David Graeber’s Possible Worlds
The Dawn of Everything author left behind countless fans and a belief society could still change for the better.
Lately it has seemed possible that everything must change. Basic fixtures of American life, rules and institutions that had come to feel inevitable — in 2020 and 2021, they felt less inevitable than before. They felt perhaps untenable. Things like the cost of health care and the cost of child care. Offices, prisons, and police. Fossil fuel, the filibuster, Facebook. The pursuit of happiness via nonstop work. The monthly payments on a student loan. Every month the rent was due — unless it wasn’t anymore.
To David Graeber, it was a matter of plain fact that things did not have to be the way they were. Graeber was an anthropologist, which meant it was his job to study other ways of living. “I’m interested in anthropology because I’m interested in human possibilities,” he once explained. Graeber was also an anarchist, “and in a way,” he went on, “there’s always been an affinity between anthropology and anarchism, simply because anthropologists know that a society without a state is possible. There’s been plenty of them.” A better world was not assured, but it was possible — and anyway, as Graeber put it in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, “since one cannot know a radically better world is not possible, are we not betraying everyone by insisting on continuing to justify and reproduce the mess we have today?”
Graeber died unexpectedly a year ago this September, at the age of 59, and though he’d never sought to be a leader, he left behind a multitude of followers and fans, from artists to economists to Kurdish revolutionaries. They were people whose imaginations he had captured as a scholar and a teacher, as the public intellectual of the Occupy movement, and as the best-selling author of Debt and Bullshit Jobs, books that swept across eras and disciplines to offer scholarly provocation in layperson’s terms. After his death, friends and acolytes from around the world — from Brazil, Japan, and New Zealand — submitted video tributes for an online celebration of his life. A year later, his widow, the artist Nika Dubrovsky, still hasn’t managed to make her way through all the footage she received.
Graeber also left behind the staggeringly large project he finished three weeks before he died: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Written in collaboration with the archaeologist David Wengrow, the book draws on new research to challenge received wisdom on civilization’s course. The story of humanity, as it is typically told, proceeds along a linear path. It passes in distinct stages from foraging bands and tribes on to agriculture, cities, and kings. But, surveying the historic and archaeological record, Graeber and Wengrow saw a wealth of other stories, taking humanity on varied and unpredictable routes. There were societies that farmed without really committing to it, for example. There were societies whose authority figures’ power applied only during certain parts of the year. Cities coalesced without any apparent centralized government; brutal hierarchies took shape among people who later reversed their course. The book’s 704 pages teem with possibilities. They are a testament, in the authors’ view, to human agency and invention — a capacity for conscious political decision-making that conventional history ignores. “We are projects of collective self-creation,” write Graeber and Wengrow. “What if we approached human history that way? What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures who deserve to be understood as such?”
Lauren Leve, an anthropologist at UNC-Chapel Hill who was Graeber’s girlfriend for many years and, later, his friend, remembers his crackling enthusiasm for his work on The Dawn of Everything. “We would be on the phone, and I could just hear him sort of wringing his hands and grinning with excitement and a sense of mischief — ‘This is going to mess things up!’” she recalls. He’d laugh as he described the discoveries he and Wengrow were making, the revelations they planned to unleash. People are just going to go crazy, he would tell her, but it’s true!
In 1975, David Graeber arrived at Phillips Academy Andover as a tenth-grader — a “lower,” in the boarding school’s parlance. He was 14 and a stranger to Wasp aristocracy, a child of proudly working-class New York. His mother, Ruth Rubinstein, had met Kenneth Graeber at a communist youth camp; he was a Gentile from Kansas and, when they married, her Jewish immigrant family disowned her. Kenneth worked as a plate stripper for printing presses, and Ruth sewed brassieres. During the 1930s, he’d joined the International Brigade and driven an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War. She, meanwhile, performed in Pins and Needles, a union-backed musical that brought its garment-worker cast to Broadway. (After its run, she returned to sewing bras.) Ruth’s big number, “Chain Store Daisy,” concerned a Vassar graduate selling girdles at Macy’s. Ruth herself never went to college. She was a constant reader, however, and years later, she was the audience her son kept in mind when he wrote. Graeber, Leve recalls, used to say that “if he understood something, he should be able to write it in a way that would be accessible and interesting to her.”
Ruth and Kenneth were in their 40s by the time they had David, their second son, and the family had achieved a measure of security. Early in his childhood, they moved into an apartment in the Penn South co-ops, an affordable-housing development in Chelsea sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. The family had a tiny A-frame beach house on Fire Island with bookshelves full of sci-fi paperbacks. (One of Graeber’s first memories of political engagement was a late-’60s antiwar march on the beach.) After developing a youthful hobby of translating Mayan hieroglyphics, he began a correspondence with an archaeology professor at Yale, who helped arrange an Andover scholarship. The sudden immersion of a brilliant, observant, and class-conscious adolescent in the world of prep school would seem to be excellent training for a radical anthropologist.
Graeber’s education continued at SUNY-Purchase and the University of Chicago, where he got his anthropology Ph.D. His adviser, the eminent scholar Marshall Sahlins, suggested that fieldwork in Madagascar might suit him; Graeber spent nearly two years there on the research that became his dissertation, and eventually his book, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar. The ambition for ethnography he set out in its preface was to “give access to a universe, a total way of life.” Thomas Blom Hansen is chair of the Anthropology Department at Stanford; a friend and onetime colleague, he told me Graeber had always been interested in the “large, universal questions” of their discipline’s early days.
What Graeber came to realize, during his time with the Malagasy, was that their daily lives carried on effectively outside state control. They weren’t paying taxes, they weren’t calling police, and, rather than relying on hierarchical structures of authority, they were making decisions collectively. The Malagasy didn’t call attention to this state of affairs. They just went about their business, behaving — as anarchist principles would have it — as if they were already free. Graeber had considered himself an anarchist since he was a teen, but now he could see how anarchism worked. “The way I always put it is: Most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea; they think it’s insane,” he told one interviewer. “I come from a family where that was not assumed.” Still, before Madagascar, “I never actually lived in a place without state authority,” Graeber explained. “I got to observe firsthand how people can actually organize things without top-down structures of command.”
The quotidian anarchism Graeber saw in his fieldwork was an epiphany he would later work to translate for a wider audience. Anarchism was a matter of “having the courage to take the simple principles of common decency that we all live by, and to follow them through to their logical conclusions,” he wrote in an essay called “Are You an Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You!” He explained that when people waited politely in line to board a bus — waited, that is, even though nobody was making them — they were acting like anarchists.
This carefully palatable account of anarchism notwithstanding, Graeber spoke out over the years in defense of anarchist activity more alarming to some observers, like Black Bloc actions that damaged property. He was not trying to soften his politics for popular appeal, exactly. Rather, he was challenging accepted fictions and revealing how they diverged from reality. Such a fiction might be “The government is in charge here.” It might also be “Human beings are fundamentally selfish and act accordingly.” To unthinkingly accept the latter worldview, for example, we blind ourselves to “at least half of our own activity, which could just as easily be described as being communistic or anarchistic,” Graeber explained. A basic optimism about humanity united Graeber’s politics and his anthropology: The problem, in his view, was the tendency not to give people enough credit.
Teaching at Yale, where he started as an assistant professor in 1998, was not a job that Graeber expected to last. “David was open about it,” Leve said. Knowing that tenure offers at Yale were rare, he intended to treat it as “the best temporary job you could ever have.” At the time, associate and assistant roles were not so much pathways to tenure as short-term contract jobs. The result was a sharp sense of division between the senior faculty and their precariously employed junior colleagues. The anthropologist Kamari Clarke (now a professor at the University of Toronto) was hired as an assistant professor at the same time as Graeber. She remembers how the department’s hierarchies permeated daily life. “We had faculty meetings, and junior faculty were there for the first, say, 45 minutes, and then we would be asked to leave,” Clarke said. “And then senior faculty would continue on with the meeting. That was the Yale way during that period.”
In Graeber’s classroom, such questions of status had little weight. Even the big-name theorists he discussed — in Graeber’s telling, “they were just dudes,” said Durba Chattaraj. One of his Ph.D. students at Yale, she remembers lectures speckled with the personal foibles of the greats. Apart from the entertainment value, there was a message: These thinkers “were smart, but they were doing something that anybody can do if they read enough and think hard enough, which is creating theories about the world around you.”
“To be honest, meeting David was kind of like meeting another student — he wasn’t all that much older than us,” said Christina Moon, who was an anthropology Ph.D. student at the time. Graeber would join the graduate students for Buffy TV nights; he’d take them out to dinner and pick up the check. His office was crowded with rugs, old lamps, tchotchkes, and piles of papers and books. “Crap! All of this crap everywhere,” Moon fondly recalled. “It was messy, but it was this warm little place within a very stoic and cold-feeling institution.” She and Graeber bonded over their family roots in the Garment District: Her parents had once worked at a factory on 23rd Street, not far from his family’s ILGWU apartment on 24th. Moon often felt like an outsider at Yale. As her adviser, Graeber became “a refuge,” she told me, someone who helped her “overcome those feelings that I didn’t belong.”
