David Graeber

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David Graeber

Born David Rolfe Graeber
February 12, 1961 (1961-02-12) (age 58)
Residence London, United Kingdom
Citizenship United States
Fields Anthropology
Institutions Yale University
Goldsmiths, University of London
London School of Economics
Alma mater State University of New York at Purchase
University of Chicago
Influences Marcel Mauss, Edmund Leach, Marshall Sahlins, Peter Kropotkin
Influenced Occupy movement

David Rolfe Graeber (/ˈɡrbər/; born 12 February 1961) is an American anthropologist and anarchist who is a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London.[1] He was an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University, although Yale controversially declined to rehire him,[2] and his term there ended in June 2007. Graeber has been involved in social and political activism, including the protests against the World Economic Forum in New York City in 2002 and Occupy Wall Street.

Early life

Graeber's parents, who were in their forties when Graeber was born, were self-taught working-class Jewish intellectuals. Graeber's mother, Ruth Rubenstein, had been a garment worker, and played the lead role in the 1930s musical comedy revue Pins & Needles, staged by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.[3] Graeber's father Kenneth, who was affiliated with the Youth Communist League in college, though he quit well before the Hitler-Stalin pact, participated in the Spanish Revolution in Barcelona and fought in the Spanish Civil War.[4] He later worked as a plate stripper on offset printers. Graeber grew up in New York, in a cooperative apartment building described by Business Week magazine as "suffused with radical politics."[5] Graeber has been an anarchist since the age of 16, according to an interview he gave to The Village Voice in 2005.[6]

Graeber graduated from Phillips Academy Andover in 1978 and received his B.A. from the State University of New York at Purchase in 1984. He gained his Masters degree and Doctorate at the University of Chicago, where he won a Fulbright fellowship and completed his Ph.D. thesis on magic, slavery, and politics in Madagascar.[2]

Academic career

Graeber in January 2002

In 1998, two years after completing his PhD, Graeber joined Yale University as an assistant professor.[2] In May 2005, the Yale anthropology department decided not to renew Graeber's contract, preventing him from coming up for consideration for tenure as he would otherwise have been scheduled to do in 2008. Pointing to Graeber's highly regarded anthropological scholarship, his supporters (including fellow anthropologists, former students, and activists) accused the decision of being politically motivated. More than 4,500 people signed petitions supporting him, and well-known British anthropologist Maurice Bloch called for Yale to rescind its decision.[2] Bloch, who had been a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and the Collège de France, and world renowned scholar on Madagascar, made the following statement about Graeber in a letter to the university:

"His writings on anthropological theory are outstanding. I consider him the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world."[7]

The Yale administration argued that Graeber's dismissal was in keeping with Yale's policy of granting tenure to few junior faculty and Yale gave no formal explanation for its actions. Graeber has suggested that his support of a student of his who was targeted for expulsion because of her membership in GESO, Yale's graduate student union, may have played a role in the university's decision.[8][2][9][10]

In December 2005, Graeber agreed to leave the university after a one-year paid sabbatical. That spring he taught two final classes: an introduction to cultural anthropology (attended by over 200 students) and a course entitled “Direct Action and Radical Social Theory” – the only explicitly radical-themed course at Yale he ever taught.

On 25 May 2006, Graeber was invited to give the Malinowski Lecture at the London School of Economics; his address was entitled "Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity".[11] The anthropology department at the university honors an anthropologist at a relatively early stage of their career to give the Malinowski Lecture each year, and only invite those who are considered to have made a significant contribution to anthropological theory. That same year, Graeber was asked to present the keynote address in the 100th anniversary Diamond Jubilee meetings of the Association of Social Anthropologists.[12] In April 2011 he presented the anthropology department's annual Distinguished Lecture at Berkeley,[13] and in May 2012 delivered the Second Annual Marilyn Strathern lecture at Cambridge.

From 2008 through Spring 2013, Mr. Graeber was a lecturer and a reader at Goldsmiths College. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, he has accepted a professorship at the London School of Economics in 2013[14].


