Heedless Generosity

Remembering David Graeber
David Graeber speaks at Maagdenhuis Amsterdam (Guido van Nispen / Flickr)

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.

Graeber was more than a critic of the system; he was a kind of visionary.

Born in 1961, Graeber was the child of older parents who were formed by the traumas of the 1930s. His father had taken part in the Spanish Civil War, his mother in a union-staged musical called Pins and Needles. They were of the “old left,” which was largely class-based. Graeber’s peers were mostly the children of younger parents, and were formed by the rising expectations of the postwar boom. In an essay on why the working class has drifted from the left, he cast some blame on the campus radicals of the 1960s who settled for a secure life in academia, where one could be “supported in one’s material needs while pursuing virtue, truth, and beauty and, above all...pass that privilege on to [one’s] own children.” This had not been an option for people like Graeber’s parents. They had memories of dramatic labor-union activity and revolution, of heroic struggles for liberation. Theirs was not a politics of altruistic meliorism. One day, when Graeber and I were discussing an article he planned to write about his mother, he told me he was “raised for greatness.” This was less a matter of his own abilities than about what kind of life his parents thought it was worth aspiring to. It wasn’t about being conventionally successful; nor was it simply about following one’s dreams. Greatness, for Graeber’s family, meant making a run at the kind of life that would extend beyond one’s own passing. Graeber once said of Sir James Frazer, one of the founding fathers of anthropology, that despite everything contemporary anthropologists can throw at him, “people like that still remembered what it meant to think big.”

He was thinking big till the end. Just a few weeks before his death, he and David Wengrow had sent in the manuscript of a new “history of humanity” intended, in part, as an answer to the bestselling pop histories of Jared Diamond and Yuval Harari. He thought both these writers presented superficially novel reformulations of conventional beliefs about self-interest as the engine of history. Graeber always believed that solidarity and community were no less natural than avarice, and that we have been bent and thwarted by perverse institutions none of us would create if we could reorganize society from the ground up. Homo economicus is only one version of the species—and not the best.

All Graeber’s work points toward a distinctive theory of human sociality. At the core of this is value. His LSE course “An Anthropological Approach To Value” began with an assault on the economistic worldview that seeks to banish all value by reducing it to price. He traced this worldview back to its ancient roots in Greece and in Christian theology, all the way through Hobbes and Adam Smith. The idea of humans as pursuers of property, money, and power, whose appetite for domination could be constrained only by the threat of punishment, earthly or eternal, so pervades our history that we have trouble recognizing or imagining other ideas of what it means to be human. Graeber may not be the first or only anthropologist to make the case against modern economics, but I doubt there is anyone who has brought more erudition, everyday insight, and literary imagination to the task.

Graeber was more than a critic of the system; he was a kind of visionary, and his vision of the world was richer and more capacious than any offered by economists. This vision receives its most succinct and graceful expression in Debt, in the chapter “A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations.” Here Graeber writes that our social relations can be categorized into the three domains of communism, exchange, and hierarchy. In brief, communism is the relationship we typically have with our closest friends, that of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” Exchange is transactional; it is the basis of all our commercial relationships. Hierarchy describes the relations between social unequals: the peasants provide the food, the lords provide protection from bandits.

As an activist and generous friend, Graeber was familiar with communism. As an academic and a famous intellectual, he saw both sides of hierarchy. (He didn’t have much time for exchange.) This was driven home to me one of the last times I saw him. The first copies of Bullshit Jobs arrived from the publisher during a party for the LSE anthropology department. When word spread that he was giving out copies of the new book to all comers, I joined the throng of students at his office. He was seated in the middle of the crowd, resplendent in an overcoat, waistcoat, and other layers I couldn’t fathom, joyfully signing books for his admirers.

Here was a kind of hierarchy, certainly. He could have been a medieval baron holding court. But the scene had more than a trace of communism about it, too: to each according to need. Graeber looked delighted to be giving his book away before the first copy had been sold. It was an improvised rite of heedless generosity. It was a scene from the world he helped so many of us imagine. 

Nicholas Haggerty is an editor of the News Lens International. He lives in Taipei.

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