“Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” a book review of an anti-dystopian guidebook

“Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” a book review of an anti-dystopian guidebook

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, The case for economic disobedience and debt abolition” by Debt Collective is the why, how, and what to do next about the onerous amount of debt people are in not just in the United States, but worldwide. Debt is how the average American attempts  to grasp the American Dream in the United States.  But this book is not a speculative theory book. This book is praxis. It is a financial history of what happened, how the financial institutions conspired to place you in financial chains, and realistic and collective solutions that we can all engage in to prevent them from doing it again. 

The “Thems” are banks, shady politicians, multinational corporations, private equity firms, developers, loan sharks and the general lot of people from all over the world with lots and lots of money.

This book is both useful and timely discussing the unrest over police violence, George Floyd protests, and the adjustments we have all had to make during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the foreword by Astra Taylor, she discussed the Lehman Brothers collapse due to the Mortgage-Backed Security bubble in 2007 and getting a phone call informing her that she was in default on her student loans. Defaulting in prior generations was viewed as a horrible thing that happens to irresponsible people, but for many in later generations, a horrible financial situation is just something that happens. It’s awful, but an awful thing that you accept as an inevitable like death. 

People often encounter extreme financial hardships  attempting to tackle their student loans. In 2011, when Taylor joined Occupy Wall Street (OWS), -everyone at OWS had the same story of debt: how do you pay off your loans with a poorly paid job/jobs or no job? You don’t. In the United States, “nice” people don’t discuss their debt, they hide it to keep up appearances. But  as you read this book, you see that we should also stop being nice and polite about being exploited since the average American dies with $62,000 in debt. 

This book written collectively by The Debt Collective begins with a review of financial history  going into the history of debt and racism. Using Haiti’s triumph and tragedy as an example, they explain how Black people, Black labor, and Black led countries became a commodity. In Haiti, the enslaved Africans rose up in 1791 and successfully drove off their white captors, but then their captors, the French, handed them a bill. 

A bill for the price of their lost merchandise, their slaves. 

White America would have to wait almost two centuries to directly experience the harsh effects of the financialization experienced by colonized people worldwide and by enslaved Africans and by swindled and ethnically cleansed  Native Americans in the United States. 

Financialization of the United States occurs in the 1970s, which is right around the time the benefits of the Civil Rights Act’s passage were kicking in. College rates for both Black and Chicano students rose, and it looked like both groups were finally going to get their fair share (whatever that means to people whose land was stolen from them and ancestors were kidnapped from another country) —to work in the United States for low comparative wages .  In order to whipsaw the working class, Racism was a tool used to divide the workers and entice white America go along with financialization. That wasn’t directly stated in the book, but I’m going to explicitly state what was implied. 

Financialization is part of neoliberalism. 

“Neoliberalism is a form of capitalism that asserts that human well-being is synonymous with entrepreneurialism, that the ‘free’ market is the best way to organize an economy, and that the state should exist only to protect private property.”

DEBT, C. (2021). CAN’T PAY, WON’T PAY: The case for economic disobedience and debt abolition. S.l.: HAYMARKET BOOKS.

In simple terms, financialization makes everything in your life transactional, from housing to school to hospital care. The only part of you that matters becomes the wealth that can be extracted out of you. Even your sleeping is transactional.

But this financialization isn’t just about money. It is also about control. Henry Ford was one of the first to modernize the use of money to control people. 

“A loan is a weapon for making us feel powerless. Mortgages are a good example. In 1914 Ford Motor Company embarked on a new experiment that gave it nearly dictatorial power over its workers. Henry Ford created his own secret police force and gave it the Orwellian name ‘Ford Sociological Department.’ The job of this department was to spy intrusively on factory workers and their families to make sure they were sufficiently conforming to Ford’s ideas about the American way of life.”

DEBT, C. (2021). CAN’T PAY, WON’T PAY: The case for economic disobedience and debt abolition. S.l.: HAYMARKET BOOKS.

Ford wanted his employees to own a single family home with a mortgage they could barely afford, because they then would be loyal to the company. He expected good employees to be married to a woman who did not work to limit their income. Renting rooms was also discouraged as this built community and gave people other sources of income. With a home loan, Ford could trap workers to his workplace and trap them into a particular lifestyle. No longer working for Ford would not just be a job loss. It would be a social standing loss.  They would lose their habitation which is the only property (that which generates capital) that most Americans possess.

The book also delves into how the wealthy and the financial institutions operate worldwide without the hindrance of borders. Goldman Sachs, the infamous “Vampire Squids”  were  soaking the most economically oppressed Detroit and Oakland residents and doing the same to Greek residents after their late aughts’ financial crisis. 

And the international financial bloodsucking doesn’t just stop with multinational corporations like Goldman Sachs or the world’s largest shadow bank BlackRock. No, squeezing and controlling the ordinary person’s life, then their family, and finally, the entire community is also the role in supporting the funding of “altruistic” organizations at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

“[In 1998] the IMF lent the nation (of Bolivia) $138 million for the ostensible purpose of helping to stop inflation. Buried in the loan contract was a clause that required the city of Cochabamba to sell off its public water supply. The deal also prohibited the Bolivian government from offering subsidies to help people pay their water bills, which were expected to rise exponentially with private ownership.”

DEBT, C. (2021). CAN’T PAY, WON’T PAY: The case for economic disobedience and debt abolition. S.l.: HAYMARKET BOOKS.

