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
The Guy Fawkes mask—worn by a protester in New York on Oct. 5—has become symbolic of the Occupy Wall Street movement Scout Tufankjian/Polaris
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?’ ”
No leaders. Ha. There is always someone in charge, anarchist or no. This revelation comes from Business Week of all places. I asked if this Graeber was leading Occupy Wall Street on the globalrevolution and occupy wall street NYC livestreams and was referred right back to the article I linked, as if "Anti-Leader" clarifies everything. Sorry, but I wish further clarification. Why do I find this information on a corporate site? Why wasn't this information revealed by the Occupy Wall Street NYC movement? Is David Graeber selling his book using this publicity on Business Week?
This was to be a consensus-driven grass roots organization in evolution. Now we discover a 50 year-old anarchist and Yale professor has "...helped transform a hapless rally into a global protest movement." Global yet!!! Tell me, Occupy Madrid, is Graeber your anti-leader too? London? Is everyone down with his political and social philosophy? What is Graeber's agenda?
I WANT ANSWERS AND NOT FROM BUSINESS WEEK.