Worshipping Lali

On Student Debt

In the biblical parable of the prodigal son, a wayward boy (let’s call him John) demands a large chunk of his father’s wealth and wanders off into a bohemian horizon, eventually squandering his inheritance in frivolous gestures and needless partying. He ends up poor and returns to his brokenhearted father, depraved and ashamed. To John’s surprise his father rushes to him when he notices him in the distance, embraces him, and welcomes him home with open arms. The prodigal son is treated like a prince, and his father throws a huge party to celebrate his return. When John’s brother comes back home from work and sees a celebration for his younger brother, he gets angry: he’s lived by the book, he’s worked hard, he’s avoided debt, he’s made sedulously wise decisions to help his father’s business – but he’s never had a party thrown for him. In a private moment, the elder son protests bitterly, defending his virtue before his father, demanding justice. The father’s response is warm and tender, piercing through a paradigm of scarcity that allocates value on a merit scale, opening him up to the grace of gift: “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

There are probably reasonable objections to executing universal, sweeping legislation of the kind that Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar are proposing. But when you critique the desire to cancel out all student debt because it is unfair to those who have paid up their own debt, or because one feels the debtors should have known better than to make those fiscal choices in the first place, you may be working from one or two operative assumptions: one, the world is fair only when we get what we deserve and are responsible for (you reap what you sow); and two, there is simply not enough to go round.

These assumptions are instigated by a neoliberal capitalist/moral system that supposedly awards virtue to the “entrepreneurial” (the deserving) and dismisses entire groups of people for not making the cut of worthiness. Hidden from view and from popular consideration are the structural challenges that make it impossible for people to thrive and live well, especially those who slave and work hard in a system that promises to be neutral and meritorious – but proves resilient in maintaining power dynamics that perpetuate inequity. What is also socially censored from intelligibility is that this moralistic system invents this scarcity and ordains a measurement scale to divide between the deserving and the non-deserving. More critically, it hides away the fact that what keeps us alive, what keeps us breathing, creative, and functional in a wide and utterly complex universe is not earned or awarded to us because we are good or deserving.

In short we live because of gift. We thrive because of grace. There are entire ecological systems that die just to produce a single iPhone. There are African villages that have learned to live with huge dumps of toxic throw-away commodities shipped in from the West just so that the West can live with the illusion of a “green economy”. Diatoms die in order to produce the oxygen we need. These are the invisible worlds that subsidize our very existence. The myth of balance that tells us we are “self-made”, or that we get only what we deserve, or that if we got more than what we actually worked for we are hurting others, makes for a very poor economy.

By moving beyond the shackles of merit, the Calvinian imperative to earn our own salvations, Bernie Sanders seems to be inviting an expansion of what the economy means. He seems to be gesturing towards gift – an abundance and amazing grace that takes the deserving and the non-deserving and makes both feel welcome and at home. These manumissions and moments of jubilee might very well be the most powerful ways to respond to fascism. 

Bayo Akomolafe 

  • gary horvitz on June 28, 2019

    I might believe what you’re saying about Bernie if I’d heard any signal that he shares your comprehension of the issue. But I have not. Imputing a candidate with our ideals is risky, at best. Look what happened with Obama.

    • Bayo Akomolafe on July 3, 2019

      Thanks Gary. Yes, Obama still lurks in my mind as a candidate that seemed to have it all, but then “didn’t” – once the hard and gritty realities of the office of the presidency hit home. And so there lies the gift and gist of your cautionary comments. In my opinion, Bernie Sanders does demonstrate this understanding of gift and of a justice not premised on capitalist algorithms but on something else less available for articulation (which he variously refers to as the mereness of being “human”). He may not speak my language, but language is much more than words or concepts: it’s molecular, it’s beyond what can be comprehended or communicated. I am obviously moved by these molecular forces when I hear/see Bernie Sanders speak about student debt.

      But there’s something else to be pointed out here: your invitation that I refrain from “imputing [my] ideals” on a candidate softly suggests that there is a way to get to an objective appraisal of a person. That Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or anyone in fact pre-exists our opinions of them. That seeing is in fact neutral and apolitical, and that we may be able to strive for some appraisal outside of the messiness of our longings and desires. I don’t think voting is this stoic or mechanistic. I don’t think people vote based upon rationalistic cold calculations devoid of feeling. So while being aware of the ways our expectations ‘distort’ (a heavy word) reality, could it also be that you are also “imputing your ideals” of the democratic process upon my evaluation of a candidate? Could it be that we are all caught up swirls and eddies of emotions, longings, desires, notions, and gestures we can barely understand – and then try in retrospect to justify or “renormalize” according to the imperatives of logical reasoning? Could it even be that it is sometimes the case that “imputing” desires and ideals actually helps reconfigure the object of that imputation?

      • Gary Horvitz on July 29, 2019

        Hi Bayo,

        I had no idea you replied to my comment until a few days ago because I guess there is no notification of such things. I’m just now responding to your stimulating comment.

        You make an excellent point when you ask if there is any such thing as an objective candidate who exists outside our perceptions. We are now living in a world of sophisticated and targeted messaging in which layers of attributes, stories, policies, personal histories are crafted, disseminated and nuanced in a rapidly changing interactive world of social, alternative and establishment media.

        And yes, we all come to the game with our own projections, into which the PR operatives have drilled deeply and carefully to articulate their messaging. The political atmosphere is becoming so refined in this respect—and that’s before even considering the chaff of deliberately outlandish false narratives, conspiratorial fantasies, directly and purposefully undermining any easy distinction between truth and falsehood. How can the missile of my penetrating inquiry ever hope to hit the target??

        Did we ever even need Trumps ‘fake news!’ mantra to get where we are??

        • Bayo Akomolafe on July 29, 2019

          I like how Trump’s fake news mantra unsettles the curt and polite landscape of media innocence – often in troublingly proto-fascist ways but also in ways that cut away at the well-honed idea that the mass media is without political affinities, biases and neutral. In “fake news”, we somehow meet what Nicholas of Cusa might have called “coincidentia oppositorum”, a coincidence of opposites, an aporetic entanglement that is not easily resolved.

          Would be great to talk soon, brother!

          • gary horvitz on August 3, 2019

            I’d like nothing better.

            I’m in Chiang Mai, Indochina Time Zone. My phone is +66 063 684 8082

            You seem to be very busy and all over the place, but I enjoy hearing about your activities, family and anything else you decide the share. You are touching many at a delicate, emerging and primal level, my friend. I don’t know of anyone who can do it better and with a combination of urgency and care.

            If you decide to make time for a chat, let me know by email, please.

            _/\_ <3

Leave a Reply

Falling might very well be flying – without the tyranny of coordinates.