On the Lasting Influences of David Graeber

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Influential academic David Graeber had been invited to Berlin to present his new book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by current German President Steinmeier who at the time was preparing to run for office of German Chancellor. The year was 2012, massive debt of Greece and many other European nations were threatening a free-fall of the Euro currency, and the topic of how to save Europe was at the top of the political agenda.

With Graeber and Steinmeier sitting together on stage side by side in front of 750 people at the Admiral’s Palace, Graeber gave an invigorating no-holds-barred summary of his research about how debt had historically been used as a tool of enslavement. Some of the first prisons built in England were debtors prisons like The Clink, and debt repayment is a common justification for human slavery and imprisonment continuing even today.

Graeber concluded his presentation by detailing how Germany’s demands for Greek debt repayment were in practice merely a tool of punishment promoting immoral violence, and not an effective way to solve the wider European problem. A question from the audience to Graeber and Steinmeier asked, “What should be done then to solve this crisis?” Graeber turned to Steinmeier and bluntly told him in no uncertain terms, “Germany and the banks need to wipe out this debt now.” Cheers broke out in the audience, and many rose to their feet.

Such was the ability of David Graeber to intensely research a serious topic of the day, provide fresh insights, and offer concrete solutions that forced those in power to rethink their world views. Graeber’s more recent book Bullshit Jobs falls in the same category as it posits that most white collar jobs are meaningless, and scandalizes the capitalist world’s hypocritical claim to always being the most efficient economic system.

It was a tragic loss to the world when his partner Nika announced that David Graeber had unexpectedly died on 2 September 2020, just after completing his next book. I was lucky to have meet him on that Berlin 2012 trip. I filmed an inspiring interview with him where he explained the vital role that popular movements play in bettering the world, and why the state uses all of it’s power to stop social and environmental movements. I hope you watch this interview, and are as impressed by his words as I was then, and continue to be today.

Jason Kirkpatrick is the former Vice Mayor, Arcata, California.