Global Affairs Politics

David Graeber, the One Among ‘the 99%’ Is No More

His intellectual legacy may contribute to guiding the overall direction of the 21st century

By Wajid Abbas

David Graeber has left us. His sudden death is an enormous loss for a world that aspires to be free of capitalist chains, patriarchal shackles, and bureaucratic iron cage. He was a committed social scientist and a staunch political activist. He was an embodiment of vigorous political activism, capable of occupying more than just ‘Wall Street’. He not only explored the social power situated in complex socio-political organizations but also took part in the different forms of resistance to it. His famous ethnographic study of the global justice movement, Direct Action: an ethnography published in 2009, encouraged students and activists all over the world to actively engage in the alter-globalization movement which exposed the contradictions in the ‘globalization project’.

As a part of my ethnographic research interests, I have been reading his work Direct Action: An Ethnography, and observing his role in the study of global justice movements. He is a staunch speaker and sympathizer of an intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism which he argues is resistance for humanity as it envelops the whole human world. His interest in giving voice to those who are muted by dominant narratives and role in social justice protests permeate his interest in pure scholarship and results in a comfortable mixture of scholarship and activism. His activism did not necessarily aim to seize the entire capitalist investments and state; however, his continued emphasis on the democratic left seems seriously challenging them. He wanted a respectful engagement with the Anarchist tendencies in social movements that emerged during the late 19th century and after the end of the cold war. The dismissal of the tradition of Anarchism for the accusations of violence and chaos, according to him, is absurd for the fact that its emergence and re-emergence was possible only on relatively peaceful conditions. Anarchism, as he argues, is the heart of the global justice movement, its soul – the source of most of what’s new and hopeful about it.

The word ‘violent’ is often invoked on the state-controlled media when a collective action by a social gathering takes place. Such a framing of any protest alters the nature of the problem definition, invisibilizes certain aspects, and invokes a particular response. It is an obvious fact that in most of the protests, the only violence that makes great scores in the scales of violence is done by the law-enforcement forces. For David Graeber what disturbs the centers of power is not the violence of a movement but its relative lack of it. Governments across the globe are too afraid of movements that refuse to fall into patterns of armed resistance. The global social justice movements are attempting to invent what many may call a ‘new language’ of civil disobedience, combining elements of street theatre, festival, and what can only be called nonviolent warfare—non-violent in a sense adopted by, say, Black Bloc anarchists who wear black clothing to conceal the identity, in that it eschews any direct physical harm to human beings, pointed Graeber. Black bloc tactics allow protesters in the justice movements to appear as a large unified mass. The global movements influenced by Anarchist thought of resisting state monopoly and capitalism, are less about annihilating the state than exposing and delegitimizing mechanisms of oppressive rule and enabling autonomy to the people. They might accuse Anarchism of violence and bloodshed but what is it that makes this accusation absurd is the possibility of Anarchism only in a peaceful environment.

The 20th Century, by and large, was entirely preoccupied with either waging world wars or in the least case preparing for them. The 21st century is full of challenges and promises; however, there is little hope that a considerable population will not suffer political repression and economic crises. The impact of COVID-19 is already widespread yet varying from country to country, it is most likely that poverty and inequality will increase to a considerable level, and so will the distress among people. In such conditions, David Graeber offers his intellectual legacy which is wide-ranging and may contribute to guiding the overall direction of the 21st century, aiming at reinventing forms of the democratic process that allow initiatives to rise from below and attain maximum effective solidarity, without stifling dissenting voices, creating leadership positions or compelling anyone to do anything which they have not freely agreed to do.

Illustration by Adrian Lind


About the author

Wajid Abbas is a poet and researcher from Kashmir. He is currently pursuing M.A Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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