David Graeber, who died tragically last week at the age of 59, was, as everyone knows, an anarchist. He didn’t like to wear it as an identity, as should be very obvious from his Twitter bio (‘I see anarchism as something you do not an identity so don’t call me the anarchist anthropologist’), but anarchism was the foundation of his politics. He was also a friend of mine. When I was first introduced to him, I probably reacted like I was meeting Beyonce. I was a huge fan of his work – when I was doing my masters in African Studies I picked up a copy of Debt, and I credit reading it with renewing my interest in political economy (after spending my undergraduate years being told that economics meant utility functions and budget constraints).
David Graeber was kind of anti-cynic, at pains to point out how common acts of altruism, mutual support, sharing and solidarity were, and that their absence from accounts of the world – because they were invisible to, or undervalued by, the people who wrote those accounts – was intensely political. The motivation for that exclusion on the right might be thought obvious: those acts don’t fit comfortably with the contemporary capitalist conception of the human being, a perpetually value-maximising agent of economic exchange. David might also point out how fragile that conception is – why else must it so frequently be backed up and restated in advertising and mass media? – but also that it has gradually supplanted an older conservatism which recognised a place for non-market mutual support, especially if it could be subordinated, domesticated and kept in its proper place. That this secret history of solidarity should be frequently invisible to the left, as well, would often puzzle him: perhaps it was the result of unconscious acculturation in capitalist society, or perhaps the intellectual legacy of a tilt to economism on the British left.