We want the Supreme Court. And we want to tell you all what to do with your lives and we do not want you fighting to increase our taxes or fighting for better treatment in the workplace, or fighting to expand the number of refugees and immigrants in this country.
So, that was interesting for me because the gloves are off and conservatives are returning to their aristocratic roots. There was a strange moment, 20th century with the USSR facing off against the United States where it was convenient for capitalists to speak in terms of democracy, to wrap themselves up in that mantle, right. They don’t need it anymore and that’s where we’re at. So if they want capitalism, and they understand that it’s not a democratic framework, then all then I think that radicalizes democracy.
AT: I’m saying that radicalizes democracy, because it means that we don’t have to pretend that definition, that 20th century definition is the definition. We can say what democracy, it is rule of the poor, right? It is inclusion. It is public decommodified goods. It’s all the things that you rich, privileged asshole are afraid of and that’s why I think we have to fight more passionately for the idea of democracy. Because for me, and I bet you’re the same as well, it’s like, our democracy in the aughts, like 2001, two, three, four, was such a sold-out word, just taken by George W. Bush, by all of the hawks, claiming to democratize the Middle East when really they were just imposing like, when really they were just engaging in this imperial project and extracting what wealth there was and giving a shit about the people who actually live there. So democracy actually had this really hollow ring to me. But I think in this context, I think times change and I think we’re in a moment where, yeah, democracy, the radical implications of it are becoming more clear, not just to the left but to the right.
JS: On that point, I assume you’re not spending too much time watching Fox News, but Donald Trump Jr. was on Fox the other day because he has this book “Triggered” coming out. But he was talking about his favorite — Yeah, exactly. For people that can’t see Astra’s just shaking her head like, what? So yes, this book “Triggered” coming out. And, in fact, on Monday of this week, Donald Trump tweeted that everyone should buy his son’s book, but Donald Trump Jr. with no sense of irony or shame said in an interview about his forthcoming book on Fox News that if he were like Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, then he would be able to run around the world making millions of dollars off of his father’s presidency.
He actually said that Fox News but it so cuts to the heart of the point you’re making. I mean, democracy is convenient when it is for their agenda. But then the kind of, how they actually see the world is that they’re the hard workers. And they’ve had to step on a lot of skulls and you know how hard it is to keep your balance when you’re stepping on the skulls of the poor. I mean, that’s essentially what Donald Trump Jr. was saying. And he’s using Joe Biden’s son as the example when in fact, the personification of his point is the Trump family.
AT: That’s amazing. I mean, this one woman says, a young woman says in the film, and I quote her in the book, “I don’t care about democracy. I care about the American dream and that ability to climb.” And whenever I hear that phrase, I think — like your skull climbing — it doesn’t matter who I’m climbing over, doesn’t matter who I’m climbing on. I want to climb and be on top. I want a pyramid shape society where I’m on the top. And that’s why I think we’re on the left. We’re trying to create a society that takes a different shape, that’s not a pyramid, right? And not a rainbow oligarchy, not a rainbow pyramid with some diversity at the top but a totally different shape, where equality is fundamental.
And yeah, the arrogance is out of control. That’s why I said, they want this kind of affirmative action that white people have and don’t, the majority of us, don’t account for. All of the, individualized subsidies and advantages that we get based on our class and our skin color. So, I think we’re in a scary moment, though, because the one thing you said that I didn’t really respond to is, yeah, but it’s working, they have power. And this is where we do need to take a sort of, cold hard look at what we’re up against. I mean, one is just the intense accumulation of wealth, how much wealth is at their disposal. And I think we’re in an interesting moment where we’re seeing how people’s politics flow from their economic interest. I mean, look at Silicon Valley right now, right? I mean, in the Obama era, liberals could deceive themselves that these guys were forces for good and forces for change. And now we’re seeing the mask come off and people are going, oh my God, Mark Zuckerberg is not this boy genius. He’s actually ready when the shit hits the fan to align with the Trump administration, basically.
So they have economic power at their disposal, but the way our political system is structured makes it really difficult to enact the kinds of changes we want. And we do have a system that is bizarrely minoritarian that does not weigh votes equally based on the geography that you inhabit. We have a Supreme Court that has completely gone in this right-wing direction. So it makes it all the more urgent that we build this mass power.
