Student Loans Viewed As Pre-Revolutionary Debt Bondage

peasant

[most of the facts alluded-to in this post come from Eric R. Wolf’s Peasant Wars Of The Twentieth Century; mistakes, interpretations, and applications are my own]

Part One:  Early 21st Century America: Life In A Pre-Revolutionary Era

Today I want to talk about the Second American Revolution, the one which will be precipitated by the ridiculous, counterproductive, and ultimately unbearable mountain of Student Debt under which U.S. workers soldier-on through the morose bog of our current economy.

If economic times were better, if conditions had been less bad for less long, if the future looked brighter sooner, perhaps the weight of Student Loans would be borne indefinitely by our well-cowed citizenry. But as our lives are being lived in the economic Dead Zone of Western-style Capitalism, such burdens are not so long and easily borne.

An analogous time, on a smaller cyclical scale, can be found in Pre-Revolutionary Cuba.  When the sugar-making industry which dominated the Cuban economy was in its off-season, Wolf informs us that 95% of the fieldworkers were laid off, along with two-thirds of the mill-workers.  This dead time, or “Tiempo Muerto,” was the majority of the year in Cuba– lasting eight or nine months. This, of course, led to much unrest and unhappiness for the Cuban worker.  

The current world economy is now well into its own Tiempo Muerto, an economic Dead Zone not to be measured in “Lost Decades” but in a Lost Century.  When one looks at the real living standard of the U.S. over time, it is easily discernible that the majority of folks have already been living in the Tiempo Muerto for decades.  And no respectable economist dares predict a return any time soon of good times– of the “Zafra” days (the time of the sugar harvest, to put it symbolically).  Furthermore, the U.S. economy is assuredly to suffer a profound relative decline in economic status during the next century in addition to any absolute stagnation or decline.

As for Pre-Revolutionary Cuba, Wolf explains that it was “the desire of the Cuban sugar workers to break out of this cycle” of Tiempo Muerto / Zafra that was “to constitute one of the major sources of support for the revolutionary government after its advent to power.”

Besides living in a stagnated economy, we are today, as a population, under-employed and over-educated for the jobs which our economy is able to offer. Of course, we are not the first Pre-Revolutionary Era to suffer from this problem. During the decades leading up to Russia’s 1917 Revolution, Wolf describes the revolutionary class in Russia as those “who have tasted the fruits of science and absorbed European ideas, but who are denied a corresponding place in life” by the socio-economic conditions of the late Empire.

Although it is obvious that the modern U.S. economy is straightjacketing our educated class, it is doubtful, under current international economic agreements such as the WTO –and even if Authorities sincerely wanted to carry-out true reform– that they would be allowed to do so without being subjected to multi-lateral economic sanctions.

Of course, international sanctions or disapprobation should not stop or delay us from doing what we must do.  Pre-Revolutionary Cuba was in a similar threatening situation when the United States was running its economic and international policy and it was not allowed to offer encouragement or economic cover for its own homegrown and start-up businesses.  It took Cuba fifty years to produce the revolutionary leader who could largely free Cuba from the American strangle-hold, but such did at last occur; once the Pre-Revolutionary Era has been entered– time and time again, in country after country– the coming Revolution is inevitable.

Another common characteristic of Pre-Revolutionary Eras is the ongoing, massive redistribution of wealth– not from the rich to the poor, but from poor to rich.   

Any modern economy is beneficiary of an abundant inheritance of infrastructure. This is the common inheritance of each new generation. But throughout history, in a manifestation of the eternal recurrence, certain sections of the population are able to capture the wealth of this common inheritance, channel it their way, and create bottlenecks through which they are able to establish toll-booths, as it were, for all who pass through.  This is the stage of the Pre-Revolutionary period in which wealth accrues to wealth, in which the rich become richer and poor poorer. By the time this period reaches its inevitable crescendo, a tiny percentage of the population is holding an enormous percentage of the national wealth.

