By George Caffentzis
Originally published in the dossier, Against the Day, in the fall 2013 issue of South Atlantic Quarterly
As part of my work with Strike Debt, I have been reexamining the history of debt resistance in order to place our organization in a historic perspective. Elsewhere, I have studied ancient, medieval, and modern debtors’ organizations, but here I want to examine a particular case, that of El Barzón. The El Barzón movement in the 1990s had a significant impact on Mexican society and is close enough to us in time and space to indicate some of the perennial problems and possibilities of debtors’ movements that are relevant to Strike Debt.
Prolegomena to a History of Debt Resistance
El Barzón is a mass organization of debtors that, at its height, had half a million members and chapters all over Mexico. It provided to its members both legal aid and “muscle” to resist foreclosures and repossessions due to debt default. Before we re-create and review El Barzón’s story in thought, we should recognize that there are many forms of debt and many different kinds of debtors. As a consequence there are many forms of debt resistance. One of the most important distinctions is that of debt contracted in order to make more money, what I call “profit debt,” and debt contracted to purchase a commodity that satisfies some nonmonetary need or desire, what I call “use-value debt.”
To get our bearings, let us see how these kinds of debt appear in the world of contemporary economics statistics. “Profit debt” is called “corporate debt” (comprising the debt of both “financial” and “nonfinancial” corporations), and “use-value debt” is called “household debt.” Contemporary US “corporate debt” is approximately $26 trillion, while “household debt” is approximately $13.5 trillion.
There is a caveat that I should make at this juncture. Although, for the most part, proletarians take on use-value debt and capitalists profit debt, in the history of debt resistance these debt categories do not always coincide with a simple class dichotomy. Let us take a moment to examine these “failures of coincidence” between class and debt.
There are many noncapitalists who take out loans “to make money” in order to supplement a largely subsistence livelihood (for in a monetary society some money is necessary even for a subsistence life). Many debt resistance movements have been led by small farmers or small businesspeople who had some kind of collateral (usually land) and were producing for or selling in a market in order to earn their livelihoods. Another failed coincidence arises because capitalists act as consumers as well. They can get into debt in order to purchase commodities for their use value—that is, they buy yachts, expensive vacations, and so on—without an immediate intention to gain some profit on the commodity purchased. They do, of course, recognize that some commodity purchases for the purpose of enjoyment such as a Basquiat painting can eventually become “good investments.” Indeed, some capitalists can become so indebted due to their “use-value debts” that they organize against their class colleagues.
Still another failure of coincidence arises because some proletarians (who are not always class-conscious angels) attempt to transform use-value debt into a form of profit debt. Thus, although much of the real estate speculation in the 2000s was due to capitalists (in financial institutions), some proletarians became indebted in order to speculate on the prices of second or even third homes. Clearly, they were trying to use debt as a way to make real estate profit and were not using these homes as a means to satisfy their need for housing.
An even more troubling case of this failure of coincidence is the question of student loan debt. Most contemporary proletarians are told that they have to “invest in themselves” and pay for postsecondary education in order to earn higher wages than their friends who only graduate from high school. Since they do not have the immediate funds to pay the high tuition fees, they often have to take out loans. Are these use-value debts or are they profit debts? Doesn’t student loan debt imply a way of borrowing money to make money, that is, a profit debt? But, at the same time, the “more money” in question is in the form of wages not profits, so is one’s labor power a form of capital? Just because neoliberal economists say it is does not make it so. They do not have the power to magically transform every worker into a little capitalist! Nor can they, with the same wand, transform wages into profits. On the contrary, the labor power that is sold in the labor market is a commodity simply because workers have no choice but to sell it to live. The profits that labor power generates when put to work (both in the sphere of production and reproduction) are only for the employers and their class.
The point of these prolegomena is to show that, due to these failures of coincidence, one often finds complex interclass alliances in debt resistance movements. For example, in the struggle against debt imprisonment in the US in the nineteenth century, formerly wealthy capitalists and dirt-poor farmers fought in the same campaign because they both were liable to find themselves in the same prisons.
