Like others who committed themselves to the fledgling debtors’ movement, I have experienced the major occupational hazard of single-issue activists—we tend to see our issue everywhere. Oftentimes, it’s the only thing we see, and our more ecumenical allies have to find ways to remind us, either gently or more rudely, that issues and struggles are always connected. That said, debt really is everywhere right now. No one can ignore how prominently it is featuring in the public politics of our time or how sharply etched it is on the daily economic landscape of almost every household. Democracies—and not just those in the Southern Eurozone—are failing because the claims of creditors are prioritized over the needs and rights of citizens. More and more individual debtors are sliding into the emotional netherworld of mass default and many are being packed off to the newly resurgent debtors’ prisons all across the U.S. National economic managers are hard-pressed to figure out how to sustain a consumer society when there are still mountains of toxic debt left over from the housing crash, and when the steadily rising burden of student debt is blocking the access of a generation of graduates to the standard components of the American Dream—homeownership, children, and middle-class status.
So ubiquitous are the hardships generated by indebtedness that the struggle between debtor and creditor can often appear to be casting a larger shadow than the grand conflict between capital and labor. This is illusory, of course; the debt relation and the wage relation are fundamentally entwined, and always have been. The use of debt to deepen every form of labor exploitation has been systematic; from the debt peons and debt slaves of antiquity, forced by creditors to bond their labor through servitude; down to the sharecroppers of yesteryear, unable to pay off loans advanced on their harvests, or the factory workers subsisting on company scrip; to today’s transnational migrants, toiling to work off their transit and recruitment fees, or the payday loan borrowers, targeted because they are the least likely to afford the extortionate interest rates; or victims of wage theft, who are effectively financing their employers. Debt bondage or bonded labor is a predicament that still affects tens of millions today worldwide.