David Graeber (1961-2020)

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David Graeber died unexpectedly from a massive haemorrhage of the pancreas in Venice on September 2nd of this year. Obituaries summarize the life of someone who is no longer with us. This is not an obituary in that sense – it is prospective more than retrospective. It is clear that David affected so many people from all walks of life. His memory and writing have already inspired the stuff of social movements. There are obituaries all over the international press and online emphasising his more overtly political actions and publications.[1] My main aim here is rather to ask what David’s intellectual legacy could mean for anthropology’s future. Such an exercise is necessarily abstract and impersonal. I therefore begin with some skeletal remarks about his life and what he meant to me.

David grew up in a New York working-class family. He says he became an anarchist at the age of 16. After a first degree in anthropology at State University of New York Purchase in 1984, he did a masters at the University of Chicago and a PhD with Marshall Sahlins, completed in 1996. He joined Yale University’s anthropology department where he taught from 1998 to 2007. The last year was after Yale’s controversial decision not to grant David tenure. He applied for a vacancy in anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2007 and was successful. He was a Reader there until 2013 when he joined the London School of Economics as full professor in anthropology. He was 52 years old when he attained this rank. A curriculum vitae from 2017 has 33 single-spaced pages of publications from academic books to online journalism, a total of 13,000 words in all, including translations into many languages.

Earlier this year, David married Nika Dubrovsky, a Russian artist, activist and journalist. I had dinner with them just before the coronavirus lockdown. Their happiness and generosity were palpable and promised so much in collaboration.

I first realised David’s importance for me with the publication of his book, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The false coin of our own dreams (2001). This was a sophisticated attempt to reconcile Marcel Mauss and Karl Marx, a project dear to my heart, having discovered them both together in my mid-thirties after several fruitless readings of The Gift and Capital Volume 1. I was disgusted by Anglophones’ projection onto Mauss’s essay of their own bourgeois contrast between gift and contract models of economy. Mauss’s political writings and journalism are only available in French. David’s 78-page chapter, “Marcel Mauss revisited”, is the only serious examination in English of the political assumptions that this cooperative socialist brought to his classical essay and elsewhere. It is no wonder that David Graeber is venerated by progressive groups in France.

We began a rich correspondence after the millennium. I was one of three outsiders invited to comment on his tenure review. We all argued strongly that he must be given it. But Yale turned him down. They never told him why – any more than I was told why when I left Yale almost three decades earlier. He had tried to keep his scholarly and political activities in separate compartments. But he did become involved in the struggle to form a graduate student teaching assistants’ union; and many students thought that was the reason. He made a number of applications for middle-rank anthropology jobs in the US and was not granted an interview. It was not mainly because of his political activism, since I suffered similar rejections after I left Yale. Junior faculty probably thought his appointment would reduce their own chances of promotion.

When he applied for the Goldsmiths job, I wrote, “you should know that I would dearly love to have you as a colleague. I already count you my firmest intellectual friend”. From 2007 to 2016, when I finished a part-time job at the London School of Economics, we exchanged 400 email threads, some containing more than twenty messages. We shared so much. There was always wit, companionship and excitement in our exchanges. Like the time he wrote at midnight to pass on how Chinese customs receipts in the eighteenth century controverted established views of their economy then. Or before the Iraq war, when Saddam proposed making the euro the unit of account for the oil trade, we wrote an unpublished, tongue-in-cheek piece on Iraq as a cauldron of non-state monetary innovation in world history, beginning with ancient Mesopotamia and medieval Islamic finance. In recent years we let personal grumbles obscure that wonderful intellectual friendship, the best I ever had. And this knowledge weighs me down when I write about David dead.

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Modern anthropology was born in the eighteenth century as one wing of a sustained effort to find the intellectual grounds for democratic overthrow of the tottering Old Regime. The latter’s class structures had no credible foundation, with entrenched privilege the arbitrary consequence of some long-forgotten conquest. Rule by and for the people had to be based on what everyone had in common, their human nature. But what was that and how could nature and history, personal freedom and civic duty be reconciled? Democracy would require citizens to learn how to uphold it. With anthropology, the self, psychology, the novel, newspapers, revolutionary theory and practice all made their appearance then.

