Dead Pledges
Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture
Annie McClanahan



The Living Indebted (on Students and Sabotage)

Contemporary debt, this book has argued, no longer appears as a form of exchange that reinforces social cohesion.1 In an age of securitization, speculative risk, and default, credit cannot function as a form of balanced obligation or mutuality. To be in debt today—to owe one’s livelihood to the willingness of a bank to extend credit, to owe the roof over one’s head to a lender who can take one late payment as cause for eviction—is to be caught in an endless cycle of discredit and dispossession. Thus, in the twenty-first century, credit and debt are no longer two reversible perspectives on the same circular exchange (money passing from lender to borrower and back again); rather, they represent two fundamentally antagonistic subject and class positions. Today, most of us number among the ever-growing hordes of the living indebted. While the previous chapters have sought to show the different ways this widespread condition of indebtedness has taken cultural form, they have also tried to remind us that debt itself is not cultural or representational, that it is not merely made of words or a matter of perspective. Though we think through debt at the level of culture, we nevertheless live it—and can only hope to contest it—on a more strictly material plane. With that in mind, I conclude by moving from the realm of cultural representation to the realm of political action to highlight the practical and tactical actions and affiliations that remain available to those of us for whom a life of debt is not the only life we wish to know.

Consider, for instance, just one way that the aesthetics of uncanniness and horror (as discussed in Chapters 3 and 4) uncannily prefigure a more material genre of housing violence. Soon after the foreclosure crisis began to wreak havoc on homeowners and renters alike, reports emerged about the willful destruction of homes being foreclosed. Sometimes these incidents were merely the collateral damage inflicted when dispossessed owners attempted to remove objects of possible salable value from the home: appliances, electrical fixtures, copper piping, exterior landscaping. In other cases, however, the acts of vandalism were pure revenge. Homeowners poured cement down the drains. They punched holes in the walls. They left dead fish to rot in basements. They broke pipes to flood their houses with water or sewage—cleverly turning the problem of their home’s asset illiquidity on its head. One California man planted fake pipe bombs all over his foreclosed property.2 What do these acts accomplish? Of course, they do not help foreclosed homeowners reclaim their homes. Yet they do powerfully produce an utterly different way of relating to the commodity that is one’s house. As if to subvert the strange transfer of agency that defines every instance of commodity fetishism, these acts of sabotage reassert the resistant agency of the vandal. And the vandal’s agency is not single-minded but systemic. Her act of destruction does not merely ruin a single house for a single person; it effectively removes the commodified object from circulation altogether. Against the perverse attempt to defend the sanctity and rights of commodities, property destruction thus seeks to upend—one flooded home at a time—the entire system of exploitation and profit that subtends capitalist exchange.

This is the politics of sabotage. Sabotage is one of several crucial political frameworks that allows us to understand the shifting dynamics of organization and resistance under contemporary conditions of indebtedness. Removing commodities from circulation or blocking the paths by which they (and money) might circulate, sabotage addresses itself not so much to what Marx famously described as “the hidden abode of production” but to what Jasper Bernes powerfully terms “the sites of social reproduction.” For Bernes, social reproduction encompasses “industries involved in the circulation or realization of commodities (transportation and retail), industries designed to manage the reproduction of capital (finance) or labor (education, health care); and finally industries concerned with the administration of flows of goods and bodies . . . spheres that accelerate and direct flows of capital and labor from site to site, quickening their turnover and reproduction.” This shift from production to reproduction, or from productive capital to circulating capital, means that our basic relation to capitalism is no longer governed primarily by the workplace. Instead, as Bernes urgently points out, “the working class confront[s] capital as circulation or reproduction, as storefront and trade union office, prison and university, as riot cop and shopping mall”—or, as this book has added, as subprime mortgage broker and sheriff’s department, as foreclosure summons and payday loan bill.3 The result is a mode of accumulation characterized by precarious, short-term, typically nonunionized service work supplemented by debt and driven by a form of financial capital so mobile and liquid that it can outmaneuver any form of organization designed to resist it. Under these circumstances, traditional forms of radical organization meet an impasse.

