News of David Graeber’s untimely passing has set me off through a full sweep of emotions. He wasn’t a friend of mine, but he was a friend of friends, and we knew each other well enough to say a polite hello. The times our paths crossed he always seemed warm and funny and modest. He was widely known for his prodigious mind, yet knew the difference between having the courage of one’s convictions and professing to know everything already. I think that’s fair to say; it was the impression I always got, at least.
Lots of people have noted that he wasn’t a typical academic or intellectual; that he was an activist and someone more interested in doing anarchism than claiming the mantle by way of affiliation to this or that Twitter sect. Along with Mark Fisher, who also died too young, David was undoubtedly the most signficant contemporary thinker of my political generation. They were different men with different interests, but I don’t know of many people from that period who didn’t seem to flit between David’s Debt: The First 5000 Years and Mark’s Capitalist Realism in the stage of our political development shortly after the clashes of the winter of 2010/11 had died out.
As noted by many of my London comrades in recent days, David was a ready participant in those struggles and practically part of the furniture in any number of London occupations and seized buildings throughout that time. Not being a Londonhead, it wasn’t until late in 2012 that our paths first crossed at the Anarchist Bookfair, where he riffed and fizzed on the subject of anarchist economics to a packed out lecture theatre, evidently enjoying the opportunity to engage with so many people at once but visibly uncomfortable when the chair made the faux pas of introducing him as the keynote speaker.
By that point I was well aware of him. A close anarchist comrade and mentor was enthusiastic about David’s work and set on studying a masters with him, and my philosophy lecturer regularly cited Debt as perhaps the most significant contribution to moral philosophy in recent years, whether Graeber had intended it or not. The audience buzzed as he spoke; whether or not some of the attendees would have liked to admit it, he had the ability to melt away the icy front adopted by too many anarchists who seem to confuse pessimism and joylessness for radical politics.
David was close to many of my friends, some of whom I love particularly dearly. His work should be remembered, as should his friendship and his inimitable laugh. But this isn’t an obituary.
(If you would like to read an obituary there are a great many circulating online now, but I would suggest a good starting point is that authored by my friend and co-conspirator James Butler for Novara.)
No, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular strain of melancholy that has ached in and out of consciousness since I heard the news of David’s passing and our collective loss. It has something to do with his intellect – losing a singular mind can only be devastating – but I think it also has something to do with the mode of his intellectualism. Given we never directly talked about politics much (as I recall, we first met properly whilst sneakily bundling into a side room at a fundraiser party, ha), I think it must also be to do with the fact that he seemed to exude this mode of intellectualism even in the way he carried himself around other people.
As people closer to him have noted so eloquently, David had a ready openness to finding out what other people thought, possessing also that rare ability to derive salient points from a person’s contribution to a discussion even when they hadn’t made them knowingly. It’s the sort of ability that can only stem from genuine interest and engagement with other people’s ideas, and better still David was always ready to offer up a theory of his own – not to trump anyone, but as a way of engaging people’s ideas genuinely and meaningfully.
People like that build other people up. I think it’s one reason why on a personal level I just can’t help but think about Mark even more than I usually do; frankly it feels like we’re in short supply of people who not only exude intellectual confidence but are actually invested in instilling it in others. It’s an indictment of the political culture we have built for ourselves that simple intellectual encouragement has become such a fucking honour, and in that sense David’s death is not only a terrible loss to his family, friends, comrades and readers – though it plainly is – but it is also a tragedy for the next decade of radicals, entering (as they are) a leftwing culture that often seems to wear cynicism and suspicion like military decorations.
Throughout a recent period of thinking about deaths a lot – Stuart Christie last month, Chadwick Boseman at the weekend, David this week, my stepmum’s dear friend today – I’ve kept returning to the Jewish honorific for the dead, “may their memory be a blessing”, sometimes “may the memory of the righteous be a blessing”. It’s a beautiful and evocative phrase which compels me try to imagine what it would mean for David’s memory to bless us in a world without his physical presence. Humbly I would submit that involves unlearning our cynicism, becoming – as James put it – “anti-cynics”.
