You have recently come to the defense of Jeremy Corbyn following the attempted “chicken coup” against him by the Blairite wing of the UK Labour Party. As an anarchist, how do you feel about Corbyn’s economic proposals and his stance on the City of London? Let’s imagine he were to survive the leadership challenge and win the next elections — is there anything you would advise him or his supporters to do differently, or to pay particular attention to?
Yes, well, as an anarchist I don’t feel it’s really my business to tell politicians what to do; and I wouldn’t join the party myself or endorse it or anything like that. But I am very enthusiastic about what’s happening and want to encourage it from my own outsider position. Also, I have to confess there’s a certain sense of affinity that I haven’t usually felt with political actors of the same sort before. Well, part of it is just identification. I rarely talk about what happened to me at Yale, or in US academia more generally, but I will confess that when I see the way Corbyn is being bullied and defamed, it all seems very, very familiar.
In my case, I was perhaps the only “out of the closet” active anarchist — in the sense of actually helping organize and taking part in street actions — in a major university like that, or anyway the most prominent; and Yale, a notoriously conservative department, fires me without giving a reason, and pretty much 90 percent of all “left-wing” academics seem to have reacted by saying: “oh, it couldn’t possibly have been his politics, there must have been something wrong with his personality” — though of course they rarely had much idea precisely what. Or this circular: “well, obviously people don’t want to work with him, so he’s by definition a bad colleague.” It seems like almost the entire left-wing punditocracy here in the UK has adopted variations on this line: “Oh, it’s certainly not because this is the first time in 50 years a left-winger has become head of a major party, that the entire establishment is turning on him. There must be something wrong with his personality. He’s a bad leader. After all he must be a bad leader because he can’t keep other politicians in his own party from turning on him!” So many of the moves I saw seemed so familiar.
I think there’s a very interesting essay to be written about the whole notion of “unelectability.” It’s quite fascinating to see so many people, thousands and thousands, on blogs proclaiming how no one else will vote for Corbyn. It shows something profound about the nature of contemporary ideology, which I’m becoming increasingly convinced is not based on convincing the public that the system is good or fair, but only on convincing them thatother people think the system is good and fair. Everyone is sitting there saying: “it’s all a scam, but people are sheep, they actually buy this shit!” — whereas in fact the only people being fooled are those who believe everyone else is.
In the case of elections, it’s the ultimate commoditisation of the political process. Back in the 1930s Keynes argued that this is how equity markets work, you know: it’s not a beauty contest, it’s like a beauty contest where everyone is trying to guess who everyone else will think is the most beautiful. But in fact it never ends — you can go meta, as it were, indefinitely, and try to guess who most people will think most other people will think is most beautiful, and so on and so forth, forever. But this is what electoral politics has come down to. Everyone’s a pundit. Most don’t even really consider what they would actually want.
Anyway, I have been excited by the Corbyn phenomenon because I know the people involved, and I know they’re actually serious about trying to create a synergy between people working in the system and those working outside. Syriza never was, really; they co-opted and destroyed everything they touched. Podemos seems very uneven and often very disappointing in this regard. The Corbyn and McDonnell people, by contrast, really want to see if they can do it right. And this is important because if anti-authoritarian movements actually are going to win, it can only be by creating that sort of synergy in the short to medium term — unless we’re talking about some catastrophic collapse, which of course might happen, but is nothing we can in any way bank on.
We have to figure out a way for those who want to preserve a prefigurative space where they can experiment with what a free society might actually be like — which necessarily means not having any systematic relation with political parties, funding bodies, anything like that — to actually work with those who are trying to create more modest and immediate changes within the system, which is beneficial to both of them. So one piece of advice would be: think hard about how to do this. I think many of them are thinking hard about it. But at the moment they’re in a struggle for survival, which makes it very hard to be long-term strategic in that way.
The other thing I would say is to think theoretically about merging the insights of Marxism and post-Keynesianism into a vision of a genuinely redemptive technological future. I love ideas like fully automated luxury communism. But the economic coalition that might bring us there is fragile and a lot of work of synthesis needs to be done. Ironically, I was about to embark on a project trying to synthesize the two with the philosopher Roy Bhaskar shortly before his tragic death. But someone has to do it. We need a radically new definition of what economics even is and what problems it is trying to solve, and this is the only way we’re going to get one.
You have also come out in support of an initiative known as “quantitative easing for the people.” Could you briefly explain what “QEP” is about, and why you support it?
My advocacy of QEP rests on similar grounds as my advocacy of a debt jubilee: I don’t think it will be a real solution to anything, though it will certainly make a lot of people’s lives easier — I am interested in it mainly as a kind of mental reset button, a way of forcing the people running the system to actually admit what money is under a credit system such as we have today, so as to open up people’s sense of political possibility.
The mechanics are simple. Since 2008, central banks, whether the Federal Reserve in the US, the Bank of England, or the European Central Bank, have engaged in rounds of money creation — “quantitative easing” as they euphemistically call it — which basically means that they print untold billions of dollars or pounds or euros and use it to buy up certain sorts of assets (Treasury bonds for instance) so as to raise their value. Basically they print money and use it to bid up the value of the kind of assets that rich people are likely to already have lying around. Blowing bubbles basically. Of course it’s not exactly the same as printing money and handing it to rich people, but the effect is pretty much identical. The ostensible idea is that this will cause the rich people to be more likely to loan money and stimulate the economy, but in fact it gives them very limited incentive — and mostly the money just sits there making them, on paper at least, even more rich.