JS: I want to talk about some of the projects that you’ve been involved with particularly on issues of debt. But just a couple of other issues on what we’re talking about right now. You’ve also said that you don’t think you can persuade people through argument. It’s better to use action and you continued saying “What brings people the Trump rallies in part is a desire for solidarity but they can imagine only a kind of exclusionary solidarity, us against them. There are very few institutions that show them otherwise.” Explain what you’re talking about there.
AT: Yeah, solidarity is this beautiful concept. I mean, I really think solidarity is what will save us. So, what is solidarity? It’s people coming together and exercising power collectively to improve their conditions. I mean, I think what comes to mind, you reading that quote, is the attack on labor unions that has been going on not just for the last 40 years, but the last century. I mean, why does the right-wing despise labor unions so much? Because that was not just a place where workers could come together and fight for higher wages or the weekend or benefits but also where they could have a kind of political education and recognize their common interest and then maybe recognize their interest with people in other industries. And that’s really dangerous, which is why secondary strikes and boycotts are illegal in this country.
So, solidarity I think is, I do think it’s something that it’s not just an intellectual epiphany. It’s something that you experience and that experience is transformative and that’s why for me, I am a nerd. I love my philosophizing. I like to write. I like to make my arty films. But ultimately, I think we need to engage in political organizing, and try to say, hey, you actually have common interests despite your differences. The enemy isn’t who you think it is. It’s not the person who’s willing to take a shitty job for lower wages than you. It’s actually the boss who’s exploiting you, and who’s lobbying against regulations and against minimum wage, and if you work together, you have a chance of improving your lot. And so to me, I think, yeah, it’s like, we’re not going to win by just berating people or shaming people or being smarter than them or having the right argument, like we really have to do it. It’s a practice.
JS: As you were talking, I also was thinking about 2016 a bit and the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the issue of Wisconsin. I’m from Milwaukee, from Wisconsin, and a lot of my friends who travel around the state regularly, they’re local journalists, were saying Trump’s gonna win. And they were explaining why but also, the way that the success of Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin versus Hillary Clinton was portrayed in a lot of social media, but also by the Clinton campaign, was this notion that Bernie also appealed to misogynist men or that there was something similar between Bernie and Trump that caused this overlap. In reality, it’s much more what you’re describing. Bernie was talking about the devastating impact of these trade agreements and he was talking about issues that actually mattered to a lot of struggling formerly working class people or formerly blue collar households.
And to me it made perfect sense why some people would be vacillating between Trump and Bernie if their entire existence has been wiped out because of trade agreements or corporate policies or companies fleeing. And Hillary Clinton was so closely tied to her husband’s role with NAFTA — and we’ll talk about Seattle [in] a little bit and the World Trade Organization — but it made perfect sense to me that it was about economic issues.
AT: It’s interesting. So, I went to a couple of Trump rallies because I was doing research for my film and one of them is in the film and it was gutting because 30 percent of the rally was Trump railing against hedge funds. Talk about ironic. Thirty percent was him rallying against the endless wars. And then the other 30 percent was anti-immigrant, racist fear mongering, and it was terrifying. And there was, I think, an element of misogyny and for me, misogyny is such a lively force in this society. But I think what your point is that we were in an anti-establishment moment, and we had two anti-establishment candidates and the thing that Bernie Sanders would have done if he had won is that all of these people who are rightly angry and disaffected and know they’re getting a shit deal would have identified with a Democratic socialist, and with a completely different project, a project of building solidarity, right, and naming a different enemy naming the 1 percent of as the enemy. And of course, the Democratic establishment can’t handle that because they’re getting their donations from the 1 percent.
And it’s really the conversation — I think it shows me how out of touch some pundits are with regular people. So, for example, in the Debt Collective, which is this debtors union I run, we had spent the previous two years fighting the Obama administration, fighting the Obama administration which refused, the Department of Education, which refused to grant debt relief for defrauded students, students who had attended predatory for-profit colleges who were legally entitled to debt relief, and the Obama administration dragging their heels and basically drowned these already broke, disproportionately black, single mother, working people, like drove them into financial ruin. How do you look at our constituency and say, “This is great, get behind the mainstream Democrats?”