Attempts to slow or block circulation have thus become the tactical correlative of an economy driven by consumer debt. From property destruction to building occupation, port blockades to freeway shutdowns, anti-foreclosure barricades to student debt strikes, clashes with the mode of reproduction and in the zones of circulation reveal a situation in which economic subjects confront their exploitation not in the wage but in the eviction notice. These tactics, which I suggest we can group together under the category of sabotage, are the ones most adequate to a moment in which capital itself has been accruing an ever-larger share of its own profits from underpaid workers’ need for credit. Where credit seeks to ensure the smooth transfer of money and commodities while deferring payment to the future, sabotage destroys the commodity, blocks exchange, voids payment.4 As Morgan Adamson puts it, writing on the Chilean activist Francisco Tapia, who burned student loan promissory notes valued at $500 million and displayed their ashes as art, sabotage “intervene[s] in the material practices of accounting and accountability that undergird forms of exploitation” under crisis capitalism. Acts of sabotage, Adamson persuasively claims, “use property destruction to incapacitate complex networks of capital accumulation.”5 In this way, we might consider sabotage the political equivalent of crisis itself, since circulation—the liquid flow of capital and goods, more important to the contemporary economy than ever before—was already stalled or “frozen” by the credit crisis, which, by destroying market credibility and confidence in the market’s own systems of risk management, made it that much harder for capital to outrun its own stagnation.

A form of resistance to the logics of private property and ownership, sabotage thus represents a particularly canny response to the uncanniness of housing speculation and foreclosure. Moreover, to see sabotage as a mode of collective solidarity is to see it as something more than simply destructive. The solidarity of sabotage has been on display, for instance, in community campaigns against eviction that draw on tactics of direct action to disrupt or prevent foreclosures. In Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, a community group called City Life/Vida Urbana has fought on behalf of both homeowners and renters to prevent evictions and foreclosures, often by occupying homes and blocking the entrance of the police.6 Barricading the door against the cops, City Life refuses the police power that protects and underwrites private property. The Oakland-based Foreclosure Defense Group has done similar work in the Bay Area. As one participant described it, rather than “acting on the behalf of property ownership, and exclusion, and capital, and individualization, atomization,” organizers realized that in the working-class and black communities of Oakland, “these homes were essentially a bulwark against the ravages of the greater system. . . . It was [a way] to get out from underneath a landlord. It was a bulwark against the greater structure.”7 Here again we see how the fight against eviction works not as a defense of private property but as a refusal of it. The saboteurs of the anti-foreclosure movement seek to devalue property as a commodity in circulation—seizable, salable, liquid—and to value it in entirely different terms: the terms not of debt-driven reproduction but of shared use value. As a tactical response to foreclosure, sabotage transforms the home from the expression of individual identity into the basis of social solidarity.

Sabotage, then, is one politically canny response to foreclosure and seizure. But what happens when the object in default can’t be seized either by the debtor or the creditor? That is the increasingly common problem posed by student debt, which has in many ways become the exemplary form of indebtedness in the twenty-first century. More than 65 percent of students take out loans, and more than forty million Americans currently hold at least one student loan. Student loan debt is now the second-largest category of consumer debt (after housing), topping out at $1.3 trillion. It’s also the fastest growing: whereas most other categories of consumer debt have declined somewhat in the post-crisis period, student loan debt is on the rise, having increased by more than 160 percent over the last decade. (The US Treasury currently estimates that, by the end of the next decade, total student debt will increase nearly threefold, to more than $3 trillion.) Today the average graduate of a four-year college concludes her education saddled with $29,000 in debt, a figure that has risen twice as fast as the rate of inflation over the last decade.8

If the contemporary university has become increasingly inextricable from the financial economy, one reason is that the market in student loan debt has been immensely profitable. Of the total outstanding student debt, $150 billion is from private lenders and banks rather than the government, and that figure is poised to grow even faster than federal student lending.9 Private loans often have interest rates as high as 20 percent, allow no subsidization of interest, and have a much stricter set of rules on repayment after graduation. Yet private lenders have marketed these loans so aggressively that many student borrowers take out private loans even when they are still eligible for lower-interest federal loans. Approximately 45 percent of those taking out private bank loans have not used up their full federal loan eligibility, a figure almost exactly the same as the number of prime-qualified mortgage borrowers who unnecessarily ended up with subprime home loans. Students of color have been the most exploited in this market: the percentage of African American students who take out private loans has quadrupled in ten years, making this subprime market uncannily like the subprime mortgage market, in which people of color were disproportionately targeted for high-interest loans even when they were eligible for a better deal.10

