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.

Daniel Lemire, "The irony of “we are the 99 percent”," in Daniel Lemire's blog, April 17, 2013.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

17 thoughts on “The irony of “we are the 99 percent””

  1. Most professors are liberal about things which do not affect them and extremely conservative about those things which do. Which may be the right thing to be when involved in a system where the number of good jobs is decreasing over time, but it is, I think, an accurate statement that most departments would look askance at political activism, while claiming never to do such a thing.

  2. Interviewer: So Mr. Graeber, you say bankers are wrong to feel entitled to a good job, but academics are not?

    Graeber: First of all, its DOCTOR Graeber, thank you very much. And yes, bankers are wrong to feel entitled but academics are not.

  3. Graeber is a major anthropologist whose work has received praise for its groundbreaking quality throughout his career.

    He has made important contributions to his field, and has written books that are broadly influential, and he has considerable teaching experience at major universities. it is ludicrously shallow to explain away his trouble in finding work with the glib ‘there’s too many phds out there’ argument when the truth is that Yale probably cannot find another Anthropologist as talented as Graeber.

    Furthermore, his work with OWS and earlier anti-globalization movements is undeniable. Now that OWS is passed he has been one of the strongest voices in providing deep analysis of that movement’s failings. When I’ve seen or read him interviewed, he’s been very humble about his role in the movement and was always willing to share or pass credit for aspects of the movement on to those who deserved it.

    Graeber never complained about having to “settle” for working in London, nor did he state he’s above working at a ‘working-class college’. You’re willingness to project those attitudes onto him, though, read more as the bitter envy of someone without his resume in academia or in direct action activism.

  4. He’s right. Teaching universities would not actually interview him. He’s obviously interested in research, not teaching, and there are hundreds of candidates who are wholly interested in teaching. So he would stand no chance.

    As for banking, the problem isn’t just that bankers don’t lose their jobs. It’s worse than that: even if they did, they still make enough money through bonuses that losing their jobs is not actually a penalty. They would have to lose their bonuses retroactively.

  5. @plam

    He’s right. Teaching universities would not actually interview him.

    There is at least a hundred state colleges in the US where professors do leading edge research. One of the key differences for these professors is that they also usually teach to kids who are not part of the 1%.

  6. @Gregg Weston

    he’s been very humble

    I would not describe Graeber as humble. This man has an ego larger than my house. I’m not particularly humble myself, by the way.

  7. Still don’t agree. Any sign that he would be appearing to be “settling” for something would instantly doom his application. This is because there are also hundreds of candidates who are not prominent scholars for the tens of jobs that do come up at non-elite colleges, and the colleges would think that those candidates wouldn’t be ready to leave when a research job came along.

  8. @plam

    The story we have is this one…

    1. I applied for a job at the elite colleges to teach to the 1% and they weren’t interested so I went to teach to the British elite…

    … and not this one…

    2. I applied to hundreds of public colleges because I genuinely want to make a difference in the life of regular kids who can’t afford Yale… alas none of these hundreds of colleges even wanted to see me…

    Story 2 is incompatible with a guy who complains that no elite school approached him after he was denied tenure at Yale. You are totally right that most departments would be very worried about recruiting such a diva… because it is inconsistent with a guy who wants to teach to working-class kids.

    But that is ironic coming from the guy behind “we are the 99%”.

    This is not a man who wants an egalitarian society. This is a man who wants to be part of the elite.

  9. Humanities are not sciences… Also economics is a joke most of the time, so I dont bother listening to those crackpots…
    @ Daniel – it is sad that you consider that clown even in your own league… You actually do things that make things happen… he sells his BS to dumb masses.
    If somebody thinks im too harsh :
    “completed his Ph.D. thesis on magic, slavery, and politics in Madagascar.”

  10. @Ivan

    I think his work on Madagascar is maybe less silly than it sounds. If I recall, it is all about how the British Empire managed to submit a people using currency.

    I do share many of his views. For example, I also think that the fact that governments enforce a unique currency through a central bank is tool of oppression. I don’t think governments should be given a monopoly on the currency of the land.

    I don’t have a problem at all with the man except that there is a marked contrast between his advocacy of an egalitarian society and his diva status.

  11. @Daniel
    Im libertarian(thought Schiff link would say so without me saying it explicitly 🙂 ) so no need to mention force and government. For example I think bitcoin is innovation 1000x bigger than iTunes because it provides gold standard without the cost of mining minting and guarding gold, but banksters and statists will do everything to kill it off, because their profits/power are powered by current monetary system

    Regarding our dear anthropologist friend he might call him self a anarchist, pope, or alien wizard, but his work is pure liberal BS(he supports organization that “The IWW promotes the concept of “One Big Union,” contends that all workers should be united as a social class and that capitalism and wage labor should be abolished.”)- Im seriously surprised that you cant see that, when I hear words like inequality, 99% my pattern matching subsystem works very easy. 😀
    BTW if you want a good book about what social sciences should be covering if they werent pseudosciences:
    Ofc liberals will call you racist for reading it so be careful. 😛 After all you work in the university so you know if you are edgy you are expected to like Graeber, if you arent edgy you are supposed to talk all day how poor Obama is fighting for 99%, but those evil evil white privileged ppl/NRA/Republicans/bankers/Christians/conservatives/weather are stopping him.
    P.S. regarding 99%:
    “The problems we face today are there because the people who work hard for a living are now vastly outnumbered by those who vote for a living. ”
    Marc Faber, PhD

  12. P.S.
    wanting to be part of the elite is not bad, I would like to be rich and successful, I just dont want to become that by stealing and breaking the law. I want equal rights, but I dont see rights as outcomes as liberals do. Wanting to be good and better than others is not evil… if it is them Im evil.

  13. I hate the argument that you can’t criticize a system you’re part of. Graeber can desire a systematic change where the poor would have equal access to top universities while not being expected to resign his position and give free lectures in the streets. Somebody can be both exceedingly rich and advocate for fairer wealth distribution. Google can file patents while still calling for patent reform.

    Systematic and individual changes are very different things. If Graeber works at a community college, that makes a negligible impact on social inequality. Warren Buffet voluntarily paying a higher tax rate has a miniscule impact on government revenue compared with the top tax rate actually being raised.

    Your claim that wanting to teach at an elite school means you want to teach the children of bankers strikes me as a slightly bizarre view of who attends top universities, but even if we take that at face value, what better group to promote social equality to than the children of bankers?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may subscribe to this blog by email.