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David Graeber (1961–2020)

OBITUARY:: David Graeber died recently. MODERN TIMES chooses for once to bring an obituary – here over the anarchist who wanted to change our usual notions of what is possible and impossible, right and wrong, normal and strange.

(Note: The article is mostly machine-translated from Norwegian by Gtranslate)

Co-author: Jørgen Schnell (social geographer).

On Wednesday, September 2, American anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber died unexpectedly at just 59 years old. Both through his academic work and as a political activist, he was an original and thorough thinker who exerted an enormous influence.

During his academic career was Graeber including Yale and Goldsmiths, before becoming a professor at the London School of Economics in 2013. As a political activist, he was best known as a participant in the so-called anti-globalization movement around the turn of the millennium and for his central role in the early phase of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. The latter movement's famous slogan "We are the 99 percent" is often credited to Graeber.

Humane economies

Typical of Graeber was to easily address current issues people could recognize themselves in. Illustrative is how he chose to end the epilogue to his magnum opus, the bestseller Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), with a joke:

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MISSIONARY: Why are you lying and wasting your life under a palm tree on the beach? SAMOANER: Well, what else am I going to do? MISSIONARY: How about collecting some coconuts, drying them and selling them as copra? SAMOANER: Why do I need it? MISSIONARY: You can use the money to buy a dryer, hire people, and expand your business. SAMOANER: Why? MISSIONARY: Then you can avoid having to do more physical work and instead lie down on the beach and do. Nothing.

40 percent of all jobs are completely meaningless.

This joke carries a lot of what Graeber was interested in. As he saw it, all economies were ultimately what he called "human economies", which are basically systems through which we humans organize the reproduction of each other. One-sided focus on capitalist value production was for Graeber a miserable way of life.

At the end of Debt Graeber dreams that children born today will one day have our ideas about debt, work, money and growth changed. However, because the brutal power often crushes possible riots, it requires that we act as historical actors to change world events, according to Graeber. If we do, we will be able to experience that “if a generation or two, will not capitalismn longer exist ».


The way there he saw in anarchism. Graeber was an anarchist, but emphatically refused to identify themselves as one. For him, it was an important point that anarchism is not an identity, however actions. He described this as "acting as if we were already free." At the time of his death, Graeber was arguably the most prominent contemporary thinker in anarchist traditions.

But Graeber also wanted to change our usual notions of what is possible and impossible, right and wrong, normal and strange. To achieve this, he did what the Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad would call å alienate themselves from the usual by seeing a problem complex set to different times og locations. In other words, Graeber worked both historically and anthropologically. Graeber went to the root.

The widespread moral notion that debt simply must be repaid, was strongly challenged in the post-financial crisis book Debt. THE  Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018) he aimed the shot at work. This book, too, struck the spirit of the times as a comet, precisely because it told us something we already knew in the subconscious: 40 percent of all jobs are completely meaningless. Since then, "bullshit jobs" have become something of a standard term to describe meaningless work.

While anthropologists and other radicals in their youth are often in their old age oriented towards the existing and the center of politics, Graeber was radical in the end. This is not mentioned because it is honorable, but because it seems absolutely necessary in a capitalist world on a steady course towards climate catastrophe.

We have lost an indispensable comrade.

Schnell and Vernegg are social geographers.

Daniel Vernegg
Social geographer.
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