The University and Debt


The long-term experience for most university students in the United States is, arguably, less about learning than about debt. In the United States, total student debt in 2017 stands at $1.4 trillion. According to Bloomberg, 1 million former students default on their government loans each year. Yet the Trump administration and Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, move to weaken protections for student borrowers and support federal funding for the for-profit college industry, notorious for sinking students in debt. While many acknowledge student debt constitutes a crisis, no militant mass movement as seen in Germany, Chile or South Africa has emerged in the United States to challenge the deepening financial burdens of students.

The University, (Neo)Colonialism and African Critiques

In 2015 and 2016, students at South African universities challenged the racism and inaccessibility of South African institutions of higher learning, framing their critique and struggle as “decolonization.” Two broad student movements — “Rhodes Must Fall” and “Fees Must Fall” — challenged the reality of both colonial and neo-colonial oppression. The first contested the legacy of the racist arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, whose career in business and politics in southern Africa was central to the dispossession of African land; the rise of the mining industry; the exploitative, enduring system of migrant labor; and the expansion of colonial state power to Zimbabwe and Zambia (the “Rhodesias”). The student movement challenged the culture, symbols, ways of thinking and modes of exclusion that connect with South Africa’s colonial past and which continue to alienate African students.

The second movement challenged the forms of exclusion — rising tuition fees, institutional austerity and debt — that continue to make university education inaccessible to a majority of South Africans or an impoverishing hardship for many who do enroll — the lived experience of ordinary people under the neoliberal, neocolonial order. A country-wide student revolt in October 2015 achieved the cancellation of a scheduled fee increase for 2016. American students also protested racist legacies and institutional oppressions during 2015 and 2016, but without the mass mobilizations that particularly Fees Must Fall achieved in South Africa.

Critiques of the United States as a colonial society have been central for struggles of the past: for the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s; for Native Americans, including at Standing Rock in 2016; and even within the university. Does taking seriously the framework of “colonialism/decolonization” have any bearing on the possibility for student struggle in the US in 2017?

In August 2017, Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani spoke on the origins of the university in a public lecture at the University of Cape Town. In Europe, Mamdani argues, the modern university “was a site for the study of the human.” It was a project, in the changing Europe of the “Renaissance” and the “Enlightenment,” that challenged the intellectual hegemony of Christianity and expanded its narrow definitions of “human.” However, the university fulfilled a different function as colonial conquest also changed the character of Europe. “Externally,” says Mamdani, the university represented “not the changing vision of a self-reflexive and a self-revolutionizing Europe, but of a self-assertive, aggrandizing, conquering Europe, expanding across the globe … seeking to transform and to quote ‘civilize’ that world in its own image.”

Speaking in regard to the African continent, Mamdani contends that the university was constructed “in the front line of the colonial civilizing mission.” By producing scholars to promulgate Europe’s worldview and administer Europe’s conquests, the university was, Mamdani observes, “the precursor … of the one-size-fits-all project that we associate with Structural Adjustment Programs designed by the [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank in the 1980s.”

Neocolonialism, Debt and Opportunities for Solidarity in Struggle

We are familiar with the problems associated with structural adjustment programs. By forcing developing countries into economic structures that subordinate their developmental needs to dictates of the global powers, the conditions for exploitative accumulation exist “on the ground,” while finance capital — the “aid industry” — enables further exploitation through debt. As the Guardian reported in May 2017, of the $32 billion African governments received in loans in 2015, $18 billion serviced debt interest, and the level of debt continued to rise. The observation made in 1950 by the Martinican communist and poet Aimé Césaire, that colonialism is the purposeful project to “extend to a world scale the competition of [Europe’s] antagonistic economies” is glaringly appropriate. Deeply indebted, developing countries must make economic decisions that benefit their creditors. Neocolonialism operates through debt.

Césaire recognized that alienation in the colony was not only economic, but dehumanizing. It is the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, known for his work on the post-colony, who considers the consequences of debt not only on developing economies and societies, but on the human subject. In his newest book, Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe identifies three moments in the “biography” of Blackness and race. First is the Atlantic slave trade, “through which men and women from Africa were changed into human-objects, human-commodities, human-money.” Second are the struggles of Black people to “demand the full status of subjects in the world of the living.” The third moment, writes Mbembe, “is one marked by the globalization of markets, the privatization of the world under the aegis of neoliberalism, and the increasing imbrication of the financial markets, the post-imperial military complex, and electronic and digital technologies.”

Certain points are cogent here. In this third moment, neoliberal capital “seeks to reproduce itself in an infinite series of structurally insolvent debts.” From here, Mbembe makes what will certainly be a controversial argument around the consequences of indebtedness on the human subject and the meaning of “Blackness.” He writes, “The emergence of new imperial practices is … tied to the tendency to universalize the Black condition.” In practice, this “borrow[s] as much from the slaving logic of capture and predation as from the colonial logic of occupation and extraction.”

The new human is “subject to the market and to debt,” superfluous to capital, “condemned to lifelong apprenticeship, to flexibility, to the reign of the short term” and ultimately demanded to “constantly … become another.” This has been the economic and subjective experience of racialized people throughout the history of racist colonial alienation, in Africa, as well as in Asia and the Americas. For Mbembe, this means that, under neoliberalism, “Blackness has been generalized.”

Historically, colonialism has signified a fundamentally racialized organization of society. In colonial society, race also structures class. Of course, university-attending, middle-class and especially white Americans are not subjected to colonial oppression in the same way that, for instance, Native American and African people have been and continue to be. However, if we understand neocolonialism through debt, considering Mbembe’s expansive, political and admittedly controversial conception of what “Blackness” might mean in the neoliberal world, we can possibly recalibrate the meaning of “decolonization” for contemporary exigencies, without diminishing historical and present realities.

Such a reconceiving is only useful if it provides opportunities for thinking of ways to contest oppression. These ways must be able to reveal and contend with all forms of oppression — neoliberal capture by debt as well as, for example, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism and national chauvinism. To label all indebted students, former students and future students as “colonized” arguably does more harm than good without an actual understanding of colonialism as the historical and ongoing racialized dispossession, dehumanization and alienation of people.

In truth, the point is not about “labeling” at all, but rather about expanding the struggle against colonialism, in both its “old” and its neocolonial, neoliberal, debt-driven forms. This can open opportunities for genuine and far-reaching solidarity with racialized and colonized people, the sharing of ideas, and political action where such politics have been historically limited for a majority of Americans, with rare exceptions. If the experience of the neocolonial world — which is simultaneously the colonial world — is one of rapacious debt and indebtedness, then shared experience by a broad and diverse swath of US society should be politically significant.

The university is only one generator of debt. Students are only one group of people whose lives are mediated by debt. However, focusing on universities allows us to think neocolonialism as an active politics within the United States, and to balance this thought process by recognizing people (students) who are positioned to organize a struggle against its forms of oppression. In South Africa, ultimately, it was students who developed the logic of their struggle in terms of “decolonization.” What can we do with this idea, here in the United States, to work out real connections between the oppression of students through debt and community struggles against racism and colonialism?

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