The anthropologist David Graeber has a strong claim to being the house theorist of Occupy Wall Street. A veteran of the antiglobalization uprisings in Seattle and Genoa, he helped orchestrate the first “General Assembly” in New York this summer, and has since become one of the movement’s most outspoken defenders. For him, the encampments in cities across the country prefigure the kind of anti-hierarchical, stateless society that ought to be our future. In a recent opinion article in The Guardian of London, Graeber proclaimed OWS “the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire.” For a movement that has attracted an array of political sympathies, his voice reminds us that at its organizational core, Occupy Wall Street cleaves to anarchist principles.
But Graeber’s most important contribution to the movement may owe less to his activism as an anarchist than to his background as an anthropologist. His recent book DEBT: The First 5,000 Years – Melville House, reads like a lengthy field report on the state of our economic and moral disrepair. In the best tradition of anthropology, Graeber treats debt ceilings, subprime mortgages and credit default swaps as if they were the exotic practices of some self-destructive tribe. Written in a brash, engaging style, the book is also a philosophical inquiry into the nature of debt — where it came from and how it evolved. Graeber’s claim is that the past 400 years of Western history represent a grievous departure from how human societies have traditionally thought about our obligations to one another. What makes the work more than a screed is its intricate examination of societies from ancient Mesopotamia to 1990s Madagascar, and thinkers ranging from Rabelais to Nietzsche — and to George W. Bush’s brother Neil.
That an anthropologist should feel obliged to assess the role of debt in modern society is perhaps no surprise. The discipline has always taken pride in undermining the assumptions of classical economics. In 1925 the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss published his classic essay “The Gift,” which argued that contrary to the textbook account of primitive man merrily trading beaver pelts for wampum, no society was ever based on barter. The dominant practice for thousands of years was instead voluntary gift-giving, which created a binding sense of obligation between potentially hostile groups. To give a gift was not an act based on calculation, but on the refusal to calculate. In the societies Mauss studied most closely — the Maori of New Zealand, the Haida of the Pacific Northwest — people rejected the principles of economic self-interest in favor of arrangements where everyone was perpetually indebted to someone else.
Picking up where Mauss left off, Graeber argues that once-prevalent relationships based on an incalculable sense of duty deteriorated as buying and selling became the basis of society and as money, previously a marker of favors owed, became valuable in its own right. The first interest-bearing loans originated in ancient Mesopotamia. Poor farmers would borrow from merchants or officials, fall into arrears, see their farms and livestock seized and, in many cases, their families taken as debt peons. Faced with the prospect of social chaos, Sumerian and Babylonian kings periodically announced “declarations of debt freedom,” known in Biblical times as the Law of Jubilee, which canceled all debts more than seven years old. As Graeber points out, the first word for “freedom” known in any language, the Sumerian “amargi,” means literally “return to mother” — presumably, because all the indentured children were free to go home.
With debt at the heart of revolts and palace coups throughout the ancient world, the world’s great religions felt compelled to weigh in. Morality, they held, had to be based on something higher than paying one’s debts to society. The Lord’s Prayer, Graeber reminds us, could just as well read “forgive us our debts, just as we forgive our debtors” — and Christ was called a “Redeemer.” But at the same time, religions used a logic of their own to speak of the immeasurable debts we owe to God or the cosmos, and savvy monarchs used that vocabulary to entrench their own power. In many languages, the word “debt” is the same as “sin” (in some cases the interest could be paid in sacrifices, but the principal was always one’s life).
The traditional understanding of debt as moral obligation changed radically in the 17th century, according to Graeber, when people started to see themselves as independent contractors who could rent out their services to fellow citizens. Individuals now faced one another as equals, and the language of the feudal household — “please” (as in “if you please, My Lord”) and “thank you” (which derives from “think,” as in “I will think on it” or remember) — lost its deferential connotations and entered everyday life. But there was a dark side to these developments. “Those who have argued that we are the natural owners of our rights and liberties,” Graeber writes, “have been mainly interested in asserting that we should be free to give them away, or even to sell them.” Although “mainly” is a bit tendentious, Graeber’s point is that we ended up enslaving ourselves by thinking of ourselves as fully autonomous. As anyone who works a 9-to-5 job knows, the “right” to sell one’s labor hardly feels like privilege.
So what, then, is to be done? Graeber finds reasons for hope in some unexpected places: corporations where elite management teams often operate more communistically than communes; in the possibility of a Babylonian-style Jubilee for Third World nations and students saddled with government loans; and from his own study of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who he claims were adept at evading the snares of consumer debt encouraged by the state. But there is a sizable gulf between Graeber’s anthropological insights and his utopian political prescriptions. “Debt” ends with a paean to the “non-industrious poor.” “Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent . . . enjoying and caring for those they love,” Graeber writes, they are the “pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one’s penchant for self-destruction.”
It’s an old dream among anthropologists — one that goes back to Rousseau. In 1968, Graeber’s own teacher, Marshall Sahlins, wrote an essay, “The Original Affluent Society,” which maintained that the hunters and gatherers of the Paleolithic period rejected the “Neolithic Great Leap Forward” because they correctly saw that the advancements it promised in tool-making and agriculture would reduce their leisure time. Graeber approves. He thinks it’s a mistake when unions ask for higher wages when they should go back to picketing for fewer working hours.
Whatever becomes of the Occupy movements, the politics of debt are now our politics. While politicians argue over how to unwind our liabilities, Graeber uses his reading of the historical and ethnographic record to imagine a world where such liabilities might be forgiven altogether. James Scott, a former colleague of Graeber’s at Yale, takes a more limited and tragic view of the possibilities anthropology can offer social movements. “David’s become something of a cult figure in anthropology now,” Scott said. “His field work on Madagascar is well respected, but it’s worth remembering that academics are bad at looking into the future.” “Still,” he added, “if we can’t tolerate cantankerous people like David, then we don’t deserve to exist.”
Thomas Meaney, an editor of The Utopian, is a doctoral student in history at Columbia University.