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Remembering David Graeber

Astra Taylor, interviewed by Lucy McKeon
“He always said anarchism isn’t an identity, it’s a way of being, something you do—and he was true to that formulation.”

David Graeber (1961–2020), the radical anthropologist and author known for his work on debt and “bullshit jobs,” movement politics and direct action, died on September 2 at fifty-nine. His friend Astra Taylor, documentary filmmaker, writer, and political organizer, orchestrated a collection of tributes to Graeber by friends, colleagues, and comrades, which we published on the Daily over the course of a week starting September 5, 2020.

Graeber, as many have said, was a rare activist academic, an anarchist as invested in organizing as in scholarship. The child of working-class parents in New York, he showed an early interest in Maya hieroglyphics and went on to study anthropology. He participated in anti-globalization protests in the 2000s, against the IMF and WTO, and in 2011 he helped to start Occupy Wall Street. After being controversially denied promotion by Yale University, Graeber taught at Goldsmiths College and at the London School of Economics. At the time of his death, he had just finished a history of social inequality spanning the last four millennia, co-written with the archaeologist David Wengrow, who also wrote a remembrance for the Daily. 

ullstein bild via Getty Images

David Graeber, 2012

Last December, Graeber first contributed to the Review with “Against Economics,” in which he argued that the basic assumptions on which the discipline of economics is understood and taught are false, “designed to solve another century’s problems,” with characteristic zest:

Mainstream economists nowadays might not be particularly good at predicting financial crashes, facilitating general prosperity, or coming up with models for preventing climate change, but when it comes to establishing themselves in positions of intellectual authority, unaffected by such failings, their success is unparalleled. One would have to look at the history of religions to find anything like it. 

This understanding of economics as a social science, not a law of physics, and one subject to the manipulations of power, was central to Graeber’s work, exemplified in his 2011, best-selling Debt: The First 5,000 Years,which exposed the historical contingency—and false morality—of debt. Taylor told me in an email: “David’s book showed the mutability of debt, and reminded us that debt is a promise corrupted by money and violence. His intervention works on multiple levels. On the one hand, it challenges the conventional economic narrative about the interplay between credit and coinage. It reminds people of the long history of debtors’ revolts. And it poses a deep philosophical and moral challenge: Who owes what to whom? And what other promises could we make to one another?”

Aside from his intellectual influence, it’s striking how many of the remembrances have emphasized Graeber’s generosity and, as Taylor writes, “how profoundly he embodied his egalitarian principles.” I asked her to elaborate. “I’m not sure why this is so rare, but the fact is many people profess radical or egalitarian ideals that they don’t practice,” she said. “He always said anarchism isn’t an identity, it’s a way of being, something you do—and he was true to that formulation.”

Taylor first met Graeber in 2009, and they became fast friends. A couple of years later, he asked her to attend the planning meetings of what would become Occupy Wall Street. Taylor skipped those but did go to the first assembly. With others, the two went on to form Strike Debt, which instituted a “Rolling Jubilee,” an initiative that bought up people’s medical debt and forgave it, demonstrating how debt is turned into a commodity traded for profit, at the expense of criminalized debtors. As Luke Herrine, a co-founder with Taylor of another such project that came out of this organizing—the Debt Collective, a union for debtors—writes in his remembrance, “I have seen firsthand many times that if you can tell a debtor a story that re-contextualizes their debt and allows them to reconsider creditor morality, you turn immobilizing pain into politicizing anger.”

The post-Occupy anti-debt movement would go on to influence the policy agendas of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—and Graeber’s work gained ever-wider currency. “Even as David became more renowned, he stayed David,” Taylor said. “What would have surprised me would have been to see David sell out.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Graeber was a supporter of the UK’s anti-tuition fee protests in 2010 and Jeremy Corbyn’s rise in the Labour Party. I asked Taylor how backing such a traditional socialist squared with Graeber’s commitment to anarchism and direct action, or, as he often said, “acting as if one is already free.”

“David was an unabashed anarchist, but not a dogmatic one,” Taylor told me. He cheered Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK, “even if his vision of democracy and activist engagement exceeded and was ultimately very critical of electoral politics.

“It’s very important, given David’s involvement in the Labour Party, that we not mistake him for a social democrat,” Taylor continued. “Let’s not soften his edges—something that happens to so many radicals in their afterlives. But he also wasn’t sectarian, he wanted people’s lives to be better and to see conditions out of which an even more radical politics might emerge—and he wanted to prevent fascists and racists from gaining more power. Of course, he also despised liberal centrists, whose soulless triangulations are in many ways responsible for Trumpism’s rise.”

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Taylor added that his recent commitments also included the democratic Kurdish liberation movement, and indeed he traveled to Rojava—even smuggling drones into the region, as one tribute notes. Taylor and Graeber shared a critical eye toward a certain nostalgia for American democracy pre-2016, as a weak antidote to Trump’s MAGA era. In a conversation following the publication of Taylor’s book Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone (2019) and release of her film What Is Democracy? (2018), which explore how a fully inclusive and egalitarian democracy has never existed and ask what self-government would truly mean, she and Graeber discussed these fundamental questions. 

Graeber’s commitment to democracy without a state—the idea that it’s possible to have a society based on principles of self-organization, voluntary association, and mutual aid—can be traced back to his work as an anthropologist. “What’s most striking to me,” Taylor told me, “is how he used the lens of anthropology to reflect on American society, in his slightly estranged and bemused and ever-curious way.” Graeber’s first book, and his best by his own accountLost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar (2007), was based largely on his earlier fieldwork. Among other things, Graeber recognized in the Madagascar highlands possible alternatives to the socio-political realities he’d known. 

In that spirit, Graeber’s partner, Nika Dubrovsky, is organizing a fundraiser to turn his childhood home into a memorial foundation and meeting place for intellectuals, activists, and artists to imagine new futures together. As he wrote: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

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