The man behind Occupy Wall Street

Forget the labor unions. A University of London anarchist and anthropologist is a major force behind the protest movement.

By TheStreet Staff Oct 28, 2011 11:10AM

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By Seth Fiegerman, MainStreet

When he's not busy brainstorming how to tear apart and rebuild America's democratic system, David Graeber prefers to think about simpler things, like why we still don't have flying cars.


Graeber, a professor at the University of London and a widely respected anthropologist, has achieved a new level of fame in recent weeks for his early influence on the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York City and have since spread around the world.

The Wall Street Journal declared Graeber to be "the single academic who has done the most to shape the nascent movement," while Bloomberg Businessweek declared him to be the "anti-leader" of Occupy Wall Street who generally abstains from the limelight even as his writings, including a new book on the history of debt and the influence of money, serve as an "intellectual frame" for the protesters.


Indeed, when MainStreet managed to reach Graeber by phone, his focus was light-years away from the protests, as he was busy working on an article about his disappointment that the world doesn't yet have technology like flying cars, robots and other futuristic technology that one might have hoped would exist by the 21st century. As Graeber puts it, "I have arrived at a point where I can write about whatever I want."


Flying cars probably aren't the future that protesters are marching for around the world, but then again, few can say for sure precisely what the demands of each protester in Manhattan and Oakland and Rome actually are, not even Graeber, who is based in London and shuttles between protests fairly regularly.


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"I'm really a conduit. It's not my ideas," he says before going on to explain just how much his ideas are ingrained in the movement. Graeber, a longtime anarchist, joined the protests in the very beginning on a whim and quickly set it on a new course to make government less corrupt.


If there is an endgame to the protests, he says it's to "delegitimize" the current political system in order to make way for the kind of radical change that would create a more open and fair democracy unshackled by the interests of big money. Still, to imply the protest is a means to an end misses much of what Graeber considers to be the big point of the movement today.


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"I think that our political structures are corrupt and we need to really think about what a democratic society would be like. People are learning how to do it now," Graeber says. "This is more than a protest, it's a camp to debate an alternative civilization."


In this interview, Graeber tells MainStreet how he overhauled the message of Occupy Wall Street, why he wants to keep the list of demands as broad as possible and what he would say to those politicians who want to use the protests to their advantage.


MainStreet: How did you first get involved in Occupy Wall Street?


Graeber: I happened to be in the right place at the right time. There was a meeting on Aug. 2 for a general assembly to plan the Occupy Wall Street action based on an idea thrown out by Adbusters. Me and some friends showed up at this movement and sure enough there was a workers rally and we thought it was stupid. We said, 'Let's not play along, let's see if we can have a real general assembly.' So we started tapping people on the shoulder asking if they wanted to do a real general assembly and my friend jumped on stage saying we need to have a real general assembly and they chased her off. There was a tug-of-war, eventually we formed a circle, but it was back and forth and finally after a couple hours we managed to bring everyone away from their meeting into our meeting.


At that point, we decided on working by consensus process and we formed working groups and we decided to meet regularly afterwards. Then a couple days later we came up with the idea to call ourselves the 99% movement. I remember being the first to suggest this and was definitely the first to put it out on a list, though it was probably floating around at the time. That was really my key involvement.


MS: What was the movement like before you took control of it that day in terms of its goals and strategy?


Graeber: I think the coalition showed up on Aug. 2 and said they would do a rally

and then show up on Wall Street with a list of demands that were total boiler plate -- a massive jobs program, an end to oppression, money for us not for whatever. They were nice people, but it wasn't very radical, just the usual demands.


Adbusters, when they originally threw the idea out there, they were basically marketing guys who changed sides. They thought like marketers and one of their schticks was to come up with one single demand. That makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective, but it doesn't make sense from an organizing perspective. You need to organize people around a list of grievances.


MS: Obviously, many people have criticized the movement for not putting out a single demand or list of demands. If the incentive to keep it vague was to make it easier for people to join the movement, why not make the message more specific now that the protests have gained steam?


Graeber: We don't want to give up the broad-based appeal. I do think every Occupy group has brainstorming groups coming up with this stuff, so there is a very long process of how we are going to come up with alternative visions democratically. That's being done. But people have been trying to put out demands and protest since the 2008 collapse and no one shows up. . . . Suddenly we get hundreds of thousands of people.


