Daniel Lemire's blog

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The irony of “we are the 99 percent”

David Graeber is credited as the true organizer of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a widely reported month-long demonstration against capitalism. He has also been credited the phrase “We are the 99 percent”. I have reviewed his insightful book on the history of debt and money on this blog shortly after it came out.

Like Graeber, I am upset that our governments bail out the financial sector. Bankers think that the world owe them great salaries without any possible risk that they might lose their jobs. This is the 1% that Graeber was denouncing: people who believe that they are owed great things.

But though I liked Graeber, it soon became clear that Graeber can be harsh! When Venkatesh Rao wrote a review of his book, here is how Graeber answered: A book is only as good as its readers. In effect, if you don’t like his book, you are not good. Oh! Oh!

By itself, such remarks should not be taken as an indication that Graeber is a difficult or unfair person. It is not uncommon, or even particularly unhealthy, to have a big ego as a scholar. I would say that it is almost required.

However, more recently, Graeber publicly complained about his so-called academic exile. Indeed, following a denial of his tenure at Yale, American and Canadian colleges did not approach David Graeber with a job offer. He sent out 17 job applications and got no interview! So he had to settle for a professorship at the London School of Economics with a salary that surely puts him in the top 1%. These are his exact words:

It’s not just that I didn’t get a job. 17 applications and no offer could have just been a run of bad luck, after all. The remarkable thing is that at not one of those 17 places was I even formally considered.

I do understand that the academic job market is bad. It is, to tell the truth, rather horrible, especially in the humanities. Simply put, we train too many PhDs. Places like Yale can find dozens of great anthropologists, as deserving as Graeber. In fact, if you look at the web site of the anthropology department at Yale, you will find that half of the professors are assistant (non-tenured) professors. This means that the job market is such that Yale can afford to hire assistant professors, keep them for the duration of their contract and then let most of them go.

Graeber had better luck abroad than in the US. This can be frustrating, but it is hardly uncommon. Scholars move around quite a bit: just go to your local college and listen to the professors. Many of them are foreigners. Having to move to a different country is par for the course if you want to be an academic scholar. Yes: sometimes your ideas are better received elsewhere.

Is he being shunned in the US because of his political views? It is possible. But before one starts imagining that capitalists are having anti-capitalists shunned from American colleges, one has to realize that American colleges are overwhelmingly leftist, especially in the humanities. And hiring decisions are made by other academics, not bankers.

Graeber did get seven years as a professor in an Ivy League American school. Isn’t it fair for others to get this chance as well? I would think that a fairer system is one where, after you had a good run in academia, you have to leave your place to others so that they, too, can write books and promote their ideas.

A fairer system would be also one where you are not allowed to limit yourself to the top schools: you have to offer your services to lesser colleges (often attended by poorer students). In fact, maybe the Yale professors should have to move to second-rate colleges after 7 years. This would be fairer, wouldn’t it? It would expose poorer students to more prestigious professors and I am sure it would help reduce inequalities.

Graeber answered: “I certainly thought of applying to working-class universities (…) Everyone told me don’t bother (…) they wouldn’t even look at me.”

A man who genuinely wants to teach working-class kids would apply for jobs at public colleges irrespective of what his friends tell him. He would not give the impression that he is too good for such a college. He would use the full force of his charisma to convince public colleges to give him a chance.

But Graeber is a man who wants to be part of the elite. He wants to teach to the children of the 1%, to the children of the bankers. And this is also the man behind “we are the 99 percent”. It smells of cognitive dissonance.

Of the participants of Occupy Wall Street, very few can afford to have Graeber as a professor because he will only work in top schools. How is that fair?

Credit: Thanks to Seb Paquet for a pointer to this story. Thanks to William Tozier for giving me Graeber’s book.