Graeber saw himself as an outsider at Yale, too — despite publishing at a daunting clip, despite teaching classes that were reliably packed. Being an anthropologist meant being attuned to the meanings a community built into its structures. At Yale, to someone who’d grown up without much money, the meanings were clear. Clarke remembers him talking about going to Sterling Memorial Library and “feeling freaked out by the grandeur.” Sterling is a massive Gothic Revival tower; its vast hush and soaring ceilings are the academy’s fantasy of itself made manifest. It is a building that invites the visitor to revere that fantasy, in all its storied elitism — but Graeber resisted doing so. He had parents who had embraced their working-class identity; he embraced it, too. “He didn’t want to give that up completely. He didn’t think he should have to give it up completely,” Leve said. Trying to ingratiate his way to insider status would have felt like a betrayal — “but,” she said, “mostly it was just that he didn’t know how.” Graeber was “unclubbable,” a colleague he considered an ally once told him. “His affect was so disorganized,” Leve told me. He looked different from the other professors. His hair was untidy; his clothes were perpetually disheveled; he was ashamed of his terrible teeth.
Graeber had just delivered a lecture for the class Power, Violence, and Cosmology one day in 1999 when a headline about the Seattle WTO protests caught his eye. “I discovered the political movement I’d really like to have existed had come into being when I wasn’t paying attention,” he later said. Here was a practical enactment of the principles he’d long embraced. He wound up taking a sabbatical year, during which he immersed himself in the global justice movement with New York City’s Direct Action Network. DAN was part of a loosely organized national activist confederation that had come to prominence after Seattle. It operated along anarchist principles, making decisions through a consensus process and planning actions through spokes-councils and affinity groups. It was just like Madagascar — albeit “much more formalized and explicit,” he’d later write, since “in Madagascar, everyone had been doing this since they learned to speak.”
Just as he had in Madagascar, Graeber was taking extensive field notes on the customs he observed: how the activists defused their conflicts, how they shared their cigarettes. The London School of Economics sociology professor Ayça Çubukçu remembers meeting Graeber through DAN at a community center on the Lower East Side. She was impressed with the work that would become his book Direct Action: An Ethnography. The social sciences tend to rely on “this distinction between the subject of analysis and the object of analysis — and David exploded that distinction,” Çubukçu told me. “His method was classical in the sense that he was teasing out the implicit logics and the symbolic worlds of activists. But the reason he had such an intimate understanding was because he was one of us.” Soon Graeber was helping organize actions and speaking on behalf of DAN in the press. “Yes, it’s fun,” he told a Boston Globe reporter, regarding the spirit of camaraderie at the 2000 Republican-convention protests. “We believe politics should be fun, but this is also serious. We are facing police records and getting our faces smashed in.”
When he returned to Yale after his sabbatical, previously friendly members of the senior faculty froze him out, he said. He believed that his outspoken activism had turned colleagues against him. Meanwhile, graduate students were working to organize a union, a fight that grew increasingly intense. Approached by student organizers, Graeber quickly offered his support; many colleagues did not. He saw hypocrisy in the academy’s supposed radicalism. As he wrote in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology:
Academics love Michel Foucault’s argument that identifies knowledge and power, and insists that brute force is no longer a major factor in social control. They love it because it flatters them: the perfect formula for people who like to think of themselves as political radicals even though all they do is write essays likely to be read by a few dozen other people in an institutional environment. Of course, if any of these academics were to walk into their university library to consult some volume of Foucault without having remembered to bring a valid ID, and decided to enter the stacks anyway, they would soon discover that brute force is really not so far away as they like to imagine — a man with a big stick, trained in exactly how hard to hit people with it, would rapidly appear to eject them.
It was becoming apparent that the principles at the crux of Graeber’s work ill suited the academy. He didn’t believe in hierarchy, and he behaved accordingly. Whatever his beliefs, however, his colleagues still had power over him. Graeber’s first contract renewal passed uneventfully. At his second, a group of colleagues moved not to renew him, saying he’d done insufficient committee work. His failure to live in New Haven full time had further marked him as an outsider — but Graeber’s family had been pulling him back to New York. His older brother was dying of cancer, and then, following a series of mini-strokes, his mother’s health was in decline. Struggling to balance his work obligations with caring for her “was awful,” Leve told me. “It was just utterly awful.” Graeber agreed to take on more departmental work, and Yale made the unusual decision to revisit the contract in one year’s time.
