Back on September 10th, David Graeber, a lecturer in anthropology at Goldsmiths College, and the author of several books, including his latest, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (published in July), talked to Max Keiser about the relationship between money and debt, and what he sees as historical shifts from credit systems to cash systems and back again.
Graeber claims that this current “virtual money” credit era, which began about forty years ago, is not radically new, and only different in that during former times there were periodic debt jubilees. That in today’s system, without such regular debt cancellation, there is no safeguard against an otherwise inevitable descent into a debt trap.
And Graeber believes that the banking crash of 2008 has radically altered many people’s perspectives on money. He told Keiser that the world isn’t short of smarter ideas for economic alternatives, which is one of the reasons he remains optimistic about what’s now happening in Europe and elsewhere:
“I mean what we have in Greece, what we have in Spain, and it’s beginning to spread to other countries. The way I like to think of it is – I think in 2008 they kinda let the cat out of the bag. You know, for all these years they’ve been saying that markets run themselves and the people in charge, they know what they’re doing – they might not be very nice people but they’re incredibly competent. In fact they’re the only people who know how to run an economy.
And of course we were also told debts are sacred and have to be repaid. What we learned with the crash was that none of those things were true. People had no idea what they were doing; they did get bailed out; the markets didn’t run themselves.
So once we understand that money is actually a political arrangement – it’s a social set of promises that people make to one another – well, if trillions of dollars worth of debt can be made to disappear, if that’s convenient for the big players, then I think what people are saying is: well, alright fine, if those are the new terms that makes sense, but if democracy is going to mean anything now, it’s means everybody gets to weigh in on how promises are made and how they’re renegotiated. And that’s what people are calling for and demanding and I think it’s very promising for a sort of new political movement.”
Graeber has been personally involved in organising the “Occupy Wall Street” protest, as he explained on yesterday’s Democracy Now!
And with regards to precedents for debt cancellation, Graeber says:
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.
Click here to read earlier posts on the #occupywallstreet protests.