by Will Lloyd
Monday, 23
August 2021
Seen Elsewhere

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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  • Yep, sounds like a true provocative intellectual alright. Judging by those quotes he has that fundamentalist appeal which draws idealistic youth like a magnet. Is Will Lloyd an idealistic youth by any chance? Anyway, we have the usual, youth-friendly checklist of revolutionary fervour:

    • The world we live in is completely wrong but most people are too blind and stupid to see it!
    • We are continually deceived by the media and political classes – the only people who benefit from the status quo!
    • The masses live worthless meaningless lives benefitting only the rich! [isn’t that re-hashed Herbert Marcuse?]
    • “…we cannot go back to the way things were” – [Uh Oh! Sounds like a call for ever more “social change”. That should give ardent youth something meaningful to do].
  • 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….

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