Chapter Twenty

No Money, Big Problems

By supporting the work of legal advocates while continuing to build our online platform, the Debt Collective working group was essentially engaged in an expansion of our organization. At the same time, the prospect of raising money to support that expansion was becoming less likely. Collecting membership dues as soon as possible was one solution–one we had always intended to implement. Though “member-funded” was a popular rallying cry on the Left, it also grated on me that poor people were expected to finance the building of their own organizations when foundations and philanthropies were flush with cash. Given that concern, going from the idea of dues to actually asking for money from low-income debtors was a step that I felt uncomfortable taking. My colleagues and I knew our members well. We knew how hard it would be for most of them to come up with monthly dues payments–money some would have to spend on top of the volunteering they were already doing to help build the Debt Collective.

One of the ways we tried to sidestep the issue was by continuing to fundraise while doing all we could to grow our membership. Millions of people were in debt, and they were not all poor. By expanding our base, we hoped to recruit members who could more easily contribute monetarily to the organization. Receiving enough short-term support to meet that goal, though, had begun to seem like a long shot. One reason was that two foundations that had supported us in the past, or had suggested that they wanted to do so, were now turning us away.

One of the organizations was a mid-sized foundation that I’ll call East Coast. In its mission statement, EC said that it funded groups that provided economic assistance to “women, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals.” The Debt Collective was enthusiastic about and in a good position to help EC meet that goal. After all, we were working primarily with former for-profit college students who were disproportionately women. Of the original fifteen Corinthian strikers, for example, only two were men. Indeed, for-profit colleges were widely known to target women. In Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom described how the schools preyed on low-income mothers who wanted to improve their families’ lives. Another academic study had reported an astonishing statistic: between 2009 and 2012, 30% of all single mothers enrolled in college were attending a for-profit institution.

Despite the reality that for-profit schools had practically been designed to extract money from poor women, and even in light of the fact that the Debt Collective had already won more than a billion dollars in relief, East Coast questioned whether women were really being helped by our work. After issuing us a small grant in 2017, the program officer began asking for detailed information about the debtors who benefitted from our services. In particular, she wanted to know how many of those people fit into the organization’s preferred demographic categories. But we did not have data about the gender identities of everyone on our membership rolls. It was impossible to know, for example, how many of the tens of thousands of people who had used our Defense to Repayment application to dispute their loans could be categorized as women, non-binary or gender non-conforming. Were we supposed to have required borrowers to share that information before receiving our services? Should we have asked anyone who logged on to use one of our dispute tools to check a gender box? Or Perhaps East Coast was suggesting that we review our membership rolls and assume that anyone with a feminine sounding name identified as a woman and that no one with a male-sounding name did? Should we call each person to confirm?

It would have been ridiculous for a small staff like ours to do that kind of detective work, especially considering East Coast’s donation had not been substantial enough to pay for the labor that such an effort would require. Partly as a result of our lack of hard data on the gender identity of Debt Collective members, specifically those who had benefitted from the Corinthian campaign, East Coast informed us in 2019 that it would no longer be supporting us.

While one foundation dedicated to gender justice made it harder for us to assist women with student debt, another donor blindsided us by taking issue with basic facts about the racial identity of student debtors. In 2017, the Debt Collective was on a path to receiving a grant from another foundation which I’ll call Manhattan Partners. The following winter, however, we were informed that everything had changed. The program officer informed us that our proposal had been rejected by the board of directors. A major reason for the rejection was the racial identity of student debtors. Specifically, we had stated in our proposal that black people were more likely to have student debt than whites and that black borrowers had more trouble paying off their loans once they left college. These facts were all well-documented in the literature on student debt. To further demonstrate the depths of racial disparities and why they mattered, we cited a study by the St. Louis Fed which showed that black college degree holders had lost more wealth during the recession of 2009 than families headed by a white person without a college degree. In other words, black people had more student debt than white people at the same time that a diploma offered them no protection from economic calamity.

The recitation of these statistics had not pleased the MP board. “You can’t say that race is a seminal issue when it comes to debt,” the program officer explained. “It sounds like you’re saying that the white guys who lend money are racists.” Though many lenders were racist (the 2008 financial crisis had proved as much), we had not presented the statistics on race and debt to indict individual creditors. Instead, we sought to demonstrate that anyone who cared about addressing racial disparities in income and wealth should also care about ending mass indebtedness. Unfortunately, making this claim in our funding proposal was another miscalculation. Two years earlier, foundations had been skittish about the Debt Collective’s support for government spending–an obvious solution to the problem of people taking out loans for basic needs. Now MP’s board was scared away by a simple statement of the facts with regard to which groups in society were most burdened by student debt. When it came to securing funding from wealthy donors, it felt like we were moving in reverse.

