The continual accumulation of such acts can change (almost) everything.
September 3, 2020 9:20 AM   Subscribe

David Graeber (dozens of previouslies), anthropologist of anarchism, chronicler of debt, interpreter of bullshit jobs, is dead, age 59.
posted by theodolite (68 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
posted by oceanjesse at 9:21 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]

What a loss.
posted by adamrice at 9:24 AM on September 3 [4 favorites]

This is so shocking.

One thing that stands out for me: his mode of online interaction was very different than most public intellectuals. Especially when Debt first came out he would engage with everyone and anyone in great detail. Sometimes it came off as defensive, but it was also kind of refreshing, and a reflection of his anarchist politics that he engaged with intellectual big names and people with no online presence or reputation with equal energy.
posted by latkes at 9:25 AM on September 3 [8 favorites]

And yet so many of the worst people live on. This sucks.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:26 AM on September 3 [25 favorites]

59! So young to die.

posted by clew at 9:30 AM on September 3 [4 favorites]

Just came here to post this. Far too young.

posted by St. Oops at 9:33 AM on September 3

posted by lalochezia at 9:38 AM on September 3 [2 favorites]

posted by JoeXIII007 at 9:38 AM on September 3

posted by Going To Maine at 9:43 AM on September 3

posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:43 AM on September 3 [2 favorites]

Goddammit. It felt like he was just getting started.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:48 AM on September 3 [7 favorites]

All I can think is "Dammit, why?"

Fuck this fucking timeline.

posted by allthinky at 9:50 AM on September 3 [2 favorites]

A devastating loss who was a towering figure in anthropology and political economy.


One touching piece from DG: Caring too much. That's the curse of the working classes
posted by Ahmad Khani at 9:51 AM on September 3 [5 favorites]

posted by suetanvil at 9:53 AM on September 3

posted by gamera at 9:55 AM on September 3

God damn it! Why do people keep not outliving Donald Trump?!?

When Tiny Croft was a much tinier little Tomb Raider, I used to read to her from Debt, the First 5,000 Years to help put her to sleep. That's not a slam on the book. Far from it.
posted by Naberius at 10:01 AM on September 3 [8 favorites]


posted by holmesian at 10:04 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]

posted by Cash4Lead at 10:05 AM on September 3

Indeed what a loss. I loved his work and his found his book on bureaucracy and decision-making in organizations to be worthy of quoting and regular rereading.
posted by mfoight at 10:07 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]

Had just watched his enthused video about how following on completion* of the Anthropology for All book focused on kings, their new project would be on pirates. Which he introduced by saying he hadn't been feeling well but thought he was getting better :(

I learned some things and got excited with him. Also, turns out he published an academic book on pirates but as of this moment it's available solely in French. So, at least two books to look forward to. *not yet published

posted by to wound the autumnal city at 10:14 AM on September 3 [3 favorites]


One thing that stands out for me: his mode of online interaction was very different than most public intellectuals. Especially when Debt first came out he would engage with everyone and anyone in great detail.

So very much this. I had an early AM chat once with him on twitter and he genuinely seemed interested in what I (an absolute nobody) had to say, and even added me back. Admittedly this meant I was paranoid about ever responding again in case he realised what a horrible mistake he'd made. But even so I did fail not to interact a few times more and he was just the same, just there being an actual person acting as if I were their equal.

You can also see it in the replies to Nika Dubrovsky (the artist and writer he was married to) so many stories about how his interactions with people had changed them.

It's like he's pretty much the greatest left scholar of the last 2 or 3 decades, but was also an actually good person.

What's the point if we can't have fun

It also really sucked the response he got from MeFi when he joined here briefly.
posted by Buntix at 10:15 AM on September 3 [19 favorites]

posted by LeviQayin at 10:18 AM on September 3

And yet, Kissinger and so many other horrifying villains still live. What a tremendous loss.
posted by Ouverture at 10:19 AM on September 3 [4 favorites]

Really shocked by this! A true public intellectual in the classic tradition and a great loss. He had so much life left!
posted by dis_integration at 10:23 AM on September 3

I remember when his Yale contract wasn't renewed - I knew a student in the Anthropology department there. It was super-sketchy - the department implied he wasn't up to their standards, despite all evidence to the contrary. All the students thought it was because he had actively supported the graduate unionization efforts and also one particular student who had a conflict with the department. The whole thing made the tenured faculty (who were the ones behind the decision, not the top administration) look venial and petty.

A couple of years later, his Debt book came out, and I couldn't help but think: wow, they had been idiots. All of that press, all of that attention - fortunately, it focussed on Graeber, and they had egg on their face.

His death is a sad loss - and so young!
posted by jb at 10:24 AM on September 3 [3 favorites]

I remember finding Domhoff's Who Rules America? website ~15 years ago and the data there was quite eye-opening.

