Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.
For most of human existence, warfare has been a matter of bringing two mobs within hailing distance of each other, engaging in various ritual shows of intimidation, throwing some things at each other, and finally a few bold individuals making dashes at each other and exchanging a few blows with club or spear. This goes on until one side or the other panics and runs away. That's how warfare has usually been practiced, for millennia. Grimly standing in one place and murdering each other for hours at a time was invented within historical times, by those endlessly inventive people, the ancient Greeks. It's not how our species has usually done it.
Perhaps I bear that too much in mind when I watch protests and footage of protests. I don't really get the concept of “peaceful protest.” It looks like warfare, to me. It feels like warfare. I hate it, all of it, all the time, even when in theory I approve of it.
I'm deeply grateful to the Occupy movement for bringing to the fore issues that should have been front and center for a generation. And I was as shocked as anyone by the images coming from UC Davis. And yes, I have had the revenge fantasies too, of forcing open that police lieutenant's mouth and eyes and spraying his face with stuff that burns ten times more than habanero peppers. I have them so insistently that I'm spending a fair amount of my mental energy setting them aside. But I still have a nagging sense that it's a bit disingenuous to pretend that the whole point of these protests has not been to provoke just such an outrage. The point wasn't to have a camp out. The point was to make the violence beneath everyday economic relationships visible.
We tend to think of defaulting on debts as a failure, as a breakdown of the system. In fact, default is an integral part of any financial system. If lenders can't lose their money, they have no reason to evaluate credit. They'll loan money to people who probably can't pay it back, which results either in speculative bubbles – the ruinous housing bubble we've just experienced is only the last in a series that we've seen, and we have not yet put anything in place to prevent more from happening – or in perpetual debt.
If people can't legally default – as is the case with student debt now – they will be reduced to debt peonage. A gentle form of it, sure, but an average graduate, carrying forty thousand dollars of debt, with occasional minimum wage work his only prospect, has no reason to think he will ever be free of debt. He won't be thrown into prison, but he will never own real property. He will never be a stakeholder. If such a person does not become a radical enemy of the existing order of things, it will only be because he's easily hoodwinked or morbidly given to self-blame.
We need to allow these people what we have traditionally allowed to everyone – the opportunity to go bankrupt and start over. The troubles we have seen recently are only the beginning, if we don't give these young people some path to achieving independence. It may be true that they should never have incurred this debt – in fact, it is true – but it's also true that virtually every authority they encountered encouraged them to do it, from their government to their parents to their academic advisers and professors. No one intended to cheat them: but they have been cheated, and they know it.
See John Keegan's History of Warfare for the Greek innovation in warfare. For debt, I'm drawing (as so often these days) on David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 years.