David Graeber on harmful jobs, odious debt, and fascists who believe in global warming
It was a warm spring evening in London and David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the LSE, was sitting on a rooftop. Our conversation was transmitted through the Internet because of the global travel ban due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, we did not only talk about the new virus and its consequences for society, politics, and the economy. We took the rare opportunity to discuss most of his published works – from the Fragments of Anarchist Anthropology and Debt to Utopia of Rules, and his most recent book The Bullshit Jobs. All of which have become even more relevant during the corona-crisis.
Professor Graeber presents himself as an anthropologist and anarchist. However, he will not be happy if you refer to him as an “anarchist anthropologist” because there is no such discipline, which he explained during the conversation. The professor is also an activist. He joined many social movements and protests in the last few decades and is often credited as the author of the unofficial slogan from the Occupy Wall Street movement: We are the 99 percent. But he insists that the slogan – as well as everything else in the movement – was a collective effort.
How can democratic governments use this health crisis to enforce authoritarian measures on their citizens? Why don’t the health and care workers strike, during the pandemic, for higher wages? What would happen if we closed Wall Street for a few months? Why do we only see flying cars as special effects in science fiction movies? How can anarchistic principles bring order into chaos during the crisis? Why do we not want to depend on the Chinese and US armies to save our planet?
And finally – how can a drunken rant become a best-selling book?
Everybody seems to be speaking the same language during the coronavirus pandemic – from progressive and conservative governments to ISIS and the anarchists: stay at home, wash your hands, avoid other people … And people have been listening to the officials without much protest. They stayed at home and accepted the new rules. We have not seen anything like this for a long while. What has happened?
Well, there are just not all that many people who are quite crazy enough to ignore medical advice during a pandemic.
It brings to mind the 19th century French political thinker Henry Saint-Simon—who might have been the first person to come up with the notion of withering away of the state. He argued that if the state was refounded on scientific basis, eventually it would not need to rely on coercion, and therefore, it wouldn’t even be a state in the contemporary sense of having a monopoly of violence.
For the same reason, he said, that doctor doesn’t have to threaten to beat you up to convince you to the medicine they prescribe. You know the doctor knows something you don’t know, and you assume the doctor is acting in your best interest. Saint-Simon argued once the state was rationally founded on scientific principles, citizens would act in the same way, and coercive enforcement would become unnecessary. Maybe they’d be a few nutty people who refuse to take their medicine but not enough to make much difference.
Obviously this was all very optimistic and naive—that’s why Marx dismissed people like Saint Simon as “utopian socialists”. But there are certain branches of the government that still claim to operate on such basis. And one could make the argument that they’re not by their nature part of government at all.
During the student movement in the UK in 2010 we talked about this a lot, we were mostly anarchists, but we believed in a public health system, and a public university system. Was this hypocritical? None of us felt it was, but we talked a lot about why. Perhaps the problem is that states don’t allow the existence of public institutions – that is, ones which are both universal and non-profit-oriented – that they don’t control. That doesn’t mean those institutions are somehow of the same nature as the army, or prison system, which are entirely creatures of the state.
The idea that knowledge is always a form of power is very flattering to academics, who have a great deal of one and very little of the other, so it’s hardly surprising they like it so much.
Yes and of course Foucault would say the authority that does not need a violent force to enforce itself is the scariest kind of all.
He would. Though I think Foucault is often misinterpreted in this regard, to assume that any truth discourse is a form of power, and every form of power is violent and objectionable in itself. True, he sometimes sounds as if that’s what he’s saying. But if specifically challenged, he’d always say, no, no, obviously not.
The idea that knowledge is always a form of power is very flattering to academics, who have a great deal of one and very little of the other, so it’s hardly surprising they like it so much. Foucault himself had his own immediate concerns – he was diagnosed as a homosexual in his youth, and wanted to understand how it came about that his most intimate desires could be considered a disease.
He effectively dedicated his life to trying to understand that. But many on the academic left forget that, such diagnoses were not just abstractions, they ultimately relied on force of law, on the threat of physical violence, even if the doctor isn’t personally carrying a gun. A kind of vulgar Foucauldianismn has encouraged us to overlook how much the threat of force really does still lurk behind most of the institutions he describes.
The Panopticon was a prison after all. Normally if you think someone might be staring at you at any moment, you just go someplace else. Actually things have gotten rather worse in that respect since Foucault’s time. There didn’t used to be actual armed guards in schools and hospitals; now in many places there are.
Many governments all over the world are using public health to enforce measures that could not have been imaginable in democratic societies only a few months ago. In Slovenia, for example, individuals are fined when they try to protest against the government actions. Not for protesting, of course. That would be undemocratic. But for violating the law on infectious diseases. So the only groups of people that are allowed move freely are the police, the army, and the politicians.
That does not surprise me. You can learn a lot of things about your state by comparing how they treat a political assembly, and any other kind.
In what way?
In liberal democracies, the entire justification for a country’s legal structure is, typically, some kind of ideal of human freedom and liberty. The American bill of rights begins with the freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of assembly. In practice, the assembly of people that gather in order to protest – which is the very essence of what is supposed to be American – is considered less legitimate than an assembly of people who want to sell you something.
You point this out to most middle-class Americans, they seem incredulous. Poor ones not so much, they don’t assume the rules are fair. Anyway: they’ll say “but of course you have the right to assemble, you just need a permit, what’s wrong with that?” So you have to say “all right, if you have to ask police permission to print something, that’s called not having freedom of the press. If you have to ask police permission to say something..” And they’ll say, “but that’s different! There are traffic issues. You can’t just gather. It gets in the way of people walking down the street” Which is funny, because I don’t remember anywhere in the constitution it says anything about the right to unimpeded traffic flow.
