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So long, David – four reflections and a way forward

Last week, David Graeber passed away, way too early, unfortunately. In this short article, some ITM staff dwell on what David Graeber meant to them, and what the global health community could and perhaps should learn from him. Feel free to weigh in as well under the blog.

“Yes, we must mourn David Graeber. Thinking about his work is probably the best way to do that today, in all our bullshit jobs. Graeber was an anarchist, and many people from the left to the right thought that was an insane position, as he said himself. I tend to view everything that is not anarchist as an insane position. The outlook on life, the idea of relations and the value of other people, the view on hierarchy are so different between anarchists and all the other ones that it makes me think of the question on the reality of ‘dreams versus the real world’. Which is which? For me, Graeber represents ‘the real world’ and his ideas help(ed) to fight the nightmares of liberal illusion. What makes the passing of Graeber extra sour is that it happens at the very moment where people like him are needed most. Of course, ‘Graebers’ were always needed, but right now, we find ourselves at a turning point in civilization – PS: we are not too naive to not know that a world that ‘feeds’ on inequity needs turning points every day. Today, against the abundance of academics and politicians who talk to us about the relativism of any sense of urgency, urge us to believe in ‘trickle down’ effects and to trust technological bright ideas that will help us avoid making any real change in the relations between the haves and the have nots, we dearly need all we can get of thinkers who are serious about alternative ways to shape our human geography. Losing Graeber is therefore indeed a very serious matter – and also an immediate call to use our time better than staying stuck in bullshit bureaucracies.”

Willem van de Put

“Like for many others, David Graeber’s passing away last week came as a shock to me. “Why is it that the good guys always seem to die young?”, my colleague Willem (of a considerable age himself already😊) pointed out. While I have not had the luxury to read many of Graeber’s books, I got to know about him in recent years through various essays and articles. What could global health learn and remember from him?

Well, for one, that the framing (which he at least partially came up with), “We are the 99%”, has been far more effective in the longer-term battle for equity than global health power’s MDG-era inclination to “go to Davos”, “as that’s the only place where you can still get some real shit done”.  With a view on the interests of the 99%, Graeber probably also wouldn’t put his faith in PPPs, ‘leveraging’ the private sector, philanthrocapitalism or other trademark ‘global health’ ways of doing things. In the same vein: token civil society representation, the endless ‘networking’ or the ‘leadership programmes’ so in vogue now.

Now that we all realize, in the slipstream of Covid-19, that essential workers are vital for our societies and economies, I hope we all manage to get the level of ‘bullshitization’ of our jobs down as much as possible in the years to come, and conversely, their level of ‘essential work’ and ‘purpose’ as much up as possible. The latter clearly means: with a view on the economy of the 21st century, which should be a caring economy, with respect for planetary boundaries. A mix of a revamped ‘meritocracy’ and ‘decent work for all’, including proper valorization and work-life balance. Against that backdrop, Graeber would probably have applauded the comeback of the concept of ‘dignity’ as well. And who knows, if we get this right, humanity might perhaps find its ‘collective soul’ back, just in time.”

Kristof Decoster

“David Graeber’s passing away came as a blow, possibly because he was a role model for many, in terms of being an anarchist-activist-academic, all in one. With Graeber, there was still hope. We could aspire to be like him. Two of his books have been of considerable influence on my thinking and actions.

The first is Debt, the First 5000 years (2011). I read it while analyzing the legitimacy of IMF conditionalities, structural adjustment programmes, and the debt crisis impacting on health systems in countries around the globe (since the 70’s). It was at the height of the huge European financial crisis, and as you recall, Greece had to go on its knees to reform its social system and repay its outstanding financial debts. Its people said “No” in a referendum, but under pressure of the ‘Troika’ (ECB/EC/IMF), the Greeks had to give in. Graeber’s book provided the great insight that in the world’s history of Debt, every now and then and for the sake of social and economic stability, debts have to be cancelled. This is known as a ‘Jubilee’. Financial debts are not cast in stone, they are a social construct. Both the indebted and the debtor have responsibilities in order to maintain a just relation. It is thus legitimate and justified to resist the enforcement of debt repayments, as Graeber did so well, being part of the Occupy movement.  

The other book is the magnificent Bullshit jobs: a theory (2018). I had wondered for a long time why essential jobs, like nursing, midwifery or other health care jobs are not more appreciated in society, including with better remuneration. On the other hand, there are all the unnecessary, overpaid, bureaucratic management jobs, a.k.a. ‘bullshit jobs’ in the words of Graeber. Basically, these are pointless jobs, part of the ‘managerial feudalism’ that our capitalist systems generate. As an alternative, Graeber proposed universal basic income schemes so that people could engage in work that creates societal value, like (in)formal health care. His deep, socio-anthropological analyses and action-oriented alternatives, provided a form of solace while navigating the daily administrative nonsense (timesheets!!) arriving on my desk. And now he is gone. Jason Hickel tweeted “David is an ancestor now, and the ancestors guide us”. This work of Graeber provides a good starting point, if you want to delve in his ideas. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004).”

Remco van de Pas

“Nothing left to say, my friends. Except sharing a memory, maybe. One late summer Sunday afternoon, about thirty years ago. Upstate New York. Reddish leaves, warm light. In the garden of an old man, who had once left his identity of union leader in the old world to become a professor of quantum physics in the new. A group of family and friends, among them a sister of Pete Seeger, who had brought a young acquaintance with her. That was David Graeber, and he didn’t say a word. Nor did I. We listened. Over cookies and wine, the professor emeritus (torn jeans and worker shirt) and the equally old singer did the talking. About the hard times, those good old days, the civil rights movement, when singers were still blacklisted (she explained) and Billie Holiday “could still sing” (he had witnessed her first New York performances, in an obscure club owned by a bad friend). As the afternoon progressed, their stories did too, and we listened, mouth open and eyes shining. We felt so warm. The kind of warmth David was able to transmit later, even in his most demystifying and critical works.

They’re all gone now, dead and gone, and David unexpectedly soon. But sometimes I look out of the window, think I see reddish leaves and warm light, and I hope.”

Werner Soors

About Willem van de Put

ITM health policy unit, co-founder Culture4Change

About Kristof Decoster


About Remco van de Pas

Remco van de Pas is a senior research associate at the Centre for Planetary Health Policy in Berlin and a lecturer in Global Health at the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp.

About Werner Soors

Werner Soors is a former ITM staff member.
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