Image by Alpa Shah
David Graeber joined the department in 2013 and remained until his untimely death at the age of 59 in September 2020. A most original thinker with wide-ranging interests, he wrote extensively about value, debt, bureaucracy, direct action, democracy, global history, and the imagination, among many other subjects. He conducted his doctoral fieldwork in Madagascar on magic and the legacy of slavery. By his own account, documenting the social dynamics of a Malagasy community living outside the orbit of the state drew him close to anarchism, shaping him both as a social theorist and as an activist. Around the time of Occupy Wall Street, a movement that he helped to establish, David published Debt: the first 5000 years (2011), a sweeping historical account of ‘human economies’ that exposes the moral foundations of modern economics. Other important publications include Towards an anthropological theory of value (2001), Fragments of an anarchist anthropology (2004), Possibilities (2007), On Kings (2017, with Marshall Sahlins) and Bullshit Jobs (2018). He was most distinguished for his ability to look at other societies in order to illuminate the possibilities of our own, dismantling a variety of deeply-entrenched myths about human nature in the process. Just before his death he completed the manuscript of The Dawn of Everything (2021). This was the fruit of a decade-long collaboration with UCL archaeologist David Wengrow, which challenges widely held assumptions about social evolution and reveals the power of collective agency in shaping the course of human history. David died as one of the most influential public intellectuals in the history of the discipline.
In a Novara Media tribute to David Graeber, Alpa Shah wrote about the relationship between David Graeber’s anthropology and his politics. Image by Bronte Dow.
To pay tribute to David, the Department hosted a term of events devoted to the discussion of his work. We began with an LSE Public Event launch of The Dawn of Everything, in a conversation with David Wengrow, and continued in the Friday morning Research Seminar on Anthropological Theory in Michaelmas 2021 devoted to a discussion of David Graeber’s key writings. In each session in this series, two anthropologists led a critical discussion on one of David Graeber’s key gifts of writing, exploring the fissures and cracks, as David liked to, in order to grow our thoughts and actions. The series was also published by the journal Focaal.
We also joined a federation of universities hosting the annual David Graeber Memorial Lecture.