A Nasruddin-joke-churning machine. Mischievous soul dancer. Pragmatic anarchist. Friend to the Kurds. Academic superstar. Wizard of chaos. There are a thousand and one ways we could describe David Graeber, and each of them would be just as fitting as the next.
David’s sudden death in Venice on September 2 has sent shockwaves through the activist community and the international left more generally. The massive outpouring of disbelief and mourning, with thousands expressing their grief on social media around the world, is a testimony to the profound impact David had on so many of us — through his writings, scholarship and activism, but also in a more personal sense, as a friend, mentor and comrade.
In this collective tribute, we have sought to gather a variety of voices reflecting the rich tapestry of the many lives David managed to lead all at once. Over the years, we too have been honored with his friendship and support. It is with pain in our hearts that we now offer this shared homage to his memory — and pledge to keep alive the flames that he helped spark.
David Rolfe Graeber
February 12, 1961 — September 2, 2020
In a Zoom class on Thursday morning, September 3, I was telling my journalism students how one of my best friends had penned a brilliant book, Bullshit Jobs, by soliciting interviews on Twitter. A minute after class ended, I was told that David had unexpectedly passed away the night before. I am still clumsily ill-equipped to describe how unfathomable this loss feels, both selfishly and for the world. Much will be written about David’s influence, which is permanent and profound — he was a gifted, prolific writer and I am convinced that he had several brains. But in person he was unassuming and kind, endlessly generous, buoyant and hilarious, a Nasruddin-joke-churning machine.
I first met David during the protests against the World Economic Forum summit in New York City in 2001, when I was a neophyte journalist on staff at a newspaper that covered UN conferences and global summits. We quickly bonded over the ways our working-class backgrounds contributed to a perennial sense that we were outliers in our professional lives.
When my daughter Nikita was small we lived together in the NYC apartment he grew up in, and I remember the comical way he addressed her when she was two and three and four as though she were a thirty-year-old. He never pandered, not to anyone, and least of all to a child he assured me would someday change the world — “Wittgenstein in the making,” he called her. She’d put on her tutu and he’d dress in his Roman gladiator costume and they’d sit at their writing desks like that. He had a whimsical streak and took childlike delight in acts of ordinary insurgence.
During my visits back to NYC and London we binge-watched Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and David wrote treatises about how the titular heroes and their friends were actually anarchist affinity groups. (“Look how inept all the authority figures are!” he’d point out.)
When he and a few others began organizing for Occupy, David insisted they do so without hierarchies and that decisions be made by consensus. We figured it might last a few weeks, and could never have predicted Obama would favorably address the movement in a speech later that month, or that the phrase David helped coin, “We are the 99%,” would become an international rallying cry, or that a photo of my then two-year-old holding a giant sign in Zuccotti Park would still surface years later on the internet.
Last night my daughter and I were watching Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, one of the darker films of the series but fitting, I think, for these chaotic times. At the end Harry tells his friends, “We have something Voldemort doesn’t have — something worth fighting for.” I asked Nikita what she thought he meant. “A real life,” she said, “which Voldemort doesn’t have.” “What makes a real life?” I asked. “Love,” she said. I know David would agree.
London, September 11, 2020
It’s been almost two weeks since you’re gone, having left us suddenly in Venice. Where did you go dear David? Perhaps about death too, you knew well — you had a theory of everything.
We first met in New York, the Twin Towers were soon to fall. I collected pamphlets of our making: we said No to War, Muslims Are Not the Enemy. You led nightly meetings with hundreds from many walks of life, shining naturally in moments of despair and periods of bliss alike. Larger than life — is that not what they say about people like you? But there was no one like you, dear David. You were not from this century; loved borrowing dress from other periods of time. Is it the past or the future which you came from?
I was 21, you were 40 when we met nineteen revolutions ago. You, an anthropologist at Yale, me an editorial assistant at a Marxist press. We met as anarchists of the Direct Action Network in New York City. You were a founder, I, a new arrival. Soon after, we spent every night at the Charas Community Center, arguing about which antiwar action to take. We organized demonstrations at Union Square, some 10,000 people marched with us towards Times Square.
