David Graeber

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David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street

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

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

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

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