What David Graeber Noticed

Anarchist, anthropologist, activist: Graeber’s defiant insistence on the value of freedom, joy, and questioning the unquestionable should leave a lasting imprint on the left.

David Graeber noticed things. Everyone notices a few things here and there, but David Graeber noticed things other people did not. This was partly because he was an anthropologist, trained to shed presumptions about how human societies work and figure out how they actually work, to see people both through their own eyes and through the eyes of others. It was also, however, because he was an anarchist, instinctively inclined to reject the existing order of things and think for himself about what could and could not be justified. But Graeber did not simply see; he was a committed activist, participant as well as observer, who turned his intelligence to practical questions about how to make people more free to enjoy the brief, wondrous gift of getting to be alive.

David Graeber died this week, and with it Planet Earth lost one of its most fertile and original minds. His loss is a tragedy not just for his family, colleagues, and friends, but for everyone who wants to understand what is going on around them, because for many more years David Graeber would have continued to notice new things, everywhere, all the time. Without Graeber to point out what isn’t obvious, fascinating and troubling elements of our world may now go completely unnoticed. Unless, of course, many of us learn from him and follow his example. 

To see how Graeber’s thinking was original, let’s look at his successful book Bullshit Jobs. The book, based on a great little essay, examined jobs people hold that don’t seem to have any social value or point, even for the person doing them, but somehow continue to exist. Now, Noam Chomsky—an anarchist like Graeber—has talked about how one of the most important ways to find novel insight is to be the “willingness to be puzzled,” especially by things that do not seem puzzling at all. Everyone else is busy trying to figure out things that do already seem puzzling. But what about the things that don’t? What about things that are just sort of assumed as uncontroversial?

In the case of jobs, there is an assumption that if a job exists, there must be some rational reason for it. But Graeber noted that many people work jobs that they themselves cannot see the purpose of. He interviewed many hundreds of workers who told him that while they didn’t think their job needed to exist, it did exist. There were receptionists who sat at a desk all day doing nothing, because the company didn’t need a receptionist but seemed to think not having one would be a mark of illegitimacy. There are people whose job it is to fill out paperwork that has been created for seemingly no reason, that no one would ever read or check. There are people who create reports so that their boss can hold up a report in a meeting and say that they have a report. There are people who are in charge of managing teams that are perfectly capable of managing themselves. There are people who spend their time doing work that they themselves have made up so as to convince someone their job is necessary.

How can this happen? Standard accounts of how capitalism works say that a capitalist employs workers because the worker creates value for the capitalist above and beyond what the worker is paid. Both Milton Friedman and Karl Marx treat the capitalist as a ruthlessly rapacious profit-seeker, who does things only to the extent that they benefit him. Workers are assumed to be useful to creating economic value for the capitalist; if they were not, he would not hire them. 

If you’re a leftist, you might nod at this rough description of how the economy works, but simply have a few different feelings about it than Milton Friedman. As an anarchist, however, Graeber refused to accept anything just because everyone else assumed it to be true. That is not a rational way to think. So he asked the question: is it true? Is it true that if workers did not create value the company “would not” hire them and “would” fire them? Perhaps in the world of theory, where a capitalist has only one motivation. But what about in our world? And so Graeber, the anthropologist, investigates the question that Graeber the anarchist was intrigued by.

If you start from the position that the “capitalists only hire workers who create value” theory is true, you will try to find ways in which the facts can still be explained by the theory. Well, the workers in question may not recognize the value they create, but it’s still there. Or, these jobs can’t last, the rational capitalist is always trying to maximize efficiency and produce an ever more efficient profit machine, and soon someone is going to get wise.

But Graeber does not start from the position that the theory is true. The theory makes an assumption about the nature of capitalists that needs to be justified by factual observations. The anarchist refuses to accept consensus assumptions until the data of reality justify them. We should look at what we see (a bunch of bullshit jobs), and see what other theories might exist.

Graeber asks: what if some workplaces operate a bit like a feudal manor? The lord surrounds himself with flatterers and hangers-on, who receive support. These people do not produce economic value for the lord, they simply make him feel important. In the workplace, a manager who oversees a team of six people might feel very important. The manager may realize, on some level, that their six people do nothing of worth to the company. But they, and all six people, have a personal interest in faking it, so that they may preserve the miniature kingdom consisting of the Boss and the people whose only reason for being at the company is that they make the Boss feel like they are of high status (and keep the Boss from losing their job, if they are found out to be useless). Perhaps the pursuit of status and the feeling of importance, or the pleasure of exercising power over others, is just as important in determining the structure of the workplace as the pursuit of financial profit. 