I think that people are much more interested in radical change. People really don't like the way things are arranged now. Yes, they have to actually get food for their children and that's a priority and if there is an immediate [political] measure that can do that then they want it, but there is an anger at the way things are structured. It's not a matter of how far people want to go as it is how far people think they can go.


MS: Given that, is there any issue you think the Occupy Wall Street protesters should avoid talking about, or is everything fair game?


Graeber: Antisemitic banking conspiracies and pretty much anything that's racist or sexist. Basic human decency applies. There are certain times that people say something that is offensive and people start repeating it in the human microphone. But we have working groups on anything else, where you can discuss monetary reform, where you can discuss transgender issues. It's a community with all sorts of concerns.


MS: You seem to have a clearer sense of the purpose of these protests than most people, and you're certainly credited enough as being the architect behind them, so why not take charge of the movement more?


Graeber: I didn't want to do press stuff in the beginning, because I was involved with promoting my book ("Debt: The First 5,000 Years") and it seemed like a conflict of interest. We didn't have demands, and I had this book about debt, and I didn't want to make it seem like that's what we were pushing for. But I did do a lot of work with facilitation -- facilitating the first really long meeting at Tompkins Square Park, working with the outreach committee, getting together a training group for legal and medical training.


MS: And what about now? Clearly you are willing to do more media appearances, why not take your place as the face of the movement?


Graeber: I think the movement has many faces and that's as it should be. Sure, I'll be one of them, but when people ask, 'Was I one of the creators of OWS?' I say, 'Yeah, me and 100 other people.' It's the same with being a spokesman. I don't think I'm in any kind of privileged position. The last time I was in Zuccotti Park was 10 days ago, though I was in Austin [Texas] just a few days ago.


MS: Does it bother you, then, to see celebrities like Michael Moore and Cornel West appear front and center at many of the rallies, garnering much of the media attention?


Graeber: I don't think it's a problem that Michael Moore comes at all and I don't think that he has tried to become the face of the movement, but I do think if someone or some organization like does try to become the face of it, that's a problem. I think these people are not trying to take advantage, they are trying to help, and I think it did help. NPR didn't cover this at all for the first two weeks and someone asked them why not and they said we would need to have tens of thousands of people, or we'd need to have more violence or we'd need to have celebrities.


MS: Was it really that hard to find a way to get exposure early on?


Graeber: We were in a trap because we knew that if you want media attention, you'd have to break some windows, but none of us wanted to endanger people or engage in violence. We all decided that would not be an appropriate tactic, but we knew the media would not cover us if we didn't. Then the NYPD obliged.


MS: You're referring to the scuffles between cops and protesters, I assume. Do you think the protesters did anything to incite those incidents or was it entirely the fault of the cops?


Graeber: The NYPD was absolutely given orders to intimidate people through random force. The very first day, four people were arrested for chanting in front of a bank. Another time, two people were arrested for writing with chalk on the sidewalk.


MS: Going forward, are you concerned that Democrats -- or politicians in general -- will make an effort to take over the movement and use it for their own advantage?


Graeber: I'm willing to believe that the Tea Party wasn't just Astroturf in the beginning, that it eventually got subsumed by Republicans. We won't let that happen. But I'll put it this way: If Nancy Pelosi is suddenly inspired to put out a call for a debt jubilee, that would be great. Nobody is going to say that's bad because it's backed by a government we consider to be illegitimate. That won't change our long-term visions. As long as you are on the same path, what we are really arguing for is what's possible so there's no reason we can't work together.


MS: And what exactly is that path you and the other protesters are working toward?


Graeber: That path is one towards autonomous organization. What this movement is about is that even the democratic institutions we do have now have been corrupted by big money, and in the same way our movement would be corrupted if we were subsumed into that same political system. We have to maintain the integrity of this experiment.


Oct 28, 2011 12:31PM

Great, an anthropologist pretending to be an economist--and English at that--just what America needs!


Actually, just another Socialist looter: a "debt jubilee" is just a nice name for letting people who have run up debts irresponsibly screw over every retired grandma in the country. Who do you think holds those bonds anyway? Mostly pension funds, who supply those nice checks to your retired parents and grandparents. But it's not nice to think of consequenses, is it, when you're enjoying being a kid. Are you personally going to take care of them when they're destitute?

