David Graeber on death by bureaucracy: “If we had a basic income, we wouldn’t need to decide who needs food and who doesn’t.”

Who are all these people — and this goes for private bureaucracies as well as public ones — sitting around watching you, telling you what your work is worth, what you’re worth, basically employing thousands of people to make us feel bad about ourselves. Just get rid of those people; just give everybody some money, and I think everyone will be much better off.

Occupy Wall Street activist and professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics David Graeber, in an interview with PBS correspondent Paul Simon, discussing a proposal from American conservatives to eliminate government welfare programs by providing every citizen with a guaranteed $11,000 annual income.

TL;DR: He thinks it’s a good idea, and harshly criticizes the American left for their lack of a similar proposal.

The entire interview is worth a read, maybe even twice. It’s brilliant for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it lays bare the utterly ridiculous political binary of left versus right. More personally, for me, it’s directly relevant to my life in an extremely profound way:

I think [a guaranteed basic citizen’s income would be] great. It’s an acknowledgement that nobody else has the right to tell you what you can best contribute to the world, and it’s based on a certain faith — that people want to contribute something to the world, most people do. I’m sure there are a few people who would be parasites, but most people actually want to do something; they want to feel that they have contributed something to the society around them.

The problem is that we have this gigantic apparatus that presumes to tell people who’s worthy, who’s not, what people should be doing, what they shouldn’t. They’re all about assessing value, but in fact, the whole system fell apart in 2008 because nobody really knows how to do it. We don’t really know how to assess the value of people’s work, of people’s contributions, of people themselves, and philosophically, that makes sense; there is no easy way to do it. So the best thing to do is just to say, alright, everyone go out and you decide for yourselves.

Over the past three years, I have somewhat famously been “living without a job,” writing free software for good people as I travel around the country as best I can manage. From afar, I probably look a perfect embodiment of the stereotypical parasite. I’m even personally familiar with screams of “Get a job, hippie!” shouted at me from speeding cars while I was hitchhiking through Wyoming. That’s a fun story.

And, yet, I get pitched job opportunities like these on an almost daily basis:

Hello, […] I am a recruiter with the Computer Merchant, LTD.

I am contacting you because your resume looks outstanding for a position with a prestigious client for which we are currently sourcing. Our consultants benefit from a wide range of contract, contract to hire and full-time employment within some of the nation’s most admired companies. Employees within our organization benefit from employment retention, weekly direct deposit, health and dental benefits, 401K, short and long term disabilities, along with referral bonuses. Below is an opportunity that will be of interest to your career development.

Or I get “suggestions” from people to sell the free software I wrote when I provide free support for said free software. Obviously, I declined both the job interview invitation and the suggestion to sell the free software I wrote.

It’s not complicated to understand why, and Graeber explains it better than I ever did:

If we want to have markets, we have to give everybody an equal chance to get into them, or else they don’t work as a means of social liberation; they operate as a means of enslavement.


Throughout most of recorded history, the only people who actually did wage labor were slaves. It was a way of renting your slave to someone else; they got half the money, and the rest of the money went to the master. Even in the South, a lot of slaves actually worked in jobs and they just had to pay the profits to the guy who owned them. It’s only now that we think of wage labor and slavery as opposite to one another. For a lot of history, they were considered kind of variations of the same thing.

Abraham Lincoln famously said the reason why we have a democratic society in America is we don’t have a permanent class of wage laborers. He thought that wage labor was something you pass through in your 20s and 30s when you’re accumulating enough money to set up on your own; so the idea was everyone will eventually be self-employed.


Philosophically, I think that it’s really important to bear in mind two things. One is it’ll show people that you don’t have to force people to work, to want to contribute. It’s not that people resist work. People resist meaningless work; people resist stupid work; and people resist humiliating work.

But I always talk about prisons, where people are fed, clothed, they’ve got shelter; they could just sit around all day. But actually, they use work as a way of rewarding them. You know, if you don’t behave yourself, we won’t let you work in the prison laundry. I mean, people want to work. Nobody just wants to sit around, it’s boring.

So the first misconception we have is this idea that people are just lazy, and if they’re given a certain amount of minimal income, they just won’t do anything. Probably there’s a few people like that, but for the vast majority, it will free them to do the kind of work that they think is meaningful. The question is, are most people smart enough to know what they have to contribute to the world? I think most of them are.

This is very similar to what I have been saying for many years before I started reading Graeber’s writings. “Just let people do what they want,” I’d say, “and everything that’s important would get done.” I’m so excited to see this idea that jobs are not useful things finally becoming a bit more popular. “Jobs” are and always have been antithetical to liberating “work.”

But in the mean time, I still stress over being able to afford food. And I have a relatively easy time of things, by many comparisons. So there’s one more thing, one more piece to the puzzle that I didn’t talk about as much in my explanation of how I’ve managed to live without a job for the last three years.

In a word, it’s this: I cheat. The rules say one thing, I do something else. Government rules say you have to apply to jobs to keep getting unemployment, which I was but am no longer receiving after leaving San Francisco. So I “applied,” and somehow never got called back for interviews. Huh, wonder why? Same thing for food stamps, which I also applied for. Actually, in that case, they told me I had to apply to a mandatory job program by calling a number, so I tried calling every other day for two weeks and never got through, and then they cut off my food stamps benefits because I had failed to apply for the job program. *headdesk.*

I used every skill at my disposal, including Cyberbusking.org donations, government programs, and personal relationships with friends, lovers, and family.

That’s what survival is about. It’s not about following rules, it’s about doing whatever the fuck you need to do to stay alive. Because if you go back to following the rules of this system, you’re already dead. As Graeber puts it:

In huge bureaucracies, there are so many conditionalities attached to everything they give out, there’s jobs on jobs on jobs of people who just assess people and decide whether you are being good enough to your kids to deserve this benefit, or decide whether you’re trying hard enough to get a job to get that benefit. This is a complete waste. Those people [making the decisions] don’t really contribute anything to society; we could get rid of them.


If we had a basic income, we wouldn’t need to decide who needs food and who doesn’t.

The question society has to ask itself, as I see it, is would you rather I spend my time working on improving the efficiency of banking datacenters, like I was doing in my early twenties, or would you rather I spend my time writing anti-rape culture software like the Predator Alert Tool suite?

Every time I have to lie to some bureaucrat somewhere that, really, I’m trying so hard to find work, and yes, I do want to find a job, and yes, I am doing my best to contribute to society, trust me, please, so that I can apply or reapply for unemployment benefits or food stamps, it’s pretty damned clear to me that society as it is structured today wants me to help make bankers richer rather than doing even the least it could do to end rape.

And as long as society continues to behave in such a way as to expect me to do unethical things, I’m going to continue to cheat and steal and lie my way through it. Because there’s no more ethical place to lie to and cheat and steal from than a system like that.