By Drake Bennett
Nov 3, 2011
Meet the anthropologist, activist, and anarchist who helped transform a hapless rally into a global protest movement
David Graeber likes to say that he had three goals for the year: promote his book, learn to drive, and launch a worldwide revolution. The first is going well, the second has proven challenging, and the third is looking up.
Graeber is a 50-year-old anthropologist—among the brightest, some argue, of his generation—who made his name with innovative theories on exchange and value, exploring phenomena such as Iroquois wampum and the Kwakiutl potlatch. An American, he teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London. He’s also an anarchist and radical organizer, a veteran of many of the major left-wing demonstrations of the past decade: Quebec City and Genoa, the Republican National Convention protests in Philadelphia and New York, the World Economic Forum in New York in 2002, the London tuition protests earlier this year. This summer, Graeber was a key member of a small band of activists who quietly planned, then noisily carried out, the occupation of Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, providing the focal point for what has grown into an amorphous global movement known as Occupy Wall Street.
It would be wrong to call Graeber a leader of the protesters, since their insistently nonhierarchical philosophy makes such a concept heretical. Nor is he a spokesman, since they have refused thus far to outline specific demands. Even in Zuccotti Park, his name isn’t widely known. But he has been one of the group’s most articulate voices, able to frame the movement’s welter of hopes and grievances within a deeper critique of the historical moment. “We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt,” Graeber wrote in a Sept. 25 editorial published online by the Guardian. “Is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?”
Graeber’s politics have been shaped by his experience in global justice protests over the years, but they are also fed by the other half of his life: his work as an anthropologist. Graeber’s latest book, published two months before the start of Occupy Wall Street, is entitled Debt: The First 5,000 Years. It is an alternate history of the rise of money and markets, a sprawling, erudite, provocative work. Looking at societies ranging from the West African Tiv people and ancient Sumer to Medieval Ireland and modern-day America, he explores the ambivalent attitudes people have always had about debt: as obligation and sin, engine of economic growth and tool of oppression. Along the way, he tries to answer questions such as why so many people over the course of history have simultaneously believed that it is a matter of morality to repay debts and that those who lend money for a living are evil.
Graeber’s arguments place him squarely at odds with mainstream economic thought, and the discipline has, for the most part, ignored him. But his timing couldn’t be better to reach a popular audience. His writing provides an intellectual frame and a sort of genealogy for the movement he helped start. The inchoate anger of the Occupy Wall Street protesters tends to cluster around two things. One is the influence of money in politics. The other is debt: mortgages, credit-card debt, student loans, and the difference in how the debts of large financial companies and those of individual borrowers have been treated in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
“He is a deep thinker. He’s been a student of movements and revolutions,” says Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, the Vancouver-based anticorporate magazine. “He’s the sort of guy who can say, ‘Is this thing we’re going through like 1968 or is it like the French Revolution?’ ”
As Graeber explains it, it’s all part of a larger story: Throughout history, debt has served as a way for states to control their subjects and extract resources from them (usually to finance wars). And when enough people got in enough debt, there was usually some kind of revolt.
Graeber is small-framed and fidgety, with a pale boyish face and blue eyes. He dresses like a graduate student and speaks fast, in bursts punctuated by long ums, a ragged laugh, or pauses to catch his breath. He doesn’t make much eye contact. When finishing a thought, he has a habit of ducking his head and arching his eyebrows, as if he has just heard a faint but alarming sound.
For several weeks—since the fourth day of Occupy Wall Street—Graeber has been in Austin, Tex., reuniting with his girlfriend, a fellow anthropologist just back from fieldwork in Mexico. While there he has been peripherally involved with Occupy Austin, a small, fractious offshoot of the original Zuccotti Park occupation, one of many around the world.
