David Graeber, 1961-2020

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How, exactly, do you memorialize someone who would be deeply uncomfortable about being memorialized? Should you? Can you? How do we use the past tense with someone who was so irrepressibly hopeful for the future, despite all his sharp frustrations with the present?

I’ve never met David Graeber, or interacted with him. Many people have, not because he’s omnipresent in powerful circles or glad handing with the right people, but because he has the rare combination of genius (ugh) and generosity that creates admiration and affection in equal measure in those who know him and his thoughts. And because he seemingly loves people enough to be in so many spaces, especially the messy ones. 

I’d barely read any of Graeber’s works when he died. Just a few articles and a chunk of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. His sudden death hit me hard, though, the loss like a gut punch. I didn’t realize how much his ideas shifted other people’s thinking, until then. I figured there’d be more time, that he’d help us sort through this awful year and gently point to a path forward. I feel robbed. And it still feels like 2020 will last forever, taking away everything beautiful and good.

Graeber is the kind of writer who makes you think “well, of course” about things that are not at all obvious, but are self-evident and clarifying only once considered. Debt is a sort of quantification of moral relations, of course. Bullshit jobs exist because capitalism can’t really let us have free time, of course. He communicates with the joy of someone who knows how difficult and important real communication of ideas is, how enormous the project of killing capitalism, and how terrified and small we all feel because that’s the very plan the assholes have for us. He has the wry certainty of someone who knows that humanity can be so much better than the worst of us make it seem, and that even those terrible people in charge are nonetheless human. 

I worry that Graeber’s death is leaving a huge void. I worry that we’re putting too much on special minds like Graeber’s, one that never seemed to regard itself as special. I’m seeing, only now, how much we rely on the few people with position and empathy to popularize the disruptive insights that many of us have in fleeting moments. We’re starved for the kind of ideas that Graeber seemed to toss off. 

I don’t think I really understood the point of anthropology until I read Graeber. I’d never read anyone who explored an array of societies to find out whether or not we might be more capable of freedom than we seem. I don’t like academic writing, or people who claim to know how people are. I have a maybe unfair, pissy distrust for academics and their effusive, stinking self-regard, and am probably revealing way too much by saying that. Graeber, in contrast, very clearly saw his life in academia as a means to an end, not some test tube for cultivating an inscrutable understanding of the world. He was of the world and had zero interest in pretending to be separate from its messines, or in developing ideas just to have ownership of them.

How do we build a world without heroes or villains? One where genius is inferred from every day acts of care and not from long screeds and speeches? Maybe it means thinking smaller, in some ways (Why would anyone try to change the world? Should anyone?), backing off of our own grandiose designs (Why the hell should anyone care about some silly manifesto, or even this very eulogy?), and looking deep into the eyes of those closest to us and asking, “What do you need and how can I help?”

I worry, almost every day, that I’m too stupid and tired to help anyone. I worry that I need people like David Graeber to be stronger than I am, calm in storms in a way that I can never be. It’s a little comforting that he would nervously laugh at this thought, and say something shocking and disruptive and smart. Not comforting enough, though. 

–Tim S.

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