David Graeber was an exemplary scholar-activist. We all know plenty of professors who will occasionally participate in demonstrations and sign petitions; and activists who conduct research and teach. David, however, was so deeply engaged in both realms that it would be impossible to assign one a primary role. Clearly, for him, scholarship and activism enriched and informed one another in a constant exchange.
I first met David during the great season of alter-globalization struggles following the 1999 Seattle WTO protests. He stood out for the intelligence of his interventions at meetings and demonstrations, undoubtedly, but what most impressed me was his dedication to practical militancy, his patience at interminable meetings, and his willingness to travel wherever the next struggle erupted. Indeed, over the past twenty years, he has been seemingly omnipresent at activist encounters.
He is widely celebrated for his 2011 role at Occupy Wall Street, of course, and his more recent support of struggles in Rojava have been very visible, but he has also participated in innumerable less visible events and encounters, large and small. I have never interpreted David’s dedication to militancy as an obligation, as if he were making a sacrifice and fulfilling a duty. Instead, he is one of the lucky ones who has discovered the rewards and pleasures of an activist mode of life, regardless of its rigors and hardships.
I remember joining David in Tokyo in July 2008 before the G8 meetings in Japan. I was beleaguered and exhausted not only from the trans-Pacific flight but also from the hours of detention and interviews upon arrival at the Tokyo airport. The Japanese authorities had a list of international activists to detain and question. I quickly abandoned any self-pity, however, when I learned that David had just returned from participating in an activist encampment outside the city, sleeping in a tent under the rain, where he had gotten food poisoning. He was pale and weak, understandably, but his spirits were not dampened. He forged ahead enthusiastically with his speech at the counter-summit and all the planned street protests. It was hard not to be propelled forward by his energy.
One aspect of David’s writing that I greatly admire is the way it combines serious academic research with popular and accessible – and often genuinely humorous – writing. This combination of research and writing styles is, indeed, another facet of his figure as a scholar-activist. He does not hesitate, in his writings, to delve into complex arguments in the history of anthropology, for instance, but these are always brought to bear on the contemporary political problems at hand, such as debt or capitalist exploitation. This is part of what accounts, no doubt, for his extraordinarily wide readership.
Another element that contributes to the great attraction of his work is often cast as optimism, although I do not think that term is adequate. What is key is that his analyses and critiques of contemporary forms of domination (including capitalist social and economic relations, state and police violence, today’s deadening work culture, and more) are always accompanied by the affirmation of real, democratic alternatives. He was always highly attuned, undoubtedly due to his anthropologist’s eye, to the democratic social relations that are already present in our daily interactions.
Such experiences of democratic alternatives, then, are intensified and multiplied in activist organizations and, particularly, in the experiments that constitute the occupations and encampments that have formed in recent decades. David had great belief that even small experiments in new democratic relations could prefigure powerful future developments. I am reluctant to call this optimism since, whereas as that term implies mere hope that another world is possible, I find David’s confidence in a democratic future entirely realistic, precisely because of the many struggles that have so long aimed to bring it about.
David will remain for me a model for how to live to the fullest a scholarly and activist life.