David Graeber

Anthropologist and activist prominent in the Occupy Wall Street movement


V ersatility was one of the keyqualities of the anthropologist, David Graeber, whose premature death at the age of 59 shocked many who knew him. Born to working class Jewish parents in New York, Graeber identified as an anarchist from his teenage years. His Polish born mother Ruth née Rubinstein had been a garment worker and both parents had been politically active; his father had fought in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigades and his mother was a member of the international Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and played the lead role in Pins and Needles, a 1930s musical staged by the union.

A gifted youngster with a hobby of translating Mayan hieroglyphs, Graeber went on to study anthropology at the State University of New York and followed this up with graduate study at the University of Chicago. He then gained a Fulbright scholarship which enabled him to travel to Madagascar, where he spent two years doing the anthropological fieldwork on which he based the thesis for his PhD, entitled The Disastrous Ordeal of 1987: Memory and Violence in Rural Madagascar.

Graeber believed that his decision to pursue an academic career in anthropology was essentially a political one. He stated that he was drawn to the discipline because it opened windows on other possible forms of human social existence.

In 1996, he became assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Yale University and was then promoted to associate professor. However, his contract was terminated in May, 2005, prior to his having been granted tenure. His supporters believed this decision was politically motivated and more than 4,500 people signed petitions on his behalf.Some distinguished anthropologists asked Yale to reverse their decision.

The following spring Graeber was invited to give the Malinowski lecture at the London School of Economics, and the same year he was asked to present the keynote address at the 100th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee meetings of the Association of Social Anthropologists.

While he was unable to secure a post at any American university after his dismissal from Yale, several overseas universities approached him with offers. He, himself believed that factors including his political activism and his working-class background could have contributed to the decision of Yale and the American universities.

As some form of compensation, Yale offered him a year’s paid sabbatical and he moved to the UK where he worked from 2008 till 2013 as a lecturer and reader at Goldsmith’s College in the University of London, before taking up a professorship at the London School of Economics. It was at Goldsmith’s that he started work on the book that gained him great prestige: Debt, The First 5,000 Years , published in 2011). In fact, he felt released from what he considered the ‘purgatory’ of the American academic tenure system, which he saw as “harrowing and psychologically destructive”. Not long after the publication of the book, Graeber helped establish a group called Strike Debt, which launched a ‘rolling jubilee’, buying up hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of medical debt and then abolishing it.

He was also prominent in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 and it is believed that he was the man who invented the battle cry: “We are the 99 per cent”, despite his insistence that others had also contributed to the slogan. Prior to this he had been instrumental in organising the New York City General Assembly, a precursor of Occupy. His book on the movement, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement came out in 2013.

Later books included The Utopia of Rules (2015) which ridiculed the bureaucracy associated not only with government but also the corporate world, and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018) reflecting on the failure of John Maynard Keynes’ 1930 prediction that the 15 hour working week, would take effect by the end of the 20th century. His final book, The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity, co-written with David Wengrow, will be published in autumn this year.

Seeing himself as an anarchist since his teenage years, Graeber supported the Kurdish Freedom Movement and what he saw as ‘a remarkable democratic experiment’ in Rojava, an autonomous region in Syria.

He was also an enthusiastic supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, seeing a connection between Corbyn’s attempt to ‘democratise’ the Labour party and his own work in “movements aimed at creating new forms of bottom-up democracy”.

He pleaded with the media and others to stop portraying Corbyn and supporters “as – indifferent or even sympathetic to antisemitism.” After ‘Labour’s catastrophic defeat’ in the 2019 election, he published an article in which he insisted that “proclamations of the death of British socialism – seem decidedly premature.”

In 2019, Graeber married Nika Dubrovsky, a writer and artist and native of St. Petersburg, Russia, who had grown up in the Soviet-era. The couple collaborated on books, workshops and conversations.

They were together in Venice, a city that he visited frequently, when he died. For him, the Venice Carnival, which he had always enjoyed, had constituted a political space of radical democracy before it became a tourist attraction. He is survived by his wife Nika.


David Graeber: born February 12, 1961. Died September 2, 2020

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