David Graeber poses for a photo an Occupy Movement public debate on June 13, 2012 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

David Graeber (1961-2020)

A requiem for the radical anthropologist

Artillery Row

The sudden death in Venice of the anthropologist, David Graeber, at the beginning of September was a big blow to the Occupy Movement.

Although Graeber was only 59 years old, he was already the grand old man of anti-capitalist activism on both sides of the Atlantic. He had acted as Occupy’s most articulate spokesman from the time of the 2008 crash onwards. To many he was the embodiment of the “agit-prof” – the radical left-wing academic descending from his ivory tower to cheer on a younger generation of students (some of them well past graduation age) blocking Wall Street to denounce its denizens’ greed and calling for the abolition of student debt.

Graeber’s working-class background marked him out as unusual among the radical chic

Noting his loss as something for conservative-minded people to regret – even though they had never met him and probably would have jibbed at his style – puzzled a friend of mine who had never heard of Graeber and baulked at my opening account of his colourful activism. Starting with his best-known agit-prof activities in order to come to a big “BUT” was a mistake. My friend sniffed before I got to what it was that I admired about Graeber despite playing the eternal radical student away from his desk, “Well, I suppose you’re a Tory anarchist and les extrêmes se touchent.”

As a child of the 1960s, Graeber’s working-class background marked him out as unusual among the radical chic who were abandoning their bourgeois backgrounds and its educational and cultural accomplishments at the same time. Embarking on the path of an anthropologist, he took time to learn foreign languages and discovered that there were things untranslatable from Malagasy to French.

Unlike too many American radicals, who are in practice as parochial as the passport-less red staters they despise, Graeber knew from experience that foreigners don’t think in English, and so come to different conclusions. That genuine sensitivity to cultural difference set him apart from so many of his allies preaching a “diversity” that required blind conformity with everyone literally singing from the same (secular) hymn-sheet.

What interested and even amused Graeber was to see how, as a particular ideology succeeded, it actually imposed an order more reminiscent of what it claimed to defeat.

Thirty years on from Reagan and Thatcher, Graeber noted that, whatever their intentions, they ushered in an age of regulation; not of business but of people. Social control has exploded in the West, most obviously with Covid lockdowns and the simultaneous censorship of free speech by the “woke”.

Graeber had a genuine suspicion of state machines of every colour

Well before police from Melbourne to Manchester were enforcing lockdowns, Graeber noted how often they were acting to enforce rules and regulations, not fighting crime. Graeber would have seen the British bobbies’ storming of gyms to stop people exercising or peering into pubs to see if too much socialising was going on as a natural progression. Whereas many radical leftists became enthusiasts for massive state-enforced social control to fight Covid-19, Graeber had a genuine suspicion of state machines of every colour. Supporters of a small state for free market reasons shouldn’t shun his writings about the surge in bureaucracy and regulation even as capitalism was apparently triumphing from the 1980s.

It was not his style, but rather his content, that appealed to me about Graeber. Above all, he knew things which went against the grain of his political stances and those of his friends and he did not suppress them – instead he thought and talked about them. Whether they listened or not is a moot point.

Some of his more theatrical antics were intended to make a serious point, but since understanding them often required the range of knowledge which Graeber had built up over decades of reading, his younger acolytes were left puzzled by their meaning however certain they were of their profundity. For instance, in 2012 he appeared at a New York anti-student debt Occupy demonstration dressed as a Roman centurion. Some of his fellow protest leaders had come in top hats and suits to parody the hated capitalists and were not sure what Graeber’s antique dress meant. In fact, he was hoping to embody the ancient tradition of a debt jubilee from the Jewish tradition via the Roman world. His analysis of the seventh commandment forbidding the coveting of wives placed it in the context of the widespread practice of seizing wives and daughters of defaulting debtors rather than adultery, already condemned.

Sadly, the decline – or, rather, the disappearance – of any education about the Judeo-Christian tradition or the ancient world in general meant that Graeber was embodying something forgotten not just by modern capitalists, but also by the very crowd baying for their blood or at least their profits.

The death of knowledge of history as a vehicle for radicalism was one of Graeber’s laments. To be fair, one might add that the disappearance of sense of the past as a foundation of conservatism since American “conservatives” are generally as much as enthusiasts for smashing tradition and the old order in general, albeit to produce a different utopia from their left-wing neo-Bolsheviks bêtes noires. 

Graeber recognised that fine art and well-designed public buildings raised the spirits of everyone

In his shameless reverence for knowledge as a good thing in itself, Graeber recalled an earlier American embodiment of a Marxism with a cultural hinterland. Christopher Lasch lambasted the American establishment for its greed, its foreign wars and its dumbing down of ordinary people. Lasch despaired when his radical friends objected to him teaching his own children to play Mozart and for saying that the children of the poor should have access to high culture.

Although Graeber’s own taste in the arts were more for film and the (pseudo-) radical rock music of his youth, he shared with Lasch a recognition that fine art and well-designed public buildings raised the spirits of everyone.

In one essay, he admitted that during America’s Gilded Age, the super-rich had at least sponsored magnificent public libraries which symbolised respect for culture even if commemorating the money which had paid for them. When he came to Europe, Graeber constantly felt reminded of the marble columns of New York Central Post Office or the city’s Public Library by the royal palaces he visited. As such, Graeber was led into his recognition that high capitalism had style while regulated capitalism engendered ugliness and depression.

The expansion of bureaucracy in recent decades when apparently the free market was sweeping all before it was one of the anthropologist’s key insights. It is where the scholar Graeber saw through all utopianism whether of left or right – and he emphasized that no utopian dreams, even his own, could ever be realised without causing more harm than good.

It seems to me that David Graeber’s legacy is more likely to find reflective readers on the right than left. Activists will look for another guru to follow as activists have always done. But his analysis of what money and credit are, of the role of debt in the creation of the juggernaut state and the infinite adaptability of bureaucrats to any superficial change in masters will always repay reading.

His wealth of pointed examples and ability to draw on literature to illustrate his points made him a pleasure to read. That quality, rather than any radical posturing, left him un-tenured at Yale and an academic exile at LSE. The last thing the tenured radicals want is someone who deflates their polysyllabic posturing with wit and short Anglo-Saxon words.

David Graeber might turn in his grave at a eulogy from a Tory, but it was the establishment in all its guises that revolted him rather than gadflies of any specific nature.

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