News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
June 25, 2019
By August Kaufman
On Monday morning, Bernie Sanders proposed eliminating all $1.6 trillion in U.S. student debt. The plan would be paid for by taxing Wall Street, which is reaping enormous profits this year and paying upwards of $27 billion in annual bonuses to its top employees.
Cancelling 100 percent of student debt is the kind of reform we might expect from Sanders, who for decades has fought for similarly transformative universal social programs like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, paid family leave, and a living wage. These policy stances reflect a deep moral conviction that all people deserve to live with dignity and respect, which means our basic needs can’t be subjected to the whims of what Sanders calls “unfettered capitalism.” Instead, our basic needs should be guaranteed, as rights, by the state.
If we believe higher education is a right and tuition ought to be free, then why should the 45 million Americans who have already accrued mountains of debt in order to go to college be forced to pay it back? Why should private companies like Navient, which is being sued by five state governments, continue to profit lavishly from millenials’ crushing debt? The answer is: they shouldn’t.
Canceling these crippling debts isn’t just the moral thing to do. It’s also very good politics.
First, because for demands like debt forgiveness or Medicare for All to enjoy the popularity we associate with lasting institutions like public education and Social Security, they need to be universal, not just targeted at the poor and working class. Universal demands send a clear message to the public that we as a society have decided that something is a basic human need and not a luxury, and so will be provided to everyone.
When a reform is truly universal and benefits everyone regardless of race or class, it’s harder for the right to use their predictable, racist attacks about undeserving people unfairly benefitting off hard-working taxpayers. This makes Sanders’ student debt plan significantly stronger than those of his Democratic rivals, which fail to eliminate all debt. (And of course, universal demands do disproportionately benefit the poor and working class.)
Second, robust universal reforms like taxing the rich to abolish student debt help the left to build class consciousness and raise the expectations of working people. Why should the average twenty-something undergraduate leave school with almost $30,000 in student loan debt for getting a college education while the average Wall Street banker pockets over $150,000 in annual bonuses for making a career out of reckless financial speculation? It’s a blatant injustice which Sanders’ proposal tackles by redistributing a fraction of Wall Street’s wealth to millions of ordinary people being crushed by student debt burdens.
Demanding cancellation of student debt draws clear battles lines between workers and elites. “Not me, us” is one of Bernie’s slogans because he knows only a united movement of millions of working people can win ambitious demands like cancelling student debt. Winning the demand would show working people what is possible when we come together and fight for what is morally right, as opposed to what pundits proclaim as politically possible.
This all brings to mind a take-away offered by Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara in his new book, “The Socialist Manifesto.” Sunkara writes, “Class-struggle social democracy does not close avenues to radicals; it opens them.” As democratic socialists, we find ourselves at a moment in history when advancing social democracy — that is, strong universal welfare programs administered by the state and funded by taxes on corporations and the rich — is essential to the strategic project of undermining capitalism and replacing it with a more rational and moral society.
We are a long way off from achieving that vision. We need to build massive and militant grassroots power in both the labor movement and in the electoral arena to get there. One of the best ways to do that is to fight for universal demands like eliminating student debt and making public colleges and universities tuition-free, which have the power to create durable material benefits, develop class consciousness, and raise expectations for our country’s multiracial working-class majority.