At the Poachers Arms: consumer power and debt

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

Yesterday I was sat in the Poachers just across the road from the occupation at St Paul’s Cathedral and over a pint of Very Hairy Badger got talking to a man with an Australian-English accent. We got to talking about how we could organise long-term to oppose the financial and political structures that are currently squeezing us.

His suggestion was that a large organisation of consumers could gain power over banks and utility providers by withdrawing from them, one corporation at a time, until they were forced to restructure themselves, or the politicians were forced to restructure them.

While I half-liked the idea, my response was that consumption is structured as an individual activity and it is very difficult to built collective action around it. For instance any threatened bank/corporation could drop prices and the effort to abandon them would be undermined by people having to maximise their use of their resources as individuals. I also suggested that it would require quite a large amount of people to be involved to really threaten the existence of a bank or corporation and building towards that would be difficult on the back of a distant promise of power.

He accepted this was a problem, but asked whether an idea I had mentioned – that of organising debtors against their creditors – didn’t have the same problem. Aren’t debtors just consumers, after all? And wouldn’t organising around debt suffer from the same problem that it is structured as an individual burden?

As I drank my pint I found I couldn’t immediately disagree with him, but thinking about it afterwards I thought that perhaps debt is not the same as other goods we buy. It is money, not a good, and as such is pure fiction backed up by force, and so it exposes the way our economic system works. Organising around it would reveal the power structures like nothing else. But it would also require long term organising, and could be undermined by people making individual choices they need to make.

As I said goodbye to my companion at the bar we both understood that no problems had been solved. But in the Poachers Arms problems are not just for solving, problems are for uniting around within the embrace of a Very Hairy Badger.

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