JS: Yeah. Just one point of clarification, I am by no means saying that Hillary Clinton wasn’t subjected to misogynistic attacks and massive systematic sexism in that campaign. I definitely think she was. I’m talking about the micro-issue of Wisconsin and why there was an overlap between Trump and Bernie voters and trying to identify why that was beyond the sort of typical weekend on MSNBC. Just a point of clarification. I want to talk about the Debt Collective in a second, but two more questions on forcing you to talk —
AT: I do want to say one thing, though. If you could convince some people with lingering misogyny to vote for Bernie Sanders instead of Trump, though, I think that would be a transformative process. I mean, to me, part of being an organizer, though, is saying, people aren’t just who they are forever. If you are an organizer, then you believe people can change, that people can see their situations differently, that people can begin to have a sense of commonality with others. So to me, that was also a missed opportunity. It’s like, yeah, bring them on board, bring the misogynists on board to the Sanders campaign, and let’s transform them into more open minded leftists.
JS: I don’t want to take the thunder away from you so this will be a sparse question and you can do your thing with it. In the book, you compare Donald Trump and make analogies, Donald Trump and historical figures. One of the most fascinating I thought was George Washington. Explain why you draw an analogy between Trump and George Washington.
AT: George Washington, well, I mean, think back to November. What day is the election, anyway? Seventh? I don’t know.
JS: It was November 8.
AT: So, November 8, think back to November 8, 2016 and everyone’s saying Donald Trump is not us. This is not who we are. And what was so fascinating for me, I was filming my documentary at that moment, and I spent the morning with North Carolina representative Mickey Michaux, who’s this 86-year-old guy in the state legislature who was recruited by Martin Luther King. I was spending the afternoon with a young Black Lives Matter organizer named Delaney Vandergrift, who’s 19. They were like, this is who we are.
And the best example of that to me is George Washington, the first president, who was this vicious real estate speculator who basically, why did he want the American Revolution? So, he could speculate on stolen indigenous land. So, let’s just not deceive ourselves. This is, we have to look at how this is, in fact, who we are, look at our history, not tell ourselves this false story that the problems begin three years ago, and that we can just kind of have this liberal make America great again and go back to 2015. And we have to take an honest look at our history and who has led this country before.
JS: So getting into the heart of some of the work you’ve done on economic issues, in 2012, coming off the heels of the rise up of the Occupy movement, you were working on a project called Rolling Jubilee. And that project raised enough money to eradicate, and correct me if I’m wrong about the statistic here, it raised enough money to eradicate close to $15 million in medical debt.
AT: Yeah, in the end, we raised over $33 million in different kinds of debt.
JS: So explain to people what that project is, was.
AT: Yeah, so Rolling Jubilee is a project that came out of Occupy sort of an Occupy Wall Street off-shoot. And what we wanted to do was to, I mean, challenge the phony morality around debt that had actually been part of the financial crisis. Right, because what was the Occupy chant? Banks got bailed out. We got sold out. And so we’re like, Look, what if scrappy occupiers come together and we bail out the people. So we also call it a people’s bailout. So essentially, what we did was, we acted like debt collectors. This is something nobody had done before. We acted like debt collectors, but instead of buying debts to try to extract money from people to profit from other people’s pain, we abolish them.
And we use the word abolish very specifically because we do not believe that debtors need to be forgiven. We believe the majority of our debts are illegitimate. Nobody should go into debt because they get cancer or get sick. Nobody should go into debt because they want to get an education. I don’t think people should go into debt because they want to have a roof over their heads. And the majority of what people put on credit cards in this country, contrary to stereotypes is food, shelter, basic necessities because people aren’t getting paid enough. So we were trying to challenge this and also to kind of do a concrete good, a kind of coded Occupy. And so we ended up sending out thousands, tens of thousands of letters to debtors and saying no strings attached. You don’t have to pay your bill anymore.
