Interview: Occupy Wall Street's David Graeber on Why the Movement Matters
Occupy Wall Street protesters can't make demands, because this is not a democratic system, says author and activist David Graeber.
“Money is the root of all evil” – so goes the old adage. In today’s hyper-connected globalized market, a more accurate aphorism might be “debt is the root of all evil.” We see this in the crushing Greek and American sovereign debt, in the housing market where scores of homeowners are being foreclosed upon because they are unable to pay their mortgages, and in the amount of loans students have to take on to go to college these days – all of these different debts threaten to take down the house of cards that is our hyper-connected global financial market.
But why is it that when countries in bad shape restructure debt or when corporations drowning in debt declare bankruptcy, they are applauded, but when you and I fail to pay up on what we owe to banks or when we become bankrupt, it is seen as a moral failing? That’s the paradox David Graeber explores in his new book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
Former Minyanville editor-in-chief Kevin Depew spoke to Graeber about the evolution of the morality of debt, and how power pervades the way we view the relationship between debtor and creditor.
In addition, Depew and Graeber also discuss the politics of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The celebrated author, academic and activist, who was present on the very first day back in September when the Occupy Wall Street movement was birthed at Zuccotti Park, details how he helped shape the democratic, non-hierachical movement. Graeber also explains why commentators who critique the movement for failing to come up with a cogent list of demands are missing the point of the protest. --Sterling Wong
Click here for the podcast, or scroll down for the entire transcript.
(Note about the podcast: Unfortunately our tape shut down just before the end of this interview, but Graeber finished the conversation by saying that he hoped the eventual future legacy of OWS would be a shift in the political discourse of this country.)
Okay, I’m Kevin Depew from Minyanville and joining me on this podcast is David Graeber, author of the new book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Welcome, David.
Now, just in a way of providing some of your background for our listeners. David teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and has written numerous books on a wide range of anthropological and economic topics. He’s written for Harper’s, The Nation, [Mute] and the New Left Review, and you’re frequently introduced by the media as a, quote, “activist and anarchist,” end quote. How’s that for an introduction?
Well, that’s more or less right.
Okay. Well, David, I want to talk to you about Occupy Wall Street, of course, and what’s happening with this global movement. But business first. Your book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, tell me about how the book came about.
Well, I’d been actually, in a way, it emerges from my involvement in other activist projects. I was involved for many years in the global justice movement and one of the big issues there was the Drop the Debt campaign, structural adjustment policies, all those things that we’re really mobilizing against were enforced through debt.
And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt. I would tell stories to people, very sympathetic people, liberal lawyers, well-meaning do-gooder types, and you’d tell these stories about horrible things. You know, in Madagascar, for example, the IMF came in with these policies, you have to cut the budgets because, god knows, we can’t reduce the interest payments you owe to Citibank (C), they owed all this money. And they had to do things like get rid of mosquito eradication programs, as a result that malaria returned to parts of the country where it had been wiped out for a hundred years and tens of thousands of people died and you had dead babies being buried and weeping mothers. I was there, I saw this sort of thing. You described this people and the reaction would be, well, that’s terrible, but surely people have to pay their debts. You’re not suggesting they cancel it or default, that would be outrageous.
And it seems like, it’s hard to imagine any other issue where people try to come up with excuses for doing things that would kill 10,000 babies. But here they were doing it.
So what is that strange, moral power that the idea of debt has over us that seems to trump any other form of morality. That’s one of the questions that I was trying to answer in the book.
If I can just read a couple of sentences from the book, because…
I was fortunate to get it earlier in the spring when your publisher sent me a review copy. And it really is a fascinating book, so I’ve recommended it to so many people, because it’s a completely different way of looking at debt and most of us, especially in the financial media, were used to approaching this from within the structure, within the framework we deal with and looking at it in pure economic terms when you bring this other, anthropological attachment and approach to it.
