“[A] great embarrassing fact… haunts all attempts to represent the market as the highest form of human freedom: that historically, impersonal, commercial markets originate in theft.”
― David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
David Graeber was once a colleague and friend of mine. We labored together for a short time in a converted house on the campus of Yale University, he upstairs and I downstairs. We agreed about basically everything. He was attacking the problems of our economy through a hard left critique that combined social activism with historical and cross-cultural research. My approach was more post-modern; I wanted to describe our own surreal world more than paint the direction for a movement. He became famous, and I didn’t.
Now I’m engaged in a dangerous business that involved and involves economic theft, an original theft that made possible growing surpluses for speculators. To me it is a subtle and humorous irony that one day, while walking through campus together, I asked David a question that was bothering me: “How do you justify working here while you take the political positions you do?” He replied that he broke his life into two: an anarchist in New York and academic in New Haven. Moreover, he said that the pleasant conditions of our labor should be universalized. So, it was by his utopian hope that he could justify his fragmented existence.
The answer didn’t satisfy me. I was very clear that whoever holds the power at the “Yale Corporation” and elsewhere have no intention of sharing the spoils of their larceny. Of course, David knows this even better than me, I suppose.
My engagement in speculation provides a clear case of the old saw, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” I did so not under duress; I recognized that one way or another we pay for our existence in the current system with some kind of ideological or moral sacrifice– one’s pound of flesh. Has David theorized this fact of our lives as he takes a fine salary from the London School of Economics or some such place? His fine salary is produced in part through university endowments, which invest directly in the market. In other words, David can avoid the dirty work as he pushes theories of debt, money, community, and virtue. Call it a sell out; call it hypocritical; call it typical.
I am a little testy about this because I meet people in Seattle regularly who share our political assumptions. However, my choice of post-academic vocations does not elevate my status to the realm of the helpful and virtuous. It is something of a scandal; in conversation, people look away and mumble, and the conversations often change tone. So, I try not to speak of it casually.
Although I know my position is as hypocritical as David’s (and any other successful academic or individual), I continue to share David’s spit subjectivity– only instead of a geographical split, my split is marked by time as much as location. During trading hours I’m a capitalist: away from the market, I’m a lefty through and through in the blue utopia of Seattle, Washington– USA.