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The Poverty Machine: Student Debt, Class Society and Securing Bonded Labor

Millennials are forecast to experience a decline in standards of living comparative to their forebears.

At the dawn of the 20th century, very few American students attended high school, as the demands of the heavy-industrial and the agricultural economies of that period were ill-suited to an extended education beyond the family sphere. In the middle of the 20th century, most Americans who either aspired to or had to work entered the full-time workforce immediately after high school, for such a postwar economy featured plenty of growth and comparably fair wage-compensation for the average worker. As the economy became more complex in its labor needs, its extending length of education complemented these requirements. The transformation of the agricultural economy into the technological economy after World War II, in turn, transformed the university, once the commune of the well-to-do, into a center for job training, an adjunct to industry, and one which continued to increase in enrollment as the technological necessities of an increasingly complex economy required further education. What was once the realm of the study of Christian religion, the Rennaissance humanists, and the Aufklärung became, for most students, the study of the technical labor necessary to produce and reproduce the new forms of capitalism and scientific production coming into existence. The growth of the American middle class became co-incident with the growth of the education industries which had hardly existed a century previous, when the middle class itself had hardly existed in any recognizable form. Where there was study, there was hope for economic success-the maxim “if a man falls in a field he is redeemed in a library” comes to mind-and the institution of the university became as integral to living well in the United States as the ownership of property and the propagation of the nuclear family.

However, in the 21st century, although attendance of university courses is at an all-time high as the millennial generation achieves the highest historical rate on record of college attendance, that same generation is forecast to experience a decline in standards of living comparative to their forebears. Not only this qualitative fact, but also the quantitative method of that attendance is worthy of critical analysis-for the funding of undergraduate and graduate educations comes largely from the borrowing of money from lenders with the Federal government playing its role as intermediary. As the declining middle class cannot pay for its children’s higher educations, it looks to the loan system to cover the ever-increasing costs of reproducing its standards of living over time. But such loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, and with the already saturated labor markets of the majority of the professions that could hope to pay off those loans, the economic situation comes to look much different: rather than the state intent on spreading enlightenment to the masses, the state appears to be securitizing a labor force that will simply have to perform whatever jobs are available, perhaps for decades on end, in order to pay off those loans.

That is, the students will have to do so if they want to qualify for home mortgages and otherwise live free from debt, which historically has always loomed over the subaltern and the serf alike. The parallels between the indebted student and the historical bond-laborer are strong enough to warrant comparison. One trend that especially deserves critical analysis is the outreach of the market to cover students from low-income backgrounds and whether or not such outreach is democratic-a Rawlsian lifting of the boats-or if it is merely predatory in nature and outcome. For, if the state and its lenders are merely financing higher education in order to secure a labor force that will not practice in the professions for which it trained but rather any job available by fiat of the debt-load, then a new reckoning is due of the state of affairs between the working-class young and their educations, the relationship between the state and the private sector, and the ongoing presence of class determinism in the free world.

Debt Corvee

According to The Institute for College Access and Success, statistics for the average student debt load from 2014 suggest that 71% of all students graduating from four-year colleges had student loan debt and the average level of this debt for public colleges was about $25,550, about $5000 higher than 2008. At the for-profit colleges the level was even higher, with students graduating with about $40,000 in debt. Most of this debt is mediated by government loan programs-about 80%-with the rest being covered by private lenders without mediation. The average student debt has increased, since 1993, about three-fold; given the rising cost of living and institutional funding in general, an increase in cost is not particularly surprising. What is surprising is how steep that increase in cost is. The cost of the aspirant apparatus of education increases beyond the market value of the professions on offer when viewed sociologically-the combination of public funding and private ambition allows tuition rates to soar even as student returns on investment plummet.