Out of that effort we bought we ended up buying a portfolio of debt from a predatory for profit college tuition debt, and we were able to make contact with debtors. And that’s when we started to build something called the Debt Collective which had always been our dream, but we just thought that it was too out there. The Debt Collective is a union for debtors. Just like we have a labor movement where workers come together to negotiate for better wages, etc, in the workplace. Why don’t we have something like that for debtors? What would have happened before 2008 if mortgage holders had been organized? Right, because what we know, looking back, the Obama administration sat on debt relief for millions and millions of regular people, right, whose homes went into foreclosure, who were financially devastated. Black families lost half of their wealth in the wake of the financial crisis.
What if debtors had been organized, mortgage holders had been organized? So we try to organize people around what type of debt by their specific creditors and say we need to engage in collective bargaining. We need to not be afraid to have strikes, and this in an age of financialization and an age of financial capitalism. Why aren’t we organizing around indebtedness? Your debt might overwhelm you personally. But when you work together, it’s leverage, right? So, all of our debts are someone else’s profit. Somebody’s trading them. Somebody’s like, bundling them and, and selling them off and it’s like, okay, someone’s making money from that. So the 1 percent has wealth, we have debt. $1.6 trillion of student debt is $1.6 trillion of leverage. Let’s start using it.
JS: Yeah, you’ve said you — you plural — believe in economic disobedience.
AT: Yeah, I love that phrase. To me, I’m like, oh, what would it be like if we really were doing economic disobedience at scale? Because we always think about civil disobedience and we need that. We need to block the flow of traffic, and we need to fill up the squares and we need to sit in at Nancy Pelosi’s office. But the thing is this is that we live in [a] financial time. So finances wrapped itself around every transaction, right? Every time we swipe our credit cards. Every time we pay a bill. And so, we have to think of new strategies for this new age. And we know again, that unions are being decimated, union membership is low and with the Supreme Court, unions are going to be facing an even tougher time in terms of their legal feasibility.
So, we believe that we should have campaigns of economic refusal. So, we launched the first ever student debt strike in 2015. It began really modestly with 15 people grew to hundreds. We ended up helping to submit hundreds of thousands of debt disputes through a mechanism that we figured out with a lot of lawyers. There’s a kind of wonky aspect to working on finance that, is central if you want to actually have a winning strategy. But since 2015, we’ve helped win over a billion and a half dollars of debt relief. And I think really put student debt cancellation on the 2020 agenda. It’s really interesting to think about how we were mocked in 2012 and mocked by the mainstream media and just how pie in the sky, that’s so crazy to think that you guys believe college should be free and that should be cancelled to now it’s like, basically, people are saying, “Oh, yeah, well, that would definitely happen eventually. It’s just a matter of how much.”
JS: Warren cited the work of the Debt Collective in releasing her plan on this.
AT: Oh, yeah, I mean, that’s also really interesting because activists rarely get credit. I mean, that’s the thing, this is why I have so much respect for organizers, because typically, you’re ahead of the curve. I mean, it’s like we talk about the Civil Rights Movement. We talk about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer, and they’re all great. But they’re also like, what about 100 years of people coming before who just were like slugging it out, didn’t make any progress or holding the line. And so I’m very grateful that we’re able to launch this campaign, and then have some real concrete monetary victories.
But now basically have the two leading progressive Democratic candidates saying, “Yeah, this shows the urgency of this issue and that it can be done.” Because what we did was, we showed it’s possible. It’s not just that we did the strike, we actually had to kind of work with lawyers and policy wonks in pats, sort of, show the government how to do it, right. I mean, all of this stuff is possible if you have the political will, and you have the leverage and you’re tenacious enough and so what essentially Warren and Sanders are proposing is to scale up what this debt strike started.
JS: Let’s try and do a little bit of an organizer talk from you here on this issue. Let’s say I’m in some pretty steep debt from my education. I’m paying $1,300 a month and only $40 of it is going to pay down my principal, which is the case of some people that I know. It’s pretty much exactly the case of a family member.
AT: That is so inhumane.