QEP advocates are just saying: wouldn’t it stimulate the economy a lot more to take that same money and do… well, almost anything else with it? So QEP can mean a lot of things in practice. The Corbyn people say, well, rather than making rich people richer and hoping that will make them more likely to lend to people who want to build roads, or do high-tech research, why not just lend it directly to people who want to build roads or do high tech research? Then others say, why not just take it and build roads or do research yourself? Finally, others — and I must say I’m most sympathetic with this — say, why not instead of indirectly giving it just to rich people, who already have a lot of money after all, directly give it to everyone? I think the last round of QE by the ECB involved producing enough money to give everyone in the Eurozone something like 180 euros a month. Well, why not just do that?
This shades into the debate about a Universal Basic Income, which as an anarchist I think is a potentially brilliant left-wing anti-bureaucratic issue — but that’s something of another story. As I say, QEP would be a dramatic way of reminding people that money is really a social relation, a series of promises we make to one another, and that we create it all the time.
At the moment people seem genuinely convinced that money is some sort of limited good, and when politicians say “there’s just not enough money,” or that social programs create debts our children will have to pay some day, they actually make some kind of sense. This is because they see money as stuff that has to already exist before banks can lend it out, when in fact the reality is precisely the other way around. The second line of defense of course when you point this out is to fall back on inflation: well, if the government or central bank just print money, you end up like Zimbabwe, or Germany in the 1920s. This too is tacitly based on the quantity theory of money. But in fact, with QE they’ve been printing money like mad, and they don’t seem to be able to spark inflation at all — it’s pretty clear they would like a little more than they have. If nothing else, a QEP program will let the cat out of the bag.
What would you say to those who, understandably, feel overwhelmed by the immense power of finance and who are convinced that “resistance is futile”? What can be done at the everyday level to overcome this sense of resignation and re-empower our communities? Are there any particular struggles — past or present — you would point to for lessons or inspiration?
What we call “finance” is really just other people’s debts. Or, to be more technical: the art and science of creating, swapping and manipulating such debts. The most obvious way to practice civil disobedience against finance, then, not to mention to re-empower your community, is simply not to pay your debts. The Strike Debt group that came out of Occupy Wall Street faced that dilemma and we discovered something quite surprising. Our first idea was to create a kind of mass pledge of debt resistance: have people sign a document that, say, once they reached 100,000 signatures, everyone would simultaneously stop paying their student loans. That way they couldn’t single out anyone in particular for repression. But it was very hard to get anyone to sign it. We only ended up with a couple of thousand signatures. When we investigated why, we discovered that a substantial number of the people we approached were already in default. And a very large chunk more were thinking they soon might be. The last thing they wanted was to draw attention to themselves.
So we started to break down the numbers. Now, numbers are hard to come by. I once tried to figure out what percentage of the average American household’s income is directly appropriated by the FIRE sector (finance, insurance and real estate) in a given month, and I found that you can get figures on almost anything else, but that one, nobody really had the slightest idea. When I asked economists to guess I got everything from 15 percent to 50 percent. But even more curious, almost all types of loans also saw massive rates of default. If you look at rates of student loan default, credit card default, mortgages… It seemed like a majority of households were not paying some debt or another. But that means most households were already practicing civil disobedience against finance! They just weren’t doing it consciously, in the sense of as an act of political self-assertion.
The big problem with debt is that it causes such shame that people are afraid to talk to each other about it. They don’t know that everyone else is in the same boat. So we started talking about an “invisible army” of defaulters. We even wrote an “operations manual” on how to deal with bailiffs and collection agencies, what you can get away with, what you can’t… It’s difficult to see how to marshal that movement as an explicitly political force, but it does make the problem a little less overwhelming than it might seem otherwise.
Final question: we would be very curious to hear what you are working on at the moment, and how your current research projects fit in with your past anthropological work on money and debt, and your ongoing activism against inequality and the power and privileges of the 1 percent.
Well, as it happens, I’m writing three books at the moment. Two are collaborations. I’m writing a book of essays on kingship with my old teacher, Marshall Sahlins. For me this is a really big deal, and it’s fun to get back to serious hardcore scholarship again. I just finished the last of my three essays, about pirate kings in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Madagascar. Many if not most of the Caribbean pirates ended up settling in Madagascar eventually. I argue their presence sparked a kind of democratic political experiment among the Malagasy who lived next to them, which should be considered one of the first Enlightenment political experiments, and would be were it not for the fact that they were Malagasy. The next is a book about bullshit jobs because everyone wants me to do that after the essay in Strike! Magazine. And finally I’m working with the archaeologist David Wengrow on a book about the origins of social inequality. This one is going to be explosive.
Our basic premise is that there’s been this story we’ve been telling ourselves for centuries now, which starts like this: once upon a time we were all happy little bands of egalitarian hunter-gatherers, and everything was fine because things were simple and small, but then we invent agriculture, which allows private property, so things start going downhill, and then you get civilization, and that means not just cities but a surplus, social class, states, exploitation, but also high culture, writing, and so on. It all comes as a package, love it or leave it. But the problem is the last fifty years of research have shown that virtually none of this is true. That’s just not what happened. Hunter-gatherers, even in the Palaeolithic, could be very hierarchical, but they tended to go back and forth over the course of the year between almost state-like arrangements and extreme equality. They were always experimenting with different forms and any top-down arrangement was inherently temporary. So the question isn’t where inequality came from but how we somehow got stuck.
David Graeber is an anarchist organizer and Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. He was among the early participants in Occupy Wall Street in New York. His books include the award-winning Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House) and most recently The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House).