David Graeber: An Appreciation

“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” David Graeber, 1961-2020.
“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” David Graeber, 1961-2020.

(First published by www.independentleft.ie)


“Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics,” declared anthropologist David Graeber in 2013, 


it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.)


Graeber, who died in Venice on September 2nd, was writing specifically of what he called “Bullshit Jobs”, and in the process demonstrated many of those characteristics for which his life and work were already famous, and now are mourned. His dissections of capitalist operations, ideological and material, had a bright-honed clarity and incisiveness: qualities magnified in turn by how intuitively he seemed to offer support, in practice (and in person when possible), to struggles for self-determination, from Seattle in 2001 to the heroic “social revolution” of Rojava in 2014.


Graeber’s account of the anti-globalisation campaigns that erupted and expanded at the turn of the 21st century are particularly vivid in this regard, blending self-deprecating literary flair with an incendiary (and infectious) perception of the potential of mass power to derail what he categorised as the ruthless imperialism of Euro-American political and financial elites. “The IMF”, Graeber wrote, “was always the arch-villain of the struggle”:


It was their job to ensure that no country (no matter how poor) could ever be allowed to default on loans to Western bankers (no matter how foolish). Even if a banker were to offer a corrupt dictator a billion dollar loan, and that dictator placed it directly in his Swiss bank account and fled the country, the IMF would ensure a billion dollars (plus generous interest) would be extracted from his former victims. If a country did default, for any reason, the IMF could impose a credit boycott whose economic effects were roughly comparable to that of a nuclear bomb…. [In] the world of international politics, economic laws are only held to be binding on the poor.


Graeber’s versatile irreverence for the institutions and narratives of neoliberal civilization made him one of the most radical (and humane) of anthropological and economic commentators. His writing dances, in furious delight, with the recognition of capitalism not only as a broken system, but one ready to collapse in ruins at the slightest pressure of “the poor”, whom he counted as his educators and comrades. There is “no possible way we could have an anti-capitalist revolution”, he observed decisively, “while at the same time scrupulously respecting property rights.”


In the days since his death, the internet and other outlets have hummed with personal tributes and reminiscences, a vast chorale of grief and celebration, that place Graeber without fail as a voice of warmth, insight and non-didactic solidarity among the internationalist Left. He had a gift for practicing what he preached, in short, but also for avoiding the instructional pretensions that so often accompany the analyses of Euro-American intellectuals, convinced not only of the complicated rottenness of capitalistic civilisation, but of the exclusive expertise undergirding their own pronouncements. If Graeber’s concerns were prodigiously far-ranging (from his intricately woven history of debt to his interpretation of “fun” as both an evolutionary and revolutionary phenomenon), his interventions were refreshing, always, for the humour, the air of dishevelled enthusiasm, which accompanied their presentation. His wit, his ability to demystify the reigning economic and political superstitions of our time, is often best encountered in full flow, as here:


[Rather] than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world's population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations…. These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’.... It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen.


In a single stroke, Graeber dissipates the self-delusional fog that passes for capitalist thought, and does so with utter lightness and lucidity. As a result, and quite understandably, many of the re-prints and obituaries that have emerged since last Wednesday have emphasised the eloquence and egalitarianism that shine across his life and works. No doubt there is some justice in this perspective. Graeber’s writing flares with the freshness and powerful urgency of a true student of humanity in action, and rebellion itself: a person accustomed to thinking of themselves as a participant in a community, a part of a larger whole. “Odd though it may seem,” he wrote, “the ruling classes live in fear of us. They appear to still be haunted by the possibility that, if average [people] really get wind of what they’re up to, they might all end up hanging from trees.” “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world,” he elaborated elsewhere (once again evidencing his willingness to think in collective categories), “is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” With such gifts – of expression and vision, faith in the crowd and humility before its might – it’s surely no accident that he is credited as an originator (among others, as he often emphasised) of the rallying cry, “We are the 99%”.


To give full service to David Graeber's politics, it is essential to recognise the self-proclaimed anarchism that informed and motivated his approach. “At their very simplest,” he noted, “anarchist beliefs turn on two elementary assumptions”: 


The first is that human beings are, under ordinary circumstances, about as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be, and can organize themselves and their communities without needing to be told how. The second is that power corrupts.


It is to Graeber’s credit that he applied such principles as readily in his critiques of leftist campaigns and organizations (in America and farther afield) as in his exposés of the violence and distortion inherent in so many of capitalism’s most prized practices and presumptions. In contrast to what he termed “Marxist sectarians”, for instance, with their “top-down popular front groups” and “old-fashioned activist organizing styles” seemingly designed to generate “steering committees and ideological squabbles”, Graeber was clear and characteristically persuasive in his fundamental commitments, declaring himself a glad member of the “horizontalist, direct-action-oriented wing of the planetary movement against neoliberalism”. For this branch (or root, perhaps) of “the planetary movement”, our chances of surviving and even defeating capitalist hegemony, a project necessarily both local and global in its coordinates, are infinitely greater if the campaigns – along with the modes of self-organisation and mutual aid – we adopt now foster and embody values of transparency, equality, democratic participation as a matter of standard practice. Vitally, for Graeber, such political tenets were neither lofty nor aspirational, but could be discerned over and over, and in concrete terms, throughout human history. “When you can actually test them, most of the usual predictions about what would happen without states or capitalism turn out to be entirely untrue”, he wrote, in a passage worth quoting in full: 


For thousands of years people lived without governments. In many parts of the world people live outside of the control of governments today. They do not all kill each other. Mostly they just get on about their lives the same as anyone else would. Of course, in a complex, urban, technological society all this would be more complicated: but technology can also make all these problems a lot easier to solve. In fact, we have not even begun to think about what our lives could be like if technology were really marshaled to fit human needs. How many hours would we really need to work in order to maintain a functional society — that is, if we got rid of all the useless or destructive occupations like telemarketers, lawyers, prison guards, financial analysts, public relations experts, bureaucrats and politicians, and turn our best scientific minds away from working on space weaponry or stock market systems to mechanizing away dangerous or annoying tasks like coal mining or cleaning the bathroom, and distribute the remaining work among everyone equally? Five hours a day? Four? Three? Two? Nobody knows because no one is even asking this kind of question. Anarchists think these are the very questions we should be asking.


As is arguably true of anti-capitalists in general, Graeber’s radicalism was most manifest, and most valuable, in his urge to frame new questions about the world – including our revolutions within and across it – rather than regurgitating pre-approved answers about the same. His working assumption, moreover, is compelling: that the more vigorously democratic (as opposed to hierarchical) and inclusively action-centred (rather than stage-managed and conciliatory) our radical practice is, the more cohesive, resilient, and effective our struggles will become.  Revolutionaries of all stripes would do well to take heed. 


Graeber’s life and work seem to touch and illuminate so many strands of radical thought and endeavour that the notion of offering a final word on either seems flawed, if not plainly ridiculous. Indeed, the unflagging zest and comradeliness, insight and interconnection, of his approach are such that he seems one of the few figures in the present day whose utopian realism can truly be seen as living on, to be borne out and extended, in the actions of mass resistance and mutual support that flourish beyond his own individual, immediate involvement. No doubt this is at best a complex consolation to the friends, comrades, and shipmates on the voyage of his one life, now closed. But if nothing else, it reminds us that the greatest tribute we can pay to Graeber, and those from whom he himself drew inspiration, is to practice and develop the politics and political culture he exemplified when living. 

Ciarán O'Rourke (first published by independentleft.ie) // september 2020