JS: But this is how it is because as you know, the juice starts running once you take the loan out and it keeps compounding and then you end up in a situation where you’re only paying 40 bucks a month down on your principal and you’re getting just drowned in paying interest or profit to somebody else off of your debt. The concern is well, I’m just starting my real life right now. I don’t want my credit to be hurt because my partner and I are saving up because we want to actually buy a home. What do you say to someone like that? How would you advise them if their fear is that these companies that control their debt or the government that controls your debt could ruin them financially if they don’t pay it or they go on strike?
AT: This is something that we have obsessed over since 2012. Because debt is a form of social control. It really is. I mean, credit scores are a very effective form of social control. I was just trying to help my sister get an apartment the last few weeks, and her credit score is getting in the way and I don’t have a very good credit score because I don’t use a lot of debt. So these things can really not just — There’s compound interest but then if you ding your credit that can have these compounding effects through your life. It can hurt your chances of getting an apartment, getting a job, getting credit on, half these in terms of moving forward.
So, we thought this might scuttle the idea of building a debtors union, right. But the thing is that people’s economic circumstances right now are so egregious that all bets are off. So one thing we do is we do not ever advocate for financial suicide, right? There has to be a strategy and that strategy has to be political. It has to be legal. There has to be a public education media component so that we can get mass support. And we want people to take risks as tactically as possible. So here’s what’s happening: a million student debtors, and I’m just talking about student debt. A million people default every year, but they do it individually and they do it awash in shame. So one thing we’re saying is, “Hey million people who are defaulting, step out of the shadows and become a political force.”
Then there are other ways that you can go on forbearance or income based repayment that can put you in a different point where maybe you can do other kinds of political organizing around the issue. There’s also the possibility of dispute. So, what we’ve done at the debt collective is create all of these debt dispute tools that can assist people who are already in default, who are seeing their taxes and wages and Social Security being garnished, dispute those garnishments. What’s fascinating about this is, these are legal rights we have on the books, but the government’s made it so hard to enact them that only a handful — I’m talking eight people a year — dispute these injustices. But our app, which you can use it on a mobile phone —
JS: Did you say eight people a year?
AT: Yeah, like literally eight. People who are having their money that they need to feed their families garnish, but our app makes it so that it’s easy. It’s effortless, and we do the difficult work for you. So what we can do is flood the government with tens of thousands of disputes and this is the strategy we did with our debt strike where we found this little known aspect of the Higher Education Act called Defense to Repayment. And it’s basically the right, if you are defrauded, you have the right to dispute your debt and get cancellation. But the government never wrote the rules and never made it clear how people could do it. So we built this app, again, a web-based tool and our dream, our aspiration was that 50 people, one person from each state, would submit. And we have since seen, I think, now it’s 200,000 Defense to Repayment submissions. And in fact, our app was so good that basically the Department of Education stole it, like took this thing a bunch of Occupiers had made and just put it on their website.
JS: So, you’re saying Betsy DeVos now controls your app?
AT: [Laughs.] Well, now through this, our partners at Harvard University who run a project on predatory student lending were in multiple lawsuits against DeVos. But the point is that we’re also trying to find the rights people have on the books that they’re just not able to exercise efficiently given the current conditions and the fact that basically bureaucracy is weaponized by the powerful. We’re trying to say, “OK, how can we use bureaucracy to our advantage? How can we politicize it?” And instead of reinforcing this neoliberal idea, like, “Oh, it’s just you and your individual dispute, how can we collectivize the process, and politicize it and be more aggressive and creative with it and just raise the floor in terms of the demands?
I mean, a few years back, Elizabeth Warren made headlines by saying, “Hey, maybe we should lower the interest rates on student loans, right. I mean, the big banks get to borrow — Sorry, maybe we should, reduce the interest rates on student loans, because the big banks borrow from the Fed, for next to nothing, right? So, why should students be allowed to? That was great, but why stop there? That’s why I’m so happy the conversation now is just cancel it. It’s unjust. It’s basically odious to use the kind of legal term. It shouldn’t exist in the first place. It’s not what a democratic society should be. It’s actually holding back the economy. Let’s get rid of it and just have a conversation. To me that’s like, have a conversation that’s actually rational.