 Bullshit Jobs is a rich book, as my colleagues Nick Slater and Oren Nimni discussed in their review of it. Graeber brings up endless important questions, such as: What makes a thing socially valuable and who is to say? What makes a job meaningful? Why do people feel like they have to pretend to be working even when there is no work to be done? How do unnecessary jobs emerge? Why do inefficient bureaucracies seem to flourish even in the private sector? Why do the most seemingly socially valuable jobs get paid the least money? Why is doing pointless work seen as more virtuous than doing no work at all? What is the financial industry for and how much of it is truly necessary? What is it that makes a bullshit job so unsatisfying? 

On this latter point, as Slater and Nimni note, Graeber posits that the unsatisfying nature of bullshit jobs may have something to do with the fact that we have an intrinsic desire to cause things to happen, and to feel responsible for having caused them, and that bullshit jobs make us feel as if we have caused nothing whatsoever, and are thus “a direct attack on the very foundations of the sense that one even is a self.” He calls this “the pleasure of being the cause,” and elaborates:

Children come to understand that they exist, that they are discrete entities from the world around them, largely by coming to understand that ‘they’ are the thing which just caused something to happen—the proof of which is the fact that they can make it happen again. Crucially, too, this realization is, from the very beginning, marked with a species of delight that remains the fundamental background of all subsequent human experience.

Now, I don’t know if this is true. But it’s provocative and interesting and it makes you think. This is an important aspect of Graeber’s work. He hazards his own answers, but he wants us, the ordinary reader, to do our own noticing. 

I know no writer who cared about their reader like Graeber did. Astra Taylor reports that, when she complimented his writing, he told her he believed in “being nice to the reader,” and said it was an “extension of politics.” Be nice to the reader is one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard. (Incidentally, how are you doing? Okay, I hope? Well you look good, at least.) What he means by that is that when you are writing, you should be thinking about the experience of the person reading the writing. Are they bored and confused? Have you made them feel stupid? Or have you made them feel smart and engaged and satisfied? I think what he means by this being an “extension of politics” is that “accessibility” in the writing sense is the same as “accessibility” in the general sense, meaning that your writing should be designed for the broadest possible range of people to read and understand. There is a common perception that this means your writing must be “simplistic” or “dumbed down,” but that shows that you view average people as incapable of grasping complex ideas. No, it just means that when you are presenting ideas, you need to be thinking about people who have differing backgrounds and abilities and what their experience of the encounter with your work will be. That is an extension of politics because it is demonstrating a commitment to democratizing sophisticated knowledge by making it as widely understandable as possible. 

So Graeber’s books are highly readable, even if sometimes his bubbling enthusiasm for telling his reader endless fascinating tidbits could make them a bit unwieldy. (A Jacobin writer skewered his Debt: The First 500 Years as “Debt: The First 500 Pages,” but the review was so one-sided that the magazine commissioned a second one that was much fairer to Graeber.) Graeber could be an incredibly funny writer (a rare skill) and he used humor to help make concepts in anthropology, social theory, and economics go down a bit more easily for the non-academic reader. There is a diagram in Bullshit Jobs that I absolutely love, showing the process of how an exam is created in a university governed in a corporatized, managerial way (as opposed to something that would make rational sense):

How can you not love someone who sat down and made this, who did such a deadly serious chart designed to illustrate a comical absurdity? Bullshit Jobs has subchapter titles like “About One Young Man Apparently Handed A Sinecure Who Nonetheless Found Himself Unable to Handle The Situation,” and “On The Effects Of Bullshit Jobs on Human Creativity and On Why Attempts To Assert Oneself Creatively or Politically Against Pointless Employment Might Be Considered A Form of Spiritual Warfare.” He was not afraid of being called frivolous; Graeber did not give a damn whether people saw him as a Serious Academic, even though he was a very talented academic anthropologist. The very idea of producing an elaborate “theory of bullshit jobs” seems like a joke, but it wasn’t, because the phenomenon is real and needs explaining.

