David Graeber — a writer, public intellectual and self-styled anarchist activist who had once been an anthropology professor at Yale — died on Sept. 2 at a hospital in Venice, Italy. He was 59.
His death was announced by his wife, Nika Dubrovsky, on Thursday and subsequently confirmed by his publishing agent. Graeber was known by many for his bracingly imaginative work in social value theory and anarchism, and by others for the frontline role he played as a leftist organizer in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“To this day, many people across disciplines refer back to David Graeber as being foundational to their ability to challenge all sorts of orthodoxies, in theory and in practice,” said Alexander Kolokotronis GRD ’22.
But before Graeber’s public reputation surged with the 2011 publication of his book “Debt: The First 5000 Years,” before the 2018 release of “Bull—- Jobs,” and before he helped coin Occupy Wall Street’s defining slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” he had been a widely beloved associate professor at Yale from 1998 to 2005 who gave free-ranging lectures in a World War I leather coat and a cup of coffee in hand.
Whole classes would go by before he took a sip, Christina Moon GRD ’05 ’11 recounted. Every time he began to raise his mug to his lips, he would be suddenly taken by a new idea.
“He talked to his students as equals, as he talked to all. You never felt you were learning ‘under’ him, but rather, with him,” Durba Chattaraj GRD ’06 ’10 said. “With David, anthropology, far from something esoteric and irrelevant, was the intellectual and ethical space from which we could imagine and act towards better futures for all humans.”
With his uncompromising ideals and idiosyncratic tendencies, he could exasperate some of his colleagues, said Linda-Anne Rebhun, a former Yale anthropology associate professor now teaching at the University of California, Merced.
But his commitment to students did not falter even when it placed his own position in precarity. Besides his visible anarchist politics, Graeber broke with the opinion of many other faculty members in his vocal support of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization.
“I remember approaching him in the dining hall with a petition asking Yale to negotiate with our union in good faith, and he signed it in 10 seconds,” another of his students, Nazima Kadir GRD ’04 ’10, said. “This was incredible because for all the organizers approaching faculty members, only two faculty members signed that petition. And the other was a senior faculty member.”
Graeber, by contrast, was not: As an associate professor, his contract had to undergo periodic renewal. In 2005, despite his popularity among students and an exceptional publication record, he was denied reappointment by the Anthropology Department tenure committee without explanation, leading many to speculate that his dismissal was on political grounds.
The case led to a national outpouring of support for Graeber. A circulated petition asking Yale to revoke its decision garnered thousands of signatures, and notable scholars — including his University of Chicago doctoral advisor, Marshall Sahlins — penned letters on his behalf. The department softened its position, granting Graeber a paid sabbatical if he would drop his appeal.
After leaving Yale, he crossed the ocean to teach at Goldsmiths — a constituent college of the University of London — and later the London School of Economics. Meanwhile, his reputation as a public intellectual and activist flourished through the publication of several bestselling books and his increasingly visible advocacy on behalf of the Occupy Wall Street and anti-debt movements.
“He taught me that as an academic, as someone afforded the luxury of being paid to immerse yourself in ideas, you can and should be active in the world,” said Annie Harper GRD ’10.
Despite the seriousness of his critiques, he wrote with levity — conjuring up examples like cabinetmakers frying fish in his takedown of the modern workplace — and clear, readable prose.
“He wanted everyone to be able to read his writing and thoughts,” explained Moon.
Despite his training in anthropology, he refused to be constrained by disciplinary boundaries. He wrote his dissertation on memory and violence in rural Madagascar, where he did extensive ethnographic field research. He outlined anarchist social theory and wrote gleefully about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” And his final book, to be released next fall, is ambitiously titled “The Dawn of Everything: a New History of Humanity.”
Growing up in New York City as the son of a garment worker and a veteran who fought Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War lodged in Graeber a deep commitment to anarchism from an early age.
Graeber’s self-described “hobby” of translating ancient Mayan hieroglyphics as a teen earned him enough attention to attend Phillips Academy Andover on a scholarship. He then earned his Bachelor of Arts at the State University of New York at Purchase and his master’s degree and doctorate in anthropology at the University of Chicago.
“The notion of supervising an anarchist is a hard one,” said Marshall Sahlins, his dissertation advisor. “He was the most creative student I’ve ever had. His generosity was universal. He was a rare breed of scholar who thought that all of humanity was instructive.”
His breed of anarchism, Sahlins clarified, was a fundamentally hopeful belief in the processes by which people create their own institutions against systems of oppression.
“David reminded me that the world that we’re living in is one that we’re making together and we’re remaking together,” said Moon.
Emily Tian | firstname.lastname@example.org