It appears the days when middle-class parents, a status declining in real terms since the 1970’s, directly financed their children’s college educations are largely over. While this may appear to be beneficial to the working class, in that the gatekeeping apparatus for entry into the professions-the colleges and universities-are more easily accessible than ever before, the debt that falls on the students is that much more of a burden. Students “who received Pell Grants, most of whom had family incomes under $40,000, were much more likely to borrow and to borrow more” than their more middle class peers, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. The debt load is thus geared to the children of the working class and the working poor who, no doubt seeking a better future for themselves, expend large sums of money-often more than a year’s wages, and sometimes two years’ worth-in accessing the portals of higher education. Given that student loans mediated by the government cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, students often have no choice but to live with that debt load for years and years if not forever: they have an education which cannot be repossessed, but they are also forced to work in professions for which they did not train in order to pay off that initial investment. This situation comes to resemble the historical institution of corvee labor, or other forms of debt-labor, in that the young, in being promised a better future, must nevertheless work for others as bonded servants in order to pay off their contracts. This is especially true for graduates in the non-scientific disciplines, as a Bachelor’s degree in a field other than business or the sciences becomes a mere shibboleth for entry into work that is not at the very bottom of the labor market, and even those “safe degrees” harbor little real safety for the student at the whim of capital. Having a Master’s degree in economics, the social science that ended The Great Depression, is yet no guarantee against waiting tables for tips for an indefinite period. The same can be said of the other disciplines.

The historical practice of corvee labor has much in common with the emergence of the indebted student. Corvee was a form of near-slavery, often linked to the military, that indentured laborers to a contract with an owner; nominally, the contract was entered into freely by the laborer, was guaranteed by the state, and was therefore not legally slavery, but due to the conditions of existence the laborer otherwise faced, the contract’s foundations were more reminiscent of the Hobbesian outlook than the Lockean. It was often the only viable option available for the children of the poor, and so, faced with hunger or hard labor, they chose labor on contract with the state. The structural difference between this practice and the practice of loaning to students are small, in that the state was involved in corvee as much as it is involved in student lending-for the student who may seek jobs after graduation is still in the economic red even as the student receives compensation for work. Corvee’s goals were to fill up a floating labor pool; the side effect, whether designed or accidental, of student lending winds up much the same. A student who accrued $30,000 in debt studying philosophy is likely to wind up working in the lower sectors of the labor market, unless they go back to school for a different or a higher degree-and so, in terms of base economics, their impersonal labor has been securitized by the public sector in favor of the private sector. Unless, that is, that student winds up working for the state in some other capacity than what they expected when they entered into their field of study, in which case the state has merely financed its own labor pool: and plenty of state jobs, like those in the sector of public secondary education, offer debt-manumission in reward for practicing in those fields for a period of several years. As such, the claim that only for-profit colleges are to blame for high student debt is false, for public universities contribute massively to rates of student debt and possess internal incentives for producing indebted students who might seek to dissolve their debt through public service.

The same may be said to apply to a pre-medical student who decides it is not prudent to enter into the “megaloans” required for medical school-at which point that student is already indebted for the undergraduate education and so, like the student of philosophy, winds up working for any institution that is hiring. This aleatory materialism may not have been intended by the state-the rhetoric behind opening access to higher education to as many people as possible was couched in democracy and enlightenment, to which every “Dream Big” sign on college campuses will attest-but its practical effects come to much the same result as corvee labor. The ideological state apparatus morphs into the financial state apparatus, yet focuses on the same people-the students, who, now indebted, represent a securitized labor force for private and public sectors alike. Most internships available to the graduate are unpaid internships-a relatively new development since the 1990s-thus leaving working-class graduates desperate for income only non-professional career avenues. As the only broad field of economic growth under the last two presidential terms has occured in the service sector, educated working-class students can expect to enter the same service sectors in which their parents worked. Most interestingly, the etymological root of the word “service” stems from the word “serf.”

The Graeberian Insight

According to Dr. David Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, the centralizing state has employed debt as its apparatus of growth for centuries. Debt, for Graeber, informs the very epistemology of Western people-we think in terms of credit and debit, of libertas and indebtedness, of squaring up our moral accounts. Debt is thus an all-pervasive category in how the Western world works, whether in the ancient world or in the contemporary 21st century. Graeber’s insight is useful beyond his idealist prescriptions for “everyday communism” and his moral philosophy, for the latent commodification of the ideals of democracy-education among them-is still a very real phenomenon. Education may have its necessary infrastructural costs, but it need not be a commodity traded between lenders, or traded between speculators, with unwitting students-especially students from non-professional backgrounds-used as its financial pawns. Given that the actually-existing professions cannot absorb these students, and that the state serves as mediator between lenders financing their educations, the surplus labor which the students provide can only be absorbed by sectors they did not intend on entering: the various service sectors, the only growing sectors in the economy, the only employers broadly willing to accept non-professionals.

