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Convoys, Capitalism, and Cancelling Debt: A Conversation with David Graeber 

We had lunch with the late author of Bullshit Jobs and the guy who coined "We are the 99%"

by Sean Orr

I chose to meet David in a little hole-in-the-wall cafe called Cottage Deli in the heart of Vancouver’s rapidly gentrifying (and re-gentrifying) neighbourhood of Gastown. It’s the kind of place that shouldn’t exist- handwritten menu items, a few scattered chairs, boxes of unopened product on the floor, a few faded pictures of Greece on the walls. I think David will appreciate it, or he might be nonplussed, after all there’s no ethical consumption in capitalism right? He’s late. I’m nervous. I order a Reuben and a chicken noodle soup and sit upstairs to take in the view of the bustling port. 

David finally shows up, orders a coffee and a sandwich, and sits down. He’s flustered, or maybe he just always looks like this. He kind of has the vibe of someone who has been charged twice for something on his credit card. His hair is tousled and unkempt. He pauses to take in the view as though he just realized where he was, “great place” he says and I feel vindicated already. 

He apologizes for being late, cursing the Canadian trucker convoy for holding up traffic. “I mean most of them aren’t even real truckers, right? And even if they are, they’re owner-operators. This is a petite bourgeoisie movement framing themselves as working class. They have no real ideology. It’s a reactionary and fleeting tantrum whose only aim is to unite behind some common enemy, create chaos, force government to crackdown, then yell “help, help, I’m being repressed”. 

He stops to see if I’ll get the Monty Python reference. I do. His giggle is a kind of nerdy chortle that is really endearing. The old Greek owner proudly puts my sandwich down on a paper plate. David’s eyes light up. He says it reminds him of the old Jewish delis of his youth, and orders one with extra pickles. 

“Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, the slow creep of fascism and the guise of the working class as it seeks to reinforce the necrocaptialist death cult and therefore the elites that it purportedly is against. This will be good for the state, and it will be good for the far right who get to be oppressed, and the the left will be forced to hold the bag as these guys retreat to the oil patch and their comfy suburban lifestyles. But even the poor people that get tricked into supporting them- they aren’t bad people but they don’t see themselves as poor. As Steinbeck said echoing Max Weber, they’re just temporarily embarrassed millionaires”. 

I want to mention a song lyric of mine, “The greatest coup they ever pulled was to convince the working class that they’re not working class at all” but I don’t. Instead I ask if he sees any parallels with his involvement in Occupy. He seems annoyed at first, but then collects his thoughts. “Well I mean in a way, both are reactions to the failures of neoliberalism and austerity politics. I mean, I grew up with Reagan and Thatcher. My parents were working class trade unionists, so we saw the hollowing out of institutions. We saw the decoupling of wages from productivity”.

His sandwich arrives but he’s on a roll now. 

“In many ways Occupy was almost a conservative movement, As Chris Hedges said, we wanted a return to the original social contract that capitalism promised, not a return to business as normal. But that’s what happened. Not that Occupy was a failure, I think in many ways it ignited a class consciousness that we hadn’t seen in a very long time. I mean, look at the popularity of Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and AOC. Look at Teen Vogue for crying out loud! We are talking about Green New Deals, and cancelling student debt on mainstream media. Socialism is no longer this bogeyman”. 

“But it’s not the revolution of the proletariat that Marx predicted”. 

“Well Marx never really understood debt, even though it existed long before his time. Same with the expansion of the managerial classes. These two things solved a lot of the internal contradictions of capitalism. I wonder how much personal debt those truckers have, but would never think of it as a bad thing. I mean, look at Trump, bankruptcy is a badge of honour, it means he knows to game the system. Government debt on the other hand is some reprehensible act”. 

I cut him off. “How has the pandemic changed that?”

“Well, we see that it’s possible. Governments can go into debt if they want to. There was this brief moment that capitalism might have figured something out. All these bullshit jobs are suddenly exposed. People working from home became much more productive when not hounded by some bonus-seeking middle manager. We started banging pots and pans for frontline workers. We started mutual aid groups on Facebook. Started bartering. We forced governments to freeze rents and evictions. I mean yes, Bezos got even richer and now they are, like crazed feudal despots having a race to space where they are planning their escape from both climate change and the peasant hordes, but it looked promising”.

“In a Keynesian, social safety net sense or in the horizontal, non-hierarchical, anti-statist, anti authoritarian, and decentralized popular movements that sprung up, like with CHOP in Seattle?”

Well both I suppose. They’ll give you some concessions, like CERB or UBI or whatever, but more and more we see people rejecting these carrots in favour of real, systemic change. A real re-distribution of wealth. What’s the graffiti I saw down the street? ‘LAND BACK”. That’s where we win. Defund the police. That sort of thing. It’s hopeful. Your own tent cities here in Vancouver and the Drug User Liberation Front handing out clean cocaine and heroin, the peer support networks that have sprung up, and the tenant organizing- all of it seeks to say “We know the state has one goal, the preservation of resource extraction, the maximization of profit, and the violence necessary to protect the propertied elite, so we will take care of ourselves”. 

“I guess that kind of shows that the invisible hand isn’t that invisible” I blurted out, thinking I sound very smart.  

“It never was. The idea that money was somehow this natural thing that arose from bartering and independent from the state is Adam Smith’s biggest mistake. Even in Sumeria, debt was paid with peonage.  Money has always been a product of state sponsored violence. If we economists had an imagination, if they weren’t stuck teaching the same Mankiw text, if they weren’t so obsessed with turning it into some fundamental laws of nature like physics, they’d see that money, specifically debt, is a moral concern”.

Like Usury?

“Exactly. If we can magically erase 93% of Nazi debt to prevent a reparations type of resentment, then we can probaby erase all of the developing world’s debt to the IMF”. 

Similar to how mortgages are bought and sold on the stock market.

“Well, mortgages are a tricky thing because they prop up this massive bubble where house prices can’t go down so you hear politicians come up with these innovative ideas for first time home buyers and rent banks and stuff. They’d rather you go into further debt than bring house prices down”. 

And inflation?

“Economists need to stop obsessing over inflation”. 

David, you haven’t touched your sandwich.