Then, in 2005, Graeber joined Moon, his advisee, in a contentious meeting. Moon was one of the students involved in the organizing effort among grad students, which had become a source of friction, and she was pursuing a dissertation that seemed to perplex some senior faculty. She wanted to study emergent forms of labor in the U.S. garment industry. “Her work was brilliant, but it didn’t fit the old-school configuration of anthropological work,” Clarke, who also taught Moon, told me. Moon felt there had already been “passive-aggressive” efforts to nudge her out of the program, but in this meeting the conflict came to a head. One of the senior faculty, she remembers, told her she didn’t belong at Yale. Graeber spoke up, outraged on her behalf. “He pulled out his notebook, and he said, ‘Keep on talking. Now I’m going to start writing down every single thing you’re saying to my student.’” Moon was crying — she was terrified her academic career was over. Graeber started making jokes, stage-whispering asides, “giggling in anger” as he read back what was being said. “He just sucked all the power out of the room,” Moon said. Don’t be afraid of them, she felt he was telling her. They are ridiculous.
Moon stayed on at Yale and got her doctorate; she is now a professor at the New School. For Graeber, though, the meeting marked a turning point. “After that my dismissal was a foregone conclusion,” he later wrote. Yale’s decision not to renew Graeber’s contract attracted widespread attention — there were stories in the New York Times and the AP. Anthropologists from across the country and abroad sent letters in support of his work; Maurice Bloch of the London School of Economics called Graeber ”the best anthropological theorist of his generation.”
Given this outpouring, Graeber believed he’d be able to find another job, but after applying for more than 20 positions, he failed to make the first cut for any of them. “Once you’ve been at the center of a scandal, you’re scandalous,” Leve told me. Graeber believed Yale’s decision was about politics. “Whether the man was a good anthropologist — that was indisputable,” Hansen said. “It was more a question of whether he was someone you could see as your future colleague.” Hiring a figure like Graeber would have meant “bringing in somebody who’s going to have a great deal of weight in the department and in departmental politics,” Leve explained. “And if you’re not sure that this is going to be an ally, or you think this is somebody that could complicate things, I think a lot of people may hesitate.”
When Ruth Graeber died in 2006, her son was still out of work. Invited that year to deliver a lecture at the London School of Economics, he spoke about the crushing bureaucracy that accompanied the end of life. He described it as a series of ”dead zones” that stifled the human imagination, leaving only blindness and stupidity. Back in New York, he continued to live in the apartment where he’d grown up. “It was like a mausoleum, full of things that had belonged to his parents that he didn’t want to change or part with,” Leve said. The interiors remained a mid-century cocoon of orange, green, brown, and burgundy. Paintings by his parents’ friends hung on the walls; books that they had read lined the shelves. The apartment was a boon — a large two-bedroom in Manhattan — that Graeber shared lavishly. Friends, along with their partners and children, moved in for months or years rent free. As Graeber began teaching at Goldsmith’s in London, he was an intermittent roommate.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Graeber maintained an extended community of friends. He was an extravagant correspondent, a sender of pages-long emails. “I don’t know how it was humanly possible to have so many intimate relationships,” Çubukçu said. “At any point, he was dealing with multiple personal crises that his wide network of friends were going through.” The journalist Dyan Neary, a friend who lived for a time in the apartment, remembers Graeber as a constant visitor during the months she spent in the NICU following her daughter’s birth. He’d bring jelly candies and distract her with stories from the new book he was working on — Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
In a typical economics textbook, money gets invented because it is annoying to trade your chickens for your neighbor’s cows. Maybe you don’t want a cow when your neighbor needs some chickens; maybe what you want is shoes instead. Money: the solution to barter’s woes. Barter leads to money leads to banking and credit; this is “the founding myth of our system of economic relations,” Graeber wrote in Debt. There was, however, one notable problem. “There’s no evidence that it ever happened.” His fellow anthropologists had been “complaining about the Myth of Barter for almost a century,” and still it persisted — despite the fact that “to this day, no one has been able to locate a part of the world where the ordinary mode of economic transaction between neighbors takes the form of ‘I’ll give you 20 chickens for that cow.’”
