David Graeber, scholar, anarchist and intellectual leader of Occupy Wall Street,


Dr. Graeber was both a scholar of anarchism — technically, a society without a form of government — and an advocate of it in the public sphere. He was jailed during anti-globalization protests and once was struck by a plastic bullet fired by police during a demonstration in Quebec City. He kept the projectile in his pocket.

A onetime professor at Yale University, where his teaching contract was not renewed in 2005, sparking a public outcry, Dr. Graeber later had a distinguished academic career in England, most recently as a professor at the London School of Economics. His articles were downloaded millions of times, and his books were became sellers.

“It’s possible,” a 2013 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, “that, given his activism and his writings, he is the most influential anthropologist in the world.”

His scholarly specialty was “value theory,” or how countries and social groups decide what is important. He was particularly interested in the concept of public and private debt, which he elaborated in his 2011 book, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” It became an unexpected commercial success and strongly influenced other anthropologists.

He believed that the U.S. economic system relies heavily on keeping people indebted and that debt has a harmful effect on everything from homeownership and farming to insurance and education. In modern society, Dr. Graeber said, debt becomes a “contract that is ultimately enforceable through the threat of force.”

He called debt “an assault on the very idea of community, and an assault on the commitments that we make to each other through the medium of government.” He pointed out that in some societies — and even in the Lord’s Prayer — the forgiveness of debt is considered a social and moral virtue.

The same year he published his book on debt, Dr. Graeber became a major voice in the emerging Occupy Wall Street movement, which began as grass-roots opposition to income inequality and corporate power. The movement, with squatters taking over parks and other public spaces, spread from New York to other cities around the country.

Dr. Graeber helped coin the movement’s catchy slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” as a way to highlight the vast amount of wealth controlled by the richest 1 percent of the population. More crucially, he helped lead a meeting in which it was determined that the movement’s decisions would be made by consensus, rather than in a hierarchical fashion. It was a core principle of anarchism, which Dr. Graeber saw as a form of cooperative self-government, not as a lawless, violent society.

“The movement did not succeed despite the anarchist element,” he added. “It succeeded because of it.”

David Rolfe Graeber was born Feb. 12, 1961, in New York City. He grew up in an apartment building in Manhattan’s Chelsea district “suffused with radical politics.”

His father, who fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s against the forces of Gen. Francisco Franco, worked in printing plants. His mother was a garment worker and onetime union activist. Dr. Graeber said he was an anarchist by the time he was 16.

“I always say that the reason I ended up being an anarchist is because most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea — they think it’s insane,” Dr. Graeber told the British publication New Statesman in 2018. “But if you grow up in an environment where it’s not seen as insane, and you know that’s not the case, what reason is there not to be an anarchist?”

Academically precocious, he developed an interest in anthropology at age 11, through what he called his “weird hobby” of translating ancient Mayan inscriptions. He received a scholarship to the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., then majored in anthropology at the State University of New York at Purchase, graduating in 1984.

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he received a Fulbright fellowship to conduct research in Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa. He concentrated on a rural community in which the residents lived in an egalitarian, anarchist society, without police or a formal government, making decisions as a group. He received a doctorate in anthropology in 1996.

Two years later, Dr. Graeber began teaching at Yale. In 2005, three years before he would have been eligible for tenure, his teaching contract was not renewed. He said he was never told why, but he believed it was because of his political activism. More than 4,500 students and anthropology professors from all over the world signed petitions on Dr. Graeber’s behalf, but the decision was final.

He moved to London, where he taught at Goldsmiths, a division of the University of London, before joining the London School of Economics faculty in 2013.

In April, Dr. Graeber was married to Dubrovsky, an artist. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

As an example, he cited the case of Eric Garner, who died in police…



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