Micah White, PhD

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On the origins of the Rolling Jubilee (Solving a Movement Mystery with History)

Q: Who originally invented the activist tactic of buying and forgiving debt?

A: Micah White originated the concept on February 9, 2009.

This is the article that originated the Rolling Jubilee:

Blackspot Debt Collection Agency

What if we purchased old debt and forgave it?

by Micah White, February 9, 2009 (source)

Citizens in the United States, and the rest of the world, have been saddled with an inescapable amount of debt. The average US household has more than $8,000 in credit card debt, up from about $3,000 in 1990. At 18% interest, $8000 will take more than 25 years to repay and ultimately cost more than $24,000. American students are graduating already deep in debt: the average student has $20,000 in student loans (source). I propose a novel solution to the consumer debt crisis: a Blackspot Collection Agency that buys and burns debt.

What happens when a person is unable to pay their debts? After receiving a few nasty calls and letters their debt is usually written off as a business loss and sold to a third-party collection agency. The third-party collection agency then legally owns the debt and may either try to collect the debt or may sell it again. By the time the debt reaches the stage of being sold for the third time, it is worth considerably less because the capitalist's hopes of recovering the full amount are slim. For example, in the screen capture above, you will notice that $2528.67 worth of credit card debt is currently being sold for only $110.91. There is someone out there in Klawock, Alaska whose $2528 worth of old credit card debt could be forgiven for pennies on the dollar.

What if we created a Blackspot Collection Agency that purchased old debt and forgave it? Doing so would undermine the foundations of the debt society by encouraging widespread debt disobedience by people who hope the Blackspot Collection Agency will buy and forgive their debt. And by forgiving the debt of average people, the Blackspot Collection Agency would prove that the anti-capitalists are doing more for the "common man" than the mega-corporations.

Could a Debt Forgiveness Agency work? What other ways can we escape consumer society's debt trap?


The post generated some excitement so I posted a follow-up a week later:

Debtors Union and Bank Strike

Momentum is building for an anti-capitalist solution to the financial crisis.

by Micah White, February 19, 2009 (source)

February is becoming the month of anti-capitalist solutions to the financial crisis. In an earlier post I outlined a plan for a Blackspot Debt Collection Agency that would buy, then forgive, debt. Now others are calling for a Debtors Union and some activists associated with Enric Duran are organizing a Bank Strike. Here is a quick summary of these two big ideas.

A Debtor Union has been proposed by Keith at the Pirate Caucus. Keith writes that "A debtors union is open to all who are indebted—credit cards, car loans, mortgages, student loans, medical bills etc. and once we organize ourselves we can refuse to pay and organize a mass default and force the debt to be written off, or we could decide to renegotiate the debt at a steep discount maybe twenty cents on the dollar. That will be for the union members to decide for themselves. In any event, we can take our destiny into our hands --Let’s 'bailout' ourselves, lets 'recapitalize' ourselves, lets get out of debt!" (full post)

The daring anti-bank Spanish activist Enric Duran who reached international fame by borrowing and then refusing to pay half a million Euro is promoting the idea of a Bank Strike. His organization, Crisis, has already spawned aNorth American Bank Strike Chapter. Here is how they explain their plan for a Bank Strike:

"We must withdrawal our support for the financial system. Everyday it exploits our debts, our savings, and our paychecks—to fund speculation, predatory lending, environmental destruction, and corporate expansion. This will be an indefinite strike which will not end until people’s debt is cancelled just as Wall Street has been bailed out. It won’t finish until the current international financial system is abolished and alternatives are created that cover people’s needs and not those of speculators."

"If hundreds of thousands of people around the arranged to stop paying their debts—and if they supported one other—they could not be stopped. If there are a many more participating in this call by withdrawing the money from the banks, this system that enslaves us would be stopped."

