The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

R.I.P. David Graeber

So, David Graber’s dead. Author of “Debt” and “Bullshit Jobs.” An anthropologist, anarchist and fierce activist. The link to his obituary is to the Guardian because it amuses me: he stopped writing for them after they helped smear Corbyn for anti-semitism (a charge Graeber fiercely refuted). Somehow they don’t mention that in the obituary.

Debt was and is an important book. Graeber goes into how money was actually created, as debt, and in effect a way to force people to work for money, even though they didn’t want to. (This is a vast over-simplification and you should read it.) Bullshit Jobs posited that about 40% of jobs don’t need to be done or are actively harmful, and went into some details. I don’t own either of them (read them in bookstores), so I can’t refresh my memory, but Debt in particular struck me at the time as important.

Graeber got some historical details wrong, but none of them were sufficient to undo his overall thesis, and he was roundly hated by historical economists for the book.

He has one more book coming out, “he Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity,” written with David Wengrow.

When I heard the news of Graeber’s death I was shocked. I didn’t know him, we weren’t friends. But he was doing actual important work, he was fiercely willing to stand up for what he believed right, and the work he was going to do won’t be done now. At age 59, he had probably another 10 years and two or three books, possibly important, in him.

De Gaulle quipped that “the graveyards are full of indispensable (people)” and mostly he’s right, most people’s deaths don’t matter much to anyone who didn’t know them. Someone will replace them who will do about as good a job.

But an intellectual or artist worthy of the name is, in some sense, indispensable. There are works they will not do, and if they don’t do them no one will.

I didn’t know Graeber, and I can’t claim to be personally sad. But he had important work still to be done, and no one will do it now. And without him to defend Debt from its attackers, it will lose luster and importance (because it’s the sort of book which must be destroyed by status-quo defenders, as it suggests capitalism is not what it claims to be.)

May he rest well, and if there is an afterlife, may it be kind to him. He will be missed by people who never knew him.

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The Principle of Elite Consequences


Open Thread


  1. Plague Species

    Bullshit Jobs posited that about 40% of jobs don’t need to be done or are actively harmful, and went into some details.

    I believe it’s a higher percentage than that, much higher. Along the magnitude of 80%. Bullshit Jobs are now, in this time of the pandemic with more pandemics to come, euphemistically referred to as Non-Essential Jobs and, ironically and tellingly, they are much safer and pay much more than Essential Jobs. That alone should tell you 2020 is 1984.

    Speaking of Essential Jobs and Essential Workers, how much you want to bet they make it a mandatory legal requirement that Essential Workers receive the improperly tested, rushed vaccine or lose their jobs? They will be forced to be test subjects. That will be Phase Three trials. If it goes terribly wrong, oh well, at least the Non-Essential Workers will be spared so they can continue to be Non-Essential and work from home if you can call surfing the net working and they will continue to draw their absurd salaries for doing nothing more than pretending they’re working and pretending they’re important.

  2. Andre

    I thought I saw something by him earlier today, though I didn’t read it:

  3. Chiron

    R.I.P. David Graeber.

    The Guardian seriously can got hell, they did more damage to the Left than Right-Wing tabloids that are popular in Britain.

  4. Willy

    I guess I did work for a multinational which had matured into the more corrupt phase of anacyclosis. IOW, the original thrill of being personally rewarded for your inventive and profitable newness which rose the stock price shares was gone, and replaced with cronyism, nepotism and territorial competition. You dared not come up with some whiz-bang and take credit for it because your boss and his henchmen might feel threatened. I saw a lot of good guys marginalized or even ruined because they hadn’t adapted to that phase of the game.

    So I certainly believe in bullshit management and bullshit employees, who create bullshit to hide the fact that they are themselves, full of shit. Challenge their power and/or expose their mediocrity and you’re in serious in trouble.

    I can see these things adopted as a national cultural value by the mediocre as a way to level the playing field against the truly creative few. It’s easy to see how even the largest of corporations can eventually grow fat and bloated. My inside sources tell me that my old multinational is in serious trouble. But I don’t understand what can be done about it. I don’t get anarchism.

  5. kråke

    For me, “Debt” was an apex inquiry. If all Graeber had done was to flesh out the origins of sin-debt in Mespotamia, it would be a tremendous achievement on its own terms.

  6. Keith in Modesto

    I saw that David Graeber had passed away on Twitter yesterday and was surprised. I hadn’t heard anything about him being ill and hadn’t thought he was that old. Debt: The First 5000 Years is yet another (mostly) unread book on my bookshelf. I just went and retrieved it, and it still has the bookmark at page 79! I have it in hardback even. In his honor I will start reading it again, and this time I’ll finish it.
    Ian, you mentioned that he got a few historical details wrong. Would you care to briefly sketch out what those were?
    Rest in Peace, Mr. Graeber.

  7. kråke


    You may not enjoy some of the places Rao goes with his theory, but he explores corporate bullshit better than most. I’m not sure Mr. Welsh would want a direct link, but it’s easy enough to find the Gervais Principle.

    Curiously enough, Rao starts from a mercenary capitalism, rooted in Cioran or Ligotti level pessimism, and arrives at similar, but less ennobling or hopeful, insights to dead-far-too-damned-soon Graeber.

  8. Edward Ho

    In a world of billions, most are specks in the historical record. .

    Parents usually achieve some degree of legacy through their children. Though the ultimate impact is limited to a couple of generations as memories fade and descendants disperse.

    Then there are those rare souls who leave ideas behind. Which is itself an accomplishment in itself because books are relatively feeble things. There are so many of them already piled up in libraries.

