In Memoriam: David Graeber, 1961-2020

It’s conventional to start an obituary article with a brief biographical summary, so here it is.

One of David’s pet peeves was being referred to as an anarchist anthropologist, so I’ll say that David Graeber, an anarchist and an anthropologist, died at age 59 Wednesday, September 3rd in Venice of as yet unreported causes. 

He was an Occupy Wall Street activist, a professor at the London School of Economics at the time of his death, and the author of (among other things) Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Debt: The First 5000 Years, The Democracy Project, The Utopia of Rules, and Bullshit Jobs.

He leaves behind his wife, journalist/artist Nika Dubrovsky. 

It’s also common in these things to add a personal note, but there’s not a lot to say. We knew each other casually, exchanging a few emails and interacting on Twitter a bit. Aside from that, our main connection was the influence his work had on me.

Debt: The First 5000 Years was my first encounter with his writing. It was — or at least should have been, if they were paying attention — the equivalent of a stick of dynamite thrown into the midst of the right-libertarian community. Capitalist ideology relies on a number of bourgeois nursery fables (to borrow Marx’s term), just-so stories, and robinsonades that frame the origins of major features of capitalist society as spontaneous and natural. Private — i.e. individual, fee-simple — property in land came about through individuals peacefully homesteading it, mixing their labor with it, and separating it from the commons. The overwhelming dominance of production for commodity exchange in the cash nexus has its origin in a natural human propensity to truck, barter, and exchange. Money was adopted as a response to the problem, arising from barter, of “double coincidence of wants,” and the convenience of precious metals as a universal commodity. Every one of these myths was posited by classical liberal thinkers in early modern times, a priori, as a sort of “likely story” to explain things in the absence of any real historical data. 

But the remarkable thing is that they continued to be repeated over the ensuing three or four hundred years as enormous amounts of historical and anthropological data poured in, with no effort whatsoever to address the data or reconcile them to it. Not only right-libertarian economists and polemicists, but to a large extent mainstream economists, have continued to repeat most of these right up to the present day. You can still pick up a pdf of any random economics text currently in widespread use in introductory college courses, search for “double coincidence of wants,” and very likely hit pay dirt. In Debt, Graeber drew on that data to show that one myth in particular (that of the origin of money and debt) and to some extent the others tangentially as well, were — not to put too fine a point on it — complete and utter bullshit.

The second book of his I read was The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement. In it two themes intersected: Graeber’s personal experience in Occupy as a horizontalist movement, and as a participant in other similarly participatory forms of anarchist politics; and the long history of ordinary people’s practice in democratic self-governance. The latter included a fascinating historical tour of Maroons, pirate utopias, and other groups of people intentionally living outside the reach of state governance. And it was a slap in the face to the harrumphing neoconservative tweed-trash who see “democracy” as a sort of delicate flower growing on an enormous dungheap, a fragile artifact that has only emerged in the rarified conditions of a tiny number of sufficiently advanced societies like fifth century BC Athens, England of 1688-89, and North America from the 1760s on. Rather, Graeber argued,

democracy is as old as history, as human intelligence itself. No one could possibly own it. I suppose…one could argue it emerged the moment hominids ceased merely trying to bully one another and developed the communication skills to work out a common problem collectively. But such speculation is idle; the point is that democratic assemblies can be attested in all times and places, from Balinese seka to Bolivian ayllu, employing an endless variety of formal procedures, and will always crop up wherever a large group of people sat down together to make a collective decision on the principle that all taking part should have an equal say.

In The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, Graeber examined the bureaucratic culture of the large corporation, the government agency, and other centralized institutions. In the process, he showed that the centralized state and oligopoly corporation, far from being enemies — as in mainstream liberal/progressive and right-libertarian narratives — were just different versions of the same thing, or perhaps different parts of the same thing. In fact capitalism grew up against the background of the bureaucratic state, and is in large part its creation.

I’ve yet to read his latest book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, much to my chagrin. I say to my chagrin not only because I’d like to see how its themes dovetail with those in Utopia of Rules, but because now I’ll never have a chance to tweet a link to my feedback at him and see what he has to say about it. 

Based on what I’ve seen in reviews and excerpts, and Graeber’s own articles covering the same material, it elaborated on our intuitive perception that the highest-paid white collar jobs not only produce little of real value, but actively destroy value. The people who do the necessary work of society (the term “essential worker” emerged in the face of events some time after this book was published) — the people who prepare food, care for the sick and elderly, teach children, process chicken parts or widgets on assembly lines, deal with retail customers, clean the floors, etc. — for the most part are not only badly paid relative to the importance of their work, but suffer abuse and interference from the well-paid people in bullshit jobs.

