Many were stunned and heartbroken to learn of the death of David Graeber on Wednesday, September 2. His death was confirmed by his wife, artist and writer, Nika Dubrovsky. Graeber died in Venice; he was 59 years old.
Graeber came to national attention during the Occupy Wall Street uprising in 2011, when he spoke about the reasons and goals for the movement with such outlets as Democracy Now.
A practicing anthropologist trained at the University of Chicago, David Graeber began his teaching career at Haverford College, in Haverford, Pennsylvania. For a time, he taught at Yale, but ran afoul of the tenure committee and the culture of the university because, as he put it, of his activism and his working class background. Given the culture of elite universities, this is certainly a believable suspicion. At the time of his death, David was a professor at the London School of Economics and made his home in London.
For our purposes here at Junct Rebellion, and at The Homeless Adjunct, Graeber’s work on income inequality, the neoliberal takeover of society and the evils of debt were essential.
Published in 2011 Debt: The First 5000 Years, raised his public profile beyond the Occupy Movement, and established him as an important public intellectual. In many interviews, he spoke about the ways that debt is always considered negotiable for those of wealth and power. It’s only among the poor, he said, that debt is considered a “sacred duty.” Graeber envisioned a world where such hypocrisy no longer existed, where debt was not something close to a death sentence for many citizens.
Graeber’s 2013 book, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement spoke of his time with the Occupy Movement, and his hopes for the ways the Occupy energy could continue to influence our visions of a new world. The Utopia of Rules came next, in 2015. And then, in 2018, the book which spoke truth to stupid, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. This book great out of a 2013 article of a similar title: “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.”
In an interview with The Guardian, Graeber spoke about the insanity of the kinds of meaningless jobs to which most people sacrifice themselves: “Huge swaths of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”
David Graeber is credited for coining the phrase “We are the 99%.” He has said that, while he suggested calling themselves “the 99%,” the phrase itself was the result of collective brainstorming.
Tributes are pouring in from many of the more left-wing publications, which is certainly to be expected. The New Republic said that Graeber “changed the way we see money.” But David is also receiving tribute from news organizations like CNN.
I think the best way to end this piece is to allow David Graeber to tell his remarkable story himself.
David Graeber gave voice to those our society denies voice or agency. He spoke and wrote eloquently about the many ways in which the majority of people are failed by their governments. He saw an inevitability to the breakdown of this society and its economic system since it has caused so much suffering for so long. But he warned that something much worse could take its place if we, the people, didn’t work together creating, imagining, envisioning and building the society that we want. I believe the best way to honor him is to heed his warning and take his advice, and get to work.