August 23, 2021 - 8:00am

David Graeber, anthropologist, anarchist, author, and leading light of the Occupy movement, died suddenly in Venice last September. His work in economic anthropology — particularly Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) and Bullshit Jobs (2018) — was startlingly original, and made him an intellectual superstar. “He was a real intellectual” wrote Nassim Nicholas Taleb when Graeber passed away, “not one fake cell in his brain, not one fake bone in his body.”

Now, Graeber’s last essay has been published in the American socialist monthly Jacobin. After the pandemic, he argues, we cannot go back to the way things were. When the crisis is “declared over… we will be able to return to our ‘nonessential jobs’. For many, this will be like waking from a dream.”

The media and political classes will definitely encourage us to think of it this way. This is what happened after the 2008 financial crash. There was a brief moment of questioning. (What is “finance,” anyway? Isn’t it just other people’s debts? What is money? Is it just debt, too? What’s debt? Isn’t it just a promise? If money and debt are just a collection of promises we make to each other, then couldn’t we just as easily make different ones?) The window was almost instantly shut by those insisting we shut up, stop thinking, and get back to work, or at least start looking for it.
- David Graeber, Jacobin

This time the window must stay open. Those who do the lion’s share of the work that keeps society functioning, who are “overtaxed, underpaid, and daily humiliated” must not “slip back into a reality where all this makes some sort of inexplicable sense”. What should happen instead?

Most of the work we’re currently doing is dream-work. It exists only for its own sake, or to make rich people feel good about themselves, or to make poor people feel bad about themselves. And if we simply stopped, it might be possible to make ourselves a much more reasonable set of promises: for instance, to create an “economy” that lets us actually take care of the people who are taking care of us.
- David Graeber, Jacobin

Until the very end Graeber remained challenging and provocative; a fierce advocate of a better world to come. You can read the whole essay here.