We learned that lesson during the Occupy movement. It was startling, after they evicted our camp, how many middle class Americans just shrugged their shoulders when they went on to rip up the Bill of Rights, the very thing they teach their children to be so proud of…
The Anonymous movement has shown that you can have meaningful and impactful protests online. And people all across the world are inventing new ways to protest from their home.
You were trying to occupy a public space?
Any space. After they evicted us from Zuccotti Park, we tried to reestablish a new camp because… well, it was crucial that everyone knew where we were. That was what was so effective about the original occupation: anyone in the city who felt they wanted to get involved knew where they could go and plug in instantly.
At first we thought we could relocate to a huge lot near Wall Street that belong to the Episcopalian Church, they agreed, but huge pressure was place on the Church hierarchy and eventually they reversed themselves. We had a march led by several bishops trying to occupy anyway; the cops beat us up, and the media refused to show any footage of the priests but only anyone in masks to make us look violent and scary.
Then we occupied a park that was open all night and they changed the rules of the park. We then got a legal ruling from a judge that we could sleep on the sidewalk as long as we do not take more than half of it. So the city just passed an order that Lower Manhattan was an emergency zone where legal decisions do not apply. So we decided to occupy the stairs of the building where the Bill of Rights was actually signed, which is right near Wall Street incidentally, but wasn’t under city jurisdiction. We were immediately were surrounded by SWAT teams and after two days they found a way to force us from there.
We tried everything to set up a legal alternative. But the state completely simply shredded the very legal principles that they teach children are what makes them proud to be Americans, and the media didn’t even cover it.
But what can you occupy when you are not allowed to even leave your own apartment?
There are always things you can do. The Anonymous movement has shown that you can have meaningful and impactful protests online. And people all across the world are inventing new ways to protest from their home.
Still, it’s hardly as if lockdown will be permanent. We should remind ourselves that there was a world before vaccines and people used to know how to deal with the threat of things like cholera, yellow fever, influenza: You trace very carefully who is spreading the disease, you isolate and quarantine, you pay close attention to hygiene, social distance, place restrictions on certain sorts of commerce – it was had become routine in the Victorian Age.
A friend of mine, John Summers, has been researching how Jane Addams dealt with such threats at Hull House, and concluded the middle classes just forgot things that used to be common knowledge. And of course all this hardly prevented social movements, as the Hull House example suggests. This was the heyday of anarchism in the labour movement example.
We are still in a phase of a panic reaction and we are only starting to finding ways how to deal with the problem. It is far too soon to think that the virus will destroy our social relations.
How about economic relations?
It really is fascinating because for so many years governments all over the world had been telling us they could not do anything like what they just did: stop almost all economic activity, close the borders, and declare a global state of emergency. Three months ago, even, everyone assumed that even a one percent decline of GDP would be an unmitigated catastrophe, like we’d all be trampled by the economic equivalent of Godzilla.
But that is not what has happened.
No, something else has happened. Everybody stayed at home and economic activity only fell by one third. Which is already crazy. You would imagine that when everybody is at home and not doing anything the economy should be down by at least 80 per cent, not one third. Wouldn’t you? Kind of makes you wonder what exactly are they measuring? What is an “economy”, anyway? And what is work?
I think we can begin to see those things more clearly because of the pandemic.
Wall Street exists for the sake of Wall Street, so rich people can continue to be very rich. It doesn’t do anyone else much good. But it can do them harm, or they wouldn’t have to shut it.
Well first of all we can see which jobs really were essential; also, which are completely unnecessary. But it also makes it easier to see what some institutions actually do.
Capitalist evangelists always insisted the global financial system was the better, free market version of central planning: like a five year plan, in that it decides how resources will be allocated and invested to optimize future production, basically, to ensure that future people get what they want, to ensure long-term prosperity, happiness, well-being. No it doesn’t.
During all the debate over whether to shut down Wall Street, to prevent 2008-style economic catastrophe, no one even suggested shutting down finance for a month or longer would have any actual ill effects. Wall Street exists for the sake of Wall Street, so rich people can continue to be very rich. It doesn’t do anyone else much good. But it can do them harm, or they wouldn’t have to shut it. So financial system was never really a substitute for state planning, which goes on anyway. Also the market was not self-regulatory. It has always been regulated – by the state – what people are really arguing about when they talk about “regulation” or “deregulation” is on behalf of who?
So I do think people are seriously questioning how they have been governed in the last decades.
What kind of a state will arise after the pandemic? To some, socialism may get a second chance as we can see with nationalisation of railway system in the UK or hospitals in Spain. Others fear that the state will become more authoritarian like it happened in Hungary. There are also some hopes that the strong state could become emancipatory. Regulate some industries that have become too powerful, put people before profits…
Well, first of all, when we ask “who has proved more effective in dealing with the pandemic,” I think we should be very careful not to fall into false dichotomies: authoritarian versus democratic, socialist versus capitalist and so on.
There’s no evidence authoritarian states did better. Obviously China is pushing that line, and it resonates with a certain perception, especially common in the global south in recent decades, that China represents the only viable alternative to the kind of neoliberal model being pushed by institutions like the IMF and World Bank. It’s true of course that China didn’t follow the neoliberal prescription, they refused to liberalize finance, for example, and that combination of “corrupt” easy credit to the construction industry and so forth was picked up in India, Turkey, many parts of Latin America, as the only proven way to turn a poor country into a relatively rich one.
But the idea that this was only possible because the Chinese government forced people to sacrifice social and political freedoms is completely gratuitous – there’s simply no reason to believe one somehow necessarily follows from the other.
