Our Friend David Graeber
The world has lost an incredible thinker and doer. I have lost an amazing friend. A void exists where before it was filled with David’s optimism, humour and joy.
In early 2014, I first met David in a London pub with two mutual friends. We were planning a small occupation demanding universally free education in an abandoned building near Bloomsbury, and to host a week of skill shares and events. After the pub, the four of us walked into the winter evening, and David began describing one of the abandoned building’s owners.
Appearing from nowhere, an over-friendly security guard told us to take our attention elsewhere. No pictures. David should stop even pointing his umbrella at the building and must certainly stop with the questions. David was playfully joking with him. “You know who owns the building,” laughed the security man as we left. It was Goldman Sachs.
I had read and listened to David Graeber, but then he became David. In person he was as insightful and inspirational as publicly, but with that genius came humility, mischievous humour and care. He really cared about people in every sense. He shared his ideas — often asking, ‘Have you read this thing that I’ve just written,’ but never in an egotistical way. He was just checking in, as he wanted to move on to another revelation that built on that previous idea.
David was gentle — something that does not come across in his public persona. He spoke openly about the most personal things, including his parents and about his dad’s fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Of course David went to Rojava, our generation’s Spanish Civil War. David’s actions always substantiated his words.
In February 2014, at the Free Education Space’s grand opening, it was standing room only for David’s talk, entitled “Imagination, Education and the Neoliberal Lobotomy.” His talk bounced around: from police being bureaucrats with sticks to Madagascar’s anarchist communities, and from barbarians’ similarities to Romans to the Global Justice Movement’s partial victories.
David beautifully turned what seemed a stream of consciousness into a seamless argument about how the capitalism system was failing us in every sense, apart from attacking free thinking and alternatives, including people coming together in that occupied space. The political right attacks political imagination as violence (think “mob rule”), David said, so the Left must show that imagination is essential. David did.
Six years on, the global system’s free-fall hastens. Still, even the Free Education Space, bringing together workers, activists and students under a leaking roof played its own part in shifting the narrative.
As David expressed, it was no coincidence that 2010’s new wave of austerity first went after education with the trebling of university tuition fees. In the movement against fees, free education was a pipe dream. Yet by 2017, free education became a Labour Party pledge.
We may not have won, yet, but things shifted. And why did the little free education squat play a role in this? In 2015, a group of students launched a “Free University of London” from an occupation at the London School of Economics. Its key organisers had visited the squat before and, of course, LSE was David’s workplace. David threw himself into the struggles there, be it for students, cleaners or other workers.
In terms of David’s activism and writing, his heavy contribution to the free education movement was little compared to how much else he did. He worked on everything from rethinking money and work to Rojava solidarity; from challenging oppressive power structures to celebrating the value of care, and many other issues.
At the launch of his book “Bullshit Jobs,” David joked that universities want academics to have “impact” in the real world, and how someone had gotten in touch with David to tell him that they had quit their job after reading his book. His impact was too much for Yale, where his activism cost him his job.
When David launched “Bullshit Jobs,” the queues around LSE were electric, like before a music gig. How did David pull this off: how did he become prominent and prolific in bottom-up movements, without contradiction? Humility in abundance.
He would agree to speak, knowing it would pull people into the room, but then quickly elevate others onto stage to create dialogue. He used anything he could to lift others up. No person was below David, no idea or subject. He did not crave the limelight, but rather used it for political ends.
The last time I saw him was on his last birthday. I only found this out during the course of the evening as presents were passed over the table. He had just invited my partner and me to catch up.
David was impractical and I remember him getting lost in London more than once. Only since his passing have I realised how much he knew his way around the world by people. There was the bookshop owner in that place, the restaurant he had gone to with friends, there were always people he introduced you to at demonstrations, or he would suggest people to connect you to. Meeting others, David was always a collective link.
David created the space for people to collaborate and brainstorm with him. He was credited with coming up with the phrase, “We are the 99%,” but instead insisted it was a collective endeavour by those initiating Occupy Wall Street. Similarly he liked the title “neoliberal lobotomy” from the 2014 squat, saying it was a “beautiful example of surrealist free association.”
David believed in the people near him and in humanity’s wider imaginative powers. On the page or in person, David acted to deconstruct the power structures that hold people down.
When David died I stared into the abyss of twitter in disbelief and pain. Not only had I and my friends lost one of our own; not only has the radical Left around the world lost a great thinker. David literally was friends with swathes of the Left. Since I got to know him, it has been a joy to sit across tables or catch up on political actions. David spoke as he wrote, and writing about him, rewatching videos, rereading his works, it feels like he is still here. I wish he was.
Originally published at http://occupy.com on September 24, 2020.