Anthropologist and influential anarchist intellectual David Graeber passed away, his wife Nika Dubrovsky confirmed on Thursday. He was an important voice in prompting the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest movement in New York City.
Dubrovsky and Graeber were on holiday in Venice, Italy, when the 59-year-old author and activist fell ill. The cause of his death has not been confirmed.
Graeber has frequently been dubbed an “anarchist anthropologist” but in his own Twitter bio, the London School of Economics professor said he saw “anarchism as something you do, not an identity,” and urged people not to use the label of “anarchist anthropologist” to describe him.
Former Greek finance minister and economist Yanis Varoufakis lamented Graeber’s honored his work on debt in a Twitter about the author.
On August 28, he addressed followers of his YouTube account saying he was “under the weather” and was still active on Twitter until September 2.
His sudden passing deals a blow to the global social justice movement which is heavily influenced by Graeber’s ideas. Born and raised in New York City, Graeber identified himself as a son of working class parents and in his career, he sought to harness his anthropological training to better understand economics.
Occupy Wall Street and activism
In Graeber’s bio on his own website, the anthropologist says he “only really became active in any meaningful way” after becoming involved with the Alter-Globalization movement in the beginning of 2000. He says was involved in the initial meetings that helped establish the Occupy Wall Street movement in the heart of New York’s financial district.
“It might be said that all my work since has been exploring the relation between anthropology as an intellectual pursuit, and practical attempts to create a free society, free, at least, of capitalism, patriarchy, and coercive state bureaucracies,” he added.
Dutch historian and author Rutger Bregman said Graeber would be remembered as ”one of the greatest thinkers of our time’.’
In a 2011 opinion article for The Guardian, Graeber wrote that he saw the movement as “the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire.”
Graeber was an influential voice the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest movement in New York City seen pictured here in 2012
From debt to ‘bullshit jobs’
While his activism has centered on global economics, Graeber’s academic career has centered on anthropology. He obtained a BA on the subject from State University of New York, at Purchase, in 1984 and later received a PhD in 1996 from the University of Chicago, based on anthropological fieldwork in highland Madagascar.
Seemingly incongruous, Graeber melded the economics and anthropology for his authored works. One of his most celebrated books, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” he sought to explain the concept of debt across human civilization.
More recently, his book on “Bullshits job: a theory” explored how and why technology has created more unnecessary jobs than was predicted and identifying the capitalist system as the cause.
“Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul,” he explained in the essay upon which the book was based.
At the time of his passing, the US-born Graeber was active in the London School of Economics faculty of anthropology and resided in the city of London.
Graeber’s work was heavily criticized by economists and leaders in the US business community. His books were often dismissed or rejected as leftist political rhetoric.
Economist and Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith described Graeber’s book on debt as ”a sprawling, rambling, confused book, mostly about economic history, mixed with some political and moral philosophy.”
Book critic and scholar Paul W. Gleason took aim at Graeber’s narrow focus on economic conditions as a sign of human fulfillment in his book about “bullshit jobs.”
”While humans are social animals, Graeber focuses overwhelmingly on the meaning and purpose that come from creativity and achievement. He mostly neglects the meaning found in belonging. Families, churches, unions, neighborhoods or even nations, no less than workplaces, can all bestow identity and a sense of purpose,” Gleason wrote.