JS: Now, I know you were inspired in a lot of ways by the anti-corporate globalization movement. And I mean, people often refer to 1999 in Seattle, when the World Trade Organization was meeting there. And I know that you know this, but just for context for other people — activists throughout the “global south” had been mobilizing on these issues for a very long time and ’99 in Seattle was when a lot of people from the global north started to pay more attention to these issues. But if we take that as a starting off point to talk about where we are now from ’99 to the present, we’ve been through periods when there’s been a lot of organizing, a lot of hope, a lot of activism, and certainly Occupy represented that the anti-war movement flaring up on the eve of the invasion and occupation of Iraq was another moment organizing in 2004 against Bush.
But a lot of oxygen got sucked out of the room and in this country, in part because of the Democratic Party co-opting people and folding them in either to John Kerry’s operation or to Barack Obama’s operation. But now it seems like we were in a different kind of space where you have so many young people that aren’t corrupted by that history, but are benefiting from the lessons they’ve learned and refusing to listen to anyone’s rules about organizing particularly on climate.
But we also have seen it very recently in this city in New York City, with people jumping the turnstiles en mass which is an amazing action because of the paramilitary response that the New York Police Department has unleashed on people for jumping turnstiles, and I’m sure people have seen this video of like a SWAT-style operation with guns drawn against a single African American man sitting on the subway. But talk about that, this moment that we’re in where we’re not just seeing those kinds of actions but the climate strike, uprising in Chile, uprising in Lebanon, uprisings in Iraq. It seems like we’re at another one of those moments in history where there’s a lot of fires, and some of them are good fires.
AT: Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, I’d love to hear what you think is the legacy of the battle in Seattle, because it is 20 years on almost to the day, we’re getting close, right? And for me, I wasn’t there, but I had a professor — I was like, 19 and I had this professor and he was like, “Oh, did you guys see the news today?” and held up the New York Times. And that just knowing that that was happening was such an educational moment for me because I started to read about global trade deals, right? I started to think about internationalism. I started to think about workers rights. I started to think about the Teamster-Turtle alliance, right, this alliance that was being forged in Seattle, between environmentalists and workers that, I think, seem to be exactly where we’re still trying to go.
JS: I’ll never forget José Bové and the French farmers and people from peasant movements around the world with Teamsters marching down the street. I mean, I was there and I was just starting off in journalism, but it’s very similar to what you’re describing. Just, it was like opening a tiny door and realizing there’s a whole universe on the other side of it. You think it’s just a small door, but when you peek through it, you realize there’s an incredible universe you never knew existed and it was organic and growing as you watched it.
AT: Yeah, and the liberal establishment didn’t like it.
JS: Oh, they hated it. Remember Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton was president at the time. I mean, it was the Democratic Party in the United States that really was defending these horrible, corrupt, violent, murderous institutions around the world.
AT: Yeah, I mean, and so that, I mean, I thought about WTO protests when I was at those Trump rallies. It’s like, he’s able to step into this vacuum and rail against NAFTA because the Clinton administration not only passed NAFTA but then also could not hear the message of the global justice movement. And so, part of me is like, we’re in this amazing moment right now, let’s not be talking about it 20 years hence and going, “Wow, that was a really interesting opening. But those right-wing plutocrats, and their liberal allies squashed the moment.” I think there are things about this moment that are kind of scarier but also stronger. And I see that as, just like you’re saying that there’s a generation I think that seems to be more comfortable with an inside-outside strategy, right. And is willing to support candidates — I mean, part of it is that there are people running incredible campaigns, but candidates like Bernie Sanders and AOC and Ilhan Omar and all of these people we see at the local level who don’t get the media, right? Socialist judges in Houston, Texas —
JS: District attorneys.
AT: District attorneys, right, and saying, “Hey, actually, you know what, let’s not be afraid of taking power.” I think that’s the big difference to me between now and 20 years ago is it’s like at a certain point, you’re like, this whole thing of like we’re going to just protest without taking power is actually not working. We need to be willing to try to take power and to not just be ingovernable, but to govern, we need to remake this machine that’s crushing people, and not just think we can be outside of it. So, I think that’s a learning that seems to be really significant. But I also think it’s really interesting how when you look at these global protests, how, again, it’s just like 2011, in a way, it’s like, they’re happening in radically different contexts. Some are happening against autocratic regime, some are happening in electoral democracies, but basically, people’s complaints are pretty universal. It’s like corruption, massive inequality, the lack of workers rights, a lack of concern for the environment, just a lack of basic dignity. And this is to me, this is to go back to democracy. This is the motor of democracy. This is what, democracy is not just procedures and elections, it is this moment where people come together as a kind of politicized philosophical public and are like what kind of world do we want to live in?
