The New Vistas that David Graeber Opened Up
The death of activist/anthropologist David Graeber last week was a cruel loss in these already-difficult times. Graeber was only 59....he clearly had many more dazzling books ahead of him....and those of us questing for system-change as multiple crises converge, took great inspiration from his thinking.
As a student of human societies, he had much to say not only about the human condition but about structures of social organization as they have played out over millennia. Even more: he applied this knowledge by fearlessly critiquing the pathologies of global capitalism – and then proposing and agitating for serious alternatives.
This is not usually a career-advancing move for an academic. And in fact, he famously ran afoul of Yale University for his radical activism. When Yale indicated that he would not be kept on as a professor there despite his obvious brilliance, over 4,500 students signed a petition supporting him. But he lost the battle and was forced to move on to the greener fields of Great Britain. He eventually ended up at the London School of Economics.
I was bowled over by Graeber’s 2011 masterwork, the book Debt, which properly reframed finance as a preeminently political and social issue. I also took a great deal from Graeber’s extended critique of bureaucracy, The Utopia of Rules, and from his Bullshit Jobs, about the pointless jobs that capitalist hierarchies produce. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams is one of his lesser-known early works, but I found it a rare treat amidst the vast economics literature that regards “value” as a simple issue: market price = value.
Graeber’s work on this topic eventually brought him into an orbit with me and my colleagues Silke Helfrich and Michel Bauwens. With Graeber, we co-organized a workshop in 2016 on the meaning of value. The title of the report from that event says it all: “Re-imagining Value: Insights from the Care Economy, Commons, Cyberspace, and Nature.”
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