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Remembering David Graeber

From his academic work to Occupy Wall Street and his support for Corbynism, the driving conviction of David Graeber's life was that human beings are good – and capable of building a better world.

David Graeber, who died tragically last week at the age of 59, was, as everyone knows, an anarchist. He didn’t like to wear it as an identity, as should be very obvious from his Twitter bio (‘I see anarchism as something you do not an identity so don’t call me the anarchist anthropologist’), but anarchism was the foundation of his politics. 

He was also a friend of mine. When I was first introduced to him, I probably reacted like I was meeting Beyonce. I was a huge fan of his work – when I was doing my masters in African Studies I picked up a copy of Debt, and I credit reading it with renewing my interest in political economy (after spending my undergraduate years being told that economics meant utility functions and budget constraints).  

I immediately realised that he was not someone who responded to admiration. Nor did he seem like any of the other anarchists I knew. He wasn’t dressed head to toe in black, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a look of cynical resignation in his eyes. He was full of joy and warmth; he seemed not to have much of an ego, and instead delighted in playful discussion and debate.

He was also a fervent supporter of the Corbyn project, which set him at odds with other anarchists, many of whom remained suspicious of movements with any orientation towards electoral politics. David did not seem to have any such reservations. He sent me a text at the beginning of December which began ‘operation Granny commences…’ in which he outlined a plan to interview older voters who were pledging their votes to their grandchildren over climate breakdown.

I’ll never know if he really expected Corbynism to succeed – or if he believed that a Corbyn government would survive a confrontation with the British state – but he always approached the project with enthusiasm and genuine curiosity. And yet, unlike many of the rest of us, when it was over, he did not seem to harbour any resentment or grief. He just carried on doing what he’s been doing his entire life: thinking about capitalism and bringing people together to try and bring it down, one brick at a time.  

When I spoke to some of his friends for a special episode of my podcast this week, they all confirmed this picture of David, and added so much more depth to it than I ever could. The portrait that emerges from the interviews is one of a person with a unique capacity to understand the world in a way that few others could; someone who could peak through the cracks of the political economic system that dominates our lives and see the new world hiding behind it, just waiting to be brought into being. 

As Astra Taylor reminded me, David was fond of saying that “capitalism dominates but it doesn’t pervade.” This, she recounted, was a source of hope for David, who was always capable of seeing the “hidden communistic behaviour – all the ways we are kind to each other, all the ways we help our neighbours” and how these small kindnesses give us a glimpse of what life could be like beyond capitalism. 

He brought this sense of hope and optimism into his writing. Jerome Roos told me that “people who otherwise might not read academic scholarly work found in David Graeber’s work something very exhilarating and something very new that helped them look at the world with new eyes.” And unlike with many public intellectuals, that intellectual energy made its way into action. James Schneider remembers David as someone who was “politically engaged with all the things he was thinking about”; as someone whose “thinking is doing and his doing is thinking.”

As an anthropologist who, as Roos put it, “turned [his] methodological toolbox on [his] own society”, he shed light on the curious behaviours that we take for granted because they are so pervasive. Whether that’s the way we work far harder than we need to at jobs we are convinced don’t really matter, or the way we treat repaying our debts as a moral obligation, even if doing so condemns us to poverty; he was always forcing us to ask, ‘does it really have to be this way?’

And as an activist he was constantly showing us that, more often than not, the answer is ‘no’.  He worked with Astra Taylor to set up the Debt Collective, which bought up and wrote off unpayable debts, just to show that the debtor-creditor relationship is one based on power, not legal or moral obligation. And as the person credited with coming up with the slogan ‘we are the 99%’, Taylor is convinced that Occupy Wall Street – the catalyst for so much of the activism that emerged in the wake of the financial crisis – would not have happened without him. 

David thought that we all needed to act as though we are already free. We need to challenge – play with – the oppressive structures that seem to dominate our lives; even if that’s as simple as a small rebellion like, as Nathalie Olah puts it, ‘stealing as much as you can’ from your employer by reading, writing or learning in the hours your chained to your desk. We might not be able to destroy capitalism by pushing at its ideological boundaries in such a way, but we’ll probably learn something about just how fragile the system is, how much it relies upon our obedience, and how powerful we could be if, together, we just said ‘no’. 

But perhaps David’s most abiding belief – the belief that was the foundation of his politics, his research, and his friendships – was that people are, at their core, good. More than his writing, more than the organisations he set up, David’s life – and the way he impacted the lives of the people he left behind – is a testament to the fact that by believing human beings are capable of great altruism, compassion and solidarity, you’re helping to create a world filled with just those qualities. As he put it – far better than I ever could – “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it‘s something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”