Student indebtedness

Over the past several years, indebtedness has become a new common signifier. The state is indebted; workers are as well. The use of the term “debt”, like a media metronome, determines the pace of discussions about the future of taxpayers: the debt is so massive that we would not be able to eventually pay it off. The question then arises on the value of the work done and on who benefits from it. Economic life is regulated by the credit borrowed from banks and international financial institutions. Students are no exception; this is yet another way to prepare them for work recognised as such, besides familiarizing them with systematic indebtedness. The criticism of student indebtedness is the complementary pole to the demand for a student wage made by the United Committees on Student Work (Comités Unitaires sur le Travail Étudiant): we cannot reclaim the one without requiring the abolition of the other. Claiming a student salary is the first step to fundamentally reconsidering the resulting economic and social order, thus bringing criticism to the social distinction made between productive and reproductive labour[1].

Psychology of indebtedness

Debt is a concept almost as old as the hills[2]. With war being the primary driving force behind civilization, throughout the ages creditors financed warlike entreprises, just like the old systems of religious justice are built around the capacity or not to honour a debt. The indebted person is an immoral being, though this trait of morality is inseparable from the submissive bond which unites the individual to the authorities. Whoever holds the purse strings ensures social control as long as there is a system of values and beliefs that justifies the domination. If the logic of indebtedness was historically an instrument of discipline, by which social institutions seem to stand like pillars fixed in eternity, its massification is symptomatic of an extension of social control. The individual is no longer locked up in prison-schools which, as Foucault mentioned, looked almost exactly like barracks, factories and hospitals. We live in the era of generalized indebtedness, in which we are nothing but “coded figures – deformable and transformable”.[3]

Indebtedness weighs heavily on students’ minds as well as those of workers. It limits their ability to grow through choices motivated not by their own interests, but rather by those of creditors: we “choose” a career based on income, which will be used to repay debts; we live on credit to pay the bills. What brings together the realities experienced by students and workers is the constant awareness of the added numbers, the permanent worry about reimbursement, the shame of being unable to repay. The so-called working world, or paid labour, is linked to the constraint of economically managing one’s time. Even if we convince ourselves that we are in a certain career sector because of our passion for the job, the first criterion of any economic relation in the world of wage labour is to sell ourselves as labour power to an employer. In the case of the student, however, the absence of any salary imposes the same constraint without the possibility of taking charge of it immediately, but rather later, as the diploma will formalize the student’s value on the market.

By failing to remunerate students, we create conditions of indebtedness and the moral weight that accompanies it, besides pushing students towards precarious jobs that only fill in the gaps… The devaluation of said performed work does not only impact one’s wallet. The future is mortgaged on the belief that studying requires a sacrifice. Neoliberal ideology individualizes to an extreme the student’s responsibility towards their career choices and configures the notion of clientelism in which, according to the formula, education is just another commodity. The morality we are opposing to the latter, that of a strong and interventionist state, is not so far removed from the notions of sacrifice and devotion. As mentioned Georges Caffentzis, one of the authors of the Wages For Students manifesto at the November 9th conference organized by the *CUTEs *at Concordia University, it is certainly fair to oppose the commodification of education… Though not at the cost of doing unpaid work because “no one can survive breathing only air in this society”.[4] As a matter of fact, why would we need to sacrifice ourselves and where does this logic, implying that a common good is crystallized in the state, come from? It comes from the very modern idea that only the nation-state is able to gather all social classes around a social project. But this vision glosses over the vested interests of the present social classes and reinforces the abstract idea of a national community.[5] It is not surprising that those who are nostalgic for social democracy base their hope for national independence on such an authoritarian political vision, under the guise of a common good. It is a powerful myth that originates in the idea of a better redistribution of wealth rather than a continuous struggle between antagonistic classes.

The double standard

The problem of indebtedness is a long-standing issue within the student movement. This topic is at the centre of critical analyses regarding the “commodification of education”, a concept that intends to highlight the dominant political trend that neoliberalism has become since the welfare state crisis. Education was once conceived as an indispensable element of the modern citizen’s learning, that is to offer civic, public and accessible education, for the purpose of perpetuating the social contract between the state and the individual. The state guaranteed education to citizens who found in this pact a legitimacy to the representative democratic system. At the root of the American education system, Thomas Jefferson, in his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, defends the idea, an original one for the 18th century, of free public elementary instruction. In the same way that one does not have to pay to deposit a ballot at the polls, one should not pay to become a citizen who is able to participate in the basics of democratic life. Since America is the epicentre of neoliberalism, it is interesting to see how the vision of education has evolved while the separation between elementary and higher education deepens, the latter being traditionally accessible only to elites. For a long time, in the United States, indebtedness has been privileged to give access to certain universities to poorer layers of society. On one hand, we are wary of the weight of the state and its interference with social life; on the other, this interventionism is replaced by that of private enterprises and banks. Neoliberal policies considerably increased debt ratios as a direct result of the crisis that universities and, more generally, the education system are going through: education is primarily used to train workforce for businesses and not for citizens. Massive indebtedness is thus a consequence of the crisis of modernity and of neoliberal politics aiming for massive disinvestment, coupled with the globalisation of the capitalist economy. The state representativeness crumbles, whereas tensions between the state, the Capital and social groups become more visible. Through these political and social reconfigurations, we now wonder what a citizen is and what meaning can be given to the word community.

