Truthout, September 4, 2020
David Graeber was my mentor and my closest friend for the last twenty years. We have participated in dozens of political projects and wrote several things together. He was by far the most brilliant person I have ever met. We all have a good idea or two, but David was always able to come up with many, sometimes in the same sentence. I have no doubt that he was the most significant anarchist thinker of my generation.
I have even less doubt that he was one of the most important anthropologists of our time. His first book, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, has changed the way we theorize value. Inspired by the work of his late mentor Terry Turner and his lifelong intellectual inspiration, the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, this book has demonstrated the way beyond substantivist debates and offered a synthesis between Marx and Mauss. His pamphlet-book Fragments of An Anarchist Anthropology, was a pathbreaking and genre-making work that has established anarchist anthropology as a legitimate field of inquiry. In this vein, his books Possibilities, Revolutions in Reverse, and Direct Action: An Ethnography provided young anthropologists with tools to study social movements “from the inside.” As one colleague once remarked about Possibilities, each chapter of this phenomenal book could have been a pathbreaking academic monograph. This book and a couple of other of his major anthropological works were published by an anarchist publisher rather than by an academic press. It is a bitter paradox that the best anthropologist theorist of his generation never felt quite at home in the established anthropology circles. He hated academic conferences with a passion. It wasn’t just because of Yale’s shameful decision to get rid of him because of his political activism; David was a working-class person who detested, with every fiber of his being, any hint of academic elitism, networking, and schmoozing. Much to his personal cost, he rejected these strange sectarian rituals of academic life. He was the most generous friend and colleague one could hope to have, and the most formidable opponent of academic snobbery.
After he was fired from Yale, David applied to more than twenty academic jobs in the US. He hasn’t been shortlisted for a single one. But it was impossible to get rid of David Graeber. A few years after he was sent into academic exile in England, in 2011, he published one of the classic works of anthropology, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The book was an instant classic. We spoke on the phone when he was organizing with Occupy Wall Street in New York. He would use brief moments in between direct actions to write chapters of Debt. His later books Lost People (his doctoral fieldwork on Madagascar), On Kings (with the great Marshall Sahlins), The Democracy Project, The Utopia of Rules, and Bullshit Jobs were superb and original.