If I could just, these are a couple of sentences from the book and this is near the end, I don’t think it gives much away, but it touches on exactly what you just talked about. And this is David writing, quote:
“It seems to me that we’re long overdue for some kind of biblical-style jubilee, one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary, not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality. That all these things are human arrangements and, if democracy is to mean anything, it is to the ability for all to agree to arrange things in a different way.”
Now, I read that because it touches on, how did we get to this point where debt indeed became this—it goes on, at least until recently with Occupy Wall Street, it goes without question that it’s a code of morality that we have to live up to. How did we get to this point?
It’s a really interesting question and the best answer I could come up with, after surveying 5,000 years of religious texts, moral texts, economic texts, political texts, pretty much everything there was to bring to bear on the subject, was it has a lot to do with war and violence.
The very origins of money have, certainly coins, have much more to do with war mobilization, states conquering places, than they do with actual trade, which tended to be conducted as credit arrangements, but were inherently more flexible than the ones we have today. That sort of inviolability comes more from the process of shaking people down than from the process of actually people making deals and arrangements with one another.
And there’s a stream—so that very morality of debt has a lot to do with it. For example, in almost all the great world religions, they talk about debt as if paying your debts is morality. In fact, even the word for debt, sin and guilt are often the same. That’s true in Sanskrit, that’s true in Aramaic. The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t actually say, “Forgive us our trespasses,” it says “Forgive us our debts just as we forgive our debtors.” Of course, the trick is, you don’t actually forgive your debtors, do you?
Now, so you start with that language. But then they always try to undercut it. Then they say, they [can do say], “Well, it’s not really—you don’t really owe a debt to the cosmos, because you are the cosmos and once you understand you’re oneness, it’s not a debt.” In the Bible, they say forgiveness of debt is what’s really sacred and not [imposement] of debt.
So they always move away from it. So the question is, why do they have to start that way? And the best I can come with is not—people were forced into that language by their overlords. Basically, it’s like any Mafioso understands. If you have power over someone, just pure, arbitrary, violent power, the easiest way to turn that into a moral relation where it seems like you’re the good guy and they’re the ones who have a moral problem is to turn it into a language of debt. “You owe me money.” Or, “You owe me your life. You have to pay it in the form of taxes, whatever it might be. I’ll be nice, I’ll forgive you for a couple of months, but you better get moving or you’re a deadbeat [or something].”
And the only way to respond to that is saying, “Well, wait a minute, who owes what to who here?” But as soon as you say that, you’re using the language of debt as morality.
Well, talk a little bit about, why is it so one-sided in the way that it’s directed toward consumer debt versus the banks? I mean, General Motor’s (GM) filed for bankruptcy; corporations file for bankruptcy all the time. And often times it’s viewed as a positive; it’s encouraged by the market that they should take that step. And they even release press releases saying, “Hey, look, we’re emerging from bankruptcy.” And that’s viewed as a positive thing. But it’s not so on the consumer side.
It’s very interesting, isn’t it? And it’s what seems to happen is this question of who the money is owed to. I came up with this ironic phrase, “The communism of the rich.” The way that people in positions of power at the top of the pyramid will help each other out in ways that they just won’t do for others. And it’s really true of lending money, too. Or debt.
When you have a debt between equals, people who see each other as peers, it often is treated as, well, of course, it’s negotiable, you have a different situation. Everything is—any promise, it’s just promise…
Sovereign debt, for example.
…can be arranged. What’s that?
Sovereign debt, for example.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, people—you can make a deal, if AIG (AIG) is in trouble, we’ll work something out, if several trillion dollars of debt have to be made to disappear through various smoke and mirrors, we’ll do that.
The same way, poor people will help each other. You know, half the loans you make to your cousin or your brother are really just gifts that you don’t want to admit are gifts. So people make arrangements like that all the time between equals.
When you have some kind of social gap, particularly between rich and poor, suddenly it’s treated as something completely different. And that’s what we’re seeing now, the difference in mortgages. And the people holding the mortgages, they got all sorts of little arrangements to get rid of their debts. But then the idea that the mortgage holders themselves will walk away from underwater mortgages is considered sinful sometimes.