"What meaning would a delinquencies list have if everybody was registered in it? What strength will the seizure of foreclosed property represent if they its affects millions of people? What will they speculate with if we take all of our money out of the banks? Let’s begin this indefinite strike! Let’s withdrawal our money from the banks and put it in alternatives that don’t speculate with our paychecks! We won’t pay our mortgages and we will stay in our homes; we will not pay personal debt. Let this crisis be paid for by the richest!" (more information)

Buying debt and forgiving it, a debtors union, and a bank strike are just a few of the possible alternatives. What are your ideas for an anti-capitalist escape from this financial crisis?


At this point, I told as many people as possible about the idea. I called debt collectors and did preliminary research before hitting a roadblock: to buy debt from a reputable source we needed to get a lawyer on board with the campaign. This is where I stalled for two years until I told David Graeber about the idea and he spread the word.

 


Date: Thu, 25 Aug 2011 09:57:16 -0700
Subject: debt idea
From: Micah White <micah@adbusters.org>
To: David Graeber <david.graeber@...>

Hey David, 

Wanted to pass an idea by you that I've been kicking around for around for a long time. 

The basic idea is to create an organization that acts as a "third party debt collector" and buys debt and then forgives it. As you probably know, there are online marketplaces where all kinds of debt (including medical debt!) can be bought for pennies on the dollar. I described the idea in a little more detail a couple of years ago here: http://www.adbusters.org/blogs/blackspot_blog/blackspot_debt_collection_agency.html 

For awhile, I've thought of buying $25,000 worth of debt (which would cost something like $1,000) and then holding a public ceremony where the debt is burned and forgiven. The point is that if individuals can buy and forgive debt, then why can't the state or why can't mutual aid associations.... 

I've tried to think of some way to make the cycle self-perpetuating, like an organization where members pool money to forgive the debt of people in their own zipcode, or the zipcode of the poorest areas in America, etc. 

I have gone as far as to talk to debt sellers on the phone, but haven't gone further... yet. 

Curious to hear your reaction to this idea. 

Micah 

Date: Thu, 25 Aug 2011 13:51:28 -0400
Subject: Re: debt idea
From: David Graeber <david.graeber@...>
To: Micah White <micah@adbusters.org>

that's quite remarkable
I'm not sure I have to cash yet to actually buy up any, well, a modest token amount, perhaps, but I would love to help organize the ceremony. Let me talk to some of my student anti-student loan campaigner friends about this.
David

Date: Thu, 25 Aug 2011 11:39:45 -0700
Subject: Re: debt idea
From: Micah White <micah@adbusters.org>
To: David Graeber <david.graeber@mac.com>

What is needed most of all is a lawyer who has passed the bar exam and who is willing to be a frontman. This is because reputable debt sellers will only sell debt to people who are either a) members of one of the main debt buying associations (membership is very expensive) or b) or a lawyer.
Apparently, this has to do with the code of ethics that lawyers are
professionally obligated to follow.

Micah

Date: Thu, 25 Aug 2011 14:43:01 -0400
Subject: Re: debt idea
From: David Graeber <david.graeber@...>
To: Micah White <micah@adbusters.org>

a practicing lawyer I gather? (I know people who definitely have law degrees, don't know if any are currently on the bar...)
let me put some creative thought to this. There are a lot of radical lawyers in the world. But usually this isn't one of their big issues.
I'll talk to some of my friends working in the anti-foreclosure campaigns.
David

Date: Thu, 25 Aug 2011 11:57:48 -0700
Subject: Re: debt idea
From: Micah White <micah@adbusters.org>
To: David Graeber <david.graeber@...>

Yes, that's right a practicing lawyer who is willing to tell buy debt on
behalf of the organization. The organization would supply the money and the lawyer would sign the legal papers necessary to transfer ownership of the debt. This would be totally legitimate and would be reflected in the debtors credit file etc. When we forgive the debt it would also be reflected in their credit file as "Paid in full".

When you have a moment, take a look at this debt buying website. You can
login with an account I created.Once inside you can search for debt and
see how much it is being sold for... right now you can buy $1,450 worth of Vermont credit card debt for $76... or $1,157,875.44 of debt for $3,126.. etc etc... debt is cheap

https://www.creditmaxsales.net
Micah

And then, two months later, during the height of Occupy Wall Street - an artist and debt activist named Thomas Gokey got in touch with me.  