Graeber took joy seriously. In a beautiful and compelling essay for the Baffler called “What’s The Point If We Can’t Have Fun?” he talks about how reluctant biologists have historically been to acknowledge the possibility that wild animals like to have fun, to just enjoy the nice bits of being alive. If an animal is seen to do something, the question is: what rational end does this serve? Is this for mating? For protection? Graeber talks of watching an inchworm dangling from a stalk of grass, twisting around, then jumping to another blade of grass and doing the same thing, over and over around in a circle, “with what must have been a vast expenditure of energy, for what seemed like absolutely no reason at all.” I myself am always fascinated at the aquarium, watching giant schools of fish go round and round in a circle, never stopping. What are they doing? Where do they think they’re going? What are they trying to get out of this? Why? We can immediately, of course, start coming up with theories about the end that this behavior might serve, but Graeber says we should not be afraid to consider the possibility that many activities have no point beyond the fact that they are enjoyable ways to interact with the physical world, to “be the cause.” He asks the question:

“Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious?”

In other words, why do the fish need some kind of rational ends/means calculation in order to swim around in a circle all day? Graeber’s essay is a defense of fun and play for their own sake. The point of life is to enjoy it, and a lot of other animals seem to get this. This of course connects to Bullshit Jobs, which attacks the way people are made to do things they do not enjoy, sometimes for no reason other than the fact that it is considered shameful not to be doing some kind of labor. (“I’m not paying you just to stand around,” says the manager, even if there is nothing to be done and standing around seems perfectly reasonable.) Graeber cites a great Buckminster Fuller quote: “We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everyone has to be employed at some sort of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist.” Graeber did not believe you had to justify yourself, especially not through needless work and “making yourself look busy.”

You can argue with many, many things Graeber said. But he did not present himself as having found The Correct Answers. He was exploring ideas and encouraging you to, as well. His essay on joy includes such striking quotes as:  

Evolutionary psychologists claim they can explain—as the title of one recent book has it—“why sex is fun.” What they can’t explain is why fun is fun.

Physicists are more playful and less hidebound creatures than, say, biologists—partly,  no doubt, because they rarely have to contend with religious fundamentalists challenging the laws of physics. They are the poets of the scientific world. If one is already willing to embrace thirteen-dimensional objects or an endless number of alternative universes, or to casually suggest that 95 percent of the universe is made up of dark matter and energy about whose properties we know nothing, it’s perhaps not too much of a leap to also contemplate the possibility that subatomic particles have “free will” or even experiences. 

Such passages are characteristic of Graeber’s writing. You might disagree with them completely. Are physicists more playful than biologists? How would you find that out? But the point is, he’s got you thinking. (Graeber even got Jacobin to argue with itself about him.) Joanna Bujes, an internet friend of mine, posted a few quotes she remembered from him, including: “there are two kinds of societies: those who animate objects, and those who turn people into objects.” Which is enough to get you thinking for a few hours. Oh, and she gave his signature method of dealing with cops: “Agree with anything they say, and then do what you’re going to do anyway.” Resistance to rules was an important part of his philosophy. Graeber has a funny anecdote about how he once worked as a research assistant to a Marxist professor who researched “workplace resistance.” Graeber asked his boss, in all seriousness, how much he could get away with lying on his timesheets. The professor was horrified, and Graeber had to pretend he was joking. But he couldn’t understand it: what happened to resistance? 

The theme of human freedom is everywhere in Graeber’s writings. It is in Bullshit Jobs, of course. It is in Debt, too, which deals with how people are imprisoned by formal relationships of lawful obligation. It is in the joy essay, which talks about how scientists, of both the social and natural persuasions, have treated both animals and people like they are programmed robots instead of free beings who live life for its own sake. And it is in The Utopia of Rules, his book about bureaucracy. Graeber, in another instance of being puzzled by something others accept, wonders why we don’t talk as much about bureaucracy anymore, even though there seems to be more of it than ever. It used to be that people studied bureaucracies, but Graeber noticed that people now seem to take them for granted. In fact, even reforms supposed to make things more efficient seem to cause bureaucracies to proliferate even further, in what he called the Iron Law of Liberalism: 

The Iron Law of Liberalism states that any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.

