David Graeber  

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"In an attempt to interpret value as meaning-making, David Graeber in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value synthesizes the insights of Karl Marx and Marcel Mauss. Starting with Marxist definitions of consumption and production, he introduces Mauss's idea of "objects that are not consumed" and posits that the majority of human behavior consists of activities that would not be properly categorized as either consumption or production."--Sholem Stein

“Does anyone know any handy rebuttals to the neoliberal/conservative numbers on social progress over the last 30 years? again & again i see these guys trundling out #s that absolute poverty, illiteracy, child malnutrition, child labor, have sharply declined. . . . that life expectancy & education levels have gone way up, worldwide, thus showing the age of structural adjustment etc was a good thing. It strikes me as highly unlikely these numbers are right, or anyway that such improvements are due to privatization, etc. It’s clear this is all put together by right-wing think tanks. Yet where’s the other sides numbers? I’ve found no clear rebuttals.” --David Graeber on Twitter

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David Rolfe Graeber (February 12, 1961 – September 2, 2020) was an American anthropologist, anarchist activist and author known for his books Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), The Utopia of Rules (2015) and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018). He was a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics.

His activism includes protests against the 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001, and the 2002 World Economic Forum in New York City. Graeber was a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and is sometimes credited with having coined the slogan, "We are the 99 percent". (He accepted credit for the description "the 99%" but stated that others had expanded it into the slogan.



Graeber is the author of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. He has done extensive anthropological work in Madagascar, writing his doctoral thesis (The Disastrous Ordeal of 1987: Memory and Violence in Rural Madagascar) on the continuing social division between the descendants of nobles and the descendants of former slaves. A book based on his dissertation, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar, was published by Indiana University Press in September 2007. A book of collected essays, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire was published by AK Press in November 2007 and Direct Action: An Ethnography appeared from the same press in August 2009, as well as a collection of essays co-edited which Stevphen Shukaitis called Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations//Collective Theorization (AK Press, May 2007). These were followed by a major historical monograph, Debt: The First 5000 Years (Melville House), which appeared in July 2011. Speaking about Debt with the Brooklyn Rail, Graeber remarked:

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) and what they did to countries in the Global South—which is, of course, exactly the same thing bankers are starting to do at home now—is just a modern version of this old story. That is, creditors and governments saying you’re having a financial crisis, you owe money, obviously you must pay your debts. There’s no question of forgiving debts. Therefore, people are going to have to stop eating so much. The money has to be extracted from the most vulnerable members of society. Lives are destroyed; millions of people die. People would never dream of supporting such a policy until you say, "Well, they have to pay their debts."

In December 2017, Graeber and his former teacher Marshall Sahlins released a collection of essays entitled On Kings, outlining a theory, inspired by A. M. Hocart, of the origins of human sovereignty in cosmological ritual. Graeber contributed essays on the Shilluk and Merina kingdoms, and a final essay that explored what he called "the constitutive war between king and people." He is currently working on a historical work on the origins of social inequality with David Wengrow.

From January 2013 until June 2016, Graeber was a contributing editor at The Baffler magazine in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From 2011 until 2017 he was editor-at-large of the open access journal HAU: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory, for which he and Giovanni da Col co-wrote the founding theoretical statement and manifesto of the school of "ethnographic theory".

Charles Kenny, writing in the political magazine Democracy, claimed that Graeber sought out data that "fit the narrative on the evils of neoliberalism" and challenged or criticised data which suggested otherwise.

Bureaucracy, managerialism, and "bullshit jobs"

Much of Graeber's recent scholarship has focused on the topic of "bullshit jobs," proliferated by administrative bloat and what Graeber calls "managerial feudalism". One of the points he raises in his 2013 book The Democracy Project – on the Occupy movement – is the increase in what he calls bullshit jobs, referring to forms of employment that even those holding the jobs feel should not or do not need to exist. He sees such jobs as being typically "concentrated in professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers". As he explained also in an article in STRIKE! magazine:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. 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.