David Graeber is the author of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. He has done extensive anthropological work in Madagascar, writing his doctoral thesis (The Disastrous Ordeal of 1987: Memory and Violence in Rural Madagascar) on the continuing social division between the descendants of nobles and the descendants of former slaves. A book based on his dissertation, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar appeared from Indiana University Press in September 2007. A book of collected essays, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire was published by AK Press in November 2007 and Direct Action: An Ethnography appeared from the same press in August 2009, as well as a collection of essays co-edited with Stevphen Shukaitis called Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations//Collective Theorization (AK Press, May 2007). These were followed by a major historical monograph, Debt: The First 5000 Years (Melville House), which appeared in July 2011.[15] Speaking about Debt with the Brooklyn Rail, Graeber remarked:

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) and what they did to countries in the Global South—which is, of course, exactly the same thing bankers are starting to do at home now—is just a modern version of this old story. That is, creditors and governments saying you’re having a financial crisis, you owe money, obviously you must pay your debts. There’s no question of forgiving debts. Therefore, people are going to have to stop eating so much. The money has to be extracted from the most vulnerable members of society. Lives are destroyed; millions of people die. People would never dream of supporting such a policy until you say, “Well, they have to pay their debts.”[16]

As of December 2011, Graeber is working on a book for Random House connecting "the story of the Occupy movement to an exploration of the past and future of direct action, participatory democracy, and political transformation", and another for Melville House combining three essays on bureaucracy (one of which he delivered as the Malinowski Lecture in 2006).[17] He is also working on an historical work on the origins of social inequality with the archeologist David Wengrow.

His book on the Occupy movement and related issues was released as The Democracy Project in 2013.


Graeber (left) at a rally for immigrant rights at Union Square, New York City in May 2007

In addition to his academic work, Graeber has a history of both direct and indirect involvement in political activism, including membership in the labor union Industrial Workers of the World, a role in protests against the World Economic Forum in New York City in 2002, support for the 2010 UK student protests,[18] and an early role in the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is co-founder of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence.[19] In November 2011, Rolling Stone magazine credited Graeber with giving the Occupy Wall Street movement its theme: "We are the 99 percent". Rolling Stone says Graeber helped create the first New York City General Assembly, with only 60 participants, on August 2.[20] He spent the next six weeks involved with the burgeoning movement, including facilitating general assemblies, attending working group meetings, and organizing legal and medical training and classes on nonviolent resistance. A few days after the encampment of Zuccotti Park began, he left New York for Austin, Texas.[5]

Graeber has argued that the Occupy Wall Street movement's lack of recognition of the legitimacy of either existing political institutions or the legal structure, its embrace of non-hierarchical consensus decision-making and of prefigurative politics make it a fundamentally anarchist project.[21] Comparing it to the Arab Spring, Graeber has claimed that Occupy Wall Street and other contemporary grassroots protests represent "the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire."[22] He is a member of the labor union Industrial Workers of the World and of the Interim Committee for the emerging International Organization for a Participatory Society.[23]



  • — (2001). Toward an anthropological theory of value: the false coin of our own dreams. New York: Palgrave. . . 
  • — (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press (distributed by University of Chicago Press). . . 
  • — (2007). Lost people: magic and the legacy of slavery in Madagascar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. . . 
  • — (2007). Possibilities: essays on hierarchy, rebellion, and desire. Oakland, CA: AK Press. . . 
  • — (2009). Direct action: an ethnography. Edinburgh Oakland: AK Press. . . 
  • — (2011). Debt: The First 5000 Years. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House. . . 
  • — (2011). Revolutions in reverse. London New York: Minor Compositions. . . 
  • — (2013). The Democracy Project : An Idea, a History, a Movement. New York: Spiegel & Grau. . . 
As co-editor
  • — (2007). Constituent imagination: militant investigations/collective theorization. Oakland, CA: AK Press. . . 