Even federal student loans, once seen as a potentially wasteful form of state welfare, have become hugely profitable. In 2014, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the US Department of Education will generate $127 billion in profit over the next decade.11 Public loans are also being securitized, refinanced, and bundled together into Student Loan Asset Backed Securities (SLABS), which are then tranched and sold to institutional investors, including many pension funds: this means that it’s possible for a professor at a university to be indirectly invested in the debt of her own students.12 Student loans were once considered too risky for private investors because there is no collateral; unlike a mortgage, there is no material asset underwriting the dead pledge of the student loan. But as of 1998 (for federal loans) and 2005 (for private loans), student debt is also the only form of consumer debt that is not dischargeable by bankruptcy. Predictably, this has made student-debt-backed securities extremely attractive to investors. Creditors have also been reassured by state-based efforts to treat professional certification itself as a form of seizable collateral. Much as new practices in eviction processing have made it possible for banks to exert more pressure on mortgage holders, so too have new strategies shaped the student loan collection industry, as graduates working in any job from law to teaching might have their wages garnished and their very right to employment in that field revoked as punishment for failure to repay their debt.13

The connection between the university and the credit economy runs in both directions. Not only are banks now invested in education; universities are becoming more like banks. Sometimes, as in the case of private loans, the implication of the university in the profitability of student debt is obvious. A 2006–7 investigation found that many universities, including prestigious not-for-profit private schools like New York University and public universities like University of Texas at Austin, were colluding with the financing institutions that were offering private loans to their students. These schools received a cut of the fees private lenders charged students, administrators were rewarded for high loan volume with fancy vacations, and in some instances, private lenders even demanded that a bank representative be on university staff.14 The penetration of financial capitalism into the contemporary university has also happened in less visible ways, as we see when we consider how fast the rate and volume of student lending have increased over the last two decades. Between 1993 and 2015, the average yearly debt load for borrowers increased nearly fourfold.15 The cause of this ballooning debt was, of course, rapidly increasing tuition: between 1975 and 1990, the cost (adjusted for inflation) of attending a four-year public university increased 50 percent; between 1990 and 2015 it increased 300 percent.16 The most commonly cited reason for the rapid increase in the price of a degree is the decline in state support. This decline is itself a product not simply of political ideology but also of the pressures on growth of gross domestic product (GDP)—and thus on federal budgets—caused by the productive crisis described in the Introduction. Since 2000, real growth in US GDP has averaged a listless 2 percent, compared with a 3 percent average in the 1970s–90s, and higher rates still in the booming postwar period; in this context, the state surpluses that once funded higher education have dried up. But there is another, less noticed, and perhaps more significant reason for the ongoing tuition bubble. The growth of student debt is not simply the effect of higher tuition; higher tuition is also caused by the increasing availability of student loans (much as easy mortgage credit caused housing prices to rise). As Robert Meister has argued in an important article detailing the relationship between university budgets and student debt, after 1992, when the borrowing limit on the federal PLUS loan program (loans for students signed by their parents) was lifted, universities were left with a completely transformed relationship to tuition. Because the supply of loans was now practically infinite, potential increases in tuition became similarly limitless. University leaders, Meister suggests, were thus active participants in the tuition bubble, since they recognized tuition as “an opportunity for aggressive revenue growth they could not afford to miss.”17 By the start of the twenty-first century, the university had simply become another name for the financial economy.

This fact has not been lost on indebted students themselves. Consider a small but revealing act of defacement that took place amid larger campus protests against tuition increases at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2010. Lining the campus walkways at the time were promotional posters from the university advertising department emblazoned with “Thanks to Berkeley . . .” and filled in with a variety of motivational and enthusiastic student testimonials. One such poster, though, carried a different message. “Thanks to Berkeley,” one protester scribbled onto the sign, “I’m in debt forever.” Then even the word “Berkeley” was crossed out and replaced with “capitalism,” providing an even more insightful account of the contemporary credit economy: “Thanks to capitalism . . . I’m in debt forever.”