Today is September 11, 2001. I am on Brooklyn Bridge, going to work, when I see a plane crash into a skyscraper in Lower Manhattan. People speak in disbelief on the subway as we go underground. The government and media speculate the crash may be the doing of anarchists. True then, our movement is strong. I reach you, perhaps the next day, we have a meeting in the Lower East Side. Muslim men and women are beaten and rounded up left and right. We make anti-racist, antiwar pamphlets, distribute them in groups across many neighborhoods.
Five years later, after the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, you and I teach a seminar at the Brecht Forum in West Village. We call it “Change the World Without Taking Power,” after a book by John Holloway. Years later, you publish Direct Action: An Ethnography, in which you thank, by our names, many an activist peopling each page. I take that to be an act of generosity. You, David, internationalist, anarchist, you gave anthropology a good name.
Commemorations have begun. I cannot but imagine what you would have done. Disciplined and festive you were when paying tribute, playing games, generous with your time, gentle with your care. I talk with friends about you. We enjoy making you alive. You will be missed but not absent, once here then there, like the magic you dared. Let this be a promise. We will remember your mischievous soul dancing to its own beat while listening to us all. We will miss you sorely dear friend, comrade, colleague, revolutionary thinker.
David Graeber, presente!
I often thought of David Graeber as a genius. But of the many things that David taught me, one was that there is in fact a genius in each of us. We can’t see this because we don’t have the collective structures to realize the brilliance within us, because we live in a world that violently excludes the many, that reserves the acquisition of individual heroism for the few, a world today driven by finance capital.
For David, anthropology was important for it was a means to resurrect other possible, more beautiful worlds, imagine societies other than our own exclusive one, figure out the larger implications, and then offer those ideas back to the world for an anti-capitalist politics.
These principles guided almost all his intellectual and political contributions — from his critique of “bullshit jobs” to his exposition of the violence of bureaucracy; from his idea of stranger kings to his history of debt. What David sought, in everything he did — from his writing to his activism and even how he dressed — was to establish an “everyday communism.”
In 2013, when we both moved from Goldsmiths to make a home at LSE, I was somewhat annoyed with David for giving up his baggy jeans and cozy red jumper, for he had begun dressing like an aristocrat, even acquiring a pocket watch for his waist coat. Until I realized that he was just having fun! He was reclaiming the riches of time, space, creativity, leisure, and all other resources enjoyed by aristocrats; reclaiming them for everyone.
In this world of rising inequality and acute injustice, we need David Graeber’s humor, wisdom and vision more than ever. We will miss David dearly but he has gifted us with his words which will continue to inspire us and generations to come, releasing the potential genius in all of us.
On August 13, 2011, I sat under the Hare Krishna tree in Tompkins Square Park, preparing to facilitate the New York City General Assembly for Occupy Wall Street. As I laid out a banner and drafted a rough agenda, David ran up to meet me with his hair a bit disheveled and sparkles in his eyes. He wanted to strategize about creating a democratic movement. He dreamt of assemblies breaking out all of New York, and the world, and declared that more than occupying, “the process was the action.”
Throughout the summer of 2011, we met every week to plan the occupation. We decided to use a modified consensus process. While the assemblies could run long and drift into heated debates, everyone who participated had a voice. Graeber would later write in The Democracy Project, “When operating by consensus, a group does not vote, it works to create a compromise, or even better, a creative synthesis, that everyone can accept.”
Each meeting, we would break out into groups covering tactical, legal, media and outreach, among others. David and I started the “trainings group” and enlisted the help of other seasoned movement veterans to encourage skill-building and rotation of roles. True to his anarchist principles, David would listen to and elevate the voices of others, prioritizing the collective. Even the phrase “We are the 99%” so often attributed to him, he would always maintain was coined in committee.
On September 17, the first day of the occupation, David and I huddled in a circle of facilitators at Zuccotti Park. By mid-afternoon the crowd had swelled to easily 2,000 people. At first we encouraged small groups to discuss the crisis and envision a new world. Then we brought everyone together for a general assembly to discuss whether or not to occupy. People shared stories of losing their jobs, being evicted from their homes and incurring mounting debt. There was also a strong desire to be in solidarity with uprisings throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Overwhelmingly, the group decided to stay and Occupy Wall Street was born.
By mid-October there were over 1,000 camps, each with their own general assemblies and working groups, practicing direct democracy. For David, Occupy was a form of democratic contagion, which spread rapidly: “The whole project was based in a kind of faith that freedom is contagious. We all knew it was practically impossible to convince the average American that a truly democratic society was possible through rhetoric. But it was possible to show them.”
Occupy Wall Street did not just shift the political discourse; it changed how we even conceived of politics. For this, in part, we have David Graeber to thank.
“It’s hard to think of another time,” David Graeber wrote back in 2002, “when there has been such a gulf between intellectuals and activists; between theorists of revolution and its practitioners.” David was an exception, of course. Not only as a radical intellectual who actually cared about what happened on the ground and in the streets, but as someone who put in time to do some of the thankless work out of the spotlights to take us one step closer to another world.
When David wrote these words, I was a first-year college student. I knew I hated capitalism and had already marched in my first black bloc, but wasn’t yet sure if I felt comfortable actively identifying with anarchism yet. Though I didn’t know it yet, I was one of many young anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalists that Graeber had so astutely coined “small-a anarchists.”
Bringing his ethnographic eye to the world of direct-action politics, David famously interpreted anarchism as something we do; as a way we are with each other; as a way we are not with the state. For Graeber, anarchism was a living, breathing mode of being that we were all free to embrace to meet our collective needs and desires.
I first met David after a talk in New York in 2006. My friend and I were both wearing Wobbly shirts and he walks up to us and says, smirking, “I take it you are with the IWW?” We all grabbed a bite and more than anything I was struck by the friendly silliness of this intellectual giant in the world of anarchist thought. Over the next year or two I often saw David out at Wobbly picket lines in New York in support of a campaign organizing food industry warehouse workers. As a young activist with publishing aspirations myself, he was an inspirational model of engaged scholarship and committed activism.
As we all know, David played a pivotal role in organizing Occupy Wall Street several years later. Though I was there on September 17, 2011, I was skeptical about this effort to transport the spirit of Tahrir Square or Puerta del Sol to lower Manhattan. In retrospect, of course, he was right about Occupy and I (and almost everyone else) was wrong.
For me, this points to perhaps the greatest lesson that I take from his incredible life. By this point, David had lived through many experiences of activist failure and read about countless historical examples of radical defeat. He could have become jaded and intellectually snobbish and retreated from the messy work of building a movement. But instead he never lost the spark of hope that a committed group of people working together without bosses could change the world — or at least the world around them.
The debt resistor
I first met David sometime in September 2011. I had just finished my PhD in anthropology and moved across the country to New York City for a postdoc. Some University of Chicago anthropology PhDs based in New York got together every once in a while for drinks, and they generously invited me to join them a few weeks after I arrived.
I remember sitting in a dark downtown bar — me, Yarimar Bonilla, Biella Coleman, Michael Ralph, and David. We were several drinks in when David told us that he had spent the last few days down on Wall Street; that Adbusters had put out a call to occupy the place and he and a handful of others had started meeting there daily. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, he said, but it was interesting. And then, less than a week later, the NYPD kettled hundreds of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, and Occupy splashed into the news.
I went down to Liberty Square, née Zuccotti Park, the next day, and never went back to my (very generous and supportive) postdoc. David was already living in London at the time, but he was there sporadically and always to great effect — dressed in costume, taking assiduous notes in working group meetings, making proposals at the General Assembly. Clearly in his element.
About a year later we met up in a San Francisco diner where I was supposed to interview him for a Radical History Review piece. He ordered coffee. I was famished and (unbeknownst to David) five months pregnant. I ordered the largest breakfast they had on offer. David moved to pay the bill — essentially 100% for my food — and when I objected he said: “I just love the irony. I wrote a book on debt and now I have disposable income to spend on my friends.”
I owe David the best kind of debt — unpayable — for changing what I knew to be possible, intellectually and politically. And I know I’m not a loan.
Where the world has lost a phenomenal mind and philosopher, we Kurds have lost a friend, an ally and a thinker proportional to the sacred mountains of our war-torn and terrorized homeland. David was a friend to the Kurds at a time when we had none.
When the Kurds were fighting against ISIS, meanwhile building an ecological, feminist and libertarian society, David stood with us. He was with us protesting in the streets of Europe and in the dusty, bullet-ridden streets of Kobane, after thousands of our freedom fighters had sacrificed their lives to liberate the town from ISIS. He wrote articles in support of the struggle, spoke at seminars, joined protests and facilitated innumerable meetings between activists and thinkers. Even now, he still brings us together with his indomitable soul.
David embodied humanity. His immeasurable generosity of spirit, his astonishing ethics as an anarchist and academic, his legacy with Occupy Wall Street, his open unwavering solidarity with the oppressed of the world, including the struggles of Rojava — all elevate him to one of the greatest visionaries of our times. As the oppressed, we needed intellectuals of such giant proportions to stand in solidarity and unwavering support with us. For those of us who knew what he contributed to our lives and to our struggles, his loss is an unbearable burden.
The greatest act of love now is to uphold his legacy by reading his seminal writings and to keep him alive and ever present in our work and struggle as Kurds, activists, feminists, as anarchists and as lovers of freedom and hope. For us Kurds, David Graeber is not lost. His legacy, his values, his ideas live in the olive orchards of Rojava, in its communes and in its cooperatives. And it is now up to us to try to uphold his values and to reaffirm our commitment to destroying the capitalist patriarchy; a commitment that needs to be proportional to his immeasurable love and friendship towards us Kurds.
We owe him the debt of creating the better world he imagined for all of us.
In September 2014, at the beginning of the ISIS siege of Kobane, David Graeber received an invitation to visit the revolution in Rojava. He responded exactly two minutes later with:
I’d really love to be able to do this but I’m not sure about the time! I have to start classes around October 1 or perhaps earlier
let me look into it
who is already signed up?
Of course, he did sign up. He couldn’t get enough and kept visiting on more occasions in the years to come.
All human beings, both as individuals and as collectives, are makers of history. David did not hesitate to travel to what was at the time one of the most dangerous places on Earth when it mattered, because he was convinced of this fact, both academically and politically.
Anarchism, David argued, is not an identity, but “something you do.” David’s anarchism was undogmatic, politically literate, out there, convincing people that to live fully in the small time-window that we get to inhabit this planet, even the most impossible-seeming dream deserves defending. He stood firmly with the revolution in Kurdistan, and he saw it as an expression of a universal issue: the human will to freedom, to utopia.
David embodied what the Kurdish freedom movement refers to as the “forces of democratic modernity.” Against the patriarchal system of states, empire and exploitation, it is the ordinary people — the youth, the women, the workers, the artists — who protect life on Earth with their everyday values and struggles.
It is impossible not to appreciate David’s contribution to building democratic modernity, especially in light of his profound critiques of capitalism and its ideology. For instance, bureaucracy as a logic of state, whether expressed in “bullshit jobs” or in suffocating debt, is a way of handling people and relations that kills our collective soul. Against such a robotic, inhumane way of organizing life, can’t we build worlds that are just, funny, creative and meaningful?
In a time in which education is increasingly marketized, David resisted by producing knowledge that anchors our collective utopias in everyday struggles. His reflex against power and authoritarianism, which could be felt in the shortest of interactions, enabled him to accessibly communicate complex ideas. He was a horizon-maker, a defender of beauty created by people in the midst of violence. He was a comrade of free women in Kurdistan, who refuse to see violence as fate, but dare to build freedom with their own hands.
There is an image I have, indelible, of David Graeber. We were in Rojava, in Jazira, the siege on Kobane still on. Our delegation had come to bear witness, or at least to look — then tell, to help spread the word. For revolution was in the air. The time of the now had arrived, had returned, at last, unpredictably so, like a thief in the night.
Our hosts were too hospitable. They gorged us with food, and kept us always overstimulated by plying us with rivers of tea. They took us to hear whom they thought we needed to hear, and to see what they thought we needed to see. And so, one morning, they brought us to a cemetery. The sky was, appropriately, grey. There was row upon row of freshly dug graves. The symbols of the movement adorned them. So many lives sacrificed in the struggle, swallowed up in the abyss.
