Remembering David Graeber

The author’s untimely passing followed years of influential writing on capitalism and bureaucracy. Jason Kirkpatrick reflects on filming Graeber in Berlin eight years ago.

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David Graeber, who died earlier this month, appeared in Berlin alongside future German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2012. Photo: Jason Kirkpatrick 

In 2012, influential academic David Graeber was in Berlin to present his new book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  He was invited by current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was then preparing to run for office of German Chancellor. At the same time, the massive debt of Greece and other European nations was threatening to tank the Euro currency, and the topic of how to save Europe was at the top of the political agenda. 

As Graeber and Steinmeier sat together on stage, side-by-side in front of over 600 people at the The Admiralspalast, Graeber gave an invigorating, no-holds-barred summary of his research on how debt had historically been used as a tool of enslavement. He explained that some of the first prisons built in England were debtors prisons like The Clink, and debt repayment is a common justification for human slavery and imprisonment that continues today. 

Graeber concluded his presentation by detailing how Germany’s demands for Greek debt repayment were, in practice, merely a tool of punishment promoting immoral violence, and not an effective way to solve the wider European problem. A question from the audience to Graeber and Steinmeier asked, “What should be done then to solve this crisis?” Graeber turned to Steinmeier and bluntly told him in no uncertain terms, “Germany and the banks need to wipe out this debt now.” Cheers broke out in the audience, and many rose to their feet.

Such was Graeber’s ability to intensely research a serious topic of the day, provide fresh insights and offer concrete solutions that forced those in power to rethink their world views. Graeber’s more recent book Bullshit Jobs falls in the same category as it posits that most white-collar jobs are meaningless, and scandalises the capitalist world’s hypocritical claim to always being the most efficient economic system.

It was a tragic loss to the world when Graeber’s partner, Nika, announced that he had unexpectedly died on September 2, soon after completing his next book.

I was lucky to have meet him on that Berlin 2012 trip. In an inspiring video interview, he explained to me the vital role that popular movements play in bettering the world, and why the state uses all of its power to stop social and environmental movements.

I hope and are as impressed by his words as I am.