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Occupy Author Examines Archeology of Debt

Occupy Author Examines Archeology of Debt
Ruth Krause

Few books have provoked the kind of media hype, discussion and praise
that David Graeber's "'Debt: The Last 5,000 Years" has in the past few
weeks. DW looks at the movement and the man behind the book.

He doesn't stay in one place for long. One minute David Graeber is in
London, where he teaches anthropology at Goldsmith College, the next
he's in Frankfurt at Blockupy, then in Cologne and Berlin for book
releases, next stop New York. It's no wonder that Graeber is so busy:
He's published three books in 40 days.

The best-known of the three, "Debt: The First 5,000 Years," was
described by journalist and political talk show host Maybritt Illner and
culture presenter Dieter Moor as "perhaps the most important book of the
year." With the three publications, the man whose slogan is "We are the
99 percent" - now deeply ingrained in the system-critical Occupy
movement - has managed to attract more attention than any of his
fellow-campaigners before him.

He's an activist, anarchist and anthropologist who appears in all the
most influential feuilletons. But what does Graeber have to say for himself?

Chronicling the history of debt

"Debt: The Last 5,000 Years" is a radical look at the roots of the
current economic crisis

In 400 pages, Graeber chronicles the history of debt and, with that, the
history of humanity. He begins the book with a slick, but provocative
sentence: "Debt doesn't have to be repaid."

He then goes on to describe the economic systems of various indigenous
groups and the invention of coinage, finally landing in the present. The
assumption that barter trade was initially in existence before it was
simplified with the introduction of coinage and later the credit system
is, he concludes, idiocy.

Credit systems were in existence long before the invention of money.
People who live together in a community are constantly lending things
and helping each another, so everyone owes a debt in one way or another.
But these debts have nothing to do with money, argues Graeber.

Graeber shows that debt has a moral dimension. He finds it remarkable
that the moral imperative that debt must be repaid is now considered
more important than other moral and ethical obligations. Why else could
it be that governments in poor countries prioritize debt repayments over
the basic nutritional requirement of their citizens? Debt, says Graeber,
is a moral principle merely enforcing the power of the ruling classes,
leading to the repression of the masses.

This system can't function forever. When too many people are in debt,
uprisings and revolutions occur. The solution? Debt cancellation, says
Graeber.

Success story

FAZ editor Frank Schirrmacher described Graeber's book as a "revelation"

This demand is in keeping with Graeber's style, having in the past
represented a number of radical positions. He has no allegiance to any
political party, calls himself an anarchist, is a member of the union
Industrial Workers of the World and has researched power and the meaning
of history and slavery in Madagascar. Graeber taught at Yale until 2007
when his contract was controversially not renewed. Critics believe the
decision was politically motivated.

The 51-year-old American has secured himself a place on the bestseller
list of Germany's prominent news magazine Der Spiegel, reaching fourth
place last month. The success story of the book began in fall 2011 with
the English edition. The editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,
Frank Schirrmacher, wrote that the book was "a revelation because the
author has shown that one is no longer obliged to react in the system of
apparent economic rationality." This review made Graeber's risqué theses
socially acceptable.

But the media hype really began when the German translation of the book
was published in May, in conjunction with the release of Graeber's
"Inside Occupy," a monograph about the Occupy movement. The book reveals
much about Graeber's political background: He was involved in the Occupy
protests as an organizer and follower right from the start, while
simultaneously analyzing, promoting and shaping the movement.

All of the major German newspapers were talking about Graeber -
Süddeutsche Zeitung, TAZ, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt,
Der Spiegel and Stern to name just a few. Most critiques of the book
were benevolent. Graeber's theories were described as brilliant,
illuminating, exciting. Graeber translated between worlds, between
critics and supporters of the system, between academics and the media.
He presented his complex theories in bite-size, easy to understand
sections. He interrupts analyses to build strands of thought, while
still remaining entertaining.

Playing by the rules

The media have called Graeber the "brains" behind the Occupy movement

But it's not just the content of the book. It's Graeber, the person. The
idea of the "99 percent" in the slogan "We are the 99 percent" comes
from him. And even though he himself is one of the 99 percent, he knows
the language of the one percent. He also knows the unwritten rules of
getting heard in public.

On Maybritt Ilmer's talk show, Graeber was smartly dressed in a black
suit-jacket. It was his 67th interview with the German press. Still, he
remained polite, succinct and never looked bored. As radical as his
thinking may be, his appearances are always in keeping with convention.
He's well aware of how much conformity is necessary to inspire interest
in non-conformist thinking. He's no madcap revolutionary; rather, he
fits into the protocol of prime-time programming.

Above all, he's a figurehead for the so-called 99 percent. The media
have bestowed a range of attributes upon him, from "mentor" to "brains"
behind the Occupy movement, but also the moniker "intellectual superstar."

Reading his "Inside Occupy," one thing is clear: The last thing that
Occupy wants is a leader. "Direct Action," basic democracy and no
hierarchy are central to the movement. But Graeber is already easily
available for the media. Just as he explains the history of debt, he can
also easily formulate what Occupy is all about. Slogans such as "We
explain why the system doesn't work" are more likely to be taken
seriously when they come from the mouth of a Yale professor than from a
20-year-old with a hoodie and dreadlocks.

In the meantime, the media hype has trailed off, the financial system in
still in place, and the reluctance to cancel debt hasn't changed. The
revolution hasn't happened yet. Will it take another 5,000 years to
rethink the financial system?