Freeing the Future
Anytime I walk on Commonwealth Avenue at Boston University where I teach, I see hundreds of students – blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics – rushing to their classrooms. And my heart breaks.
I ponder what American society and its economy are doing to them, to their future. America has caught them in a web weaved by the paradox of capitalism, and they know not what they do.
On the one hand, the market gives a sense of freedom and power to student-citizens. They shout, “I can do it!” On the other, late capitalism renders them fragile. Their social fabric is vulnerable, their inherited social institutions precarious. Debt has neutralized or closed off many future possibilities. The huge debt bearing down on students threatens to undermine their freedom and right to be active participants in the social life of their time.
Students are Branded
“I can do it” – that shout, that belief, embodies the perennial exuberance of youth. Yet the souls of too many young people have been captured and reformatted by capitalism’s ceaseless push for profit.1 The American financial apparatus and its university system have inscribed the promise to repay “infinite” debt on the minds and bodies of the students who walk up and down Commonwealth Avenue. Students are branded! Together capitalism and the marketplace university have burnt a creed into the souls and memories of these young adults, a creed that says good citizens keep their promise to repay debt, no matter how severe the burden.
The system has enormous, unbalanced power over students. What undergirds this economic dynamic is a relationship not of free, equal exchange but of debtor-creditor, a power relation that not only imposes particular modes of future behavior on students but renders them “guilty” even before they act, like Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial.2
Reinhold Niebuhr once stated that anywhere there is an imbalance of power, there is bound to be injustice. The injustice of the crushing debt burden on American students today – now more than $1.3 trillion – reflects a harsh asymmetry. American colleges in cahoots with late capitalism no longer promote only the nurture of skills and moral values fitted for life in capitalism, but also advance the production of student indebtedness.
We have entered a period in which debt peonage is coterminous with college education. The labor of students after graduation is now inevitably serf labor that feeds the wealth of creditors, rendering the student’s life and existential condition increasingly fragile. The college-student relationship is reshaped by the dictates of finance capital’s creditor-debtor relationship, which informs and contaminates other social relations. What philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari warned generally about the ascendancy of debt is now happening to the American college student: “Debt becomes a debt of existence, a debt of the existence of the subjects themselves. … ” In such a scenario, the debtor never quits repaying. The duty of debt becomes never-ending.3
Those of us who teach in expensive universities are seeing debt redefine the education of the heirs of American civilization. In the past, college education endued students not only with an ethos of effort and reward, but also with a sense of obligation to serve the common good. Today, the pressing obligation that looms over them is to honor their debts, perhaps also to assuage the guilt of having incurred debts. If in the past graduating students threw their caps into the air to signify freedom and the hope of soaring to greater heights, today they are “free” insofar as they can live their lives in ways that ensure the reimbursement of their loans.
A New Poster Child
From the 18th to the early 20th century, the poster children of exploitation under merchant capital were the degraded, subjugated, enslaved people of foreign lands by such trading and colonizing firms as the East India Company and the Royal Niger Company. In 19th-century England, in the early years of industrial capitalism, the showpiece of oppression and exclusion was the heavily exploited factory worker, the proletariat whose surplus value was expropriated by the bourgeoisie. Today, the face that represents the oppressed – the citizen whose future possibilities are expropriated before she even starts her life – is the American college student.
A sad irony in all this touches American churches. Many have been so engrossed in fighting battles for the other dire poster children that they have in many cases neglected the huddled masses of students yearning to breathe free.
What can the American churches do to stop the neglect of the debtor children in their midst? Let me suggest four economic reforms that churches should support.
First, congregations should press for the abolition of the charging of interest on student loans by all lending institutions. In the place of loan and interest repayments, every indebted student will agree, for five years, to pay back 10 percent of any personal income that is above the national median personal income level.
Second, churches should urge institutions to declare jubilee for a college graduate if by age 50, because of years of below-average earnings, she has not been able to complete five years of payments of the 10 percent of personal income that is above the national median personal income. At this point she is set free from student-loan obligations. Historically, when debts become excessive and undermine the survival of the financial system itself, we have restored the health of the system by cancellation or forgiveness. This is what we did in the 2008 financial crisis. There is no point holding on to student debts that cannot be repaid.
Third, congregations should support a national drive to set up a social education fund whereby every citizen of working age pays 2 percent (or an appropriate progressive rate) of his annual income to help subsidize students’ education.
Finally, churches should mount a sustained campaign to put pressure on all colleges to decrease their tuitions and fees, and to provide free education in all public colleges.
Alleviating the burden of student loan debt is the prime duty of all social-justice-committed citizens and institutions. Doing so will generate wealth for all. Doing so will make America greater.
Nimi Wariboko is the Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at the Boston University School of Theology. His scholarship focuses on five main areas: economic ethics, Christian social ethics, African social traditions, Pentecostal studies, and philosophical theology. His books include God and Money: A Theology of Money in a Globalizing World (Lexington Books, 2008) and The Charismatic City and the Public Resurgence of Religion (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). He is also co-editor of Paul Tillich and Pentecostal Theology (Indiana, 2015).
- Nimi Wariboko, Economics in Spirit and Truth: A Moral Philosophy of Finance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
- Maurizio Lazzarato, Governance by Debt (Semiotext(e), 2015).
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Penguin, 2009), pp. 197–98, italics in the original. See also Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (2012).