Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid

The first David Graeber Foundation meetup, between Thomas Piketty and Michael Hudson.

Cory Doctorow


A Victorian drawing of a barred cell in a debtor’s prison, captioned with ‘Pray remember poor debtors having no allowance.’ Behind the bars is a copy of Thomas Piketty’s bestselling book ‘Capital in the 21st Century.’

It’s been just over a year since the death of activist, writer and anthropologist David Graeber — a brilliant speaker, writer and thinker who helped give us Occupy, “we are the 99%” and “Bullshit Jobs.”

On the anniversary of David’s death, his widow Nika Dubrovsky convened the first “Art Project” discussion, a fascinating debate between Thomas Piketty and Michael Hudson, a pair of political economists whose work is neatly bridged by Graeber’s own.

Piketty, of course, is the bestselling French economist whose 2013 Capital in the 21st Century was an unlikely, 700+ page viral hit, describing with rare lucidity the macroeconomics that drive capitalism towards cruel and destabilizing inequality

Hudson, meanwhile, is the debt-historian and economist whose haunting phrase “Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid,” is a perfect and irrefutable summation of the inevitable downfall of any system that relies on household debt to drive consumption.

Like Hudson, Graeber was obsessed with the history and politics of debt. His 2012 book “Debt: The First 5,000 years” influenced not just Piketty’s work, but the work of many non-economists, including a large group of science fiction writers.

Like Piketty, Graeber was capable of writing extremely long books that were so engaging that people actually read them, absorbing complex and nuanced subjects. DEBT clocked in at 534 pages, and not a dud among them.

And like both Hudson and Piketty, Graeber was obsessed with long timescales and the ways that history is pressed into service to assert that various political situations are inevitable products of human nature, meaning that there’s no point in asking…