And why would it? Such a scenario presupposes bizarre neighbors—detached from any kind of ongoing social existence, operating as economic automatons. Realistically, if you have cows and I have chickens, I give you a chicken and we say you owe me one. (Next week, maybe I come by and ask for milk.) People have always run tabs and relied on credit. More than that, they have always lived in webs of mutual dependence and obligation; the life of any community was threaded through with debts of different sorts. But debt changes when it breaks loose from actual human relations, when it becomes an impersonal asset to be bought and sold. This, Graeber wrote, was what had happened in our recent economic history. Debt had long served to shore up hierarchy, but lately, debt had also come to be treated as immutable. We’d lost what had once been the natural partner of debt: the possibility of forgiveness.
In his scholarly work, Graeber had studied value theory, asking how societies determine what is worthy and desirable — qualities more capacious than the field of economics would suggest. In Debt, he translated those questions for ordinary readers, yoking them to a contemporary problem of undeniable urgency. “I devoured that book,” the artist Thomas Gokey told me. Gokey’s work had dealt with debt in the past, so he’d done plenty of reading on the subject, and plenty of that reading was dull. “But when he wrote about it, it was lively. It’s about your relationship with your mother, it’s about your relationship with the gods — the entire cosmos is wrapped up in this thing that was also this absolutely brutal club that was just banging us over the head.”
The book arrived in the summer of 2011: after the bank bailout, after the subprime-mortgage crisis, as the effects of the Great Recession dragged on. It found many readers as eager as Gokey to understand the brutality of debt. That summer, a collection of activists began meeting in New York to plan an occupation in the Financial District. Graeber was among them. “We have a genuine horizontal structure up and running and it’s really fun (for geeks like me anyway),” he wrote in an email to a friend, the activist and writer Astra Taylor. “We wrested control from the WWP/ISO (did I mention this?) and even though it’s a silly Adbusters action we have to work with, it’s looking like the action might work out.” That fall, when Taylor showed up in the first days of Occupy Wall Street, she remembers Graeber greeting her like “a radical maître d’.”
“One thing that always struck me about David,” she told me, “is how much he enjoyed meetings.” Under the fluorescent lights of a church basement or at Zuccotti Park, Graeber was in his element. He seemed “almost gleefully” to savor the experience of being in a group doing direct democracy. The model of activism he’d first embraced ten years earlier (with consensus decision-making, many working groups, a leaderless general assembly) was attracting new attention with Occupy Wall Street — frequently, in the mainstream media, it was attracting skeptical condescension. But to Graeber, its structureless fluidity was the point. “He had an infinite patience for the frustrating aspects of that type of culture,” Taylor said. “He was really comfortable sitting there cross-legged and just listening, letting other people speak. He did not dominate. He never pulled rank.” As the guiding intellect of a horizontal, egalitarian movement, Graeber played a slightly paradoxical role. Bloomberg Businessweek hailed him as “the anti-leader of Occupy Wall Street.” When given credit for the slogan “We Are the 99 Percent,” Graeber declined to accept; he’d said something about 99 percent, he explained, but “two Spanish indignados and a Greek anarchist added the ‘we’ and later a food-not-bombs veteran put the ‘are’ between them.” (The only reason he wasn’t naming his collaborators, he added, was “the way Police Intelligence has been coming after early OWS organizers.”)
Andrew Ross is a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU and the author of Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal. “There’s a brilliance of a certain kind of philosopher that weaves incredibly dense — you know, Heidegger or something. David was the absolute antithesis of that,” he said. “He’s the kind of guy that will sit in a park and change your life.” And with Occupy, for many, Graeber did. Nicholas Mirzoeff, an NYU media-studies professor, met Graeber during this period. “There are certain people whose generosity makes you be the best version of yourself,” Mirzoeff said. “He would see something that you would say, and say, ‘That’s so interesting,’ and just ever-so-slightly recast it to make it a good deal smarter than maybe it necessarily originally was.” It was a tendency that seemed to spring from genuine curiosity about other people.. “I hesitate to use the word ‘empowerment,’” Çubukçu told me, “but he empowered people.”
In his 2013 book The Democracy Project, Graeber held that Occupy had “worked,” and the experience of Zuccotti Park left his enthusiasm for direct democracy undimmed. Others remembered the day-to-day reality with less warmth. “There’s this phrase, ‘Freedom is an endless meeting,’ and it’s not meant as a positive phrase,” Taylor said. “He just had really rose-colored glasses.” But whatever its frustrations, Occupy was the arena where ideas that later took hold much more broadly emerged. Gokey was part of an Occupy listserv where one day, he remembers, Graeber sent a message “that didn’t make sense to me” — something about secondary markets and buying up medical debts to forgive. “A week later I went back and reread it and I thought, Certainly this can’t be true,” Gokey told me. But he was intrigued enough to investigate further. The suggestion sent him deep into research on a “world where people’s pain is other people’s investment opportunities.” In time he had the beginnings of a strategy for a modern debt jubilee.
Graeber’s ability to forge connections was an asset in organizing — Strike Debt grew out of Occupy Wall Street, eventually uniting Gokey, Ross, Taylor, and other Graeber allies. ”It’s like he put a band together,” Taylor said. The members of the group realized they could purchase strangers’ high-risk loans for pennies on the dollar. Then, instead of trying to collect on the loans (as another investor would), they forgave them and sent the borrowers letters telling them they were free. In an early video produced by the group, Graeber and his friends burn collection notices and dance, their faces hidden behind balaclavas. Wrote Graeber in the video’s voice-over script: “Every dollar we take from a subprime mortgage speculator, every dollar we save from the collection agency is a tiny piece of our own lives and freedom that we can give back to our communities.”
By the end of 2013, the group had raised some $400,000 and used it to forgive nearly $15 million in loans. This was, of course, an infinitesimal fraction of the problem. But their goal (in addition to helping those they could) was to change the way people thought about debt. In The Democracy Project, Graeber discussed how, “in the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency of debate.” In this sense, Strike Debt — which forgave some $32 million, before shifting its focus to collective action as a debtors union — succeeded to a staggering degree. “During Occupy, we made a demand for full student-debt cancellation and to fully fund public universities,” Gokey told me. “We were ridiculed by everyone. By the media, by politicians, by the knowing, smug policy wonks.” At the time, their goals were treated as self-evidently absurd: “They want all student debt in the country forgiven. All $1 trillion of it. And if the government would be so kind, they’d appreciate it if it would pay for higher education from here on out, as well,” one Reuterscommentator wrote.
Ten years later, a figure as unimpeachably Establishment as Chuck Schumer was calling for the forgiveness of student debt. Bernie Sanders had brought free college to the presidential stage in 2016, and by 2020, Democratic presidential candidates were arguing less over whether debt forgiveness was a good idea than over precisely how much to forgive. The safe-choice centrist who won the primary and then the presidency, Joe Biden, made free college access part of his platform. In one of her recent calls to cancel student loans, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed supporters to the Debt Collective, Strike Debt’s debtors-union successor. Full forgiveness may not be a political reality yet, but the terms of debate have changed.
In the years surrounding Occupy, Graeber was teaching in London, but he continued to see New York as his home. Then, in 2014, he lost his foothold in the city: the family apartment. Back in 2006, as his mother was dying, they’d tried to get him added to the lease. The paperwork had never gone through. Graeber remained in the apartment for years with no objection, but after Occupy, the co-op asked him to leave. He believed the timing suggested police interference. “Almost everyone mentioned in press as involved in early days of OWS has been getting administrative harassment,” he tweeted. “Evictions, visa problems, tax audits … Endless minor harassment arrests.”
Though he was perhaps slow to embrace it, London was where Graeber “really became the person he wanted to be,” Moon told me. After teaching for a time at Goldsmiths, he was hired as a full professor at LSE, an “institution that gives a little more space for people who fit into that classic public-intellectual mode,” as Hansen put it. Graeber still chafed against workplace habit — running late to meetings, avoiding his office phone — but he found a community of colleagues who welcomed him. He settled down in an apartment near Portobello Road, getting to know neighborhood shopkeepers and perusing the street market on weekends. When friends visited, he’d introduce them around, maybe take them to a local bookseller’s reggae band or go shopping for vintage clothes. Dubrovsky, who became his partner in London, remembers visits to their local coffee shop. “Every time we went in, David would have a chat about the merits of different kinds of ground coffee with a lovely employee,” she recalled. “Every time, he bought the same type of ground coffee.”
Dubrovsky and Graeber were friends and correspondents for years before they got together. The emails he sent were so extensive that she was sure at first she was “his major pen pal.” Soon she came to see that in fact he managed to send a great many people such long and thoughtful emails. (She later realized that he slept roughly five hours a night.) One of Graeber’s other correspondents was Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London. They met in professional circles and struck up a rapport after Graeber impressed him with his knowledge of Mesopotamian cylinder seals. Wengrow gave Graeber a copy of his book; Graeber read it and wrote him “this extraordinary email,” pages of ideas and feedback, Wengrow remembers, “and I thought, Wow, this is really fun!” He replied, the emails grew longer, and they had “probably written half a book” before they officially decided to collaborate on what would become The Dawn of Everything. Their plan was to pursue it strictly “in a spirit of fun,” as a respite from their other work. It was how Graeber liked to approach writing generally, said Dubrovsky. He’d write propped up in the bathtub or lying on the floor; that way, it didn’t feel like work.
He and Wengrow were serious in a certain sense: They were determined to publish extracts in peer-reviewed journals, to establish scholarly credibility. When they made their first submission, to the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, they received brief comments dismissing their work as insufficiently “new.” Graeber was immediately distressed, convinced the anonymous reviewers had “some ax to grind.” Wengrow managed to calm him down while he replied on their behalf. Politely, Wengrow asked for examples of where exactly work like theirs had appeared before. The Journal was unable to produce any. It accepted the paper. Graeber was amazed. “How do you do that?” Wengrow remembers him marveling. “The man did not know how to handle stress,” another friend told me. A heated exchange on Twitter could derail him. Still, he refused to shy away. One persistent bugbear was the Berkeley economist Brad DeLong — after DeLong’s blog took him to task for a handful of factual errors in Debt, the two became entrenched in a protracted flamewar. (DeLong recently resurfaced, amid positive press for The Dawn of Everything, to affirm his stance that “nothing David Graeber writes is trustable.”)
But some economists (not Brad DeLong) embraced Debt; proponents of modern monetary theory saw him as an influence. Bullshit Jobs, another best seller, found language and theory for another widespread ill — meaningless work — and further expanded his readership. Chattaraj, Graeber’s Yale student, told me that the undergraduates she teaches as a professor at Ashoka University in India now come to her fired up to discuss the book. Graeber had new professional stability and new audiences, and he was conscious of the power his stature gave him to wield. “He had, in a way, very practical politics,” Taylor said. The goal, as he saw it, was to make people’s lives better. “Sometimes you do that by opening people’s imaginations, changing their self-understanding. Sometimes you can actually change policy — give people some fucking health care.”
It was in that spirit that he became a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. “I am not a political party guy,” Graeber told one interviewer. “The reason I support Corbyn, or am happy about him, is because he is willing to work with social movements.” Graeber had struck up a connection with John McDonnell, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor of the exchequer, through the People’s Parliament, an effort to bring ordinary Britons into the workings of government. James Schneider, who served as Corbyn’s communications director, said that Graeber was someone “sparking the imagination for what’s politically possible,” opening space for new ideas beyond positions the party was able to take. He was also a forceful ally in political fights. When the Labour Party faced accusations of anti-Semitism, Graeber recorded a video in Corbyn’s defense.
In a talk at the London Review Bookshop, Graeber described changing one’s mind as a kind of “political happiness” — the pleasure of realizing that you don’t have to keep thinking the things you’ve thought before. “I’m absolutely certain that for him to throw in so profoundly with an electoral campaign was a big deal,” Taylor told me. At the same time, “It’s not like he was a quiescent supporter of ours,” Schneider said. “He would challenge, he would push.”
One of the causes for which Graeber pushed was Rojava, and the Kurdish political project under way in northern Syria. Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, held prisoner by the Turkish government, had undergone a political conversion after reading the work of American anarchist Murray Bookchin. Where once Ocalan had been a fairly conventional leader of a conventional Marxist party, he was now urging his followers to look beyond such structure. Rojava, the Kurdish word meaning “West,” came to identify an autonomous region in northern Syria where the Kurds embarked on an experiment in local democratic government and cooperative economy with guiding principles that included equality for women and ecological responsibility.
For Graeber, the Kurdish project (and the wider world’s indifference) called to mind the Spanish Civil War. The revolution his father had been moved to defend had brought about “whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women,” he wrote in the Guardian. But the Fascists had crushed the Spanish Republic, and now ISIS menaced the Kurds. “I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again,” Graeber wrote. As an anarchist, he had a certain discomfort with the portraits of Ocalan that were everywhere in Rojava, Graeber told one interviewer — but a leader in jail for life was a leader he could tolerate.
