Vale David Graeber

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I’ve known David Graeber for over 15 years. After I published my third Harvard colloquium on Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East, he contacted me to discuss the views of Karl Polanyi, as my group was in many ways the successor group to Polanyi’s at Columbia University (where the colloquium was held).

We talked sporadically, and he mentioned he was going to write on the history of debt as an anthropologist. My own view was that people would not be very interested in the idea of debt cancellation in antiquity until the way could be prepared for discussing it in today’s world, which is what most of my own journalistic and academic writing was all about.

But it turned out that his treatment was much more popular than anything I could have written. It came out at the right time, and hit a cord – largely because of his personal vantage point, which guided the reader to accept his views.

People who did not know of our relationship began to call me up and worried that his Debt: The First 5,000 Years had grabbed all the attention away from my writings. The reality was just the opposite. David promoted my ideas very clearly and explicitly in his book, and also in his radio and TV interviews. I have never known of any academic or popular writer as generous as David.

We usually would have lunch near Union Square, where I would come in on Wednesday’s to go to the farmer’s market. This was during the Occupy Wall Street period. When we walked back from the restaurant, he would amazingly merge into the crowd of demonstrators as one of them, as if it were truly a collective whole. He was completely natural and at ease with any group, and it was as if they all had a common purpose and strategy, powered largely by his good humor and judgement.

More concretely around that time, he introduced me to his literary agent, Mel Flashman. One result was that both our books were published by Klett Cotta in Germany. We had a wonderful presentation in Berlin – where a rather thuggish Nobel economics prize winner, Angus Deaton, had a third Klett-Cotta book being presented. He refused to appear on a panel with us to answer journalists and book reviewers, because he said he “wouldn’t appear with someone who didn’t accept capitalism.” I think he was referring to David, but possibly it was to me as well. It was obvious that the tunnel-visioned Deaton had no idea that debt was extraneous to the workings of industrial capitalism, long preceding it and spanning all economic systems as a distinct dynamic in itself. We had a good laugh and made our views clear to the audience there.

In Tubingen’s castle high on the hill, John Weisweiler organized a colloquium around David’s book, on Debt: The first 3,000 years. A member of my Harvard assyriologist group, Michael Jursa, reviewed the Babylonian antecedents for Clean Slates, so I spoke about classical Greece and Rome. I hadn’t been in Tubingen for fifty years, and the group went out for dinner at a French restaurant. (The city had changed a lot.) David and I joked about how we had never had a good German steak, as it was always very tough, but thought that certainly a French restaurant would be able to do something. So they had a large T-bone steak for two that we shared. It was as tough as any other beef we had had in Germany.

David had just taken his job in London teaching, seeing that his anthropology department chairman promised to give him a free hand. But he soon told me that most of his time was teaching English as a Second Language. Despite the fact that teaching took up much more of his time than he anticipated, he was remarkably prolific, and in fact was working on some wonderful books, which I hope can somehow be presented – especially his intriguing theory about the transition to the Neolithic, by peaceful groupings fleeing the violence of paleolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.

I think we’ve been discussing this for five years – and David had not yet written an introduction and commentary on our Tubingen papers, claiming to be burdened with his academic obligations. So there are so much unfinished projects cut short …

We always got together when I was in London, and David had another great talent: for finding wonderful restaurants, seemingly unknown and hence unspoilt by the usual crowds. I had the best roast duck I ever had had at a Chinese restaurant he found in Soho.

I was in China when he got married to Nika in New York, but in 2019 we got together when they were here. He was very happy, and it was such a pleasure to be with the two of them, because their creative interaction and good humor and enthusiasm was so contagious. That’s what makes me so tearful when I think of all that might have been, all that they and I had hoped for regarding work and times to come.