by Will Lloyd
Monday, 23
August 2021
Seen Elsewhere
08:00

David Graeber’s last essay

The anarchist intellectual had one final message for the post-pandemic world
by Will Lloyd
David Graeber in October 2012.

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.

 

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Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
10 months ago

Graeber’s Debt was an interesting and challenging book. It shook my belief in justice as an absolute. However, I was sirprised by his hostility to Greece and Rome, based ,he argued, on their slavery, although he supported Solon’s reforms ( cancellationof debt, etc). I noticed that his views on the Islamic world empire. were not affected by this dislike of slavery. He actually argued that slavery under Mjslims was not too bad at all. I checked his,source, which was an Egyptian nationalist writing in the ‘30s. I found this dishonest. There is a tendency among writers covering the Ottoman empire, as an example, to say things like, well families were happy to give up their children, or that the demand for 100 virgins a year was rather cute, something Baptists would like as well. In any case, while the couple of million white slaves taken by the cutely named Barbary pirates all died, the black slave castes of Morth Africa still exist, despite the French abolishing slavery in Algeria and Morocco. So here Graeber was being apolemicist, driven by who knows what rage against the roots of Western philosophy. I last saw his name in a comment section of the Guardian.. Answering a critical response to a talk he had given on BNC radio, Graeber remarked that after all, he was rich and faMous, whereas his critic was a nobody. Nice….

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
10 months ago

On work, Graeber reminds me of Ivan Illich – which dates me I know!

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
10 months ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Also of Simone Weil, who IMO develops the theme much better in her ‘The need for Roots’. She also was not a big fan of Rome.

David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
10 months ago

Graeber’s “Debt: The first 5,000 years” is a genuine masterpiece. Before dismissing him because of his other opinions I recommend people at least read this book – it’s more thoughtful than you may give credit.

And he’s right about how the working class are treated and dismissed as well. Sadly, the worst offenders are the Metropolitan Left of which he was clearly part.

G A
G A
10 months ago

It’s an incredible book.

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
10 months ago

Ah a breath of fresh air after the increasing screechiness of UnHerd’s typical oeuvre. Though I expect the Commentariat to widely diss this.

I appreciated Debt the First 5000 years and I loved Bullshit jobs, and have re-read it a few times. It is a thoroughly modern update to Parkinson’s Law, and dead on in my experience (of working for Banks, Research organizations and the US Federal Government).

I was there in Zuccotti Park just days before New York’s finest took it down in November 2011.

RIP David Graeber.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
10 months ago

What a loss! He will be miss by about 5 people.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
10 months ago

One of those Left wing intellectuals who railed against the West for going into Iraq and removing a murderously repressive despotic regime without a Plan B, how to replace it. Yet campaign to overturn a slew of democracies whose productivity funds most of the world’s aid organisations, feeds its starving, and treats its maladies, with not a scintilla of an iota of a plan to replace them except by harking back to a long discredited ideology which invariably results in despotic repressive regimes.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago

“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?)”

Sounds good for the ones who promised to pay, not good for the ones promised to be paid.

I red the linked article and the guy is a loon who would have society back in the Dark ages in 3 generations.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago

“…we cannot go back to the way things were””

No, we cannot. The economic costs of locking down a year yet paying the wages and costs will have bankrupted us all. The destruction of education, and health from medical neglect of the non-covid, and loss of business, and life savings, the Inflation, the hugely over priced stock market, the inflating of all hard assets and of ‘Unfunded Mandates’ means it is like going to sleep in 1929 before the depression began, and waking up in the depression and saying -‘ we cannot go back to the way things were’ – no You Cannot – you killed those good and easy times with your insane plandemic covid response.