Elif Sarican, a Kurdish activist and anthropologist, said that Graeber was “one of the first big names” to visit Rojava. “He was always so clear on the strategic and political importance of defending this revolution,” she told me. “He would say, ‘It’s not to say it’s perfect, and they’re not claiming it’s perfect themselves, but this is an objectively crucial and historic revolutionary situation happening, and we need to put our weight behind it.’” Debbie Bookchin, a journalist and Murray’s daughter, remembers discussing his plans for a quick 2019 trip to New York: He and Dubrovsky were getting married at City Hall, and he wanted Bookchin to attend. “I said, ‘Great! And by the way, while you’re here, how do you feel about doing a panel on Rojava?’” she told me and laughed. “Anybody else would have said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m flying in for four days. I’m going to have jet lag. I’m getting married. And now you’re asking me to do this?’ David, without a beat of hesitation, said, ‘Of course, absolutely.’ And of course, because David was on the program, we had an overflowing crowd.”
As part of international delegations traveling in support of the region, Graeber ate falafel amid ruins in Raqqa. He smoked his one annual cigarette (he’d been a heavy smoker in his youth) with Yazidi women fighters while visiting a training base. He had a tendency, sometimes exasperating to fellow travelers, of wandering off unannounced. One time he’d “gone for a wander” only to be found at a kiosk buying candy for Kurdish children, Sarican recalled. Visiting archaeological sites in Rojava, Graeber sent Wengrow exuberant texts about their book — years into their project, the two were still having fun. Indeed, they were still having fun after ten years, at which point the book was essentially complete. “We both found it too depressing — the idea of actually finishing,” Wengrow told me. Yet the conclusion had begun to sprawl. In August 2020, they called the book finished; they decided to continue in a sequel.
Pandemic life in London had been a challenge for Graeber: He was constitutionally averse to quarantine. “It was tough for David to abide by the rules of isolation, not go to the cafés, not meet with neighbors,” Dubrovsky recalled. He hated wearing masks. Early in 2020, they’d both felt sick but couldn’t get tested; out of loyalty to the NHS, he refused to see a private doctor, even as his symptoms dragged on. As the summer ended, Çubukçu was finishing a book review. She sent a draft and he wrote back right away. He told her that he’d read it, that he was on the train to Venice, and that he wasn’t feeling well at all.
He hoped, in somewhat the manner of a Victorian invalid, that the trip might improve his health. He’d been nursing “strange symptoms” for months, Dubrovsky remembers: aches, exhaustion, tingling fingers, a soapy taste in his mouth. But then: “He was never really in tip-top shape, from the moment I knew him,” Sarican pointed out. She was one of the friends who met Dubrovsky and Graeber in Venice, and on their second day, a group went to the beach. Graeber was eager to swim. “We were just being silly, jumping through the waves,” Sarican remembers. Graeber was saying how much it was like Fire Island, although the waves were bigger on Fire Island, he thought. “He just kept talking about his childhood in a way that I never really remembered David doing so much,” Sarican told me. “He spoke about his childhood quite a bit that day.”
After a walk and some ice cream, Graeber retreated to a café. When Sarican returned from one last swim, “he just seemed very unwell” — sweating profusely and in pain. She assumed he was having a bad reaction to something that he had eaten, but the paramedics, when they arrived, seemed more concerned. As he rode to the hospital, Dubrovsky followedbehind in a cab; COVID regulations were in effect. She waited hours in an empty hall of the Ospedale SS Giovanni E Paolo for news. She called her adult daughter, who spoke a little Italian, and who did her best to translate what Dubrovsky was told. A scan had discovered internal bleeding, and doctors were preparing Graeber for surgery when he went into cardiac arrest. “He was joking with me,” Dubrovsky remembered — saying that things weren’t really so bad, that he’d be fine — “and then suddenly the doctors said he died.” The autopsy found that his cause of death was internal bleeding caused by pancreatitis necrosis. Later, the ER doctor who’d treated him told Dubrovsky that the condition could be triggered by a virus — perhaps COVID, but there was no way to know.
Graeber had been working on a short essay about COVID that was published after his death. The pandemic was “a confrontation with the actual reality of human life,” he wrote. “Which is that we are a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another, and that those who do the lion’s share of this care work that keeps us alive are overtaxed, underpaid, and daily humiliated.” Surely it was the moment to stop taking such a state of affairs for granted, he wrote. “Why don’t we stop treating it as entirely normal that the more obviously one’s work benefits others, the less one is likely to be paid for it; or insisting that financial markets are the best way to direct long-term investment even as they are propelling us to destroy most life on Earth?”
This was not so different from things Graeber had been writing for years, but now it seemed more people were saying the same thing. Value and vulnerability and how each was assessed: the familiar understanding no longer served. Circumstance demanded the supposedly impossible.