The well-known anthropologist and activist David Graeber died on September 2 while on vacation in Venice. He was fifty-nine years old. Graeber had many claims to fame: he had been instrumental in the formation of the Occupy Wall Street movement; he was the author of the bestselling books Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), The Utopia of Rules (2015), and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018).
It was this last book that first drew me into his orbit. After he put out an open call for stories of “bullshit jobs,” I sent in a brief testimony on substitute teaching. I wanted to put in a good word for anti-careerism, and show that an undemanding job can be rewarding in its own way. Substitute teaching left me time for reflection, reading, and talking with students in lunch detention. But I also wanted to make contact with Graeber because I was planning to take a class with him that fall at the London School of Economics. Graeber sent a kind response: “Oh yes that’s a classic! Duly noted.”
It was only when we met in person for the first time, just before classes started at LSE, that I learned my dashed-off email would make it into Bullshit Jobs. There I was given the pseudonym Warren, and my case was discussed alongside that of a French tax accountant to show “why having a bullshit job is not always necessarily that bad.” Graeber seemed very pleased to be meeting an informant in person. My account was reproduced virtually word for word.
The first time I had seen Graeber’s name was in an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education posted on a bulletin board at Fordham University. “Who’s afraid of David Graeber?” the article began. It was about how Graeber had been boxed out of American academia in part because of his political support for striking students, but also, perhaps, because of the jealousy of colleagues who lacked his pedagogical charisma. Despite his leadership in the global justice movement of the early 2000s and Occupy Wall Street, and despite the success of his books, he remained till the end an outsider—and identified with other outsiders. His writings attest to long periods of loneliness from his childhood onward, until he finally made a name for himself as an academic and public intellectual. There are hints of lingering resentment about not having received as much recognition and financial support as some of his wealthier and less talented classmates, and about the indignities of life as an impoverished graduate student. But in everything he wrote there was also a faith that a different world—fairer and less tedious—was possible.