Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
25Nov/110

The Morality of Debt

On July 13 of 2011, David Graeber published an essay in the Canadian journal Adbusters called  "Awaiting The Magical Spark," an essay asking what it would take to set off a revolution in the West similar to those in the Middle East. It was the same day Adbusters put out its now infamous call for a movement occupying Wall Street.

On August 2nd, Graeber attended what was advertised as a General Assembly meeting on Bowling Green. An experienced anarchist, Graeber became angry that the General Assembly was actually a traditional protest meeting not interested in hearing ideas from the protesters. With two friends, he organized a splinter group that gathered on the other side of Bowling Green Park. It was this alternate General Assembly initiated by Graeber that, over the next six weeks, organized the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is one reason that David Graeber has been called the anti-leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Beyond his actual role as the original facilitator of OWS, Graeber has claim as well to being one of the movement's intellectual torchbearers. A Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmith's University in London, he has published widely on anarchism both in the ancient world and in the contemporary west. His book Direct Action: An Ethnography, is an ethnographic account of the anarchist movement and protests at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Just this year Graeber published Debt: The First 5000 Years, a rambling and also rambunctious revisionist history, one that argues against the moral grounds for repaying our debts. A constant refrain in Debt is that the moral responsibility to repay debts is part of an inhuman commercial logic.

Both Graeber's anarchism and his calls for a universal forgiveness of consumer and international debt—a forgiveness in the spirit of a biblical jubilee—has set him at the forefront of debates that swirl around the storm that is Occupy World Street. As he writes in Debt:

“It seems to me that we’re long overdue for some kind of biblical-style jubilee, one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary, not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality. That all these things are human arrangements and, if democracy is to mean anything, it is to the ability for all to agree to arrange things in a different way.”

Graeber's views may strike fear into the heart of Wall Street and the bankers who hold all those credits, but his radical proposals are catching on amongst many in the 99%. And some in the business press are taking notice. He was recently featured in an essay in Business Week Magazine. And the investing website Minyanville just published a rich interview with Graeber. This interview, done by Kevin Depew over at Minyanville, is your read for this Thanksgiving weekend..

In the Minyanville interview, Graeber says:

And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt. I would tell stories to people, very sympathetic people, liberal lawyers, well-meaning do-gooder types, and you’d tell these stories about horrible things. You know, in Madagascar, for example, the IMF came in with these policies, you have to cut the budgets because, god knows, we can’t reduce the interest payments you owe to Citibank, they owed all this money. And they had to do things like get rid of mosquito eradication programs, as a result that malaria returned to parts of the country where it had been wiped out for a hundred years and tens of thousands of people died and you had dead babies being buried and weeping mothers. I was there, I saw this sort of thing. You described this to people and the reaction would be, well, that’s terrible, but surely people have to pay their debts. You’re not suggesting they cancel it or default, that would be outrageous. And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt.

Well just such an outrageous act is what Graeber has in mind. Read on.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.