Graeber began the summer on sabbatical, moving back to New York from London and frequenting an artists’ space called 16Beaver. It was an intellectual activist salon, located near Wall Street, the sort of place where people would discuss topics like semiotics and hacking and the struggles of indigenous peoples. Like many other American activists, Graeber had been deeply moved by the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square and by the “Indignados” who had taken over central Madrid; in mid-July, he published a short piece in Adbusters asking what it would take to trigger a similar uprising in the West. For much of the summer, the discussions at 16Beaver revolved around exactly that question. When a local group called Operation Empire State Rebellion called for a June 14 occupation of Zuccotti Park, four people showed up.
On July 13, Adbusters put out its own call for a Wall Street occupation, to take place two months later, on Sept. 17. Setting the date and publicizing it was the extent of the magazine’s involvement. A group called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts—student activists and community leaders from some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods—stepped in to execute the rest. For three weeks in June and July, to protest city budget cuts and layoffs, the group had camped out across the street from City Hall in a tent city they called Bloombergville. They liked the idea of trying a similar approach on Wall Street. After talking to Adbusters, the group began advertising a “People’s General Assembly” to “Oppose Cutbacks And Austerity Of Any Kind” and plan the Sept. 17 occupation.
The assembly was to be held in Bowling Green, the downtown Manhattan park with its famous statue of a charging bull pawing the cobblestones. Graeber had heard about the meeting at 16Beaver, and the afternoon of Aug. 2 he went to Bowling Green with two friends, a Greek artist and anarchist named Georgia Sagri and a Japanese activist named Sabu Kohso (who is also the Japanese translator of Graeber’s books).
A “general assembly” means something specific and special to an anarchist. In a way, it’s the central concept of contemporary anarchist activism, which is premised on the idea that revolutionary movements relying on coercion of any kind only result in repressive societies. A “GA” is a carefully facilitated group discussion through which decisions are made—not by a few leaders, or even by majority rule, but by consensus. Unresolved questions are referred to working groups within the assembly, but eventually everyone has to agree, even in assemblies that swell into the thousands. It can be an arduous process. One of the things Occupy Wall Street has done is introduce the GA to a wider audience, along with the distinctive sign language participants use to raise questions or express support, disapproval, or outright opposition.
When Graeber and his friends showed up on Aug. 2, however, they found out that the event wasn’t, in fact, a general assembly, but a traditional rally, to be followed by a short meeting and a march to Wall Street to deliver a set of predetermined demands (“A massive public-private jobs program” was one, “An end to oppression and war!” was another). In anarchist argot, the event was being run by “verticals”—top-down organizations—rather than “horizontals” such as Graeber and his friends. Sagri and Graeber felt they’d been had, and they were angry.
What happened next sounds like an anarchist parable. Along with Kohso, the two recruited several other people disgruntled with the proceedings, then walked to the south end of the park and began to hold their own GA, getting down to the business of planning the Sept. 17 occupation. The original dozen or so people gradually swelled, despite the efforts of the event’s planners to bring them back to the rally. The tug of war lasted until late in the evening, but eventually all of the 50 or so people remaining at Bowling Green had joined the insurgent general assembly.
“The groups that were organizing the rally, they also came along,” recalls Kohso. “Then everyone stayed very, very late to organize what committees we needed.”
While there were weeks of planning yet to go, the important battle had been won. The show would be run by horizontals, and the choices that would follow—the decision not to have leaders or even designated police liaisons, the daily GAs and myriad working-group meetings that still form the heart of the protests in Zuccotti Park—all flowed from that.
For Graeber the next month and a half was a carousel of meetings. There were the weekly GAs, the first held near the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, the rest in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. He facilitated some of them and spent much of the rest of his time in working group meetings in people’s apartments. (On Aug. 14 he tweeted, “I am so exhausted. My first driving lesson … then had to facilitate an assembly in Tompkins Square Park for like three hours.”) He organized legal and medical training and classes on nonviolent resistance. The group endlessly discussed what demands to make, or whether to have demands at all—a question that months later remains unresolved.
In the Sept. 10 general assembly the group picked the target for their occupation: One Chase Manhattan Plaza. They also picked several backups. So when the police fenced off Chase Plaza the night before the occupation was scheduled to start, the occupiers were prepared. On Sept. 17, barely an hour before the scheduled 3 p.m. start time, the word went out to go to Zuccotti Park instead, and 2,000 people converged on the now famous patch of stone flooring, low benches, and trees. It was a fortunate choice: Zuccotti is a privately owned park, so the city doesn’t have the right to remove the protesters. Graeber helped facilitate the GA that night in which they decided to camp out in the park rather than immediately march on Wall Street. Three days later, when he flew to Austin, the protests were still little more than a local New York story.
Graeber has been an anarchist since the age of 16. He grew up in New York, in a trade-union-sponsored cooperative apartment building in Chelsea suffused with radical politics. A precocious child, he became obsessed at 11 with Mayan hieroglyphics. (The writing had then been only partially deciphered.) He sent some of his original translations to a leading scholar in the field, who was so impressed that he arranged for Graeber to get a scholarship to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
Graeber’s parents were in their 40s when they had him and had come of age in the political left of the 1930s, self-taught working-class intellectuals. Graeber’s mother had been a garment worker and, briefly, a celebrity—the female lead in a musical comedy revue put on by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union that managed to become a Broadway hit. His father worked as a plate stripper on offset printers. Originally from Kansas, he had fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Anarchists made up one part of the fragile Republican coalition, and for a brief period they controlled Barcelona.
“Most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea. They think it’s insane,” says Graeber. “Yeah, sure it would be great not to have prisons and police and hierarchical structures of authority, but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn’t work, right?” Graeber’s father, however, had seen it work. “So it wasn’t insane. I was never brought up to think it was insane.”
Years later, Graeber was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and his field research brought him into contact with another, albeit very different, anarchic community. His dissertation was on Betafo, a rural community in Madagascar made up of the descendants of nobles and their slaves. Because of spending cuts mandated by the International Monetary Fund—the sort of structural-adjustment policies Graeber would later protest—the central government had abandoned the area, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves. They did, creating an egalitarian society where 10,000 people made decisions more or less by consensus. When necessary, criminal justice was carried out by a mob, but even there a particular sort of consensus pertained: a lynching required permission from the accused’s parents.
Graeber didn’t become an activist until after the massive 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. At the time an associate professor at Yale, he realized that the sort of movement he had always wanted to join had come into being while he was concentrating on his academic career. “If you’re really dedicated to this stuff, things can happen very quickly,” he says. “The first action you go to, you’re just a total outsider. You don’t know what’s going on. The second one, you know everything. By the third, you’re effectively part of the leadership if you want to be. Anybody can be if you’re willing to put in the time and energy.”
It was a particularly happy period for Graeber. In New Haven he was a scholar, and in New York, where he spent much of his time, he was an anarchist—he had found a new community among the loose coalition of activists, artists, and pranksters who called themselves the Direct Action Network. There were protests but also elaborately choreographed festivities—“reclaim the streets” parties, or nights when everyone converged on a particular subway train and rode it through the city carousing.
It came to an end in 2005, when Yale terminated his contract before he had a chance to come up for tenure. Graeber appealed, and his case became a cause at Yale and in the broader community of academic anthropology. He maintains he was targeted at least in part because of his political activism. Others saw evidence that the modern university was exactly the sort of hierarchical organization that Graeber was philosophically opposed to and temperamentally unsuited for.
“There was an issue about his personal style, whether he was respectful enough to various senior people both in the department and at the university. He’s not someone who is known to be very pliable,” recalls Thomas Blom Hansen, an anthropology professor at Stanford who was a friend and Yale colleague of Graeber’s at the time. “I don’t think anyone doubts that he’s a major figure in his field,” he adds. “But he’s not really interested in the humdrum daily life of administration that constitutes an increasing part of our life in the academic world.”
Everyone involved in the creation of Occupy Wall Street, from Graeber to the editors of Adbusters to New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, has been astonished by its success. The world of American left-wing activism, populated as it is by an unwieldy mix of progressives and pacifists, civil libertarians and Marxists, idealists and pragmatists, is often riven by disputes and mutual misunderstanding. What’s notable about Occupy Wall Street is that it was born not in spite of that tendency but because of it. For his part, Graeber doesn’t attribute the success of the occupation to its planners but to luck, timing, and the pervasive mood of anger and disillusionment in the country: There are few jobs, the political process has ground to a halt, and as individuals and as a nation, we’re drowning in debt.
Graeber’s problem with debt is not just that having too much of it is bad. More fundamental, he writes in his book, is debt’s perversion of the natural instinct for humans to help each other. Economics textbooks tell a story in which money and markets arise out of the human tendency to “truck and barter,” as Adam Smith put it. Before there was money, Smith argued, people would trade seven chickens for a goat, or a bag of grain for a pair of sandals. Then some enterprising merchant realized it would be easier to just price all of them in a common medium of exchange, like silver or wampum. The problem with this story, anthropologists have been arguing for decades, is that it doesn’t seem ever to have happened. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” writes anthropologist Caroline Humphrey, in a passage Graeber quotes.
People in societies without money don’t barter, not unless they’re dealing with a total stranger or an enemy. Instead they give things to each other, sometimes as a form of tribute, sometimes to get something later in return, and sometimes as an outright gift. Money, therefore, wasn’t created by traders trying to make it easier to barter, it was created by states like ancient Egypt or massive temple bureaucracies in Sumer so that people had a more efficient way of paying taxes, or simply to measure property holdings. In the process, they introduced the concept of price and of an impersonal market, and that ate away at all those organic webs of mutual support that had existed before.
That’s ancient history, literally. So why does it matter? Because money, Graeber argues, turns obligations and responsibilities, which are social things, into debt, which is purely financial. The sense we have that it’s important to repay debts corrupts the impulse to take care of each other: Debts are not sacred, human relationships are.
If we understand the social origins of debt, Graeber says, we become much more willing to renegotiate debts when conditions change, whether those are mortgages, credit-card debts, student loans, or the debts of entire nations. And if the desperate response to the ongoing financial crisis has shown anything, he argues, it’s that we’re willing to forgive debts if the institution that has them is important.
“Sovereignty does ultimately belong to the people, at least in theory. You gave the bank the right to make up money that is then lent to you,” he argues. “We collectively create this stuff, and so we could do it differently.”
Graeber’s book is getting glowing praise from his fellow anthropologists, and it has gotten attention beyond that world as well. (Though according to Mandy Henk, a librarian from Indiana minding the library that has sprung up in Zuccotti Park, copies of his work there aren’t seeing a lot of use.) Few mainstream economists are familiar with his ideas. Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, who happens to be a widely read blogger, is one of them. “He whacks a bit of sense into people, and I think he’s right and Adam Smith was wrong,” he says. Yet Cowen, himself a libertarian, isn’t won over to Graeber’s politics. He sees little alternative to the modern state. “Look at Somalia. If there’s a vacuum, something has to fill it.”
He might also point to the drummers of Zuccotti Park. The constant beat from drum circles there has provided the occupation’s soundtrack, but it has also elicited a steady flow of noise complaints, trying the patience of an otherwise supportive community board and elected officials. Through weeks of mediation and discussion in the general assembly, a few drummers have steadfastly defied any limits on when they can play, though organizers are hopeful an agreement hashed out on Oct. 25 will finally solve the problem.
At the end of his book, Graeber does make one policy recommendation: a Biblical-style “jubilee,” a forgiveness of all international and consumer debt. Jubilees are rare in the modern world, but in ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt under the Ptolemies they were a regular occurrence. The alternative, rulers learned, was rioting and chaos in years when poor crop yields left lots of peasants in debt. The very first use in a political document of the word freedom was in a Sumerian king’s debt-cancellation edict. “It would be salutary,” Graeber writes, “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 that if democracy is to mean anything it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.” —With reporting by Karen Weise
Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.