When I say the word anarchist you probably have an image of a bomb-throwing skinhead shouting slogans and facing down riot police. This week’s London Real guest David Graeber is going to change that image forever. A self-proclaimed anarchist, David is far more the picture of the soft-spoken, thoughtful academic than a combative activist. But David’s credentials as a campaigner and anti-capitalist thinker speak volumes.
In the first part of our enlightening discussion, David recounts his intrinsic role in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street campaign. These protests saw THOUSANDS of people descend on New York City’s Zuccotti Park to create a political alternative to debt culture and corruption. If you are at all cynical about the Occupy movement, David will challenge your preconceptions. It wasn’t just people shouting in the street, says David. He insists that Occupy “changed the debate” on inequality, class and economics, and its impact is still being felt today.
David’s big thing is what he calls “horizontal” campaigning. Basically – no leader! His involvement in the Occupy movement was a determined move to get away from the tired old sloganeering and demagogy of traditional protests. David is an advocate of “direct action as opposed to just protesting. It’s fascinating to hear him break down how his style of the campaign differs from the old left or the usual student protests we see in pictures from the 1960s.
Direct action for David is actually a form of self-empowerment. His anarchism stems from a belief that much of what passes for government is in reality irrelevant or superfluous. We can live without it. By advocating direct action he is basically saying that normal people have the power to solve their own problems. He thinks that when we take responsibility for ourselves we avoid the debt cycle and the mass bureaucracy that keeps us in a kind of silent prison for most of our lives. I was really surprised to hear about his debate with Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist and hedge fund manager. Honestly, these are two guys that I would NOT normally expect to be in the same room together. But as David says, Thiel approached HIM and was impressed with David’s book “Debt: The First 500 Years”. It turns out the two have a lot more in common than you’d think, and David describes how he had a kind of meeting of minds with Thiel on certain issues.
If you remember Elliott Hulse’s term “non-job” you’ll like David’s similar critique of what he calls the “bullshit job”. David is an anthropologist and his training drives him to uncover the reasons societies are the way they are. David said he was curious as to how aggressively capitalist cultures like the UK and the US could give rise to so many millions of jobs that are really nothing more than admin roles, and basically expendable. In David’s opinion, over 75% of jobs in western capitalist societies are “bullshit jobs”. These are jobs where the employees themselves feel their roles are pointless and could be done in the space of three hours a week! He has his own take on this, and it’s not simplistic. Our own relationship with the concept of work is what David has identified as the problem.
He’s got some deep insights into the thought patterns that have created this kind of society. Far from being just a raging activist with an axe to grind against “the system”, David is most eloquent in his criticism of the capitalist system. The usual arguments put forward in defence of the market are that it is a stable, cohesive system that drives technological innovation. David says if we take a look at our society, however, we see that it’s not that simple. This is actually one of the things that Peter Thiel agreed with David on! The market is in fact quite inefficient at creating stable societies and it very often hampers technological growth. Even if you disagree with him, it’s hard to argue that David doesn’t have some kind of point, and I enjoyed getting into these issues with him.
One thing I really love about David is the fact that he lives what he preaches. He’s very gentle, polite and a super-engaging thinker. But this guy has been on the front lines of some of the biggest protest movements and direct action campaigns in modern history from Seattle, to Quebec all the way up to Occupy. When there was an Occupy at Royal Holloway in London, David was there on the ground, sleeping over with the rest of the students and university workers. You might have strong feelings about the things David says and his take on modern economics, but you can’t deny this man is congruent.
It’s really impressive to hear of David’s recent trip to Syria, visiting the Kurdish fighters who have created exactly the kind of fully democratic society David advocates. He’s always in the line of fire, and has some battle stories to prove it! It’s not all politics with David though. He has no problem getting vulnerable, and he’s very open about his own struggles, failures and weaknesses, and how they have helped him become a successful social commentator and writer. David’s no millionaire entrepreneur, but like Dennis McKenna, he’s hugely successful in his chosen field and has made an indelible mark on the culture, and we are all the better for it.
In the space of one year, David says he lost his family, his job, his country and his fiancee. A series of hardships struck him, but he has an incredible way of framing this difficult time. Without it, he tells me, he wouldn’t have been able to write his now famous book on Debt. David also talks about the working class values he was brought up with, and it’s clear to see why he’s so passionate and so committed to his political activism. Whether you are an anarchist or not, David’s commitment to his work, his courage and his authenticity will affect you in surprising ways. His views on economics are radical, but if he can capture the imagination of hedge fund managers like Peter Thiel, then there must be something to what he has to say! I think what drives him is just this overwhelming sense that society, and humanity in general, is capable of more, and that we don’t have to accept climate change, poverty and debt as inevitable parts of our reality.
This is why he’s such an important guest for London Real. He’s challenging, controversial and radical. But he’s also innovative, he’s broken new ground in his field and carries himself with uncompromising integrity. I have no doubt this will fast become a CLASSIC interview, and we’ll be talking about this episode in years to come. Sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of your weekend in the company of a true original, and one of the most radical thinkers of our time. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you American Anarchist David Graeber!
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