During the Pre-Revolutionary Era of Cuba– and mirroring our own time eerily– the Authorities (and by “Authorities” in this article, I will always mean “the in-power groups”) in Cuba, who were by’n’large American, were a “closely knit” group of corporate leaders united by “interlocking directories and by common interest.”  The business elite of Cuba owned over 90 percent of telephone and electric services, half the railways, and much of the mining, oil, and cattle.

Similarly, in Pre-Revolutionary Mexico, the majority of the major finance and major industry companies were also united by common directorates.  By 1910, in the home province (Chihuahua) of future revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, seventeen people owned two-fifths of the property, while the bottom 95 percent of the population owned no land at all.

And during the Pre-Revolutionary Era of Algeria, much of the land once worked and inhabited by the native population not surprisingly wound-up in the hands of the conquering Europeans.  Algeria’s economy, like Cuba’s sugar economy, became both overly specialized and overly dependent upon its master-country.  In the case of Algeria, this overlord was France and the big export was not sugar but wine– and “nine-tenths of all Algerian vineyards –and thus most of the main cash crop– were in the hands of Europeans.”

A related characteristic of the Pre-Revolutionary Era is that, not only are the poor getting poorer while the rich get richer, but the population becomes incredibly skewed in terms of the growing multitudes living at the bottom versus the small cadre living at the top. For instance, by the mid-18th century, before the pre-emptive revolutionary measures instituted by Tzar Alexander II, the lowest class of Russians– the Serfs— had grown so large that the comprised OVER HALF the population of Russia. Meanwhile, the numbers of the landowning nobility were dwindling.

So far, I have mentioned the following typical characteristics to be found in Pre-Revolutionary Eras: 1) Tiempo Muerto economic conditions, 2) “over-educated”/under-employed workers, 3) international restraints on domestic economic freedom, 4) the rich growing richer while the poor grow poorer, 5) the numbers of the poorest greatly increasing while the numbers of the richest greatly shrink.

It is a SIXTH common circumstance in Pre-Revolutionary Eras for the middle class, especially the upper middle class, to side with the rich against the poor. One can find an example of this during the French occupation of Pre-Revolutionary Algeria, when Muslim owners of large land-tracts made “common cause” with their French overlords. Though each of these landowners was assuredly only myopically following the path he felt was in his own personal interests, nevertheless, his collaboration with the French Authorities in their upward redistribution of wealth gave cover to what amounted to a foreign pillaging– putting as it were, a “native face” on enterprises and laws which were actually siphoning wealth out of the country.

This sort of divide-and-conquer tactic is not unusual for Pre-Revolutionary Eras. In Pre-Revolutionary Algeria, Wolf tells us that Allard (France’s Commissioner General for Algeria) was quite straightforward about his government’s strategy for splitting-up the native tribes of Algeria and mixing them together in new settlements known as “douars”… “the general tendency of the policy,” said the Commissioner, “should be to reduce the influence of the chiefs and to break up the tribes.”

Wolf also informs us that the French in Algeria “had always pursued a policy of keeping the Berbers culturally and politically separate from the Arab population in order to better divide and rule.”  Even after the Revolutionary Era began, it worked to advantage of the French that the Algerian Resistance was terribly handicapped by an ongoing, intense, and bloody division between resistance forces based inside Algeria and those based outside.

And of course, a century earlier in the New World, the cooperation of the native peoples in Pre-Revolutionary Mexico was severely hampered by the fact that there was no one, Indian language shared by all.

In America today, it is common knowledge that our nation has long been divided into gridlock-producing factions often bitter in their loathing for each other, and that the upper middle-class– those who have been treated relatively well by the economic system and who also hope to rise in rank themselves– are not inclined to rock the boat and push back against measures ultimately skewing American income even more toward the wealthiest few. 

Another frequent circumstance in Pre-Revolutionary situations is that economic conditions are such that the poorer classes are working for in-kind payments or some variation of share-cropping. In Pre-Revolutionary Mexico, for example, Wolf states that the workers of the great haciendas “were often paid in-kind, either in tokens which could be traded-in at the hacienda store or through the use of plots which they were permitted to farm for their own subsistence. Both means tied the laborers even more securely to the Big House.”