So few people in this country getting paid to fight for the light vs. so many making bank creating despair.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 10:26 AM on September 3 [3 favorites]

Oh my GOD, I was just re-reading the last chapter of Debt the other day, sinking into it and remembering how good it was. What a great thinker. What an incredible loss.
posted by mittens at 10:34 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]

We owe him a debt that 5000 years might not suffice to repay.
posted by notoriety public at 10:38 AM on September 3 [3 favorites]

posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:38 AM on September 3

posted by ChuraChura at 10:43 AM on September 3

He was, briefly, Metafilter's Own. (That was not our best moment.)

posted by gauche at 11:02 AM on September 3 [7 favorites]

Oh. No. I wasn't anticipating this.
posted by Lonnrot at 11:07 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]

What a shame, what a loss!!

I thought he was a bit polemic, and careless about details, but I loved arguing with his work (in my head, as I read). "Debt" started me on a lot of intellectual paths even when I disagreed. Chapter 5, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations", set forth a theory that was truly insightful and helpful for understanding the world, which is a very rare thing for polemic books to do; and he set it in words that I understood, which is rare for academic works. If you read nothing else from the book, that chapter is worth reading. It seems he also published it separately as a scholarly article.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 11:23 AM on September 3 [7 favorites]

This is terrible news.

posted by ikahime at 12:22 PM on September 3

Damn it. He was splendid. And too young to exit.

posted by doctornemo at 12:32 PM on September 3

Yale: I can definitely see the union angle.
I was in grad union politics during the 1990s when Yale broke up the union then. Brutal stories seeped out.
posted by doctornemo at 12:33 PM on September 3


Dammit, he seemed to be a genuinely good person.
posted by scruss at 12:51 PM on September 3

posted by jpziller at 1:12 PM on September 3

I’m reading the bullshit jobs link referenced above and thinking about my job in a whole new light. I’ve been wondering what I’ve been doing wrong...but it might not be me. I am sorry he is gone.
posted by Vatnesine at 1:42 PM on September 3 [5 favorites]

posted by Kattullus at 1:57 PM on September 3

I remember thinking a few weeks ago that he'd have some very incisive things to say about the concept of "essential workers" and how the economy appears to stagger and crumble when we cut back to the essential. He might have written something like that, but I didn't catch it.

posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 2:06 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


The same age as my parents. This sucks.
posted by Acey at 2:13 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]

posted by Wobbuffet at 3:04 PM on September 3


An authentic voice gone silent.

posted by Barbara Spitzer at 3:04 PM on September 3

posted by crocomancer at 3:05 PM on September 3

I am going to selfishly mourn the loss of everything he had left to write. I loudly cursed when I saw this on Twitter.

David Graeber in Metatalk
posted by mecran01 at 3:26 PM on September 3 [2 favorites]

posted by Rumple at 4:26 PM on September 3

posted by lhputtgrass at 4:32 PM on September 3

This Graeber essay called Ferguson & the Criminalization of American Life comes highly recommended.
posted by sneebler at 4:59 PM on September 3 [2 favorites]

posted by evilDoug at 5:02 PM on September 3

posted by Quackles at 5:11 PM on September 3

Oooooohhhhhhh noooo!

posted by Fibognocchi at 5:28 PM on September 3

posted by Meatbomb at 5:45 PM on September 3

Graeber was a professor at Yale when I was an area activist - he was a young radical academic at a time when that seemes to novel. He was a public intellectual - or rather, a community one. The twin shock of somebody who always flitted around the edges with particularly observant assessments of familiar concepts - debt, bullshit jobs, joy, bullying - suddenly, prematurely gone coupled with the stunning realization that the scholar i knew as "young"(ish) was now nearing retirement age and what that meant about these two decades that seem to have passed by suddenly and then all at once, well... it's a tough hit.
posted by entropone at 6:21 PM on September 3 [7 favorites]

Sad. Time to read Debt...

posted by dougfelt at 8:29 PM on September 3

For those who have been putting off reading Debt, as I did for many years, it's available as an entertaining audiobook too.
posted by latkes at 8:44 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]

posted by Gotanda at 10:23 PM on September 3

Can We Still Write Big Question Sorts of Books?[1]
About a year ago, I gave my old friend[2] Keith Hart a draft of my new book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, and asked him what he thought of it. “It’s quite remarkable,” he ultimately replied. “I don’t think anyone has written a book like this in a hundred years.”


In the wake of the disaster, it was as if suddenly, everyone wanted to start asking big questions again. Even The Economist, that bastion of neoliberal orthodoxy, was running cover headlines like “Capitalism: Was It A Good Idea?” It seemed like it would suddenly be possible to have a real conversation, to start asking not just “what on earth is a credit default swap?” but “What is money, anyway? Debt? Society? The market? Are debts different from other sorts of promises? Why do we treat them as if they were? Are existing economic arrangements really, as we’ve been told for so long, the only possible ones?”

That lasted about three weeks and then governments put a 13-trillion dollar band-aid over the problem and started the usual chant of “move along, move along, there’s nothing to see here.”

