Whenever a Fox News pundit wants to get all blathery about young, aggressive activists, dollars to donuts they’ll start screaming “Anaaarchist!” (emphasis on the second syllable).
On the flip side, The New York Times takes a more genteel approach, labeling certain anarchist protestors as “self-described,” effectively distancing the newspaper (and its readers) from taking anything that’s said as worthy of consideration.
In the mass media playbook, the word itself inflames. It may not be used in polite company, only when characterizing someone as a malcontent, Molotov cocktail slinger, bomb thrower, or worse. Right?
Well, I did a double-take when my wife handed me the Oct. 26 of Bloomberg BusinessWeek with a Guy Fawkes/“V for Vendetta” image on the cover. I groaned, thinking it was another trash-the-movement piece guaranteed to give me a case of agita.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find a thoughtful, analytical article on the work of anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, whose book, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” has gotten him noticed on many radar screens, including some on Wall Street.
Graeber, an early muse of Occupy Wall Street, has developed credible, well-thought out theories of how money came into being and the role it’s played in the development of global societies. Graeber, an anti-Niall Ferguson of sorts, analyzes how “filthy lucre” displaced traditional forms of exchange and replaced it with a debt-based system, effectively turning bartering communities into borrowing ones, where repayment obligations became chains of enslavement.
OWS placards reading “End Debt Slavery” show Graeber’s influence. The sentiment is also in evidence at meetings of OWS subgroups, like the one on “alternative banking” which I recently attended. It was held at Columbia University, so there was the expected complement of hyper-smart professors and students. But, interestingly, some defectors from the financial services sector showed up too – even a few who were still making their livings on the Street.
One older woman preached the virtues of freedom from the money-debt-slavery equation. She works in the educational department of a megabank. There was an active duty commodities trader who wanted to expend excess energy on a movement he thought new and exciting (and one that valued his contributions). The level of knowledge regarding derivatives and mortgage-backed securities was well beyond my comprehension. Clearly these people knew their stuff. Our post-meeting homework assignment was to study the proposed Volcker Rule, chapter and verse (like it was Das Kapital) and understand why so many in the banking community want to defang it.
The intention in all this is to come up with an agenda for direct action that could be submitted to OWS’s “general assembly” for a consensus vote (you know, the finger thing). Direct action is the goal, and in this case, the action involves the development of educational tools that can be distributed, at no cost, to anyone with an Internet connection: content to include an easily digestible glossary of financial engineering terms like “derivatives,” “CDOs” “credit default swaps,” among others, and how they’ve been used to engineer the world into a financial apocalypse.
A ongoing series of subsequent meetings has explored what would constitute a truly “alternative bank”; how much could be borrowed from the current credit union, community bank and mutual models; and how to take it several steps beyond, into a future where variables like volatility and inequality would be eliminated. In this world, they’d be replaced by: democracy (customers would own the bank); accessibility (the poor would be welcomed, if not encouraged); stability (no risky casino-gambling scenarios); transparency (financial information publicly available to all); and not-for-profit (no explanation needed).
One attendee suggested we call these alternative banks “mutuals,” inspired, in part, by the economist Laurence Kotlikoff’s idea of “limited purpose banking.” (There are, in fact, nearly 600 depositor-owned banks in the United States, which call themselves mutuals.)
There’s a tangible feeling of excitement in these get-togethers; a feeling that there’s creation going on; of a new world not owing anything to the past.
I notice when viewing OWS websites, there’s been an uptick of subgroups composed of ex-megabank employees. I suspect that some may be active duty, clandestinely signing on. Perhaps they’re evincing feelings of resentment towards an industry whose cachet has been seriously diminished. Maybe it’s a personal crisis of conscience, a rebellion against the compartmentalization of life and work, and an expression of a real need to find communal satisfaction in working with others to elevate the general level of human happiness. Time will tell.
I know the usual naysayers will nay say until they are blue in the face about changing the so-called system. “It will never happen, never will, so let’s wait for things to settle down and go back to business as usual.” These folks, I’d venture to say, may be exhibiting a fundamental crisis of imagination.
I remember an elderly immigrant anarchist reminded me (when I was naysaying) that if you were to tell a 14th century European serf, that some time in the next few hundred years, they’d actually have the ability to cast a vote that mattered, no doubt you’d be met with a blank stare. The thought just wouldn’t compute.
It may be a stealth movement for now, but I predict that OWS’s work in the area of alternative banking may find more and more receptivity in the financial services community, particularly among those younger employees. Graeber’s ideas may, indeed, find fertile ground. It just takes a bit of imagination.
Joel Sucher, a filmmaker with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. is working on "Foreclosure Diaries," a documentary about the financial crisis.