David Rolfe Graeber (February 12, 1961 – September 2, 2020) was an American anthropologist and anarchist who is Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths. In addition to his academic work, Graeber has a history of both direct and indirect involvement in political activism, including membership in the labor union Industrial Workers of the World, a role in protests against the World Economic Forum in New York City in 2002, and support for the 2010 UK student protests movement. He is co-founder of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence.
- Direct action is the insistence, when faced with structures of unjust authority, on acting as if one is already free.
- Direct Action: An Ethnography (AK Press: 2009), p. 203
Are You An Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You! (2000)
- Many people seem to think that anarchists are proponents of violence, chaos, and destruction, that they are against all forms of order and organization, or that they are crazed nihilists who just want to blow everything up. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Anarchists are simply people who believe human beings are capable of behaving in a reasonable fashion without having to be forced to.
- At their very simplest, anarchist beliefs turn on to two elementary assumptions. The first is that human beings are, under ordinary circumstances, about as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be, and can organize themselves and their communities without needing to be told how. The second is that power corrupts.
- Most of all, anarchism is just 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.
- Every time you reach an agreement by consensus, rather than threats, every time you make a voluntary arrangement with another person, come to an understanding, or reach a compromise by taking due consideration of the other person’s particular situation or needs, you are being an anarchist — even if you don’t realize it.
- Anarchism is just the way people act when they are free to do as they choose, and when they deal with others who are equally free — and therefore aware of the responsibility to others that entails.
- Every time you treat another human with consideration and respect, you are being an anarchist. Every time you work out your differences with others by coming to reasonable compromise, listening to what everyone has to say rather than letting one person decide for everyone else, you are being an anarchist. Every time you have the opportunity to force someone to do something, but decide to appeal to their sense of reason or justice instead, you are being an anarchist. The same goes for every time you share something with a friend, or decide who is going to do the dishes, or do anything at all with an eye to fairness.
- No anarchist claims to have a perfect blueprint. The last thing we want is to impose prefab models on society anyway. The truth is we probably can’t even imagine half the problems that will come up when we try to create a democratic society; still, we’re confident that, human ingenuity being what it is, such problems can always be solved, so long as it is in the spirit of our basic principles — which are, in the final analysis, simply the principles of fundamental human decency.
Fragments for an Anarchist Anthropology (2004)
- Marxist schools have authors. Just as Marxism sprang from the mind of Marx, so we have Leninists, Maoists, Trotksyites, Gramscians, Althusserians... (Note how the list starts with heads of state and grades almost seamlessly into French professors.) ... Now consider the different schools of anarchism. There are Anarcho-Syndicalists, AnarchoCommunists, Insurrectionists, Cooperativists, Individualists, Platformists... None are named after some Great Thinker; instead, they are invariably named either after some kind of practice, or most often, organizational principle. (Significantly, those Marxist tendencies which are not named after individuals, like Autonomism or Council Communism, are also the ones closest to anarchism.) Anarchists like to distinguish themselves by what they do, and how they organize themselves to go about doing it.
- p. 5
- At the very least, one would imagine being an openly anarchist professor would mean challenging the way universities are run—and I don’t mean by demanding an anarchist studies department, either—and that, of course, is going to get one in far more trouble than anything one could ever write.
- p. 7
- “Policy” is the negation of politics; policy is by definition something concocted by some form of elite, which presumes it knows better than others how their affairs are to be conducted. By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs.
- p. 9
Army of Altruists (2007)
Harper's Magazine, January 2007, pp. 31-38
- Egoism and altruism are ideas we have about human nature. Historically, one has tended to arise in response to the other. In the ancient world,for example, it is generally in the times and places that one sees the emergence of money and markets that one also sees the rise of world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. If one sets aside a space and says, "Here you shall think only about acquiring material things for yourself," then it is hardly surprising that before long someone else will set aside a countervailing space and declare, in effect: "Yes, but here we must contemplate the fact that the self, and material things, are ultimately unimportant."
