“Simple and complex and kind of magical”: the rolling jubilee

Strike Debt red square

[T]he event is neither substance nor accident, neither quality nor process…And yet it is not something immaterial either; it is always at the level of materiality that it takes effect, that it is effect…Let us say that the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.

- Michel Foucault, “The Order of Discourse”

The Rolling Jubilee, a project of Strike Debt launched November 15, 2012, celebrates its one year anniversary today.  Its founding on this day marked the first year anniversary of the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park.  The anniversary of the movement has been widely and justifiably celebrated this week, here and here and (by one of its architects, Astra Taylor) here.

Reviving the Judeo-Christian tradition of Jubilee, in which debts were periodically canceled for the community, the Rolling Jubilee represents an innovative and highly successful project in mutual aid. Astra Taylor calls the Rolling Jubilee concept “simple and complex and kind of magical.”  Working through the secondary debt market where “distressed,” unpaid loans are bundled and typically bought by banks and collection agencies for pennies on the dollar, the Rolling Jubilee has, with $400,000 in donations, purchased and canceled nearly $15 million in medical debt.  The money travels from unknown benefactors to recipients whose distressed debt happens to be included in the bundled loans that are purchased by the Rolling Jubilee.  By these means, almost 2700 people so far have had their debt burdens lifted.

Like most or all charitable projects, the Jubilee concept is simple at its core. Part of what makes the Jubilee “complex and somewhat magical” has to do with the advanced nature of the market systems in which it participates. With origins in ancient religious practice, the Jubilee intervenes in the complex credit mechanisms of 21st-century financial markets. Most charitable acts , moreover, involve a simple donation from one hand to another. But it is difficult to say precisely where or in what event the Rolling Jubilee consists (this is one reason why it is a Rolling Jubilee, defined by its ongoingness). Is it in the collection of donations from thousands of people? in the purchase of bundled debt from the banks? in the notification of those whose debt has, at random, been abolished?

This last stage, in which the beneficiaries are notified that (a portion of) their medical debt has been canceled, is often taken to be the highlight of this complex process. (To mark their anniversary today, the Rolling Jubilee has announced another major debt buy, in Austin, Texas.) The letter that Strike Debt sends to debtors on this occasion bears a simple subject line: “Balance Abolished.”

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Matthew Yglesias asked in an article for Slate whether the money that went to abolishing the distressed debt would not be better given as cash to the needy.  Setting aside questions about the financial efficacy of its model, however, it is not difficult to perceive that the Rolling Jubilee operates on an altogether different principle than that which Yglesias proposes as a potentially better alternative.  For the abolition of debt is neither a gift nor a charitable donation, not exactly.  Debt abolition “merely” removes an pre-existing obligation.  Something has not been given, therefore, so much as it has been taken away; more precisely, what is given is the taking away, the removal of a debt burden.  In the YouTube video that Strike Debt produced to promote the campaign, one of the participants in the Rolling Jubilee describes its action in these terms: “Instead of collecting on the debts we buy, we’re going to abolish it. Poof.”  As Auden famously describes the action of poetry, then, the event of debt abolition “makes nothing happen.”

As a teacher and scholar of poetry, I encounter many instances of this strangely agencyless agency, both in the poems we read and in the minds of those who engage with them.  Maybe I am attracted to the Jubilee because it operates in a similar way, “simple and complex and somewhat magical.”  Maybe I am attracted to both for the way that they make visible something about the occult and insufficiently understood nature of events themselves.

In “The Order of Discourse,” Foucault describes the event as having effect on both material and immaterial planes.  Just as the historical event must be seen at once as a singular phenomenon and as part of processes of much longer duration, so does the event considered in itself appear to be a divided and contradictory thing — something not entirely present as positive substance, but whose existence and material effects are beyond doubt.  It is for this reason, Foucault insists, that “the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.”

The Jubilee is consistent with an understanding of the event as operating on jointly material and incorporeal planes, with effects (however obscure) in both domains.  Perhaps we cannot say exactly what it is; but it is not nothing either.

That the Rolling Jubilee “makes nothing happen” is often adduced as a point against it. Those skeptical of the Jubilee model observe (here, for instance) that the amount of debt abolished does not come close to any statistically significant figure; it is not so much as to make a dent in the nation’s multi-trillion dollar debt burden.  Not amounting to much, the event of debt abolition is, however, not nothing. The Rolling Jubilee has so far relieved a debt burden for thousands of Americans.  Perhaps more important than this, the disappearing of debt has made widely visible as never before the secondary debt market and the predatory mechanics of debt collection.  “[S]imple and complex and kind of magical,” the Jubilee is an exemplary (historical) event in that regard.  As the movement marks its one year anniversary, I am eager to see what nothing it has still to make happen.

You can donate to the Rolling Jubilee here.

November 15, 2013

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About noeljackson

Associate Professor, Literature @ MIT
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