    If Graeber has a legacy it will be because some faithful adherent picked up his torch and carried it. And because there were people who were receptive to their message.

    For everyone else… oblivion.

  9. Ché Pasa

    David Graeber was among the early organizers of the Zuccotti Park occupation, creating the first NYC General Assembly, and through that effort influenced how Occupy Wall Street would be formulated and operated throughout the country and much of rest of the world. (Note: he didn’t invent these mechanisms. They pre-existed the Occupy Movement. He set them in motion in the context of Occupy.)

    Hundreds of temporary intentional communities, almost all organized on anarchist principles, were among the results.

    I first came in (online) contact with him through OWS. His purpose driven kindness, generosity and humility was striking then, and it remained so for the rest of his all too short life. He was a scholar of remarkable sensitivity both to his subjects and to the humanity and human nature that was at the root of his research, study and insightful publications. I will miss him terribly.

    Of course standard-model economists and others deplored him. He made connections and offered alternative models that they couldn’t or wouldn’t for fear that … they might lose their sinecures among other things.

    For me, David’s seminal work was also one of his first publications: “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” (2004) (55 pg pdf) in which he lays out ways (some) people have found to commit revolution not by facing down the overclass but by side stepping them, “irrelevating” them as I sometimes say.

  10. Willy

    kråke, yeah, sociopaths tend to win because they have the most weapons which they very much enjoy using, including engaging an otherwise honest mans greed. Regular guys then go along with the culture they create because they cant see other alternatives. And then Huawei displaces Cisco. Did Graeber have practical solutions? Most conservatives I know don’t believe in science or academia, especially the state sponsored kind, proof the sociopaths are winning the brainwashing battle.

  11. Samuel Conner

    I hope that Graeber\’s work will inspire others to carry his project forward.

    I\’m not entirely confident that it\’s true, and I certainly hope that it is not true, that \”no-one\” will do the work that remained for DG to do.

    My sense of the present organization of the world is that the human race is endowed with more talent than our societies are, as currently organized, able to usefully deploy. The reality of elite competition (following Peter Turchin\’s analysis) is one example of this, but I think that it extends throughout the class structure. People at every level have more talents than the opportunities available to them can usefully employ. Perhaps keeping us unhappy, by this means and others, is part of how we are controlled by those who rule.

  12. Stirling S Newberry

    “The Dawn of Everything”

  13. Joan

    RIP, that’s quite young; he surely had at least ten years left.

  14. NL

    I actually read through most of the ‘History of Debt’ (it is big and could be better organized), the things I remember from it is that when Buddhist monks set themselves on fire, they repay debt to some universal being (or something like that), and there is also a discussion of the origin of money in the military needs of the king.

    Overall the ambitious effort to treat monetary and all kinds of other debt as a some sort of universal human expression is not welcome and misleading. A lot of debt he discusses it simply reciprocity, usury is not reciprocity, it is gambling, where the house has a huge advantage, and predation. Gambling because certainty of a promissory note is exchanged for uncertainty of real life to repay, and predation, because they will come with a baseball bat for you or your relatives. I would not borrow unless I had an even bigger bat — but then it is not borrowing, is it? That’s what the US ‘debt’ is right now. Let see China or anyone else try to collect. But now China has a comparable baseball bat, and its US treasury debt is no longer growing.

    Predation is then disguised as a morality play — but you promised, keep your promises — so is it the debt that is sacred or a promise that is sacred? Meditating on these things is pointless. Just remember not to borrow in your own name, be like Trump and borrow in the name of a corporation — a clever trip the West invented.

    Those who lend know all of this well. So, when China started lending, it was quickly accused in setting ‘debt traps’. But hey, whose citizenry is the most indebted in the world? The one that also has no political representation (as I keep on arguing here).

    At the time I read the book, it stimulated some of my thinking about the subject, so I would suggested it not as a text book, but a stimulant for thought.


  15. nihil obstet

    I am very sad about Graeber’s death for the reasons that others have recounted here. Graeber made two large contributions to my thought.

    Although the crew at the old BOPNews, espectially Stirling Newbury, laid down the principle that debts that can’t be repaid won’t be, I had a lingering priggish emotional reaction tying together debt and sin. In Debt, Graeber broke that. Debt carries no more morality than any other method of organizing access to resources.

    In his various talks and writings on anarchy, he convinced me that efforts to control and coerce are not only usually unnecessary, but counterproductive.

  16. Hugh

    My impression is that economics generally does a terrible job with money: what it is, how it operates, and its history. For me, Graeber’s greatest contribution was in pointing out that money was not some primordial element of early economies but that other relationships such as debt had both earlier and more important roles in the history of societies.

  17. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Off topic.

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  18. V

    A shock to the system; Graeber was a young man of 59…
    He’ll be sorely missed by this one.
    There is a free download of Graeber’s book, Debt, the First 5,000 Years
    It’s an audio book at the link below. Go to audio books on the left hand index for the free download:

  19. Yes, 59 years is very little, I agree … Thanks for the link to the book.

  20. V

    Christopher Bossano
    September 5, 2020

    You’re very welcome; enjoy…

  21. Olivier

    Graeber will be missed, no doubt, but at least we still have Michael Hudson.

  22. JoeR

    In reading his books and articles and following him on twitter I had the sense of knowing him, of having a kind of personal relationship with him though I never met him or communicated directly with him. He seemed more authentic and without guile than almost anyone else I can think of. Yes, he will be missed greatly for that and for what he made his life about.

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