Once again: silly, but rings true, although I’d change “the government employs” to “employed in total,” because sometimes market reforms simply push bureaucracy into the private sector. But there I am starting to argue with Graeber, and to try to think about whether he’s right, and so he’s already got me. I’m thinking, damn it; he forced me to. In fact, the Iron Law of Liberalism isn’t meant to actually be a law, as in an inevitable fixed feature of the universe. It is meant to be an observation that provokes us to examine things we are failing to examine.

When you hear critiques of “red tape” and “regulation,” they usually come from the right. But Graeber, as a leftist anarchist, understood that dealing with red tape actually does suck. The problem with the right’s critique is not that excessive rules and regulations are somehow good. It’s that the right actually wants corporations—artificially constructed legal entities—to be liberated to exploit people and destroy the earth. But when actual people run up against bureaucracies that do not understand how to solve problems or adapt to individual needs—as my colleague Brianna Rennix recently discussed— “bureaucracy” is in fact a huge problem, one the left should care about. Graeber is articulate in trying to figure out precisely why the problems with bureaucracies tend to arise: 

Bureaucratic knowledge is all about schematization. In practice, bureaucratic procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence and reducing everything to preconceived mechanical or statistical formulae. Whether it’s a matter of forms, rules,statistics, or questionnaires, it is always a matter of simplification. Typically, it’s not very different from the boss who walks into the kitchen to make arbitrary snap decisions as to what went wrong: in either case it is a matter of applying very simple pre-existing templates to complex and often ambiguous situations. The result often leaves those forced to deal with bureaucratic administration with the impression that they are dealing with people who have for some arbitrary reason decided to put on a set of glasses that only allows them to see only 2 percent of what’s in front of them.   

Bureaucracy, bullshit jobs, debt, and the play of inchworms. On each subject, Graeber was a mixture of curious, angry, and determined. He was curious (as an anthropologist) about how things work, about beginning to find ways to talk about mysterious processes that operate in the background and are tacitly accepted. He was angry (as an anarchist) about the way institutions, whether academia, government, or corporations, put roadblocks in the way of people living the lives they ought, by right, to be leading. But he was not just a critic. He was determined (as an activist), to begin putting things right, which is why he was heavily involved in Occupy Wall Street, a movement that arguably touched off the great rebirth of the modern left. Graeber actually suffered professional consequences for his radical politics, losing a plum job at Yale (contra conservative myth, the university is not actually a hotbed of radical leftist academics, but a very much lukewarm bed of timid liberal professionals). Graeber spoke with refreshing bluntness about the bureaucratic bloat in universities, the administrations populated with “flunkies.” He was no mincer of words, as you can hear in his wonderful interview on the Srsly Wrong podcast: 

[The administration is] only accountable to trustees. Trustees are familiar with the standards of the corporate world, so for them this is totally normal. If you hire someone to a major post, of course you’re going to give them five flunkies, and only then figure out what those flunkies are going to do. So here you get a Vice-Dean or Vice-Chancellor or Provost and you give them five people they say ok, you’re in charge of time-allocation studies, you’re in charge of synergistic strategizing and those guys make up all this paperwork, and then the people who have to do the paperwork is, of course, ME!

The deans and provosts would be appalled at this kind of blunt language from a respected academic anthropologist, who is loudly calling bullshit on about half of campus activity. But how refreshing it is to hear someone speak with this kind of bluntness in a world full of euphemisms and passive aggression. He had the courage to say things everyone else often secretly suspects to be true but do not feel confident enough to say. Graeber said: you are smart. The ideas are not beyond you, they are just being written by people who do not care about whether you understand. And you are not just smart, but you are right, and we must speak honestly about how to fix this. 

Anarchists are stubborn and they are impertinent. The child in the Emperor’s New Clothes who goes “But I can literally see his penis,” to shocked looks from everybody within earshot—that child is an anarchist. The core anarchist slogan is: “no gods, no masters.” We will play when we want to play, damn it. No, I will not fill out the forms, the forms are stupid and unnecessary. I have cited before the incredible scene in Dr. Zhivago, in which Klaus Kinski steals the whole movie in the role of an anarchist who is being transported as a chained prisoner on a train. When the guard announces that the train contains “voluntary labor,” the anarchist says “Liar” aloud as everyone else stays silent. “Lickspittle! Bureaucrat!” he shouts at the guard, refusing to put up with what he knows to be unjust, even as he is chained in place. 

This is what I have always loved about anarchists: the spirit of defiance. Every society needs anarchists, because they are like “canaries in the coalmine” for freedom. An anarchist sees violations of freedom even in situations where other people do not sense anything wrong. An anarchist has a hyper-sensitivity to unjust hierarchy. Even if not everybody is as noisy as an anarchist, every person ought to at least think like an anarchist, because as an analytic tool it can be extremely helpful in becoming a better “noticer of things.” 

Anarchism is, however, not terribly useful as a philosophy of political practice. (Anarchists say practice, Marxists say praxis.) Graeber demonstrates the usual weaknesses of his anarchist comrades in this respect; his book The Democracy Project celebrated Occupy Wall Street’s radically transformative democractic structure, but to learn the right lessons, Occupy needs to be analyzed as a noble failure, a movement that inspired us and has lasting implications, but one that also turned out to be incapable of organizing people for the long term. It was deliberately disorganized, in a rather beautiful way, but I no longer share Graeber’s fondness for anarchist consensus process now that I would like to be part of a left that gets stuff done. 

That may seem like a bit of a mean jab, so let us note that while anarchist practice is not usually very politically effective, this does not mean anarchism is theoretical or abstract. In fact, Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology discusses the way anarchism distinguishes itself from Marxism by being interested in ethical and practical questions:

Anarchists have never been much interested in the kinds of broad strategic or philosophical questions that have historically preoccupied Marxists—questions like: Are the peasants a potentially revolutionary class? (Anarchists consider this something for the peasants to decide.) What is the nature of the commodity form? Rather, they tend to argue with each other about what is the truly democratic way to go about a meeting, at what point organization stops being empowering and starts squelching individual freedom. Or, alternately, about the ethics of opposing power: What is direct action? Is it necessary (or right) to publicly condemn someone who assassinates a head of state? Or can assassination, especially if it prevents something terrible, like a war, be a moral act? When is it okay to break a window? To sum up then:1. Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy. 2. Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice. 

Now, it is not necessarily a point in their favor that anarchists “tend to argue with each other about what is the truly democratic way to go about a meeting,” though I certainly agree they do this. But Graeber is right that this is a much more interesting and useful question than “what is the nature of the commodity form?” Here, you can see the way that anarchism’s concern with individual freedom leads it to focus too narrowly on questions about the ethics of a single individual’s unorganized actions (breaking windows) rather than “How do we build a large-scale functioning political organization?” Yet by putting “small things” back into the discussion—what should a meeting look like, what should I do—these anarchist “preoccupations” do serve as a useful corrective to political philosophies that treat individual ethics as essentially irrelevant to politics. 

The respect for what it feels like to be a person who encounters a confusing world and seeks clarity and peace is a characteristic of anarchist thinking. Graeber, like Chomsky, tells his readers that they should listen to themselves rather than to Authorities and Intellectuals who try to get people to accept things they don’t fully understand, the sort of things that are classified as Smart even if inscrutable. (Graeber: “The role of intellectuals is most definitively not to form an elite that can arrive at the correct strategic analyses and then lead the masses to follow.”) Graeber once observed that while Marxists often name their sub-tendencies after some “Great Thinker,” (there are “Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyites, Gramscians,” and of course the Marxist label itself) anarchists tend to name their tendencies “either after some kind of practice, or most often, organizational principle” (Anarcho-Syndicalists, Anarcho-Communists, Insurrectionists, Cooperativists, Individualists, Platformists.) The anarchist is extremely dubious about any one person’s claim to drastically greater insight than the rest of us. But they do believe that each individual person is capable of seeing things as they are, and developing political practices accordingly.

I want to return to the subject of noticing, because I think Graeber’s legacy will be that he noticed more than other people, and he picked up on the small things and got you interested, from “Hey, have you noticed what that worm is doing?” to “Hey, have you noticed nobody seems to care when I am only pretending to work?” 

What does it mean to notice small things? It means taking mundane events—or lack of events—and interrogating them to see if there is something concealed. Who owns this place anyway? Why are we learning this? Why does that guy get to tell me what to do? 