In the student movement, the traditional progressive vision seeks to ensure this social pact between the state and the citizen. The idea of free education at all levels and of a “quality education” – about which there is never too much detail – historically aimed to discipline the student by reinforcing the legitimacy of social institutions. In this world of harmony between the state and the democratic citizen – in opposition to the citizen-consumer of contemporary neoliberalism -, the state provides quality services, which are also rights per se. Health and education are sacrosanct pillars when it comes to free services.[6] In this way, there is no debt, but rather a societal investment. The state ensures a proper transition between education and work: everything is well-structured so that the gap between the different social categories fades into a harmonious totality, in continuous progress.

Refusing to pay

One could argue that asking for a student wage is an even more interventionist measure, even more social-democratic than free education itself, or that it reinforces the commodification of education. This reflection does not take into account the current transformations of the education system: the boundary between work and studies is constantly shrinking as employers intrude into colleges and universities, using, for instance, unpaid internships. Beyond the reality of internship, it is the student’s’ condition as a whole that has to be criticized from this relationship between systematic indebtedness and non-recognition of the work done as a part of the academic path. Wage labour is first and foremost an awareness of the value of the work done by the student, which is a way of recognizing its social utility in the production of knowledge. It is also a way to criticize the disciplinary relationship that persists within learning venues between the teacher and the student. The good master is no longer a figure of authority to which the student is subjected: they become responsible for their own choices, thus raising their awareness of the economic and social relationship that binds them to the teacher. While we do not want to be turned into dehumanized commodities, we still refuse to be seen as docile individuals who must at all times abide by the word of the master. The student condition is not just a status that allows the state to reproduce new workers for the labour market, be it for the benefit of private enterprises or for the so-called “common good”. Wage labour is a first step to reconsider the relationship that binds the student population to the state and the companies: by refusing the sacrifice that is required of us, that is to say the principle of going into debt to study, we expose the education system in a capitalist society where the student is historically either a body and a spirit to be disciplined, either a subject of the user-pay approach.

A parallel can be observed with the labour movement which, at its origin, was shot through with the debate between political emancipation and economic demands. Although the CUTEs refer to the status of the student, defined from the beginning of student unionism as an intellectual worker, the criticism of the non-valorization of reproductive labour opens an emancipatory perspective that looks beyond the economic condition. The student wage is not a finality, but rather a means to criticize the  actual separation that persists between students and workers. By having a broader perspective on the student’s relationship to the production and to knowledge, a critique of all separations takes shape. The question asked by the *CUTEs *concerns the nature and the value of the work done. By placing work at the centre of the debate, all social activities then become concerned. It is not an economic discourse, which reduces life to work and commodification; it is one that aims to fight against a system that sees us as statistics and malleable figures. This is why the fight against indebtedness is complementary: we are asked to repay what should have been used for our remuneration. In 2012 in the United States, a movement – inspired by the unlimited general strike then taking place in Quebec – was created, calling for a debt strike. This demand was ignored here, especially since the student movement was obsessively concerned with the massive reinvestment in education and the abolition of tuition fee hikes. This was nonetheless an example to be followed since the movement was essentially saying that the problem of systematic indebtedness is historically linked to the non-valorization of reproductive labour. Rejecting indebtedness while demanding a student wage is therefore a way to contextualize the adversarial rapport maintained for centuries by the exploited sectors of society against the state, banks and global finance.

Pierre Luc Junet and Félix Dumas-Lavoie

Translation by Anika L’Heureux

This article was published in the Winter 2018 issue of the english edition of CUTE Magazine.
To learn more about the struggle for the full recognition of student work, to discuss or contribute to it, we can contact us via the CUTE Campagne sur le travail étudiant page or the SWUC – Student Work Unitary Committee page.

  1. Reproductive labour concerns all non-salaried activities intended to prepare for integration into productive labour, i.e. the labour market. ↩︎

  2. See David Graeber’s* Debt: The First 5000 Years*, which traces the history of debt through the ages. Graeber argues that the credit system precedes the creation of money and that debt has always structured our economic systems and social relations. ↩︎

  3. Quoted from Gilles Deleuze’s Postscript on the Societies of Control, easily found on the web. ↩︎

  4. This conference is accessible online via our website in the videos section. ↩︎

  5. Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism explicitly covers the abstraction that nationalism is. ↩︎

  6. Free services related to wage labour, i.e. an amount which is taken from the plus-value and then goes to taxes, it should be clarified. ↩︎