David Graeber: Global Justice Activist

A global justice movement veteran, David Graeber was an early organizer of Occupy Wall Street, and his history of debt has inspired a new generation of activists.
By Sam Ross-Brown
November/December 2012
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David Graeber
Photo Courtesy of Melville House Books

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A veteran of the 2000s global justice movement, David Graeber has said that he sees his role in Occupy Wall Street as a kind of “generational bridge.” Having faced down tear gas, undercover cops, and procedural tedium for more than a decade, Graeber’s hard-won lessons have had much to offer a new generation of activists and Occupiers. What’s more, Graeber has meticulously recorded those lessons in books like Direct Action, which captured the movement from an anthropological lens, even as it read like an insider’s manifesto. The global justice movement, he argued here and elsewhere, is as much about creating new forms of democracy as opposing corporate power.

And since the Occupations began, Graeber has lost none of his dedication or diligence. In a movement that explicitly eschews leaders, he quickly became one—at least to the outside world. By the end of 2011, Rolling Stone credited him with the “we are the 99 percent” slogan, while Businessweek dubbed him Occupy’s founding “Anti-Leader.” Graeber himself has shrugged off accolades like these, but it’s hard not to see them as in some ways well-deserved. It was only a few dozen activists who responded to Adbusters’ call for a “Wall Street occupation,” at a New York planning meeting in August 2011. But it was an even smaller handful of them, including Graeber, who persuaded the others to adopt a horizontal general assembly approach, modeled on movements like the Spanish Indignados. Since then, he has contributed a herculean enthusiasm to the movement, and its international offshoots—facilitating meetings, planning actions, spreading the word in pamphlets, books, and talks—all while holding down a teaching gig at Goldsmiths at the University of London.

But David Graeber brings far more to the table than energy or experience in activism. His marathon history of debt, which appeared just a few months before Zuccotti Park began to make headlines, has much to say about the conditions that sparked Occupy. At a time when asking “Great Questions” has seemed to go out of fashion, as Graeber says in his intro, Debt: the First 5,000 Years does just that, seeking to explain debt’s immense moral power, and the social inequality it preserves. Debt, he argues, is basically a “perversion of a promise,” appearing only when violence and math attempt to enforce a personal commitment—or when powerful people seek to control others. For Millennials shackled with enormous student debt and Occupiers facing a downsized economy, it’s easy to see why the argument caught on.

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