Once there’s a small David Graeber living in your mind, which there will be if you read his books, every trivial experience will spark questions and send you down rabbit holes. A few days ago I noticed that I hadn’t been pooped on by a bird for many years. I feel like I used to get pooped on by birds semi-regularly. Is my memory fooling me? Are the intervals statistically unlikely? Is this because of a change in my location? Or is it the localized manifestation of the massive nationwide decline in bird populations? What are birds doing anyway? Why are there pigeons in the park? Where do they all go? Why are they here? 

A bird poop example may sound silly. (Why? Why do we think of bird poop as silly?) But in England, if you noticed you haven’t seen as many hedgehogs in your garden as you did twenty years ago, it almost certainly would be because their numbers have been cut in half. People who have lived in the Bay Area a long time may have noticed that the butterflies have gone away. (Of course, the next generation will not notice, because they will never have known a different world. This is terrifying.) Plenty of people do not notice these things, or if they do notice them, they do not wonder about them, or attribute them much significance, or demand answers, or attempt to alter them. If we are to act rather than to be acted upon, then we must notice what is going on to shape the world we see in front of us.

Now, David Graeber was a storyteller with a million stories to tell, and it often made his written output far too long, so to honor his work in spirit, allow me to tell you a story. It will not at first appear to be about David Graeber. But it will be, I promise. 

Over the past few months, I have noticed signs springing up in the French Quarter of New Orleans (where I live) that say “NO PEDESTRIAN MALL.” At first it was only a few. Now there seem to be more. I barely noticed them, really. I have more pressing political issues to worry about than whether the French Quarter is made more pedestrian-friendly. My default assumption was that it was probably just some kind of NIMBY-ism, stubborn opposition to something reasonable because it is new. I did not think about it, though.

But today I went to the hair salon (correctly following all due COVID procedures and wearing my mask). The woman who cut my hair was talkative, and we chatted about many things. How she had a tourist from New York sincerely ask her “Could you recommend anywhere I can go where I won’t have strangers try to talk to me?” (To which she replied, “Back to New York.”) How she’s starting a coffee shop called “The Belt,” because it’s in what used to be called the city’s “Tango Belt,” the specific district where people once went if they wanted to tango. How she’s tired of these hypocritical government officials who tell us all to wear masks but don’t follow the rules themselves, and how all this burning and looting of cities is so terribly destructive and needless. (I said nothing. I just took note. I do not get into political arguments with those who have a pair of scissors near my neck.) And finally, how the pedestrian mall was a sign that everything was going to pieces and the Quarter was changing for the worse.

The pedestrian mall! Finally an opportunity to ask someone what the hell that was all about. What is it, first off? She told me they’re closing a single street to cars. But why is that so bad? And then my hairdresser, whom I had thus far taken for a bit of a political conservative, told me this:

Rich real estate developers are just itching to transform the French Quarter, because so many tourists come to it. If they had their way, it would be a literal mall, full of chain stores. The French Quarter still has almost no chains, and is full of quirky small independent businesses. This is in part because residents have had a militant preservationist attitude: no changes. None. Keep it the way it is. Of course, the Quarter still has changed. What used to be a multi-ethnic bohemian neighborhood is now extremely touristy, and perhaps the majority of residences are kept empty as investment properties. But, my hairdresser told me, things could get much, much worse. She said that she thinks lots of older residents might be willing to sell their homes to developers. With fewer and fewer residents to fight the fight, there will be less resistance. Soon you’re going to get a Whole Foods in the middle. Whatever was left of the neighborhood’s culture and charm will have disappeared. It will be another corporatized Anytown, USA, but with a few nice old buildings to look at. 

My God. I could see the future. She was right, of course, about what would happen. Hell, if developers could make a billion dollars by sticking a modernist skyscraper in the middle of the French Quarter, they’d do everything they possibly could to bring the outcome about. And, my hairdresser warned me, COVID-19 would be used to crush resistance. City politicians, who she said (accurately) were in the pockets of developers, have pushed the pedestrian mall as neutral. They’ve had the plans in the works for years, and are now using the pandemic to argue that more outdoor seating, and therefore a pedestrian mall, is needed. In fact, the local paper portrayed residents just as I had initially thought of them, as obstinate old cusses getting in the way of the Progressive Car-Free City. (Headline: “French Quarter residents rally against proposals to make historic neighborhood more pedestrian friendly.” Clearly, they must hate friendliness!) Actually, the proposal will hurt workers, because it will make it more difficult to drop people off at work (there’s hardly any parking), and the paper reports that there is a worry that tipped employees will now have to walk for blocks at night with rolls of cash, which is a safety issue. 