El Barzón: A Late Twentieth-Century Debtors’ Organization
In order to better understand this complexity, I will consider a remarkable recent debtors’ struggle against profit and use-value debt in Mexico organized by El Barzón. In 1994 the Mexican peso dramatically lost value compared to the US dollar, and this set off a steep rise in inflation that increased the interest on variable-rate loans and also made loans (including mortgages) that were denominated in US dollars (as many were) up to ten times larger. The outcome brought into default nearly 30 percent of the Mexican people indebted to banks.
These developments triggered the dramatic expansion of a formerly little-known debtors’ organization that began in Jalisco state in 1993. It was devoted to easing the burden of indebted small farmers and took its name from the ring that binds the yoke with the plow. Later on, this agricultural root image was changed to another agricultural image, a green tractor, which remained the organization’s logo. El Barzón first expanded into other agricultural states, but in 1994 El Barzón’s members agreed on a proposal to struggle against additional kinds of debt. This was a remarkably prescient decision, since within a few months the peso was devalued against the dollar and was followed by a harsh depression-level economic crisis throughout 1995. This had a tremendous effect on membership in El Barzón, which peaked in 1996 with approximately 500,000 members (Williams 1996: 5).
The El Barzón movement began its ideological campaign by claiming that the loan repayment conditions after the collapse of the peso were not the fault of the debtors but of the government and the banks. The movement further argued that it would be unfair to hold the debtors responsible. Its slogan was “Debo, no niego, pago lo justo” (“I owe, I don’t deny it, but I’ll pay what is fair”), which spoke directly to the anxiety many felt concerning the question of justice. Armed with these words, the power of justice was brought to the side of the debtor and not the banks.
The second salient aspect of the movement was its use of the law as a tool of aggression. Lawyers attached to the movement filed hundreds of thousands of briefs (often with much fanfare) and were able to seriously hinder the process of dispossession that the banks sped up in the course of the neoliberalization of the financial sector.
The third aspect of the movement was its ability to act directly for the membership. As Heather Williams writes: “First, it engaged in collective civil resistance to police and banks; second, it provided movement participants with personal legal assistance; and, third, it offered Barzon members professional advice on how to structure their businesses or farms to avoid further indebtedness” (Williams 2001: 182).
Finally, the movement was able to create and carry on a remarkable demonstration culture. It raised hell by blockading homes, for example, when houses and cars of members were foreclosed on and repossessed. It had an intense round of marches, road blockades, popular denunciations, invasions of local officials’ offices, and even “popular ‘liberation’ of goods that movement participants maintained had been repossessed unjustly” (Williams 2001: 189).
The movement grew rapidly across the country and was known for both its practical approach (by setting up legal consultation services for debtors) and riveting tactics. El Barzón members often staged demonstrations in front of banks entirely naked or after sewing their eyes shut. At times, they sprayed slogans on bank walls with syringes filled with what looked like their own blood. The movement forced the government to come to the aid of the embattled debtors and had a positive impact on the situation of Mexican debtors that was proven beyond dispute.
The membership of the organization dramatically declined after 1996, and a number of apparently divisive changes took place with respect to the relationship with political parties, when party members tried to get El Barzón to align itself with the party in question. El Barzón still exists, but it has largely been marginalized.
Queries for Strike Debt
El Barzón, like many other debt resistors’ movements, was triggered by a period of a rapid and substantial increase in the rate of indebtedness. The very dimensions of the debt crisis created a sense of social unity through collective indebtedness instead of decomposition through individual debt. In other words, through collectivity the normal shame and individualistic reaction to the condition of indebtedness was transcended, and debt revealed itself to be a social condition that could be dealt with only in a social manner.
