We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
To read part 1, click here.
David Johnson: How do you see this book in relationship to your activism?
David Graeber: The book really traces back to earlier activism, when I was involved in the global justice movement. I guess the global justice movement never ended; it just sputtered along for a while and then came back as Occupy Wall Street. For the last twelve years or so I’ve been engaged in a continual quest to reimagine what the relationship between an intellectual and a social movement would actually be.
Once there was a time when we thought we knew what that relationship was: come up with a sort of correct analysis of the world situation—a vanguardist model—to bring people to an appropriate level of consciousness. And we got so far as to figure out that that’s deeply flawed. Once we had these new social movements based on radical heterogeneity, you weren’t really trying to convert people to your point of view so much as coming together around projects and common action. What is the role of the intellectual in that? I’m playing around with different ideas of what that might be.
During the initial stages of organizing Occupy Wall Street over the summer, I actually tried really hard to keep my writing and activism apart. I was spending that summer doing book promotion. Now obviously you don’t want to use a social movement as an excuse to sell a book, nor do you want to impose your vision that you’ve written about on a social movement. It’s got to come from below. But it was hard because I found any time I was giving a talk about the book and there were any number of young people in the audience, at least one or two of them would come up to me at the end and ask: “Do you think there’s any possibility of starting a movement around student loan debt?” It was a theme that cropped up over and over again: indignation and outrage people had over their situation and the idea that there must be something we can politically do about this.
We didn’t really know who was going to show up for the occupation. It was all a great mystery. We had to throw it together very quickly; it was thrown into our laps the last seven weeks before the event itself. Overwhelmingly the people who showed up were young ones who felt, “We played by the rules, we went to school, we studied hard, we did everything we’re supposed to do, and now not only are we $50,000 in debt with no way out, there’s no jobs because the bankers crashed the economy—they didn’t play by the rules but they got bailed out. Now we’re stuck being told we’re deadbeats for the rest of our lives, owing money to the very people who destroyed everything.”
Here the level of debt young people are saddled with is unparalleled and it’s a debt that you can’t get out of, no matter what you do. Because of the peculiar nature of student loan debt, it makes it impossible to ignore the connection between the financial structure and the government, because the government essentially becomes the enforcer of these absurd incorrigible debts. And what do the banks do? They take the money that they extract from you and give it to politicians effectively as bribe money, and thus are allowed to write the legislation to use the power of the government to extract even more money from you.
DJ: At one point in time, the system seemed to work. Assuming a normal economy in which people are able to get decent jobs after college, the debt that they’ve taken on they would be able to pay back and at reasonable interest rates.
DG: It used to be they excused student loans.For example, if you went into education, even if you became a professor, let alone a teacher, they would just waive it. You could say that at one point the system was viable. But I don’t think that the idea of a privatized education system paid for by loans is in any way a reasonable way to run a public education system in a country. Education should be free. Most civilized countries have come to that conclusion.
DJ: You used to teach at Yale.
DG: Yes, that’s true.
DJ: And now you’re at Goldsmiths in London. Are there minimal fees at the University of London?
DG: They’re trying to bring the American system there. It was the cause of a widespread revolt across the system over the course of last year. In 2010–2011, there were more than 25 different university occupations in the United Kingdom. After the financial crash, one of the first things that the Tory government did was make a concerted attack on the entire higher education system that took the form of radically raised tuitions and an American-style student loans system. It all started with the Brown report, put out by the Labour government actually. Tuition in the U.K. had been free until quite recently, but the Labour government introduced a maximum £3,000 tuition ceiling some years ago.
‘They broke some glass, and they’re going to be represented as vandals, but who are the real barbarians here?’
What Labour did was analyze the educational system in an extraordinarily economistic fashion. They took as their starting premise that no one would ever seek higher education except to further their overall life income and wrote a series of suggested reforms in that light. Of course then the Tories come in and say “Okay, we’re going to triple tuition and institute a student loan system,” which of course is going to force students to actually think that way. Now you have no choice but to think about your education only in terms of how much money it’s going to net—that’s what basically the system of student loans actually does.
DJ: It’s all about value, really.
DG: It’s very interesting because much of the outrage on the part of students was directed toward that idea that education is essentially an economic good and should only be thought of that way. In fact, in just about every occupation that I know of, the very first statement they made—it wasn’t even a demand but a statement of principle—was that education is not an economic good and is a value unto itself and should be recognized as such. The interesting thing is that that logic is considered radical. That used to be the conservative position.
During the first big demonstrations against the tuition raise, students actually surrounded Tory headquarters, smashed in all the windows, and occupied it. There was a great outcry in the press, predictably. I was interviewed by a reporter for the Daily Telegraph, the Tory paper, and I said, “Yeah, they broke some glass, and they’re going to be represented as vandals, as barbarians, but if you really think about it, who are the barbarians here? These students might’ve broken something but they did it in the name of the principle that there are things that have a value beyond money.” When we think about the Goths and the Vandals and the Visigoths (the Romans broke a lot of stuff too), the reason why they were considered barbarians isn’t because they broke stuff; it’s because they had no appreciation for the art, culture, and philosophy of the civilization they were overrunning. They were only interested in money and power.
