Six months ago, while preparing to interview David Graeber, I decided to conduct some brief internet research on the renowned anthropologist and activist. Although critically acclaimed in academic circles (he has been described as ‘the best anthropological theorist of his generation’), I was surprised to find relatively little on the man and his work – save a few articles and interviews regarding his involvement in various alter-globalisation movements over the past decade, a few more concerning his controversial departure from Yale, (he now teaches at Goldsmiths University of London), and of course, the odd intellectual dispute with Slavoj Zizek in the LRB.
Yet, since June, interest in Graeber and his work has soared, indubitably due to the expansion, replication, and success of the Occupy Wall Street movement, something which Graeber has been heavily involved in from its formative stages, causing the mainstream media to characterise him as a sort of ‘anti-leader’ of the global anti-capitalist movement. Articulate, engaging, and profoundly intelligent, Graeber has become a popular spokesperson for the protests (although one should be careful with the term given the non-hierarchical structure and ethos of the camps), an eloquent commentator who offers a historically engaged analysis of the movement’s aspirations and grievances alike.
His most recent book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, which explores an alternative history of money and markets that is steeped in violence and oppression, has been described by Bloomberg Business Week as providing ‘an intellectual frame and a sort of genealogy’ for the occupations. Meanwhile, in recent articles and interviews Graeber has been particularly vocal on the point of demands, or more specifically the lack of, from OWS and its ilk – a strategy the media has remained utterly baffled by, insisting it to be antithetical to the change they seek, and using it as evidence of the protestor’s ‘lack of clear aims’ or understanding.
Instead, Graeber has put the spotlight on the anarchist principles of the Occupy movement, explaining that the lack of concrete demands is part of a pre-figurative politics. The protestors act as though they are ‘already living in a free society’, and thus refuse to accept the legitimacy of existing political institutions and legal order – both of which, he says, are immediately recognised in the placing of demands.
This interview was conducted with David Graeber in person last summer.