David Graeber, who died last Wednesday at 59, unexpectedly in Venice, was my favorite thinker of the 21st century. A creative polymath, he emerged as an anthropologist in the 1990s with field studies of village life in rural Madagascar. By the time he was finished, he was an eminent if radical economist with a professorship at the London School of Economics, known best as the author of the hit book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). Underlying that remarkable book was decades of work on the concept of value and a range of scholarship that was unbelievable, talking us around the world and down through human history.
I read him primarily as a political philosopher: it seemed to me that Graeber and his colleague James C. Scott (they were both at Yale in the early-2000s) made the greatest contribution to anarchist political theory since Peter Kropotkin in the late-19th century. Graeber's thought and presence were also central to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and he traveled all over the world as an activist, including trying to help organize the Kurdish enclave of Rojava as what he called a "provisional autonomous zone" in a gap between Syria and Turkey, as Russian, Iranian, American, and ISIS militaries swirled about. He also wrote the delightful and disturbing book Bullshit Jobs (2018), which had a great popular run and the title of which has entered the vernacular.
I first ran into him when I bought his tiny book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology at the Red Emma bookstore in Baltimore. At the time, I was teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art, in the middle of a very lonely career as an out-of-the-closet anarchist academic. Page one of Graeber's book quoted Kropotkin's definition of “anarchism”: "A principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government–harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between various groups." Then on page two, Graeber asked, "Why are there so few anarchists in the academy?" (And why are there so many Marxists?) His answer was roughly that professors tend to worship authority, or that the hierarchical nature of academic institutions was going to be hostile, for example, to genuinely democratic decision-making. It was as though he'd written that book directly to me.
Graeber's anarchist anthropology made use of the work of such figures as Marcel Mauss, Pierre Clastres, and his own mentor Marshall Sahlins. The view appears partly as a critique of the discipline for a number of its authoritarian presuppositions. Historically, anthropology associated "civilization" with large-scale state-building; "primitive" or "savage" groups had more decentralized collective decision-making procedures. Anthropology for a long time consisted of a progressive narrative in which "development" would take every group from small-scale hunting and gathering, through agriculture (and slave labor), to the modern nation-state, which rests on violence and coercion.
Graeber argued, not only in the abstract but with his own field work (as also Scott's in South Asia, Clastres' in South America, and much else besides) to back him up, that small-scale village or tribal societies, often perched on the outskirts of larger political units, had consciously withdrawn from wide-scale political power, and had typically developed specific procedures to keep state-like structures of coercion from emerging among them. “Anarchist anthropology” threatened to reverse the whole narrative of "progress" that took us from savage bands of nomads to nuclear-armed superpowers. In some ways, the idea of combining a political ideology like “anarchism” with a scientific discipline like “anthropology” seems unfortunate. But what it did in this case was uncover a series of basic and unjustifiable hierarchical assumptions at the heart of the discipline.
Graeber did most of his fieldwork in post-colonial Madagascar, devastated a century before by the slave trade; he didn't take the traditional approach of seeking out a supposedly pristine or isolated tribe somewhere deep in the jungle. He found that, in the villages he studied, the colonial legacy led to an anti-authoritarian culture, describing a "well-nigh universal" attitude: "slavery was evil, and monarchs were seen as inherently immoral because they treated others like slaves. In the end, all relations of command (military service, wage labor, forced labor) came to be fused together in people's minds as variations on slavery; the very institutions which had previously been seen as beyond challenge were now the definition of illegitimacy." Where the traditional narrative of progress might see that as cultural disintegration, Graeber saw it as pointedly human progress, and showed in detail how the villagers he studied dealt with such matters as public works and criminal justice independently of the government. Pretty soon he was bringing the consensus-building procedures he found in Madagascar to Zuccotti Park's Occupy encampment.
His vision of anarchism, he said, focused on practice rather than goals; he insisted that the values people were trying to make actual, values like equality and freedom, could only be realized by procedures and institutions in which people knew themselves to be equal and free. Trying to sort out debates about such terms as “democracy,” “socialism,” and “anarchy,” he argued: "These are arguments about words much more than they are arguments about practices. On questions of practice, in fact, there’s a surprising degree of convergence. Whether one is talking with members of Zapatista communities in Chiapas, unemployed piqueteros in Argentina, Dutch squatters, or anti-eviction activists in South African townships [and Graeber did talk to all these people], almost everyone agrees on the importance of horizontal rather than vertical structures; the need for initiatives to rise up from relatively small, self-organized, autonomous groups rather than being conveyed downwards through chains of command; the rejection of permanent, named leadership structures; and the need to maintain some kind of mechanisms–whether these be North American-style ‘facilitation,’ Zapatista-style women's and youth caucuses, or any of an endless variety of other possibilities—to ensure that the voices of those who would normally find themselves marginalized or excluded from traditional participatory mechanisms are heard."
Even in that quote, you can hear some of the ways that Graeber's way of thinking about democratic decision-making procedures has come to echo through our public discourse, even if not always in Graeber's anti-authoritarian mode.
This only scratches the surface of a rollicking, various, and shockingly rigorous authorship. I recommend his collection Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (2007). It includes fundamental papers from his fieldwork, his initial attempts to synthesize a new theory of value, wide-ranging critiques of both Marxism and capitalism, essays in anti-authoritarian aesthetics. Graeber brings a completely distinctive authorial voice to this whole range: voluble, passionate, often funny, with a completely distinctive combination of loose or provisional formulation underlain by rigorous research.
It wasn't only his political positions or his anthropological taxonomies that I found liberating; it was his way of writing, which I have experienced as a new model for academic prose. Why are we publishing stuff that’s painful to read (and painful to write)? Possibly, I feel, as an index of our asceticism: if it hurts it must be worthwhile. But Graeber kept finding the zones of autonomy and joy, all over the world and all through history, and he brought autonomy and joy also to his scholarly writing. David Graeber sallied forth into any discipline he needed and into every autonomous zone he could find, and by these means created a unique legacy, but also a model for how to be simultaneously an academic and a human being.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell