The Moral Economy of Debt

The creditor-debtor relationship embodies no iron law of morality; rather, it is a social relationship that always must be negotiated. When quantitative precision and an unyielding approach to debt obligations are the rule, conflict and penury soon follow.

LONDON – Every economic collapse brings a demand for debt forgiveness. The incomes needed to repay loans have evaporated, and assets posted as collateral have lost value. Creditors demand their pound of flesh; debtors clamor for relief.

Consider Strike Debt, an offshoot of the Occupy movement, which calls itself “a nationwide movement of debt resisters fighting for economic justice and democratic freedom.” Its Web site argues that “[w]ith stagnant wages, systemic unemployment, and public service cuts” people are being forced into debt in order to obtain the most basic necessities of life, leading them to “surrender [their] futures to the banks.”

One of Strike Debt’s initiatives, “Rolling Jubilee,” crowd-sources funds to buy up and extinguish debt, a process that it calls “collective refusal.” The group’s progress has been impressive, raising more than $700,000 so far and extinguishing debt worth almost $18.6 million.

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