David Graeber (1961-2020) was an American anthropologist, activist, and social movement intellectual. His insights on the imagination and the practice of democracy have inspired many not just to see the world differently, but to seek to change it.
For almost every important political moment in Western Europe and North America over the past 20 years, there was an article or book by David Graeber that could be said to have helped define it.
Written in the early 2000s, Graeber’s essays on the alter-globalisation movements circulated so widely in activist circles that they had been made into a clandestine compilation and translated into several different languages before he was able to print them as a book. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, published in 2011 while Graeber was active in the Occupy movement, has since become a touchstone for anyone interested in learning about economics. And almost everyone seems to have heard of “bullshit jobs” without necessarily being able to name Graeber as the author of the 2013 essay that coined the term.
How did he do it? What insight allowed Graeber to capture the moment and articulate what so many felt but were afraid to think, let alone say? How did his work lead readers to a new understanding of democracy and the possibility of working together to change the world?
Graeber’s commitment to the power of the imagination was a driving force behind his work and one of the reasons why it resonated with so many people. It was his sense of wonder and intimate knowledge of how the imagination operates that helped shape his insights on topics as diverse as the nature of democracy, the origins of civilisation, and the meaning of value.
For Graeber, there were two kinds of imagination. The first was “imaginative identification”. This refers to the capacity to imagine another’s point of view – the foundation of all caring and supportive social relations. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes is necessary for a functioning democratic system: without it, there would be no compromise, no working together towards common goals. Another term he used to describe this was “interpretive labour”.
The second kind of imagination was “immanent imagination”: the capacity to imagine, and to bring about, new social and political ways of being. Graeber asserted that it is this imagination that constitutes the human ability to be political: to decide collectively what we want to do with our lives.
One way to think of immanent imagination is by considering its opposite, “ideological naturalisation”. This refers to the deadening effect of hierarchy and domination, where the mutable social convention is misconstrued as the natural, immutable order of being. Social Darwinism is a classic example. Its proponents assume that “survival of the fittest” is a universal order rather than a recent ideology that serves to justify a political and economic system in which individuals must compete in order to survive.
Graeber was especially interested in the place where ideological naturalisation is manifested in daily lives: alienation. Echoing Karl Marx, he suggested that “if there is anything essentially human, it’s the capacity to imagine things and bring them into being […] alienation occurs when we lose control over the process”. Working, as so many of us do, “mind-numbing, boring, mechanical jobs” invariably squashes the desire to do things differently. Graeber argued that the problem with capitalism is not just that it is exploitative, environmentally destructive, or unjust – which he agreed it is — but that it depends on immense bureaucracy, which in turn requires a hierarchical social order. It is in this sense, then, that Graeber argued that what may define the Left, and distinguish it from the Right, is its insistence that “creativity and imagination were the fundamental ontological principles” – that is, we can (and should) creatively produce the world and remake it as we wish.
It was also this insight that drove Graeber’s anthropological work. He understood anthropology as a discipline that studied social difference in order to arrive at the politically possible, and he was especially interested in the political structures of Native American groups. Many Indigenous peoples, such as the Plains Indians and Amazonian tribes, had a cultural memory of centralised, hierarchical societies and had intentionally built democratic structures that would prevent a return to these. On many occasions, Graeber pointed out that the encounter with democratic and egalitarian peoples in the New World encouraged the Enlightenment, deconstructing the myth of democracy as a European export.
Rather than a bureaucratic process that must be engaged in every few years, democracy for Graeber was imaginative, active, and intensely personal.
His more recent work with archaeologist David Wengrow looks back at the historical and ethnographic research on Indigenous peoples to show that many societies intentionally vacillated between democratic, non-hierarchical structures and hierarchical ones. In so doing, Wengrow and Graeber debunked another myth that characterised pre-modern peoples as “noble savages” who were only democratic because their societies were insufficiently advanced or complex not to be.
For many people, Graeber turned the concept of democracy on its head. Rather than a bureaucratic process that must be engaged in every few years, democracy for Graeber was imaginative, active, and intensely personal. There is no inevitable arc of progress towards more or deeper democracy. Rather, democracy must be fought for, actively built into institutions, protected, and constantly renewed. Seeing how the political and economic system inhibits the imagination can foster a desire for democracy.
Though Graeber rarely touched on ecological concerns, he has without a doubt influenced thinking in political ecology. His work on direct democracy informed the shift towards municipalism, especially in the wake of the 2011 Spanish anti-austerity movement, 15-M. His writing on bullshit jobs breathed new life into the movement for basic income and the radical critique of work, paving the way for proposals such as a reduced workweek, now part of several versions of the Green New Deal. His work on debt and the origin of money spurred interest in radical fiscal policy and modern monetary theory. Democratisation, rethinking work, and transforming the monetary system are now central to post-growth policy platforms.
David Graeber is no longer with us, but his insights into the power of the human imagination continue to inspire us to dismantle and reconfigure the building blocks of reality. In decades to come, we may find that his work has helped us to imagine, and build, a better world. As Graeber wrote: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”