Our book club is reading Debt, The First 5000 Years. A prompt before starting has been: “What is your professional and personal experience with the concept of debt?”. This is lightly adapted from my response:
My last decade or so of life has been conducted just a little bit under the shadow of Debt, (the book). I remember reading the Crooked Timber symposium on it when it came out, reading the back and forth in Jacobin, etc. I think I’ve read more criticism and reviews of the book than there are pages in the book itself.
In that decade, I’ve felt a need to have read the book, in the same way I feel the need to read Keynes, Piketty, and Marx’s Capital. If I haven’t read those, how else could I show my face in public and dare to have opinions?
But I haven’t read the book. That is, until now. (And I’m not finished yet!)
I also have had a relationship with debt, the improper noun.
My father’s business has depended on debt. Loans, rotating credit cards, etc, in order to fund the expansion of a small real estate business. And he’s been remarkably successful!
I grew up feeling afraid of repeating his feat, and then failing.
I went to my second (or fifth!) choice university to escape debt and high tuition.
I arguably ruined my first startup / my relationship with my best friend, in part, because we both paid ourselves high enough salaries to pay our university debt.
(This might a bit of a stretch. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I was so worried about paying off my university debt that it overhung my actions the entire time)
Debt has been a political topic I haven’t quite cracked. Post-Occupy, the group Strike Debt came out with the Debt Resistor’s Operations Manual. I remember poring over it. Feeling so excited. Part manual, part guide to “this is how the world works, you’re being screwed”. In my travels, I’d recommend it to strangers who were having debt problems. They often followed up to thank me.
I dimly know that debt has been used to reinforce the post-WWII US-centered order. That it has to do with oil, Confessions of An Economic Hitman, and private equity. That leveraged buyouts are bad. And that there’s a weird thing where people feel obligated to pay their debts but corporations are assumed to be allowed to default on them all the time.
But I haven’t, yet, stitched that into a holistic idea of how the world works.
I’ve been excited to read this book for a long time.
A lot is happening quickly. We are in big bold idea territory. History time.
What if we started a reading group that covered works by great thinkers on topics like: political economy, how power works, authoritarianism, crises, how business works from a sociological perspective, radical politics (pro and con)?
Would you be interested in something like that?
Turns out, a few people were interested. But there were a lot of questions for how one might structure a thing like this online. Would discussions be synchronous or asynchronous? What role would we have to writing? How much time and commitment would work for people?
So, I created a form to sign up. (Feel free to sign up yourself)! The responses, however, were split: there’s definitely a role for synchronous meetings / video, but disagreement on the role of text and async discussion. Some people wanted to use Slack. Others (like me) hate Slack.
So — how might we go deep, but also accommodate people’s desire for this not to turn into a chore? How might we stay off walled gardens (Facebook, Slack)? How could we end up with artifacts coming out of this, instead of just ephemeral conversation?
The thing you have to understand is simple: I’m used to failure. Failure, and, I suppose, betrayal.
Howard Dean didn’t win. In the end, he didn’t come close. He had a growing, internet-fueled movement of people (young and old but mostly young) doing crazy new innovative things for his campaign. He called out the cowardice, the infuriating (or was it chillingly) dystopian way that the democratic party was rubber stamping surveillance, the police state, the war. He lost.
The netroots didn’t win in 2008. Obama did. He grabbed the loyalty of the members of “the bloggers movement” away from the bloggers themselves. And even before he got elected, he reversed himself on FISA, on spying, and on the banks. His ads were about “tax cuts to corporations who ship jobs overseas”. He never really explained what that was about. His presidency, at least at first, was a weird disaster. All the organizations that clearly called out Bush-era corruption just stopped doing it when Obama ran the show. Directors told me in confidence that their funders threatened to quit if they even mildly opposed Obama. The federal government had an explicit policy of allowing millions of people to get their houses foreclosed on, as long as the banks were okay. After a bailout overseen on insanely generous terms, the Federal Reserve pumped money into any bank, hedge fund, holding company, even McDonalds it could find.
And the “normies” around me, the people who admirably opposed Bush and his excess, were silent.
And the NSA grew.
Nancy Pelosi wants to jail Edward Snowden. MIT and Eric Holder threw Aaron Swartz to the wolves. Zephyr Teachout lost to Andrew Cuomo. SEIU backed Andrew Cuomo. Tish James backed Andrew Cuomo.
And still the surveillance state grows.
Google and Facebook were meant to be foils to the corrupt venality of the Verizons and Comcasts of the world. VoteVets ended up endorsing Pete Buttigieg. Pete, who Mark Zuckerberg tried to steer engineering talent to. Pete, who vied with Kamala Harris to be America’s first red diaper baby president.
And Amazon shares Ring data with cops. And license plate readers are everywhere. And Facebook will comply with “all local laws and regulations”. And the surveillance state grows.
I remember Chris Dodd’s campaign in 2008. I remember Tim Tagaris, an early internet politics hotshot, running an honorable campaign about “restoring the constitution” post-Bush. Chris Dodd was the man behind the SOPA push that tried to shut down free speech on the internet to protect the MAFIAA.
Meanwhile, our man Howard Dean quietly became a corporate lobbyist. (And, weirdly, a shill for literal terrorists.)
Bernie didn’t win. Shahid didn’t win. Most Brand New Congress candidates didn’t win. Tom Geohegan didn’t win. Carl Sciortino didn’t win. Paul Wellstone died. Tom Periello didn’t win. Zephyr Teachout didn’t win over and over again. Eric Massa won, then … got weird. Russ Feingold lost twice.
And today Nancy Pelosi is trying to reauthorize the Patriot Act.
So, you see, Bernie (and Warren) losing now feels bad, but not a gut punch. I expected it.
There is comfort in this sense of fated doom. We lost not because we did something wrong, but because we did something right in a world that’s wrong. When we acknowledge the awesome might and baleful intentions of our enemies, when we point our fingers at the traitors in our midst, what we seek is not a clear-eyed reckoning of the battlefield, but freedom from guilt for failing to win. Lurking behind our dour pessimism is, at times, a desire to evade accountability for our own mistakes.
Let’s talk about mistakes. But let’s not do it from the perspective of a candidate in a race, because we are not candidates and we are not bound to only think about specific contests for power via a presidential primary system. If we do it right, candidates (politicians) are pawns on our chessboard, not the other way around.
I love your passion, and your energy, and your way of seeing how the world is just so disconcertingly bad. I love it, and sometimes I worry that I’m smothering it with my world-weariness, with my “hey, actually this thing you’re mad at is fine and normal”, or my “you’re mad at the wrong institution”. I wanted you to know why.
There’s a particular feeling you get when you start politics. Little respect for everyone in the field already: after all, they’re part of a failed system. A sense of camaraderie with other people who start at the same time as you: after all, you’re all fighting the same enemies! And then as time goes on, you see your heroes fail you. You lose respect for people you started out with (both institutions and elected officials). And you celebrate the victories you have, because if you don’t, you burn out.
So when we talk about how bad it was, and how far we’ve gone, and how certain people you don’t like are Actually Good, and have street cred, that’s why.
We thought we found One Weird Trick to fixing politics, and we were wrong.