Bolivia people resisted the privatization of its water. Initially, the government tried to suppress the people’s movement, even going as far as killing protestors. Months of resistance paid off, and the water was de-privatized. In 2006 when Evo Morales, who was one of the water-resistance leaders, became president, he stated that Bolivia would be anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberalist. He then institutionalized the free water movement.

“He went back to Cochabamba to declare his country’s total independence from the IMF and the World Bank. From now on, he said, it is ‘for the people to decide their destiny, the people decide their future, the people decide the hope of future generations.’”

Morales resigned and left Bolivia in November 2019 after  21 days of civil protests following the disputed election results of October 2019 and the release of a report from the Organization of American States (OAS) stating that the election had some irregularities. The head office of the OAS is in Washington, D.C., the OAS’s members are the 35 independent countries (states) of the Americas. 

As of this review’s printing on October 18, 2020, Morales’ party —Movement for Socialism (MAS) candidate, Luis Arce is claiming an early victory in today’s presidential election.

“The Coronavirus crisis helped to expose that EU budget rules, for example, were always a political choice.”

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” highlights something we have all known or at least suspected. That all these rules about you having to pay and you have to work from this particular location and the general inflexibilities of life are all a LIE. Governments can halt utilities, they can bend rules in favor of justice,  and if they have trillions of dollars to bail out Wall Street, they could bail people out too. 

“Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” gives solutions, but there is an amplification of why we actually need to carry out the solutions. One of the more unnerving chapters is Disrupting Dystopia Algorithmic Extraction and Digital Redlining. This chapter goes into the many ways that business is using technology to create new and less traceable ways to frustrate, exploit,  and discriminate against the already discriminated against. “Rural and barely making it,” “probably bipolar,” or “gullible elderly” are all REAL marketing categories.

This book is an amazing reference to explain all manner of things you thought were happening from when you were trying to sign up for benefits, and it seemed unusually hard to  “Why am I getting all these advertisements for payday loans? Is it because I looked up how to ask for an extension of my credit card payment?” 

No, you’re not imagining any of that. It is all happening. 

“In 2018 we learned that the risk-assessment software used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents was altered to yield only one outcome: the system recommended “detain” and not “release” for 100 percent of immigrants in custody.”

DEBT, C. (2021). CAN’T PAY, WON’T PAY: The case for economic disobedience and debt abolition. S.l.: HAYMARKET BOOKS.

It is truly horrific what an algorithm can do. 

The algorithms are not racist by accident. Computer coding is deeply intentional and must be carefully composed and balanced or it doesn’t work.  The racism is coded into the inputs, decisions, and outcomes.  They are racist on purpose. Nothing happening now regarding technology is accidentally happening. 

“In Florida, former governor Rick Scott had purposely designed the online system to make it hard for people to access aid. “It’s a sh– sandwich, and it was designed that way by Scott,” said one of his former advisors. “It wasn’t about saving money. It was about making it harder for people to get benefits or keep benefits so that the unemployment numbers were low to give the governor something to brag about.” When hundreds of thousands of people needed help, the state’s online system made it effectively impossible for them to even apply.”

DEBT, C. (2021). CAN’T PAY, WON’T PAY: The case for economic disobedience and debt abolition. S.l.: HAYMARKET BOOKS.

Former Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan continually gets brought up in several chapters, including this one. Snyder should be doing hard time on a chain gang in a prison rock quarry . First, he willfully poisoned Michigan citizens  after being told if you change Flint’s water source, you’re going to poison people.  Then  he stole the plot from “The Minority Report” and initiated a fake fraud detection algorithm program. Unlike the plot of The Minority Report, this  algorithm was wrong 93% of the time. It is just unbelievable how this man is not in jail? 

“Rick Snyder, the same guy who is responsible for poisoning the water in Flint, created a $46 million dollar automated fraud detection algorithm, powered by artificial intelligence, that falsely accused tens of thousands of people, automatically garnishing their wages and seizing their tax refunds and social security payments as penalties for crimes they did not commit.”

DEBT, C. (2021). CAN’T PAY, WON’T PAY: The case for economic disobedience and debt abolition. S.l.: HAYMARKET BOOKS.

Lovecraft Country needs a Season 2 to go to the future in an episode and have Snyder as a vampire in the spirit of Guillermo del Toro’s “The Strain.”  But the chapter ends with how society can use technology for good. What I appreciate about this book is that it isn’t dystopian. It’s anti-dystopian. Dystopian focuses on individual survival because systemic change is untenable.  Dystopian accepts the horrible situation, but currently, we still have the means to build a better world.  The authors describe the tools that we have, and what we can do to fix these problems. 

And by fix, they don’t mean reform. This means actually dismantling this system and creating a better system. 

“Predictive analytics could be used to facilitate a democratization and socialization of the economy, instead of monopolized profits. Automation could be employed not to make workers vulnerable but to eliminate soul-destroying drudgery and free people to do more meaningful work.”

DEBT, C. (2021). CAN’T PAY, WON’T PAY: The case for economic disobedience and debt abolition. S.l.: HAYMARKET BOOKS.

This is a fantastic book to move us from a state of terror to a solidarity state. We can have universal healthcare, universal education through college, and even universal housing, but we need to work together. “Can Pay, Won’t Pay” is an extremely informative, entertaining, solution-oriented, and accessible read. If you’ve hung out on social media any amount of time, you have all the background information you need to understand what the collective  authors are discussing. 

The first debt they are tacking is student debt, so if that’s you go to strike.debtcollective.org together we can end this nightmare.


Teka Lo, Public Intellectuals

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