David Graeber

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David Graeber

David Graeber taught at Goldsmiths, University of London. He died in 2020.[1] He was married to Nika Dubrovsky.

He was an anarchist and radical organizer, a veteran of many of the major left-wing demonstrations of the past decade: Quebec City and Genoa, the Republican National Convention protests in Philadelphia and New York, the World Economic Forum in New York in 2002, the London tuition protests earlier this year. This summer, Graeber was a key member of a small band of activists who quietly planned, then noisily carried out, the occupation of Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, providing the focal point for what has grown into an amorphous global movement known as Occupy Wall Street.[2]


Graeber has been an anarchist since the age of 16. He grew up in New York, in a trade-union-sponsored cooperative apartment building in Chelsea suffused with radical politics. A precocious child, he became obsessed at 11 with Mayan hieroglyphics. (The writing had then been only partially deciphered.) He sent some of his original translations to a leading scholar in the field, who was so impressed that he arranged for Graeber to get a scholarship to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

Graeber’s parents were in their 40s when they had him and had come of age in the political left of the 1930s, self-taught working-class intellectuals. Graeber’s mother had been a garment worker and, briefly, a celebrity—the female lead in a musical comedy revue put on by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union that managed to become a Broadway hit. His father worked as a plate stripper on offset printers. Originally from Kansas, he had fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Anarchists made up one part of the fragile Republican coalition, and for a brief period they controlled Barcelona.[3]

Early career

Years later, Graeber was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and his field research brought him into contact with another, albeit very different, anarchic community. His dissertation was on Betafo, a rural community in Madagascar made up of the descendants of nobles and their slaves. Because of spending cuts mandated by the International Monetary Fund—the sort of structural-adjustment policies Graeber would later protest—the central government had abandoned the area, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves. They did, creating an egalitarian society where 10,000 people made decisions more or less by consensus. When necessary, criminal justice was carried out by a mob, but even there a particular sort of consensus pertained: a lynching required permission from the accused’s parents.[4]


Graeber didn’t become an activist until after the massive 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. At the time an associate professor at Yale, he realized that the sort of movement he had always wanted to join had come into being while he was concentrating on his academic career. “If you’re really dedicated to this stuff, things can happen very quickly,” he says. “The first action you go to, you’re just a total outsider. You don’t know what’s going on. The second one, you know everything. By the third, you’re effectively part of the leadership if you want to be. Anybody can be if you’re willing to put in the time and energy.”

It was a particularly happy period for Graeber. In New Haven he was a scholar, and in New York, where he spent much of his time, he was an anarchist—he had found a new community among the loose coalition of activists, artists, and pranksters who called themselves the Direct Action Network. There were protests but also elaborately choreographed festivities—“reclaim the streets” parties, or nights when everyone converged on a particular subway train and rode it through the city carousing.

It came to an end in 2005, when Yale terminated his contract before he had a chance to come up for tenure. Graeber appealed, and his case became a cause at Yale and in the broader community of academic anthropology. He maintains he was targeted at least in part because of his political activism. Others saw evidence that the modern university was exactly the sort of hierarchical organization that Graeber was philosophically opposed to and temperamentally unsuited for.

“There was an issue about his personal style, whether he was respectful enough to various senior people both in the department and at the university. He’s not someone who is known to be very pliable,” recalls Thomas Blom Hansen, an anthropology professor at Stanford who was a friend and Yale colleague of Graeber’s at the time. “I don’t think anyone doubts that he’s a major figure in his field,” he adds. “But he’s not really interested in the humdrum daily life of administration that constitutes an increasing part of our life in the academic world.”[5]

MDS board

Original members of the 2006 Movement for a Democratic Society board included[6];

Elliott Adams, Senia Barragan (Student Representative), David Barsamian, Noam Chomsky, Carl Davidson, Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Fletcher Jr, Bert Garskof, David Graeber, Tom Hayden, Gerald Horne, Mike James, Robin D G Kelley, Mike Klonsky, Ethelbert Miller, Charlene Mitchell, Michael Rossman, Mark Rudd, Howard Zinn.

On February 17, 2007, the Movement for a Democratic Society held a well attended conferenceat New York City’s New School University[7].

The event was held in the Graduate Center, 65 Fifth Avenue, and about 100 participants were in attendance. The meeting featured several speakers who are well known figures on the U.S. Left and an agenda that centered around electing a board of directors for MDS, Incorporated – the non-profit arm of MDS that was founded last August in Chicago, at the national Students for a Democratic Society convention.

Manning Marable was elected as Chair of the new Board.

The new board, elected by acclamation, included: Mark Rudd, David Graeber, Judith Malina, Jesse Zearle, Kate Khatib, Roderick Long, Al Haber, Manning Marable, Muhammed Ahmad, Charlene Mitchell, Starhawk, John O’Brien, Barbara Ehrenreich, Gideon Oliver, Jeff Jones and Bert Garskof.

Elected as officers, in addition to Marable as Chair, were three Vice Chairs: Paul Buhle, Judith Malina and Jesse Zearle[8].

Left Forum

Vivek Chibber, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Frances Fox Piven and David Graeber were speakers on the closing plenary, Visions for the Future at the Left Forum. The forum was held March 9 - 11, 2007 at Cooper Union College, New York City[9]

Occupy Wall Street

In Zuccotti Park, Graeber has been one of Occupy Wall Street's most articulate voices, able to frame the movement’s welter of hopes and grievances within a deeper critique of the historical moment. “We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt,” Graeber wrote in a Sept. 25 editorial published online by the Guardian. “Is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?”

