Thank you, David Graeber, for shaping our minds
Known for his searing critique of capitalism, Graeber was most comfortable delving into the uncomfortable aspects of life.
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I hadn’t thought much of the book, Debt: The First 5000 Years when I first read it. I was relearning everything I thought I knew about the world in London. I was too young — I didn’t know anything about Occupy Wall Street, of which Graeber was a leading activist — and had just begun college as a student of social anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2014. Graeber taught a course on the theory of value (economy) — and in doing so, taught a lot about the importance of values (moral indicators) — at LSE.
David Graeber may have just presented an ideological threat by thinking out loud. Why did he have to die? (Photo: Getty Images)
Graeber, in his book on debt, wrote about how the history of money typically began with the history of coinage in India or China. In history, there was much less talk on, or emphasis on, the arrangement of credit. One useful way to think about money, Graeber had either said in the book or in a talk, was to think about it as a way of comparing things mathematically. In that sense, money was no more an invention than, say, jewellery. Throughout history, people had used informal ways of borrowing and lending money, and the modern central banking system, he had written, was a result of financing wars. The idea that the “market” is somehow opposed to or independent of the government was used to justify laissez-faire economic policies to lessen the role of the government, but that never really happened. Instead, governments and later, the private sector, decided to hire specialists to handle the new instruments of power, creating a class of people who, as Graeber wrote in his 2018 book, Bullshit Jobs, seemed to toil away knowing fully well they didn’t contribute much to the world. The primary element of his understanding didn’t have to do with the social utility of people’s jobs as it had to do with understanding the psychological and the political effects of people doing it.
Now, apply some of these theories to the situation in the country right now, and you will begin looking at things differently. For example, the RBI has said it is not going to extend the loan-repayment moratorium it had ordered banks to offer people during the lockdown. Banks are scared that borrowers are not going to be able to pay their loans and that banks are going to end up with a lot of bad debt. But the rules stick. People and banks are both going to have to find a way. It matters less that 19.8 million salaried workers have lost their jobs since the pandemic began, and that the economy tanked by 23.9 per cent this quarter. The only silver lining was the agricultural and allied sector which managed to grow 3.4 per cent in the quarter. The situation is a fitting attribution to Graeber’s theories on capitalism. Graeber, in his most recent book on jobs, was trying to understand how “capitalism presided over the creation of millions of dummy white-collar jobs.” It is the ditch digger, he had written, who was doing the real work since ditches need to be dug. Yet, jobs that contributed much less to the world ended up amassing the most prestige.
Technology, as John Maynard Keynes had written, was supposed to cut working hours. Keynes, in the 1960s, had thought that people would choose leisure over working long hours once technology advanced enough to bring the working load to a 15-hour workweek. But the opposite ended up happening. In his 2015 book, The Utopia of Rules, Graeber had written that our immediate experience of bureaucratisation had been caught up in new information technologies like Facebook, smartphone banking etc. He had delved into how all of this became possible — the alliance of corporate and financial bureaucrats in the seventies and the eighties led to the corporate culture we’re swimming in today.
Prime Minister Modi himself recently unveiled a bureaucratic reform initiative called “Mission Karmayogi” to make the governance leaner, more “role-based” than “rules-based.” Whatever example you choose to look at, Graeber probably has had a theory about its existence in the very first place. That’s probably why he’s best known for being a searing critic of capitalism. He may have just presented an ideological threat by thinking out loud. Why did he have to die?