*****

My experience trying to raise money for the Debt Collective rekindled my sympathies for the horizontalism of Occupy Wall Street at the same time that the limitations of that philosophy were becoming even more apparent. Foundations were another type of organization, not unlike many government agencies, debt collectors, landlords and employers, which exercised what felt like arbitrary authority. The violence perpetuated by such entities was one reason the founders of Occupy had eschewed big institutions and top-down organization in favor of loosely affiliated networks. Comrades. The desire to live outside the shadow of oppressive behemoths–to “live as if we are already free”–explained why so many were drawn to a movement devoted, at least in theory, to abolishing hierarchy. Though still sympathetic to that view, my organizing work had given me an up-close view of how oligarchs themselves wielded power via hierarchical institutions devoted to their interests. How could the Debt Collective, not to mention the Left more broadly, navigate this dynamic?

There were signs that Black Lives Matter was caught in a similar bind between centralization and non-hierarchy. In Jacobin, the scholar Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor described how BLM had decentralized in recent years. Groups around the country were still protesting police violence but in a largely uncoordinated fashion. “The BLM movement claimed to have no leaders, embracing the ‘horizontalism’ of its Occupy predecessor,” Taylor wrote. The author of a book on the movement and its connection to a tradition of black radicalism, she lamented BLM’s diffusion into local networks without legible national leadership. “The issue is not whether there are leaders,” she explained, “it is whether those leaders are accountable to those they represent.” Taylor’s call for accountable leadership on the political Left resonated. I thought she was exactly right. At the same time, before the kind of democracy she was calling for could be practiced, member-led organizations would have to be built. In my experience, the barriers (financial, legal, and technical) to that effort were obvious and surmounting them was a step that had to be taken before theorizing about movement democracy could be conducted with any seriousness.  

Another critique of Black Lives Matter further complicated the picture. It had been articulated a few years earlier by Darren Seals, a prominent anti-police brutality activist in Ferguson, MO, the city many considered to be the birthplace of the movement. I first learned about Seals after his death which had occurred under mysterious circumstances. His bullet-riddled body had been found inside his car which had been set ablaze. Many local residents suspected the police had something to do with his death. A close friend of Michael Brown’s family, Seals had helped to organize some of the first protests in Ferguson.

In the months after BLM launched, Seals had lashed out against those Black Lives Matter activists who had descended on his hometown from around the country in the summer of 2014. The media spotlight, he said, not necessarily a commitment to ending police violence, had drawn cynical social climbers to Ferguson. Such “Twitter revolutionaries,” he said, were only interested in burnishing their personal reputations as movement spokespeople and in raising money for organizations from which they benefitted. “They are eating off Mike Brown’s death,” Seals claimed. Back in 2013, Strike Debt organizers had been accused of organizing around the concerns of privileged white people. Seals was making a different point: he insisted that activism could itself be a site of brand building and career advancement for people with know-how, ambition, and the right connections.

How could Taylor’s and Seals’ concerns about leadership, accountability, and class ambitions in social movements be taken into account by those who wanted to build organizations dedicated to advancing the interests of workers and debtors? I had not seen many analysts on the Left, whether they were academics or media stars, grapple in a serious way with such questions.      

A Left that felt fractured and powerless was one reason that Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run for the presidency had been so exhilarating. Though his campaign had not been a membership organization per se, its goal was clear: getting the Senator into the Oval Office. Anyone who supported that mission was part of the movement. By uniting people around that simple goal, the Sanders’ campaign expanded the political terrain. The Senator tapped into widespread anger about inequality and the refusal of both mainstream political parties to do anything about it. Using language that I had never heard uttered by a Presidential candidate, the seventy-five-year-old Sanders had railed against “the millionaires and billionaires that controlled the US economy” and had invited everyone to join what he called a “political revolution” that would redistribute power from the rich to the rest of us. He supported social programs like universal healthcare and free public education and promised to tax the rich to pay for them. In the realm of criminal punishment, he favored legalizing marijuana, ending harsh sentences for drug-related offenses, and shutting down private prisons. Just as impressive as his policy proposals was Sanders’s refusal to take money from wealthy donors. He relied, instead, on millions of small donations.

Though Sanders ultimately lost the nomination to the former First Lady that year, his rhetoric decrying inequality and a national politics that favored the rich had emboldened people. Calling himself a “democratic socialist,” Sanders introduced a new generation, many of whom had been too young to have participated in Occupy Wall Street just five years earlier, to the idea that the federal government could act in the interest of ordinary people in big ways–if it was pressured to do so. In a sign of his influence, the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization which had less than 10,000 members in 2015, counted over 60,000 two years later.

