The death of David Graeber

The death of David Graeber affected me more than I would have expected, and I want to think about why that is. After all, 2020 has been so full of death and loss. Last century, the Russian poet Natalya Gorbanyevskaya wrote about ‘My own twentieth century, where there are more dead than graves than to put them in’, and two decades into the twenty-first we’re well into an accumulation of our own unique collection of previously unimaginable horrors.

When you are engaged in a daily struggle with the traces of violence left behind by the festering carcass of capitalism – as it moves through our lives, leaving nothing untouched – and feel you’re alone, the idea that someone else can describe your situation can be a critical, lifesaving thing. For the past fifteen years I’ve been more engaged with that violence than ever, and I realised that the David Graeber who wrote Fragments Of An Anarchist Anthropology, Debt, and Bullshit Jobs was part of the company of people I think of as being my own personal squad of invisibly-present comrades. Graeber was living, now, doing the work, thinking about it, talking about it, writing about the things I was thinking.

I’ve sometimes thought that when someone you know dies, the moment of their death seems to generate a pulse into the world, something you register, a kind of personal shockwave of everything they’ve ever done or said, that lingers for a while in things that were important to them. Most of us will leave behind only a clutter of disparate objects, but of course Graeber left us some very influential books and innumerable stories of the effects he had on the people he met. In the past few years it feels like he’s been everywhere at once, as if he were able to emanate multiple David Graebers, writing books, giving talks across Europe, meeting activist groups, talking with the revolutionaries in Rojava, standing by Jeremy Corbyn, and even getting married.

The first book of Graeber’s I ever read, a thousand years ago now, was Fragments Of An Anarchist Anthropology. I realised with some excitement that here was someone who not only wrote beautifully – Graeber thought he had a responsibility as a writer to be kind to his readers – but expressed anarchist politics with a humour and rigour that very few others could match. When reading Graeber I often thought of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx’s funniest work. It not only contains the immortal ‘first as history then as farce’ – an impeccably-timed line dryly tossed out as a passing aside on the pontifications of Hegel – but also those casual insults (‘Louis the XVIII, the fathead’) that make you realise that you are dealing with a writer whose lucid and conversational style and insights into contemporary European politics make the witterings of a Guardian columnist look more fatuous than those of Mr Twiddle, and about as politically perceptive.

It’s three brief essays Graeber published online that really became embodiments for me of how to engage in the struggle: his wonderful essay on play, What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun? His essay on the trouble the Left has in understanding its victories, The Shock of Victory. And his essay on violence The Bully’s Pulpit. His essay on play gave me an optimism that goes right down to the ontological, his essay on the Left’s victories gave me something concrete to evaluate, and The Bully’s Pulpit lays out the landscape of violence that one has to traverse when the thugs come calling.

In The Bully’s Pulpit, Graeber precisely and forensically captured the essential structure of the violence that is such a key feature of capitalism and reproduces itself endlessly at all levels of life. The victim who runs away from the perpetrator is a coward, because a ‘real’ victim would fight back. The victim who fights back justifies the violence of the perpetrator. Both responses of the victim, Graeber wrote, make it possible ‘to create a moral drama in which the audience can tell itself the bully must be, in some sense, in the right’. This dynamic works across massacres in war, domestic violence and schoolyard bullying.

I’ve often had occasion to actively support close friends in protracted and intense struggles with violent, dangerous, misogynist bullies. It’s a disorienting, life-changing experience. Every day brings yet another gut-wrenching assault, a new wave of persecution. One’s life is consumed by the backbreaking, numbing, exhausting loneliness that comes from confronting and responding to violence. The world closes in, and supposedly benign forces, institutions and so on, are revealed as complicit supporters of brutality’s perpetrators. Progressive allies suddenly become proto-fascists. One of the first things you learn when violence comes calling, is not just how omnipresent it is, but how those who could help, who have the capacity to help, won’t and how the perpetrators of violence are provided with enormous agency.

The sense of claustrophobic isolation becomes overwhelming. It feels like you’re becoming unmoored from the world, that you’re outside everything, as though the rest of the world were just made up of people having ordinary, fulfilling relationships. It’s as if the very notion of reality is dissolving.