Date: Mon, 24 Oct 2011 20:35:26 -0400
From: Thomas Gokey
To: Micah White

I heard about an idea that you had to start a debt collection agency that buys defaulted loans from banks for pennies on the dollar and then forgives them. This sounds like an excellent idea and I'd like to help in anyway I can. 

Thomas and I talked on the phone and I gave the idea over to Thomas because he was passionate, smart and innovative. When I told Thomas that we needed to find a lawyer to move forward, he had the brilliant idea to post on craigslist looking for indebted lawyers. It worked! 

I connected Thomas to a web designer and the three of us tried working together (we called it Debt Fairy) until Occupy Wall Street became too overwhelming and I handed over complete control. 


Date: Mon, 21 Nov 2011 13:30:05 -0800
Subject: Re: Rough Draft for a Donation Pitch
From: Micah White
To: Thomas Gokey

Hey Thomas -- I'm so swamped with Adbusters, I realize I can't really be very involved in this project. I don't want to hinder you, so I wanted to tell you that you have my full support, I think you're doing a wonderful job and I hope you'll keep running with debtfairy and make it your own. I'm sorry that I can't be more involved.

Best wishes,

Micah

From Blackspot Debt Collection Agency to Debt Fairy to Rolling Jubilee, the idea evolved while the core tactical concept remained the same. 

Date: Tue, 30 Oct 2012 14:54:50 -0400
Subject: Debt Fairy / Rolling Jubilee
From: Thomas Gokey <thomasgokey@gmail.com>
To: Micah White <micah@adbusters.org>

Hi Micah,

I think the last time I updated you was sometime in may when I thought Debt Fairy was about to launch but wanted to get this new Strike Debt group on board first.

The project has mutated and grown tremendously since then. Strike Debt is a godsend, and the timing seems just right to have it spread like wildfire. We're getting word from cities across the country about setting up debtors assemblies and my hope is that this project can help build the kind of network we will need to organize a massive debt strike a few years down the road.

The project's name has changed to Rolling Jubilee. I think Amin told me
he's been in contact with you and brought you up to date on the telethon
and Nov 15th launch.

We've got a an exclusive with the NYT and we're wondering how much you want us to say or not to say about where the idea came from.

I'm excited. Lots of work is about to pay off I think.

-Thomas

Date: Tue, 30 Oct 2012 12:56:04 -0700
Subject: Re: Debt Fairy / Rolling Jubilee
From: Micah White
To: Thomas Gokey

Hey Thomas,

I was so happy to hear from Amin that they are working with you to pull off this amazing jam. I am crossing my fingers and hoping that the Rolling Jubilee catalyzes a revolutionary moment!

As for attribution of the idea, I'd appreciate if you said something along the lines of: the original idea was created by Adbusters editor Micah White who floated the meme in 2009 and did some initial feasibility testing but it lay dormant until Thomas Gokey heard about it, made it his own and gave it life.

Basically, I'd like to be credited with coming up with the initial idea in a blog post for Adbusters but I also want it to be clear that you made it come alive.

Does that sound good?

Warm regards,

Micah

Date: Tue, 30 Oct 2012 16:48:23 -0400
Subject: Re: Debt Fairy / Rolling Jubilee
From: Thomas Gokey 
To: Micah White 

Sounds good.

Any help you can offer in spreading the project through your networks would be greatly appreciated.

-Thomas

"Adbusters' Micah White spoke with Gokey and tapped a visual designer who had worked on a previous project, Occupy the Boardroom, with a third designer. Both of them joined. Another technologist was referred to Astra Taylor, a co-founder of Strike Debt, by a mutual friend. They all work with a fourth person who coordinates web development and who knows the New York City-based Occupy TechOps group thanks to past collaborations. And that's how "the network" slapped together a professional three-person web development team for something Gokey refers to without irony as nonviolent resistance." —  Rolling Jubilee, Occupy's Latest Web-Enabled Institutional Hack (Nov 15, 2012)