I’m sick of feeling that with every death in our movement we are doomed to feel brokenhearted that, in addition to our comrades’ many irreplaceable personal qualities, we are also losing the very best of what we might expect from our movement’s culture. Its warmth, its generosity, its encouragement and openness and intellectual curiosity and its sheer sense of fucking possibility. It’s an important point not because I feel any particular desire to live in a cosy leftist bubble (fuck me), but because the way we organise and develop our ideas is one way we demonstrate what we have to offer those we aim to bring with us. We would do well to ask ourselves how, in a movement supposedly built on collectivity, we ever thought it was healthy that such vital aspects of radical political culture came to feel so inextricably bound up with individuals, reliable but eccentric, such that their passing is not merely the terrible loss of good people – awful enough as that is – but feels as though the lights of our movement have been permanently dimmed.
I keep wondering what it would take to become anti-cynics, for memories to truly become blessings, for our lights to ever become incandescent. What would it take for us to rediscover a political culture that builds people up, one where we encourage each other to develop our ideas and generate new ones, and to be confident enough to test them? The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it can’t merely be about what we think, but rather forces us to confront the question of how we do our thinking – how we might discover for ourselves the mode of intellectuality I and others associated with both David and Mark in their own ways.
Assuming it was no “happy accident of temperament”, as James put it so well, it makes me wonder how they themselves discovered it within their own periods of political activation – David as an active partipant in the alter-globalization movement; Mark as a longstanding critic of ‘activism’ yet thoroughly embedded in early internet culture. Despite having had pretty contrasting political journeys, by the time the 2010 generation had become radicalised and established, there was perhaps already a sense among younger activists that each possessed a sense of perspective that came from having lived through a time “before the bullshit”. Later on, it was never lost on me that despite having both received hostility online at different times, speaking to either of them you could never shake the feeling you were talking to a ‘true believer’, animated and almost childlike at the thought of the horizon.
It feels important to stress that this isn’t building up to a call for people to “be kind online” (though a lot of people certainly should stop and catch themselves in the black mirror from time to time). Indeed, another reason the dedications to David have personally reminded me of the outpouring following Mark’s death (and I am at pains to emphasise that the connections drawn throughout this post are purely my own reflections – they were completely different men, with very different lives and minds and different friends and all their own qualities) is the candour with which people have recalled a) how prickly David could become in exchanging online hostilities and b) fonder memories of political disagreements and vigorous in-person debates, mixed in with the equally fond memories of co-conspiring.
The latter seems remarkable to me. Ask yourself: who left amongst us expects to remember our future disagreements so fondly? It seems incontrovertible that somehow we have become deeply suspicious of disagreement, perhaps even fearful of being seen to tolerate it. It often feels as though we have decided the path to emancipation and freedom – real freedom – in fact runs through the closure of contradictions rather than their examination, as if victory could be waiting for us right around the corner were it not for people being wrong on the internet.
From this starting point, how do we hope to become the types of people who are encouraging of others? How do we normalise building other people up? How do we not only become confident, but instill confidence in each other?
Honestly, right now I’m not hopeful. The lights still feel dim. But my wager is that it begins with an acceptance of unknowingness, and a rejection of the idea that anyone does or can or should know everything. Flatly, we all need to stop bullshitting ourselves that we have an answer for everything, or that each answer we have coheres with every other. This seems to me the natural starting point for the quality I admired most in David: an openness and curiosity towards finding out what other people think. Not because it’s polite, but because it’s vital. Lest we forget these are actually the impulses that led us here – and to David and Mark and Stuart and others – in the first place.
When our political culture feels most cynical, it’s easy to forget we got here because at some point we were actually interested in each other. Maybe we could be again. I suppose David might say the possibility of doing things differently, of being differently with each other, is only ever just below the surface. I hope so. Perhaps that way we might begin to turn our memories of warmth, generosity, encouragement, curiosity, humility and possibility into blessings to come.