One might choose to read this clever bit of graffiti as a kind of individual complaint or solitary confession. Yet in the context of the broader campus activism that was its occasion, it stands as one of several examples of a collective movement aimed at putting university life at the center of economic resistance. In the manifestos, reports, and communiqués written by and circulated among student activists, the condition of being in debt has opened up a much-needed perspective from which to view the connection between the university and the economy, as well as between students and workers. One student manifesto, titled “We Are the Crisis,” argues that “the massive personal debt required to keep the university and its building projects churning along indicate[s] the unsustainability of current class relations over the long-term.”18 Here, student debt is what connects the “crisis of the university” to economic crisis. More specifically, the crisis of student debt intersects in several crucial ways—in terms of both its history and its resistant politics—with the crisis of housing debt. Joshua Clover has observed the startling overlap between the locations of student militancy in 2009 and 2010 and those places most devastated by home foreclosures. “We can now say,” writes Clover, “that higher education militancy proceeds in absolute solidarity with mortgage failure, bankruptcy, and foreclosure.”19 Behind both subprime mortgage borrowers and subprime student borrowers, we find a shared situation in which the conditions of subsistence and reproduction are no longer supported by the wage alone and can thus be sustained only through ever-greater burdens of debt. Similarly, in both cases, the process of securitization has transformed these particular kinds of debt into income streams for speculative investors. In the context of this blurring of public good and private interest, it is not surprising that the most successful and engaged anti-student-debt movement happening today is the debt strike organized by the students of for-profit Corinthian Colleges. Once the “Corinthian 15,” the group of strikers has now grown to more than two hundred students who are refusing to make payments on the massive loans they owe to the now-defunct and unaccredited private colleges run by the Corinthian group. The Corinthian students are largely first-generation college attendees, students of color, and nontraditional students, the very same population most devastated by the housing crisis. And of course, these indebted students are also the ones caught up in the most brazenly exploitative education racket, the for-profit college market. Yet even here, the aims of debt strike are not particular or individual but collective, articulated in terms of the shared condition of debt itself: as a manifesto from the Debt Collective—a group comprising the Corinthian students as well as hundreds of other student debtors—states, “Alone, our debts are a burden; together, they make us powerful.”20

Approached through the framework of debt, the connection between students and workers, like the connection between the university and capital, is not simply analogical. Nearly 75 percent of college students work while in school. Despite the common recommendation of colleges that students work no more than ten hours per week while in school, one in five students works full-time, and of those who are ostensibly part-time workers, greater than half work more than twenty hours per week.21 And students—above all indebted students—are not just present workers but also future ones, working now to pay for an education whose meager (and increasingly false) promise is to put them in a position to get slightly higher-paying work later.

The fact that students have pledged their lives and livelihoods to the repayment of their debt has often been read as an expression of a certain optimism: as Adamson puts it, student debt is perceived as “the manifestation of the student’s entrepreneurial subjectivity, as education is seen as an investment in his or her own human capital intended to yield a future return on that investment.”22 Asserting over and over again that student debt is “good” debt, university representatives and bankers alike have told students that committing their future wages to their present education will be a profitable investment in their own future, encouraging students to view higher education as a means to an economic end. Humanist academics of all stripes have resisted this discourse of higher education as professional investment or technical job training.23 Depending on the political affiliation of the critic, this resistance has tended to be rooted in one of two complaints: either about the ruinous instrumentalization of liberal human values such changes portend or about the corporate university’s capitulation to capitalist imperatives they mark.

The limit of both these objections, however, is that they fail to recognize that the problem with describing higher education as an investment in one’s economic and professional future is not merely a moral or political one. The bigger problem with such a description is that it is historically inaccurate. The assumption that going into debt to pay for a college degree will always pay dividends in terms of future employability and income is now less certain than ever before. The theory of education as an investment in valuable human capital—frequently used to support the rhetoric of student debt as a way to speculate on one’s professional future, as Adamson suggests—is often seen as a particularly contemporary phenomenon. But in fact it is a rhetoric that was better suited to the boom economy that produced it: human capital theory first emerged to justify state-financed higher education, especially the GI Bill, between the 1940s and 1960s.24 This midcentury period was an era of rising US hegemony and unprecedented US economic strength, not only in the economy as a whole but also in the portion of economic growth going to workers in the form of wages. In this context, the human capital theory of the 1950s and 1960s both contributed and responded to the historically specific rise of a middle-class technocracy. That rise meant that capital needed more educated workers than it ever had before. The education premium—the increase in lifetime earnings that accrues to those with a college degree—predictably rose to its highest level in this period (as it did again in the 1980s, as the economy changed to accommodate the microelectronic revolution).25 Yet today, for the first time in US history, the education premium is falling. Between 2001 and 2013, the average wage for workers with a bachelor’s degree declined 10 percent. The current unemployment rate among recent college graduates is nearly identical to the national average rate of unemployment. Of those fortunate enough to have a job, half of university graduates have jobs that do not require a college degree. Because this is happening at the same time that college costs have increased many times faster than the rate of inflation, and given the costs of paying off student debt, 25 percent of US universities, by one estimate, now offer students a negative return on their “investment.” Put simply, for many students today, the cost of an education is greater than the lifetime income gains it enables, making human capital a rather dire form of speculation indeed.26

