Painstakingly researched and sensitively composed, David Graeber’s latest book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, attempts a retelling of world history in which credit systems underpin the rise—and potential decline—of human civilization. A leading figure in the anti-globalization and anarchist movements, Graeber teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths University of London. Graeber recently visited the Rail’s headquarters to discuss his book with Spencer Woodman.
Spencer Woodman (Rail): Your new book puts debt theory at the center of understanding the global economy, even modern life and history at large. There’s something about the quantitative aspect of debt, the way that it can impersonalize human relationships, that makes it such a powerful force in civilization.
David Graeber: Exactly: The turning of moral obligations into numbers and then using those numbers to justify things that could otherwise never be justified morally. And that’s the story of debt. That’s why I realized, when writing it, that this has been going on for a very long time. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) and what they did to countries in the Global South—which is, of course, exactly the same thing bankers are starting to do at home now—is just a modern version of this old story. That is, creditors and governments saying you’re having a financial crisis, you owe money, obviously you must pay your debts. There’s no question of forgiving debts. Therefore, people are going to have to stop eating so much. The money has to be extracted from the most vulnerable members of society. Lives are destroyed; millions of people die. People would never dream of supporting such a policy until you say, “Well, they have to pay their debts.”
Rail: Right, but this is not exclusive to capitalism.
Graeber: No, it goes way back. Essentially, any head of the conquering army knows that the first thing you do is convince people that, because you’re doing them a favor by not killing them, they owe you something. That’s tribute. Mafiosi understand this. It’s a way of taking a relation of root power and making it seem like it’s the victims who are somehow morally to blame. And it’s been used over and over again. But the thing is it backfires as well. It’s incredibly powerful and effective, but when it cracks, when it fails, it fails spectacularly. Most revolts in human history have been about debt. The overwhelming majority people rebel over debt much more often than they rebel over slavery, serfdom, or unfair taxation systems.
It’s actually quite remarkable the regularity with which the first thing that rebels do anywhere in the world, from Ecuador to Japan, is go for the ledgers where the debts are recorded and burn them. Then after that they go for the land registers, the tax records. But it’s always the debts first.
Rail: A contemporary example of that could be delinquent mortgage payments—would that count?
Graeber: Oh, absolutely. I think that there’s been kind of a constant resistance nowadays. If you want to talk about the current situation, I think the more convincing explanation that I’ve seen comes from people like George Caffentzis, and Silvia Federici, who are part of the Midnight Notes Collective. They’re coming out of the autonomist Marxist tradition. I think very compelling readings of this come out of there. And what they’re basically saying is that there are really two cycles of postwar economy. The first cycle would be the emergence of the Keynesian social welfare system. It involved a kind of deal—those sort of elements of the working class in North Atlantic capitalist democracies were told: Alright, look, if we can agree not to be enemies, we’ll make a deal. Increases in productivity will be met with increases in wages. We’ll allow you to unionize, we’ll allow various forms of social security and social benefits for your kids—so forth and so on.
Rail: And that was the first time in the history of capitalism where the ruling elite could stop worrying about imminent revolt.
Graeber: Exactly. But it was done at the expense of buying off a fairly substantial section of the proletariat in certain countries. Problem was, on a global scale, it wasn’t very much. That’s why they could afford to do it. And you could look at the period of 1945 to the mid-70s as a period where most social struggle becomes focused on people wanting in on the deal. If political freedom means social benefits and social rights, economic rights, well then, minorities and sort of excluded groups within the North Atlantic countries demanded their fair share of the deal, like the civil rights movement. You have people in the Global South, and you finally had women wanting in on the deal in a big way.
Rail: So it was an era of inclusion.
Graeber: Yeah, and most social movements were demands for inclusion in the deal. Of course, the thing is, capitalism doesn’t work that way. You can’t get that deal for even most people, let alone everybody.
Rail: So, in this analysis, democracy is at odds with capitalism in the sense that capitalism is necessarily exclusionary and democracy tends toward inclusion.
Graeber: Exactly, and democracy at that time was assumed to include certain economic benefits and guarantees. Economic rights, basically. And the argument is that it had a crisis of inclusion by the 70s. They reached the point where they just couldn’t actually offer that deal to as many people as were effectively demanding it. And the sign of that structural crisis was the oil shock, the financial shock, visions of ecological apocalypse, all of which are big in the mid-to-late 70s. All previous deals are off. Everybody can have democratic rights, but democratic rights no longer mean any kind of economic rights.
Rail: So what happens to the deal between the working class and the state?
Graeber: Then you’re offered credit.
Rail: Right, you’re offered credit.
Graeber: And that’s when you have 401Ks, that’s when you have this idea everybody should have a house, a mortgage.
Rail: The social safety net is replaced with private credit.