For me to contend that today’s workers are also largely paid through de facto “in-kind” payments will at first no doubt sound ridiculous to many readers. After all, aren’t the vast majority of salaries paid-out as checks or as “direct” deposits? And isn’t it only the minority of compensations which are distributed via benefits, perquisites, or free or discounted meals, goods, services, et cetera?

Yes, of course, this is true; but if we take a step back, we will see that, the value represented by a paycheck turns-out to be not-so-different from the value represented the Big House “tokens” traded-in for essentials at the hacienda store. And whether paid in-kind, by hacienda token, or by paycheck– the freedom of choice when it comes to making purchases during a Pre-Revolutionary Era is severely limited.

In modern times –due to a combination of laws, heavy taxation, and the necessities of our culture (in which cars, phones, and computers are practically requirements)– the lion’s share of one’s income might as well come as in-kind payments of the modern, practical essentials of life, such as: basic foodstuffs, shelter, automobiles, gasoline, automobile upkeep, automobile insurance, health insurance, student loan payments, mortgages, water, electricity, domicile heating and cooling expenses, computer expenses, and communication expenses (cellphones, etc). And considering that at least a third of our incomes are given back to “the Big House” (the government arm of the Authorities) in the form of fees and income, property, and sales taxes, etc– one can readily see that the amount of actual discretionary income –income which indeed might be freely spent or held as “money” or “cash”– is quite a miniscule stream for the typical modern employee. He would come out nearly the same if he received the vast majority of his compensation as the goods and services, themselves, which he is practically forced to purchase. He merely acts as the middle man for these transactions, with his income taxed as he receives his pay, and taxed again as he spends it.

Yet another characteristic of many Pre-Revolutionary Eras, and the one which I prophesy will be the triggering mechanism of the Second American Revolution, is the subjugation of the labor force through one form or another of debt bondage.

Debt Bondage is an ancient method for inviting the worker to put his own neck into the yoke controlled by the Authorities. In our own modern, U.S. economy, this takes a variety of ongoing major and minor burdens, the major ones being: student loans, home mortgages, and automobile payments. Sadly, most our young citizens have lowered their naive heads into the yoke before they are even fully, “culturally” adults– often not even yet out of school.

Besides the massive amount of educational loans being taken-on by our students, many young people feel compelled, as well they might, to own an automobile if they wish to be at least somewhat participating, somewhat empowered, somewhat autonomous members of economic and societal life. Automobile loans are taken-out largely for the practical necessity of commuting to one’s job– the job which, sadly comically, will allow the loan-taker to pay for the car which gets him to the job which pays for the car.

And who can say that car-purchasers make the wrong choice? Our civilization is PHYSICALLY constructed so as to make day-to-day life without a car cumbersome and impractical at best, and career-killing social suicide at next-best. The dwellings of most people are today are no longer located near a common and convenient (and now “old-fashioned”) “town center.”  Instead the practical essentials of life of spread far and wide over miles or tens of miles.  An automobile is all but a pre-requisite for any person seeking to be somewhat free and somewhat autonomous and yet still procure for himself and his family the practical necessities of life, such as: foodstuffs, hardware and home supplies, sundries, laundry services, postal services, social/recreational activities, et cetera. Neither bus, nor bike, nor taxi-cab can substitute for the efficiency and self-empowerment of a personal automobile in the U.S. society… An empowered, upwardly mobile individual needs– merely to meet the demands of the modern successful life– a vehicle at his disposal which is reliably capable of distant travel in a variety of directions at a variety of times.

Furthermore, though a relatively small expense compared to mortgages, car loans, and student debt, the monthly-billed phone-and-phone-service has also become a practical essential for not only the job market (return calls, setting up appointments, phone interviews), but also for the taking care of the domestic chores of day-to-day life– from important things we all loathe but must do in the modern world such as being “on hold” for (and sometimes actually speaking to) representatives or administrators– to lesser but also required activities such as making reservations or coordinating plans in a world in which plans change by the minute.