From this perspective, that melancholic line from the Berkeley graffiti—“I’m in debt forever”—turns out to be startlingly accurate. Largely because of high un- and underemployment, the current rate of student loan default is remarkably high: student loans have the highest delinquency rate of any form of consumer debt, having surpassed credit card debt in 2012. According to the Federal Reserve, half of total student loan balances are not even in repayment. Some are in deferment (typically because the borrowers are in graduate school and thus continuing to accrue debt), while others are in forbearance (a temporary stay of execution possible if a student loses her job or has a health crisis). Of those ostensibly in repayment, 17 percent are officially delinquent. The overall delinquency rate, the Fed thus suggests, is more than 27 percent, or nearly a third of all outstanding loans. Among students who left college in 2010, five years later $71 billion of their $78 billion in debt remains outstanding.27 For these and many other students, student loan debt—or the consequences of defaulting on it—may well be with them forever.

Of course, these numbers are facts whether the graffiti implies them or not. What really interests me about the graffiti writer’s knowing prognosis is how it suggests that students themselves are now fully aware of their dire predicament. Today’s student debtors are hardly trapped in some state of false consciousness or foolish optimism. Yet that assumption lingers. Certainly, these students have been told that education debt is good because it will inevitably lead to higher incomes and a better life—much as their parents were told that housing values would rise forever. Belief in these kinds of future fulfillments has been most influentially described by Lauren Berlant as a “cruel optimism”: “an optimistic attachment . . . that ignites a sense of possibility”; a belief in the kinds of “conventional good-life fantasies” that we cling too even when they betray us; a persistent faith in “idealizing theories and tableaux about how [we] and the world ‘add up to something.’” Berlant’s formulation describes an attachment to injurious ways of being (for instance, when we think we have a moral obligation to our creditor) and to forms of optimistic feeling that ultimately default on their promises (for instance, when we go into debt to ensure a future income we will likely never earn).28

My own experience discussing debt with my students at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM), however, has suggested anything but optimism, cruel or otherwise. UWM is an open-admission institution in Wisconsin’s urban center. The city of Milwaukee (along with the state as a whole) has struggled to survive amid the depredations of deindustrialization and postindustrial transformations of the farming economy. My students come variously from urban Milwaukee, rural northern and central Wisconsin, and some of the highest-poverty suburban communities in the state. They come from working- and middle-class families, and many have seen, through their parents, the dire consequences of the real estate boom, adjustable-rate mortgages, “easy” credit, and foreclosure. In addition to their parents’ housing debts, these students are burdened with their own student loan and credit card debt. Many are first-generation college students, and their retention and graduation rates are relatively low, while their average time to degree is unusually long. They work, many of them full-time while enrolled. Some work multiple jobs; many are supporting both themselves and their families. They work in a range of jobs exemplary of a deindustrialized circulation and reproduction economy: truck drivers, baristas, line cooks, pizza deliverers, bartenders, retail salespeople, IT help-line staffers, daycare workers, warehouse stockers. They are working hard for their degrees, even as those degrees are delayed by so much work.

All of this—so much work and so many years for an increasingly devalued degree—may well sound cruelly optimistic. But that is not in fact what these students are. These students turn out to have a very different, far darker view of all those cruel reassurances about debt—of the claim that it is an investment in the future or that it is a measure of moral obligation. Today’s student debtors are not in the least optimistic. Rather, they possess a demystified, canny, and radical kind of knowledge. They do not believe in a future “good life” of financial security and middle-class mobility. They do not believe that they will own homes like their parents do. They do not believe they will move up the ladder of social mobility. They do not have faith that they will find meaningful, much less stable, work; indeed, many of them assume they will be working the same jobs after they graduate that they’re working right now. They do not see their degree as an investment in their future (nor, they report to me, do many of their parents). And they believe they will never be out of debt.

