For David Graeber

For David Graeber

Since I heard from a mutual friend at lunchtime today: ‘David is gone’, the shock I felt then seems to have reverberated around the world. One of the most curious of minds, finest of writers, kindest of hearts, most courageous and consistent callers of bull shit ever. Gone.

David and I met over a Twitter conversation about the appalling copy editing of the first edition of ‘Debt the 5000 years’. After swallowing the book whole when it came out in 2011, I complained on Twitter that it must not have had an editor, some of the sentences didn’t read as smoothly as most of the others, in fact were pretty confusing. David came back immediately that no, in fact it had too many, apparently nine before publication, but he was red-lining a copy for the paperback edition. I grumped in response that yes that’s it, no one had pulled a paper copy before, impossible to see all the faults on screen.

The last chapter of ‘Debt’ reintroduced me to the concept of basic income and sent me off round the internet to find out about it. UBI pulled together all the strands of my organising over the previous 30 years: housing, heath, welfare, work and women. Unlike monetary reform I could talk about it from my own experience, from the gut. I liked the fact that people either loved or hated the idea straight away, and it was fun to talk people round who immediately disliked the idea to at least consider it more seriously.

Later on in 2013 I invited David round for food with a friend, after feeling that if he had finally responded to Brad deLong’s obsessive trolling he must be lonely. He arrived in spatz, and was somehow nothing like the writer, or the Twitter warrior in his gentleness and kindness. I myself was at a low ebb: my job as a welfare rights advisor was getting ever bleaker with the reforms, and the propaganda campaign against claimants.  His interest in the idea that shame about welfare is the flip-side of the shame about debt was encouraging, and he respected my experience even without a book to my name. We went on to be great buddies.

Since I’d lived in London and been politically active here since 1981, I knew the genealogies of most groups and people on the left. From David I got a better picture of what had been going on in the US in the aftermath of Occupy and in academia. We talked a lot about value, and care, politics of course – though we didn’t always agree – and personal travails, especially as Americans abroad.

By 2013 I was also trying to organise a movement for basic income here in the UK, but not making much of it. Over the next years David was consistently encouraging, getting me to speak about it at meetings, getting me a gig on the Keiser Report, doing an interview about it with me for Occupy London Youtube. I don’t know that I would have stuck with basic income without David. He helped me find my voice.

David refused to be pigeon-holed into writing about just one thing after he had a lot of pressure to carry on about debt after the success of ‘Debt’. He insisted that there was little point in being famous if he didn’t use it to write or talk about whatever interested him. We are all the richer for it, with considerations of bullying, democracy, bureaucracy, money, work, play, the future, care and many other subjects that defy expectation, challenge assumptions and expand our minds.

When David interviewed me about basic income for the final chapter of ‘Bullshit Jobs’ in 2018 I was worried about protecting the charity I worked for, so I didn’t want to be named. Also it seemed apt if everybody else was under a pseudonym that I should be too. He was sceptical, but respected it. And then made me two people for good measure.

David used the power he had as an academic, activist and a writer, and the money he earned by it, to pull many people and groups out of financial, academic, political holes. Others will talk in more detail about his role in saving the Syrian Kurds from Isis, but this is only the most famous of his interventions. He added his voice to defend Corbyn from the accusations of anti-semitism when Corbyn wasn’t defending himself. While a self-proclaimed anarchist, a practitioner and defender of direct action, an expert in consensus-building within groups, he was also a pragmatist about working with politicians, and did whatever he could to support working class demands.

David enjoyed what he had, and never forgot where he came from. He constantly acknowledged the fact that he got many of his ideas from conversations with other people, and insisted that the famous ‘We are the 99%’ was written by committee. He wrote and said publicly what so many of us thought or experienced silently, and in doing so changed our collective consciousness about it.

He always said, ‘The problem with privilege is that not everyone has it’. David lived his life working to spread what privilege he had as widely as he could, in whatever way came to hand. For that his life stands as an example of what to do with privilege, while owning one’s access to it.

That was the foundation of his support for basic income. For him it was a way to spread his privilege of having a secure, and sufficient income, while also having the freedom to pretty much do what he wanted. He wanted everyone to have that. ‘The imagination strikes back’, he said about it.

He was quite insistent that we start the negotiations high. ‘Oh I don’t know, about £30k? That’s good, isn’t it?’

I’m so grateful for what David wrote, and what he did, for our friendship and laughter over the years. But now there will always be that next other thing I won’t be able to discuss with him when it occurs.

I’ll always miss him. Forever.