  1. Graeber, David. Goldsmiths, University of London. URL accessed on December 4, 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Arenson, Karen W.. "When Scholarship and Politics Collided at Yale", The New York Times, The New York Times Company, December 28, 2005. Retrieved on December 4, 2011. 
  3. "Paid Notice: Deaths: Graeber, Ruth R.", The New York Times, The New York Times Company, April 20, 2006. Retrieved on December 4, 2011. 
  4. Kenneth Graeber. Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Spanish Civil War History and Education. URL accessed on December 4, 2011.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Bennett, Drake. "David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street: Meet the anthropologist, activist, and anarchist who helped transform a hapless rally into a global protest movement", 26 October 2011. Retrieved on 4 December 2011. 
  6. Mamatas, Nick. "Take It From the Top: Speaking with anarchist professor David Graeber, canned from Yale", 31 May 2005. Retrieved on 4 December 2011. 
  7. Bloch, Maurice Letter from Maurice Bloch, London School of Economics. Solidarity with David Graeber. URL accessed on October 27, 2009.
  8. Frank, Joshua Without Cause: Yale Fires An Acclaimed Anarchist Scholar. Counterpunch.org. URL accessed on December 4, 2011.
  9. Epstein, David (May 18, 2005). "Early Exit". Inside Higher Education. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/05/18/yale. Retrieved December 4, 2011. 
  10. Johansen, Bruce E (2007). Silenced!: academic freedom, scientific inquiry, and the First Amendment. New York: Praeger. pp. 110–112. . 
  11. Graeber, David Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity. (pdf) London School of Economics. URL accessed on December 4, 2011.
  12. Graeber, David There Never Was a West: Democracy as a form of interstitial cosmopolitanism. Association of Social Anthropologists. URL accessed on December 4, 2011.
  13. Anthropology Department Distinguished Lecture 2011: "Utopias of Debt". Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley. URL accessed on December 4, 2011.
  14. Shea, Christopher. "A Radical Anthropologist Finds Himself in Academic "Exile"", April 15, 2013. Retrieved on April 15, 2013. 
  15. Habash, Gabe Melville House Finds Hit for the 99%. Publishers Weekly. URL accessed on December 4, 2011.
  16. Woodman, Spencer (September 2011). "WORLD OF DEBT: DAVID GRAEBER with Spencer Woodman". The Brooklyn Rail. http://brooklynrail.org/2011/09/express/world-of-debt. 
  17. Witt, Emily. "Banks Got Bailed Out, David Graeber Sells Out? OWS Figurehead Goes Mainstream for New Book", The New York Observer, December 1, 2011. Retrieved on December 4, 2011. 
  18. Rayner, Gordon, Roberts, Laura. "Student tuition fee protests: security guards were powerless to act, then riot ringleaders", The Daily Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, November 12, 2010. Retrieved on December 4, 2011. 
  19. Fries, Jacob H.. "Anarchy Has an Image Problem; In the Face of New York Police, Taste for Conflict Wavers", The New York Times, The New York Times Company, January 28, 2002. Retrieved on February 15, 2012. 
  20. Sharlet, Jeff. "Inside Occupy Wall Street: How a bunch of anarchists and radicals with nothing but sleeping bags launched a nationwide movement", 10 November 2011. Retrieved on 4 December 2011. 
  21. Graeber, David Occupy Wall Street's anarchist roots. Al Jazeera. URL accessed on December 4, 2011.
  22. Graeber, David Occupy Wall Street Protest. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. URL accessed on October 6, 2011.
  23. International Organization for a Participatory Society Interim Committee. URL accessed on March 31, 2012.

Further reading

  • Sutton, David (September 2004). "Anthropology's Value(s): A Review of David Graeber's Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value". Anthropological Theory 4 (3): 373–379. . 
  • Guyer, Jane I. (December 2009). "On 'possibility': A response to ‘How Is Anthropology Going?’". Anthropological Theory 9 (4): 355–370. . 

External links

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