Fairness is Good, Actually

Student debt fucking sucks. It’s not only strangling the hopes and dreams of a future generation of workers by forcing to take shit jobs for slightly less than shit pay, but it may be the source of a major economic crash at practically any minute. Restructuring the financing of higher education should be a major priority of any American left wing political movement, most notably by moving the profit motive out of higher education.

Even if there is a radical restructuring of higher education access and funding, what do we do with holders of billions of dollars of student debt built up over decades? A student debt jubilee that forgives massive swaths of student debt regardless of means testing would be a good first step, but as noted in a recent article by Matt Bruenig in Jacobin, this would be an unequal solution to the impact of student debt for generations.

While the current generation of student debt holders may be dealing with among the worst levels of crushing financial misery, there are millions of people who may have already paid off their debts who may be just hitting 40 who may have been unable to buy a house or raise a child because of the impact of that debt on their lives. Dealing with these contradictions now is important, as it makes us have to come to terms with the problems of the future now instead of becoming married to an individual policy without examining its imbalances.

Bruenig’s reading on student debt, like arguments for universal programs, is attempting to create a durable program that does not become easily demagogued by opposing political forces due to structural realities of a decades long acceleration of living expenses, course costs, bank fees, and increasing interest rates. Yet, by judging off the highly reactive response to his article, you would think he was saying he was uninterested in lowering student debt in any way.

In a passionate conversation around Bruenig’s article on Twitter, an aside caught my eye and highlighted a philosophical distinction between different social groups of the broader Left. “Socialism isn’t about what’s fair. It’s about giving people what they need,” wrote a critic, pushing back at Bruenig’s article. While I understand the moral and temporal imperative that socialism is about “giving people what they need”, this reaction highlights an internal contradiction within the enormously amorphous blob that is the American Left that seems to get in the way of creating a cogent political program.

By putting “giving people what they need” in conflict with “what’s fair”, this critic is exemplifying a kind of “charity socialism” that both misses many of the egalitarian ends of socialist politics while also recreating a slightly more radical version of a brand of philanthropy liberalism that has failed miserably. A political project focused around the charity of the moment at the expense of broader philosophical and political principles is going to be a fragile movement. Fairness and equality are not just side effects or aesthetics of socialist politics, but rather the pillars of commonality that keep everything from falling down on us. Charity socialism and means tested liberalism cannot breed the solidarity we need to win.

We need all kinds of approaches in this new left coalition, from wonky statistic operators like Bruenig to moral calls from groups like the Poor People’s Campaign to the plethora of left-wing podcasts that have sprung up in the past few years (subscribe to mine, Unpopular Front, right here). It’s important, however, to not lose track of a common vision for what socialism is, and regardless of the feelings of some of my rose emoji’ed comrades, equality and fairness are the bedrock principles of socialism and should never be thrown away for some rhetorical charge in a debate.

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