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“We Are the 99%”: Occupy Wall Street Activist & Author David Graeber, Dead at 59, in His Own Words

StorySeptember 04, 2020
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Upon the death of acclaimed anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber, we feature his 2011 interview on Democracy Now!, two days after the Occupy encampment began. Graeber helped organize the initial Occupy Wall Street protest and was credited with helping to develop the slogan, “We are the 99%.” “The idea is the system is not going to save us; we’re going to have to save ourselves,” says Graeber. “So, we’re going to try to get as many people as possible to camp in some public place and start rebuilding society as we’d like to see it.” He also discusses how his influential book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” makes the case for sweeping debt cancellation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Upon This Hill” by John Halle, featuring David Graeber. This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we end today’s show with the acclaimed anthropologist, author and anarchist David Graeber, who has died at the age of 59 in Venice, Italy.

David was a veteran of an international anti-capitalist movement that pushed for a different vision of globalization, not of capitalist markets but of human liberty and worker power. His influential book Debt: The First 5,000 Years made the case for sweeping debt cancellation and was dedicated to Kenneth Graeber, a Lincoln vet of the Spanish Civil War, David’s father.

David Graeber helped organize the initial Occupy Wall Street protest September 17th, 2011, and was credited with helping to coin the phrase “We are the 99%.” He wrote on his website it was a communal effort. He said, “I did first suggest that we call ourselves the 99%. Then two Spanish indignados and a Greek anarchist added the 'we' and later a food-not-bombs veteran put the 'are' between them. And they say you can’t create something worthwhile by committee!”

In 2011, David Graeber spoke on Democracy Now!, two days after the Occupy encampment began.

DAVID GRAEBER: It was originally a call from Adbusters. It was just sort of thrown out into the blue.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Adbusters is.

DAVID GRAEBER: Oh, Adbusters, the magazine based in Toronto, so they’re quite far away from Wall Street. They had this conception, and they thought they could bring it into being. Bunch of us showed up, you know, relatively unprepared for what to expect, on August 2nd, when they called a general meeting. And after a little bit of uncertainty, we sort of started putting together a process. We decided to model it on the idea of the sort of horizontal direct democracy they had in Europe. And in a way, the Wall Street action was one focus, but the very idea of building a kind of general assembly movement was a lot of what we’re really about.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you mean by “general assembly” and exactly how the process started on Saturday.

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, what people are doing in Europe is essentially trying to reinvent democracy. The idea is that, you know, all of the political parties have basically bankrupted themselves. They’re all essentially bought and sold by the financial elite that’s created this crisis. There’s no possibility of their actually coming up with a solution. And sometimes you have to start over. People have to, like, go into their public squares, meet each other, start talking to each other, and start brainstorming of ideas. I mean, essentially, the idea is the system is not going to save us; we’re going to have to save ourselves. So, we’re going to try to get as many people as possible to camp in some public place and start rebuilding society as we’d like to see it. …

AMY GOODMAN: David Graeber, talk about debt cancellation.

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, one of the things that I discovered in researching my book is that the kind of debt crisis we’re experiencing now, being a real debt crisis, which is a debt crisis that affects ordinary people, debts between the very wealthy or between governments can always be renegotiated and always have been throughout world history. They’re not anything set in stone. It’s, generally speaking, when you have debts owed by the poor to the rich that suddenly debts become a sacred obligation, more important than anything else. The idea of renegotiating them becomes unthinkable. In the past, though, there have been mechanisms, when things get to a point of real social crisis, that have always existed. And they vary by the period of history. In the ancient Middle East, often new kings would simply declare a clean slate and cancel all debts, or all consumer debts, commercial debts, between merchants were often left alone. The Jubilee was a way of institutionalizing that. In the Middle Ages, there were bans on interest taking entirely. There have been many mechanisms.

But whenever you have what I call a period of virtual credit money, when money is recognized not to be a thing like gold and silver, but a social relation or promise that people make to each other, which has become increasingly clear since the '70s, when we went off the gold standard — and I think 2008 really brought that home — debts can be renegotiated. They're not set in stone. Trillions of dollars of debt was made to disappear. We understand now that this is a political arrangement, and it can always be readjusted. And I think what the people coming to the squares — and Wall Street now included — are saying is that, well, if that’s true, if democracy is going to mean anything now, we’re all going to have to be able to weigh in on what sort of promises are made and what sort of promises are adjusted when you enter into a crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: We hear about debt cancellation when we’re talking about developing nations. What about the United States?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, the interesting thing is that most of the developing nations have actually pulled themselves out of the situation. Structural adjustment has come home to Europe and America. I think it would be a great idea. I think it would bring home that we really are in a different age, that money doesn’t mean the same thing as it used to. And there are people who have tried it. Saudi Arabia, actually most dramatically, that was their reaction to the Arab Spring: They declared a debt cancellation. So there are precedents. I mean, they kind of don’t want people to know that they did it, for obvious reasons, but they did.

AMY GOODMAN: And the crisis now in Europe?

DAVID GRAEBER: The crisis now in Europe is an example of the same thing. The austerity regimes that are being imposed now on Europe and on America are remarkably similar to what happened — you know, what used to be called the Third World debt crisis. First you declare a financial debt — a financial crisis. You bring in these people who are supposedly neutral technocrats, who are in fact enforcing this extreme neoliberal ideology. You bypass all democratic accountability and impose things that no one ever possibly have agreed to. It’s the same thing. And one reason it’s happening to us now is that there was really successful mobilization around the world against those policies. In a lot of ways, the global justice movement was successful. The IMF was kicked out of East Asia. It was kicked out of Latin America. And now it’s come home to us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. And how long do you expect these Wall Street protests, part of which you helped to organize, to continue?

DAVID GRAEBER: As long as we possibly can.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s David Graeber speaking on Democracy Now! in 2011, two days after the launch of Occupy Wall Street. He died Wednesday at the age of 59 in Venice, Italy. We’ll link to the full interview at David Graeber once wrote, quote, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

And that does it for our show. Remember, on this holiday weekend, stay safe, wear a mask, socially distance, save lives. Happy Labor Day. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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