“It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”
So said Dr David Graeber, the esteemed American anthropologist who passed away on Wednesday 2 September, aged just 59.
Graeber was born in New York on February 12, 1961, to working-class Jewish parents. His mother was a garment worker and performed the lead role in the labour comedy musical Pins and Needles, produced by the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union; his father Kenneth had been affiliated with the Youth Communist League (he had left well before the Stalin-Hitler pact), participated in the Spanish Revolution in Barcelona, and had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Growing up in co-operative apartments described by Business Weekly as “suffused with radical politics”, Graeber identified his views as anarchist by the age of 16.
His academic career began with attaining a B.A. at State University of New York at Purchase in 1984, and he gained his Masters degree and Doctorate from the University of Chicago. His thesis was on magic, slavery and politics from his time spent in Madagascar, on a Fulbright scholarship, and was supervised by Marshall Sahlins. In 1998, two years after attaining his Ph.D, Graeber became an assistant professor, then an associate professor at Yale University.
During this time, Graeber was attracted to the anti-globalisation movement gripping the United States. He joined groups like the Direct Action Network, and was an organiser and spokesperson at the World Economic Forum protests in New York in 2002. Graeber was arrested along with other activists during a protest at an International Monetary Fund event in 2002. He said of his involvement in the movements at the time:
“I tried to get involved in radical politics in the ’80s and ’90s but the mainstream groups were extremely hierarchical, and the anarchists insufferable… I call it the “Bob Black” period of anarchism: everyone was a political sect of one, yelling and condemning each other. But then the movement I’d always wanted—one where people worked together with respect—finally materialized, and I had to be part of it.”
Controversy erupted around Dr Graeber in 2005, when Yale University decided not to renew his contract, when he would be able to get tenure. Over 4,500 people signed petitions in support of him, and esteemed anthropologists such as Sahlins, Laura Nader, Michael Taussig and Maurice Bloch called on Yale to rescind their decision. Bloch, who had also spent much time researching Madagascar, said of his work:
“His writings on anthropological theory are outstanding. I consider him the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world.”
He agreed to leave the university after a year-long paid sabbatical; he taught two final classes before leaving, one of which was called “Direct Action and Radical Social Theory”. Following his Malinowski Lecture at the London School of Economics in May 2006, Graeber was a lecturer and reader at Goldsmith’s College of the University of London from 2007 until 2013, at which point he accepted a professorship at the London School of Economics.
Graeber’s work was known in anthropological circles for his contributions to theories of value — how different societies determine value — and social theory. His book Debt: The First 5000 Years, a deep dive into the history of economic relationships going back to Ancient Sumeria in 3500 BC, posited the idea that debt, rather than currency or barter, was the oldest form of trade, in contradiction to the theories about the history of money. Graeber also asserted in the book that the imprecise, informal indebtedness of “human economies” was replaced by precise, enforced forms of debt through the establishment of violence, usually in the form of state-sponsored military or police. The Utopia of Rules was written to explain the relationship of people to, and the influence of bureaucracies, and how they introduce violence into nearly every aspect of daily lives in wealthy countries.
His most famous work was Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which examined the range of jobs in capitalist societies which appeared to have no productive function whatsoever, to the point where the workers themselves cannot ignore the pointlessness of their labour. Inspired by an article he had written for Strike! in 2013 on the same subject, Graeber stated that the phenomenon of work as a virtue, which was a recent idea introduced by philosophers such as John Locke, led to the process whereby advances in productivity did not realise themselves in reduced working hours as John Maynard Keynes had asserted. Rather, the Puritan-capitalist work ethic and technological advancement became the basis for an ever-increasing services sector and “managerial feudalism”, creating more and more pointless jobs that fueled consumerism, the reward for suffering in unfulfilling or alienating work.
The Occupy movement was a high point for Graeber in his activism; he considered Occupy to be based on anarchist principles, with non-hierarchical decision-making and its refusal to accept the legitimacy of existing social institutions and the legal order. Graeber was credited with giving the movement its “we are the 99%” slogan, although he later said that he was merely a part of the collective who came up with it. As an organiser of the Occupy Wall Street encampment during its initial stages, he was one of its most prominent advocates, and wrote The Democracy Project to tell his story of being involved in OWS, as well as many articles in subsequent years relating to different aspects of the experience. In 2014, he claimed that he had been evicted from his family home of 50 years for his involvement with OWS, and that many fellow participants had faced harassment for the same reason.
Graeber continued to appear at demonstrations and actions, giving a speech at an Extinction Rebellion protest in Trafalgar Square about the relationship between “bullshit jobs” and the environmental impacts of such jobs. He pushed the plight of the Kurdish revolutionaries in Syria, writing articles attempting to draw popular attention to them. He maintained membership of the Industrial Workers of the World and gave his time to promoting the union.
He continued to remain active politically, posting a YouTube video of himself on August 28, before his death in Venice. His wife Nika Dubrovsky posted the news on Twitter on Thursday, and his agent announced his passing officially soon after.
David Graeber made enormous contributions to the field of anthropology, and contemporary anarchist understandings of capitalist economic relations, anarchist organising, and modern state power and violence. He was an activist as much as an academic, and stood as a figurehead of a world-changing movement that sprung from an illegal encampment at Zucotti Park in New York, under the blood-soaked ramparts of Wall Street and its rapacious inhabitants.
Rest in power, comrade.