Oct 28, 2011 12:24PM

He is introduced with the title of anarchist.  You know, the people that don't want rule of law,  etc.     So now we all know.   And here I was thinking it was a bunch of mis-guided 'outsiders' without a real agenda.  And I find the agenda is STATED.  destroy America and make it what they want............only​ they can't explain what they want cause no one has told them yet.  

I was laughing at them.  Now I am arming myself against them.

Oct 28, 2011 12:37PM
How ironic that Anarchists, who are way less than 1% of the population, want to call themselves the 99%. I wonder if they are aware of the irony--usually people aren't when it applies to themselves.
Oct 28, 2011 12:59PM

I always thought this was a bunch of nonsense, and now that I know it was an outsider who started or at least promoted it, I am even more upset.  Why don't these people stay out of our country.  They are not helping and are in some cases are making it even worse.  I don't know where this is going to end and how much damage we will see at that time.  We need some people with back bone in leadership of this country that can say stop it and mean it, and so something meaningful to make things better.


We need to seriously think about who we want in the white house this next election and not vote on race or party but on knowledge and experience.  We need someone who can step in and take over but still work within the constitution and bill of rights.  Someone for the people and country, not their own agenda.


We also need to start demanding that the Senators and Congressmen/women take a cut in pay and benefits and put that money back into the coffers to be spent where needed.  Stop all these payouts to big businesses and make the unions stop demanding so much.  I know some people will not like to hear that but some unions have gone too far in their demands and have hurt the businesses that are paying their members.


I love the Unites States and want the very best for everyone who lives here.  So all of you who are having a problem with living here and are not helping but hindering and have nothing good to say about our country.....leave. 

Oct 28, 2011 1:00PM
The best investment you can make these days is "buy bullets" cause when the middle class is gone it'll be the 99%ers against the 1%ers.
Oct 28, 2011 4:21PM
Just so we all understand what an Anarchist is, here is the definition from Websters Dictionary:

1: a person who rebels against any authority, established order, or ruling power
2: a person who believes in, advocates, or promotes anarchism or anarchy; especially : one who uses violent means to overthrow the established order
The fact here is that individuals like Graeber (who is in London by the way), love to stir things up and then sit back and watch what happens just for their own enjoyment, to see if there theories for alternate political systems will come to fruition or even work at all. That's what it's about to them, to push their own agendas no different from any other special interest group or corporation for that matter. They want to see what happens when you tear down the current political and social structures and attempt to rebuild them in a type of utopian society ideal (everyone is equal, everyone is the same, there is no identifiable leadership but everyone follows the rules because it's the right thing to do). If you listen close to what the people of OWS protests are asking for and you know what individuals like Graeber are promoting, you will hear them calling for form of "Socialism". It's not much different from what President Obama had touted when running for office, as he said we need to "Share the Wealth" in this country. The fact is that these protesters are just asking for what the President had promised them when running, now they actaully expect it. Personally I prefer living in a Republic, especially since we know from history that socialist societies just don't work (you end up in a dictatorship) and any utpoian society is just a pipe dream, at least least at this stage in our evolution.
Oct 28, 2011 1:45PM
Pay attention People!  The original OWS came from adbusters.  This guy just expounded on what they came up with.  Quite ironic for an anarchist to even want to get in on something like this.  And please don't dis something that needs to be done because you don't like someone who participated.  Our government and financial system is corrupt and disfunctional.  Anyone remember what caused our current condition?  You know - the collateral backed securities that Wall Street bundled and sold at fantastically inflated prices.  Then gambled on which ones would go bad.  Gee.  How quickly we forget the past.
Oct 28, 2011 1:12PM
Since these are Anarchists, who believe that cops and law courts aren't necessary (an idea only an academic or college student could fathom)--it would be great if the cops made it public that they would no longer be surrounding the OWS groupings. It would be extremely just if the Ararchists came into direct contact with the muggers and other parts of society who they basically think do not exist. Or rather, they think criminals are just "mis-guided" and can be reasoned out of it. We would see who exactly is mis-guided.
Oct 28, 2011 2:20PM
Base your judgements on what the OWS does and what the results are as a result of their actions...the original Boston Tea Party was destructive...the forming of the USA after the Revolutionary War is the reason we are all here today...and bad things have been done by our leaders since the Revolutionary War...why?...because those in power can be hypocrits and exercised totalitarian powers that were not part of the Constitution...enslaving others and killing of others...forcing others to live in reservations...killing off a herd of 40 million buffalo to control others...the nobility that our founders knew had to much power in europe...that controlled life in europe...that wars were fought for colonies around the world and the americas for the nobility...that was what our founders original intention was to prevent and replace with a better government and way of life...and it happened at times...we have a new nobility...whomever in the congress,senate,supreme court etc...and all the upper level management in government and businesses that commit collusion and conspiracy to control things...power and control brings wealth...and totalitarian powers guarantee its existence and does not need to be an anarchist to recognize laws should go against the constitution of the usa...period...there is no guilt by association period...change is needed to correct is obvious...and peacefull change is possible if we all request peacefull change...if the soviet union can be dissolved by peacefull change...then we most certainly can have peacefull change
Oct 28, 2011 5:04PM
But I'll put it this way: If Nancy Pelosi is suddenly inspired to put out a call for a debt jubilee, that would be great."

That was the only expressed desire in the entire interview. A debt jubilee. I am sympathetic with the movement in that the political/corporate structure  we currently have is spectacularly broken. But calling for blanket debt forgiveness is not the way to achieve a movement. Drum beats for dead beats does not inspire.
Oct 28, 2011 2:11PM
I can think of three things that'll put and end to OWS...December, January, February
Oct 28, 2011 3:37PM
Roadhouse Blues:

........Why?  what harm have they caused?   How many people have they laid off?  How many retirement savings have they destroyed?  All I've seen so far is that they are calling out the greed in Wall Street and Corporate America, as well the corruption in our government which has caused them to abandon the Middle Class and Main Street.


Because they're communists that have declared war against those who earn wealth so they can steal and give to those who haven't earned it.  They want to destroy America, freedom and democracy. 

Oct 28, 2011 6:16PM
NANCY PELOSI  Said today on cnbc that boeing didn't have the right to have a non union shop. since when does are government  have anything  to say about private business. We better wake up and i mean NOW !!!!!!! That's  scary
Oct 28, 2011 2:20PM

Greed is destroying America, that is obvious and the protesters seem to know that well enough.

   Our middle class is declining, poverty is growing and the few take more and more. Banks, wall street and big corporations run America and they own our government. If we don't get millions in the streets and demand real change the pigs will soon have us in depression and chaos.

Oct 28, 2011 1:08PM

How can a government "by the people and for the people"  be legitimate if it is bought and paid for and subservient to big corporations?    This is how:  Make corporations "people"!    And that is what the supreme court has done.   Our government has been rendered illegitimate.    It is o.k. if you do not understand that simple premise.   Luckily for you, millions of people get it and it will be made legitimate again.   

Oct 28, 2011 6:02PM
So is he selling that book or giving it away for free just saying.
Have no time for this Graeber. He defends the banks, for writing home loans to anyone that would sign there name on the application. He is as bought out, as our Govt. 
Oct 28, 2011 2:28PM
Am not an anarchist, niether am I a "polarized idiot" as are most of these previous posts. These protests ARE "f"ing grass roots. They are not going away.They may slumber this winter but will be back big in spring. OWS is a rightous cause whether or not if they ever change anything. The grand spanking wall street and the banks gave the american people in '08 has GOT to be addressed. More reform is needed and I want it! Now sooner than later!    
Oct 28, 2011 4:01PM
This guy wasn't even reappointed by Yale for heavens sake, need we say more? Why yes, we should. Graeber received his masters and PHD from the University of Chicago. We all know who taught there don't we? connections? Give me a break!
Oct 28, 2011 2:46PM
I think one of the biggest problems is the lack of understanding many people have when it comes to what defines certain things. Case in point, the meaning of the word: "Anarchy". It really isn't what most believe it to be.
Anarchy:  an·ar·chy/ˈanərkē/ Noun:   
   1. A state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority.
   2. Absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined "Anarchy" in his article about anthropology in the chapter "Freedom and Law" as follows:
    A) Law And Freedom without Violence (Anarchy)
    B) Law And Violence without Freedom (Despotism)
    C) Violence without Freedom And Law (Barbarism)
    D) Violence with Freedom And Law (Republic)
So contrary to what many believe to be true, "Anarchy" does believe in law and is not chaos run a muck...
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