David Graeber

5 favourites from a radical life

3 September 2021

It was the first anniversary of anthropologist David Graeber's death yesterday.

I first encountered his work when I was intrigued by the title and description of Debt: The first 5000 years whilst browsing in a bookshop. This is on my list of psychotropic books because it drastically changed what I noticed and how I thought about money, economies, and human societies in general. Graeber covers all the big question: What is money? Is repaying debt a moral responsibility? What was the Axial Age really all about? What does it mean to have an agreement without trust?

I found this book fascinating but I still didn't really understand much about Graeber and the rest of his work. Later, he become more widely known through his article and then book on the phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. I found it interesting, but with 20 years working in local government I found The utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy to be more compelling and, well, confronting. Here Graeber explained why I was so attracted to bureaucracy at the same time it repelled me. Whilst The Utopia of Rules restates some of the observations and arguments of James Scott's Seeing like a state, there's a lot here that's new, and Graeber had a knack for putting things in clear, often blunt ways — particularly notable for someone whose entire working life was spent in academia.

It was hinted at in earlier work, but Graeber's joint article with David Wengrow, How to change the course of human history really blew my mind. My undergraduate degree was officially a "Bachelor of Arts" but the last two years were essentially just me taking every history class available. This article (soon to be published in longer form as a book), energetically argues that many historical "facts" about the rise of states and stratification of societies are at best conjecture, and at worst fly in the face of most evidence. The important thing about this argument, though, is that it widens the horizons of what is possible in the future. It suits a certain type of person and philosophy for us to believe that the rise of unitary states with different classes defined by wealth disparities is natural and inevitable. But ...what if it's neither?

Now I was hooked. Graeber wrote a lot of articles for a general readership in addition to his more "scholarly" work. Revolution in reverse can probably be blamed for me becoming comfortable with disengaging from electoral politics after being deeply involved in it for the decade prior:

Why is it that the idea of any radical social transformation so often seems “unrealistic”? What does revolution mean once one no longer expects a single, cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression? These seem disparate questions but it seems to me the answers are related.

Finally, there's Graeber's argument that There never was a West. This was written in 2016 but I only encountered it this year, and it feels as fresh as if written yesterday. A long treatise on the history and nature of democracy, like many of his works it shows how intricately connected are the intellectual histories of Europe, the Americas, and Mediterranean world.

David Graeber was taken from the world too soon. His work has influenced me profoundly. Perhaps, if you've not yet read it, it will change the way you see the world too.