David Graeber, Anthropologist and Activist of the 99%

Hannah Archambault

Posted September 15, 2020

David Graeber’s heartbreaking early death is a great loss to leftist scholarship, popular political discourse, and political action. His work was broad-ranging and explicitly anti-capitalist, and he wrote and advocated along these lines for decades. He wrote extensively on theories of anarchist practice and tactics in terms of direct action and prefigurative politics, principles that he applied in his own activist work throughout his life.

In addition to his fundamental role in shaping the Occupy movement and the rise of “The 99%”, he was also deeply involved in promoting and supporting the Rojava project in Syria. The Kurdish-led movement was deeply influenced by Abdullah Öcalan’s democratic confederalism, which was in turn inspired by Murray Bookchin’s social ecology and libertarian munincipalism, and this framework was compatible with Graeber’s politics.

One of his two most widely read books, Debt: The First 5000 Years, challenged mainstream theories and genealogies of debt and money. The other, Bullshit Jobs, focused on the fundamental alienation of work in capitalist society, and the psychic damage it inflicts on working people. His work is overarchingly about the ways that capitalism inhibits human liberation and community, and the ways that we might overcome capitalism and its trappings and develop a new world for ourselves.

David Graeber was a professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE) from 2013 until his untimely death earlier this month at the age of 59. Prior to his appointment at LSE he was famously rejected for tenure at Yale despite widespread support from faculty and students, apparently for his anarchist political orientation and related activist work.

This turmoil in his professional career within academia was not reflected in his success as a public intellectual and activist — his contributions were pivotal not just to contemporary anarchist thought (although this is true), but to huge swaths of people across the political spectrum. This spectacular success in extending his analysis and writing beyond academia and into popular audiences was, perhaps, Graeber’s greatest skill. His popular works were exciting to read, his writing was incisive and charmingly acerbic, and only very infrequently slipping into didacticism or sectarianism. His books usually culminated in a case for an anti-authoritarian, generally explicitly anarchist, anti-capitalist politics and future, but reading his work never felt like a lecture on his particular politics.

This has been apparent in my own experience as an economics educator working with undergraduate students at a large state university. I’ve discussed both Bullshit Jobs and Debt: the First 5000 Years with my students at some length, either assigned by me or by another instructor over the last few years. The economics department I am in is a heterodox department, but many of our students are not leftists by any stretch of the imagination. Our students are likely to be equally invested in the finance, business or management departments as they are in our left-leaning econ department, and some of our students are quite conservative.

The impressive thing, then, is that I cannot remember a student reading Graeber and then saying that they got nothing out of it. Students across the board said that they found some part of the books illuminating, or, more importantly, they saw their experiences reflected in it.

Seeing their own life experiences reflected and reframed increased student curiosity, and encouraged them to read further, outside of the assigned materials, to expand on what they learned and the analysis they were building. As far as educators go, this is the best-case scenario — assigning a reading and students being moved to learn more of their own accord.

In Bullshit Jobs Graeber says, “This is not a book about a particular solution. It’s a book about a problem — one that most people don’t even acknowledge exists.”

Graeber’s writing makes the job of an educator easier by teasing out the most meaningful bits of human experience and encouraging students to expand their knowledge, but without explicitly telling them what to do or think. One professor who teaches classes on finance, money, and banking, called Debt: the First 5000 Years “a gift to humanity”.

Graeber’s intellectual endeavors were a part of his activist work. He believed that learning and exploring are aspects of teaching, and this was reflected in research methods. In Bullshit Jobs, he used personal discussions in Twitter direct messaging as material for ethnographic study — meeting people where they’re at in the truest sense.

Graeber’s method wasn’t to analyze the world from above, but to understand it from the where the action is, and to actively work towards the liberated world he hoped his writing was helping to advance. He was actively involved in significant protest movements around the world — the original anti-globalization protests, the Occupy movement, support for the Rojava project in Syria — and, using a variant of his own methodology, if Twitter posts are any indication, he responded to practically everyone who contacted him.

This is not to say that Graeber wasn’t controversial — certainly his staunch political anarchism and overarching rejection of Marxist methods and categories meant that his work was rejected outright by some elements of the left. My own Marxist method butted up against some of Graeber’s ideas, but our visions of the future were closely aligned.

Graeber looked forward to a future that rejected hierarchy, in which life was lived in conjunction and cooperation with the whole community, where human beings were able to live their fullest life, free of the coercion and violence that capitalism inflicts upon the human spirit as much as our bodies.

Despite potential differences in our analysis of the roots of capitalist exploitation, or tactics on how to get out of it, this shared view of capitalism as incompatible with human liberation and counterposed to efforts to build a just world, tied him to me and to all of us building towards the future beyond capitalism.

Hannah Archambault is a PhD student in Economics at UMass Amherst.


2 responses to “David Graeber, Anthropologist and Activist of the 99%”

  1. Joanne Steele Avatar

    I was given a proof copy of Bullshit Jobs from
    a Yippy friend. I love the book. For me, it’s a refresher and keeps me going, letting ‘the others’ know…

  2. Paul K DeMelto Avatar
    Paul K DeMelto

    Wow. I had no idea. What a loss! Rest in peace, brother.