Obituary David Graeber

September 2020

We're sad to learn about the untimely passing away of David Graeber (on 2 September 2020). Graeber has been an important inspiration to our work over the past years. We loved his critical intellect and his impassioned scholarship. We felt kinship with his anarchist worldview, which we try to model in the way we organise and live our collaboration within shiftN. His ideas are poised to be an important force for positive, humanising change in the coming, crucial decades.

Here shiftN's Kim Becher reflects on some of Graeber's key ideas:  

If someone would ask me to identify a common thread running through David Graeber’s work, I would point to his endeavor to restore certain human capacities that are at risk of disappearing in the current political-economic context. These capacities include elementary functions such as the ability to look after one another, the capacity to enter in meaningful relationships or the possibility to participate in truly democratic processes of decision-making. One of the biggest problems facing us today, is that we are trapped by many misleading notions and beliefs that distort our perceptions, to a degree that we become passive, disempowered creatures. Graeber’s historical and anthropological research aims at demonstrating that alternative ways of living are possible. 

George Orwell, as quoted by Graeber, once said: “You know you are in the presence of a corrupt political system when those who defend it cannot call things by their names.” In such a regime, an empire will no longer be called an empire, and the tribute that will be paid to it, will no longer be called a tribute. In his books, Graeber gives many examples of this.

One example is the Latin word ‘libertas’ (freedom). Originally, ‘libertas’ referred to the right to live freely in a community and to engage in meaningful relationships with one’s peers. But gradually, ‘libertas’ acquires a completely different meaning, namely the freedom of the ‘pater familias’ to do whatever he likes: destroy his property, kill his slaves or even kill his children. This view on liberty and property is still haunting us, as it links us to Adam Smith and the liberal tradition. In this tradition, one has the right to do whatever one likes, as long as it’s not forbidden by law. This regime not only makes property a right, but it also turns rights into a form of property. Labor, whereby the mind rents out its own body, is, as Graeber calls it, a ‘paradoxical heir’ to Roman law and the relationship between slave and master. Moreover, the idea that the mind is master over the body has since become a leading principle in Western thought.

The self-image of liberal doctrine, as Graeber concludes, doesn’t always coincide with reality. A famous example of this is the liberalization of the UK economy in the 19th century, which, as Graeber points out, led to “an endlessly ballooning array of legal clerks, registrars, inspectors, notaries, and police officials who made the liberal dream of a world of free contact between autonomous individuals possible. It turned out that maintaining a free market economy required a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis XIV-style absolutist monarchy.” Hence, the idea that free markets led to more efficiency and to a reduction of red-tape is a myth, dixit Graeber. Free market ideology is aimed at concealing the fact that big market players call the shots by lining up strategies with public authorities.  

David Graeber has been credited with coining the slogan: “we are the 99%”, and he was one of the leading figures in Occupy Wall Street. The idea that a small but powerful elite is governing us may not be explicitly stated in Graeber’s writings, but he does use terms like ‘the ruling class’, or ‘the capitalist class’. In any case, Graeber points to the fact that important decisions are generally in the interest of the 1%.

In Graeber’s view, the political success of neo-liberalism is astonishing, especially given its poor track record in economic matters. “Political leaders and CEO’s who meet regularly in Davos have done a miserable job in creating a world capitalist economy that meets the needs of the majority of the world’s inhabitants, but they have succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism – not just capitalism, but the financialized, semi-feudal capitalism we have right now is the only viable economic system.”

In ‘The Utopia of rules’, David Graeber discusses what he calls the “much awaited technologies that never happened”. These were technologies that people talked and dreamed about during their childhood, e.g. flying cars, antigravity fields, immortality drugs, but never came true. Interestingly, Paul Mason, in his book ‘Post-capitalism’, develops a similar argument. Both Mason and Graeber suggest that there were political reasons for the stagnation of technological development in the seventies. In their account, neo-liberalism succeeded in breaking working class’ resistance, so that capitalism, instead of investing in new technologies, could go for cheaper solutions such as moving production to low-income countries. Both Graeber and Mason refer to Marx and Engels, who already held that the overall effect of mechanization would drive the overall rate of profit of all firms down. Which leads David Graeber to ask a provocative question:Is it possible that they (Marx and Engels) were right? And is it also possible that in the sixties, capitalists, as a class, began to figure this out?”  A major shift in the fiscal regime of the US in the seventies resulted in a massive financialization of the productive sector and the economy in general. As a result, banks began to look more and more like corporations and corporations like banks.

In his last book, David Graeber discussed the phenomenon of bullshit jobs. Millions of people in Europe and, especially, in North America perform tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. Graeber: “The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it. How is this possible?” Keynes had already predicted that by the end of the 20th century, the US and UK would have achieved a fifteen-hour week. Technologically, this was perfectly possible, but it never happened. On the contrary, there are constantly new industries popping up like telemarketing, corporate law, PR consultants, lobbyists… Graeber: It’s as if someone is inventing all kinds of jobs, just to keep everyone working. But paying workers who don’t add any value to business is exactly what shouldn’t be happening in a capitalist system. So why is it happening on such a massive scale? According to Graeber, the answer to this question is not economic, but moral and political. “The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger”.

In the meantime, a large part of the workforce is afraid of losing their jobs to robotization. This, in Graeber’s view, shouldn’t be a problem, if factories would be turned into common property and workers could reap the benefits. One can foresee that automation will replace almost all modes of productive labor. But it will also lead to another important insight, namely that the caring value of work is precisely the element that cannot be quantified or robotized. To underline this, the following statement was issued on a circular by underground workers:

"Please ensure you are thoroughly familiar with London Underground’s 11 lines and 270 stations before travelling … Please ensure that there are no delays on your journey, or any accidents, emergencies, incidents, or evacuations. Please do not be disabled. Or poor. Or new to London. Please avoid being too young or too old. Please do not be harassed or assaulted while travelling. Please do not lose your property or your children. Please do not require assistance in any way"

David Graeber was an advocate of a Universal Basic Income. In his view, one of the benefits of a UBI is that unnecessary work would disappear. People will no longer do things because they have to, but because they like to. Being an anarchist, Graeber particularly liked the idea of state-run bureaucracies fading away. A UBI could also be an effective buffer against debt, both materially and morally. It will give people time to reflect on how to create a better society and to take better care of each other, instead of being confined to bullshit jobs. 

This obituary contains only a small selection of David Graeber’s ideas. We heartily recommend reading David Graeber’s books. They bring a lasting tribute to a subtle and brilliant scientist. 

Image: Guido van Nispen from amsterdam, the netherlands, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons