David Graeber is an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of ‘Direct Action: An Ethnography.’ He was also one of the initial organizers of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests. And he thinks the people asking for a list of demands are missing the point of the movement quite dramatically. We spoke this morning by phone.
Ezra Klein: So when did your involvement with these protests begin?
David Graeber: July 2nd. That was the first actual meeting. What happened was AdBusters put out this call for these protests. We had heard there was supposed to be a general assembly on July 2nd. So I just showed up. But it was a rally, not an assembly. Some Marxist groups had set up stages and megaphones and was making speeches and were planning a march. So we said we don’t need to do this. We pulled a small group together and decided to have a real assembly.
So we wandered over to another part of the area and began a meeting and people kept migrating over. But we had a problem because we only had six weeks. AdBusters had already advertised the date to 80,000 people. And their date was a Saturday. You can’t really shut down Wall Street on a Saturday. So we were working under some significant constraints. We assembled 80 or 100 people and formed working groups for outreach, process, so forth and so on. And we began meeting every week.
One thing that helped a lot was a smattering of people from Spain and Greece and Tunisia who had been doing this sort of thing more recently. They explained that the model that seemed to work was to take something that seemed to be public space, reclaim it, and build up an organization headquarters around that from which you can begin doing other things.
EK: This movement is organized rather differently than most protest movements. There isn’t really a list of demands, or goals, or even much of an identifiable leadership. But if I understand you correctly, that’s sort of the point.
DG: It’s very similar to the globalization movement. You see the same criticisms in the press. It’s a bunch of kids who don’t know economics and only know what they’re against. But there’s a reason for that. it’s pre-figurative, so to speak. You’re creating a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature. And it’s a way of juxtaposing yourself against these powerful, undemocratic forces you’re protesting. If you make demands, you’re saying, in a way, that you’re asking the people in power and the existing institutions to do something different. And one reason people have been hesitant to do that is they see these institutions as the problem.
EK: So if you say, for instance, that you want a tax on Wall Street and then you’ll be happy, you’re implicitly saying that you’re willing to be happy with a slightly modified version of the current system.
DG: Right. The tax on Wall Street will go to people controlled by Wall Street.
EK: By which you mean government.
DG: Yes. So we are keeping it open-ended. In a way, what we want is to create spaces where people can think about questions like that. In New York, according to law, any unpermitted assembly of more than 12 people is illegal in New York. Space itself is not an openly available resource. But the one resource that isn’t scarce is smart people with ideas. So we’re trying to reframe things away from the rhetoric of demands to a questions of visons and solutions. Now how that translates into actual social change is an interesting question. One way this has been done elsewhere is you have local initiatives that come out of the local assemblies.
EK: It also seems that the tradeoff here, from an organizational standpoint, is that if you say you want, say, a tax on Wall Street, then the people who aren’t interested in a tax on Wall Street stay home. So remaining vague on demands can make the tent bigger. But it also seems that, at some point, people are going to need to be working towards concrete goals and experiencing dicrete successes in order to sustain the energy of a movement like this.
GB: As the thing grows, new organizational forms will develop. At this point, the New York occupation has 30 different working groups for everything from handling sanitation to discussing labor issues and tax policy. So we’re trying to set up ways that people with different interests can plug into the movement. There’s even a newspaper. The ‘Occupied Wall Street Journal.’ Of course, this is nothing compared to what happened in Tahrir Square, where they even had dry cleaners.
EK: We’re also beginning to see “Occupy Wall Street” link up with with more traditional activist groups. Some members of the protest were speaking via videofeed at today’s big confab of liberal groups in Washington. MoveOn.org and organized labor are planning a march in support of the occupiers for Wednesday. How does that change what is, for now, a very decentralized movement?
DG: It is organically happening but there are definite problems that occur. We found this back in the days of the globalization movement. Unions were very supportive and provided resources but they’re very different organizations. The real difficulty is how to work with people who are top-down and have a funding base, as it means there are things they can say in public and things they can’t, and groups where people can say whatever they want and the whole idea is to be decentralized. One problem I’ve already heard of is that people are coming in and changing the tenor of the general assemblies to speeches, and that’s not really what it’s supposed to be about. So you have to balance the aspect where you’re trying to show what direct democracy could be like and the effort to link up with groups that have a form of organization we’ve rejected.
EK: The name of the group is “Occupy Wall Street,” but from what I can tell by listening to interviews with the protesters and reading messages at ‘We are the 99,’ it’s not just about Wall Street, it’s about the powerful in general, which include politicians and wealthy folks who don’t make their money in finance, and beyond that, it’s really about the less-powerful. The real running theme I’m hearing is hopelessness: that we did everything right and played by the rules and went to school or got a job and now we’re buried in debt and can’t make ends meet, while these folks at the top of the economy seem to just keep prospering and prospering.
DG: Right, and Wall Street is just a beautiful illustration of that. Here we have these guys who were just greedy crooks, who crashed the global economy and did terrible things to the lives of people all over the world. None of them have paid at all. There was a debate about whether their bonuses should be lowered. On the other hand, if people point out to vigorously that this has happened, they do get arrested. And that helps to point out the essential double standard of the system.
Related: Occpy Wall Street, a primer.