The local media caught up with us there. They seemed eager to return the gaze. David agreed to be interviewed. The cameraman filmed, the translators translated, and he stood there, before the graves, his eyes beaming with excitement, as he looked past the camera, into infinity, his idiosyncratic voice, unmistakeable, punctuated every now and then by a nervous giggle. He had fire on his tongue, his words were inspired. He felt alive, so alive, perhaps too alive, that day.
The revolution lives on. David Graeber is gone, so soon — but he, too, lives on.
It would be hard for me to name a single contemporary thinker who has shaped my thinking more than David Graeber. When I accidentally discovered his early book, Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, as an undergraduate it had a profound effect on me.
Later in my life I would get to know him a bit, and he gave me a truly intimidating blurb for my book: “perhaps the most theoretically creative radical thinker of the moment.” The second-last time I saw him in person I told him, honestly, that I didn’t think I deserved that kind of praise. He smiled his trademark grin and told me “well, if it makes you feel any better, that ‘moment’ might already be over.”
At that meeting he had been heartbroken, but still enthusiastically gave us a slideshow on his phone of his recent trip to Rojava while we slurped pho near Finsbury Park. “It’s the real thing,” he told us, “our generation’s Spanish Revolution.” He puzzled aloud as to why so many Western leftists distrusted accounts of the radical, grassroots democratic experiment in Rojava, and concluded that a lot of the distrust simply came down to a prejudicial arrogance of people in Europe and North America who were uncomfortable recognizing that the cutting edge of radical politics had been created in an area and by people outside their orbits.
The final time I saw David he was in love, glowingly so. We were all reeking of teargas in what must have been one of Paris’s worst restaurants. It was the only one open — the rest having boarded up for the Yellow Vest riots — and everyone was starving. He had ordered the wrong food and a preposterous cocktail. Earlier that day he had gotten bored of our cautious little temporary affinity group of artists and researchers and had wandered off into the chaos looking for adventure.
That night, he once again did his thing where he would panic when the bill came and (knowing he was likely the best-paid among the gathering and also that he was hopeless with math and coordinating people) bashfully throw a fistful of money (more than the total bill, typically) on the table and flee. He wore his mantle as an academic superstar — a status he earned from his timely involvement in Occupy Wall Street and his majestic blockbuster Debt: The First 5000 Years — uncomfortably, but with an ironic and bemused grin.
What moves me profoundly, looking back on his life and contributions, is the enormous trust he placed in people, not intellectuals, to theorize and act upon their experience. He reveled in and learned from that magma of truly proletarian, grassroots creativity, the radical imagination, that bubbles to the surface of even the most repressive regimes. And he lived for those moments of eruption. Yes, of course, he was brilliant, gifted, principled, generous and sly. He took risks for others and for ideals. But what I value most is that he was also relentlessly playful in person and in prose, animated by wonder and curiosity, and he set his compass to a star burning bright with the promise of liberated human potential, which he saw on every horizon.
The only solace I find in his death is that I imagine, based on his deep and optimistic study of anthropology, he would likely agree that ghosts are as real as anything else in this world we’ve made — and that some ghosts are even friendly. His legacy will not only be the brilliant works he left us, but also the kind of spirit that, with a mischievous grin, asks: “but why can’t this world be anything we might imagine?”
For someone with such radical — in the fullest sense of the word — ideas and a multi-millennia view of history, David Graeber was a practical guy. This quality led one of the world’s best-known anarchists to become an ardent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s efforts to take the helm of the British state. Why was it practical for an anti-statist to back a statist political project? David told me that he knew if he or his movement comrades got arrested, or beaten up, or illegally spied on, that Jeremy and John would speak out.
But his support was more than purely defensive: the Corbyn project could be a serious advance towards a democratic, caring and free society, the struggle for which animated David’s existence. Corbyn’s strategy and that of progressive movements had shared goals and interests. David and I would discuss all the ways politicians usually co-opted movements to steal their energy and tame them. The Corbyn/McDonnell approach was very different. Their strategy required them to empower movements and progressive social forces, not rein them in. If a Labour government was going to implement decent social democratic reforms — and hopefully more — it would need a mass mobilization to defeat the onslaught from vested interests and stiffen the resolve of weaker elements of the party.
So Jeremy and John earnestly looked to expand the scope of action for movements while trying to make the party more like a movement and open to movement demands. As David noted, this approach is extremely rare for left-of-center politicians.
