David Graeber 1961 – 2020


“I always say the principle of direct action is the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.” “Communism already exists in our intimate relations with each other on a million different levels. So it’s a question of gradually expanding that and ultimately destroying the power of capital, rather than this idea of absolute negation that plunges us into some great unknown.” “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” “I see anarchism as something you do, not an identity, so don’t call me the anarchist anthropologist.”

David Graeber (1961-2020) has been an unwitting conversation partner in the journey of thinking politics at CLP, and through our padkos project. His recent, unexpected, and premature, passing was a shock. For many years, the content, the analysis, the insight, as well as the encouragement, humour and values, that he consistently brought to his activism and his writing have resonated very strongly with our work here. He was a deeply committed, humble and thoughtful organiser and activist, but he was also a really great writer. And because he wrote (and gave talks and interviews), we could hear and learn from and with him, even though his practical involvements were not geographically close to us here in South Africa. So in this way, he became an unwitting dialogue partner and comrade, present and resourceful in our own thinking of struggle/s.

One piece of work we’ll share is his 2004 booklet, “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” (it’s a bit long for an email attachment, so follow this link instead for the pdf: http://www.churchland.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Graeber-fragments.pdf). It’s a powerful gem, offering a liberating perspective on the world from a refreshing anarchist basis. It really resonated when we came across it at CLP. Especially at points in our self-reflective collective journey re-membering a praxis that was imminently do-able but that also marked a decisive break from the dominant modes of civil society work, which we came to see as problematically bound up with the moribund terrain of state politics. We quoted his ‘tiny manifesto against policy’ from “Fragments…” in a padkos mailing when we were under pressure to engage the policy debates on the land question. Says Graeber:

“The notion of ‘policy’ presumes a state or governing apparatus which imposes its  will on others. ‘Policy’ is the negation of politics; policy is by definition something  concocted by some form of elite, which presumes it knows better than others how their affairs are to be conducted. By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs” (Graeber, 2004. Fragments of an anarchist anthropology, Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago.)

Later on came the extraordinary period of the ‘occupy’ movement/s in it’s various locations and expressions, where Graeber’s deep insertion, and his profoundly productive engagement and activism, was a regular feature. Indeed, he is widely credited as being the academic and writer most closely associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement especially. He is also credited with coming up with it’s central motif of “the 99%”. Occupy expressed, extended and validated radical traditions of action that differed sharply from left traditions that were (and are) hierarchical, dogmatic, vanguardist and deeply vested in state power. The remarkable creativity and experimentation in forms of organising, and of a prefigurative politics, proved hugely valuable for all of us everywhere looking to concretise freedom here and now, and to refuse the collapse into a politics that separated out the means from the ends. Graeber’s 2013 book, The Democracy Project, (David Graeber, 2013. The Democracy Project: A History. A Crisis. A Movement. Allen Lane/Penguin Books) remains a magnificent resource and insight from within the heart of that moment.

In a subsequent historical moment, Graeber’s commitment to the remarkable real-life autonomous and revolutionary non-state enclave of Rojava once again helped inform, resource, connect and inspire people around the world. Through padkos and a number of documentary videos shared through the bioscope project, we followed and discussed these extraordinary developments of autonomy and militancy in Rojava with great interest.

In addition to “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” which we’ve uploaded for you (http://www.churchland.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Graeber-fragments.pdf), your padkos attachments are
(a) a compilation of obituaries & thoughts written by those who knew him and worked with him to convey something of the person as well as his politics, and
(b) an introduction which Graeber had very recently written with Andrej Grubačić for a new edition of Kropotkin’s famous “Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution”. It’s a superb and fascinating essay relating some key idea from Kropotkin’s critical intervention published in 1902 into the highly charged, and frankly political, debate around evolution – and against the strand in Darwinism emphasising only competition and the ‘survival of the fittest’.

In their Introduction, Graeber and Grubačić point out that, in his broader project:
“Kropotkin aimed to understand precisely what it was that an alienated worker had lost. But to integrate the two would mean to understand how even capitalism is ultimately founded on communism (“mutual aid”), even if it’s a communism it does not acknowledge; how communism is not an abstract, distant ideal, impossible to maintain, but a lived practical reality we all engage in daily, to different degrees, and that even factories could not operate without it—even if much of it operates on the sly, between the cracks, or shifts, or informally, or in what’s not said, or entirely subversively. It’s become fashionable lately to say that capitalism has entered a new phase in which it has become parasitical of forms of creative cooperation, largely on the internet. This is nonsense. It has always been so”. They conclude: “To create a new world, we can only start by rediscovering what is and has always been right before our eyes.”

David Graeber_ Some tributes

David Graeber and Andrej Grubačić