Graeber writes that “presented with the prospect of its own eternity, capitalism-or anyway, financial capitalism-simply explodes. Because if there’s no end to it, there’s absolutely no reason not to generate credit-that is, future money-infinitely. Recent events would certainly seem to confirm this. The period leading up to [the financial crisis of] 2008 was one in which many began to believe that capitalism really was going to be around forever; at the very least, no one seemed any longer to be able to imagine an alternative. The immediate effect was a series of increasingly reckless bubbles that brought the whole apparatus crashing down” (360). Given that higher education has become an industry like any other, subject to the same laws of capital and labor, it also suffers the same proneness to instability endemic to any other capitalist endeavor. Consider the recent closure of Sweet Briar College, the glut of PhDs, or the models of infinite growth to which larger universities seem to adhere. The universities are awash in internal commentary that they are swiftly becoming corporatized, going from the internally-administed grove of academe to an organ of capital’s interest-just look at any critical article on The Chronicle of Higher Education, especially those written by educators and researchers already secure in their tenure, such as Terry Eagleton’s 2015 article “The Slow Death of the University.” With such extension of the sphere of capital and its models of development into academia, academia comes to suffer the same risks as capital, along with its students-or, according to the corporatized university, its customers.

The social form of capitalism, in synthesizing Louis Althusser’s social theory of economic reproduction and Graeber’s theory of debt, thus reproduces itself not only through relations of the commodity-form but also through relations of debt (Althusser 47). Capital has a tendency to perform its name-to capitalize, to penetrate into vulnerable markets-and what market is more vulnerable than youth? From ancient Greece to Africa it was not uncustomary for families to lend their children to the market in the form of pawnship or peonage, or in the early modern Western world with indentured servitude, according to the Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition; and with corvee, the state guaranteed the trade-and within the structures of contemporary student lending these kinds of practices appear to have survived into the 21st century even in the liberal West (174, 229-30). The millennial cohort, massive as it is and funded into debt by the state, represents not a boon for the professions but a huge and exploitable labor pool for the industries.

The Re-proletarianization of Youth

In world-systems theory, as understood by the scholar Immanuel Wallerstein in his book Historical Capitalism, the spread of capitalist social relations produces two key processional phenomena: embourgeoisement and proletarianization. These historical processes act in tandem, as some become bourgeois through the labor of those who become proletarianized, and others, more unfortunate, reverse that process. Such a process, now that the university systems have co-opted the capitalist mode of financing, has been enacted in large swathes of the student population. In seeking embourgeoisement and standards of living that have been viable for only a very few for decades, many students actually become proletarianized-and perhaps moreso than had they not attended higher education with the help of the lending system in the first place. Now that higher education is a thoroughly penetrated market for historical capitalism, many of its students become proletarians as surely as if they had went to work in the nearest factory-only it is not the lonely capitalist who profits but rather the university institutions and the state. The funding models of higher education depend on a floating student body, just how labor-intensive industry depends on a floating labor pool; both groups of people come to resemble each other more and more in terms of base material economy in relation to overall American wealth.

The trappings of economic success-a diploma, the social capital of calling oneself educated-only signify the sort of well-being to which people aspire. Those trappings do not guarantee it. Indeed, even many of the teaching scholars who profess at America’s universities still have debt from their undergraduate years well into their careers that prevent them from attaining the truly middle class lifestyles their students expect to earn. The academic phenomenology of the indebted teacher becomes the capitalist yoke of the indebted student who, upon graduation, in all likelihood does not even know the definition of “liberal capitalism.” It is odd, given America’s general strain of individualism, that it has become a normative part of life to amass such large amounts of debt-that the insistence on neoliberal economics binds the citizenry that much more powerfully by debt-relations than by individualism. Such a process is bound to produce discontent not in isolated outliers but in a whole cohort of the population.

