Debt peons, unite!

Author David Graeber talks about capitalism, solidarity, and the war on the imagination

David Graeber: "Some members of the ruling class actually talk to me and even ask for my advice."

David Graeber is renowned among occupiers and idealists as an intellectual founder, or anti-leader as it were, of the Occupy Wall Street encampment that sprung up in Zucotti Park in the fall of 2011. He's an organizer, an anarchist, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Goldsmiths University of London, a former instructor at Yale, and the author of several books, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a tome tracing the concept of debt back to the roots of Western civilization.

His latest book, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (Spiegel & Grau, 2013), chronicles the rise of Occupy, a leaderless economic justice movement Graeber unapologetically characterizes as a success. In honor of International Workers Day, May 1, the Bay Guardian caught up with him over coffee to talk about economic pressures facing today's workers, particularly the young and marginalized.

Turns out, it's not a pretty picture out there — but at least Graeber, who has a propensity to collapse into giggles between full throttle ruminations on the absurdity of global economic policy, has a sense of humor about it.

Below are some excerpts.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: Looking at the Occupy movement, the mainstream narrative seems to be that it was a short-lived, failed experiment and now it's over. But in your book, you ask the question 'why did it work?'

David Graeber: Let's put it this way. When was the last time that the issue of social class was put at the center of American politics? Probably the 1930s. Social movements have been desperately trying to do this for 50, 60, 70 years and gotten nowhere. We managed to do it in three months. Um, that's pretty impressive. ... And I'm pretty sure that if it weren't for us, we'd have a President Romney right now. That whole 47 percent thing? It would not have resonated had it not been for the 99 percent thing.

SFBG: Why do you think the idea of wealth inequality, of all issues, resonated so much?

DG: I think because there's a basic change in the way capitalism works in America. It's been going for some time, but it just became unmistakably apparent after 2008. People talk about the "financialization" of capitalism, and it sounds very abstract. Casino capitalism, speculation, they're playing these games, they're making money appear out of thin air, which is not entirely untrue. ... It's based on getting everybody into debt. The profits of Wall Street are — they now say a very small percentage is actually based on commerce — it's now based on finance. But what does 'based on finance' actually mean? It means they go into your bank account and take your money.