- In societies based around small communities, where almost everyone is either a friend, a relative, or an enemy of everyone else, the languages spoken tend even to lack words that correspond to "self-interest" or "altruism" but include very subtle vocabularies for describing envy, solidarity, pride, and the like. Their economic dealings with one another likewise tend to be based on much more subtle principles. ... The work of destroying such ways of life is still often done by missionaries—representatives of those very world religions that originally sprang up in reaction to the market long ago. Missionaries, of course, are out to save souls; but they rarely interpret this to mean their role is simply to teach people to accept God and be more altruistic. Almost invariably, they end up trying to convince people to be more selfish and more altruistic at the same time. On the one hand, they set out to teach the "natives" proper work discipline, and try to get them involved with buying and selling products on the market, so as to better their material lot. At the same time, they explain to them that ultimately, material things are unimportant.
- The right's approach is to release the dogs of the market, throwing all traditional verities into disarray; and then, in this tumult of insecurity, offer themselves up as the last bastion of order and hierarchy, the stalwart defenders of the authority of churches and fathers against the barbarians they have themselves unleashed.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)
- Consumer debt is the lifeblood of our economy. All modern nation states are built on deficit spending. Debt has come to be the central issue of international politics. But nobody seems to know exactly what it is, or how to think about it.
- Chapter One, "On The Experience of Moral Confusion", p. 4
- Before we can apply the tools of anthropology to reconstruct the real history of money, we need to understand what's wrong with the conventional account.
- Chapter Two, "The Myth of Barter", p. 22
- In fact, our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around.
- Chapter Two, "The Myth of Barter", p. 40
The reason that economic textbooks now begin with imaginary villages is because it has been impossible to talk about real ones. Even some economists have been forced to admit that Smith's Land of Barter doesn't really exist.
The question is why the myth is perpetuated anyway.
- Chapter Three, "Primordial Debts", p. 43
- Exchange implies equality.
- Chapter Three, "Primordial Debts", p. 63
- Thus money is almost always something hovering between a commodity and a debt-token. This is probably why coins—pieces of silver or gold that are already valuable commodities in themselves, but that, being stamped with the emblem of local authority, became even more valuable—still sit in our heads as the quintessential form of money. They most perfectly straddle the divide that defines what money is in the first place. What's more, the relation between the two was a matter of constant political conversation. In other words, the battle between state and market, between governments and merchants is not inherent to the human condition.
- Chapter Four, "Cruelty and Redemption", p. 75
- It is rather striking to think that the very core of the Christian message, salvation itself, the sacrifice of God's own son to rescue humanity from eternal damnation, should be framed in the language of a financial transaction.
- Chapter Four, "Cruelty and Redemption", p. 80
- To tell the history of debt, then, is also necessarily to reconstruct how the language of the marketplace has come to pervade every aspect of human life—even to provide the terminology for the moral and religious voices ostensibly raised against it.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 89
- "Communist society"; in the sense of a society organized exclusively on that single principle—could never exist. But all social systems, even economic systems like capitalism, have always been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 95
- One might even say that it's one of the scandals of capitalism that most capitalist firms, internally, operate communistically.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 96
- In fact, communism is the foundation of all human sociability. It is what makes society possible.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 96
- Exchange is all about equivalence.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 103
- If we insist on defining all human interactions as matters of people giving one thing for another, then any ongoing human relations can only take the form of debts.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 126
- All societies based on slavery tend to be marked by this agonizing double consciousness: the awareness that the highest things one has to strive for are also, ultimately, wrong; but at the same time, the feeling that this is simply the nature of reality.
- Chapter Seven, "Honor and Degradation", p. 167
- Slavery is the ultimate form of being ripped from one's context, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being.
- Chapter Seven, "Honor and Degradation", p. 168
- Honor is a zero sum game.
- Chapter Seven, "Honor and Degradation", p. 175
- Honor is the same as credit; it's one's ability to keep ones promises, but also, in the case of a wrong, to "get even".
- Chapter Seven, "Honor and Degradation", p. 193
- The moment we begin to map the history of money across the last five thousand years of Eurasian history, startling patterns begin to emerge.
- Chapter Eight, "Credit versus Bullion", p. 212
- The attentive reader may have noticed that the core period of Jasper's Axial age—the lifetimes of Pythagoras, Confucius, and the Buddha—corresponds almost exactly to the period in which coinage was invented.
- Chapter Nine, "The Axial Age", p. 224
- Indeed, India has become notorious as a country in which a very large part of the working population is laboring in effective debt peonage to a landlord or other creditor.
- Chapter Ten, "The Middle Ages", p. 256
- Medieval corporations owned property, and they often engaged in complex financial arrangements, but in no case were they profit-seeking enterprises in the modern sense.
- Chapter Ten, "The Middle Ages", p. 305
- To take what might seem an "objective", macro-economic approach to the origins of the world economy would be to treat the behavior of early European explorers, merchants, and conquerors as if they were simply rational responses to opportunities—as if this were just what anyone would have done in the same situation. This is what the use of equations so often does: make it seem perfectly natural to assume that, if the price of silver in China is twice what it is in Seville, and inhabitants of Seville are capable of getting their hands on large quantities of silver and transporting it to China, then clearly they will, even if doing so requires the destruction of entire civilizations. Or if there is a demand for sugar in England, and enslaving millions is the easiest way to acquire labor to produce it, then it is inevitable that some will enslave them.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 314
Even human relations become a matter of cost benefit calculation. Clearly this is the way the conquistadors viewed the worlds that they set out to conquer.
It is the peculiar feature of modern capitalism to create social arrangements that essentially force us to think this way.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", pp. 319–320
- The criminalization of debt was the criminalization of the very basis of human society.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 334
- The man who won the argument, however, was John Locke, the Liberal philosopher, at that time acting as advisor to Sir Isaac Newton, then Warden of the Mint. Locke insisted that one can no more make a small piece of silver worth more by relabeling it a "shilling" than one can make a short man taller by declaring there are now fifteen inches in a foot.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 340
- A legitimate enterprise had to have some moral basis, and the only morality the company knew was debt.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 350
- It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 350
- Karl Marx, who knew quite a bit about the human tendency to fall down and worship our own creations, wrote Das Capital in an attempt to demonstrate that, even if we start from the economists' utopian vision, so long as we also allow some people to control productive capital, and, again, leave others with nothing to sell but but their brains and bodies, the results will be in very many ways barely distinguishable from slavery, and the whole system will eventually destroy itself.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 354
- We could no more have a universal world market than we could have a system in which everyone who wasn't a capitalist was somehow able to to become a respectable, regularly paid wage laborer with access to adequate dental care. A world like that has never existed and never could exist. What's more, the moment that even the prospect that this might happen begins to materialize, the whole system starts to come apart.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 355
- One element, however, tends to go flagrantly missing in even the most vivid conspiracy theories about the banking system, let alone in official accounts: that is, the role of military power. There's a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him there is a man with a gun.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 364
- Meanwhile, the U.S. debt remains, as it has been since 1790, a war debt: the United States continues to spend more on its military than do all other nations on earth put together, and military expenditures are not only the basis of the government's industrial policy; they also take up such a huge proportion of the budget that by many estimations, were it not for them, the United States would not run a deficit at all.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 365
- The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours' notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world monetary system, organized around the dollar, together.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", pp. 365–366
- By the end of World War II, the specter of an imminent working class uprising that had so haunted the ruling classes of Europe and North America for the previous century had largely disappeared. This was because class war was suspended by a tacit settlement. To put it crudely: the white working class of the North Atlantic countries, from the United States to West Germany, were offered a deal. If they agreed to set aside any fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system, then they would be allowed to keep their unions, enjoy a wide variety of social benefits (pensions, vacations, health care …), and, perhaps most important, through generously funded and ever-expanding public educational institutions, know that their children had a reasonable chance of leaving the working class entirely. One key element in all this was a tacit guarantee that increases in workers' productivity would be met by increases in wages: a guarantee that held good until the late 1970s. Largely as a result, the period saw both rapidly rising productivity and rapidly rising incomes, laying the basis for the consumer economy of today.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 373
