F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are “no second acts in American lives”. The life of David Graeber, which ended in Venice on 2 September at the age of 59, had both a second act and a third.
Born in New York in 1961, Graeber grew up in a leftwing secular Jewish household. His father, a skilled printworker, had fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War; his mother was a garment worker and labour activist. Thanks to an “odd hobby I had developed of translating Maya hieroglyphics”, he gravitated to anthropology, graduating from the University of Chicago in 1984.
His first career, then, was that of an academic anthropologist who was also, he would admit vaguely, an anarchist. He spent two years doing fieldwork in Madagascar, where as he put it, “refugees and rebels from all over the Indian Ocean […] created this wildly subversive cultural substratum”, making most attempts to form a state both fragile and temporary.
In Madagascar he developed the intuition that cultures are basically social movements that have succeeded, and that what happens within the social movement is important for the outcome that movement is trying to achieve.
His second life, as an influential political thinker and activist, began with the Seattle protest against the World Trade Organisation in 1999:
“I walked out of the class,” he remembered, “saw one of those newspaper boxes with the headline ‘Martial Law declared in Seattle’, and I thought ‘What? Martial law? Huh?’ And I discovered the political movement I’d really like to have existed had come into being when I wasn’t paying attention.”
Graeber threw himself into the movement that had mobilised for Seattle, the Direct Action Network, becoming its New York City organiser. Later, he wrote an extensive ethnographic account of the movement and its role in the international mobilisations that culminated in the Genoa protest of July 2001.
By now he was teaching at Yale University, but in 2004 – following months of ostracism by pro-establishment colleagues who, as he later said, were incapable of thinking a dangerous thought – his contract was terminated.
In Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009), he summarised a method of consensus-based, networked protest which had by now become embedded among large numbers of activists. And when the next wave of anti-capitalist unrest began in 2011 – this time mass, transnational and epoch-making – the events propelled Graeber’s life into its third phase – as a globally respected public intellectual.
In Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), published with the world still reeling from the financial crisis, Graeber delivered a materialist deconstruction of debt as a social relationship. He showed that debt, and the coercive state apparatus needed to enforce it, “is the most effective way to take a relation of violent subordination and make the victims feel that it’s their fault”.
With governments laying waste to the public sector, using high public debt as the rationale for austerity, Graeber’s book taught a generation of activists that debt is a form of exploitation and repression; and that the progressive outcome of a class struggle over debt is its cancellation.
Alongside the analysis of debt itself, Graeber developed the concept of an “everyday communism”, observable in clan-based societies but underpinning all human endeavours based on cooperation. Though under-developed in the book, the idea found an immediate resonance among the networked anti-capitalist activists who had been occupying the squares of major cities, determined to break with the gradualism and timidity of the official left.
That was how Graeber came to play a central role in the creation of the Occupy movement. Moving back to New York, amid the tumult of 2011, he was among the core of activists who prepared and organised the occupation of Zuccotti Park. It was Graeber who originated the idea of a “99% movement” – representing the vast majority of Americans shut out of prosperity by financialised capitalism: “If both parties represent the 1%, we represent the 99% whose lives are essentially left out of the equation,” he suggested.
Graeber was modest about his own role in the movement, but his analysis of why it worked, outlined in the Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013), remains essential reading for activists.
Once the networked protest movements of 2011-2013 were repressed and subsided, as the empowered young activists matured, they gave way to a new leftward turn in politics, propelling old left parties like Syriza into power, creating new ones like Podemos, and creating strong left currents in both the US Democratic party and Britain’s Labour party.
In this phase of the struggle Graeber’s anarchism and movementism sat uneasily, always critically and sometimes abrasively, against the need for party-style activism, electoral work and the inevitable bureaucracy involved.
In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018) – spun out of an influential 2013 Strike! magazine article – Graeber argued that capitalism has reached a stage where millions of people “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed”; that this was a form of political and cultural violence; and that the solution was a rapid reduction of work time.
Though resonant among the youth, and in tune with the post-work ethos of much of the green movement, the argument put Graeber (and those of us who agreed with him) at odds with the pro-work culture and politics of left liberalism, trade unionism and social democracy, with their emphasis on full employment and the ‘jobs guarantee’.
Graeber spent the years 2007-2013 at Goldsmiths University, and was professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics from 2013 until his death.
Inspired by memories of his father, Graeber visited Rojava, the liberated area of Kurdistan, in 2014, detailing its social and political achievements, and flaying both the mainstream media and the international left for their failure to support and publicise the Kurdish struggle.
To the end, Graeber was actively and combatively engaged with left strategy and politics: in one of his last articles, in The Big Issue, he tried to communicate the project of an anti-hierarchical left to a mass audience in just three demands: eliminate bullshit jobs, “batshit construction” and planned obsolescence.
He was dismayed at the witch-hunt of Jeremy Corbyn and remained to his death a proud anti-Zionist: “One of the things I find most offensive,” he told Double Down News last month, “is that I am a ‘self-hating Jew’ if I am loyal to that tradition within Judaism that has produced Karl Marx, Baruch Spinoza, Jesus – all those Jewish heretics – somehow all those guys are freaks and Bibi Netanyahu represents my true soul.”
Graeber was part of a generation of working class kids from the 1960s, who learned their leftism from their parents, carried the ethos of solidarity and agency into an era where it had been suppressed, and then found themselves unchained once neoliberalism began to fragment and destabilise after 1999.
His most profound insight was, for me, not the need for prefigurative activism, but a critique of Marxism’s totalising claims and the all or nothing strategy that flows from them. Graeber’s antidote to the fatalism of a generation who thought themselves trapped in capitalism’s inescapable matrix was to reject the idea of a “capitalist totality”: there is capital, and it subsumes other things – like friendship, co-operation, consumption and culture.
“Communism already exists in our intimate relations with each other on a million different levels,” he told an interviewer in 2012, “so it’s a question of gradually expanding that and ultimately destroying the power of capital, rather than this idea of absolute negation that plunges us into some great unknown.”
At the time of his death, he had completed a new book – On Kings – and was working on a major project to retell the entire story of social inequality from the late stone age to the present. This, he claimed jokingly, “is most likely to be the first volume of a subsequent trilogy that will easily outsell the Lord of the Rings”.
Tragically, there will be no fourth act. As a lifelong fighter for social justice, David Graeber’s ultimate achievement will be in the “everyday communist society” we create. He is survived by his wife, the artist and writer Nika Dubrovsky.
Paul Mason is a journalist, author and film-maker.