The Walking Debt
Strolling and Talking with a Founder of Occupy Wall Street
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
by David Graeber
(Melville House, $32)
At dusk, I walked to the Sorrento Hotel to meet the anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber, one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street movement and also the author of several books, the most famous of which, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, was published around the time President Obama was struggling with Republicans over raising the United States' debt ceiling. The timing of this book, and the fact that Graeber was in New York City when the ideas that shaped Occupy Wall Street were in the air, showed that, for once, luck was on his side.
"Everything has happened over the past six months," Graeber said to me as we walked to Vermillion for a drink and talk before his reading last Wednesday at Elliott Bay Book Company. "It is all about timing. It just happened at once... you know, Debt is a best seller in Germany. And it has not been translated into German." A quick digression: Walking with a person who is unfamiliar with your city is always strange. You forget that they do not know where they are going. Because your head has the map, and their head has nothing, you're forced to lead the way. This leadership is awkward and unsatisfying; one wants to share the walk, share its speeds, turns, and mapping.
"It's good you are receiving attention now, while you are still alive," I said to Graeber, as I led him toward Pine and Broadway. "Yes, and I'm only 50. I'm still young." When I reviewed Debt back in August, the review generated only three comments. The wind wasn't yet in Graeber's sails. On the day of his Seattle visit, however, things had changed dramatically. In my morning Slog post about his reading and book, I informed readers that Graeber would answer questions in the comments section as he took the Cascades train from Portland (it has free Wi-Fi). That post shot straight to the top of Slog's Most Commented list, with more than 100 comments. His sails are swelling with wind.
At Vermillion, we talked about his future plans (he is working on two books), Max Weber, science fiction, and, finally, points raised by a blogger on Libcom.org, Joseph Kay, that concerned Graeber's theory of the state. For Graeber, the state, which is based on violence, makes capitalism possible. If the state is removed or fails, capitalism reverts into an older form, the market or, to use Graeber's language, "a moral economy" (this is based on the "principle of mutual aid"—meaning it's "an extension of the kind of baseline communism on which any society must ultimately rest").
I agree with Graeber about the market and the state, but I'm also a Hegelian. I can't break with the state. True, the state was formed by violence, but politics is now all about who benefits from the state. Banks want the state for themselves, and many on the left, such as myself, want the state for the people. When Republicans, for example, talk about small government, what they really mean is small government for the people. (Bush and Reagan were about big government, but for the business elite and the military—military Keynesianism).
Before Graeber could fully engage this line of thinking, we entered the doors of Elliott Bay Book Company. A woman at the front desk led him to the basement. The place was crowded. The people came to see the anarchist anthropologist.