David Graeber, the anarchist who powered the Occupy movement with intellectual rocket fuel, has died before his time. One of the last polymath public intellectuals, he joined the dots between anthropology, economics, politics, social science and history. The truths he revealed were devastatingly obvious, but had gone unnoticed. His most popular work, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), questioned a central assumption of economics — that money was invented to formalise barter. He pointed out that barter required only mutual satisfaction, not the exactitude of money. Instead, he suggested, money was created to quantify debt — what people in ancient cultures owed to the temple and the royal treasury, which was carefully calibrated and recorded.
In the beginning, there was debt, and it remains the prime mover. Every instrument in banking, including the credit card in your wallet, is an expression of debt. Debt derivatives brought down Wall Street, and sparked off the public unrest which culminated in the Occupy Wall Street movement — the first instance of anarchism in the US after it forged a global compact, following the collapse of the USSR. Graeber is believed to have coined the movement’s slogan: “We are the 99 per cent.”
Though he produced numerous papers with colourful titles, lay readers will remember him for his books on the false virtue of meaningless hard work, the surge in work brought on by machines, which had been expected to eliminate it, and the urgent need for universal basic income. Was Graeber an anarchist prophet? It doesn’t matter. It is not necessary for the anarchist to be always right. His function is to ring the alarm bell when something is disastrously wrong.