This week has mingled, for me, the sadness of losing David Graeber the person, and the joy of immersing myself in David Graeber the writer, by diving into his many electrifyingly original essays and books, though their brilliance makes the loss all the sadder. The anthropologist and activist died in Venice on 2 September, suddenly and unexpectedly, and waves of grief, remembrance and gratitude streamed in from around the globe.
He was a remarkable person, both a distinguished scholar and a committed direct-action organiser. The latter ranged from the global justice movement of the late 1990s to Occupy Wall Street in 2011, up to his support in recent years of the beautifully anarchic autonomous Rojava region in northeast Syria.
After the news came, the Kurdish activist Hawzhin Azeez said: “David was a friend to the Kurds at a time when we had none. As the oppressed, we needed intellectuals of such giant proportions to stand in solidarity and unwavering support with us. The greatest act of love that we can in turn do is uphold his legacy by reading his seminal writings and to keep him alive and ever present in our work and struggle as Kurds, activists, leftists, as anarchists and as lovers of freedom and hope. Yet David Graeber is not lost to us; his legacy, his values, his ideas live in the olive orchards of Rojava, in its communes and in its cooperatives.” Friends in France say he smuggled drones into the Rojava region.
Many of the people I heard from knew and loved him because they had organised and protested with him. They spoke of how cheerful and patient he was in organising meetings, and what a good listener he was. One person fondly remembered how 20 years earlier David “bought me my first riot helmet when I was 19. What an inspirational weirdo he was.” He walked his talk, generous in life as well as in his ideas, which tended towards the liberatory and encouraging. In a text exchange with the political thinker Astra Taylor shortly before his death, she told him what a “damn good writer” he was, adding that it’s a “rare skill among lefties”. He thanked her, and said: “I call it ‘being nice to the reader’, which is an extension of the politics, in a sense.”
Words of praise and loss poured in from Japan, the Middle East, the US, Europe: fond reminiscences of his enthusiasm, his kindness, his eclectic, sometimes theatrical, usually rumpled dress. I didn’t know David well, though we had several wonderful afternoons of wandering in words and walks over the years, but I had been inspired over and over again by his work, ever since the tiny (in size) and huge (in ideas) Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology came out, a book that more than one person said led them to choose a scholarly career. He had one himself, but as someone remarked in a Zoom memorial gathering last week, he was in the academy but not of it. Academia rewards orthodoxies, and David’s erudite unorthodoxy swept in like a fresh wind from an accidentally open door.
His 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years overturned the conventional explanation of why money exists and provided beautiful arguments to delegitimise the production of debtors. He followed through on that as a debt-resistance activist in various initiatives springing from Occupy Wall Street (which he helped organise in the months leading up to the 17 September 2011 occupation near Wall Street). This in turn led to thousands more Occupy movements around the world and changed the global conversation about economic injustice and its alternatives. Though he was always quick to credit the others who collaboratively generated the Occupy Wall Street chant “We are the 99%”, it was he who came up with the 99% part, and it’s typical of David in its optimism It says that, actually, most human beings are on the same side against the really rich – whom we still call the 1%, a very different framework from the conventional pitting of a nebulous working class against an equally nebulous middle class.
There’s a section heading in a piece David published in 2018 that embodies his cheerful, insurrectionary verve: it says, simply, “Time for a re-think”. Actually it’s a collaborative work, an essay he co-wrote with his fellow anthropologist David Wengrow that is, apparently, the seed for their forthcoming book. That essay had a humorously ambitious title, “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened)”. It did so by questioning the conventional idea that human beings originated in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands and then somehow fell from grace into inequality; that small is egalitarian, and big is hierarchical; and that, since we’re 8-billion big, we’re doomed. Like so much of his work, it looked at the wild variety of human societies as an invitation to … Well, as he said in The Utopia of Rules: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” His body of work is a series of invitations to make differently.
Possibilities was the title of a book of essays he published in 2007, with these opening lines: “I decided to call this collection Possibilities because the word encompasses much of what originally inspired me to become an anthropologist. I was drawn to the discipline because it opens windows on other possible forms of human social existence; because it served as a conscious reminder that most of what we assume to be immutable has been, in other times and places, arranged quite differently, and therefore, that human possibilities are in almost every way greater than we ordinarily imagine.”
Nearly everything he wrote, from a 2014 essay about the police in Ferguson, Missouri and his reconsideration of revolution, to his spry assault on bureaucracy and, to quote another book title, Bullshit Jobs, was meant as a gift to the rest of us: an encouragement to imagine and see those expanded possibilities.
• Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist
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