For the Debt Collective, which was at that point deep in a battle for debt relief for former for-profit college students, this was promising new political terrain. The path to mass loan cancellation–not to mention universal healthcare and other public goods–almost certainly required someone like Sanders in the White House. And in 2016 he almost got there.

Where the influence of the new “Sanders Left” reverberated most profoundly was in the media. From books and magazines to social streams and podcasts, the Senator’s run for the nation’s highest office helped to spark an increase in news and culture content made by and for the newly radicalized. The era had arguably begun back in 2011 with the emergence of Jacobin Magazine, an avowedly socialist publication. The journal’s early issues spoke to a young readership that, not unlike former for-profit college students, was struggling to reconcile promises of professional success with the reality of wage stagnation and debt.

Unlike Corinthian debtors, though, Jacobin’s readers were more likely to have attended traditional, even elite, colleges where they received the kind of education that debtors like Latonya Suggs and Ann Bowers had no way of knowing they were not getting at Corinthian. Members of this class had helped to popularize the Sanders campaign. Their visibility, especially after 2016, contributed to a sense that the Left was finding a new voice, that it was on the rise. It was hard to deny that something was happening. Occupy Wall Street activists had been dismissed as confused idealists, with many afraid to admit publicly that they might consider joining a student debt strike. Thanks in part to Jacobin, the word ‘socialism’ had achieved an air of respectability–even a dash of bohemian cool–at least in the gentrified enclaves of Brooklyn and places like it. Dumbstruck by the swiftness of this transformation, I had the feeling that I didn’t quite understand what it meant.

The trend line was hard to miss. Even mainstream publications had begun to produce content for young leftists. Teen Vogue was one of the first. In 2018, for example, the fashion magazine for teenagers published a profile of Karl Marx. It also began running columns with titles such as “How to Critique Capitalism From your iPhone.” Though it was surprising at first to see such headlines in between celebrity interviews and discussions of fashion trends, the articles were so common that they became a running joke on social media where they were sometimes referred to as “clickbait communism.”

Whatever the reason for Teen Vogue’s new identity, it seemed undeniable that a new era was upon us. By 2020, one of the magazine’s writers would call for mass student debt relief, noting that millions of borrowers were not paying and that drastic steps needed to be taken to protect young people from financial devastation.

The New Republic was perhaps the best example of how media companies seized the moment. In print since 1914 and long considered a bastion of liberal thought and analysis, the magazine’s editorial line had turned rightward in recent decades. Starting in the 1990s, the editor-in-chief spoke out in favor of a “muscular” US foreign policy and many of the journal’s contributors wrote in support of the Iraq War. During that decade, TNR attracted controversy when it printed an excerpt from the The Bell Curve, an odious book by Charles Murray and Richard J. Hernstein which purported to show a genetic link between race and intelligence. By the year 2000, especially after the Iraq war had turned out to be one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in modern history, TNR’s reputation was in shambles and its readership in decline.

By 2019, the magazine was forging another path. That year TNR published an entire issue devoted to socialism. Pitched as a fair-minded analysis of a surprising new trend, the issue featured articles by several well-known leftist writers. One essay was penned by my Debt Collective collaborator, Astra Taylor. She informed TNR readers that young people were attracted to socialism because, unlike capitalism, it offered them a future. While admitting that any form of government worth being called socialist was still a long way off, she rightly asserted that getting there required “build[ing] a mass base” of people from all corners of the country. Though reading about socialism in TNR was of course a poor substitute for the real thing, I figured the journal’s move was a sign of something–but of what?

Media outlets and online channels proliferated in a way that was almost surreal given where the decade had started. Beginning in 2016, it seemed that every time I logged onto social media, I saw a clip from a new Youtube show or a podcast featuring (mostly) young leftists offering commentary and criticism on politics and culture. Among the most popular of the era was Chapo Trap House, a podcast founded by three Millennial men in Brooklyn. A combination of clever commentary on the political news of the day and bracing screeds against liberals, Chapo was a smash hit that made its hosts rich. I listened for the thrill that I got from hearing the trio mock arrogant politicians as well as out-of-touch elite media personalities. In a typical rant, one of the hosts announced that “if the democratic party was a serious party, everyone in a position of authority should turn in their resignations or fucking kill themselves.” After years of battling smug democrats for what ended up being a few crumbs of debt relief, this was a sentiment that I could never tire of hearing.