Anthropology has regressed since. In the nineteenth century, it became an explanation and support for Europeans taking over the world, ultimately a racist apologia for empire. But its method assumed an unfinished world history. The senseless slaughter of the “Great War” required and found a new anthropological paradigm for the last century. We should join the people where they live in order to find out what they do, think and want. This is one half of what anthropology must become, but the other half – humanity’s destiny on and beyond this planet – vanished from view. The anti-colonial revolution put paid to anthropology as the study of “primitive peoples”, but most anthropologists since have clung to the narrow localism and ahistorical vision of “fieldwork-based ethnography”. This focus had some fit with a world fragmented into myopic nation-states, but its aim was description, not prescription. Anthropologists struggled to catch up with unfolding global events that they lacked the intellectual equipment to illuminate, never mind shape.

Enter David Graeber. He believed that anthropology must have a political purpose. In the tradition of Mead and Benedict, he embraced this vocation because unequal societies everywhere maintain rule by insisting that there is no alternative. By taking the widest view of human possibility, anthropologists can show that people do things differently; nothing is inevitable. This is no mean achievement, but it is not enough. David’s goal was democratic revolution and the anarchist tradition was its vehicle. We agreed on the first, but not on the second. Successful revolutions are always broad church, at least initially, and David was not sectarian. He was the leading contemporary exponent of a tradition that I call, “the anthropology of unequal society”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau launched it; Lewis H Morgan and Friedrich Engels revived it; in the last century, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marshall Sahlins, Eric Wolf and Jack Goody all contributed. David Graeber brought this tradition into the 21st century.[2]

Anthropology in the last century went astray, settling for description and comparison rather than trying to change the world. What can we learn from David about a new trajectory from now on? Most anthropologists know that we have a lousy public profile and almost no voice. We have become an introverted social science discipline that can only address its own fragments of knowledge.  Political questions shaped David’s research and writing and this accounts for his prominence as a public intellectual. When the German edition of his Debt book came out, the country’s President issued him an invitation; he debated the leader of the Social Democratic Party on national television; and sold 30,000 copies in two weeks.[3]

David was committed to the ethnographic tradition, both in his Madagascar research[4] and encyclopaedic ethnographic comparisons. He also by-passed contemporary academic anthropology and reinvented the Victorian polymath. We have forgotten, he said, how to write big books about big ideas. The width of his scholarship surpassed that of any peer.  Finally, he set out to reach the widest possible audience through writing accessibly. He usually wrote in two stages – one for himself and the next for a general audience. He did this not for fame, but because of his democratic project. Of the shortlist above, only Rousseau and Engels and no other modern anthropologist, surpassed him on all four points.

The hamartia (big mistake, sin) of anthropology in the last century was to reproduce itself inside universities committed to bureaucratizing capitalist societies (aka “modernism”). At first, we still produced some rather wonderful monographs and regularly reached an impressed public. But post-war expansion of student enrolments and publicly funded research led to today’s corporate universities where administrators hold academics hostage and all the inmates can no longer see beyond the end of their noses. The liberation of joining the world’s peoples as ethnographers gave way to anthropologists becoming the gullible victims of ruthless hierarchies. Ours is now a species of truncated bureaucratic writing; we churn out endless journal articles, book chapters and conference papers where sound bites culled from “the literature” crowd out mention of actual people and there is no room for extended ethnographic description. We train hundreds of graduate students, few of whose academic futures extend further than being low-paid precarious teaching fodder.

In the 19th century, G.W.F. Hegel saw that colonial empire was a way of exporting the unemployed overseas and John Stuart Mill later described the colonial system as make-work for the middle classes. David Graeber has skewered latter-day bureaucracy in two books.[5] He set great hopes by his political books, especially the last.[6] As an anarchist, David rejected protesting to or against the authorities. “Direct action” meant doing something that reveals what could be done if we were free, while exposing the weakness and contradictions of the status quo. The anarchists behave as if they are free and do not seek permission for it. Since they avoid rules, they must generate consensual order at their events and meetings. They do not have specific plans, so that of all the tenses, the present trumps past and future.