In all of these ways, I see a much different—more radical, less optimistic, more knowing—post-crisis political subject than Berlant does. In turning here to the question of what kind of subjectivity emerges in a time of crisis, I am not at all suggesting that we ought to prioritize the individual, the experiential, or the affective over collectivity, totality, and history. The way we feel about our debt does not change how much debt we are in. Nor does debt itself work primarily by making us feel certain things. If and when we pay our debt, we do not do so because of ideology or affect; we do so because we are literally at risk when we don’t. Because of debt’s material consequences and real risks, it cannot be enough to change merely the ways we think about our debt. But that is not to say that such thoughts and feelings must immediately be disqualified as irrelevant mystifications or political withdrawals. The abstract and the universal do not lie apart from the concrete and the particular. Rather, the bankrupt unemployed worker, the subprime mortgage holder, the indebted student all are able to glimpse the mechanisms, motions, and limits of the capitalist totality that subsumes them. They are at once the products of that totality and the subjects most capable of reckoning with it. Their political power may find expression as collective agency (for instance, when students join together to resist their debts); or it may find expression as sheer exigency (for instance, when students default on their loans). In either case, we see how political subjectivity—what we think, what we feel, what we believe—is inextricable from political action. No one has put this point more finely and inspiringly than Chris Nealon: “The volatility born of the contradictions in capital might better point to a different, earlier understanding of theory: not the pursuit of a transcendental vantage point or the critique of that pursuit but the relentless surveying of possible grounds for solidarity among those for whom the regime of capital only spells suffering.”29 In our contemporary capitalist landscape, where suffering is most often synonymous with debt, a survey of the grounds for solidarity shows us the shared interests of defaulted students and evicted families, of student workers and union workers. For these solidarities to come into view, we need to know that there is less difference between the debt to a university and the debt to the landlord than we might assume. We need to know that what unites us today is not the “good-life fantasy” of upward mobility we once clung to but the universal knowledge of that fantasy’s historical end. We need to know that debt is not an investment in the future but a confrontation with economic coercion and exploitation in the present. To know these things is to have the kind of knowledge I am calling “crisis subjectivity.” This is a knowledge that comes from seeing your parents struggle to maintain their class position; from seeing members of your family evicted or foreclosed on; from seeing your neighbors lose their jobs due to deindustrialization and outsourcing; from seeing your fellow students take on a debt load as crushing as your own. New historical conditions produce new modes of historical consciousness. Crisis subjectivity is simply what it means to grapple with history as it happens, to acquire a politics as it slowly emerges out of history’s mist.

“I’m in debt forever.” Read as the rallying cry of an emergent crisis subjectivity based not in the uncanniness or illegibility of debt but in a canny, clear-eyed reckoning with the poverty of credit’s promises about the future, this line becomes not a sad complaint but an empowering threat. After all, an economy founded on credit depends on deferring payment into the future, but it depends even more on the premise that those payments will not be deferred forever. To be in debt forever is thus to refuse to be in debt at all. This affirmation of debt’s unpayability robs debt of its calculability, of its quantifiable claim on the future earnings of worker. To be in debt forever is to refuse to balance the books, to resist paying your debt to society, and thus to throw a wrench into the very machinery of social reproduction. Think of it as a kind of irrational exuberance from below: a way of transforming default and devaluation into the very condition of possibility for radical collective politics. “I’m in debt forever” is the radical voice of both the collective debt striker and the solitary debt defaulter, of the saboteur and the bankrupt. Shouted against the false obligations of credit’s dead pledges, it is a new kind of promise: one made by a living indebted who cannot and will not pay their debts.


1. An early version of this Coda appeared as “The Living Indebted: Student Militancy and the Financialization of Debt,” Qui Parle 20.1 (Fall/Winter 2011). Published by University of Nebraska Press.

2. For reports on these incidents, see Michael Phillips, “Buyers’ Revenge: Trash the House after Foreclosure,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2008,; “8 Insane Ways People Destroyed Their Foreclosed Homes,” InvestingAnswers, August 30, 2012,

3. Jasper Bernes, “The Double Barricade and the Glass Floor,” in Communization and Its Discontents: Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles, ed. Benjamin Noyes (Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, n.d.), 161–62.

4. For a useful and powerful account of sabotage as “the mirrored moment of exchange,” see Evan Calder Williams, “Hostile Object Theory,” Mute (February 1, 2011),

5. Morgan Adamson, “Accounting for Ashes: The Art of Sabotage in the Chilean Student Movement,” Minnesota Review 85 (2015): 162, 163.