Graeber’s politics have been shaped by his experience in global justice protests over the years, but they are also fed by the other half of his life: his work as an anthropologist. Graeber’s latest book, published two months before the start of Occupy Wall Street, is entitled Debt: The First 5,000 Years. It is an alternate history of the rise of money and markets, a sprawling, erudite, provocative work. Looking at societies ranging from the West African Tiv people and ancient Sumer to Medieval Ireland and modern-day America, he explores the ambivalent attitudes people have always had about debt: as obligation and sin, engine of economic growth and tool of oppression. Along the way, he tries to answer questions such as why so many people over the course of history have simultaneously believed that it is a matter of morality to repay debts and that those who lend money for a living are evil.

Graeber’s arguments place him squarely at odds with mainstream economic thought, and the discipline has, for the most part, ignored him. But his timing couldn’t be better to reach a popular audience. His writing provides an intellectual frame and a sort of genealogy for the movement he helped start. The inchoate anger of the Occupy Wall Street protesters tends to cluster around two things. One is the influence of money in politics. The other is debt: mortgages, credit-card debt, student loans, and the difference in how the debts of large financial companies and those of individual borrowers have been treated in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

“He is a deep thinker. He’s been a student of movements and revolutions,” says Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, the Vancouver-based anticorporate magazine. “He’s the sort of guy who can say, ‘Is this thing we’re going through like 1968 or is it like the French Revolution?’ ”

Beginnings of the movement

Graeber began the summer on sabbatical, moving back to New York from London and frequenting an artists’ space called 16Beaver. It was an intellectual activist salon, located near Wall Street. Like many other American activists, Graeber had been deeply moved by the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square and by the “Indignados” who had taken over central Madrid; in mid-July, he published a short piece in Adbusters asking what it would take to trigger a similar uprising in the West. For much of the summer, the discussions at 16Beaver revolved around exactly that question. When a local group called Operation Empire State Rebellion called for a June 14 occupation of Zuccotti Park, four people showed up.

On July 13, Adbusters put out its own call for a Wall Street occupation, to take place two months later, on Sept. 17. Setting the date and publicizing it was the extent of the magazine’s involvement. A group called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts—student activists and community leaders from some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods—stepped in to execute the rest. For three weeks in June and July, to protest city budget cuts and layoffs, the group had camped out across the street from City Hall in a tent city they called Bloombergville. They liked the idea of trying a similar approach on Wall Street. After talking to Adbusters, the group began advertising a “People’s General Assembly” to “Oppose Cutbacks And Austerity Of Any Kind” and plan the Sept. 17 occupation.

The assembly was to be held in Bowling Green, the downtown Manhattan park with its famous statue of a charging bull pawing the cobblestones. Graeber had heard about the meeting at 16Beaver, and the afternoon of Aug. 2 he went to Bowling Green with two friends, a Greek artist and anarchist named Georgia Sagri and a Japanese activist named Sabu Kohso (who is also the Japanese translator of Graeber’s books).

When Graeber and his friends showed up on Aug. 2, however, they found out that the event wasn’t, in fact, a general assembly, but a traditional rally, to be followed by a short meeting and a march to Wall Street to deliver a set of predetermined demands (“A massive public-private jobs program” was one, “An end to oppression and war!” was another). In anarchist argot, the event was being run by “verticals”—top-down organizations—rather than “horizontals” such as Graeber and his friends. Sagri and Graeber felt they’d been had, and they were angry.

What happened next sounds like an anarchist parable. Along with Kohso, the two recruited several other people disgruntled with the proceedings, then walked to the south end of the park and began to hold their own GA, getting down to the business of planning the Sept. 17 occupation. The original dozen or so people gradually swelled, despite the efforts of the event’s planners to bring them back to the rally. The tug of war lasted until late in the evening, but eventually all of the 50 or so people remaining at Bowling Green had joined the insurgent general assembly.

“The groups that were organizing the rally, they also came along,” recalls Kohso. “Then everyone stayed very, very late to organize what committees we needed.”

While there were weeks of planning yet to go, the important battle had been won. The show would be run by horizontals, and the choices that would follow—the decision not to have leaders or even designated police liaisons, the daily GAs and myriad working-group meetings that still form the heart of the protests in Zuccotti Park—all flowed from that.

For Graeber the next month and a half was a carousel of meetings. There were the weekly GAs, the first held near the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, the rest in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. He facilitated some of them and spent much of the rest of his time in working group meetings in people’s apartments. (On Aug. 14 he tweeted, “I am so exhausted. My first driving lesson … then had to facilitate an assembly in Tompkins Square Park for like three hours.”) He organized legal and medical training and classes on nonviolent resistance. The group endlessly discussed what demands to make, or whether to have demands at all—a question that months later remains unresolved.

In the Sept. 10 general assembly the group picked the target for their occupation: One Chase Manhattan Plaza. They also picked several backups. So when the police fenced off Chase Plaza the night before the occupation was scheduled to start, the occupiers were prepared. On Sept. 17, barely an hour before the scheduled 3 p.m. start time, the word went out to go to Zuccotti Park instead, and 2,000 people converged on the now famous patch of stone flooring, low benches, and trees. It was a fortunate choice: Zuccotti is a privately owned park, so the city doesn’t have the right to remove the protesters. Graeber helped facilitate the GA that night in which they decided to camp out in the park rather than immediately march on Wall Street. Three days later, when he flew to Austin, the protests were still little more than a local New York story.[10]