JS: On that point, you also have argued that we — I’m trying to find your phrase here — You argue that we face the challenge of saving democracy from capitalism.
AT: Yeah, 100 percent. I mean, I think this goes back to those conservatives, right, who knew capitalism was on their side and who were mocking, I mean, literally mocking democracy to my face. So what is, yeah, what is the number one threat to democracy? I mean, what does capitalism do? It concentrates wealth. And when you have the concentration of wealth that concentrates power, I mean, democracy is this vague word the Demos hold Kratos, the people in power and who the people are is always open for debate. We’ve seen the people evolve in this country in dramatic ways. How we rule is also open. Is it representative? Are there there direct aspects? Is it through elections? Is it through selections and sortition? How do we rule? Is it in our workplaces? Is it in our schools? Is it just in the political sphere?
So, but I think capitalism — So capitalism undermines that political equality that democracy demands. But it’s not just inequality. The thing that I think is driving me more and more, the thing that is making me more and more frustrated with capitalism and why we’re breaking up, is that it controls investment. It’s that aspect too. It’s not just that it degrades workers, that it exploits people, that it exploits the environment at ever intensifying rates, that it wraps us in these chains of debt that limit our futures, that it modifies education, commodifies healthcare, commodifies our personal relationships. Instead, it also says, “Hey, you know what? I don’t want to invest in free, wonderful, universal transit systems. I want to invest in Uber.” And so all of these things that we need to live and to thrive are just like — the [capital] is there, but it’s not there. And so I think that’s a major problem.
JS: Also our pensions, retirement, the whole system. I mean, there was there was some article on CNBC the other day that said that it was some “expert” advising millennials should be saving 40 to 50 percent of their pay in a retirement account if they want to have a decent retirement. I mean, that’s scandalous. We’ve completely eliminated any sense of stability. If you’ve worked your whole life, there is no social promise that you’re going to be able to even just live an okay existence.
AT: But even worse than that, your money, your retirement account is going to be invested in things that are deeply problematic —
JS: Oh, I’m with you 100 percent. I’m just saying that the system requires both of these things. You have to have your retirement. I mean, you can there are socially responsible funds and blah, blah, blah, but to find your way through all of that, and if it’s even real at the end of the day, it’s not even worth it. But you’re like Exxon Mobil, all these horrible corporations, you’re depending on them now for your ability to not be eating cat food in your retirement? I mean, it’s insane that we’ve done this in this country. It’s insane.
AT: I think that’s how finance works so that we are all “invested” into our own destruction, right? Because this is the whole thing. It’s like, yes, buy a house, but you better pray that it appreciates in value and invest in the stock market for your retirement, you better pray that you retire when it’s high. And I think what’s interesting about this generation that’s turning to the left and saying capitalism sucks, is that that social contract is just not working out for them even on the most basic level, right? Because of their student debt, they can’t buy a house. So that bet is off.
JS: Or often food.
AT: Or often food, right, and because they’re not paid enough, they’ll never be able to put this 40 percent aside for retirement that you’re saying. Then it’s like, well fuck it, why shouldn’t retirement be decommodified? Like why should I have to save my whole life? And so that’s where I think there is this opening for a new political imagination and we’re seeing it. We’re seeing it when just as you said, 1,000 people get together and jump the turnstiles in New York saying from Santiago to New York City, public transit should be free. And just saying all these issues are connected: racism, imperialism, climate change, the fact that we can’t fucking afford to ride the subway. The fact that 20 percent of our fare every time we swipe our subway card goes to some debt payment to Wall Street. Like, no, this whole thing’s broken.
JS: Astra Taylor, thank you very much for joining us.
AT: Hey, thanks for having me.