Indentured Servitude

October 11

Dear people,

In 1620 the Mayflower docked at Cape Cod. It would become the defining moment in American mythology… the arrival in the New World of a handful of enlightened Christians who had defied the hardships of the ocean, yearning to be free.

Myth and reality are two very different things of course. So the myth doesn’t say that the Pilgrim Fathers on board the Mayflower were in fact religious fundamentalists which by modern standards can only be compared to the Taliban. Neither does the myth say that the Pilgrim Fathers formed only a minority of the 102 passengers on board the ship. The rest were adventurers, outcasts, criminals, peasants, etc. It were they who founded the United States.

And not just them. A year before the arrival of the Mayflower, the first black slaves were brought to Virginia by Dutch buccaneers. They were booty from a Spanish ship that the Dutch had raided. Now, according to Spanish custom, all slaves were usually baptised. And according to English custom, a baptised Christian could not be sold into slavery.

Therefore the first 19 slaves were not actually sold as slaves. They were sold as ‘indentured servants’.

Indentured servitude is an important phenomenon in the history of the United States. It means temporary slavery, and it applied to many of the poor white immigrants from Europe. During the age of sail, these immigrants would wage the long and risky voyage across the ocean without having money to pay for their ticket. If they made it to America alive, they were put on auction. A rich investor – like a tobacco planter – would buy them, and the poor immigrants would spend the next five to ten years working as slaves to pay for their trip to the New World.

After that, the indentured servant would be free.

Today, indentured servitude does not exist any more, or not in the way it used to. It has taken on a different shape.

In the United States, student debt is being accurately described as the modern form of indentured servitude. You can avoid it, but then you will have little chance to succeed in American society. To be successful you need a good job, and to get a good job you need to study. In most of the western world, education is a basic human right, and the governments facilitate the access of their citizens to higher education. Not so in the U.S. In the U.S. it’s just another investment opportunity.

Going to university is like crossing the ocean to get to the land of the free. At the end of your trip, you find yourself indebted. Not just for five or ten years, but in many cases for the rest of your life.

During the last two decades, tuition fees of both public and private universities have skyrocketed. When they obtain their degree, many people have debts which can exceed a hundred thousand dollars. They need a hell of a good job, not just a middle class one, to pay it all back. Especially if they also want to pay for a house and for health insurance, and if they want to raise a family.

The total amount of student debt in the United States has topped one trillion dollars, and keeps growing fast. It’s a special kind of debt. You can’t lose it, even if you file for bankruptcy. If you default, you won’t be able to get a loan for a car of for a house. And you will have a hard time to find a job, any job. In short, either you spend your life paying off your debts, or you are definitely screwed. You can’t even die on your debt, because it could be transferred to your parents.

Debt is a peculiar thing. Up to a certain point, it will weigh you down. Only when the debt becomes really astronomic, it ceases to be a problem. In such a case, you don’t need to worry any more about paying it back. You just have it paid by someone else. It’s what happened to the banks. They were saved with trillions of dollars of public money. And guess who’s going to pay for that?

It’s not the banks. It’s you. And your children. And your children’s children.

The Student Debt working group of Occupy Wall Street has been addressing this issue for over a year. Their goal is to organise a collective default, together with the demand of free education. Unfortunately, many students in the U.S. are fearsome to adhere to this. Indentured servitude has been part of American culture ever since the nation was founded. It’s time to change all this, it’s time to rise up. A nation can only be truly free if all its citizens have free access to higher education.

Check out the the Occupy Student Debt Campaign

Check also ‘Default’, the Student Loan Documentary.


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