Remembering David Graeber, a Force Behind Occupy Wall Street
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David Graeber, who died of undisclosed causes on Wednesday at the age of 59, was a prominent anthropologist who taught at the London School of Economics—and famously, an anarchist—but he disliked being referred to as “the anarchist anthropologist,” as he inevitably was. Most people, he thought, misunderstood what anarchism meant. Even those who didn’t associate it with running street battles and wanton crimes against property dismissed it as farcically utopian. “Most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea, they think it’s insane,” he told me. “Yeah, sure it would be great not to have prisons and police and hierarchical structures of authority, but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn’t work, right?”
Graeber thought it could. His Kansas-born father had enlisted with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, alongside anarchists who had briefly run Barcelona according to their principles. (Graeber’s mother had her own left-wing bona fides, once starring in an International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union musical that improbably became a Broadway hit). Indeed, Graeber believed that it was much of contemporary life, lived in the grip of economic and political realities no one bothered to question, that was truly insane. He made his name by assaulting what he saw as its central pillars, both in his brilliant, idiosyncratic writing and in his participation and leadership of large-scale, left-wing street demonstrations in Quebec City, Philadelphia, New York, and Genoa, Italy.
The most influential of those was in fall 2011. Graeber was one of a core of organizers who, in a series of interminable meetings run according to anarchist principles—all decisions had to be made by consensus, no matter the size of the group—planned what would become the months-long occupation of a small private park near Wall Street named Zuccotti Park. It was Graeber who, among other things, suggested they call themselves “the 99%.” In the following weeks, Graeber, in interviews and essays, provided some of the most articulate encapsulations of the ideas animating the nebulous movement known as Occupy Wall Street.
His book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, published a few months earlier, would become an intellectual touchstone for the occupation, arguing that the concept of debt, whether applied by ancient despots, colonial powers, or modern investment banks peddling mortgage-backed securities, had a long and sordid past. “If history shows anything,” Graeber wrote, “it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt—above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong. Mafiosi understand this.” Graeber’s book includes a description of 18th century English debtors’ prisons, where aristocratic inmates served out their brief sentences being waited on by liveried servants, while poor debtors were shackled to the walls of filthy, tiny cells. In the wake of the housing collapse and Too Big to Fail, the resonance was hard to miss.
Iprofiled Graeber for Bloomberg Businessweek during Occupy Wall Street, and he was already starting to think about other things: Why were the fruits of technological innovation so lame? Why are so many jobs so unfulfilling? Why do we still work so much? He’d tackle these topics infuture essays, books, and “work rants.” Were the arguments sometimes simplistic? Yes. Were straw men avoided and opposing points of view soberly weighed? They were not. Graeber was a polemicist, and a delightful one. To read his writing was to find oneself suddenly ping-ponging through thousands of years of history, so that the Hindu Vedas are in conversation with the stand-up comedian Steve Wright, the divorce proceedings of George W. Bush’s brother Neil open a window into the African Lele people’s concept of blood debt, and where corporations, emerging from Medieval canon law, “are the most peculiarly European addition to that endless proliferation of metaphysical entities so characteristic of the Middle Ages—as well as the most enduring.”
In 2015, the year after Ferguson, Mo., broke out in angry demonstrations after a white police officer shot and killed a young black man named Michael Brown, Graeber wrote apiece in Gawker entitled “Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life.” Citing a recent U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, he pointed out that, at the time, more than three-quarters of the residents of Ferguson had warrants outstanding for their arrest, most for such things as unpaid parking tickets or unmowed lawns. Because those fines made up a significant chunk of the city’s operating budget, there was institutional pressure to issue as many citations as possible and to make the fines costly. The police, in other words, were acting as the enforcement arm of a shakedown operation. “What the racism of Ferguson’s criminal justice system produced is simply a nightmarish caricature of something that is beginning to happen on every level of American life,” Graeber wrote. “Most Americans no longer feel that the institutions of government are, or even could be, on their side. Because increasingly, in a very basic sense, they’re not.”
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