Because of the article's popularity, Graeber then wrote the book Bullshit Jobs: A theory, published in 2018 by Simon & Schuster. Writing for The New Yorker, Nathan Heller described the resulting book as having "the virtue of being both clever and charismatic".. Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Alana Semuels noted that although it could be criticised for generalisations about economics "Graeber’s anthropological eye and skepticism about capitalism are useful in questioning some parts of the economy that the West has come to accept as normal." The Guardian gave a mixed review of Graeber's Bullshit Jobs, accusing him of having a "slightly condescending attitude" and attesting to the book's "laboured arguments", while referring to aspects of the book's thesis as "clearly right". Bullshit Jobs spent four weeks in the top-20 of the Los Angeles Times' bestseller list. The book was awarded "Book of the Year 2018" by each of the Financial Times, New Statesman, and City AM.


The neoliberal Berkeley economic-historian Brad DeLong wrote a detailed critique of Graeber's book Debt that ran over many episodes on his own blog. DeLong claims there are "dozens" of errors in chapter 12. He lists in particular that Graeber got wrong the number of presidential appointee in the US Federal Reserve and that contrary to what appeared in the first edition of the book, Apple was not founded by ex-IBM engineers. Graeber has replied to these critics arguing they are based on divergence of interpretation, truncation of his arguments by DeLong and garbling in the "copyediting process" (for an argument about Apple's origins). He admits though that his "biggest actual mistake DeLong managed to detect in the 544 pages of Debt, despite years of flailing away, was (iirc) that [Graeber] got the number of Presidential appointees on the Federal Open Market Committee board wrong" (Graeber wrote it was one when actually it was three). Graeber argues that this had no influence on the point he was making in the sentence.


In addition to his academic work, Graeber had a history of both direct and indirect involvement in political activism, including membership in the labor union Industrial Workers of the World, a role in protests against the World Economic Forum in New York City in 2002, support for the 2010 UK student protests, and an early role in the Occupy Wall Street movement. He was co-founder of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence.

In November 2011, Rolling Stone magazine credited Graeber with giving the Occupy Wall Street movement its theme: "We are the 99 percent" though Graeber has written in The Democracy Project that the slogan "was a collective creation". Rolling Stone says Graeber helped create the first New York City General Assembly, with only 60 participants, on August 2. He spent the next six weeks involved with the burgeoning movement, including facilitating general assemblies, attending working group meetings, and organizing legal and medical training and classes on nonviolent resistance. A few days after the encampment of Zuccotti Park began, he left New York for Austin, Texas.

Graeber has argued that the Occupy Wall Street movement's lack of recognition of the legitimacy of either existing political institutions or the legal structure, its embrace of non-hierarchical consensus decision-making and of prefigurative politics make it a fundamentally anarchist project. Comparing it to the Arab Spring, Graeber has claimed that Occupy Wall Street and other contemporary grassroots protests represent "the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire." Writing in Al Jazeera, he has noted that from the beginning the Occupy movement was about a "commitment to answer only to a moral order, not a legal one" and so held meetings without the requisite permits. Defending this early decision of the Occupy movement he has said that "as the public, we should not need permission to occupy public space".

Graeber tweeted in 2014 that he had been evicted from his family's home of over 50 years due to his involvement with Occupy Wall Street. He added that others associated with Occupy had received similar "administrative harassment".

On October 11, 2019, Graeber spoke at an Extinction Rebellion protest in Trafalgar Square. Graeber spoke about the relationship between 'bullshit jobs' and environmental harm, suggesting that the environmental movement should recognize these jobs in combination with unnecessary construction or infrastructure projects, and planned obsolescence as significant issues.

In November 2019, along with other public figures, Graeber signed a letter supporting Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn describing him as "a beacon of hope in the struggle against emergent far-right nationalism, xenophobia and racism in much of the democratic world" and endorsed him in the 2019 UK general election. In December 2019, along with 42 other leading cultural figures, he signed a letter endorsing the Labour Party under Corbyn's leadership in the 2019 general election. The letter stated that "Labour's election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership offers a transformative plan that prioritises the needs of people and the planet over private profit and the vested interests of a few."


See also

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