On Friday,the group Debt Collective began its second mass student loan debt strike. The leftist organizers’ put student debt jubilee on the map during Occupy Wall Street and their legacy shines throughout progressive politics. Even serious presidential hopefuls like Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have taken up the mantle of erasing student debt.
“Congress built a self-destruct button into the heart of the student debt system. This means we could win a debt jubilee months from now!”
The organizers with Debt Collective offer more than just grassroots support for debt forgiveness: The group has come up with an actionable legal blueprint for making it happen — and fast. “The next president can cancel all student debt on day one,” said a statement from the Debt Collective. “Congress built a self-destruct button into the heart of the student debt system. This means we could win a debt jubilee months from now!”
Debt Collective’s approach to erasing student debt is based on using a Department of Education legal authority, under the 1965 Higher Education Act, to “compromise, waive or release” any claims it has against student debtors. A willing president could, without new legislation, immediately enact the cancellation of at least all public student debt.
While supposed pragmatists deem such plans as impractical and idealistic, progressive candidates are taking notice: This year, Warren became the first presidential hopeful to vow to use this exact executive authority to wipe away the majority of U.S. student debt.
We are closer than ever to making student debt erasure happen not because of policy wonks at think tanks or Senate offices, but rather because a grassroots movement organized behind an aim and then set about figuring out how to make it a reality.
“It is critical for people to understand that the grassroots does not just take ideas from on high and build support for them,” Ann Larson, a Debt Collective member currently on student debt strike told me by email. “Law and policy are just not that complicated, though elites like us to think that they are and that we should leave the real thinking up to the professionals. We refuse to do so.”
As for which presidential candidates might be up to the task, there seem to be two strong contenders: Warren and Sanders. While Warren has already pledged to use the authority, her debt forgiveness proposal is less robust than Sanders’s. In January, Sanders introduced a bill that would automatically cancel student loans that were made, insured, or guaranteed by the federal government. The different approaches are unsurprising; Warren has long supported a mode of governance through executive powers.
It’s nonetheless striking that a Democratic presidential candidate famed for detailed policy planning is proposing to use the little-known legal provision that the Debt Collective’s legal research helped bring to light. And the organizers are keen for Sanders to embrace a possible executive action plan, in recognition that a Republican majority in Congress will stymie progressive student debt legislation.
“A bold executive could instruct the secretary of education to immediately free 45 million people from the burden of student debt without having to ask Mitch McConnell’s permission.”
“A bold executive could instruct the secretary of education to immediately free 45 million people from the burden of student debt without having to ask Mitch McConnell’s permission,” Debt Collective’s Larson told me, referring to the Senate’s Republican leader. “We all know that the Senate in particular is as corrupt and racist and useless for anybody but the rich as any governing body on earth. The left should be looking for solutions that can help us win real gains without having to go through Congress.”
In 2015, the Debt Collective launched the first U.S. student-debt strike in history, collaborating with former student debtors who had attended predatory for-profit colleges. The 2015 debt strikers deployed a legal strategy enabling thousands of people to apply for and receive debt relief from the Department of Education, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars and counting. Approximately 25 million people are already not paying their student debts; the collective urges that people “politicize” this nonpayment and reject a logic that sees noncompliance with the debt system as moral and personal failure.
Yet this debt resistance movement has always been as committed to navigating the strictures of the given political, economic, and legal system as it has been to rhetorically rejecting its claims to legitimacy. The new strike campaign, initiated on Friday with a launch event at the University of California, Los Angeles, aims to support individuals in debt nonpayment, but again recognizes that a strike is only one tactic in the push for jubilee. “That is what it means to organize within already existing conditions,” Larson noted.
There are undeniably huge risks in staking a movement’s success on the election of the right president and putting full faith in any politician to deliver economic justice. That’s why the work of spreading the collective debt strike is as — if not more — crucial than delivering elegant and efficient solutions to elected and would-be elected officials.
In their two-pronged approach of economic disobedience combined with realpolitik know-how, the movement for debt resistance promotes a politics of critical realism, working within and against a rotten system. As a statement from Debt Collective this week put it, “if we leave this up to politicians, it is never going to happen. We need a mass movement to ensure student debt cancellation.” But the statement also emphasized that “we need to elect a president who will push the button.”