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Debt Crises and Democratic Responses

Late last month, a group of 17 state attorneys general sent a letter to Congress calling for President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt for all borrowers.  The call, the latest in a longstanding push for student debt forgiveness, has put a sympathetic but hesitant Biden Administration on its heels.  Over the past week, the back-and-forth between progressive and more moderate responses to the escalating student debt crisis has been a mainstay of the news cycle. 

Morehouse was thrust into these conversations a year and a half ago, when the billionaire financier Robert F. Smith pledged to pay off the student loan debt of the entire 2019 graduating class.  Smith’s generosity inspired the Morehouse Board of Trustees to establish the Morehouse College Student Success Program, which aims to raise additional funds to reduce the debt burden of our students.

I saw this moment in 2019 as something of a challenge.  I teach political theory and the history of political thought.  I began to feel an obligation to expand my repertoire and to expose more of our students to the complex natures and histories of debt crises of various sorts.  At Morehouse, after all, we have a mission-bound duty to encourage our students to study the most pressing societal problems, to grapple with the ascendant challenges that they inevitably will have to confront in their lifetimes.  And so, last year, I developed a new first-year experience (FYE) course, “Debt and Democracy.” 

Most of us take for granted the classical notion that properly self-governing citizens mustn’t be under the sway of wealthy creditors.  And yet, in so many of the world’s democracies, citizens and governments are saddled with more debt than ever before.  “Debt and Democracy” foregrounds a wide range of questions.  How has the evolution of the global economy, in particular the consolidation of financialized capitalism over the past 40 years, affected ideas and practices of freedom and self-determination?  What are the causes and implications of escalating sovereign debt crises?  More generally, what do democratic citizens owe to one another and to society?  What do democratic governments owe to their citizens?  Why are poorer nations frequently indebted to wealthier ones?  What do wealthy democracies owe to poorer countries, or perhaps to their former colonies or indigenous peoples whom they’ve displaced?  How should we understand calls for debt cancellation and reparations for slavery?

One of the most exciting aspects of the course, to my mind anyway, is its experiential-learning component.  Students are required to partner with Morehouse alumni (from the 2019 class and other classes) and deliberate about the value of a liberal arts education, its place in a democratic society, its costs and accessibility, and its impact on career and other life choices.  The idea is to build up deliberative communities that can wrestle with difficult questions about debt and democracy.  All told, the course is intended to establish an intellectual and curricular basis from which members of the Morehouse community can work together to push national conversations—including how we might fashion a democratic response to the student debt crisis.

What do I mean by a democratic response to the student debt crisis?  Well, I’m still trying to figure that out.  I’m reading and thinking and learning along with the class.  After all, it wouldn’t be a democratic response if one could go it alone.  But part of it seems to involve unlearning much of what we’ve been encouraged to believe.  In our neoliberal moment, we’re usually taught to think of ourselves as little bits of self-investing human capital.  We’re taught to assume responsibility and take on the risks of charting our own paths to personal success.  In today’s sink-or-swim environment, as we’re thrust into fiercely competitive relations with just about everyone around us, a college degree is thought to be a life-preserver of sorts—and increasingly in our consciousness a cost that we simply have to bear, at whatever price.  No wonder that student debt has skyrocketed since the 1980s.

If we’re not careful, our responses to debt crises can easily replicate the worst of neoliberal ideology, and reproduce the very practices that got us into this mess in the first place.  “Financial literacy” education, for example, can easily reinforce the notion that the most vulnerable populations simply have to learn how to navigate the financial system, and that any macro-level problems around mounting debt are largely the result of irresponsible or uneducated borrowers.  To become financially “literate” is, too often, to accommodate rather than to critique or challenge the financial structures and norms that may not be set up to benefit the least well off.

It seems to me that at liberal arts colleges we ought to take a holistic and critical view of systemic crises and think more broadly about how democratic publics are affected and can and should respond.  Liberal arts colleges have always been fundamentally democratic institutions.  As aspiring citizens forged their freedom in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was widely assumed that democracy required an education worthy of liberation.  This meant not merely jobs training or an education set up to service the private sector.  Far more fundamentally, this meant an education that can augur a robust public sphere, that can inspire and equip active citizens to engage one another in deliberation about matters of mutual concern.  As I have written elsewhere, historically Black liberal arts colleges, in the grand legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois and so many others, have long assumed a special obligation to protect this commitment to democratic education, over and against the antidemocratic pressures that Du Bois associated with the “white world”—including its profit-centered financial system, its ideology of self-interest and opportunism, its brutally competitive ethos

Part of a democratic response to the student debt crisis, surely, entails expanding public support for legislation that protects vulnerable borrowers and regulates the financial sector in the public interest.  Surely it entails restoring a sense that education is a public good, to be backed by public investment.  And this work, of course, is interconnected with efforts to slow or even reverse the escalating costs education, in part by constraining profit-seeking interests throughout the education sector and its administrative and support services. 

But it also requires that we resist deference to elites—including elected officials and the wealthy—in spearheading these efforts.  It may be more convenient to lean on progressive politicians and well-intentioned philanthropists to aid us.  But in democratic societies, the nature and enduring success of legislative reforms or executive actions, the enforcement of redistributive policies and public investment, depends on the strength of the grassroots movements that drive them.  Debt cancellation is gaining traction in the national conversation because activist groups like the Debt Collective are doing the hard work of organizing the legions of the indebted and amplifying their demands for a different approach. 

I don’t yet know what democratic responsibility fully entails in this case.  But as I continue to work with students to figure it out, as they sit down with Morehouse alumni to work through what these complex problems demand of us, I’ll try to blog about what I learn. 

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Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science at Morehouse.  He is the author of three books, including W. E. B. Du Bois and the Critique of the Competitive Society (Georgia, 2019) and, with Jared Loggins, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Critique of Racial Capitalism (Georgia, forthcoming 2021).