The cornerstone of proletarianization is that one expects, in resignation, to work for low wages in industry-any industry, at that. The structural similarity between the historical proletariat and the new student proletariat is profound enough to warrant its assertion; even if standards of living have increased for the working class since Karl Marx’s 19th century by vast leaps and bounds, the group of people graduating from universities with mortgage-sized loans fit into the same category of social utility as that historical proletariat. An indebted youth cohort is very good for capitalist endeavor-businesses, having already offloaded job-training responsibilities to the colleges, can expect an incoming workforce that is more desperate for employment because of the debt-burden-and it is very good for the state, since so many students attend public universities. Given that universities, once homesick spaces of learning and temporary poverty, have become profiteering enterprises of not only education but also entertainment akin to theme parks, they produce permanent poverty under the current administrative model of offering high loans to undergraduates.

Consider the critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s observations, in “The Culture Industry” section of Dialectic of Enlightenment, on “the original affinity between business and entertainment” which “reveals itself in the meaning of entertainment itself: as society’s apologia” (115). Even the studious and earnest student plays today and pays tomorrow in the contemporary university-the hardships of education are passed onto not the undergraduate of today but the graduate of tomorrow. The right to proletarian entertainment is not the “jazz-machines” of Adorno’s era, but the sites of higher education which only since the 1980s welcomes proletarians on their credit. Through a Kantian education that is supposed to free them from external determination, the young have become mere objects of financial speculation, as well as objects of exploitable and undifferentiated labor. The parallels in labor, in relation to the social totality, suggests that the average student body upon graduation becomes the reproduced proletarian body due to debt peonage, which has always been the chief exploitable force and method in industrial society.

In contrast, the medieval institution of journeymanship, by which a student learns gradually more and more from a teacher-worker, was not a relationship of bondage so much as a relationship of tutorship, but despite the modern university’s medieval roots in these practices, the emergence of student debt of such magnitude renders null those benign roots. The indebted student is, as a rule of thumb with its exceptions, rendered by the system of higher education the indebted servant to capital. Working-class 18 year olds ought not be the victims of financial speculation instruments wielded from above, nor should the narrative of enlightenment reproduce inequal relations of capitalism on their shoulders. Beyond this, it is perhaps symptomatic of general living conditions that so many working-class students are attending higher education in the first place-that being poor in a world-historically dynamic economy is that much more intolerable than in the past.

The most worrying facet of this indebting process is the public insistence that students from low-income families attend university on credit. Born into poverty, they can expect to continue enduring it even upon graduation, even if they amass the scholarships and grants that are geared to supporting them. Given the statistics on debt provided by The Institute for College Access and Success, this low-income cohort is the most vulnerable to predatory lending, and so becomes the most indebted relative to their wealthier peers. The class determinism inherent to this shifting of capital from private business to the educational sector all too often makes poor teenagers into poor students into poor working adults. The kinds of jobs these students were taught never to do, by their parents who worked those very jobs in order to keep food on the table, are the only kinds of jobs available to the majority of indebted students upon graduation. While standing debts that pose no possibility of discharge in bankrupty might be good for the speculators of the macro-economy, it represents a monumental burden for individuals and especially those individuals who compose the working class. The pedagogical theorist Henry Giroux suggests in his 2014 book Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education that the funding mechanisms for American universities are abrasively neoliberal, in that they are extended to students only in the interest of maximum returns on investment-and not only does the funding mechanism support inequality, but also the class interests vested in university research that favors the wealthy over the interests of the poor: the aspirant young become as grist for the capitalist mill by the very institutions they were taught to trust since birth.

