That’s the idea. In 2019, more than three quarters of U.S. households were holding some type of debt. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, 1 in 4 adults are now struggling to pay household bills. But debt in U.S. culture is typically treated as an individual liability or a personal failure. The idea of a debtors’ union turns that experience on its head — reframing indebtedness as a shared problem and a source of collective power. Think of a saying attributed to 20th-century industrialist J. Paul Getty: “If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.” Toppling the financial architecture of late capitalism is indeed a tall order. The most prominent organization of its kind, the Debt Collective, organizes on several fronts.
In 2008, around the same time Lehman Brothers collapsed and the mortgage market began to melt down, I got a call telling me my student loans were in default. I remember trying to grasp the logic as I spoke to the collector. Because I didn’t have money, they were increasing my principal by 19 percent. My balance ballooned, as did my monthly payments, which meant I was even more broke than before. My credit score tanked, further compounding my financial woes. When I got involved in Occupy Wall Street a few years later, I realized my situation was hardly unique. Most people drawn to the encampments were also in the red.