Rest in Power, David Graeber – the Activist-scholar who Lived the Coupling of Theory and Praxis

A prominent social scientist and committed public intellectual David Graeber has died. This is devastating news and an enormous loss… Graeber was an original thinker, distinguished researcher, incredible writer, and vigorous speaker. He genuinely embodied the amalgam of scholarship and political activism. He urged us to reject a narrow and deceptive economism, ask fundamental questions about what human beings are or could be like, and act morally.
“His writings on anthropological theory are outstanding. I consider him the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world”, stated Maurice Bloch. Among Graeber’s early works are groundbreaking and already classic Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value (2001), his own favorite Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar (2007) — a excellent ethnography of a community divided between descendants of nobles and slaves, and thought-provoking Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (2007) that explored the nature of social power and the forms that resistance to it have taken, scrutinizing the origins of capitalism, the history of table manners, and the phenomenology of giant puppets at street protests.
Graeber’s magnum opus Debt: the First 5000 Years (2011) is probably needless to be presented. “If history shows anything,” he observes, “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” (p. 5). This remarkable, partly pugnacious, and highly influential treatise brilliantly covers a vast sweep of social global history, anthropology, and political economy, masterly elaborating and compellingly presenting a braid of complementary arguments with regard to the state-economy-society mutual embeddedness. Essentially, this research demonstrates that before there was money, there was debt and, more importantly, debt forgiveness.
In very interesting The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015) Graeber traces the peculiar and unexpected ways we relate to bureaucracy today, and shows how it shapes our lives in ways we may not even notice. Finally, in a recent and widely discussed Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018) Graeber reveals the neoliberal and post-fordist dark reality of labour, pointing out the existence and societal harm of meaningless jobs.
Graeber wasn’t just skillful in fusing scientific disciplines, he has also been virtuously crossing between the academic and nonacademic worlds. He has been constantly involved in a series of protests, movements and grassroots initiatives. Graeber’s political activism was the result, in part, of his anthropological analysis of economies and socio-economic arrangements, which gave him insight both into how people and groups interact and why economists are mostly wrong. His conviction that human society could be organized another way was empirically based — as an anthropologist, he was well aware that value systems vary across space and time. “[A]fter the beginning 2000
, he wrote, I threw myself into the Alter-Globalization movement and it might be said that all my work since has been exploring the relation between anthropology as an intellectual pursuit, and practical attempts to create a free society, free, at least, of capitalism, patriarchy, and coercive state bureaucracies.” His Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009) is an engaging study of the global justice movement in which Graeber was active. The book bears the underlying  message of optimism: what we choose to do politically does matter, therefore change  is possible and even inevitable.
In 2011 he became one of the leading figures of Occupy Wall Street, whose slogan “We are the 99%” was partly phrased by him. Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on PoliticsViolenceArt, and Imagination (2011) clearly reflects  Graeber the scholar-activist: his ideas and ideals, his aspirations and strategies. The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013) is an inside account of the Occupy Wall Street and an illuminating journey to reorient our understanding of democracy in history and its implementation in the future, based on equality and broad participation.
As part of this unforgivably short and insufficient depiction of Graeber’s huge contribution, I should also tell about his specific impact on me and, actually, you. Back in 2011, when I created “Economic Sociology and Political Economy” Facebook page, what was the first step in establishing the ES/PE community — I sent emails to dozens of esteemed researchers to let them know about this new, online initiative aimed at disseminating the insights of socio-political research on the economy to the public and academics. Well, not many of them replied. David Graeber did. He briefly wrote: “Sounds great. Good luck!” That meant so much to me… Sometimes it is not the number of words that counts, but their intention. The ES/PE community will keep cherishing his endorsement.
Graeber lived the coupling of theory and praxis. “For a very long time,” he asserted, “the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice” (2011: 19).
His iconoclastic research and writing have not just educated and inspired so many, but also paved the way to innovative approaches towards political activism and scientific investigation. The challenges he raised and injustice he confronted still remain before us. “As humans we are fragile biological entities who will die unless we take care of each other“, he noted once. Revolutionary constituencies always involve a tacit alliance between the least alienated and the most oppressed” was David Graeber’s last tweet. Let us continue and realize his intellectual and public legacy and take care of each other.

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  1. Dear Oleg,
    Bruno Latour reacted to David Graeber’s death on the French radio France Culture. I thought that this might be of interest to the ES/EP community, so I have translated parts of this interview and sent you. Please feel free to share it with others.
    My name is Vassily, and David was a professor of mine whilst I was doing my PhD at the LSE. I have been working on the French translation of *Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value* for the last two years.
    I should also take this opportunity to thank for the work you put in to create and maintain Thank you very much for your last post as well. David will be very much missed.

  2. Dear Oleg,
    Thank you for writing this to celebrate life and works of David Graeber. His work means a lot for my own life.

    In solidarity,

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