The sociology of student debt suggests that indebted working-class students will live in, in relation to society at large, the same socioeconomic position as their parents despite their higher educational attainments. According to findings in the economist Dr. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, “even with the considerable increase in the average level of education over the course of the twentieth century, earned income inequality did not increase,” and neither did “the intergenerational correlation of education and earned incomes, which measures the reproduction of the skill hierarchy over time” that “shows no trend toward greater [social] mobility over the long run” (484). The cycle of sociological immiseration thus continues unabated, no matter how loud the college yells of freedom and democracy resound, for someone-most likely not the student-profits off the exploited student body. The social utility of higher education transforms, under capitalism, into the private utility of the capitalist; the social affectation of education-as-commodity transforms into the relations between master and bondsman in the new feudalism. Cultures are changed not by the beliefs of the old but by the beliefs of the young. Where the forces of conservatism-not necessarily undesirable in themselves provided they are matched with creativity-over-reach their purview is in the debt-relations extended to the young, who alone amongst the age groups offer history an American future.

Youth is a time for creative experiment and creative destruction, for healthy questioning of the decadent status quo, for sane inquiry into our insane history; it is not a time to be enslaved to financial circumstance, the time clock, or the manager with delusions of grandeur. Such inexuscable waste now doubtless bears future repercussions. Education has always had its costs, and any prosperous society has paid them-but to what result? Creating a vast age group that, in coming to political and economic consciousness, despises the institutions that led it into servitude is not only damaging to the quality of life the students themselves experience. It is also damaging to the self-serving patriotism that conservative forces depend on, for student debt loads only foster distrust of hallowed institutions. “Mistreat the young,” the old adage goes, “and doom the old.” Not only this, but it is also destructive to middle-class capitalism itself, for a generation that pays student debt is a generation that does not buy homes-a high mark of complaint given that so many American cities are falling into infrastructural decay and personal poverty. The populist imperative to preserve a future worth living in need not clash with the profit motive, provided speculators find means other than the young to achieve their profits. The theory of higher education-its opening of access to a more democratic cross-cut of the classes-ought to inform its more predatory practices which, under the debt-relation, only reproduces poverty.

A Victorian patriarch despite himself, Marx despised the immiseration of proletarians most of all because their subordinate positions rendered them incapable of independence, as though by virtue of their servitude they became adult children permanently. Similar in his criticism was that the chief goal of the working class is self-abolition, that is, the working class’s aspiration is to no longer be working class. In seeking to escape the mire of poverty amidst splendor-for America remains the wealthiest country on the planet-working-class students all too often dig themselves deeper into the poverty trap, however adorned with diplomas its ever-heightening walls become. The only way out of the poverty trap for most of them is to become the very thing they were taught not to become by their parents and their professors: bonded servants, or, as the economist Frederic Lordon calls them, “willing slaves of capital,” in his book of the same name.

It is not that state involvement in higher education is destructive to the common weal. Far from it-higher education is definitely an institution best left to public administration, for it is a valuable aspect of the commons and its democratic purview. The attendance of higher education may represent one area where the erosion of the commons, at first appearance, has not progressed. But the erosion of the commons occurs where capital privatizes public utility, whether or not it happens in land-grant universities or in private colleges. Where the danger lies is in the inter-relationships between the state and funding models that target the poor for the benefit of the wealthy, thereby fostering uneven development and the reproduction of the conditions of poverty for the working class. Were the attendance of university by the poor and the children of the poor not incumbent upon credit, and therefore upon their probable future immiseration, higher education in America would actually function in harmonious accordance with its original raison d’etre: the humane enlightenment of society no matter the class situations its members may have happened to inherit in the lottery of birth.

Works Cited:

Adorno, Theodor & Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford UP, 2002.

Althusser, Louis. “The Reproduction of the Conditions of Production.” On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Verso, 2014.

Eagleton, Terry. “The Slow Death of the University.The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2015.

Giroux, Henry. Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. Harmarket, 2014.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5000 Years. Melville House, 2012.

Klein, Martin. “Pawnship.” Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition. Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Lordon, Frederic. Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire. Verso, 2014.

Piketty, Thomas. “Regulating Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Do Educational Institutions Foster Social Mobility?” Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard UP, 2014.

TICAS.Quick Facts About Student Debt, March 2014. The Institute for College Access and Success. 2014.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. Historical Capitalism. Verso, 2011.

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