Author David Graeber talks about capitalism, solidarity, and the war on the imagination
DG: That's one of the most pernicious things about the current debt regime in America. Being young is supposed to be a place where you can let your imagination run free and explore your sense of possibility. That's what college used to be. In a sense, those students who are just out of college, I always call them post-students, they're the kind of people who are activists, the kind of people who are thinking okay I'll start a band, maybe I'll be an artist. That's where everything comes out of in a generation, where everything new and exciting emerges. What could be more stupid than taking all those people and turning them into debt peons? ... I think of it like horror movies — what is it that's so scary about monsters? It's that they turn you into them, right? Vampires, werewolves. But you don't get to be like the really cool super count vampire, you get to be a pathetic minion vampire, where you're in debt for the rest of eternity, as a flunkie. In a way, that's what's scary about debt. It forces you to think like a capitalist, you have to think about money and profit all the time. But it's even worse, because you're a capitalist with no capital. It like totally destroys your ability to think of anything but money, and you don't even have any money.
SFBG: Another thing we're seeing increasingly is austerity measures and public sector spending cuts. What's the root cause of these rollbacks, and what do you see as the most appropriate response from economic justice activists?
DG: I am in the peculiar situation at the moment that some members of the ruling class actually talk to me and even ask for my advice. Which, you know they're in trouble if they're talking to me, right? Part of the reason for that is that these guys are on a completely self-destructive course. I live in the UK most of the time. They're going into a triple debt recession because of these austerity programs. Now what are you going to make of it? It has nothing to do with economics.
SFBG: So why is it happening?
DG: It's moral. It's political, and moral. Neoliberalism is not basically an economic ideology. It's about politics ... Always prioritize the political advantage over the economic advantage. Breaking unions, getting rid of job security, making people work more and more hours — that's not economically efficient ... So what does it do? Well, it's the best thing you could possibly do if you want to depoliticize workers ... The classic justifications for capitalism are harder and harder to maintain. ... So what excuse do they have left? They can say, well, it's the only thing that's possible. Basically all they can do is hammer away at our imagination. The only alternative is this, or North Korea. And the amazing thing is that the only war they've won, is the war against the imagination.