The bullshit jobs are only “necessary” in the context of a society in which a minority of people has robbed the rest, and sits on top of the piled up loot. A major part of bullshit jobs are either bean-counting jobs that track the wealth of the looters, or gatekeeping jobs that protect absentee title to idle land, empty houses, and other unused assets, and make sure the people doing the work continue to take orders from the people who own the machines they’re working. The rest are the result of an economy based on subsidized waste production, which is necessary to keep overbuilt and inefficiently centralized and capital-intensive industry running.

Although I would guess that Graeber’s anarchism — like that of Pyotr Kropotkin and Colin Ward — is more or less communistic, I include him with those other two figures in my general category of “anarchists without adjectives.” As with Kropotkin and Ward, Graeber’s faith in human creativity and agency, and his fondness for the incredible historical variety of expedients they come up with for relating to one another and cooperatively handling their common affairs, is bigger than any doctrinaire attempt to pigeonhole them into particular economic templates like markets, syndicates, etc.  He was unwilling to let a priori theoretical formulations do violence to the particularity and “is-ness” of history, or on the basis of such formulations to interfere with the ability of ordinary, face-to-face groupings of people on the spot to develop workable arrangements — whatever they may be — among themselves. He was likewise unwilling to let any particular hyphenated variant of anarchism override his affection for the variety and particularity of self-organized, human-scale institutions. In Debt, he wrote:

If we really want to understand the moral grounds of economic life and, by extension, human life, it seems to me that we must start… with the very small things: the everyday details of social existence, the way we treat our friends, enemies, and children — often with gestures so tiny (passing the salt, bumming a cigarette) that we ordinarily never stop to think about them at all. Anthropology has shown us just how different and numerous are the ways in which humans have been known to organize themselves.

Besides his anarchism without adjectives, I’ve found several of Graeber’s other concepts especially helpful. One of them, the real-life democracy of ordinary people all around the world and throughout history, we already considered above.

 Another is “everyday anarchism”:  as Colin Ward showed in Anarchy in Action, rather than being a totalizing system according to which society must be systematically remodeled, anarchism exists all around us right now as a way people interact with one another. “[A]narchism is, already, and has always been, one of the main bases for human interaction. We self-organize and engage in mutual aid all the time. We always have” (this and the block quoted material immediately below are from “Are You An Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You”).

The most basic anarchist principle is self-organization: the assumption that human beings do not need to be threatened with prosecution in order to be able to come to reasonable understandings with each other, or to treat each other with dignity and respect….

Anarchism is just the way people act when they are free to do as they choose, and when they deal with others who are equally free — and therefore aware of the responsibility to others that entails….

…[A]narchism is, already, and has always been, one of the main bases for human interaction. We self-organize and engage in mutual aid all the time. We always have.

Despite Graeber’s respect for the immense variety and particularity of self-organized institutions throughout history, and acceptance of people’s freedom to choose their own arrangements, he nevertheless considers some arrangements to be extremely unlikely choices for any free people, and unlikely to exist on a stable basis anywhere absent violent rule or conquest. As he wrote in The Democracy Project:

History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage, or wage labor, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police.

For the same reason, as he argued in the same book, the ideal society of anarcho-capitalists is unlikely to last long without a state:

I used to frequent Internet newsgroups in the 1990s, which at the time were full of creatures that called themselves “anarcho-capitalists.”… Most spent a good deal of their time condemning left anarchists as proponents of violence. “How can you be for a free society and be against wage labor? If I want to hire someone to pick my tomatoes, how are you going to stop me except through force?” Logically then any attempt to abolish the wage system can only be enforced by some new version of the KGB. One hears such arguments frequently. What one never hears, significantly, is anyone saying “If I want to hire myself out to pick someone else’s tomatoes, how are you going to stop me except through force?” Everyone seems to imagine that in a future stateless society, they will somehow end up members of the employing class. Nobody seems to think they’ll be the tomato pickers. But where, exactly, do they imagine these tomato pickers are going to come from? Here one might employ a little thought experiment: let’s call it the parable of the divided island. Two groups of idealists each claim half of an island. They agree to draw the border in such a way that there are roughly equal resources on each side. One group proceeds to create an economic system where certain members have property, others have none, and those who have none have no social guarantees: they will be left to starve to death unless they seek employment on any terms the wealthy are willing to offer. The other group creates a system where everyone is guaranteed at least the basic means of existence and welcomes all comers. What possible reason would those slated to be the night watchmen, nurses, and bauxite miners on the anarcho-capitalist side of the island have to stay there? The capitalists would be bereft of their labor force in a matter of weeks. As a result, they’d be forced to patrol their own grounds, empty their own bedpans, and operate their own heavy machinery—that is, unless they quickly began offering their workers such an extravagantly good deal that they might as well be living in a socialist utopia after all.