DJ: Another aspect of all this is that the only ones who have the chance to value education for its own sake are people who come from wealthy families.
DG: Exactly. So the conservative position really is: of course poetry and philosophy are values unto themselves, and they need to be kept for those people who can genuinely appreciate them. These people just happen to be those who already have all the money or know how to get it.
DJ: How has your book been received by anthropologists, your peers in the academic community?
DG: I wrote a book whereby I presented what I considered to be some quite sophisticated arguments in very accessible form. And it’s funny: I’ve never had people up and directly say to me, “But that’s written in plain English. What are you doing?” People feel that they have to admire that.
However, the way that people object to this is more in the sense, “You’re making these sweeping, trans-historical arguments. Who the hell do you think you are? We can’t write books like that anymore.” It’s not quite phrased that way, but there are these codes of who can do what in academia.
I’ve got this before. At one point I wrote something for New Left Review, a theory piece that they actually commissioned from me. It’s very ironic because they then rejected it before allowing me to respond to the criticisms, but the major criticism was—they couldn’t quite say it, they came very close—“You’re Anglophone. You’re writing in English. People who write in French, German, and Italian can propose theories; people who write in English can comment on those theories. You can’t just make up a theory of alienation. That’s absurd.” So there are these codes like that.
Another one is: “You can’t write a grand, sweeping, historical, theoretical work anymore. Especially not if you’re English, maybe you can do it if you’re French.” But even that aspect of it tends to be ignored.
So there’s a sense that in the late nineteenth century or late twentieth century we could do those “The Decline of the West” papers, histories of religions, and that kind of worked. But nowadays we don’t do that anymore.
So I think insofar as I violated intellectual taboos, it wasn’t so much in how I presented it in a way accessible to the public, but it’s that very idea that we can’t ask the big questions anymore.
DJ: Do you think that’s part of the market economy speaking, in the sense that you’re a professor who’s supposed to perform a certain function and only comment on well-circumscribed topics?
DG: I think that’s exactly right. I think what’s really going on when they attack the education system. Why is it that the first thing they do after the Great Crash is to go directly against higher education and try to create a system whereby education only exists to reproduce economic value? Traditionally universities are the one space where you’re supposed to think about other forms of value, where you’re supposed to experiment in other ways of existing; of thinking; of art, philosophy; pursue truth, understanding, and even other than money. It’s concentrated into one place. And also to think about other ways of organizing things and other possibilities. So once these guys have completely delegitimated themselves, what else is there to do but to go directly against this sort of institution which traditionally would provide alternative ways of thinking about value, alternative ways of thinking about history and society? So, in a way, I’m trying to do here what institutions like universities are traditionally there to do but have been increasingly discouraged to attempt.
DJ: I was once a professor. The reason I left academia for journalism is that I felt it was too constraining.
DJ: In my most cynical days as an academic, I thought of a professorship as the carrot that the establishment offers to make sure that smart people don’t run amok. “Give them a nice little office and a job that’s very stable, and put them in the ivory tower, and they won’t cause any trouble.”
DG: Did you ever read C.B. Macpherson’s theory of the university? It’s similar to that, and it’s actually quite clever. He makes the argument that universities have traditionally fulfilled a kind of court jester role. What is the problem you have if you’re the guy in charge, if you’re a king? It’s that you’re surrounded by yes-men. So there’s nobody there who’s going to tell you if you have a really bad idea. They’ll agree with anything you say. So you need someone who will actually point out when you’re going off the tracks. You’ll also need to make sure that person isn’t taken seriously. So you get a hunchbacked dwarf to tell you a silly rhyme, telling you why your plan is idiotic. And you get to know that your plan is idiotic and think about it, and everybody else says, “OK, hunchbacked dwarf, you talk to the king, that’s fine.” Universities are pretty much the same thing. They’re there to come up with all the reasons why current policies are misguided, why, you know, the current economic systems might not be ideal. They come up with all the alternate perspectives, but they frame it in a way that nobody takes it particularly seriously or can even understand it.
DJ: It seems that there are a lot of academics who are politically active in this time. How would you assess academia’s role in the current social situation?
DG: I think that it’s hard not to become politically active, when your own institution is under all-out assault. What happened after the ’60s when campuses became this huge focus of social unrest is that it became almost accepted that if you’re in certain disciplines you are a radical. For a long time people found themselves in this position of taking on these radical modes of argument even as the social movements on campuses started to disappear. So before long being a radical intellectual meant creating these position papers for vast social movements that did not in fact exist. And I think we’ve come to a point where that’s become increasingly difficult to maintain. People either have to throw in their lot with this sort of overarching bureaucratic, administrative, financial system or they have to think about some concrete, practical way of opposing it. It’s really hard to break old habits, but I find people are starting to do so.
To read part 1 of our interview, click here.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
David Hogg and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz discuss replacement theory, the gunman’s manifesto, and how we organize against violent white supremacy.
Companies are unreliable allies in the fight for queer rights and social justice. We must rebuild a working people’s movement.
Decades of biological research haven’t improved diagnosis or treatment. We should look to society, not to the brain.