Still, it strikes me this is likely to be only a temporary hiatus. Just as the true crisis shows every sign of having been merely postponed, so has the conversation been put on hold. Someone has got to try to start it up again, and who better than anthropologists—those scholars whose appointed role, at least in the past, has been to remind everyone that social possibilities are far more rich and wide-ranging than we normally imagine—to try to kick it off?
In Rousseau's footsteps: David Graeber and the anthropology of unequal society
David Graeber: the first 50 years

Graeber brings his own unique combination of interests and engagements to renewing this “anthropology of unequal society”. Who is he? He spent the 1960s as the child of working-class intellectuals and activists in New York and was a teenager in the 1970s, which turned out to be the hinge decade of our times, leading to a “neoliberal” counter-revolution against post-war social democracy. This decade was framed at one end by the US dollar being taken off the gold standard in 1971 and at the other by a massive interest rate increase in 1979 induced by a second oil price hike. The world economy has been depressed ever since, especially at its western core. Graeber says that he embraced anarchism at sixteen.


Graeber and Rousseau both detested the mainstream institutions of the world they live in and devoted their intellectual efforts to building revolutionary alternatives. This means not being satisfied with reporting how the world is, but rather exploring the dialectic linking the actual to the possible. This in turn implies being willing to mix established genres of research and writing and to develop new ones. Both are prolific writers with an accessible prose style aimed at reaching a mass audience. Both achieved unusual fame for an intellectual and their political practice got them into trouble. Both suffered intimidation, neglect and exile for their beliefs. Both attract admiration and loathing in equal measure. Their originality is incontestable, yet each can at times be silly. There is no point in considering their relative significance. The personal parallels that I point to here reinforce my claim that Graeber’s Debt book should be seen as a specific continuation of that “anthropology of unequal society” begun by Rousseau two and a half centuries ago.


Our world is still massively unequal and we may be entering a period of war and revolution comparable to the “Second Thirty Years War” of 1914-1945 which came after the last time that several decades of financial imperialism went bust. Capitalism itself sometimes seems today to have reverted to a norm of rent-seeking that resembles the arbitrary inequality of the Old Regime more than Victorian industry. The pursuit of economic democracy is more elusive than ever; yet humanity has also devised universal means of communication at last adequate to the expression of universal ideas. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have leapt at the chance to make use of this opportunity and several illustrious successors did so in their own way during the last two centuries. We need an anthropology that rises to the challenge posed by our common human predicament today. No-one has done more to meet that challenge than David Graeber, in his work as a whole, but especially in this book.
> This Graeber essay called Ferguson & the Criminalization of American Life comes highly recommended.[3]
Almost every institution in America—from our corporations to our schools, hospitals, and civic authorities—now seems to operate largely as an engine for extracting revenue, by imposing ever more complex sets of rules that are designed to be broken. And these rules are almost invariably enforced on a sliding scale: ever-so-gently on the rich and powerful (think of what happens to those banks when they themselves break the law), but with absolute Draconian harshness on the poorest and most vulnerable. As a result, the wealthiest Americans gain their wealth, increasingly, not from making or selling anything, but from coming up with ever-more creative ways to make us feel like criminals.
posted by kliuless at 11:56 PM on September 3 [8 favorites]


Goddammit. I've almost certainly checked out the previouslies but somehow never gone past that to reading his books. I'm part way through "Bullshit Jobs" (thanks for the link, theolodite), and, uh . . . Wow. Amazing stuff. (I seem to have wandered into a career that follows the "natural" order of work according to Graeber - bursts of intense labor interspersed with periods of nothing much happening. And while my job is largely nonsense in the greater scheme of things, it's (mostly) not bullshit, which is a nice realization to have.)

Thank goodness the library has just opened back up in my area.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:41 AM on September 4

My introduction to Graeber was an essay in The Baffler: Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit. It’s great: accessible and sharp.

I read it again this morning, and this bit, which seemed a metaphorical bit of color at the time the essay was written (2012), isn’t anymore:
From the perspective of those living in Europe, North America, and Japan, the results did seem to be much as predicted. Smokestack industries did disappear; jobs came to be divided between a lower stratum of service workers and an upper stratum sitting in antiseptic bubbles playing with computers.
posted by notyou at 5:53 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]

posted by pmb at 7:22 AM on September 4

Thank you, notyou, that was a great piece.
posted by mittens at 12:20 PM on September 4

posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:32 PM on September 4

posted by dubitable at 11:31 AM on September 5

Also from that Baffler article:
Given a choice between a course of action that would make capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and one that would transform capitalism into a viable, long-term economic system, neoliberalism chooses the former every time.
The distinction between protecting the ideology and protecting the fact is brilliant, and is maybe part of why people disagree about what 'neoliberalism' is properly a name for.
posted by clew at 3:55 PM on September 5 [2 favorites]

posted by detachd at 7:53 AM on September 6

What a loss. :-(
posted by clawsoon at 6:43 AM on September 7

his last essay: a new introduction to Kropotkin's "Mutual Aid."

"The ultimate, hidden truth of the world, is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently."
David Graeber

posted by kliuless at 4:45 AM on September 9 [3 favorites]

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