Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from the Democratic Socialists of America announcing some January events. One that caught my eye was a reading discussion about a recent book by The Debt Collective called Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition. As a person with a mountain of student loan debt, this is a topic I very much care about, so I decided to read the book right away. I got the audiobook version, and at only four hours in length, it was a quick listen.


Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay dives into the various kinds of debt we have in our society, not just as individuals, but also as nations. The Debt Collective outlines where debt comes from and why it’s so hard to climb out of. They also examine the morality of debt, how it’s used to control people, and how it impacts generation after generation. Beyond the crippling effects of debt on individuals and families, we also see how debt is a pervasive issue that affects entire countries that owe money to other nations. However, the book doesn’t just look backwards; it also looks forward, identifying different tactics we can use to eliminate debt and regain our own power. It’s a short but dense book, offering numerous examples of financial exploitation and initiative, both on the micro and macro levels.


Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay is an eye-opening book with a wealth of knowledge. (See what I did there? Pun intended.) Beyond student loan debt (which is an issue that directly affects my sister and me, and is a subject I’m passionate about), this book also examines other kinds of debt, such as medical debt and the debt nations owe to other nations. It goes over the parts many of us know so well: Why it’s so easy and, in many ways, necessary for people to go into debt in the first place; why loans are extremely predatory; why it’s so difficult to get out of debt; how the cycle of poverty entraps people; why we need to abolish debt. But then Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay dives into the history and impacts I wasn’t aware of.

A major takeaway for me is how debt is used to control people. It’s used as power over others, particularly poor people and minorities. This can occur on the small scale; for example, it’s something I’ve seen within my family when one person owes money to another person. Of course, it also occurs on the large scale, from punishment through seizure of commodities or imprisonment to the simple debt cycle that keeps people desperate. I’d never seen it explained like this, but it was a lightbulb moment for me. My debt does control me and is a form of power over me.

Another key takeaway is how the lenders want us to be in debt and dependent. One example is about Ford employees in the 1900s. Apparently, employees were required to have certain “lifestyles,” and if they didn’t, they were encouraged to adopt those lifestyles or risk termination. Ford employees were expected to take out a mortgage to buy a home (not rent), have a stay-at-home wife, and not have any other income (whether from the wife having a job or from subletters). Essentially, Ford wanted their employees financially dependent and thus more loyal to the company.

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay also examines national debts, citing Greece as an example of a country that’s stuck in a cycle of debt. Or consider countries in Africa who are thought to owe money to the global north. These decades- and centuries-old debts play a large role in keeping some nations third-world countries and unable to rise up.

I appreciate the many examples Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay shares, and the depth of the information it provides. However, I do wish there was more attention on the solutions to these problems. The final chapter does cite what the movement has accomplished so far, and offers some tactics we can use to make further progress. But I felt it could have been more fully explained. As it stands, I feel that I’d still need more information about how I can take action. Debt strikes sounds good in theory, but it’s not something I’d feel secure in doing on my own or even as part of a small group. How can we finally get organized on a greater scale? How can we protect ourselves financially? I still have questions, but this book gets the ball rolling and is a great first step.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I found Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition to be a very informational and impactful book. I wish it had gone a bit further, but it’s still something I would encourage anyone with debt (or with loved ones who carry debt) to read. If we all work together, we can see real solutions enacted.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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