David Graeber hated being called "The Anarchist Anthropologist." But he was both those things — an anarchist activist, a figurehead of the Occupy movement, and a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. His wife reports that he has passed away at the age of 59. No cause of death is mentioned.
Graeber is perhaps best known his writings about "Bullshit Jobs" — which started as an essay in Strike Magazine and later expanded into a full book, as well as other spin-off pieces. Graeber's argument about bullshit jobs is a critique of the institutionalized administrative bureaucracies that humans have created to simply feel busy and fulfilled and important, even though it completely backfires. We spent 40 years facilitating communications between onion layers of sub-sub-sub-sub contractors, and sure, the money moves around, but there's no productivity — and no one's happy, even though they're told to aspire to those make-yourself-look-busy jobs.
My first introduction to this concept was his Harper's essay "Punching the Clock," which has stuck with me ever since:
Our society values work. We expect a job to serve a purpose and to have a larger meaning. For workers who have internalized this value system, there is little that is more demoralizing than waking up five days a week to perform a task that one believes is a waste of time.
The make-believe aspect of the work is precisely what performers of bullshit jobs find the most infuriating. Just about anyone in a supervised wage-labor job finds it maddening to pretend to be busy. Working is meant to serve a purpose—if make-believe play is an expression of human freedom, then make-believe work imposed by others represents a total lack of freedom. It's unsurprising, then, that the first historical occurrence of the notion that some people ought to be working at all times, or that work should be made up to fill their time even in the absence of things that need doing, concerns workers who are not free: prisoners and slaves.The make-believe aspect of the work is precisely what performers of bullshit jobs find the most infuriating. Just about anyone in a supervised wage-labor job finds it maddening to pretend to be busy. Working is meant to serve a purpose—if make-believe play is an expression of human freedom, then make-believe work imposed by others represents a total lack of freedom. It's unsurprising, then, that the first historical occurrence of the notion that some people ought to be working at all times, or that work should be made up to fill their time even in the absence of things that need doing, concerns workers who are not free: prisoners and slaves.
Graeber was a champion of the working class, who was unafraid to speak truth to power, and point out the glaring chasms of hypocrisy between the platitudes that civilization speaks about itself, and the things that actually make humans productive, peaceful, and happy. You can see this clearly in the video above, where he points out that government debt is actually a good thing, because it stimulates the private sector, and means that people are making stuff, together — and that all the lip service paid to balancing federal budgets and reducing federal deficits is in fact meaningless confusions between society and one's personal bank account. He expounded upon this topic in his book titled Debt.
Here's another short piece that's been resonating with me lately:
What we think of as archetypally women's work – looking after people, seeing to their wants and needs, explaining, reassuring, anticipating what the boss wants or is thinking, not to mention caring for, monitoring, and maintaining plants, animals, machines, and other objects – accounts for a far greater proportion of what working-class people do when they're working than hammering, carving, hoisting, or harvesting things.
This is true not only because most working-class people are women (since most people in general are women), but because we have a skewed view even of what men do. As striking tube workers recently had to explain to indignant commuters, 'ticket takers' don't in fact spend most of their time taking tickets: they spend most of their time explaining things, fixing things, finding lost children, and taking care of the old, sick and confused.
If you think about it, is this not what life is basically about? Human beings are projects of mutual creation. Most of the work we do is on each other. The working classes just do a disproportionate share. They are the caring classes, and always have been. It is just the incessant demonisation directed at the poor by those who benefit from their caring labour that makes it difficult, in a public forum such as this, to acknowledge it.
As you can probably tell, I am truly and genuinely bummed about Graeber's passing, in a way I'm usually not when it comes to people I've never met. If you're not familiar with his work, I encourage you to check it out.
Rest in power, David Graeber, and thanks for sharing your mind with us for a while.
Screenshot: YouTube / The Guardian