David Graeber, Africanist

David Graeber (1961-2020) started his career as a scholar studying Madagascar and that informed what became his popular ideas about anarchism, debt, and globalization.

David Graeber speaks at Maagdenhuis Amsterdam. Image credit Guido van Nispen via Wikimedia Commons.

I had only one opportunity to see David Graeber speak, over a decade ago now when I was teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This was before Occupy Wall Street and before the publication of his now classic books Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018).

It was an afternoon event, attendance was low, and there were maybe fifteen people at the most in the room, graduate students primarily. I knew little about Graeber at the time except that he had controversially been denied promotion at Yale, had a reputation for espousing anarchism, and had a foot in African Studies. True to an anarchist sensibility, there was no formal lecture as such. Graeber was introduced, and he proceeded to speak very briefly about his work on ethnography and social movements, a project that would become Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009). He then opened the floor to questions, or, more precisely, conversation. Under normal circumstances, this kind of approach can lead to disarray and disinterest, but with Graeber, it became more interesting and meaningful. Graeber was a storyteller and a listener—comfortable fielding questions with good humor, but equally comfortable receding into the background to let a student speak at length about their work. There was no general conclusion he wanted to transmit, and he was unconcerned with coming across as an authority in his field. In a way both quiet and intentional, his approach that day was one positioned against the hierarchies that define academia and society more generally. He appealed to the possibilities that a classroom held for collapsing social inequalities we encounter on a daily basis, if only for a temporary moment.

“I was first drawn to Betafo because people there didn’t get along.” This is the first line from Graeber’s Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar (2007), which foreshadows a dominant theme in his subsequent work. I venture that Lost People is his least read book. This is a shame. I won’t provide a review, but first monographs can reveal in detail the origins of later ideas. Graeber did publish two preceding books more conceptual in scope—Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001) and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004)—but Lost People was based on his doctoral dissertation fieldwork, which he pursued under the supervision of Marshall Sahlins at the University of Chicago. Graeber claimed it was his best book. As he notes in the preface, he brought a number of works by Dostoevsky along with him to pass the time during his research, and the Russian master became an unanticipated reference point for his thinking. What follows in Lost People is a freewheeling narrative both descriptive and analytic, full of ideas and characters in a manner similar to a nineteenth-century Russian novel. Though “magic” and “slavery” are in the subtitle—undoubtedly key words designed to drum up sales—the book also dwells beneath these rubrics to address ideas such as negative authority, concepts of personal character, the hierarchy of tombs, and indigenous practices of astrology. As Graeber further notes in the preface, he was urged by colleagues to reduce the book to a single idea, concept, or argument, which he proceeded to refuse. “A culture isn’t ‘about’ anything. It’s about everything,” he writes. “People don’t live their lives to prove some academic’s point.”

Lost People has an all too familiar story at its center: the struggle between those who descended from masters and those who descended from slaves. This take glosses a lot of complexity within Graeber’s account and the diverse ways in which those of “noble” status had lost their standing, while those of slave lineage had empowered themselves over time. Pertinent to his later work is his discussion of “temporary autonomous zones” (also called “provisional autonomous zones”). As Graeber describes:

The idea is that, while there may no longer be any place on earth entirely uncolonized by State and Capital, power is not completely monolithic: there are always temporary cracks and fissures, ephemeral spaces in which self-contained communities can and do continually emerge like eruptions, covert uprisings. Free spaces flicker into existence and then pass away. If nothing else, they provide constant testimony to the fact that alternatives are still conceivable, that human possibilities are never fixed.

This perspective, drawn from the anarchist tradition, informs his view of the political conditions observed in Lost People, but it also foretells the politics of the Occupy movement, which emerged two decades after Graeber’s doctoral fieldwork.

Anthropology has a distinguished lineage of thinkers who have engaged anarchism as an approach, including Pierre Clastres and more recently James Scott. Anarchism is often construed as being without moral principle, even violent—a reputation gained through the ideas of the nineteenth-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who lived under the insufferable conditions of Tsarist Russia. This popular impression is misleading on both counts. Anarchism at its best is about working against existing political institutions (direct action) to achieve immediate political participation (direct democracy). Anarchism rejects the constraints of electoral calendars and statist representative bodies. It believes that political action does not depend on such accepted institutional features or, equally significant, on money—political power is there if you seize it. Solidarity with others (mass action) makes this possibility even more concrete. Anarchism, then, is not only a political approach, but also a critical position—one resistant to ideological conformity, political custom, and, as seen in Graeber’s wildly imaginative later work, mainstream academic fashion. Graeber was consistently alive to the possibilities of the political present and the ways in which scholarship could contribute to such conditions—to itself be a form of direct action.

In early November 2011, I visited New York for a weekend and had a chance to witness the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan—to see the working of Graeber’s ideas firsthand. The scene was what one might expect from watching weeks of news coverage that had started in September when the occupation began: a collection of young student activists with older activists, many of them members of the civil rights generation, populating a block filled with tents that provided shelter, cooking spaces, a library, medical aid, and what looked like classrooms. On the edges of this provisional autonomous zone were people holding declarative signs, delivering extemporaneous speeches, appealing individually to visitors such as myself, helping other occupiers, knitting, and simply reading. Graeber, naturally enough, was nowhere to be seen. The encampment would be forcibly removed by police only a couple of weeks later on November 15, but the lesson was already there—despite the Occupy movement’s limitations, a deep humanism is possible if you are willing to seize it, to organize and create it, without permission of the state or any other authority.

Graeber will undoubtedly be remembered for many things and will be a pivotal figure in future histories of the left since the end of the Cold War. However, I think it is important to assert his origins as an Africanist with some of his best ideas first taking hold in Madagascar. Though his intellectual curiosity and political commitments would take him further afield, it is hard to read Debt or even Bullshit Jobs, a study of office work, without thinking of his discussions of colonialism, labor, moral obligation, and what he called “magical action” in Betafo. Indeed, as indicated earlier, “action” is a keyword throughout his work, with “political action” replacing “politics” and “historical action” replacing “history” in order to highlight “the play of human intentions” among the people he encountered, as explained in Lost People. Starting in the Central Highlands of Madagascar, Graeber’s scholarship and activism were ultimately defined by this search for active freedom and the alternative humanisms that could sustain it. In his words, “[i]t’s not that I am trying to deny the degree to which their lives are shaped and constrained by larger forces; I just don’t want that to be the only point.”

Further Reading