David Graeber

debt

David Graeber (b. 1961) is an American anthropologist, anarchist and activist, who is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Specializing in theories of value and social theory, he was an assistant professor and associate professor of anthropology at Yale University from 1998 to 2007, although Yale controversially declined to rehire him. From Yale, he went on to become a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London from 2007-13.

Graeber has been involved in social and political activism, including the protests against the 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001 and the World Economic Forum in New York City in 2002. He is also a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Graeber’s parents, who were in their forties when he was born, were self-taught working-class intellectuals. His mother, Ruth Rubenstein, had been a garment worker, and played the lead role in the 1930s musical comedy revue ‘Pins & Needles,’ staged by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Graeber’s father Kenneth, who was affiliated with the Youth Communist League in college, though he quit well before the Hitler-Stalin pact, participated in the Spanish Revolution in Barcelona and fought in the Spanish Civil War. He later worked as a plate stripper on offset printers. Graeber grew up in New York, in a cooperative apartment building described by ‘Business Week’ magazine as ‘suffused with radical politics.’ Graeber has been an anarchist since the age of 16, according to an interview he gave to ‘The Village Voice’ in 2005.

Graeber graduated from Phillips Academy Andover in 1978 and received his B.A. from the State University of New York at Purchase in 1984. He received his Masters degree and Doctorate at the University of Chicago, where he won a Fulbright fellowship to conduct twenty months of ethnographic field research in Betafo, Madagascar, beginning in 1989. His resulting Ph.D. thesis on magic, slavery, and politics was supervised by University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins and entitled ‘The Disastrous Ordeal’ of 1987: ‘Memory and Violence in Rural Madagascar.’

In 1998, two years after completing his PhD, Graeber became assistant professor at Yale University, then became associate professor. In May 2005, the Yale Anthropology department decided not to renew Graeber’s contract, preventing consideration for tenure which was scheduled for 2008. Pointing to Graeber’s anthropological scholarship, his supporters (including fellow anthropologists, former students and activists) claimed that the decision was politically motivated. More than 4,500 people signed petitions supporting him, and anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins, Laura Nader, Michael Taussig, and Maurice Bloch called for Yale to rescind its decision. Bloch, who had been a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and the Collège de France, and writer on Madagascar, made the following statement about Graeber in a letter to the university: ‘His writings on anthropological theory are outstanding. I consider him the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world.’ The Yale administration argued that Graeber’s dismissal was in keeping with Yale’s policy of granting tenure to few junior faculty and gave no formal explanation for its actions. Graeber has suggested that the University’s decision might have been influenced by his support of a student of his who was targeted for expulsion because of her membership in GESO, Yale’s graduate student union.

In December 2005, Graeber agreed to leave the university after a one-year paid sabbatical. That spring he taught two final classes: an introduction to cultural anthropology (attended by over 200 students) and a course entitled ‘Direct Action and Radical Social Theory’ – the only explicitly radical-themed course he ever taught at Yale. In 2006, Graeber was invited to give the Malinowski Lecture at the London School of Economics; his address was entitled ‘Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity.’ This lecture has since been edited into an essay, titled ‘Dead zones of the imagination: On violence, bureaucracy and interpretive labor.’ The anthropology department at the University asks an anthropologist at a relatively early stage of their career to give the Malinowski Lecture each year, and only invites those who are considered to have made a significant contribution to anthropological theory. That same year, Graeber was asked to present the keynote address in the 100th anniversary Diamond Jubilee meetings of the Association of Social Anthropologists. In 2011, he presented the anthropology department’s annual Distinguished Lecture at Berkeley, and in 2012 delivered the Second Annual Marilyn Strathern Lecture at Cambridge. From 2008 through Spring 2013, Graeber was a lecturer and a reader at Goldsmith’s College of the University of London. In 2013, he accepted a professorship at the London School of Economics.

Graeber is the author of ‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology’ and ‘Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams.’ A released a book of collected essays, ‘Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire,’ published by AK Press in 2007. ‘Direct Action: An Ethnography’ appeared from the same press in 2009, as well as a collection of essays co-edited with Stevphen Shukaitis called ‘Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations//Collective Theorization.’ These were followed by a major historical monograph, ‘Debt: The First 5000 Years’ (Melville House) in 2011. Speaking about ‘Debt’ with the ‘Brooklyn Rail,’ Graeber remarked: ‘The IMF (International Monetary Fund) and what they did to countries in the Global South—which is, of course, exactly the same thing bankers are starting to do at home now—is just a modern version of this old story. That is, creditors and governments saying you’re having a financial crisis, you owe money, obviously you must pay your debts. There’s no question of forgiving debts. Therefore, people are going to have to stop eating so much. The money has to be extracted from the most vulnerable members of society. Lives are destroyed; millions of people die. People would never dream of supporting such a policy until you say, ‘Well, they have to pay their debts.”

In 2011, Graeber began working on a book for Random House connecting ‘the story of the Occupy movement to an exploration of the past and future of direct action, participatory democracy, and political transformation,’ and another for Melville House combining three essays on bureaucracy (one of which he delivered as the Malinowski Lecture in 2006). He then worked on a historical work on the origins of social inequality with University College London archaeologist David Wengrow. His book on the Occupy movement and related issues was released as ‘The Democracy Project’ in 2013. One of the points he raises in this book is the increase in what he calls ‘bullshit jobs,’ referring to meaningless employment. He sees such jobs as being ‘concentrated in professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers.’ As he explained also in an article in ‘STRIKE!’ magazine: ‘In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.’

Since January 2013, Graeber has been a contributing editor at ‘The Baffler’ magazine in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since 2011, he has also been editor at large in the free online journal ‘HAU: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory,’ for which he and Giovanni da Col co-wrote the founding theoretical statement.

In addition to his academic work, Graeber has a history of both direct and indirect involvement in political activism, including membership in the labor union Industrial Workers of the World, a role in protests against the World Economic Forum in New York City in 2002, support for the 2010 UK student protests, and an early role in the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is co-founder of the ‘Anti-Capitalist Convergence.’ In November 2011, ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine credited Graeber with giving the Occupy Wall Street movement its theme: ‘We are the 99 percent’ though Graeber has written in ‘The Democracy Project’ that the slogan ‘was a collective creation.’ ‘Rolling Stone’ says Graeber helped create the first New York City General Assembly, with only 60 participants, on August 2. He spent the next six weeks involved with the burgeoning movement, including facilitating general assemblies, attending working group meetings, and organizing legal and medical training and classes on nonviolent resistance. A few days after the encampment of Zuccotti Park began, he left New York for Austin, Texas. Graeber has argued that the Occupy Wall Street movement’s lack of recognition of the legitimacy of either existing political institutions or the legal structure, its embrace of non-hierarchical consensus decision-making and of prefigurative politics make it a fundamentally anarchist project. Comparing it to the Arab Spring, Graeber has claimed that Occupy Wall Street and other contemporary grassroots protests represent ‘the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire.’

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