David Graeber: The Anarchist Anthropologist-Provocateur 1961-2020

occupy everything!

From Politico By TIMOTHY NOAH 12/26/2020

The economics profession can tell you everything there is to know about money except what money is. If you want to stump an economist, or a Wall Street banker, or a Washington economic policymaker, just ask, “What is money?” You might as well ask a fish to define water.

David Graeber, who died in September at age 59, from necrotic pancreatitis, was a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. It’s the job of an anthropologist to explain to a fish what water is, and in that spirit Graeber defined money as an overly precise tool to measure the debt around which all societies are organized.

Money, Graeber explained in his 2011 opus Debt: The First 5000 Years, was an informal method that small communities once used to keep track of material obligations, before the state co-opted that system to bankroll conquest. It was not, Graeber argued, the product of some mystical force field, independent from government, that economists called “the market.” If conservative market fundamentalists, following British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, argued there was “no such thing as society,” Graeber, a leftist who described himself as an anarchist from the age of 16, answered that there was no such thing as the market.

Graeber thought economists couldn’t grasp this because they couldn’t lift themselves out of the water long enough to take in the big picture. They all posited, for instance, that money evolved from barter, because that accommodated Adam Smith’s concept of an invisible hand. In fact, Graeber noted, anthropologists had established long ago that money evolved instead from calculations of indebtedness that resembled today’s “virtual money.” Predating coins wrought from precious metal, these accounting schemes varied from Mesopotamian scratchings on clay tablets to knotted strings in ancient China.

Economists call the risk that debts won’t be taken seriously “moral hazard,” a phrase that, tellingly, appears in Debt only once, dismissively. Graeber thought moral reasoning had no place in discussions about extending credit. If debt is today associated with “an abiding sense of guilt, and guilt to self-loathing, and self-loathing to torture,” Graeber argued, that’s only because the world’s great religions derived their moral and spiritual teachings, at least in part, from preexisting financial practices. Jesus Christ is called the “redeemer,” Graeber noted, and “redeem” means “to acquire something by paying off a debt.” Therefore, “the very core of the Christian message, salvation itself, the sacrifice of God’s own son to rescue humanity from eternal damnation” was “framed in the language of a financial transaction,” he wrote.

As you can see, Graeber possessed the anarchist’s passion for making trouble, and he provoked outrage not only from the centrist establishment and the right, but also among assorted factions of the disputatious left (who faulted him for, among other things, relative inattention to Karl Marx — in Graeber’s view, just another economist).

Graeber came by his troublemaking honestly. He was born into a working-class family with deep roots in the Old Left of the 1930s. His father was an offset photolithographer who had volunteered to fight for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, and his mother was a garment worker who had performed on Broadway in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union stage revue Pins and Needles. As a junior faculty member at Yale, Graeber participated in anti-globalism protests against the World Economic Forum and the International Monetary Fund, and in 2005, after he had publicly supported a union drive for graduate students, Yale canceled his contract before he came up for tenure. (Graeber and many others attributed his dismissal to his support for the union drive; Yale denied it.)

Six years later, Graeber helped to organize the Occupy Wall Street protest against income inequality in New York’s Zuccotti Park, where he was credited with helping to coin the phrase, “We Are the 99 Percent.” Greater credit, though, should be granted to Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two, ahem, economists, whose 2003 paper first documented the large, rapidly growing divergence between the bottom 99 percent in the income distribution and the top 1 percent.

An oft-heard criticism of the Occupy movement was that it didn’t address potential solutions to rising income inequality. To some critics, that made it not much more than an extended campout. A similar criticism can be leveled against Graeber’s writings. “I am suspicious of the very idea of policy,” he confessed. “Policy implies the existence of an elite group — government officials, typically — that gets to decide on something (‘a policy’) that they then arrange to be imposed on everybody else.”

This confession comes at the end of Graeber’s 2018 book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, a follow-up to Debt that argued that as much as 40 percent of all jobs in the U.S. economy were so utterly pointless that even the people performing them would, if pressed, agree. Graeber named five categories of bullshit jobs: “flunky jobs” that “exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important”; “goons” (jobs with “an aggressive element”: lobbyists, flacks, telemarketers and, controversially, soldiers); “duct tapers” (people “whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organization,” such as “underlings whose jobs are to undo the damage done by sloppy or incompetent superstars”); “box tickers” (“employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing”); and “taskmasters” (people who assign work to others that would get done even if they weren’t there or, more perniciously, people who invent bullshit tasks for other people to do).

Being an anarchist, Graeber judged policy-pitching to be kind of a bullshit job, too. “Not only do I look forward to a day sometime in the future when governments, corporations, and the rest will be looked at as historical curiosities in the same way as we now look at the Spanish Inquisition or nomadic invasions,” he wrote, “but I prefer solutions to immediate problems that do not give more power to governments or corporations, but rather, give people the means to manage their own affairs.” (Graeber forced himself, probably at the urging of his editor, to finish Bullshit Jobs with a lukewarm endorsement of a Universal Basic Income.)

Graeber was quite wrong to think it’s a mug’s game to make government work better. Anarchism is, let’s face it, a pretty useless starting point to try. But there were advantages to Graeber’s arms-length perspective. Occupy Wall Street might not have proposed any solutions to income inequality, but it put the issue squarely on the public agenda, where it’s remained for the past decade.

Debt is so crazily ambitious a book that it’s a full-time job for the reader merely to keep up with where Graeber’s argument is going, and whether it makes any sense. (There’s a lot of but that’s not really what I mean either in Graeber, a refrain that can make the reader want to throw him across a room.) You’d have to be insane to want to put his precepts, such as they are, into action. But Graeber’s death deprives us of a rare voice characterized not by the fury and certainty so dominant in today’s public discourse, but by playfulness, humor, creativity and an eagerness to rethink, well, everything. He hoisted his readers out of the water and said, “Look! That’s an ocean you’re swimming in! What you do with that information is up to you, but don’t tell me it isn’t there.”

There are 3 Comments

"Graeber was quite wrong to think it’s a mug’s game to make government work better. Anarchism is, let’s face it, a pretty useless starting point to try. "

This Politico author obviously doesn't know anything about anarchy.

Wow didn't know Graeber's dad fought for the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War.
I think he was accurate in describing debt as social guilt and christian redemption as a moral repayment woven into the value of currency. He was correct to say there was no market within this context.

i love seeing a primal element of judeo-christianity tied so directly and logically to economic thinking.

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