I didn’t love David Graeber’s Debt. I actually got so annoyed with it that I stopped reading halfway through. But I could appreciate that the author cared, even if I thought he glossed over certain things, interpreted other phenomena differently than I did, and made such straw men out of economists that I felt compelled to write defenses of people that work at UC Berkeley.* Yet, even with those reservations, his writing could make me laugh, and I appreciated the gusto of writing a book hundreds of pages long presenting a grand history of debt, how it traps people, and why that is Not A Good Thing, Actually. And there was no arguing with the design of the book; the cover is spectacular.
There was a certain irony to my coming back to it when I did. Long ago, as a struggling grad student getting serious about my dissertation, I heard people in my department gushing about this book by an anarchist about debt; shortly after, this prophet-like figure ended up at Occupy Wall Street when I wanted desperately to be in Zucotti Park, but for nerves and a sense that I should really buckle down on that dissertation. I splurged on an ebook of Debt (less $ than the paperback), which promptly showed up as a corrupted file in the off-brand eReader someone had given me. I think I cursed, took it as a sign to get writing, and moved along. It may be that if I had read it then, my experience would have been different.
Years later, when I picked it “back” up (a new paperback copy) and started it, I also read the exchange in Jacobin, started by this piece, the response here, and the further rejoinder there. By the end of it, no one was really talking about Graeber’s book, which likely pointed to something deeper. Provoking thought and debate about big problems, and the structural components that shape them, is a worthy end. Thinking big things and writing about them is messy. I can appreciate, as the original critique did, the chutzpah of writing those grand narratives which launch a thousand thoughts, activists, or research agendas.
I thought a lot while reading Graeber. It reminded me, in a skewed way, of my two attempts as a college graduate to read Atlas Shrugged. When I read Ayn Rand’s book, I kept confronting my understanding of … everything. The role of the environment, who exploits whom and what that even means, what markets are really good for, and when they are so not up to the task that even George Mason University economics professors may agree. But reading and debating the author internally was wholly different with Debt: I liked the fundamental points Graeber was making, I loved his sense of humanity, and I’m hard pressed to think of a better anti-Atlas Shrugged than Debt, which celebrates giving, communal systems, and preservation. Reading Rand was a demoralizing grind; Graeber was more like an invigorating gauntlet.
Graeber has, since last summer, hovered close to the top of my consciousness often. It’s not hard, when one writes about debt and money, to have reasons to think about him. I read his screed against economics last fall with interest, tried to figure out why it annoyed me, and had to acknowledge that my discipline drives me crazy a lot of the time, too. Just this morning, before learning about his death, I thought about him while reading a review of a book that I wanted to compare to Debt, sometime, when time allows, et cetera. I would have needed to reread Debt to bring that to fruition, and I wondered if I really wanted to. I winced when he suggested that if anyone should be a global hegemonic force that it should be New Zealand, and when he argued with people who likewise wanted better for the world but questioned his particulars. But it was impossible not to smile when he wrote wistfully about not being able to find a book by Thorstein Veblen on a shelf at New York City’s biggest book store while he visited for a week, or when he responded to someone’s question about whether people in olden times ever made ad hoc amusements like water slides, just to have fun.
I think that what I failed to appreciate when I opened Debt for the second/first time last summer was the emotion with which he wrote. I had been filing down my emotional edge in paper submissions, and more successfully (I think) projecting a logical façade in my teaching, which both seemed like the proper things to do, and I may have been jealous that someone else could so bracingly do it to popular acclaim. Graeber never seemed to shy away from the moral impetus propelling his life, work, and writing. Way back when I wanted to read Debt the first time, I was angry about power and money in the world most of the time, and it bled into my writing. I still am, when I think about the state of the world economy, the power imbalances that hurt so many, and the structural violence of most debt structures on the global and domestic stage, but I have gotten better at compartmentalizing those thoughts and feelings. Or at least, before the Covid-19 pandemic. Graeber’s moralistic muckraking galvanizes; I aspire to that.
I read Graeber’s work with interest. I rarely expected to agree with it, at least on the specifics, but I knew it would make me think. His compassion shone through it all, even if I usually left a piece broadly agreeing about the problem, trying to figure out just what I objected to, why, and whether it mattered. I’m terribly sad about the news that he died; the world is much the poorer for it.
*No one should feel compelled to defend economists from UC Berkeley.