Graeber: Exactly. And that was what essentially happened in the neoliberal period from the late 70s to now. Which really ended in 2008. It took a million forms. Like, microcredit was going to save the third world. You have the 401Ks, you have all this complex mortgage stuff, and what you could argue was that more and more people demanded the right to credit.
Rail: The narrative of household ownership was central in the American version of this.
Graeber: Well this is the thing. One could make the argument, that since under neoliberalism everyone was told that everyone should think of themselves as a little corporation, more and more people started saying: Well, if I have to be a corporation, then why can’t I be a financial corporation? Why can’t I just start generating money out of nothing the way that they do? So more and more people simply demanded the right to have an appropriate and reasonable life for themselves and the people they loved through credit. If everybody’s doing it, the financial situation would have to crack at some point. They just simply carried on living. And eventually the whole thing reached a breaking point. You can think of it as this sort of passive resistance: “Okay, we will play along. You want us to all be little corporations? Fine, watch this.” And then you get a financial crisis.
Rail: Let’s talk about the Global Justice Movement and anarchism. It seems like, on the one hand, there is this shift of people on the left and those concerned with social justice from Marxian politics over to anarchism, as people like Barbara Epstein have noted.
At the same time, there is this anxiety about dissent in American society—this feeling that counterculture movements have become increasingly aligned with mainstream ideas of consumerism; meanwhile American cities are becoming cities are becoming more and more expensive and well policed, and thus harder for the traditional anarchist collective to thrive in. I’m not sure what to make of all of it. Let’s start by asking what it is to be an anarchist in New York. Is New York going to see the re-emergence of any sort of large anarchist movement? Is it possible?
Graeber: It has certainly happened. Direct Action Network, which I was involved with in the early part of last decade, was pretty substantial, and there was a whole series of very closely interlinked but very diverse groups working along the same lines. It’s difficult to do in New York for the reason that this is essentially the capital for the world financial system. It has the largest police force in the world by far, it has the most rigorous enforcement of property laws pretty much anywhere; it’s unimaginably expensive. At the same time it’s also been traditionally a little island of social democracy that existed within the United States—
Rail: It still is?
Graeber: Well, it had been traditionally. You know, it was also the first place to undergo neoliberal shock therapy in the late 70s as David Harvey, for example, pointed out and that the New York financial crisis became the model of what was inflicted on the rest of the world and still is. It’s always been a site of struggle in that regard. So there are cracks and holes where people can form things. When I was really active here there was a whole archipelago of open spaces, institutions, community gardens. Some of that infrastructure still exists, although it’s been gradually whittled away, and a part of that problem is all of these free spaces require constant surveillance, maintenance for political activists to keep them there. So just maintaining the infrastructure is a full-time job. It’s just incredibly exhausting and people burn out.
Rail: Especially now with the rise of the American Tea Party, I find it interesting that if you go in one certain direction far enough left you get into anti-statist politics, which is anarchism. If you go far enough right, you get libertarians, which are also generally defined as anti-statist. So there is this overlap in that one occupies the polar left, the other occupies the polar right, but they’re both called anti-statist. Libertarians talk a lot about charity and mutualism in the place of social services. These are things anarchists are also concerned about—strong communities, human bonds, and so on.
Graeber: One of the things that I was interested in while researching the book is the origins of that sense of market populism, which the libertarian right is seizing on, but I don’t think they are seizing on it that honestly, in the end. Much of their politics comes out of anarchist-inspired movements, and suddenly you have these business people like the Koch brothers with insane amounts of money to pour into mobilization. It parallels the rise of fascism in the sense that it’s a very well-funded wing of the far right adopting strategies invented by the left. And I think that there are some people with legitimate market-populism positions, which could well fit with an anarchist one, if it weren’t for the fact that there’s a billion-dollar-a-month institution running the whole show.
Rail: Do you think that in a different situation, conceivably, anarchists and libertarians could work together?
Graeber: Yeah, but they wouldn’t be libertarians in the way we recognize them now.
Rail: On the other side, with the major decline of labor unions over the past 30 years in America and the widening wealth gap—both phenomena of deliberate public policy—there is, among progressives, this growing uneasiness about relying on the state to solve problems. Yet that is the core of progressive philosophy: they want a strong state to provide what would be the only countervailing force to the most exploitive and inequitable elements of capitalism.
Graeber: I think the sort of rage that you see with Obama on the part of the progressive left can really be explained by the sense that they had the perfect moment to pursue classic progressive policies, Keynesian economics, to that more progressive vision of government. They sort of had a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually do this, and never again are the cards going to fall together so perfectly as they did when Obama was elected. There are only two conclusions: either Obama was a plant and never intended to do anything major, or it is actually structurally impossible to change.
Rail: And so if there ever were a time to win over all of these very ambivalent progressives over to an anarchist cause, this would be it.
