The Rolling Jubilee and the “economically oppressed”

In reading some of the back and forth on the Rolling Jubilee, I have noticed some folks talking past one another, and I think I know why. There is some legitimate disagreement about who should be regarded as the economically oppressed. While often it is not important really to specifically sketch out that category, the Rolling Jubilee’s focus on debt actually makes defining the category relevant.

On the more Marxist side of things (read Doug Henwood), the economically oppressed are working people. They are oppressed insofar as they are coerced by ownership relationships to perform uncompensated labor, and owners receive the fruits of that labor. Under this picture, debt is obviously a strange focus. Debt plays many roles in the economy, and the rich and poor carry it alike. To the extent that debt afflicts working class people, it is only a secondary affliction: it is what happens to working class people because the capitalists abscond with their product.

On the more wishy-washy leftism side of things (read subjective experiences, all feelings are valid, anti-oppression, and so on), the economically oppressed are those who — owing to economic forces — feel trapped, burdened, and are otherwise unsatisfied with their economic situation. On that view, debt makes a lot of sense as a focus. As Mike Konczal points out, many of the personal stories shared in the aftermath of occupy centered debt as the antagonistic force in their lives. If those are the subjective experiences going around — and negative subjective experiences define the economically oppressed — then there you have it: debt is the name of the game.

Finally, for the more egalitarian leftists (read me), defining the economically oppressed pretty much starts and ends with looking at distributional tables. You are economically oppressed if you are on the lower end of the economic ladder. Distribution of income and wealth is not the only thing, but it’s the main thing. Under that view (as with the Marxists), debt is a strange focus and only comes in really as a secondary issue. As I explained earlier, debt finds itself at all levels of the distribution, rich and poor alike. To the extent that it is a problem for the poor, it is a problem for them because they are poor, not because they have debt.

This first-principles dispute about how to count the economically oppressed is not the only thing at issue in the discussion of course. There are the empirical questions surrounding Rolling Jubilee’s presentation of the economic system: most parties in the discussion admit even if begrudgingly that this “debt system” stuff is real weird. And there are the strategic questions about how effective this will be at mobilizing anything significant in its wake.

But putting those issues aside for a moment, I think a non-trivial amount of the disconnect going on is the result of these more subtle first-principles fissures inside the left. You can be sure that most of the younger folks involved in this campaign and this discussion subscribe to the subjective experiences approach to defining the economically oppressed. That is where the zeitgeist seems to be for them. Others who hold different views of economic oppression will find the whole thing a little off-center, but that is the result of their different theoretical starting points more than anything else.