Hugo is a young man who is almost finished with his college education in clinical psychology – but when he discovers his student debt is already in the six figures, he has a crisis. He realizes that even with a highly-paid profession like his, he would probably never pay off the debt. This propels him into the anarchist underground, where many such young people live by squatting houses and getting their food from gleaning and dumpsters. They are idealists, and they set about to make a positive difference in the world by means of direct action – various kinds of stunts or protests designed to call attention to injustices. The second part of Hugo’s story is very dark and not recommended for those under the age of 18.
Part 1 of Hugo’s story, excerpt from the book:
If I drop out of college and join the anarchists, thought Hugo, it will be a decision that changes the rest of my life. He thought about how, if he did, he would be under the radar for his school, the government, and most importantly, his student loan lender. He would have no address, no rent, no bills, no job, and no cell phone. He would squat buildings with Jack and the others, wear donated clothing, and eat food from dumpsters. It was really the only way to escape the system.
Hugo was a young white man with freckles and short, reddish-blond dreadlocks. He had been raised in a middle-class family; both parents had been successful in business a decade ago. But now they were struggling financially.
He already had a student loan debt of $100,000. If he paid it over 10 years, the monthly payment would be $1200. If he stretched it out to 20 years, it would be $800. He wasn’t even finished with school and already he had a really big monthly payment to make. That was scary.
One of the annoying financial advice websites for students said that the student loan payment should not exceed 10% of their future monthly income. What that meant in reality was that he had to estimate the monthly income he would make if he got his degree, and when the monthly loan payment amount hit 10% of that, stop going to school. A ridiculous suggestion—and anyway, it was already too late for that. Right now, if his student loan payment was 10% of his future monthly income, he would have to make six figures, straight out of school. That was not likely at all. What a fucking racket. He was enraged. The system had buried him in debt before he could even begin his career.
His parents had some kind of investment set up for his education, but they lost the money in the first economic meltdown. They were never able to build it up again. But they still insisted that it was better to have an education, even if it meant taking out a student loan. They advised him to go into a field that made good money. They said that the best careers were medicine, law, engineering, and of course, finance.
Nearly half of students in his university were going into finance, a career that meant shifting numbers from one column to another in order to manipulate the markets and fool investors. If you could somehow outsmart the other 95% of finance students, you might get a job on Wall Street. He was definitely not going to go down the same road as a stampede possessed by that demon, greed.
But nearly every career had sunken into a debauched state. Medicine was not about helping people, but merely pretending to do so, to keep them in a state of dependency. He had seen it with his parents and their health problems. Law? Law was about winning, not about truth or justice. Engineering? He wasn’t interested. The only career that interested him, that could make enough money, was that of a psychologist. That was good, worthwhile work, and it paid well.
After he had begun to go down that path, he realized there were problems with that choice, too. It was possible to earn a good income as a psychologist, but the high hourly rate was usually paid by health insurance. These days, health insurance companies were paying less and less for mental health. Even veterans had some limitation like eight paid sessions of therapy. He wondered if health insurance companies might someday decline to pay for people’s therapy.
He had done the math, and thought that he would have to see about 20 people a week. That would actually be a heavy load, talking with 20 people about their personal problems, and presumably helping them. Plus there was the administrivia, like billing. And if people were paying out of pocket, he would have to charge a lot less and see more of them. Things were just not adding up. In the end, being a psychologist, however noble it might be, was part of the larger health insurance racket. But even the insurance racket was getting the guts kicked out of it by an economy that was in a death spiral.
He reviewed the situation for the hundredth time. He was supposed to go to school for eight years and afterward, have so much student loan debt that even a highly-paid career like psychology would not earn enough to make the payments. That was insane. Had he missed something? Was there a program of some kind that could help him? When he talked to the school counselors, they were sort of, but not really helpful. His future success was not something they were concerned about. Or maybe it was simply out of their control. The university was a business, financial aid was a business, and the students were paying customers. And that was the reality of the situation. He had to take the gamble on his own.
The whole thing was pointless. There really wasn’t much of a choice. He was sitting on his bed in his dorm room. Across from him was the desk with his books, his laptop, and a printout of the first draft of a paper that was due in two days. At that moment, tears welled up in his eyes. He had put a lot of work into his education, and he had been convinced that it was worth it. He was proud of the work that he had done so far, and his professors were encouraging him. And now he was planning to walk away from it all. Was it really the right thing to do?
The whole notion of having an education, of having a career, and a life—he still wanted to reach for it. He had been preparing for college all his life. When he started college, he reasoned that he had to have a student loan—there wasn’t any choice. So it would probably work out somehow—that’s what he had hoped.
The debt had been easy to ignore. The loan payments were deferred until he left school. There weren’t any letters or emails to remind him about it. There was just a website that he could check sometime.
He finally checked it. If he hadn’t done that, he would still be ignorant of his financial trouble. He would be finishing his paper right now. Maybe he should at least finish the paper and turn it in. And then what? What did it matter? He was screwed. He broke down and cried.
At that moment, his roommate burst in.
‘Dude,’ he said. ‘Psychology got you down? Ha, ha.’
Instantly, Hugo was propelled out of the room, down the stairs, and out of the dorm. He was catapulted from the track he had been on. As he walked away from the campus, he knew he would never go back.
He had left without his coat, but he felt okay in spite of the cold January drizzle. It was probably the adrenalin. He walked to the house where Jack and the other anarchists were squatting. The neighborhood was characterized by craftsman-style houses that had been handsome, but now were damp and in disrepair. The streets were quiet. Tall trees hung with moisture and dripped, and the air was scented with the rich odor of decomposing leaves. He passed dormant gardens and rose bushes with tiny orange fruits. The house that the anarchists were squatting had been foreclosed and never resold. It was a decrepit two-story bungalow with a front porch and a dormer on top.
The door was never locked. Hugo walked in and sat down on the couch. The living room was empty except for the old broken couch, one lamp sitting on the floor, some books and papers stacked in boxes, and a pile of clothing in one corner. No one was at home. His heart was pounding, and he could hear it beating in his ears. He lay down on the couch and stared at the ceiling.
Hugo had met Jack in classes during his first three years at college. One day, he found Jack putting up flyers around campus for a teach-in called How to Spot Provocateurs.
Hugo asked, ‘How to spot provocateurs, like at protests?’
Jack said, ‘Yeah, they’re usually the guys that set dumpsters on fire and break windows at a protest that’s supposed to be non-violent. They give anarchists a bad rap.’
Hugo asked, ‘Anarchists—aren’t they the ones who just want to destroy everything?’
‘Oh no, Hugo,’ answered Jack. ‘See, that’s the kind of bad rap I’m talking about.’
Jack stopped what he was doing and explained it to Hugo.
‘There’s a lot of prejudice about anarchists that’s promoted in the mainstream media. That’s because anarchists are against all government and corporate institutions that have control over the populace. Instead, anarchists favor a society that operates on mutual aid and voluntary, non-hierarchical associations. In fact, anarchism has a lot of things in common with libertarianism. The left targets corporations; the right targets government. Actually, they are both correct. People from both the left and the right are talking about many of the same things, only in different terms.’
That came as a revelation to Hugo. He could understand how people would be against the whole damned system, which was becoming more and more oppressive—like Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. Hugo asked why Jack had chosen the side of the left. He answered, because the source of the problem was the profit motive.
–End of excerpt.