- There is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist—most obviously, as ecologists keep reminding us, because it's impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet, and the current form of capitalism doesn't seem to be capable of generating the kind of vast technological breakthroughs and mobilizations that would be required for us to start finding and colonizing any other planets. Yet faced with the prospect of capitalism actually ending, the most common reaction—even from those who call themselves "progressives"—is simply fear. We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn't be even worse.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", pp. 381–382
- What I have been trying to do in this book is not so much to propose a vision of what, precisely, the next age will be like, but to throw open perspectives, enlarge our sense of possibilities; to begin to ask what it would mean to start thinking on a breadth and with a grandeur appropriate to the times.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 383
- The one thing that's clear is that new ideas won't emerge without the jettisoning of much of our accustomed categories of thought—which have become mostly sheer dead weight, if not intrinsic parts of the very apparatus of hopelessness—and formulating new ones. This is why I spent so much of this book talking about the market, but also about the false choice between state and market that so monopolized political ideology for the last centuries that it made it difficult to argue about anything else.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 384
- Who was the first man to look at a house full of objects and to immediately assess them only in terms of what he could trade them in for in the market likely to have been? Surely he can only have been a thief.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 386
- What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 391
The Utopia of Rules (2015)
- Everyone knows how compromised the idea of bureaucracy as a meritocratic system is. The first criterion of loyalty to any organization is therefore complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit but on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when in fact they are often deployed as an instrument of arbitrary personal power. ... As whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than as systems of predatory extraction, we bustle about, trying to curry favor by pretending we actually believe it to be true.
- Nowadays, nobody talks about bureaucracy. But in the middle of the last century, particularly in the late sixties and early seventies, the word was everywhere.
- We no longer like to think about bureaucracy, yet it informs every aspect of out existence. It’s as if as a planetary civilization, we have decided to clap out hands over our ears and start humming whenever the topic comes up.
- With the collapse of the old welfare states, all this has come to seem decidedly quaint. As the language of antibureaucratic individualism has been adopted, with increasing ferocity, by the Right, which insists on “market solutions” to every social problem, the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state: it has acquiesced with–often spearheaded–attempts to make government efforts more “efficient” though the partial privatization of services and the incorporation of ever-more “market principle,” “market incentives,” and market-based “accountability processes” into the structure of the bureaucracy itself.
"Bullshit Jobs," August 2013
- It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.... Hell is a collection of individuals who spend their time working on a task they don't like and are not especially good at.... Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.... Nurses, garbage collectors, mechanics, it's obvious were they to vanish, results would be catastrophic.... A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble.... It's not clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.... Real productive workers are squeezed and exploited. The remainder are unemployed and a larger stratum paid to do nothing.
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018)
- If the existence of bullshit jobs seems to defy the logic of capitalism, one possible reason for their proliferation might be that the existing system isn’t capitalism—or at least, isn’t any sort of capitalism that would be recognizable from the works of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or, for that matter, Ludwig von Mises or Milton Friedman.
- In many ways, it (capitalism) resembles classic medieval feudalism, displaying the same tendency to create endless hierarchies of lords, vassals, and retainers. In other ways—notably in its managerialist ethos—it is profoundly different. And the whole apparatus, rather than replacing old-fashioned industrial capitalism, is instead superimposed on top of it, blending together in a thousand points in a thousand different ways. Hardly surprising, then, that the situation seems so confusing that even those directly in the middle don’t really know quite what to make of it.
