This week's Big Questions: Where does Occupy go from here? Should Thatcher have been given such a grand funeral?

This week's questions are answered by antropologist and social activist, David Graeber

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The Independent Online

How much has Occupy changed the global political landscape?

That depends on how you define Occupy. If you see it as a single revolutionary movement starting with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, then carrying through to Greece and Spain, then finally exploding when it hit America ... well, then I think you can even speak of a world revolutionary moment in many ways parallel to the world revolutions of 1848 and 1968. Everything has changed. And as in those cases, we won’t know what’s really changed for some time yet.

In the US, we managed to put the issue of social class, and not just social class, but class power, back on the political agenda. No one’s managed to do that in the US since the Great Depression. I’m also convinced that if it wasn’t for Occupy, we would probably have a President Romney. Back when he was planning his campaign, he was doing so on the assumption that most Americans would take the fact that he was a Wall Street executive as a positive.


Was there anything the Occupy movement should have done differently?

In the US at least, there was a real problem with passing on the wisdom of past generations. Since the 1970s, anarchists, radical feminists and other anti-authoritarians have placed enormous energies into creating forms of democratic process. The problem was that, now that our great moment arrived to try these out on a larger scale, a lot of that wisdom had been lost.

Many old activists were burnt out, and the young people had to invent everything from scratch. The other big mistake (again, I really know only about what happened in the US) was a naive faith in our liberal allies. Mainly they were trying to co-opt us, turn us into a left-wing version of the Tea Party. We had no intention of doing that.


Where does Occupy go from here?

We have so many campaigns going on simultaneously it’s hard to count them all. In much of the US, the main energy is around anti-eviction campaigns. In New York, we have some remarkable campaigns like Occupy Farms, but the real energy, I think, has been in Occupy Sandy. We had 40,000 people, I think, registered for relief efforts there at its height – where we showed up long before the city or federal government to organise relief after the hurricane – and the Strike Debt campaign.

There are all sorts of fun campaigns but in a larger sense, we’re trying to consolidate our democratic culture. As with Sandy, we want to be the ones who are quickest to provide practical solutions when things start breaking down, before the radical right gets in there, as we all know they will.


You coined the phrase “We are the 99 per cent”. How worried should the 1 per cent be?

Well, I was part of the team that came up with it, yes. In the short run, not so worried. They basically own the political system and all political parties, which no longer resembles democracy in any meaningful sense of the term. Almost all new wealth continues to flow upwards. In the longer run, I think they should be – and are – quite worried indeed.

Look at the panic reaction to Occupy. Clearly they are very scared at the idea that people are starting to figure out what they’re up to, how the system works. Add to that the fact that current financial, not to mention ecological, arrangements are clearly unsustainable, and I think the wisest among them (and granted that isn’t a huge proportion, maybe 5 per cent) are very near to desperate. I’ve had people at the IMF and Federal Reserve seeking my advice. If these guys are talking to me, you know they’re in trouble!


Should Margaret Thatcher have been accorded a funeral on such a grand scale?

There was a petition someone put out demanding the privatisation of Thatcher’s funeral. Considering her legacy it seemed only appropriate. I tried to sign but it had been closed out in 24 hours because they’d already reached 33,000 signatures. But that pretty much sums up my feelings about the matter.


How much is the Labour lead in the polls down to Ed Miliband?

Considering we’re in triple-dip recession right now, and the Government insists on continuing austerity when even the IMF – I mean, the IMF, for crying out loud! – is telling them they’re overdoing it, it’s amazing it took this long. The problem is the permissible opposition is hardly different. My anarchist friends like to joke at Labour marches that the chant should be “More lubrication!”.

It’s especially ironic now that the entire intellectual basis of austerity lies in shambles. It turns out that the former IMF economist who made the endlessly cited argument that too much debt always stops growth got his numbers wrong and it was never really true. The amazing thing is that both sides nonetheless cleave to this ridiculous moral drama basically about sin and penance – even though it is increasingly clear it has nothing to do with economic reality at all.


How worried should we be by reports of mounting Chinese debt?

The Chinese banking system is entirely differently organised. Euro-American governments have abandoned most of the mechanisms we had, after the Second World War, to control the financial sector – not to mention to stimulate the economy through infrastructure investment and the like.

There are clearly lots of shenanigans going on there. But the Chinese government still has all those mechanisms in place. There are dozens of ways they could probably fix the problem, up to and including doing the sorts of things we never do, which is, if there’s criminal activity, hauling the criminals off to jail.

David Graeber is an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. His ‘The Democracy Project’ is published by Allen Lane