But why are China, South Korea, and Singapore so often presented as role models? Are they not supposed to have the best results in stopping the pandemic? Doesn’t that have something to do with social discipline?
I recently read a very interesting study comparing how authoritarian and non-authoritarian regimes have handled the pandemic. The authors concluded that more or less authoritarianism was irrelevant as a factor. What was important was people’s faith in government’s pronouncements: how much they trusted public institutions, the media, the scientific establishment.
There simply no systematic relation between what they are calling “democracy” and that sort of trust in institutions. Here in the UK we have one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies but the politicians and the press lie to us so systematically, and so flagrantly, that we have, I think, the lowest trust in the media in Europe—next to Italy, then Spain, if I remember.
In the US, the right has figured out a way to turn that justifiable suspicion to their advantage. Everything is “fake news.” We’re in a hall of mirrors. Might as well vote for the guy (Donald Trump, Boris Johnson) who at least is honest enough to admit he’s lying; then you can become an accomplice, in effect, because the world is made up of con men and marks and that way at least you’ll be on the winning team.
But there’s something deeper. I think what we really need is a proper analysis of what’s called “centrism” which is in many ways a startlingly perverse political ideology.
What did middle class people—basically, members of the professional-managerial class, who are the core constituency of centrism—actually mean in the ’80s and ’90s when they started describing themselves as “life-style liberals, fiscal conservatives”?
It means they accepted a social order where the moderate left would be left in charge of the production of people, as it were, they’d run the hospitals and universities, while the moderate right would be left in charge of producing oil and clothes and highways. So just as leftist social movements attack CEOs and trade agreements, right wing social movements attack the authority of the people running the educational or the health system: teachers and scientists. Just think of creationism, global warming, or abortion.
But really it’s a hopeless war of position, as a Gramscian might say, neither side is going to win; the radical right is no more likely to put evangelical churches in charge of social reproduction than the radical left is of turning Bechtel or Microsoft or Monsanto into a self-managed collective. What the radical right can do is undermine faith in experts, and of course, the more they get into power, the more they can do that by placing actual incompetents in positions of authority. So the whole thing feeds off itself.
The result is an endless hall of mirrors where everything is or might be a lie. These are the places where the bodies are now piling up. Because they’ve gone furthest from Saint Simon’s fantasy. And you can’t exactly blame people for being suspicious when you have a country like the UK where we’re not supposed to know the names of the scientists on the board advising the government on what to do in a medical crisis, but somehow, we do know that two of the members of the board are Tory propagandists with no scientific training. It’s almost as if they want you to know they’re entirely unreliable.
I don’t think we should be limiting ourselves to debates on the nature of the future government – will it become more authoritarian, socialist, nationalist, emancipatory? What’s really striking is the degree to which people are self-organising like never before.
And if unreliable governments also become more authoritarian…?
The idea is that it feeds off itself. There is a paradox here. People confuse anti-authoritarian politics with an opposition to any sort of intellectual authority, even, to any shared notion of truth, justice, even physical reality. As if insisting on any form of truth is tantamount to fascism. But of course if there’s no truth, why is fascism even a problem? What is your grounds for objecting to fascism, other than that you personally don’t like it, which doesn’t mean much if other people do. Well, that kind of absolute relativism is now fading on the left just as it’s being taken up aggressively on the right.
But if that’s the case, authoritarianism—at least of the populist variety—just took a major hit. It really is, as some people are saying, a death cult, a form of mass suicide.
For that very reason, though, I don’t think we should be limiting ourselves to debates on the nature of the future government – will it become more authoritarian, socialist, nationalist, emancipatory? What’s really striking is the degree to which people are self-organising like never before. The first thing that happened in the UK when the pandemic began was that every neighborhood began setting up its own mutual aid group identifying vulnerable people: individuals with no relatives or help, older people… They call them that, “mutual aid” groups, using the old anarchist expression. There are hundreds of them in London alone.
Does this prove the old saying that everybody becomes a socialist – or an anarchist – during the crisis?
In my neighborhood, and I live just a few away from Grenfell Tower, people are already aware that the government is basically useless in a crisis. When the fire happened two years ago, they completely dropped the ball. You’d imagine the government of a country with the world’s fifth largest economies wouldn’t have found it that difficult to find a place to live for a few hundred survivors, but in fact, church groups and spontaneous community groups operating out of squatted spaces ended up having to do everything.
I know what happens when police disappear. I even lived in a place in rural Madagascar where the police had, effectively, disappeared some years before I arrived. It made almost no difference whatsoever.
So despite the more common perception that anarchism would push order into chaos it can actually help bring chaos into order?
I always find it slightly amusing that people always say “oh my God, we can’t get rid of the police, because if we get rid of police, everybody will just start killing each other!” Notice they never say “I would start killing people.” “Hmm, no police? I think I’ll get a gun and shoot someone.” Everyone assumes someone else will.
Actually as an anthropologist I know what happens when police disappear. I even lived in a place in rural Madagascar where the police had, effectively, disappeared some years before I arrived. It made almost no difference whatsoever. Well, property crime did increase, if people were very rich, they sometimes got pilfered. Murder if anything decreased. When police vanish in the middle of a big city, where property differences are much more extremely, burglary increases, definitely, but violent crime is entirely unaffected.
But when it comes to organization – well, what we need to ask ourselves is why we think it’s necessary to threaten to hit people over the head, or shoot them, or lock them in a dingy room for years, in order to maintain any form of organization. People who think that really don’t have much faith in organization, do they?
How would anarchists handle the pandemic?
I think right now a lot of people are learning how much they can get done independently of top-down military style authorities. In emergencies, some sort of rough and ready communism always takes hold: from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.
They do out of simple efficiency: it’s the only thing that really works. But of course crisis communism tends to be the very opposite of authoritarian top-down socialism. Systems of command and hierarchy, like systems of market exchange, become a luxury people can’t afford – though often they’ll be restored in the second phase of the crisis, when things start getting easier.
In the first stage, it’s more Saint Simonian and less Foucauldian—the only authority which people recognize is the kind which really is based on some sort of expert knowledge, but few people are unlikely to argue with a doctor trying to set their broken leg.
Most successful revolutionary communities I know of balance the two, they try to disseminate knowledge as broadly as possible, but for that very reason, there is trust in people who actually do have specialized knowledge. The places I know that are closest to an anarchist situation have not done badly during the pandemic. I’m thinking of the Zapatista communities in Mexico and Rojava, the largely Kurdish region in Northeast Syria.
Both of them are anti-state and deeply influenced by anarchism. They both reacted immediately to the pandemic and initiated a total community mobilization, shutting down schools, creating protective gear, improving sanitation… Rojava so far has been doing quite well despite the fact that the Turkish government has been literally trying to use germ warfare against them by intentionally sending in infected refugees. Their example has shown that anarchist principles can be used to effectively coordinate health workers.
Nevertheless, governments are trying really hard to take credit for fighting the pandemic. American president Donald Trump went as far as personally signing the corona-checks implying that he personally gave the money to citizens. He is not alone. Many governments are trying to make an impression that they are giving out money to help us survive the crisis.
It’s hard to talk about how the financial system really works because it’s surrounded by layers and layers of errors and mystification. First there is the rhetoric of “finding” the money to help the economy and citizens. Money is not some kind of a limited good that needs to be found, excavated, or produced. It is literally being created out of thin air.
Trump isn’t giving away something he already has. He’s literally producing the money by giving it. But that is only one of many false premises that hold the system together. Such mystifications are all the more important to maintain, in the eyes of the governing classes, I think now that almost all the traditional justifications for capitalism have dissolved away.
Well, there were three big ones. First, people used to say “okay, sure, capitalism creates extreme inequality and all sorts of obvious injustice. But it is worth it because even the poorest people know that their children will be doing better than they.”
I do not think that many people in rich countries still believe this. Maybe in China some people still do but it is clearly not the case if you live in America, or France, or Egypt, or Argentina. New generations are already doing substantially worse than their parents. They have less access to the basic stuff like housing, education, retirement savings. There’s a huge literature of middle-aged people lecturing their children and grandchildren for being entitled snowflakes for basically, demanding the same things they themselves took for granted, when they were young, but it’s born of shame ultimately. They know things are getting worse, not better.
The second argument was technological: capitalism will always drive rapid scientific change. We used to believe that our lives would be radically transformed because of technological development. Just imagine what the kitchen looked like one hundred years ago, the argument goes. And then compare it to our modern kitchens today. That we will be flying to Mars, live forever and most of our problems would disappear by now.
They have not, obviously.
So nobody even says that anymore. Actually kitchens are a perfect example. They have not changed in any substantial way since the microwave oven was introduced 30 years ago. That was the last significant innovation of kitchen technology that actually affected everyday life. After that: stagnation.
The same goes for other areas of lives. There is more and more evidence that capitalism is actually stifling technological innovation because there are no short-term profit incentives in innovation. We have been improving technologies of simulation, we can make amazing science fiction movies now, the special effects are great, but we’ve given up on the idea we’ll actually be doing any of that stuff in the foreseeable future.
And the third argument goes that capitalism brings stability.
To the middle classes?
By expanding prosperity so that most people become middle class, and that growth of the middle class encourages democratic stability. Right. That didn’t happen. Instead those being kicked out of the middle class are increasingly willing to vote for anyone who’s running against stability.
So all that’s left really are two arguments. One is that there are no alternatives: it’s either us, or North Korea. That other is moral.
I’m increasingly convince the system is only being held together by morality. A very odd, twisted morality. That’s why I wrote one book about the morality of debt, and another about the morality of work.
Even many people who know perfectly well our economic system is fundamentally stupid and unjust, also really seem to believe that anyone who doesn’t pay their debts is a bad person. Deadbeats are irresponsible and have only themselves to blame. Likewise, even people who hate their bosses seem to feel that skivers are even worse, that if you’re not working harder than you’d like at something you don’t much enjoy, preferably for someone you don’t like very much, then you’re a bad person, a parasite, and certainly, undeserving of public relief.
People really seem to believe in the sanctity of work. Not just work, jobs. Everyone should get a job. It doesn’t matter if the work is actually doing anyone any good or not. In fact at least a third of the working population appears to be personally convinced that if their job did not exist it would make no difference—or even, that the world would be a better place without it. The sanctity of work, the sanctity of debt, the sanctity of “the market”—all these things are deeply internalised and they are all extremely problematic.
Problematic as … Wrong?
Rich people do not believe in debt, at least not in their own debt. They certainly do not think that paying their debts is the matter of honour. Half of my former employers wouldn’t have paid me at all if they could figure out a way not to. But even more, if you’re in a position of weakness, debt is morality; if you’re in a position of strength, debt is power. That is why I started a book on Debt with an old proverb: if you owe a bank a hundred thousand dollars, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank of hundred million dollars, you own the bank.
You have often compared debt with a promise. But if a promise is broken by one side, why should the other still respect such promise?
Exactly. But power matters. Look at international relations. If Sierra Leone owes a billion dollars to the USA, Sierra Leone has got trouble. If the USA owes South Korea a billion dollars, South Korea has got trouble.
But the moral trick is so bizarrely effective. Otherwise decent people think it’s totally justified to take food away from hungry children because their former dictator took out a bad loan.
This is why so many of us have been trying so figure out a way to popularize the notion of “odious debt.” It’s not a very catchy phrase. The term was invented by an American court after the US seized Cuba from the Spanish empire. The Spanish government insisted the US was now responsible for the Cuban government’s outstanding debts to Spain. American courts ruled Cuba didn’t really owe the money because its loans were taken under unfair circumstances. This is what they meant by “odious debt”: a loan that nobody would have taken if he had been a really free agent acting in its own best interest.
Does not a lot of personal debt also fit to this definition?
Yes, that’s the idea. How do we get people to see, say, a subprime mortgage as an odious debt? We are all taught that it’s basic morality to pay one’s debts, largely because our very idea of moral obligation has come to be modeled on financial obligation rather than the other way around. Could some idea of odious debt be the way to start to undo that? Are there debts that it’s immoral to even try to extract?
Actually, in Medieval Europe, that would have been basic legal common sense, it was the kind of problem that legal scholars often argued about.
The famous dispute about a pound of flesh from Shakespeare’s play Merchant of Venice?
Or an example of an egg if you are in prison.
Yes, medieval scholastics would often use this example—remember, back then, economic questions were moral questions that fell under canon law, it was all a branch of theology. Actually I’d say economics is still a branch of theology it just doesn’t admit it any more.
The example was this: there is a man in prison, on a diet of bread and water. So he is slowly dying. The inmate in the next cell has some friends who bring him food; he says, say, I have a few hard-boiled eggs here. I’ll give you one of these eggs if you sign this document giving me the rights to all your property. So he agrees, eats the egg, survives, and a couple years later they’re both out of prison. Is the contract enforceable?
How to convey the sense that just as some jobs it would be better if no one was doing them, some debts shouldn’t be paid?
Today … it may be.
The answer today is: yes. We have been doing pretty much exactly that to the Global South for years. But most medieval theologians would argue: obviously not. The man who signed over his property was not actually a free agent. This is all the more true, if, as in the case of the Global South, the guy who had all the eggs was not a prisoner but your guard. That adds the whole new dimension to the problem. It’s odious debt. Obviously. But the word “odious” is antiquated and doesn’t sound quite right.
We kept trying to come up with a better turn of phrase. Maybe we could talk about gangster capitalism, mafia debt? Mafiosi are notoriously good at making extortion seem moral by framing it as debt. But that didn’t sound quite right either. How to convey the sense that just as some jobs it would be better if no one was doing them, some debts shouldn’t be paid?
Is that realistic?
A lot of us are still trying to figure out a way how to break the spell. Maybe this pandemic will help us see more clearly that what we call “finance” was always just other people’s debts, and these debts are intentionally produced by collusion between financial corporations and government, between ostensibly public and private institutions that are in reality increasingly difficult to tell apart.
I like to use the example of J. P. Morgan Chase, the biggest bank in America. I don’t remember the exact number but something like 76 percent of their profits comes from fees and penalties. Think about that. They make their profit if you make a mistake. So they have to set up a system which is confusing enough that they can be sure X percent of people will make a mistake, but not so confusing that they can’t say “hey, it’s not our fault you can’t balance your checkbook.”
Increasingly, the entire apparatus of government and the financial system is becoming a giant scam designed to drive us into debt. Since most of the profits being traded on Wall Street or the Nikkei index or FOTSE are coming from finance, not industry, that’s what is actually driving capitalism now.
In Debt, you also describe old rituals during which all debts were erased. What are the social circumstances under which such debt cancellations can happen?
Debt cancellations are still happening. There was one in Saudi Arabia and I think Kuwait just after the Arab Spring started to happen. They just canceled everyone’s debt to forestall unrest. True, they were very careful not to frame it as a “cancelation,” they pretended to pay it all with petro-dollars to keep up appearances. In India they also cancel farmers debts periodically but quietly, there seems to be a feeling you don’t want most people to know governments have the power to do this.
Debts are canceled all the time but how they are canceled is a political question. The powers that be seem to feel strongly that at the very least, you have to pretend debts are sacred, you’re just paying it off—even if with money that you just made up. This is of course silly, it would be perfectly easy for governments to simply declare a certain category of debt enforceable as the US did with Cuba and Spain. Any government could do the same with say, with personal debt, mortgage debt, or student loans: they could say, “sure, if you feel honor-bound to pay that one, go ahead, but we will not use the power of the courts to force you to.”
Another expedient, which is often used in South Africa, is a credit score jubilee. Since even if the courts won’t enforce a debt, you might end up ruining your credit rating and be unable to get further loans. So states can, and sometimes do, just reset everyone’s credit rating to zero.
We can easily forget that violent coercion lies behind all our laws. The power to do harm. In the case of the annoying bill collector, it might thirty or even a hundred steps away. But it’s always there, because otherwise, you’d just ignore it.
And the idea of debt cannot exist without coercion, you often argue?
Right now I am getting mails from Virgin Media. I moved from my old place recently and canceled my subscription. But they are somehow still charging me for the last two months that I have not even lived there. They have been sending me increasingly threatening and obnoxious letters because they know that there is an apparatus of law on their side. If you simply refuse to comply, at some point, it’ll go to a bailiff, who will harass you, and if you refuse long enough, and the amount is large enough, they’ll start taking things away, and if you try to stop them, threats of physical force come into the picture.
We can easily forget that violent coercion lies behind all our laws. The power to do harm. In the case of the annoying bill collector, it might thirty or even a hundred steps away. But it’s always there, because otherwise, you’d just ignore it. And there is another interesting correlation that I have been thinking about lately.
Maybe it is also the case that the more potential harm you can do to other people the more you get paid.
What do you mean?
I always say that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re likely to be paid. Someone suggested to me recently that maybe that’s backwards: the more your work is capable of harming others, the more you’re likely to be paid. I immediately thought of a study by an economist named Blair Fix who did an analysis of income in the corporate sector, and discovered that the key to compensation is not “productivity”, as economists usually insist, but simply power. The higher up you are in the chain of command, the bigger your salary. In a way this is hardly news to anyone. But he has the numbers. So it’s all about power.
Power to do what?
Well that’s the question. Perhaps it really is just the sheer potential to do harm. Just as Wall Street doesn’t really benefit the public much but it can do enormous damage if it crashes. Maybe capitalism is just a privatised form of power, directly derived from feudal-military forms of power.
Just think of corporations as the cathedrals of capitalist power. Their owners already possess all the wealth and power anyone can possibly have. At a certain point you’ve already got all the money and pleasures, all the hookers and cocaine, you can possibly want. All that’s left is just ego and narcissism. That’s why you have these legions of useless employees: so some asshole Executive Vice President can say “behold my empire! It is somewhat larger than that other Executive Vice President’s empire.”
The planet is dying because so people like that can feel good about themselves. They are sucking up enormous resources building their giant towers and filling them with useless flunkies simply for ego-gratification. When I got accounts of bullshit jobs, I heard about endless examples of this sort of thing. Every corporation needs to have its own in-house magazine with high production values and regular feature articles profiling this or that high level manager. For what possible reason? No one reads these magazines! Well, almost no one. They exist so every manager can have the pleasure of seeing a flattering article about themselves in what looks like a news magazine.
Whole species of living creatures are being wiped out every year for this sort of thing. But ultimately, it happens because he is in a position to make life miserable for others.
And of course the pandemic has highlighted the reverse side of this: the more immediately your work helps other people the less you are likely to be paid.
Health and care workers, factory and utility workers, shopkeepers… got celebrated during the pandemic. They were praised almost as modern day heroes. But their wages have not gone up and they are the most likely to lose their jobs after the crisis is over. How come?
Because the essence of their work is to do no harm. Just consider the emergency and care workers who are out there risking their lives so that the health system does not collapse. In theory, a labour movement is the strongest when their work is essential and brings a lot of bargaining power to the workers. So if the health and care workers would decide to strike for better conditions and better pay this would be the best possible moment. But in reality this does not happen.
In a way they have too much power. It’s kind of a paradox. A little like the joke about if you owe the bank a million, the bank owns you, if you owe it a hundred million, you own the bank. If you have too much power to hurt others, and in too immediate a way, you become a prisoner of your own usefulness. You can’t use that power—because it would just be too devastating.
A mafiosi, or a private equity CEO, can only hurt you, though he pretends otherwise. He can wield power ruthlessly. As feminists point out, a care strike would be utterly devastating, so devastating, carers wouldn’t actually do it, because, well, they care too much about the people who would immediately begin to suffer and die.
But if nothing else, maybe the crisis will open up our eyes to that fact. That an economy is ultimately just the way we take care of each other, that all real work is ultimately care work.
We have started using communication tools on a large scale during the pandemic – for school, work, and social events. We now see that we can live without most of our work travels and meetings. Will this changes become permanent?
Our traveling habits will definitely have to change and this will also affect other parts of the economy.
David Harvey pointed out that since 2008 the economic recovery – assuming there actually has been a recovery, which some would argue with – has been largely built around consumer experiences instead of consumer products. For decades, economic growth was fueled by producing and selling something tangible. Cars. Smartphones. Then might speed things up by selling us cars that’ll break down in a few years, or phones that will become obsolete. But now the area of expansion is even less tangible, it’s based on experience, of going to Bermuda, eating out, or, if you are one of the most enlightened consumers, traveling to the Amazon Rain Forest to visit a shaman and try some psychedelic drug.
The working classes also benefited from this trend, he added, because a lot of new airports, hotels, tourist housing and other infrastructure have been built to support the middle class world tours. Not to mention all the digital platforms like Uber and Airbnb that helped to financialise traveling and housing sector.
He didn’t say this but I’d add that it’s an irony that the construction industry, along with the extractive industries, have at the same time become the prime support for the populist right, which claims to stand against that very cosmopolitan elite, in the name of national identity. And of course it’s that cosmopolitan class, the rich and their professional-managerial allies, that were by this mode of consumption actually spreading the virus across the globe.
In Slovenia and some other European states, the virus was spread by skiers who came from vacations in Italy and Austria. Many of them were medical doctors and other middle or upper-middle class professionals. However, the government wanted to deploy the army to prevent the migrants from entering the state in order to stop the pandemic.
Yes, they’ll blame it on migrants or the Travelers—as the Roma people are called in the UK—but not on the business travelers, certainly.
By the way, have you met Mark Fisher while you were both teaching at Goldsmiths? My editorial colleagues insisted I should ask you about Mark because his work resonates with many young intellectuals in Slovenia as well as some of our authors.
I ran into him and said hi now and then but I never got to know him. Which I now very much regret. For a long time I used to think of him as of this annoying person who managed to plagiarise most of my best ideas long before I ever came up with them (laughs).
You really do have quite a few ideas in common.
And it is surprising we came up with such similar ideas because we never discussed them.
You were both fascinated with the idea of flying cars. Or rather – why there are still no flying cars.
The Flying Car piece that I wrote for the Baffler in 2012 was originally just a drunken party rant. Bullshit Jobs too.
You probably know the feeling when you try to impress or entertain your listeners with some great idea? And the next day you don’t entirely remember it? I had a whole repertoire
Sounds familiar… But you remembered both your rants, obviously.
I rarely drink to excess.
Anyway, yes, the Flying Car. It really used to annoy me! I was a kid growing up in the sixties and we were all fascinated by the space program. I was seven years old when we landed on the Moon. We all knew what the future was supposed to be like. I was deeply disappointed that the real 2001 was nothing like 2001 we all saw in the movie. And what bothered me was … not just that it did not happen but that nobody was talking about the fact that it did not happen. Everybody acted like we actually were living in this amazing era of technological wonders. But that was simply not true!
Sure, we had doors that opened by themselves and we had the Star Trek communicators. But we certainly didn’t have the tricorders or any of the really good stuff. Where were the longevity drugs, the teleportation beams, the antigravity devices?
The car industry is trying to convince us that electric cars are something new, exciting, and fascinating. But they were first introduced more than fifty years ago.
Exactly! We were supposed to exploring the moons of Saturn by now. It is so frustrating! I wanted to write a similar piece back in 1999 but every magazine ignored my proposals. Instead, they were celebrating the beginning of a new millennium with predictable pieces that we are living in a world of unprecedented technological wonders.
It is impossible to get grants for blue-skies research any more. The system is set up to ensure there are no longer any real breakthroughs.
So you waited for more than ten years to finally publish the piece?
Well, it unfortunately remained true, and eventually I got to the point I could publish anything I wanted. So I came up with some theories about the reasons for the great technological stagnation.
The funny thing after I wrote the piece was that there were two levels of response. First were from the science buffs who regularly appeared to scold me that I know nothing about science otherwise I would not ignore all the amazing things that are going on, or were just about to appear. Flying cars have been about to appear for about sixty years now. The other group were the actual scientists, who almost invariably said: yes true! It is impossible to get grants for blue-skies research any more. The system is set up to ensure there are no longer any real breakthroughs.
This is all quite sad, actually. We teach our children to believe that things can and will get steadily better. But then… We’re always told the Enlightenment ideals that progress and technological advancement will lead to greater wisdom were all blown away in the first world war. But then we’re told they were blown away by the rise of fascism. Or Auschwitz. Or the Bomb.
Then came Chernobyl…
Yup, and all the rest of the great technological disasters of the 20th century. But notice the pattern. If it had really been erased by the First World War, then it wouldn’t have been there to get erased again by fascism. Or the bomb. Or Chernobyl. So it wasn’t really erased at all. In fact, it keeps coming back because we haven’t figured out a different story to teach our children.
Like the white lies about Father Christmas?
What are we going to say? “Sorry kid. History sucks, people are nasty, and everything is just going to get worse.” So in a way, almost out of guilt, we still pretend to believe in a better future.
This becomes a vicious cycle. Children grow up by learning this utopian version of reality that is completely untrue. Gradually they figure out how the world works and of course they’re mad as hell. They become bitter adolescents. Some then become idealistic young adults and try to change things. But when they have kids of their own they give up, redirect their idealism towards their kids and do the same thing, try to build a little bubble where they can pretend things really will improve. It’s the only way to justify the moral compromises.
In Utipia of Rules you argue that there is an entire system in charge that makes any kind of ambitious thinking impossible.
Yes, the machinery of hopelessness.
The greatest sin is to believe that you are entitled to a certain academic position just because you are actually good at teaching or research.
Totality of bureaucracy?
Bureaucracies are not places where promotion is based on merit. It’s where promotion is based on your willingness to play along with pretense that promotion is based on merit. It is very similar in the academic environment. It is not really important how smart you are. It is more important to pretend that people on the top have some reason to be there even if you – and everybody else – know that it is not the case. The greatest sin is to believe that you are entitled to a certain academic position just because you are actually good at teaching or research.
If you come from the wrong social background, especially, you will learn that yes, it is possible to be accepted as a member of the elite, but only if you are willing to act as if your greatest life aspiration is to be accepted by them—whether or not they have any actual reason to be there.
Which brings us back to Mark Fisher. He dedicated a lot of his writing to the impostor syndrome. Coming from the working class he always felt that he did not belong to the academia or to any other social group. He always felt as a fraud.
I also come from the working class but my experience is somehow different. I was brought up in a way that my parents were saying that I was the smartest person who ever lived. In retrospect it was slightly ridiculous. No one could be that gifted! So I never had an impostor syndrome in a sense that I felt I didn’t have the intellectual merit to work in the academia. But I do have an impostor syndrome constantly about not being a social adult. I am still being treated as, fine, you are smart but you are not really a grown-up. You’re not a real person. You’re just pretending. So in that sense I am constantly made to feel like a fraud and it does subtly affect your sense of yourself.
Was that also one of the reasons why you almost invented your own academic discipline?
The anarchist anthropology, you mean?
I did no such thing. My old mentor, Marshall Sahlins, was starting a pamphlet series and he knew I was involved in the Direct Action Network. He was interested in my take on how to think about anarchy from an anthropological perspective. So I wrote the essay as a hypothetical exercise, what would an “anarchist anthropology” be like, and why does it not exist. The trouble is nobody actually reads the book. They just read the title.
So, no, I’m not an anarchist anthropologist in the sense as someone could be a Marxist anthropologist. Marxism is a body of theory that exists inside anthropology. Anarchism is the body of practice and it exists within social movements. There is, in this sense, no anarchist anthropology. I mean, sure, you can do anthropology in a way that would be useful for libertarian social movements, but that’s not the same thing.
Your assistant told me that you are working on your next book. And that it is most certainly not a book about coronavirus.
Yes, it’s something I’ve been working on for a long time with my good friend David Wengrow, who is an archaeologist at University College London. We keep changing the title but for the moment it’s: The future: a 50.000 year preface.
You seem to like long prefaces.
You mean like Debt the first 5000 years? Well, yes, I suppose. This preface though is even longer, since we are trying to show that human history as typically presented is just a secularised version of the Bible. There was Eden and then there was a Fall. At first, we were all living in happy egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. That was Eden. Then we invented agriculture and everything went down the hill. We got private property and settled for the first time. And as soon as we get cities, we also get states and empires and bureaucracies and surplus extraction. Along the way we also got writing and high culture and it all came as a package, take it or leave it.
And this narrative is wrong?
This narrative is factually wrong and not even close to what really happened historically. Hunter-gatherers did not actually live exclusively or even predominantly in small egalitarian bands of twenty or thirty people. Throughout the history they seem to have gone back and forth between small groups and little micro-cities. They might formed very elaborate social structures, even sometimes police or kings, but only for a few months out of the year. They would then scatter and live in small groups. Agriculture hardly made any difference to that and early cities were actually very egalitarian.
This sounds very much like the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. He popularised the idea that moving from hunter-gatherers to agrarian society was the root of all evil.
Yeah, it is really annoying. It is not just him but he is doing an updated and funky version of what is essentially a modern day Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was probably one of the most important advocates of the romantic ideal of the noble savage. A free and pure human being that is not yet spoiled by European civilisation.
That is why Rousseau appealed to his fellow citizens to return to nature?
Indeed. I find this part of history quite fascinating. Russeau actually wrote his famous writing on the origin and basis of inequality among men as a response to a contest.
Yes, the Academie de Dijon invited the authors to write about social inequality. Rousseau incidentally did not win. But I really wanted to know why would 18th century French intellectuals assumed social inequality even had an origin. France at the time was about the most hierarchical society one could possibly imagine. Why did they assume things hadn’t always been like that?
I don’t want to give too much away but it has a lot to do with the indigenous American critique of European society, which was taken surprisingly seriously back in Europe. Maybe we had better wait for the book.
What is the scariest thing that may become normal after the pandemic?
I prefer to talk about the good things. How’s this? We have suddenly entered the zone where historical agency has re-appeared. Humanity has just received what may be a history’s greatest wake up call. It has never happened on such a scale that such a large part of the humanity stopped and said, ooops, what are we doing?
This is potentially great news since we were basically on the road to mass suicide.
How can we convince a population of moralists that the most important thing we can do right now is to stop working so much?
And the bad?
Well, the other side of that is the mass suicide itself. We were coasting towards the apocalypse convinced there was nothing we could possibly do. What scares me is that we might just say: phew, thank God this is over, now let us go back to our old lives.
We have seen that the world will not come to end if we travel less, consume less, and produce less. The world actually will come to an end, well, in anything like the form we now know it, if we don’t. How can we convince a population of moralists that the most important thing we can do right now is to stop working so much? If we don’t, we will end up very soon facing a choice between disasters that make the pandemic seem like a stroll in the park, and some kind of sci-fi solution that could possibly go terribly wrong.
Well, let’s just say there’s only one thing scarier than a Fascist that denies global warming, and that’s a Fascist that does not deny global warming. God only knows what solutions such person will come up with.
In a way, you can see what’s been happening as a trial run for the fascist solution to the kind of climate emergency that we have to expect in five or ten years if we don’t stop all this idiotic carbon production: close the borders, blame foreigners, triage the population into worthy and unworthy, normalize authoritarianism. Then they’ll try some techno-fix: seed the ocean with crystals, eco-engineer…
A few years ago I was talking with Bruno Latour and he told me he was seriously worried that it would come down to this because the only institutions large enough to operate on the scale that’d require are the US and the Chinese armies. Hopefully they would be running together and not against each other. I was talking to Steve Keen the other day and he thought that it might well be the latter, after all, if things get much warmer, large parts of East Asia will become uninhabitable, do we really expect China sit by as this happens? They’re going to just quietly evacuate their southern provinces because Americans don’t want to cut back on coal? But if they do start changing the composition of the atmosphere, they might end up putting Europe and North America back in the Ice Age. Who knows?
But despite all this … Do you still hope that humanity could listen to what may had been a history’s greatest wake up call?
Perhaps the wisest thing I’ve read on the subject was a physicist who pointed out that our real problem is we don’t acknowledge that we are part of nature ourselves. Yes, obviously, climate change is caused by human idiocy. Those who say it’s a natural phenomenon are just denying reality. That’s all true. But there have been times in the distant past, before humans were even around, when the earth’s temperature did fluctuate up and down by several degrees. If we survive long enough, maybe a hundred thousand years, and that starts to happen, well, we’ll have to do something about it, won’t we?
But if we are to be the “self-consciousness of nature” as they used to say in the nineteenth century, maybe it’s time we get politicians out of the way, because they are extremely non-self-conscious beings. Decisions like that can only be made by some sort of collective deliberation.
The good news is that experiments with citizens assemblies show that even randomly selected ordinary citizens, presented with the scientific facts, are, almost invariably, much wiser in their decision-making than their elected representatives. It is possible to make people as a mass smarter than any individual member of that mass, rather than stupider. (In a way that’s what anarchism is all about, figuring out ways to do that.) It can happen. But we’re going to have to get to work.