Okay, so that takes us to Occupy Wall Street and so this movement began on Sept. 17 here in New York City and has now I believe spread to nearly a thousand cities globally?
I can’t even keep track, I heard 1,300 at one point.
So what’s your involvement with Occupy Wall Street?
Well, I was, by pure coincidence, really, I was there at the start. I had heard there was a meeting, a general assembly to organize it on August 2nd. I happened to be in town because I have the year off from school, I’m on sabbatical this year, and I’m from New York. I came back to New York. Was just hanging around at 16 Beaver Street, in this wonderful activist space. Different people from all over the world were talking about the general assemblies there—there was someone from Greece; there were people from Spain, Japan. We were getting all these reports. And then they said, oh, people are going to do a kind of general assembly thing in Bowling Green on Aug. 2.
So I showed up and my Greek friend showed up, a bunch of people. And we discovered, somewhat to our chagrin, that it wasn’t a general assembly at all. We knew that it was related to this Occupy Wall Street idea that AdBusters had thrown out. But we didn’t realize that—and I think AdBusters didn’t realize—that it had been taken up by this coalition which was very top-heavy with these very traditional protest groups with megaphones and podiums and banners and these sort of hackneyed phrases about, whatever, against the budget cuts and so forth and so on. A kind of dead-end politics, as we perceived it. And it was language we use in activist circles as verticals versus horizontals. These were the verticals. They have a central committee, they have a party structure, they give people orders and they arrange things and you have no say. And the whole idea of general assembly is it’s an experiment in democracy. We call it the horizontals.
So we looked around and said, “Oh, this is ridiculous, they’re having a rally. They’re going to have a march, there’s no assembly at all. They lied to us.” We were very angry. And we thought, well, we could do an assembly. I mean, we’re sort of looking around at the people and said these people look a lot more horizontal than they look vertical. You know, most of these people are young people, they look like they’re interested in our kind of politics and actually having a general assembly. I think they came, just like us, because they thought this thing was going to be different than it was, let’s do it.
So we kind of went over to the side and started our own general assembly. And they tried to call us back and there was this whole tug of war. And, eventually, we won. Everybody came over to our side, they gave up on the rally. And we said, okay, let’s put together a real democratic movement, horizontal movement. And that’s what gradually grew into the occupation.
So it was an actual—I mean, in some respects, it was pitting the centralized form of classic protest versus the decentralized form that this has really evolved into.
Exactly. We decided we were going to push that, we were going to do that. And we had some people from Greece, we had some people from Spain, we had people like me who’d been involved in the global justice movement—which is also all about direct democracy and recreating democracy. Although a lot of people didn’t understand that at the time.
And I was really more a conduit than anything else. There’s these wonderful young people there, the 17 to 22 years old, on average, who’d been involved in Bloomberg-ville, this previous camp that never got much attention. Those guys were great, but an activist generation is like three years, people burn out so fast. So they didn’t really have much contact with the grand tradition that we came from of, people actually knew how to do facilitation and consensus, how to form affinity groups, civil disobedience. So my main role was sort of connecting people. I was on the trainings working group, for example. I found people who could give legal training, CD training. I facilitated two meetings and got people to do trainings for that. Learning the basic nuts and bolts, how to do democracy. And the way it’s been worked out over the last 30 years by anarchists, feminists and people like that—the horizontals, as I call them.
Right. And in September you wrote a piece for The Guardian, I think, which did a really good job of outlining what Occupy Wall Street is really about. I encourage listeners to just Google that, it comes up, it’s really easy to find and it’s worthwhile reading. But one of the things that you discussed in the article was the demands, what’s—that’s probably what the media, the mainstream media apparently is obsessed with this.
Obsessed with, yeah, why don’t you have demands?
Yeah, what do they want? What do they want?
So why don’t you talk a little bit about what that means, to ask for the demands and how that fits into the context of this, seems like a new, decentralized style of protest.
