A Tribute to David Graeber

As many of you know, the anthropologist David Graeber died recently at the age of 59. Many of us are still coming to grips with this loss. Graeber was a rare individual — both a tireless activist and a superb scholar.

In this guest post, teacher and a financial analyst Christophe Petit pays tribute to Graeber, his friend and mentor. Petit works for labour unions in France and is currently doing a PhD in economics that was co-supervised by Graeber. Petit researches how monetary policy could be used to finance a universal basic income. You can find his work in the Revue du MAUSS.

A Tribute to David Graeber

Christophe Petit

For the past ten years, I had the good fortune to know David Graeber as both a friend and mentor. He was (and will remain) an inexhaustible source of inspiration. So I owe it to David to pay him tribute.

When someone dies, we often exaggerate their character. We find qualities that were perhaps not there. But with David, we needn’t do this. He possessed so many redeeming qualities. He was kind, benevolent, humorous, erudite, imaginative, intelligent, energetic, and curious. He was (no exaggeration) the sunniest person I’ve ever known.

David was exceptionally talented. But he possessed something rarer: extraordinary genius. It’s worth reflecting on the difference. Talent is a matter of analytic skill. Genius is a matter of imagination. Talent combines what already exists. Genius creates something new. David moved so many people because he was a genius in this sense. Reading his work made your imagination explode. Every page opened new possibilities. There was something Nietzschean about David’s work. Since his first book, Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, David encouraged us to think and criticize the values that we take for granted.

David was committed to helping people, something that is evident in his writing. Take, as an example, his book Bullshit Jobs. It spoke to people who were crushed by the modern religion of work — people who were tired of being cogs in a corporate machine. David demolished the idea that work was sacred. Instead, he defended human dignity and the right to creativity. He advocated for a universal basic income, which he argued would vaccinate against the suffocating effects of corporate bureaucracy.

David’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years helped people in a different way. It made plain the nature of money, and how it justifies power. The capture of money by private interests, David argued, is the essence of feudalism. To have democracy, we need democratic money. Sadly, history has tended to move in the opposite direction. We began long ago with the democratic ethos of debt forgiveness, proclaimed by people like Jesus (the Redeemer) and Solon (the creator of democracy). Today, the prevailing ethos has regressed. We herald not debt redemption, but debt repayment.

In The Utopia of Rules, David looked at the stultifying effects of bureaucracy. He showed us that we (in capitalist societies) live in a world even more bureaucratic than the Soviet Union — a regime of ‘managerial feudalism’. It’s a world of rentier bureaucracy that oppresses the majority of humanity.

For the past ten years, David had been writing (together with David Wengrow) a book about human history. He finished it three weeks before his death. Called The Dawn of Everything, it was to be part of a trilogy. Sadly, this masterpiece will go unfinished. Still, we have this single book as a parting gift.

David had many plans for the future. He hoped to integrate the works of Thorstein Veblen, John Commons, Jonathan Nitzan, Shimshon Bichler, Fabian Muniesa and Blair Fix (among others). David and I were planning a book devoted to the philosophy of Roy Bhaskar, which he was to preface. David, like Bhaskar in philosophy or Einstein in physics, insisted on the primary role of imagination in the scientific process. Similar to Einstein’s physical thought experiments, David conducted social thought experiments. The truth, for David, was a mobile army of imaginary metaphors signing a symbolic armistice — both literary and mathematical – with a fixed army of empirical facts. David was also going to write a preface for a forthcoming French anthology of Michael Hudson’s work.1

Together with Véronique Dutraive, David was the co-directer of my PhD thesis. My research focused on the financing of a monthly universal basic income through money creation. It’s a subject that obsessed us (David and I), fuelling many discussions over the past few years. We schemed about how to radically transform money — from an institution that serves financial capitalism to an institution that protects democracy.