So: my hairdresser hated the idea because she feared the encroachment of giant corporations on her small business, and knew that “if you give an inch, they take a mile,” so even the smallest and most innocent-seeming initial changes need to be fought, as they’re the start of a process. I, on the other hand, had not noticed any of this, because I was not observing the forces around me that were shaping the things in front of my eyes.

That was not the only thing to notice about my conversation with her. I noticed she was exactly the sort of person Bernie Sanders might have successfully courted in the general election: staunchly anti-corporate but disgusted with the hypocrisy of elite liberals. I noticed what her New Orleans identity meant to her, how talking to strangers was considered an indispensable cultural habit. I noticed little things that will stay with me, and perhaps someday be useful. 

There is lots to notice everywhere. Of course, when you start to notice certain things, you also need to notice whether you’re failing to notice others. The Pedestrian Mall, terrifying symbol of the bleak, bland corporate future as it may be, is a “French Quarter problem.” It is low on the list of injustices in New Orleans and Louisiana generally, where thousands of refugees from a hurricane are looking for shelter and often finding none. If you just talk to the people in your neighborhood, you’ll only notice their concerns. What about the fact that people in the city cannot afford to live in a house? What about the absolutely pathetic wages of the service workers who keep the tourist industry humming? What about the system of mass incarceration? Let us not open our eyes to the small things only to miss the large ones. 

When we follow the spirit of David Graeber, we ask questions about the mundane things that surround us, but that we do not think about enough. “I’ve noticed that people always tell me X neighborhood is dangerous and I shouldn’t go there, but how do I know whether it really would be dangerous for me to go there? When they say “dangerous” what does that really mean?” “I notice that all the servers in this restaurant are white, but everyone in the kitchen is Black. Why?” “I notice that while I am told the ‘cities are on fire’ with burning and looting, and I see pictures of buildings on fire on the news, my city does not actually appear to be on fire. How much fire is there exactly, and how would I be able to know?” Demand answers, and do not be satisfied until you find them. 

As I biked from the salon to the office, I thought about David Graeber, and I thought about not noticing the first signs of gentrification as the developers plot to destroy everything you love, and I thought about all the things that are deliberately arranged so we will not notice them—the prisons hidden far away, the exploitative work environment in the “back of house” kept from view of the “front of house,” the pain kept behind closed doors. And I became deeply worried and afraid, because stopping things like the slow rise of an authoritarian state requires us to pay attention closely to small, seemingly insignificant changes. And I felt devastated to lose Graeber, because this is exactly what he did. He did not accept anything anyone told him without interrogating it to see whether it satisfied him. His works can be criticized fairly on methodological grounds, and anarchism may be limited as a framework for political action, but he asked questions nobody was asking before. He was puzzled by the unpuzzling. 

Losing Graeber is difficult, because having people with his attitude is so essential to preventing horrors and improving the world. But the good news is: David Graeber’s framework rejects the idea that David Graeber is unique. It does not assume that knowledge and insight are handed down from intellectuals. It treats people as intelligent, and respects them rather than talking down to them. 

I’ll confess something to you: on my bike ride to the office, I began to cry a little bit, because everything fucking sucks so much already this year, and things are getting so bleak and may get bleaker, and now it’s David Graeber this time, really? And I realized the only way I’m ever going to be able to keep myself from lapsing into despair if I can get myself to truly internalize the anarchist attitude of limitless defiance. To keep David Graeber’s death from being a total devastating loss, I will have to ensure I learn his lessons. I made a vow to myself through my tears: I will always notice things. I will notice what I am not noticing. I will help others to notice things. I will expose the criminal squandering of human potential. I will be nice to the reader. I will see joy as an end in itself. I will try to cultivate the kind of intelligence and humor that David Graeber showed. And I will fight, because that is what anarchists do. They do not put up with bullshit or bureaucracy. They refuse to accept the inevitability of tedium and the squandering of the gift of life. They dare to demand the “impossible.” 

Rest in power, David Graeber. 

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