Our present moment of political upheaval differs from the ‘60s in at least one crucial regard. The antiwar protests on U.S. campuses, for example, happened within an economic boom. Now we have a global capitalist system: everywhere in general and nowhere in particular. This is much more challenging to picket, blockade or write songs about: “Masters of War” is a lot catchier than “Masters of New Forms of Exploitation in an Era of Declining Profits.”
But that is exactly what student loans are. Banks make money in one way, endlessly disguised: they buy income streams at a discount. Your future income comes from laboring. So when banks have no routes for profitable investment in the present, they must buy your future labor. That’s all that debt is: the sale of some portion of your life to the bank, at bargain prices. Those who cannot trace the contours of that misery lack all imagination. There is a reason that every revolution features, early on, the destruction of debt records. Debt is unfreedom’s financial form.
The university does well in this deal. If you can be made to exchange your future life for present cash — a trillion in outstanding student loans! — the university can raise its tuition much faster than if there were no banks involved, and much faster than its costs are increasing. The astonishing fee hikes require the presence of banks in your public education. Profit increases education costs. It doesn’t lower them.
Mario Savio’s famous speech included the invocation, “We don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone!” He did not have the foresight to add “banks.” But what he describes is precisely what is now happening: The university is selling students to the bank because it’s the only way to generate more income from students who don’t otherwise have it.
That’s privatization, and it must stop. Those hours and years of your only life now owned by the bank, when you could be talking to friends, going to movies, caring for loved ones — they are not necessary for you. They are necessary for the bank.
This is why shutting down the bank of campus is not just a sensible idea but an obvious first step in reclaiming education. The bank is not only profiting, but it is also the emissary of the profit motive; it does nothing else. Perhaps the closing of this small branch is purely symbolic; it won’t end global capitalism, after all.
But perhaps it’s something more. Everybody starts small. You fight where you can. The fact that there are ten thousand banks doesn’t mean you don’t begin with one — it means you do. Closing a single recruiting center wasn’t going to end the military, but one by one, such closings helped end the war. The bank is fighting a war on your future, and for the moment the university is collaborating — on the wrong side.
That can be changed; this fight can be won. It turns out to be impeccably easy: you just have to sit down in front of a door. Of course, we know that sitting down on this campus is not terribly safe; we know that administrators and cops will eventually be sent to impose every scheme for extracting more from students. This alone should make it clear what the sides are, and what it means to take the side of the administrators, the cops and the purchasers of our lives. We have seen them clearly this year, their ways and their indecency. Which side are you on?
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