The death of David Graeber

David Graeber in 2015. Image: Frantzesco Kangaris/The Guardian

JVL Introduction

It is with great sadness that we report the death of David Graeber at the age of 59.

He was a genuinely original thinker and activist, a leader of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, a biting analyst of capitalist social relations, and more recently an outspoken critic of the weaponisation of antisemitism in Britain.

In John McDonnell’s words: “His iconoclastic research and writing opened us all up to fresh thinking and such innovative approaches to political activism. We will all miss him hugely.”

This article was originally published by the Guardian on Thu 3 Sep 2020. Read the original here.

David Graeber, anthropologist and author of Bullshit Jobs, dies aged 59

The anarchist and author of bestselling books on capitalism and bureaucracy died in a Venice hospital on Wednesday

David Graeber, anthropologist and anarchist author of bestselling books on bureaucracy and economics including Bullshit Jobs: A Theory and Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has died aged 59.

On Thursday Graeber’s wife, the artist and writer Nika Dubrovsky, announced on Twitter that Graeber had died in hospital in Venice the previous day. The cause of death is not yet known.

Renowned for his biting and incisive writing about bureaucracy, politics and capitalism, Graeber was a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement and professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE) at the time of his death. His final book, The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity, written with David Wengrow, will be published in autumn 2021.

The historian Rutger Bregman called Graeber “one of the greatest thinkers of our time and a phenomenal writer”, while the Guardian columnist Owen Jones called him “an intellectual giant, full of humanity, someone whose work inspired and encouraged and educated so many”. The Labour MP John McDonnell wrote: “I counted David as a much valued friend and ally. His iconoclastic research and writing opened us all up to fresh thinking and such innovative approaches to political activism. We will all miss him hugely.”

Tom Penn, Graeber’s editor at Penguin Random House, said the publishing house was “devastated” and called Graeber “a true radical, a pioneer in everything that he did”.

“David’s inspirational work has changed and shaped the way people understand the world. In his books, his constant, questing curiosity, his wry, sharp-eyed provoking of received nostrums shine through. So too, above all, does his unique ability to imagine a better world, borne out of his own deep and abiding humanity,” Penn said. “We are deeply honoured to be his publisher, and we will all miss him: his kindness, his warmth, his wisdom, his friendship. His loss is incalculable, but his legacy is immense. His work and his spirit will live on.”

Born in New York in 1961 to two politically active parents – his father fought in the Spanish civil war with the International Brigades, while his mother was a member of the international Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union – Graeber first attracted academic attention for his teenage hobby of translating Mayan hieroglyphs. After studying anthropology at the State University of New York at Purchase and the University of Chicago, he won a prestigious Fulbright fellowship and spent two years doing anthropological fieldwork in Madagascar.

In 2005, Yale decided against renewing his contract a year before he would have secured tenure. Graeber suspected it was because of his politics; when more than 4,500 colleagues and students signed petitions supporting him, Yale instead offered him a year’s paid sabbatical, which he accepted and moved to the UK to work at Goldsmiths before joining LSE. “I guess I had two strikes against me,” he told the Guardian in 2015. “One, I seemed to be enjoying my work too much. Plus I’m from the wrong class: I come from a working-class background.”

His 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, made him famous. In it, Graeber explored the violence that lies behind all social relations based on money, and called for a wiping out of sovereign and consumer debts. While it divided critics, it attracted strong sales and praise from everyone from Thomas Piketty to Russell Brand.

Graeber followed it in 2013 with The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, about his work with Occupy Wall Street, then The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy in 2015, which was inspired by his struggle to settle his mother’s affairs before she died. A 2013 article, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, led to Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, his 2018 book in which he argued that most white-collar jobs were meaningless and that technological advances had led to people working more, not less.

“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,” he told the Guardian in 2015 – even admitting that his own work could be meaningless: “There can be no objective measure of social value.”

An anarchist since his teens, Graeber was a supporter of the Kurdish freedom movement and the “remarkable democratic experiment” he could see in Rojava, an autonomous region in Syria. He became heavily involved in activism and politics in the late 90s. He was a pivotal figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 – though he denied that he had come up with the slogan “We are the 99%”, for which he was frequently credited.

“I did first suggest that we call ourselves the 99%. Then two Spanish indignados and a Greek anarchist added the ‘we’ and later a food-not-bombs veteran put the ‘are’ between them. And they say you can’t create something worthwhile by committee! I’d include their names but considering the way police intelligence has been coming after early OWS organisers, maybe it would be better not to,” he wrote.

Comments (14)

  • Jan Brooker says:

    Reading this article by David Graeber, from a year ago on Sunday, would be one of the best tributes to him and his work: *For the first time in my life, I’m frightened to be Jewish
    And non-Jews attacking the Labour party aren’t helping.*
    https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/first-time-my-life-im-frightened-be-jewish/

  • Mary Davies says:

    He was brilliant – I admired him very much.

  • Kate Adams says:

    What a wonderful person! I did not know of him before he died and an anarchist friend told me. We have lost a true comrade. I must read his books and articles and learn more.

  • Max Cook says:

    RIP –a TRUTH writer and intellectual I will miss his videos, I know that you will be back in another embodiment of TRUTH.

  • Ellie Palmer says:

    So very sad to hear that David Grauber one of the most authentic working class critics of the failings of bureaucracy and capitalism in our times has died at the age of 59.

  • Tim says:

    Can’t get my head around this awful news. He seemed so full of youthful spirit. His loss is indeed incalculable. Please don’t let it be coronavirus.

  • Graeme Atkinson says:

    RIP, comrade.

    Your work was valued, your fighting spirit admired and your principles an inspiration.

  • RC says:

    Who is surprised at the total failure of the Groaniad to mention DG’s forceful argument that the so-called campaigns against the LP’s alleged AS put him and other Jews in Britain in genuine fear – as real AS got and gets a free pass in the interests of the Israeli state and its supporter? His arguments to this effect were amongst his last published works.
    Cain is a good name for the author of this article.

  • Dr Rodney Watts says:

    Deeply shocked and saddened. Who else could cut Margaret Hodge down to size so incisively? You didn’t have to agree with everything he said, but what a challenger to set thinking! We in Britain and LSE were so lucky that Yale’s intellectually challenged bigots caused David’s coming over here. R.I.P. David!

  • Ian Hickinbottom says:

    Deepest condolences to David’s family and friends.
    Had the pleasure of seeing and hearing him speak at Hay in 2017. A brilliant mind who spoke in plain English. He will be missed by all who knew him personally or through his writing.
    RIP David x

  • Tony Dennis says:

    A brilliant man, and a good comrade. He will be much missed.

  • Bob Bran says:

    Possibly his most vital work: Debt: The First 5000 Years exposes the real roots of antisemitism as well as the roots and the evil and greed of capitalism and is available FREE!!! at https://libcom.org/files/__Debt__The_First_5_000_Years.pdf

  • George Wilmers says:

    May I put in a plea for the introduction to this article to link to David Graeber’s own 10 minute video
    https://www.doubledown.news/watch/2020/12/april/the-weaponisation-of-labour-antisemitism-david-graeber
    only a fraction of which is incorporated in the shorter WitchHunt2020 clip to which the introduction provides a link? On the occasion of an obituary it is fitting and respectful to allow the deceased to express himself as directly as possible without the mediation of others however well intentioned.

    [We have done so – JVL web]

  • Di Allen says:

    I have only recently found David’s work and am deeply saddened that I will no longer be able to experience his levelled headed, intellectual discussions through his videos and articles. Despite his intellect he spoke the common people’s language, such a rarity in the academic circle.
    My condolences to his wife and family. RIP David.

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