On David Graeber
In memory of a writer who saw a few things crystal-clear
David Graeber speaks at Maagdenhuis Amsterdam, 2015-03-07. Guido van Nispen, Wikimedia Commons
The people doing the most to save the world right now are the ones being treated the worst. As a culture, we laud the sacrifice of our teachers, we praise our nurses, and we mumble our awkward gratitude to grocery store clerks and sanitation workers. But the moment these workers raise their voices for safe working conditions or, at the very least, hazard pay, we shame them in public forums for their selfishness.
Our country holds these workers in simultaneous reverence and contempt; this was true before the pandemic as well. One person who saw the state of affairs clearly was the anthropologist David Graeber, who died Wednesday at age 59 in a Venice hospital.
“I think this can only be put down to moral envy,” Graeber wrote in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs. “Teachers are seen as people who have ostentatiously put themselves forward as self-sacrificing and public-spirited, as wanting to be the sort of person who gets a call twenty years later saying ‘Thank you, thank you for all you did for me.’ For people like that to form unions, threaten strikes, and demand better working conditions is considered almost hypocritical.”
The book was an expansion of Graeber’s 2013 essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant,” originally published in Strike! magazine. The thesis of both the book and the essay is that, rather than allow workers more time for vacation and relaxation, post-industrial capitalist countries have seen the proliferation of busywork, file-shuffling, and career paths that can be broadly defined as either pointless or actively harmful.
He wrote in the essay:
It's even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It's as if they are being told ‘but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?’
Industries are imploding during the current recession, but the market will deliver no justice. Live music venues will shut their doors forever, but Spotify’s shareholders will do just fine. Newspapers will fold while vanity thinktanks proliferate. Even the mail carriers will suffer while Jeff Bezos treads his lonely path to the trillionaires’ club.
Graeber wasn’t predicting the future; he was seeing the present through clear eyes. People threw around the word “provocative” in book blurbs and reviews, and while he was certainly provocative, he wasn’t flippant. He was a committed anarchist and activist and a friend to working people. I wish we could have heard his voice for a few more years.