Towards an economy that works for us

We are now living in an age of total bureaucracy says David Graeber, anthropologist and leading figure in the Occupy movement, speaking at the RSA last week. There is now a web of planetary organisations including global corporations, NGOs, institutions like the IMF and Workd Bank which has merged into a single web-like bureaucracy.  

Bureaucratic institutions are really about limiting imagination, implying that there is simply no alternative to the global capitalism system.

This has profound consequences, he believes. Take the Liberal Democrats volte face in 2010. Graeber points out the LibDems promised free education before they ended up in the coalition government, but subsequently backed tuition fees. The argument was that we had to raise the money because we owed money and the bond-holders wouldn’t trust us if we defaulted on our loans. So rather than break a promise to international financiers which might mean they wouldn’t lend in the future, the LibDems broke a promise to the electorate which might mean they wouldn’t vote in the future. “They would rather break democracy than break the financial system.” 

So what’s to be done?

Graeber believes there are three things that need to happen.

First, develop true democracy. His time with the Occupy movement taught him just how threatened the global bureaucracy is with groups congregating, discussing and making decision. Very challenged. Changed laws anything to stop free association.

Second, return to valuing real work, rather than “bullshit jobs“. Capitalism is supposed to remove non-productive jobs, but this simply hasn’t happened, Graeber argues. What has happened is a redefining of work as good in and of itself. “The more pointless and unrewarding your job, the more like a ‘real’ job it is.”

People are complaining that robots will replace work, he says. “If ever there was a sign that an economy is stupidly organised.”

Third, start forgiving debt. Debt has achieved a sanctity which puts it above democracy and humanity. 

He also spoke about what he called the “war on imagination”. 

Old fashioned bureaucracies were good at creating eccentrics, he said – the Manhattan Project was full of them. “Modern bureaucracies can’t tolerate them” he says, and that’s the reason our rate of invention of genuinely significant innovations has fallen so dramatically and hence why economic growth is so lacklustre. 

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