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“Capitalism Is an Insecurity Machine”: Astra Taylor on Student Debt & Our Radically Unequal World

StorySeptember 12, 2023
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As the COVID-19 era pause on federal student debt payments comes to an end and some 40 million Americans will resume payments next month, we speak with Debt Collective organizer Astra Taylor about Biden’s new Saving on a Valuable Education, or SAVE, plan and her organization’s new tool that helps people apply to the Department of Education to cancel the borrower’s debt. Taylor also discusses her new book, The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart, in which she writes, “How we understand and respond to insecurity is one of the most urgent questions of our moment, for nothing less than the future security of our species hangs in the balance.” She notes organizing is about “the alchemy of turning our vulnerabilities, turning our oppression, turning our insecurities into solidarity so that we can change the structures that are undermining our self-esteem and well-being.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The COVID-19 student loan forbearance ended this month, and some 40 million Americans once saw interest begin to accrue again on their federal student loans on September 1st. Next month, repayments on the loans themselves will resume.

As people struggle to make their first payments in more than three years, many are being targeted by robocalls that promote scams which offer help that is not real. Student loan borrowers in Minnesota who paid one of the 52 companies suspected of falsely promising them loan forgiveness could get help, after the state launched an investigation. This is Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

ATTORNEY GENERAL KEITH ELLISON: We, at the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, opened up an investigation into some companies that are purporting to help students do debt relief. … But if they tell you that they can forgive your loan or cancel your loan, you know, they probably cannot. Really only that’s something the federal government can do. Know that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the Biden administration announced 4 million student loan borrowers are now enrolled in a new so-called income-driven repayment plan, called Saving on a Valuable Education, or SAVE, that it launched after the Supreme Court ruled against Biden’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans per person in June.

Meanwhile, another tool, launched by the Debt Collective, helps people apply to the Department of Education and ask them to cancel the borrower’s debt. As the website notes, quote, “Filling out this form creates an individual demand letter, tailored to your own student debt story, calling on the Department of Education to use its powers to cancel not just your debt, but everyone’s.”

For more on all of this, we’re joined by Astra Taylor, organizer with the Debt Collective. She has also just published her new book, titled The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart.

Thanks for being with us, Astra, as you go on your book tour for The Age of Insecurity. Let’s start off by talking about this month, what’s just happened September 1st, and then October 1st, and what you’re suggesting happens.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Yes. In terms of student debt payments, the COVID pause, as you mentioned, has ended, and interest has begun to accrue, and people are going to be expected to make payments October 1st. This is entirely unnecessary. The sky hasn’t fallen over the last few years with student loan payments paused. It’s proof that the government doesn’t actually need the payments of student debtors to function, which should make us ask why these payments are being turned on at all.

And the Debt Collective’s position has always been that the president of United States has the authority, through the Higher Education Act of 1965, to cancel all student debt. This is the legal authority that President Biden has said he will now try to use in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that shot down his initial debt relief plan. We’re trying to push him to actually do that and use his full powers, because none of this is necessary. This debt can be erased. Again, the government doesn’t need student debtors to pay their bills to keep operating.

And, you know, an incredible amount of suffering is about to commence. I mean, one thing we’re hearing from people who are filling out our new student debt release tool is that they’re going to have to make impossible decisions between paying their student loans and paying their rent or paying their medical or dental bills. We are hearing from people who are considering suicide.

And so, it’s absolutely urgent that the president fulfill his promise and address this crisis and cancel student debt. And I encourage everyone who’s listening who has federal student loans to take 10 or 20 minutes and use our student debt release tool and become part of this movement to push for debt abolition.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, explain why you don’t use the term “debt forgiveness,” but “debt cancellation” or “relief.”

ASTRA TAYLOR: Debtors have done nothing wrong. You know, we believe that education is a right. People go to college because they’re curious, because they want to have a career that requires certain professional training. This isn’t a crime. This isn’t something that you should need forgiveness for, if you can’t pay your student loans. You know, it’s absolutely ridiculous that a four-year college experience can cost upwards of $200,000 in this country.

So, our position is that debtors shouldn’t be blamed, therefore they shouldn’t ask for forgiveness. And instead, the Debt Collective uses the language of “debt cancellation,” “debt relief” and “debt abolition,” because we think that the people who actually are morally culpable are the folks who built this outrageous debt-for-education system that weighs heaviest on the people who have the least.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what SAVE is, Astra.

ASTRA TAYLOR: SAVE is a new name for another iteration of an income-driven repayment plan. You know, people who have had student loans for a while will be familiar. There was IDR programs in various forms, and it’s just yet another tweak from the Department of Education, where they’re attempting to fix a broken system without really fixing it.

And the fix is obvious. We need robust public investment in education, to make education a democratic right. This isn’t a fanciful idea. You know, a few generations ago, public university was free, or close to it, for people who attended. And so, the SAVE program, you know, might work — it might be a beneficial program for some people to enroll in. It is increasing monthly payments for other people. But that’s beside the point. The point is, we’ve seen these fixes before, and they’e not real fixes. They’re just Band-Aids on a system that needs to be completely overhauled.