One day, I was struck by a comment made by Felix Biederman, one of the Chapo hosts. He explained why the podcast was so popular, especially among Millennial socialists. The show, he said, is “for people who see politics as more than just a linguistic group.” His co-host, Matt Christman, concurred and added that “Chapo offers the visceral thrill of listening to people who actually give a shit.” I thought back to 2011, when I had heard two writers, Natasha Lennard and Malcolm Harris, passionately defend Occupy Wall Street at Bluestockings bookstore. They had suffered for their support of the movement, with Lennard losing her gig at the New York Times and Harris getting arrested during a protest.

By 2018, though, both writers had landed on their feet. Lennard was back working for the Times’ op-ed page. The author of a book on anti-fascism, she also wrote for The Intercept, a Progressive outlet funded by a founder of the online shopping behemoth, eBay. For his part, Harris’s Occupy notoriety had helped to land him a major publishing deal. In 2017, Little Brown and Co. published his book on the politics of the Millennial generation. “Giving a shit,” in the words of Chapo’s Christman, may have come at a cost five years earlier. But former heretics were now enjoying a measure of mainstream success. One might even say that a new linguistic group had been born.

The Debt Collective also benefitted from the new terrain–at least in terms of increased visibility and recognition. In 2019, the style magazine GQ published a story that referenced the Corinthian strike and offered a pithy rationale for a national debtors organization. “Today, as labor participation rates fall and household indebtedness swells,” the author wrote, “the Debt Collective hopes that unions can offer 21st-century borrowers as big of a boost as they did to 20th-century workers.” I could not have said it better myself. In fact, I didn’t think I ever had.

Vindication continued with another article in The New Republic. In “The Radical Possibilities of Not Paying Your Student Loans,” Nick Martin summarized years of debtor organizing. He reminded readers that tens of millions of people owed a total of $1.7 trillion in student debt. He then proposed a solution straight out of Occupy Wall Street. “What if we, along with millions of others,” he wrote, “just stopped paying?” Even though I was quoted in the article, reading the finished piece made me dizzy. Martin had restated our old Occupy Student Debt Campaign provocation as a fresh idea for a new era of militancy. What if everyone just stopped paying? Was this a sign that the OSDC had been ahead of its time and that utterances once mocked as incoherent were finally making sense?

*****

As ideas that some had championed for years gained currency, my Debt Collective colleagues and I were still in the trenches helping individuals halt collections on fraudulent loans. Thomas Gokey had succeeded in stopping the Department of Education from illegally garnishing Jessica Madison’s wages. Now, he wanted to help the former Corinthian student win a refund for the money that had already been seized from her paychecks.

Having long since dispensed with administrative formalities and knowing full well that normal methods were unlikely to be persuasive, Gokey began sending a daily email to employees at the Department.

It has been 1,528 days since Jessica Madison filed her Defense to Repayment application. She still hasn't been refunded for the wages that were garnished on these fraudulent student loans. You've had 1,528 days. How many more days do you need?

The next day, he would send another message with the same text except the number would be one digit higher. Gokey vowed to send the same message every day until Madison got her refund.

He also took up the practice of sending the complete texts of literary works. In one email to Department staffers he included The Trial by Franz Kafka. The novel tells the story of Joseph K who is arrested by policemen who don’t know what he has done and can’t tell him with what he is being charged. K’s arrest leads him into a maze of government bureaucracy that eventually results in his death by stabbing–a death he almost welcomes as an escape from the nightmare.

In another message, Gokey included the complete text of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The play features two men alone on a country road who engage in increasingly absurd conversations while waiting for another man named Godot. At one point, boredom takes over and one of them announces: “Let’s not waste our time in idle discourse. Let’s do something!” Despite this declaration, the pair continue to do nothing. And Godot, of course, never arrives.

Gokey’s literary pestering eventually paid off. Madison finally received a partial reimbursement from the government. The joy in a (partial) victory did not last. A few months later, the 42-year old passed away from cancer, a disease that she had not known she had until it was too late. Before her untimely death, Madison shared a goodbye note with a friend who posted a portion of it on Facebook. “I am faced with the prospect of my own mortality,” she had written. “I have literally no wealth to divide up. If you would like my debts, feel free. But I wouldn’t wish them on anyone.” One of the original fifteen strikers, Madison’s death was a gut punch. Though she had won a measure of loan relief after years of tenacity, debt had plagued her until the end. We learned soon after her passing that Madison had felt unwell for months but had delayed seeing a doctor for fear of racking up medical debt.  

Chapter Twenty-One