David was a prominent figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement, although he denied that he was the author of its most memorable slogan (“the 1% and the 99%”). Coming soon after the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, this sit-in generated parallel “occupy” events in some sixty cities across the world. David wrote The Democracy Project in its aftermath. Like the global political moment that spawned it, the book is somewhat disappointing. The Debt book was his only historical exercise at book length. But it was a hybrid of history and comparative ethnography. The first half is much the stronger and its evidence mainly comes from the ethnographic record with some eclectic anecdotes. The second half is a world history of money since the Bronze Age. Its guiding ideas are often brilliant, especially the contrast between money as currency and as credit; but the historical narrative is spotty. The story ends with the dollar being detached from gold in 1971. This is indeed the economic turning point of our era; but readers probably want to know what happened between then and now.

The Democracy Project has “history” in its title, but only micro-histories are on offer. The last century provided several notable examples of revolution, both for and against democracy: Russia and the First World War’s aftermath; three decades of developmental states after the Second World War and the anti-colonial revolution; the American Empire, the rise of Asia and the digital revolution. We are not short of recent historical examples. Religion and education probably deserve greater emphasis if some anthropologists aspire to inform and support democratic revolution.

Squeezing all that he did into one curtailed lifetime is David Graeber’s achievement and legacy. If I would single out one item by this writing machine, it is his absurdly long and ineffably brilliant essay on the divine kingship of the Shilluk – the lead article, all 62 pages and 35,000 words, in the opening issue of Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory.[7] This is a hardy perennial of twentieth-century anthropology: Frazer, Seligman, Evans-Pritchard, Gluckman, de Heusch and a comprehensive cast of extras. David’s essay was published twice! In an argument of astonishing literacy and ethnographic detail, David concludes that before they can project their sovereignty outwards through foreign wars, states first must deploy violence at the expense of their own people. The divinity of Shilluk kings (who often end up being killed themselves) lies in being able to kill at home without shame or remorse. Shilluk kingship is not on the way to becoming a fully-fledged state — they are aware of and reject many counter-examples in the region. David often writes in a playful, ironic or allusive way, but he is entirely serious in this essay. Nothing less that the sources of sovereignty is at stake here. It doesn’t turn out well for centralized power. Universal political questions of this sort give the essay rare scope and focus. Read it to see what anthropology can be in the hands of a master. You might end up with new insight into why American policemen can kill Black people with impunity.

Anthropology Today 36. 3 (December) 2020: 33-34


[1] The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/03/david-graeber-anthropologist-and-author-of-bullshit-jobs-dies-aged-59; Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/225326f5-3128-4e55-bad7-5f9ba50ca4a8 (occasional readers are allowed a limited number of articles free). David himself is all over YouTube; I like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxshXRDlxRo&t=971s.

[2] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (1754); Morgan, Ancient Society (1877); Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884); Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949); Sahlins, Social Stratification in Polynesia (1958); Eric Wolf, Europe and the Peoples Without History (1982); Hart, Jack Goody: The anthropology of unequal society, Reviews in Anthropology (2014); Hart (2012), https://www.academia.edu/44225307/David_Graeber_and_the_Anthropology_of_Unequal_Society

[3] The link above (Hart 2012) has a long review of Debt: The first 5,000 years (2011).

[4] Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery (2007) has a claim to being his best book. He paid the press to publish a book that he considered to be the right length (almost 500 pages).

[5] The Utopia of Rules: On technology, stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy (2015) and Bullshit Jobs: A theory (2018).

[6] Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004); Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009); The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013).

[7] The divine kingship of the Shilluk: Of violence, utopia, and the human condition, or elements of an archaeology of sovereignty, Hau 1.1 (2011). Reprinted in D. Graeber and M. Sahlins, On Kings (2017).

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