- Even a modest Basic Income program could become a stepping-stone toward the most profound transformation of all: to unlatch work from livelihood entirely.
- How do we create only games that we actually feel like playing, because we can opt out at any time? In the economic field, at least, the answer is obvious. All of the gratuitous sadism of workplace politics depends on one’s inability to say “I quit” and feel no economic consequences.
Quotes about Graeber
- Graeber is no Braudel. The latter’s epic history of the rise of capitalism (with the luxury, it must be said, of covering just four centuries in three volumes) also takes a pointillistic approach, but is full of actual data, diagrams, and maps, organized to give us a real sense of the material conditions of life and the operations of economic networks. Graeber stays almost entirely within the domain of “moral universes” and discourse. We don’t get a sense of just how the moral economy of
Merrie England was undermined, except that the powers-that-were didn’t get it, didn’t like it, and imposed their own morality somehow. He engages very selectively with the literature on the “rise of capitalism” — how else to explain his portrayal of the news that sophisticated banking and finance long predated the rise of the factory system and wage labor as if it were a challenge to all preconceptions? This “peculiar paradox” has been a commonplace of the Marxian literature since Marx.
- Mike Beggs, "Debt: The First 500 Pages" (08.27, 2012)
- What Graeber chooses to ignore is that banks do not operate magically; they make loans and create deposits in seeking to earn profits; their decisions are not magical, but are oriented toward making profits. Whether they make good or bad decisions is debatable, but the debate isn’t about a magical process; it’s a debate about theory and evidence. Graeber describe how he thinks that economists think about how banks create money, correctly observing that there is a debate about how that process works, but without understanding those differences or their significance.
- David Glasner, "Graeber Against Economics" (December 1, 2019)
- It’s really important for people to understand that Graeber is like James Lindsay or Helen Pluckrose or Peter Boghossian when it comes to engaging with economics. I make no judgement of his other work but he’s not a good faith commenter on the field.
- Daniel Kuehn, twitter (Nov 20, 2019)
- So, if we had the kind of disciplinary modesty richly merited by our performance as a profession over the past few years, economists would recognise that we owe an intellectual debt to Graeber. From now on, we can treat money primarily as a store of value, and stop worrying about how it works as a medium of exchange.
- John Quiggin, "The unmourned death of the double coincidence" (February 22, 2012)
- I am now angry at myself for paraphrasing the book, and trying to put theses into Graeber's mouth, because this is such a rambling, confused, scattershot book that I am doing you a disservice by making it seem more coherent than it really is.
The problem of extreme disorganization is dramatically worsened by the way that Graeber skips merrily back and forth from things he appears to know quite a lot about to things he obviously knows nothing about. One sentence he'll be talking about blood debts and "human economies" in African tribes (cool!), and the next he'll be telling us that Apple Computer was started by dropouts from IBM (false!). There are a number of glaring instances of this. The worst is not when Graeber delivers incorrect facts (who cares where Apple's founders had worked?), it's when he uncritically and blithely makes assertions that one could only accept if one has extremely strong leftist mood affiliation.
- Noah Smith, "Book review: Debt: The First 5000 Years" (November 04, 2014)
- Graeber and the rest of the long parade of intellectuals lining up to denounce economics seem to have little in the way of credible alternatives. Heaping scorn upon the discredited theories of the past is fine, but it offers little practical guide to the future. There are plenty of good and constructive criticisms to be made of economics, and especially of business cycle theory, but caricaturing what economists do and believe is not helpful.
- Noah Smith, "Critics of Economics Fight a War That Ended Long Ago" (Nov 19, 2019)
- There are lots of excellent heterodox critiques of economics, but almost all are provided by economists. I presume this is true of other fields as well. If a problem were obvious enough to be spotted by outsiders, chances are it would already be the subject of dispute within the field. An anthropologist named David Graeber provides an excellent example of what goes wrong when you don’t understand the field you are criticizing.
- Scott Sumner, "The best critiques are from within" (Nov 23, 2019)