Well, I think that the problem of asking for demands is that, who are you demanding them of? You’re in a sense saying to the people in power, “We would like you to do things differently. Do something for us. Save the whales. Who’s going to save the whales? I’m not going to save the whales, I guess they’re going to go out and save the whales.” But it’s a little ambiguous and slogans like that. But ultimately the idea of protest is you’re saying, “You people in power are doing this wrong and we want you to do something.” And even if that something is “step aside,” you are addressing them directly.
The kind of politics we represent—we represent, I think, we’re more interested in a language of visions, a language of solutions than a language of demands, because we think that the political structure which we would be making demands of is itself part of the problem. It would be like making a demand of people to be someone else. They’re not going to do that.
So rather than recognize the existing structures, we’re saying this isn’t a democratic system at all. It’s completely owned by Big Money. We call ourselves a democracy, but it’s increasingly a sham. As evidence of which the fact that they’re not even talking about the problems that most Americans face in any kind of serious way. And it’s not that there aren’t ideas of how you could resolve this. The problem is there’s hundreds floating around. There’s no possibility of those in power even looking at them or thinking about them, even talking about what the actual, day-to-day dilemmas most Americans face.
So, if this isn’t a democracy, what we want to do is, first of all, create a vision of what democracy actually would be to remind people that it’s possible. And, at the same time, by contrast, demonstrate just how corrupt and undemocratic the system, which is going around the world claiming to promote democracy and represent democracy but doesn’t practice at all, actually is.
Well, this is a little story, earlier this week, I was at The New Yorker Magazine-sponsored panel on Occupy Wall Street that featured—Eliot Spitzer was there, former governor of New York, [Aaron] Gupta…
I couldn’t make it, I was actually invited.
Yeah, you would have really enjoyed it. You may have heard about it. Priscilla Graham, who works on the Occupied Wall Street Journal, as well as the Tumblr blog, We Are the 99% was there..
And she did a really good job, not speaking for the Occupied Wall Street movement, she wasn’t there to do that, she was just there to talk about, as a single mother, her own experiences, why she became involved in the movement, why she was there, why she was working on We Are the 99%...
She’s great, I’m sure she did a better job than I would have.
Well, there were a ton of people there and it was an audience that’s very—I mean, right off the bat, you could tell it’s very sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street. But something funny happened at the end during the Q&A is that someone stood up and asked her, not as a spokesperson, but just as an individual, “So what do you want to see happen next?” And you could tell from the audience just watching her that she had a hard time articulating what that was, because, “I want it to be better.” And she went, “Look, I’m a protestor, not a policymaker.” And there’s a tendency for people to seem to want to equate those two, but it is that question that just doesn’t seem to want to go away.
Well, I think part of the problem is because the way that these things have tended to work—and here I am, putting on not my activist hat, but more of my historian, sociologist, anthropologist hat—the way things have tended to work over the course of American history is that you have people creating a grassroots democratic movement who want to keep a certain integrity there. They want to create a vision of an alternative society that would really be democratic. To do that, you have to avoid entanglement with existing institutions which organize top-down, which are based on money, which are based on various flows of power that you just want to keep away from.
Now, of course, you do want immediate reforms, as well. But it means that the people doing those are not necessarily you and you have a sort of ambivalent relationship. If you look at the Civil Rights Movement, it was actually institutionalized by having two groups. There was SNCC, which was all about direct democracy, it was leaderless, it was based on consensus, just like these general assemblies are. They did non-violent civil disobedience, but they did it in a democratic way. And then you had the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Martin Luther King, they were the verticals. And they were much more willing to address specific policy issues. There they institutionalized it. And they had a good working relationship.
More from Minyanville on Occupy Wall Street:
Interview: The Magazine Editor Who Launched the Occupy Movement on "Soft Regime Change" in America
Interview: The Economist Who Discovered "the 99%" on Income Inequality and Why the Government Should Step In
Occupy Wall Street and the End of Money as We Know It
The Occupy Wall Street Index: Nine Companies the Protesters Love to Hate
Bail Out Wall Street but Ignore Main Street? The Three Biggest Grievances of the American Public
What the World Will Look Like If Occupy Wall Street Wins
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