The key ideas is a ‘debt jubilee’ like the one proposed by Steve Keen (who builds on the work of Michael Hudson). Rather than cancel debts, Keen proposes that we allow people to pay off debts by giving everyone a payout. David and I thought of this payout as a kind of anarchist currency — money based not debt, but on Marcel Mauss’ concept of The Gift. I will continue to develop these ideas, but David’s death leaves a great hole. He had the ability to make radical ideas (like the debt jubilee) appear obvious.

For those of us who want a better society, David’s death is an immense loss. Although he was the opposite of a guru (he had no use for authority), David was for me (and many others) a kind of North Star. He helped us orient in the constellation of ideas.

Since David’s death, myself and others (I’m thinking of David’s close friends in SPECTRE2) have been waking each morning with a broken heart. To us, Alphonse de Lamartine’s famous phrase suddenly has knew meaning:

Sometimes, when one person is missing, the whole world seems empty.

For David, we are the stuff of human relationships. We are people made of people. With David’s death, a part of me has died. But his memory lives on. David always seemed like a child playing with ideas. Perhaps it is the privilege of geniuses to remain joyous children playing on the beach — the frontier between the land of the known and the ocean of the unknown.

David’s wife Nika is creating a foundation that will work to preserve his inimitable spirit. It’s our duty to keep the light of his genius alive.

Notes

  1. My friend Thibault Mirabel and I are the translators.
  2. If you’re interested, SPECTRE stands for Secret Political Economic Consortium for the Total Redistribution of Everything.

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4 comments

  1. RIP David. Really looking forward to reading his parting gift (‘The Dawn of Everything’).

    I wonder what Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler think of the work of Fabian Muniesa (mentioned above)? he himself has edited a whole book on capitalization and is familiar with CasP theory.

    There’s this book ‘Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It’ which is about capital strikes and what Nitzan/Bichler call “sabotage”:

    https://www.versobooks.com/books/3181-levers-of-power

    There is the Sraffian economist Ajit Sinha whose analysis is also close to CasP.

    https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/sraffas-revolution-in-economic-theory

    Like

    • I’m in the process of reading the Capital as Power (and enjoying it very much so far).

      I was noting affinities between your work and others that I’ve read, like for example what Ajit Sinha says about Sraffa here is very compatible with your ideas about industry versus business and what prices represent (If I understood you correctly):

      “Sraffa demonstrates that on the basis of observed input-output data of an interconnected system of production, one can show, by simply rearranging them, that the rate of profits of the system can be determined without the knowledge of prices, if the wage rate is given from outside the system. In this context, prices have only one role in the system and that is to consistently account for the given distribution of the net output in terms of wages and the rate of profits (introduction of rent of land does not make any difference to the result). Prices, in this context, do not carry any information that prompts “agents” to adjust their supplies and demands to bring about an equilibrium in the market. The questions of equilibrium as well as market structure are simply irrelevant to the problem.

      A consequence of this approach was a complete removal of “agent’s subjectivity” or demand, and “marginal method” or counterfactual reasoning from economic analysis — the two fundamental pillars of orthodox economic theory.”

      I also see an affinity between your concept of the “social hologram” and the work of physicist and philosopher Karen Barad, whose book “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning” provides the best critique of liberal individualism (and individualist ontology in general) that I’ve read so far. I highly recommend her book.

      I must say that that I really love how you deal with and critique various Marxist approaches in the book, if you’re thinking of doing a second edition of the Capital as Power, I would suggest also engaging with the work of the Polish economic historian Witold Kula, in particular his “Measures and Men” (about measurement systems and standardization in ), his other book “Economic Theory of the Feudal System” is also fantastic.

      https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/373350.Measures_and_Men

      Caitlin Rosenthal’s “Accounting for Slavery” and David Graeber’s “Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value” also relevant and I would love to see what you have to say about both.

      Like

      • Many thanks for the references.

        I’m not sure how the quote from Ajit Sinha’s on Sraffa relates to CasP. But that’s probably because I don’t understand what the quote argues and how that arguments relates to the actual world we live in.

        Like

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