All this debt bondage may be starting to sound like an exclusively ultra-modern problem, but it is far, far from that. Consider that in the Spain-controlled, Pre-Revolutionary Mexico of centuries ago, it was not unusual for haciendas to utilize “debt servitude” to enthrall native families of laborers one generation at a time.

And Pre-Revolutionary Russia had a history of debt-servitude even longer. Wolf writes that Russia possessed in the 16th century an entire class of indentured workers trapped permanently inside their life’s lot by a debt bondage system known as the Kabala Kholop. The Kabala Kholop debtors worked for varying combinations of loans and assistance, with a typical situation being one in which the Authorities (then taking the form of the local Lord or petty king) would lend land, seed, and money to their laborers in return for multi-year obligatory labor and a long stream of payments-in-kind.

Over time, this type of socio-economic relationship devolved in Russia into full Serfdom— a bound condition in which workers had no freedom of movement. Indeed, says Wolf, as early as 1658, it was a criminal offense for a Serf to attempt to leave his assigned area of toil.

The Authorities of our own Pre-Revolutionary Era have not confined so narrowly the laborer that his life is restricted to only those horizons seen from a single plot of land. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider that laborers in the U.S. cannot work outside the boundaries of the area controlled by the Authorities without special dispensation from those Authorities.

And of course, practically speaking, it is no easy matter for the present-day American worker to up and move — UNLESS that move is initiated or facilitated by the Authorities– in this case, an employer at the arriving location. A family which simply uproots itself and moves to another area without the approval and support of an awaiting employer takes a terrible risk.

I believe what Wolf says of the Pre-Revolutionary Russian Serf is just as true today of the Pre-Revolutionary American worker: the laborer in either system has been born with a restless, nomadic spirit, and yet everywhere he is held back by Authorities and by socio-economic mandates.  The American Spirit (which perhaps only dimly flickers in our degenerate breasts today) was forged in times of expansion, progress, self-reliance, and optimism. Today, that Spirit fights for air, for freedom, for life– even as we continue to close the shutters surrounding it.

History proves that we rebels-in-the-making can be quite patient, that we can suffer long. But sooner or later, the revolution will come.

In Pre-Revolutionary Algeria, Wolf observes that there were eighty-three years between Moqrani’s uprising of desperation in 1871 and the final revolution against France in 1954.

During the 1870s, the same decade in which powerful tribal leaders such as Moqrani were being taken down, France’s Superior Government Council justified the ill treatment of the Algerian population by contending that France could not successfully engage in “the civilizing of races” … “until the hope of shaking our domination has disappeared from their minds.”  One must wonder, in regards to our own Pre-Revolutionary Era, have the Authorities succeeded in doing just this? Have we, as a populace, lost hope that the present financial regime can ever be overthrown? Has it come to this for the cultural descendants of George Washington and Martin Luther King?

I don’t think so… Nevertheless, the Revolution will only occur when the people stop looking to government to solve their problems– stop listening to politicians with their promised solutions and their talk of better times just around the corner.  We the people must take matters into our own hands– the only hands that know and can bear witness to the toil of our own lives.

In Pre-Revolutionary Algeria, the time for revolution arrived when, once and for all, the Algerian people stopped believing in the prevarications of the French government. What the Pre-Revolutionary Algerians at last realized– and realized deeply, not just in their heads but in their hearts– was that “no French government capable of instituting reform was likely to emerge.” Surely, we living in this Pre-Revolutionary Era should feel the stirrings of a similar impatient wisdom within ourselves.

I have to wonder… has any people– so imbued with the restless, nomadic spirit as we Americans– ever lain down so long, so quiescently, while being trampled over by the Authorities? It does not matter whether the trampling Authorities take the form of Lords or of Kings, of Corporations or of Financiers… a self-respecting people WILL rise… a SELF-RESPECTING people will rise… a self-respecting people will RISE!

go to… PART TWO: Beware The FRUSTRATED Revolution 

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