6. See the City Life/Vida Urbana website, accessed May 23, 2016,

7. Final Straw, “History of the Foreclosure Defense Group: An Interview with Brooke on Race, Class, and Housing,” Fireworks: Anarchist Counterinformation Project for the Bay Area, January 15, 2016,

8. See Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “Household Debt Continues Upward Climb While Student Loan Delinquencies Worsen,” February 17, 2015,; Juan Sánchez and Lijun Zhu, “Student Loan Delinquency: A Big Problem Getting Worse?,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Economic Research Department, April 10, 2015,; Meta Brown, Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joelle Scally, and Wilbert van der Klaauw, “Looking at Student Loan Defaults through a Larger Window,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York Liberty Street Economics (blog), February 19, 2015,

9. Catherine Dunn, “America’s Private Student Loan Debt Rising, Despite Risks, Costs That Exceed Government Loans,” International Business Times, June 13, 2014,

10. Thomas Harnisch, “The Public Realities of Private Student Loans: A Higher Education Policy Brief,” American Association of State Colleges and Universities, April 2008,, 2; The Institute for College Access & Success, “Private Loans: Facts and Trends in 2008,” May 2014,

11. Congressional Budget Office, “Baseline Projections for the Student Loan Program,” April 2014,

12. Jonathan Marino, “Startups Are Going to Make Billions Doing a (Safer) Version of What Wall Street Did with Home Loans,” Business Insider, June 10, 2015,

13. Terri Harris, “Student Loan Default Could Result in License Revocation,” Tennessee Bar Association, July 21, 2010,

14. Doug Lederman, “Inside the Cuomo Probe,” Inside Higher Ed, July 30, 2007,

15. Jeffrey Sparshott, “Congratulations, Class of 2015. You’re the Most Indebted Ever (for Now),” Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2015,

16. College Board, “Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time, 1975–76 to 2015–16, Selected Years,” December 2015,

17. Bob Meister, “Debt and Taxes: Can the Financial Industry Save Public Universities?,” Representations 116 (Fall 2011): 128.

18. Posted by Steven, “We Are the Crisis,” After the Fall: Communiqués from Occupied California, February 26, 2011,

19. From a January 8, 2011, conference presentation at the “MLA Sub-Conference,” an alternative to the 2011 Modern Language Association. Courtesy of the author.

20. See the Debt Collective, accessed May 23, 2016,

21. Lynn O’Shaughnessy, “More Students Working (a Lot) in College,” CBS Money Watch, February 5, 2013,

22. Adamson, “Accounting for Ashes,” 164.

23. For the most influential of these criticisms, see Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); Henry Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014); and Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

24. See Pedro Nuno Teixeira, “Gary Becker’s Early Work on Human Capital—Collaborations and Distinctiveness,” Journal of Labor Economics 3.12 (2014): 1–20.

25. James Galbraith, Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 25.

26. See Diana Carew, “Young College Grads: Real Earnings Fell in 2011,” Progressive Policy Institute, September 20, 2012,; Jared Bernstein and Lawrence Mishel, “Education and the Inequality Debate,” Economic Policy Institute, February 8, 2007,; John Cassidy, “College Calculus: What’s the Real Value of Higher Education?,” New Yorker, September 7, 2015,

27. Sánchez and Zhu, “Student Loan Delinquency.”

28. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 2. Later in the book, Berlant deals explicitly with the effects of the crisis on “cruel optimism,” arguing that “a recession grimace has appeared, somewhere between a frown, a smile, and a tight lip. As more people . . . are seen watching their dreams become foreclosed on in material and fantasmatic ways, the grimace produces another layer of face to create a space of delay while subject and world adjust to how profoundly fantasmatic the good-life dreams were, after all” (196). I find this a helpful account, yet I think the subjectivity I am describing differs from Berlant’s “grimace” in two ways. First, historically/generationally, I am suggesting that the students I am describing aren’t forced to “adjust” to the loss of the good-life fantasy because they never had a very strong attachment to it in the first place—not necessarily because they don’t want it but because they have never felt entirely confident they would achieve it; for many of them, after all, the dream of upward mobility was already foreclosed for their parents. Second, politically, I am suggesting that these students (perhaps unlike their parents) do not find it necessary to produce a stoic front—although they are not deluded, they are very angry, and they are willing to share their anger with one another.

29. Chris Nealon, “Value/Theory/Crisis,” PMLA 127.1 (January 2012): 106.