Graeber seems to have understood all this and to have thought it through at length in a very profound way. In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, he wrote that ‘it’s the most peaceful societies that are the most haunted in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos.’ Egalitarianism, he wrote, is usefully, consciously, ritualistically and necessarily haunted by ‘a spectral nightworld.’ I took from that idea the notion that the least egalitarian societies, or those barrelling down the road to a kind of fascism – say, white Australia – are therefore always unconsciously haunted, continuously engaged in ritual projects of demonisation and terror that play out in every aspect of social and political life.

In their study of the intergenerational transmission of trauma initiated by the Holocaust, The Third Reich in the Unconscious, the psychoanalysts Vamik Volkan, Gabriele Ast and William Greer catalogued the amputated voices that children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors carry inside them that continually exude toxic fumes, so that people can feel as though they are suffocating or living in prisons decades after the death camps were liberated. And anybody who has worked with traumatised individuals – people trying desperately to speak of an unspeakable past that has changed reality in fundamental and molecular ways, and yet keep faith in an idea that something else is possible, something that might be better than love, love having so often been a cover for violence and cruelty – knows the uncanny experience of hearing or seeing the past reappear in the shape of persecutory figures, relationships and events.

For me – and I think for Graeber too – this also means that the ghosts of violent trauma one is haunted by are always the ghosts that others have as well. They are not just yours. Our hauntings are collective, and shared.

As various writers have pointed out, it makes more sense to label the era now commonly called the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene. But I wonder – pace Graeber’s description of communal haunting – if we also need another description of time, the Traumatocene, the boundary event that is the creation of collective traumatic experience under capitalism. Traumatic Time is a bubble whose surface is found throughout every internal experience. We find ourselves continually revisiting the place that existed just prior to the initiation of a catastrophe, on catastrophe’s cusp, where an infinite number of now dead possibilities seemed about to reveal themselves. And in that instant, time folds back on itself and we again began the journey toward the catastrophe that now seems so inevitable. If we were to write a spectral history of the Left, that’s probably a fair description of what it would look like.

In Traumatic Time, everyone tends to speak each other’s unspoken terrors, even in the most ordinary of interactions, and anxiety becomes a kind of currency, shifted invisibly between individuals, populations, institutions. Career politicians – a species that Graeber reserved his most scathing contempt for – intuitively inflame these with states of militarised emergency, continually calling for a river of blood, an unending series of exhortations for everyone to arm themselves with imaginary machetes and congregate in dog-packs as though there were no other way to get through life, or as if every human relationship were saturated in the diesel of war, and terror and dread were coded in the very structure of desire.

After the Black Lives Matter uprisings began, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility steamed to the top of the US bestseller lists, largely on the back of the purchasing power of white liberals. DiAngelo once said in an interview that she finds it helpful to assume that she has been thoroughly indoctrinated with the values of white supremacy and some part of her is always uninterested in challenging that. Whatever the politics of large numbers of white liberals devouring a deconstruction of white supremacy by another educated white liberal, I think that’s psychologically astute. The toxic structures we are uninterested in challenging always make their way into spectral life.

Graeber knew that the haunted spectral doesn’t just exist ‘out there’, in a kind of abstract fantasy ‘spirit’ world. It makes itself real, here and now, in people and political events. In his essay Discourse on Colonialism, the Martiniquean writer Aime Cesaire described how the horrors of the repressed always return. He famously wrote that the genocidal ideologies of the Nazis were precisely the practices of extermination previously used on the African continent, now coming home to Europe, having been concealed within the ‘very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century.’

In Australia, the disavowed humanistic, bourgeois Christian spectral has never gone away. Demonising, murdering and imprisoning Aboriginal people now also manifests in offshore detention, the creation of the carceral state, and practices of punishment that are so common that they have become Australia’s default solutions to virtually any difficulty. What’s more disturbing is how these events seem to generate individuals who embody them, as though violent persecution and torment could shape-shift and take form.

