David Graeber, anthropologist and anarchist author of bestselling books on bureaucracy and economics including Bullshit Jobs: A Theory and Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has died aged 59.Damn.
On Thursday Graeber’s wife, the artist and writer Nika Dubrovsky, announced on Twitter that Graeber had died in hospital in Venice the previous day. The cause of death is not yet known.
Renowned for his biting and incisive writing about bureaucracy, politics and capitalism, Graeber was a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement and professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE) at the time of his death. His final book, The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity, written with David Wengrove, will be published in autumn 2021.
Born in New York in 1961 to two politically active parents – his father fought in the Spanish civil war with the International Brigades, while his mother was a member of the international Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union – Graeber first attracted academic attention for his teenage hobby of translating Mayan hieroglyphs. After studying anthropology at the State University of New York at Purchase and the University of Chicago, he won a prestigious Fulbright fellowship and spent two years doing anthropological fieldwork in Madagascar. In 2005, Yale decided against renewing his contract a year before he would have secured tenure. Graeber suspected it was because of his politics; when more than 4,500 colleagues and students signed petitions supporting him, Yale instead offered him a year’s paid sabbatical, which he accepted and moved to the UK to work at Goldsmiths before joining LSE. “I guess I had two strikes against me,” he told the Guardian in 2015. “One, I seemed to be enjoying my work too much. Plus I’m from the wrong class: I come from a working-class background.”
An anarchist since his teens, Graeber was a supporter of the Kurdish freedom movement and the “remarkable democratic experiment” he could see in Rojava, an autonomous region in Syria. He became heavily involved in activism and politics in the late 90s. He was a pivotal figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 – though he denied that he had come up with the slogan “We are the 99%”, for which he was frequently credited.
“I did first suggest that we call ourselves the 99%. Then two Spanish indignados and a Greek anarchist added the ‘we’ and later a food-not-bombs veteran put the ‘are’ between them. And they say you can’t create something worthwhile by committee! I’d include their names but considering the way police intelligence has been coming after early OWS organisers, maybe it would be better not to,” he wrote.
Why couldn't it have been some dime a dozen conventional economists?