Books by David Graeber

I’ve been reading the Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber and blogging reactions chapter by chapter. Although it has good stuff in it and I’m glad I’ve read it, it’s a disappointing book in many ways. I’ll get into all that and summarize the book when I blog the final chapter.

I don’t know the work of David Wengrow but chose to read Dawn of Everything because it was written by David Graeber, and I’ve read most of his books and benefited from the experience. I thought I’d pause and give a brief review of those.

Debt: The First 5000 Years is his best-seller. It begins with a question raised at a cocktail party: Why does any person, corporation, or country have a moral obligation to pay back with interest money lent to them? Graeber follows this into an exploration of history, archaeology, economics, religion, and anthropology regarding money, credit, and morality. This is his ‘must-read’ and it covers a lot of ground and connects a lot of dots such as how money works in non-state systems, how obligations work instinctively, Karl Jaspers’ notion of the Axial Age, bronze age jubilees, and so much more. The book contains some real howlers–like Graeber’s claim that slavery ended with the Roman Empire–that hint at a credulity within Graeber’s anarchist soul–but unlike many books it sort of has a beginning, middle, and end (well not much of an end but better than most of his works) and it has a memorable title.

The Utopia of Rules is my favorite of Graeber’s books even if it is a hot mess. In this book Graeber tries to address the strange phenomenon of bureaucracy’s inexorable growth, both public and private. His anthropological training and fieldwork among free peasant societies, his quirky impatient patience with systems around him, and his anarchist spirit give us a wonderfully interesting and depressing view of the growth of red tape. He points out how much of what we call the 60s was a rebellion against bureaucracy and one regularly-betrayed appeal of Reagan conservatism was its alleged rebellion against bureaucracy. After exploring bureaucracy from many angles in a series of more-or-less separate essays Graeber seems to just give up. The books comes to nothing, achieves nothing, proves nothing–but I feel it gave me more to think about than any other book I’ve read in years. No, that’s wrong. It gave me important things to think about that seem completely different from any other book I’ve read in years.

I’ll discuss Bullshit Jobs next, since it can be read as a sort of companion piece to Utopia of Rules. Like UofR it’s a series of barely-connected essays, the title piece spun from an online essay about meaningless jobs and the weirdly conflicted feelings of those who do them that went viral some years ago. Better title than Utopia of Rules and interesting subplot within the modern bureaucratic narrative, but it doesn’t come to much as a book. I didn’t finish it understanding anything. Certainly, check it out from the library or borrow from a friend so you don’t spend money on it.

This book combines a fascinating history of the Occupy Movement of which Graeber was an integral early participant and organizer (one of many of course), with a trifling, flimsy, glib description of historical democracies and democracy. Naturally, Graeber dislikes the ‘Founding Fathers’ and especially the way they are admired. It certainly takes a lot of confidence for modern pedants and firebrands to decide that the government of ancient Athens wasn’t a ‘real democracy’–when democracy is literally a Greek word coined by the Greeks to describe governments like ancient Athens.

So I just finished Dawn of Everything! How does it compare? Stay tuned!


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