Driving Society Forward.
Education for Debt
Glenn Rikowski, London, 22nd January 2007
If you string together certain articles, in a particular way, from yesterday's Observer it is possible to come up with a particularly perturbing analysis. Lateral thinking, linking up diverse yet apparently related issues, is the key.
First of all, I was struck by an article by Ruth Sunderland (2007) on student debt. Sunderland points out, alluding to the balmy days of the late-1960s and early-1970s, that:
"The years between 18 and 30 are meant to be carefree, but a record number of young adults are full members of Club Debt. Young people are struggling with high levels of unsecured borrowings in the form of credit card bills and student loans, with nearly 9 per cent in the red by £15,000 or more. Debt is harder to bear for most youngsters because they are more likely to be single, to have relatively low earnings and to have accumulated very little in the way of assets."
How could they have been expected to have accumulated assets if they have these debts? I leave that to Sunderland to ponder on.
In the same article it is noted that rising house prices have meant a transfer of wealth to the old from the young. I can see this in relation to my own kids. My eldest boy tried to get a mortgage on a 1-bedroom flat about 18 months ago, after working hard as a gardener and saving hard too, but was turned down. He lives in London, see. Yet the price of my (very modest) house is rising, especially as I live near Stratford, the site of the 2012 Olympics with all the investment (including transport infrastructure) that is going on. I remember that when the fire fighters strike was on a few years ago, and talking to them on picket lines in London, it transpired that many of them lived miles away. They couldn't afford London house prices. But the problem of rising house prices for young people is not just confined to those living in London. It is a national issue:
"New figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders show that young people face bigger problems buying a home than any previous generation. The amount first-timers borrow has risen to 3.29 times their average household incomes, double the low of 1.7 times in 1980" (Sunderland, 2007).
This can be seen as part of a general monetary assault on young people by what I have called the 'B Generation', the Bastard Generation (see Rikowski, 2001). In so many ways, my generation, the generation of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have made life difficult for young people in contemporary England. No more is this the case than with higher education fees. Of course, insult is added to injury with Gordon Brown's Child Trust Funds. The New Labour Government provides young people with a paltry sum (maximum £1,200, including top-ups from parents and grandparents) to fork out on higher education fees later on in their lives. But, as Jill Insley makes clear, this is next to nothing when set against the following considerations:
"Last week universities warned that tuition fees would have to rise up to £10,000 a year from 2009, and the average deposit put down by a first-time buyer is now about £13,000 (nearer £25,000 in London)" (Insley, 2007).
This is all of a piece with the call for a greater emphasis on 'financial literacy' for school students over the last five years or so. Thus, whilst New Labour hammers young people financially on so many fronts (carrying on where the Conservatives left off in 1997), it also argues (via the Department for Education and Skills and its co-conspirators in the Confederation of British Industry) that young people need to know more about how to manage their own (increasingly inadequate) financial resources. Insult added to injury.
Of course, there is an argument that school children should know about how finance capital and its various appendages actually work. Trenchant critiques of the banking sector (and its stratospheric profits), why city slickers get mega bonuses, the withdrawal of state benefits from young people, the higher education fees regime and much else financial would be all to the good. Yet this is not what New Labour actually wants. The New Labourite debt-mongers want compliance and fear. They want to increase not lessen the burden of debt, and make us feel guilty in the process. This can be seen in the way that the leading banks are allowed to give further loans to those who can't meet existing payments (see MacErlean, 2007). It can also be seen in the 'expansion by stealth' of new gambling casinos (see Barnett, 2007). Add all this to the continued exposure of the National Lottery (now called Lotto, I believe) and it seems that the yuppie saying of the 1990s "greed is good" has been changed and generalised on a massive scale to: "debt is good".
As Werner Bonefeld (1995) indicated nearly 12 years ago, the UK government (for Conservative and New Labour administrations) has embarked on a strategy of debt dependency for its subjects (as opposed to citizens). What this means is that the UK government has enhanced the power of money in our everyday lives, and members of the younger generation feel this frenzy, this intense penetration of money into their everyday lives more than others. It is a deliberate policy; debt addicts are necessary, it seems. Economic health appears to depend on our over-spending. But there is far more to it than this. The debt parasites, the 'debt solution' companies that advertise on commercial radio, pick on our debt bones as we struggle to financially rejuvenate. Debt nurtures our dependency on money; it sucks out our capacity to fight, to be obdurate, and to forge solidarity. It atomises, individualises and bathes our souls in guilt and despair. Debt debilitates, dampens anti-capitalist action and induces conformity and compliance on the foundation of the 'logic' of the politics of money. It causes social division (Bonefeld, 1995, pp.70-72).
Yet this 'logic' can never be of cast iron. Possibilities for breaking through the wall of atomisation caused by debt are always immanent. We can revolt against being messed up by the contradiction entailed by the UK government's desire to have us resolve our role conflict as 'responsible citizen' and as 'debtor'. This living contradiction is summed-up neatly by Bonefeld:
"Compliance with harsh conditions, espousal of the ethics of hard labour and the acceptance of the rule of money, is endorsed as the citizens' duty. The republic of debt is thus seen as the framework within which the rights of citizens subsist. Within this context, the role of the state is to preserve justice, that is, to impose upon social relations the conditions of their existence, that is, the free and equal citizen who recognises the duty and responsibility entrusted upon it by virtue of their ownership, including the ownership of labour power" (1995, p.87).
Thus, education for debt implies an education that seeks to produce the kind of citizen outlined by Bonefeld above. Through this education, the type of citizen it attempts to generate is a pretty hopeless creature; pliable, fearful, lacking dignity yet manifesting a superficial upbeat and ever falsely hopeful mien. This damned education is a curse against which we must struggle. It aims to bind us to the power of money and the fickleness and mendacity of capital movements, and to the vicious decisions of human representatives of capital. It is an anti-education of progress; it negates human progress and hope.
Addendum: 22nd January 2007
An article in The Times today (Heywood, 2007) reported that a 'flat' sized 12ft by 6th was for sale in Chelsea, west London for £170,000. To make it habitable would cost another £30,000. The 'flat' is so small that you could literally 'not swing a cat in it', notes Heywood. The flat was formerly a cleaners' cupboard!
Barnett, A. (2007) Revealed: march of the new casinos, The Observer, 21st January, p.1.
Bonefeld, W. (1995) The Politics of Debt: Social Discipline and Control, Common Sense: Journal of the Conference of Socialist Economists, No.17, pp.69-91.
Heywood, J. (2007) No room to swing a cat (or a cue) in the 12ft x 6ft flat for sale at £170,000, The Times, 22nd January, p.3.
Insley, J. (2007) A little trust goes a long way for children, The Observer (Business and Media), 21st January, p.12.
MacErlean, N. (2007) Can't meet the payments, sir? No problem we'll just lend you more, The Observer (Business and Media), 21st January, p.11.
Rikowski, G. (2001) The B Generation, written for and distributed at the May Day Monopoly events in central London, 1st May, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=B%20Generation
Sunderland, R. (2007) Out of university and straight into Club Debt, The Observer (Business and Media), 21st January, p.1.
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