So, the Debt Collective is critical of this program. It certainly is no substitute for debt cancellation. And it, again, is no fix. What we need is public investment so that people can afford to actually learn, and so that we can have an educated citizenry, without demanding that not just young people but all people who have to go back to school mortgage their futures. You know, the real fix is obvious. And actually, the Debt Collective is committed for fighting for that.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts on Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison going after 52 companies suspected of falsely promising them loan forgiveness, could get help?

ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, this is a problem. These scammers wouldn’t be able to scam people if the system wasn’t so confusing. I mean, the SAVE program is a great example of that. The student lending system is incredibly Byzantine. It’s overwhelming. I mean, I know people who are student loan experts, who are student loan lawyers, and have still had problems as they’ve enrolled in these various programs trying to get public service loan forgiveness or enroll in versions of income-driven repayment.

So, the broken system is what’s creating opportunities for these scam artists. So, here, if you want to get rid of the scammers, cancel student loans, and do it automatically and immediately without demanding onerous paperwork. You know, the Department of Education can cancel student loans overnight without making people apply. And so, it is these confusing processes that’s creating opportunities for scammers to take advantage of people who are financially struggling.

AMY GOODMAN: Astra, let’s talk about your new book, The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart. You write about student debt, the climate crisis, even 9/11, the anniversary this week. You write, “How we understand and respond to insecurity is one of the most urgent questions of our moment, for nothing less than the future security of our species hangs in the balance.” Talk about how you put this all together, and people’s feelings of insecurity, even as the Biden administration touts a strong economy, and what you think needs to happen, what the Debt Collective is recommending.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, this is kind of a kaleidoscopic book that mixes politics and economics and history, and a bit of memoir that’s hopefully kind of humorous, to look at the way insecurity is really essential to our economy. One of your previous guests, Jayati Ghosh, she’s brilliant and did a great job of laying out the way inequality is spiraling today. And a lot of my work has focused on the problem of inequality and the obscene concentration of wealth and poverty.

But insecurity is how living in a radically unequal world is actually felt day after day. And, you know, if organizing with the Debt Collective has taught me anything, it’s that economic issues are always also emotional ones — you know, the spike of shame when the bill collector calls or our foreboding about saving for retirement, you know, and of course also our anxieties about our collapsing planet and climate change.

So, I think insecurity is pervasive. But what I’m trying to show in the book is it’s actually built into our economy. It’s not just something that we feel spontaneously. We’re all insecure by design, or something I call manufactured insecurity. We see this with advertising. You know, no advertisement will ever tell you that you’re great and the world needs changing. And we see this in official monetary policy, that tries to ramp up worker insecurity, job insecurity, so that workers will be more docile and won’t go on strike.

And I think that looking at insecurity, recognizing just how widespread it is can help us actually have empathy for each other and build powerful coalitions. I hope we can turn that insecurity into solidarity, so that we can fight for the just and sustainable and collective forms of security that we really need.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would that solidarity look like? How do you think it could most effectively be expressed? And what about, in this very polarized country, Republicans saying, “Yes, we’re talking about a time of insecurity” — they may not so much be focusing on inequality — to undermine and to go after, position themselves better for the next election?

ASTRA TAYLOR: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, the right wing is talking about insecurity. It’s stoking it. It’s speaking to people’s fears and anxieties and trying to inflame them and misdirect them and say, OK, well, the problem is immigrants or trans kids or socialists or woke professors or whatever it is.

So, I think that we on the left, and especially those of us who are organizing, also need to speak to people’s insecurities and recognize that it’s really widespread. You know, even people who appear to be kind of getting ahead are always worried that the floor is going to fall out from under them. I mean, all it takes in this country is one medical emergency to devastate a seemingly middle-class family. Even white-collar professionals can be laid off at a moment’s notice and don’t have a robust safety net to catch them. And we’re all worried about natural disasters and pandemics.

So I think we can’t cede that territory to the right wing. And it’s our job to speak to the real fears people have and say, “Hey, these anxieties are things you actually have in common with each other. Let’s fight for a world in which we’re all taken care of.” That’s really what organizing is about, is the alchemy of turning our vulnerabilities, turning our oppression, turning our insecurities into solidarity so that we can change the structures that are undermining our self-esteem and our well-being.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, tell about what happened to your sister working in a coffee shop. You’re concerned about surveillance. We only have 30 seconds.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, my sister was working at a hip Brooklyn cafe that seemed kind of retro and low-tech. And it turned out that, actually, this charming cafe was a panopticon with at least eight security cameras, where the boss could tune in from any angle at any minute, you know, and tell the employees, “Hey, stop being so talkative. You know, get to work.” And those cameras weren’t there to make the workers feel safe. They were there to make them feel like they could be fired at any minute. And that’s a condition too many workers are experiencing, and it’s emblematic of the ways that capitalism is an insecurity machine. It depends on all of us being insecure to amass power and profits. And we need something different.

AMY GOODMAN: Astra Taylor, thanks so much for being with us, organizer with the Debt Collective. The new book, The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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