El Barzón arose when indebtedness could not be explained on a case-by-case basis. The peso devaluation clearly was connected with the actions of state and bank officials and their plans. El Barzón easily convinced millions that asking who would be bailed out would not be determined fairly or democratically unless collective action was taken.
This is a situation that applies to the United States since the bailout of the “too big to fail” banks and insurance companies post-2008. It gives us a window of opportunity to pose vital issues while the contrast between the bailout of the 1 percent versus the drowning of the 99 percent is still fresh. Can organizations like Strike Debt help give a radical outcome to this process before it, too, becomes history?
We can also learn from El Barzón that debt struggles seem to be prone to interclass alliances that give them both great strength and weakness. El Barzón’s mixture of small farmers, middle-class urban homeowners, and capitalists in “declining” industries found in the organization a common point of attraction. As Heather Williams writes: “In a capitalist nation shaken to the timbers by prolonged economic crisis, the Barzon embodies a paradoxical movement in which the politics of the bourgeoisie and the peasantry are radicalized while organized labor languishes under the strain of mass unemployment and controlled leadership” (Williams 1996: 45). But the interclass composition of the movement also remained a source of tension, which expressed itself especially in the question of the relation with political parties and the state. This is an important issue for Strike Debt, but because of the small number of farmers (both large and small) in the United States and our lack of involvement in small-business profit debt (up until Occupy Sandy), we might be able to evade the contradictory forces that came with El Barzón and many other debtors’ movements going back to ancient Rome.
There is a paradox inherent in all debtors’ movements (unless they are attached to a wider program of social transformation): the more successful the organization, the less attractive it becomes, since “the issue” defining it seems to be on the way to being “solved.” This is a standard feature of “single-issue” organizing. If we want to escape this paradox, we must, like the Zapatistas, set the demands at the horizon of social possibility. For example, Strike Debt supports a debt-cancellation jubilee (a universal cancellation of debt). But there are reformist as well as revolutionary debt jubilees. Reformist jubilees relieve the pressure put on ruling classes by debtors’ movements, since the jubilee appears to have “solved” the problem and then dissipates the mass opposition to debt. Debts have been cancelled in these reformist jubilees, so that the oppressive machine could keep grinding on. However, some jubilees have a revolutionary impact and mark the beginning of new forms of social organization. What should Strike Debt be, revolutionary or reformist?
The victories of debtors’ movements such as El Barzón have been indirect but are historically important. They have changed the relations of power in society in favor of the debtors. El Barzón was able to induce the government and the banks to negotiate the condition of the loans. El Barzón was thus able to have an enormous effect on the impact of the crisis in Mexico. As James J. Biles points out: “Overall, more than five million Mexican households were able to renegotiate debts and thousands of properties were saved from foreclosure” (Biles 2010: 265). El Barzón was undoubtedly responsible for much of this result. Will Strike Debt have a similar impact on the balance of forces between proletarian debtors and capitalist creditors?
We can take guidance in answering these queries from the social movements (or “societies in movement,” as Raúl Zibechi describes them) in South America in the last two decades (Zibechi 2012). Many of these movements have decided to affect the left-wing governments there without becoming part of them, that is, to keep a critical distance from the state while demanding a reparation of the wealth expropriated in the past. In this moment, as Silvia Federici (2012) and others have argued, there is no possibility even for the reform of capitalism, without keeping a revolutionary horizon open by creating territories of commons-based forms of social reproduction.
Biles, James J. 2010. “Chronicle of a Debt Foretold: Mexico’s FOBAPROA Debacle and Lessons for the US Financial Crisis.” Progress in Development Studies 10, no. 3: 261–66.
Federici, Silvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press and Common Notions.
Williams, Heather. 1996. Planting Trouble: The Barzon Debtors’ Movement in Mexico. San Diego, CA: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.
Williams, Heather. 2001. Social Movements and Economic Transition: Markets and Distributive Conflict in Mexico. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zibechi, Raúl. 2012. Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements. Oakland: AK Press.