A Life of Loan: Marxism and Student Debt

Randy Meza

Sitting in the lecture hall listening to Z Nicolazzo’s talk, I forgot that I was a student. (A welcome distraction with readings and to-do lists usually staking a claim at the forefront of my mind.) Through Nicolazzo’s facilitation of group discussion, I felt as if I were a member of a community, a community of educators trying to figure things out. In our groups, we discussed what does it mean to teach while marginalized and the bodily effects that can rise out of these spaces. It was a challenging discussion. Yet, there was hope things could change. Nicolazzo’s words still stuck with me after the discussion was over. Her trans* pedagogy advocates for owning our narratives (“lest they be un/written by others”) and focuses "on imagining a world we need rather than feeling stuck with the one we have.” I felt empowered. However, my phone buzzed and broke my inspiration. My student loan servicer notified me of my next monthly payment.

I remembered that I was a student again. I remembered the world we have—the world that we do live in runs on debt. And it is also debt that attempts to write the narrative of students' lives.

Upon admission, a college student is usually told, "make college your own," "what you get out of college is what you put into it," or, as my alma mater asks, "who are you called to be?" All injunctions placed upon the individual, and thus, the institution of college can evade any responsibility or criticisms. After all, it is the student who makes or breaks the college experience, not the college itself.

According to Marxist sociologist, Maurizio Lazzarato, these kinds of commands imposed upon the invididual nothing new. They’re actually the very basis of the global, neoliberal economy. Moving away from classical economics with the barterer and the producer as the central subjects, neoliberalism has changed the ideal subject to the debtor and the creditor. Lazzarato writes, "Credit or debt and their credit-debtor relationship constitute specific relations of power that entail specific forms of production and control of subjectivity—a particular form of homo economicus, the 'indebted man.' In result of this economic shift, he later describes subjectivity under capitalism as the "entrepreneur of the self." In order to become human under capitalism, one must assume all the risks and costs of bettering oneself—debt is the cost of admission to simply be.

And this cost of living is pervasive. Lazzarato reports that consumption of everyday purchases and large family purchases (e.g. a house, a car, and education expenses), which comprises 70% of the U.S.'s GDP, is a large source of revenue for creditors. In addition, the level of household debt relative to disposable income equals to 120% in the U.S.2 Considering the sheer volume of student loan indebtedness in America (now at $1.5 trillion), the average graduate in 2017 leaving college with $39,400, and that colleges are responsible to keep their credit score in good standing, colleges are not exempt from this debtor-creditor relationship.

Yet, these numbers do not consider the subjective experience of the college student or the student borrower. College students, likely funding their schooling through loans, report high instances of anxiety and depression. In addition, debt carries with it high instances of health issues such as depression, suicide, alcoholism, drug dependence, and other psychological disorders. While it is tempting to consider the debt issue as an economic one, it is experienced as a bodily one.

For the instant one signs a loan's promissory note, one is signing up for an internal voice that turns the self into a commodity. With close to $40,000 awaiting the average student at the end and the high rates of depression and anxiety among students and borrowers, one's use-value is brought into question—“Am I, and what I studied, useful with all this debt?" Furthermore, one's exchange-value amplifies this stress "How can I be exchanged on the open market to get rid of this debt or make this debt worth it?" In result, we see the additional burdens to the hyper-responsibility related to the entrepreneur of the self. The self becomes subject to notions of worth grounded in an ever-increasing monetary figure (thanks to accruing interest) and is conscripted to an exploitative workforce to cope with this debt. In
sum, the self, as a result of becoming a commodity, is abstracted and alienated from one's self—for one is comparing oneself to a number or the amorphous workforce of late capitalism.

The tyranny of student loans reinforces the need of Z Nicolazzo's trans* pedagogy. Similarly to Nicolazzo's usage of a Sara Ahmed quote, "We can be shattered by the force of what we come up against, when our bodies are little objects thrown against the hard walls of history," student loans throw the bodies of students against the hard walls of a history that is neither necessary or eternal. However, there is a need of a radical critique of the higher education system to complement Nicolazzo's
pedagogy. While her pedagogy seeks to ensure the marginalized control their own narratives (and thus is a pedagogy of care and compassion), the reproduction of debt inherent to college is nonetheless still present. A negation of these economic conditions becomes necessary if administrators, teachers, and students proclaim to be radical. Through this negation, we can could strive to be educated without accruing the fiscal and physical costs of debt.

Nicolazzo ended her presentation with another Ahmed quote: "Don't look over it, if you can't get over it." For any of us with student loans, we cannot get over them. So, let's not overlook them and move toward a more just education system.

References

Lazzarato, Maurizio. The Making of the Indebted Man. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012. 30.