David Graeber

By: Tor Aarestad
February 12, 2013

David Graeber in New York.

Like many anthropologists, DAVID GRAEBER (born 1961) came to the discipline for the freedom it gives to see the world in all its variety, against the winnowing statements of grand claimants. Perhaps to be a bit of a smartass. (“Men are meant to be in charge! Name a single society where women have power.” “How about the Iroquois or the Tuareg?”) In Graeber’s case, anthropology provided the outlet for his dyed-in-the-wool anarchist tendencies to manifest themselves intellectually. If one is looking carefully, it is possible to see the operation of voluntary associations and informal rule-making and systems of obligation all around. Graeber found it in pronounced form during his fieldwork in Madagascar, proving to himself the possibility of popular self-rule without the intervention of a state bureaucratic structure. Since then, he has pursued the dual roles of enacting prefigurative politics — participating in direct action and direct democratic movements, including the early discussions that began the Occupy movement — and writing against conceptual categories that he believes canalize political imagination. His book Debt traces the concept of debt through human history cross-culturally in an attempt to delegitimize its usage in contemporary debate. He argues that debt properly understood signifies a social tie between and among people — our lives are iterations of debts of all kinds, some durable, some transient, interlaced in elaborate webs. Graeber posits that the development of capitalism necessarily involved a repurposing of debt from a particularized human bond to a fungible, countable item imbued with moral weight. The moral obligation to a person is transmuted into an ethical obligation to a concept. Parade of horribles follows. Graeber’s commitment, both to the idea of the terrible power of the state, and to the ideal of the fully-engaged intellectual, is persuasive. The power of “debt” as an ideal, however, is shaky. Next up, bureaucracy.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Marie Vassilieff.

READ MORE about members of the Original Generation X (1954–1963).