On Loans

New York Review of Books

In October 2011 Jeff Madrick wrote a dispatch from Zuccotti Park for the Review. Three weeks after protesters had first converged there under the banner “Occupy Wall Street,” he found that the movement—initially mocked in the media for its youth and unseriousness—was coming into its own. “It is likely their direct influence on the nation’s lawmakers and the media is underestimated,” Madrick noted, speculating that they would eventually “develop specific demands, or perhaps a set of desired reforms”—reforms like “more equal educational possibilities, and student loan relief.”

At the time, calls for student loan forgiveness seemed destined to end in compromise. Two weeks after Madrick’s essay was published, President Obama ordered that, “starting in 2014, borrowers will be able to reduce their monthly student loan payments to 10 percent of their discretionary income.” The Occupy activists persisted—forming the Debt Collective, a union of debtors; launching debt strikes; and buying up millions of dollars of debt and cancelling it. And in 2020, Astra Taylor, one of the founders of the Debt Collective and a veteran of Occupy, wrote a qualified endorsement of Joe Biden for president, observing:

Under pressure from activists—with whom lines of communication are at least open—he has made concessions on a range of issues, including the Debt Collective’s demand for student debt cancellation. (He has committed to $10,000 of student loan forgiveness per borrower and promised bankruptcy reform in favor of debtors, a striking reversal for the former senator from Delaware, the nation’s credit card capital.)

And so on Wednesday President Biden announced a plan for the Department of Education to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student debt for anyone making less than $150,000 a year.

“Responsible citizens did not like Occupy,” wrote the artist Molly Crabapple in September 2021, observing the tenth anniversary of the protests in the Review. “At a moment when cops were gleefully cracking skulls, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show devoted an entire segment to mocking the occupiers. We were stupid, dirty hippies…. We had iPhones and drank lattes, like hypocrites. We knew nothing. We didn’t want to work. We did not participate sufficiently in electoral politics. We did not make proper demands.”

Like Taylor, Crabapple had been a regular in Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011. In her reflections on the experience of the protests (accompanied by some of the art she made there), she recalls the romance and beauty of the movement, weighed against the devastation of being “outflanked, outlasted, or bloodily crushed” by the police. But in an interview for our “Brief Encounters” series, Crabapple elaborated:

If one views success as the existence of Occupy-branded protest camps across the world ten years later, Occupy certainly failed. But issues that Occupy championed, such as student debt forgiveness, bans on evictions, single payer healthcare, an end to the murderous war on terror, are no longer fringe. They are mainstream. This is Occupy’s success.

“There is a growing feeling,” wrote David Graeber in his essay “Against Economics” (December 5, 2019), “among those who have the responsibility of managing large economies, that the discipline of economics is no longer fit for purpose. It is beginning to look like a science designed to solve problems that no longer exist.”

A planner and facilitator at Occupy Wall Street’s earliest moments, Graeber was an economic anthropologist and anarchist who wrote about historical social inequality and the persistence of debt. “Against Economics” challenges the prevailing notions that printing money will cause inflation or falling unemployment will drive up wages, ascribing these theories to a sclerotic school of economic thought convinced that its equations are “universal, unimpeachable mathematical truths.”

Graeber died suddenly in September 2020, aged fifty-nine. The Review published a collection of tributes from his friends and colleagues, including Marshall Sahlins, Debbie Bookchin, Astra Taylor, and Molly Crabapple. “David changed my life, and he did it without my realizing it,” wrote Taylor.

In August 2011 he tried to get me to go to the planning meetings of what would become Occupy Wall Street. I shrugged it off, but promised to come to the first day of the protest. I did…. He didn’t push me into the movement, but he kept opening doors that I kept walking through, steadily becoming more deeply involved and invested. Before long, he had roped me into to an initiative that would be known as “Strike Debt.” One of our opening salvos was a propaganda video featuring a dozen of our friends in balaclavas dancing around a burning trashcan igniting their debt notices; David can be spotted amongst the throng and wrote the voice-over. Those were the early days of a project we called the Rolling Jubilee—David named the effort—that bought portfolios of debt in order to abolish them, erasing tens of millions of dollars overdue medical bills and payday loans belonging to tens of thousands of people.

In a 2013 review of Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Robert Kuttner found a fitting epigram: “[Graeber] quotes the classical historian Moses Finley as saying that in the ancient world all revolutionary movements had a single program: ‘Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.’”

For everything else we’ve been publishing, visit the Review’s website. And let us know what you think: send your comments to; we do write back.

Leave a Reply