Meet the Man Behind Occupy Wall Street

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — When he’s not busy brainstorming how to tear apart and rebuild America’s democratic system, David Graeber prefers to think about simpler things, like why we still don’t have flying cars.

Graeber, a professor at the University of London and a widely respected anthropologist, has achieved a new level of fame in recent weeks for his early influence on the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York City and have since spread around the world. The Wall Street Journal declared Graeber to be “the single academic who has done the most to shape the nascent movement,” while Bloomberg Businessweek declared him to be the “anti-leader” of Occupy Wall Street who generally abstains from the limelight even as his writings, including a new book on the history of debt and the influence of money, serve as an “intellectual frame” for the protesters.

Indeed, when MainStreet managed to reach Graeber by phone, his focus was light-years away from the protests, as he was busy working on an article about his disappointment that the world doesn’t yet have technology like flying cars, robots and other futuristic technology that one might have hoped would exist by the 21st century. As Graeber puts it, “I have arrived at a point where I can write about whatever I want.”

Flying cars probably aren’t the future that protesters are marching for around the world, but then again few can say for sure precisely what the demands of each protester in Manhattan and Oakland and Rome actually are, not even Graeber, who is based in London and shuttles between protests on a fairly regular basis.

“I’m really a conduit, it’s not my ideas,” he says before going on to explain just how much his ideas are engrained in the movement. Graeber, a long-time anarchist, joined the protests in the very beginning on a whim and quickly set it on a new course to make government less corrupt. If there is an endgame to the protests, he says it’s to “delegitimize” the current political system in order to make way for the kind of radical change that would create a more open and fair democracy unshackled by the interests of big money. Still, to imply the protest is a means to an end misses much of what Graeber considers to be the big point of the movement today.

“I think that our political structures are corrupt and we need to really think about what a democratic society would be like. People are learning how to do it now,” Graeber says. “This is more than a protest, it’s a camp to debate an alternative civilization.”

In this interview, Graeber tells MainStreet how he overhauled the message of Occupy Wall Street, why he wants to keep the list of demands as broad as possible and what he would say to those politicians who want to use the protests to their advantage.

MainStreet: How did you first get involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Graeber: I happened to be in the right place at the right time. There was a meeting on Aug. 2 for a general assembly to plan the Occupy Wall Street action based on an idea thrown out by Adbusters. Me and some friends showed up at this movement and sure enough there was a workers rally and we thought it was stupid. We said, ‘Let’s not play along, let’s see if we can have a real general assembly.’ So we started tapping people on the shoulder asking if they wanted to do a real general assembly and my friend jumped on stage saying we need to have a real general assembly and they chased her off. There was a tug-of-war, eventually we formed a circle, but it was back and forth and finally after a couple hours we managed to bring everyone away from their meeting into our meeting.

At that point, we decided on working by consensus process and we formed working groups and we decided to meet regularly afterwards. Then a couple days later we came up with the idea to call ourselves the 99% movement. I remember being the first to suggest this and was definitely the first to put it out on a list, though it was probably floating around at the time. That was really my key involvement.

MS: What was the movement like before you took control of it that day in terms of its goals and strategy?

Graeber: I think the coalition showed up on Aug. 2 and said they would do a rally and then show up on Wall Street with a list of demands that were total boiler plate – a massive jobs program, an end to oppression, money for us not for whatever. They were nice people, but it wasn’t very radical, just the usual demands.

Adbusters, when they originally threw the idea out there, they were basically marketing guys who changed sides. They thought like marketers and one of their schticks was to come up with one single demand. That makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective, but it doesn’t make sense from an organizing perspective. You need to organize people around a list of grievances.