David Graeber: “On Playing By the Rules – The Strange Success of Occupy Wall Street” life

“The social scientist in me has to ask: Why? Why now? Why did it actually work?”

David Graeber posted this worthwhile piece this morning at nakedcapitalism.com. Albeit rambling and informally off-the-cuff (perhaps rightly so) Graeber’s commentary fires on more than a few cylinders.

An anthropologist, academic (Graeber a former Yale professor, in fact), and veteran protest-leader, Graeber provides an interesting view into the nascent mechanisms of the Occupy movement. He offers opinions on current public outrage over economic inequality and a lack of confidence in political institutions, placing the OWS Movement in a loose historical and political setting.

Graeber also describes the arc of his own involvement: he talks about planning, logistics, and message; as well as the politics between different activist groups, cynicism without and within, the immediacy of the movement and the risks of failure.

Some of these ideas can be found in shorter form within Graeber’s Sept 25th Op-ed for the UK Guardian titled “Occupy Wall Street Rediscovers the Radical Imagination”.

Some excerpts from the Naked Capitalism article:

On the current mode of capitalism:

“Capitalism was supposed to be a bit more subtle.”

From Graeber’s endnotes: “Max Weber argued that the ‘irrational political capitalism’ of ‘military adventurers … tax farmers, speculators, money dealers, and others’ of, say, the Roman world, was an historical dead end, since it was ultimately parasitical off the state, and had nothing in common with the rational investment of production of modern industrial capitalism. By Weber’s logic, contemporary global capitalism, which is dominated by speculators, currency traders, and government contractors, has long since reverted to the dead-end irrational variety.”

Also from endnotes: “See here for a nice essay on Occupy Wall Street and ‘neo-feudalism’.”

On contagious success:

“What happened is exactly what we hoped would happen. The politics of direct action is based, to a certain degree, on a faith that freedom is contagious. It is almost impossible to convince the average American that a truly democratic society would be possible. One can only show them. But the experience of actually watching a group of a thousand, or two thousand, people making collective decisions without a leadership structure, let alone that of thousands of people in the streets linking arms, holding their ground against a phalanx of armored riot cops, motivated only by principle and solidarity, can change one’s most fundamental assumptions about what politics, or for that matter, human life, could actually be like.”

On youth involvement at OWS:

“OWS, by contrast [to the Tea Party movement], is at core a forward-looking youth movement, just a group of forward-looking people who have been stopped dead in their tracks; of mixed class backgrounds but with a significant element of working class origins; their one strongest common feature being a remarkably high level of education. It’s no coincidence that the epicenter of the Wall Street Occupation, and so many others, is an impromptu library: a library being not only a model of an alternative economy, where lending is from a communal pool, at 0% interest, and the currency being leant is knowledge, and the means to understanding.”

On common indebtedness:

“Why would a protest by educated youth strike such a chord across America—in a way that it probably wouldn’t have in 1967, or even 1990? Clearly, it has much to do with the financialization of capital. It may well be the case by now that most of Wall Street’s profits are no longer being extracted indirectly, through the wage system, at all, but taken directly from the pockets of ordinary Americans. I say “may” because we don’t really have the numbers. In a way this is telling in itself. For all the endless statistical data available on every aspect of our economic system, I have been unable to find any economist who can tell me how much of an average American’s annual income, let alone life income, ends up being appropriated by the financial industries in the form of interest payments, fees, penalties, and service charges.”

On protest-revolution and student debt:

“In a way, this is nothing new. Revolutionary coalitions have always tended to consist of a kind of alliance between children of the professional classes who reject their parents’ values, and talented children of the popular classes who managed to win themselves a bourgeois education, only to discover that acquiring a bourgeois education does not actually mean one gets to become a member of the bourgeoisie. You see the pattern repeated over and over, in country after country: Chou Enlai meets Mao Tse Tung, or Che Guevara meets Fidel Castro. Even US counter-insurgency experts have long known the surest harbingers of revolutionary ferment in any country is the growth of a population of unemployed and impoverished college graduates: that is, young people bursting with energy, with plenty of time on their hands, every reason to be angry, and access to the entire history of radical thought. In the US, the depredations of the student loan system simply ensures such budding revolutionaries cannot fail to identify banks as their primary enemy, or to understand the role of the Federal Government—which maintains the student loan program, and ensures that their loans will be held over their heads forever, even in the event of bankruptcy—in maintaining the banking system’s ultimate control over every aspect of their future lives.”

A simple remark on demands, or lack thereof:

“Adbusters’ idea had been that we focus on “one key demand.” This was a brilliant idea from a marketing perspective, but from an organizing perspective, it made no sense at all.”

On Obama and feelings of betrayal:

“…in a way, this feeling of personal betrayal is pretty much inevitable. It is the only way of preserving the faith that it’s possible for progressive policies to be enacted in the US through electoral means. Because if Obama was not planning all along to betray his Progressive base, then one would be forced to conclude any such project is impossible. After all, how could there have been a more perfect alignment of the stars than happened in 2008? That year saw a wave election that left Democrats in control of both houses of congress, a Democratic president elected on a platform of “Change” coming to power at a moment of economic crisis so profound that radical measures of some sort were unavoidable, and at a time when popular rage against the nation’s financial elites was so intense that most Americans would have supported almost anything. If it was not possible to enact any real progressive policies or legislation at such a moment, clearly, it would never be. Yet none were enacted. Instead Wall Street gained even greater control over the political process, and, since Republicans proved the only party willing to propose radical positions of any kind, the political center swung even further to the Right. Clearly, if progressive change was not possible through electoral means in 2008, it simply isn’t going to possible at all. And that is exactly what very large numbers of Americans appear to have concluded.”

David Graeber also has a new book titled Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

An interview related to that book here.

David Graeber is currently a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University London.

Compiled by Austin Lord

Austin Lord

Austin Lord is a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, focusing in Political Ecology and Environmental Anthropology with an area concentration in Himalayan Studies. His ongoing research concerns processes of social and spatial change in areas affected by hydropower development in Nepal, with a particular focus on changing livelihoods and shifting patterns of migration and mobility. Austin spent over six months conducting fieldwork within Nepal during 2012 and 2013, focusing specifically on the upper watersheds of the Trishuli and Tamakoshi rivers, and he plans to return to Nepal in 2014-2015 to continue and expand this work. Prior to attending Yale, Austin studied Hydrology at Portland State University and received an A.B. in Economics and Studio Art from Dartmouth College. A broader collection of his photographic work (from Nepal and elsewhere) can be found at www.austinlord.com.

More Posts


  1. OCCUPY SAGE Contributor says:

    From a friend:


    In the interest of more background and putting a face to a name… an interview with Graeber a few years back (April 2006) on Charlie Rose – talking about the field of anthropology and his study of new forms of democracy, direct action, globalization, the acceleration of history, and “anarchism with a small a”.

  2. OCCUPY SAGE Contributor says:

    The Economist references the influence of David Graeber heavily when analyzing OWS:


    More detail on the links between OWS-style democracy and Graeber’s academic interests here:


  3. Pingback: Occupy Wall Street v. The Tea Party « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

  4. Pingback: Occupy Wall Street v. The Tea Party | Proletarian Center for Research, Education and Culture

  5. Pingback: Occupy Wall Street v. The Tea Party: Core Differences Beneath Surface Parallels ‹ The Official Web Site of Paul L. Street

  6. Pingback: Disdain: On Perry Anderson’s America ‹ The Official Web Site of Paul L. Street

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *