David Graeber’s Possible Worlds


Lately it has seemed possible that everything must change. Basic fixtures of American life, rules and institutions that had come to feel inevitable — in 2020 and 2021, they felt less inevitable than before. They felt perhaps untenable. Things like the cost of health care and the cost of child care. Offices, prisons, and police. Fossil fuel, the filibuster, Facebook. The pursuit of happiness via nonstop work. The monthly payments on a student loan. Every month the rent was due — unless it wasn’t anymore.

To David Graeber, it was a matter of plain fact that things did not have to be the way they were. Graeber was an anthropologist, which meant it was his job to study other ways of living. “I’m interested in anthropology because I’m interested in human possibilities,” he once explained. Graeber was also an anarchist, “and in a way,” he went on, “there’s always been an affinity between anthropology and anarchism, simply because anthropologists know that a society without a state is possible. There’s been plenty of them.” A better world was not assured, but it was possible — and anyway, as Graeber put it in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, “since one cannot know a radically better world is not possible, are we not betraying everyone by insisting on continuing to justify and reproduce the mess we have today?”

Graeber died unexpectedly a year ago this September, at the age of 59, and though he’d never sought to be a leader, he left behind a multitude of followers and fans, from artists to economists to Kurdish revolutionaries. They were people whose imaginations he had captured as a scholar and a teacher, as the public intellectual of the Occupy movement, and as the best-selling author of Debt and Bullshit Jobs, books that swept across eras and disciplines to offer scholarly provocation in layperson’s terms. After his death, friends and acolytes from around the world — from Brazil, Japan, and New Zealand — submitted video tributes for an online celebration of his life. A year later, his widow, the artist Nika Dubrovsky, still hasn’t managed to make her way through all the footage she received.

Graeber also left behind the staggeringly large project he finished three weeks before he died: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Written in collaboration with the archaeologist David Wengrow, the book draws on new research to challenge received wisdom on civilization’s course. The story of humanity, as it is typically told, proceeds along a linear path. It passes in distinct stages from foraging bands and tribes on to agriculture, cities, and kings. But, surveying the historic and archaeological record, Graeber and Wengrow saw a wealth of other stories, taking humanity on varied and unpredictable routes.

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