For this and any number of other reasons, I’m sure that in practice any attempt to create a market economy without armies, police, and prisons to back it up will end up looking nothing like capitalism very quickly. In fact I strongly suspect it will soon look very little like what we are used to thinking of as a market. 

The other concept I found influential was “baseline communism”: that is, all human societies, whether ruled by feudal landlords, state bureaucracies, or capitalist corporations, rely on a foundation of libertarian communism as practiced by ordinary people for their existence and continued survival. He writes in Debt:

unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply….

In fact, “communism” is not some magical utopia, and neither does it have anything to do with ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now — that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which everything has been organized in that way, and it would be difficult to imagine how there could be. All of us act like communists a good deal of the time…. “Communist society”… could never exist. But all social systems, even social systems like capitalism, have been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism.

And in “The Machinery of Hopelessness”:

…[C]ommunism really just means any situation where people act according to this principle: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. This is, in fact, the way pretty much everyone acts if they are working together. If, for example, two people are fixing a pipe and one says “hand me the wrench,” the other doesn’t say “and what do I get for it?” This is true even if they happen to be employed by Bechtel or Citigroup. They apply the principles of communism because they’re the only ones that really work. This is also the reason entire cities and countries revert to some form of rough-and-ready communism in the wake of natural disasters or economic collapse – markets and hierarchical chains of command become luxuries they can’t afford. The more creativity is required and the more people have to improvise at a given task, the more egalitarian the resulting form of communism is likely to be. That’s why even Republican computer engineers trying to develop new software ideas tend to form small democratic collectives. It’s only when work becomes standardized and boring (think production lines) that becomes possible to impose more authoritarian, even fascistic forms of communism. But the fact is that even private companies are internally organized according to communist principles.

The degree of such communism — the share of total social and economic activity governed by it — has varied a great deal from society to society, and from time to time. But all prestate societies — whether hunter-gatherer groups or stateless agricultural villages — have had comparatively high degrees of communism, and such communism has persisted even under states and landlords in many places until fairly recent times. What’s more, this state of affairs has been the norm in all cases where it was not violently suppressed by enclosures. We can say with little exaggeration that the default human form of human organization, from the Agricultural Revolution until it was suppressed by class states of one kind or another, was the agrarian village with communal land tenure; families had use-rights to periodically reassigned shares in several different common fields, along with rights of access to common pasture and woodland. This was the open-field village system of Western Europe and England that prevailed until early modern times, the so-called “Asiatic mode” suppressed by Warren Hastings in Bengal, and the Mir that survived in Russia until destroyed by the combination of Stolypin’s “reforms” and Stalin’s forced collectivization.

I should add that, aside from his scholarship, Graeber had a huge practical effect on the Occupy movement. You can learn the details in The Democracy Project, but in brief: in July and August of 2011, Occupy was largely the initial project of Adbusters magazine and a handful of verticalist movements like the Workers World Party; it was envisioned as a conventional demonstration with prefab posters and slogans, and designated leaders, and would in all likelihood have fizzled out after the photo ops and ceremonial arrests. A handful of anarchists who’d witnessed M15 in Spain crystallized around Graeber to create a general assembly, and nudged it into its ultimate horizontalist direction. Absent their intervention — a “for want of a nail” story if there ever was one — Occupy would likely have been a footnote to radical New York politics. Whatever form subsequent movements like Black Lives Matter, NoDAPL, and Antifa took, they would have been unrecognizable.

As an anarchist thinker, David Graeber falls into the same category as a handful of other monumental figures of the past century or so including Kropotkin, Ward, James Scott, and perhaps Murray Bookchin. Note that he accomplished this by age 59, with by rights half or more of his mature intellectual career ahead of him; Scott is still alive at age 83, and the others all died in their 80s. There’s no knowing what his death took from us — only that we’re poorer for it. 


Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory