Author David Graeber talks about capitalism, solidarity, and the war on the imagination
I've been trying to figure out just what percentage of the average American's income is simply extracted every month by the finance sector. ...You count mortgages, you count credit card debt, loan debt, all the fees and penalties that you don't notice... all that stuff put together comes to about 20 percent at least, and probably higher. For example, families that are in their early 30s, it's often 40 percent. ... I saw a poll the other day that said, for the first time since they've been taking statistics, a majority of Americans don't consider themselves middle class. ... And I think the reason for this is because it really never was an economic category. It has to do with how you feel you relate to basic institutions. What middle class first and foremost means is, if you see a policeman, do you feel safer, or do you feel less safe? ... Then there's more going on. For the first time, we found that there is incredible solidarity between students and workers, which have traditionally not been friends — go back to the 60s and it's hard-hats beating up hippies. Now, the transit workers in New York are suing the police over taking their buses to arrest us [occupiers].
SFBG: How would you reflect on the economic condition that workers are facing, compared with how things were historically over the last several decades?
DG: It's atrocious. One thing that's happened is there's been this disconnect between productivity and wages. This is kind of the deal they struck at the end of World War II in most of the North Atlantic countries: It used to be that you work harder, you produce more, you get a share of the profits. And that was worked out through mass unionization, it was worked out through negotiations, and it was tacit somewhat, but you know, it was understood.
Since the '70s, that deal is off. So, productivity goes up, wages stay flat. So that's why they say all profits have now gone to one percent of the population. So workers are working harder and harder, more and more hours, under more and more stress. ...It's all the more difficult because of education, because now it's gotten to the point where if you don't have a college degree, your chance of having any benefits at work is basically nil. If you want to have health care, you need to go to college. At the same time, if you want to go to college, you need to pay student loans. So you're double damned. ... You have all these people who are sort of trapped: I'd like to finish, I'm still going, I'll take night classes — for five or ten years, while you have a working class job. So the line between the students and the proletariat blurs, and this is one of the reasons why the student loan issue actually spoke to people in unions.
And there's also a shift in the type of work. Did you ever see the "We are the 99 percent" tumblr page? It was all these people talking about their jobs... their debts and difficult medical problems.... One of the things that fascinated me about that was that like 80 percent of the people on that page were women. ...They were all doing something where the work was clearly to the benefit of someone else. And I think that those are the people who are the most screwed right now, ironically. The more obviously your work benefits other human beings, the less you're paid.
SFBG: Going back to this idea of debt — your book [Debt: The First 5,000 Years] looks at debt through the ages of human history. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on debt as it relates to personal freedom.