We can see the difference today over Labour’s approach to Extinction Rebellion. Jeremy Corbyn endlessly praised the rapid consciousness-raising instigated by XR and their school-age cousins, the Youth Climate Strikers. To my eyes, Jeremy’s happiest two days of 2019 were when the UK parliament became the first in the world to declare a climate emergency, a key XR demand, and addressing 100,000 teenage climate strikers a stone’s throw from parliament. When XR took direct action against Britain’s billionaire-owned press as a powerful force holding back necessary climate action, the new Labour leadership piously condemned the actions as an attack on the so-called free press, demanding Labour MPs who tweeted in support of XR delete their solidarity. Now the hard-right Home Secretary has plans to criminalize XR.
You can see David’s point.
It’s still hard to believe that you’re no longer with us. It was only a few weeks ago that you proudly announced the completion of your magnum opus with David Wengrow. You had just gone on holiday with Nika and some of your closest friends in Venice. You had so many exciting plans for the future. It feels incredibly cruel that all of this has been cut short so abruptly.
And yet here you are, more present than ever in our thoughts and conversations. You should have seen this, David. People are talking about you around the world. I was in France when it happened. You were all over the news. They got Bruno Latour to discuss your legacy on the radio. All the serious newspapers and magazines carried you on their front pages. I know you never lived for the recognition; you lived for the revolution. But still, I wish you’d seen it. So many people mourning your loss. The impact you had was profound.
I, for one, can still see you so clearly. Rallying through the streets of Paris with Max, Cassie and JJ, before quietly stealing away on your own, playfully weaving your way through the police lines — convinced that there must be a way out of the kettle (you were right, of course). I can see you speaking at Brandon and Marianne’s legendary Global Uprisings conference in Amsterdam. Chatting with Ayça in the LSE dining room. Marching alongside Jeff and Dilar at a Kurdish solidarity demo in the rain. Grieving beside Elif, Dilar and the others, at the funeral of our comrade Mehmet Aksoy. But also at festive occasions: at the dinner after Astra’s documentary screening; at the reception after Ayça’s book launch; at the university occupation in Amsterdam with Enzo.
Somehow, you were just always there. I often wondered how you even found the time to write all these bestselling books of yours. It was uncanny, wizard-like — as if you lived multiple lives at once. See, there you are again, at the debt conference in Birmingham. I find you somewhere in a hallway; you are hours late and hopelessly lost. To make matters worse, you’re hauling along a massive bright red suitcase that you’ll later manage to forget at the venue — an almost cartoonesque embodiment of the absent-minded professor!
To be honest, I now see you everywhere: on my bookshelves, in my newsfeed, in our magazine. And so I refuse to believe that you’re completely gone. As an anthropologist of Madagascar, I could almost hear you tell us that some East African cultures recognize not one or two, but three different planes of existence: the realm of the living, the realm of their ancestors, and, in between, the twilight zone of the recently departed — the sasha. The sasha “are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote.” I like to think that you’re a sasha now, tied to a global community of activists who will keep reviving your generous, exuberant and rebellious spirit.
Astra put it beautifully the other day: we’ve lost a central member of a precious tribe. This hole can never be filled. But as such tragic losses often do, they can also bind together those who stay behind. Over the past week I’ve been in touch with many of your friends. Some of them wrote deeply moving tributes, a handful of which we have collected for you here. It made me realize how widespread and connected our precious tribe really is — and how we’ll need to take care of one another if we are to make it through the darkness that is now closing in on us. You will always remain a beacon for us in that respect.
You lived your many lives as a true revolutionary, lighting little fires in our collective imagination as you playfully weaved your way through this twisted world of ours. Your brilliant work and tireless organizing were like a spark for us all. I promise you, crazy wizard, that we’ll keep the fire burning.
Our friend Astra Taylor has helped organize another beautiful collective tribute over at the New York Review of Books. You can read it here.
You can also listen to a special episode of A World to Win podcast by Grace Blakeley (featuring Astra Taylor, James Schneider and Jerome Roos) here.
Help Nika, David’s wife, set up an activist project in his honor: become a patron on David and Nika’s “Anthropology for All” Patreon page here.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/david-graeber-tribute/