European history is littered with these human embodiments. In 2020’s Australia, one thinks of Peter Dutton, the Minister for Home Affairs. It was Graeber’s articulation of violence and the spectral that helped me understand Dutton. Dutton is the strangest and most horrifying figure in a strange and horrifying parliament, whose bi-partisan cruelty and sadism have already become legendary. Other Australian politicians all seem products of our time, their opinions and identities fermented and given nutrient by John Howard’s racism and the politics of demonisation. Dutton is different, even among such an appallingly amoral crew, which is partially why he is such a disturbing figure. It’s easy enough to imagine Dutton in a Freikorps uniform, but with his weird tan, shaved head and racist hooting he immediately evokes images of South Africa’s apartheid regime as he incessantly shouts for more and more surveillance, more imprisonment, more punishment and cruelty, more racist profiling, more policing. In Graeberian terms, we might say that Dutton is a chronically haunted man, the manifestation of haunted white Australia. In his all-consuming fear and terror, his mobilising of the forces of the security state, Dutton is not just building a fortress around white Australia. He is building a fortress around Peter Dutton.

Capitalism’s violence is ontologically, metaphysically, economically, psychologically, and emotionally boring, which is partly why it is so exhausting. In his writing, Graeber was able to find ways to enable us to speak to each other of this frightening soul-deadening tedium, without evoking semi-psychotic states. Graeber’s writing helps us make the unspeakable speakable. That’s quite an achievement for anyone’s prose.

When we can speak the unspeakable without going out of our minds, we can begin to talk of, and imagine, hope. I think the Left often does it back to front. We try and jump across the abyss of the unspeakable, disavow it, and go straight to hope. Which means that we just drag an armada of ghosts and spectres with us, all still unacknowledged, and sabotage our own attempts at optimism.

What could a more authentic, less haunted hope look like? After reading Graeber, who absolutely insisted on hope, I tend to think it’s knowing other worlds are possible, but that we have little experience of imagining them, only narratives of literature, film and so on from which we try to cobble together some optimism for the future and understanding of the past. Graeber wrote that we need to act as though the future we imagine were already here. I love this idea, not just for its description of a concrete ‘now’ but because it invites us to liberate all our dreaming desires, our utopian reveries. I think anarchism is better suited than straight Marxism to do this. In any case, rediscovering a wild optimism rooted in our deep understanding of how violence perpetuates itself and what it occludes has to be a priority for the Left.

In many ways, I’ve thought of anarchism as the ethical practice of human interdependence, and reading Graeber gave me the confidence to act as though that is always true, not matter what. Graeber helped me work out that when we live within experiences of violence, solidarity with others doesn’t just exist with those who believe certain things, but with those who are, right now, in the same situation we are. And under capitalism, those people number in the hundreds and thousands of millions. They become our sisters, our brothers and we suddenly find ourselves intimately bound to them.

Wherever the pulse or entity or collection of psycho-physical aggregates that was called ‘David Graeber’ is now, he has definitely become part of my spectral life, the liminal imaginative space where the unspeakable is transmuted into language and action. It may seem like an odd, twisted idea, but then once you acknowledge that we all have uncanny, unsettling, unconscious lives that are probably fifty percent of who we are, it’s not a weird concept at all. It becomes an ordinary thing, a revolutionary transformation that looks to imagine the thing that is not here, or more correctly is already here but in ways we can’t yet see.


Image: Guido van Lispen

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Thank you, Stephen. I have been similarly gutted by the news of David’s passing, and it has been helpful to find a community of others who are trying to process this news.

    I only knew him through his work, but it felt like I knew his work intimately because he was putting words to feelings I had had for a long time but could never articulate very well.

    Anarchism as imagined as consensus process and the faithful polling of the populace’s thoughts, feelings, voices and dreams to create opportunities for collective problem solving and wisdom, where the means *is* the end, seems like the only true path forward for the 21st century (viewed from where we are today in the age of divisiveness and distrust).

    David gave us the language to help re-awaken the anarchist spirit in society at large, and now it is up to the rest of us to put it into practice and play our part.

    BTW, I loved this part of your essay the best:

    “I’ve thought of anarchism as the ethical practice of human interdependence.”

  2. Thank you – this was beautifully written and a really interesting read. I’m not familiar with Graeber’s work but his essays and books are now on my reading list.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I felt sad and empty and a bit lonely when I heard the news of David Graeber’s death. His book Debt explained the financial nature of our society and its underlying violence better than anything else I have read. He was a clear thinking person like Orwell and a terrible loss to the resistance to the elites.

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