Graeber: I think that, like, in kind of a perverse way, Obama has done more for anarchism than anybody. It’s very similar to what happened in the UK, where Nick Clegg seems to have brought over an entire generation of British youth to anarchism, or at least provided political fuel for the ideals of anarchism by tripling public tuition.
Rail: So when I think of anarchism, I do get a bit stuck on the role of the state as, (1) a redistributor of wealth and (2), an enforcer of basic labor laws. You could go on, but from a social justice perspective, I am very uneasy at the prospect of a stateless society.
Graeber: I think that what anarchism represents is an extremely important component in what would have to be a much broader spectrum of forms of opposition. Anarchism aims for a situation in which the sort of monopoly of coercive violence, which is the state, will in fact be eliminated. I’ve been living in the UK where we have National Health Service—the last thing that an anarchist would ever want to get rid of. We’re not campaigning against that—in fact we’re getting very upset when it seems like the government is making moves to privatize it. But that’s not because we think a state institution is great, but because it’s a public institution. It happens that at this moment in history, states don’t allow you to have public institutions that they don’t run. That doesn’t mean it has to work that way.
Rail: Let’s talk about this idea of primordial debt, which you discuss in your book.
Graeber: It’s a really interesting idea. It goes back to the Brahmanas in ancient Vedic texts. Because the Rig Veda is all about death. Death is its big metaphor. And gradually become systematized to this idea that life is a debt that you owe to the gods, to the cosmos.
Rail: You do not create yourself, something else created you. And you’re indebted to it for your existence.
Graeber: Exactly. Yes. Since they gave you life, you’ve gotta give it back. That’s why you got to die. The principal must be paid. But in the meantime there are interest payments. And that ritual is sacrifice. That’s why you sacrifice cows and so forth; it’s your way of paying the interest on these temporary similar lives until you have to pay your own.
Rail: But when modern states emerge, this un-payable debt to the cosmos becomes another sort of un-payable debt: one to society and this takes the form of, among other things, taxation.
Graeber: Yes: taxation, the need to send your kids to die in war, etc. That didn’t develop until around the time of the French Revolution. It’s a surprisingly new concept.
Rail: At the very end of your book, after 500 pages of what I would call an incredibly well-researched and systematic history, you give a big shout out to the “non-industrious poor.” I loved it. I found it interesting that your acknowledgement wasn’t of the hard working activists in the social justice movement or something like that—I think you do mention that, too. But you really singled out the non-industrious poor, which is what people in most of society would simply identify as lazy people.
Graeber: One of the strange powers of the logic of debt, which pervaded first North Atlantic societies and then almost the rest of the world under the organizing principle of capitalism, is that people are under the pressure of the shame and humiliation that comes with being in debt. This causes a frenetic need to look and turn everything around them into a source of profit. And that’s what the industrious people are, the people who submit themselves to that logic. It’s a deeply dehumanizing logic, and it’s a terribly destructive logic. We have to break from that and we have to realize that those who refuse to submit themselves to that logic, even if it means continuing to be poor, have genuine values, like the values of caring for each other and spending time with each other, enjoying social relations, having fun, but also, that way of just living, really having life. It’s also critically important to evaluate this if you want to save the planet, because our problem today is not that we’re not doing enough work, it’s that we’re doing way too much.
Rail: An essay about this by Mark Kingwell is reprinted in July’s Harper’s Magazine. Kingwell says that the “work idea”—that everyone should be employed and working all the time—is the largest self-regulating system that the world has ever known. The worker under the work ethic idea, which now pervades the globe, is something like the idealized version of Bentham’s jail, the panopticon, where he’s both the “guard and the guarded at once.”
Graeber: If there’s anything we need to break people from if we’re going to have a viable free society, it’s that. But if you look at the early 20th century, the division between anarchists’ and socialists’ unions was largely that the socialists’ unions were demanding more wages and the anarchists were demanding fewer hours. So the socialists are basically buying into this system: We’ll work harder, we want more stuff. The anarchists were saying we just want out of this. I want as much time as possible to do something else. [laughs.]
Rail: Could that be the most fundamental difference to point to?
Graeber: I think it is! Are you basically tying into the logic of the system, of the serf productivists, and saying we want to manage it ourselves, or are you saying no, this entire model is wrong. It’s not a proper way to live; it’s never going to create happiness. What is the thing the labor movement actually provides? It allows people to lounge around at construction sites and not work so hard. I mean, other things too, obviously—but that’s a real benefit! But they can’t acknowledge it. The leaders have to buy into this productivist ideology.
Rail: But you yourself are obviously an extremely hard worker. So how do you account for that?
Graeber: Well, part of the reason why I think people shouldn’t be made to work so hard is because, there are always going to be crazy people like me who work hard anyway. I don’t have a problem with that.