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The Politics of Debt in America

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Posted on Jan 30, 2013
Gruenemann (CC BY 2.0)

By Steve Fraser, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

In the South, hard-pressed growers found themselves embroiled in a crop-lien system, dependent on the local “furnishing agent” to supply everything needed, from seed to clothing to machinery, to get through the growing season.  In such situations, no money changed hands, just a note scribbled in the merchant’s ledger, with payment due at “settling up” time.  This granted the lender a lien, or title, to the crop, a lien that never went away.

In this fashion, the South became “a great pawn shop,” with farmers perpetually in debt at interest rates exceeding 100% per year.  In Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, 90% of farmers lived on credit.  The first lien you signed was essentially a life sentence.  Either that or you became a tenant farmer, or you simply left your land, something so commonplace that everyone knew what the letters “G.T.T.” on an abandoned farmhouse meant: “Gone to Texas.”  (One hundred thousand people a year were doing that in the 1870s.) 

The merchant’s exaction was so steep that African-Americans and immigrants in particular were regularly reduced to peonage—forced, that is, to work to pay off their debt, an illegal but not uncommon practice.  And that neighborhood furnishing agent was often tied to the banks up north for his own lines of credit.  In this way, the sucking sound of money leaving for the great metropolises reverberated from region to region.

Facing dispossession, farmers formed alliances to set up cooperatives to extend credit to one another and market crops themselves.  As one Populist editorialist remarked, this was the way “mortgage-burdened farmers can assert their freedom from the tyranny of organized capital.”  But when they found that these groupings couldn’t survive the competitive pressure of the banking establishment, politics beckoned.

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From one presidential election to the next and in state contests throughout the South and West, irate grain and cotton growers demanded that the government expand the paper currency supply, those “greenbacks,” also known as “the people’s money,” or that it monetize silver, again to enlarge the money supply, or that it set up public institutions to finance farmers during the growing season.  With a passion hard for us to imagine, they railed against the “gold standard” which, in Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan’s famous cry, should no longer be allowed to “crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”

Should that cross of gold stay fixed in place, one Alabama physician prophesied, it would “reduce the American yeomanry to menials and paupers, to be driven by monopolies like cattle and swine.”  As Election Day approached, populist editors and speakers warned of an approaching war with “the money power,” and they meant it.  “The fight will come and let it come!”

The idea was to force the government to deliberately inflate the currency and so raise farm prices.  And the reason for doing that?  To get out from under the sea of debt in which they were submerged.  It was a cry from the heart and it echoed and re-echoed across the heartland, coming nearer to upsetting the established order than any American political upheaval before or since. 

The passion of those populist farmers and laborers was matched by that of their enemies, men at the top of the economy and government for whom debt had long been a road to riches rather than destitution.  They dismissed their foes as “cranks” and “calamity howlers.”  And in the election of 1896, they won.  Bryan went down to defeat, gold continued its pitiless process of crucifixion, and a whole human ecology was set on a path to extinction.

The Return of Debt Servitude

When populism died, debt—as a spark for national political confrontation—died, too.  The great reform eras that followed—Progessivism, the New Deal, and the Great Society—were preoccupied with inequality, economic collapse, exploitation in the workplace, and the outsized nature of corporate power in a consolidated industrial capitalist system.

Rumblings about debt servitude could certainly still be heard.  Foreclosed farmers during the Great Depression mobilized, held “penny auctions” to restore farms to families, hanged judges in effigy, and forced Prudential Insurance Company, the largest land creditor in Iowa, to suspend foreclosures on 37,000 farms (which persuaded Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to do likewise).  A Kansas City realtor was shot in the act of foreclosing on a family farm, a country sheriff kidnapped while trying to evict a farm widow and dumped 10 miles out of town, and so on.

Urban renters and homeowners facing eviction formed neighborhood groups to stop the local sheriff or police from throwing families out of their houses or apartments. Furniture tossed into the street in eviction proceedings would be restored by neighbors, who would also turn the gas and electricity back on.  New Deal farm and housing finance legislation bailed out banks and homeowners alike.  Right-wing populists like the Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin carried on the war against the gold standard in tirades tinged with anti-Semitism.  Signs like one in Nebraska—“The Jew System of Banking” (illustrated with a giant rattlesnake)—showed up too often.

But the age of primitive accumulation in which debt and the financial sector had played such a strategic role was drawing to a close. 

Today, we have entered a new phase.  What might be called capitalist underdevelopment and once again debt has emerged as both the central mode of capital accumulation and a principal mechanism of servitude.  Warren Buffett (of all people) has predicted that, in the coming decades, the United States is more likely to turn into a “sharecropper society” than an “ownership society.”

In our time, the financial sector has enriched itself by devouring the productive wherewithal of industrial America through debt, starving the public sector of resources, and saddling ordinary working people with every conceivable form of consumer debt.

Household debt, which in 1952 was at 36% of total personal income, had by 2006 hit 127%.  Even financing poverty became a lucrative enterprise.  Taking advantage of the low credit ratings of poor people and their need for cash to pay monthly bills or simply feed themselves, some check-cashing outlets, payday lenders, tax preparers, and others levy interest of 200% to 300% and more.  As recently as the 1970s, a good part of this would have been considered illegal under usury laws that no longer exist.  And these poverty creditors are often tied to the largest financiers, including Citibank, Bank of America, and American Express.

Credit has come to function as a “plastic safety net” in a world of job insecurity, declining state support, and slow-motion economic growth, especially among the elderly, young adults, and low-income families.  More than half the pre-tax income of these three groups goes to servicing debt.  Nowadays, however, the “company store” is headquartered on Wall Street.

Debt is driving this system of auto-cannibalism which, by every measure of social wellbeing, is relentlessly turning a developed country into an underdeveloped one.  

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are back.  Is a political resistance to debt servitude once again imaginable?

Steve Fraser is a historian, writer, and editor-at-large for New Labor Forum, co-founder of the American Empire Project, and TomDispatch regular. He is, most recently, the author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace. He teaches at Columbia University.


Copyright 2013 Steve Fraser


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