Incredibly, it is already a year since David Graeber left us. In a characteristic combination of humility and assertiveness, his twitter biog says, ‘I’m an anthropologist, sometimes I occupy things & such. I see anarchism as something you do, not an identity so don’t call me the anarchist anthropologist.’
I got to know of David Graeber late, not from his Occupation of Wall Street days, but after my trip to Rojava in 2016. My enthusiasm for the women’s revolution there, the sense that I had witnessed something momentous and life changing, drove me to read up everything that I could find about Rojava. I stumbled across David’s articles and was really impressed by his analysis of dual power in Rojava. The ‘state’ in Rojava needs to be understood as an ’administration’ with a co-ordinating role but no power. The power resides with the people.”
David Graeber illustrated this point with an incident he witnessed when visiting Rojava. Local police officers were called to investigate a merchant who was suspected of hoarding sugar. When they said they couldn’t do so without clearance from their commanding officers, it caused outrage among the people who said you work for us not them. “It seemed a strong matter of principle that anyone with a gun should ultimately be answerable to the bottom-up structures, and not the top down – and if not, there was something terribly wrong
Graeber believed that, ‘In terms of revolutionary theory, I would say that the case of Rojava is in certain ways unique. What we find is essentially a dual power situation.’ On the one hand there are the ministries, Parliament, the higher courts, everything that looks like a government and on the other hand, there are the bottom-up structures where power flows entirely from the popular assemblies. Graeber observed that, ‘The balance of power between these two institutional structures appears to be fluid and under constant renegotiation.’
He wrote in an accessible style which is always the hallmark of an academic who knows that his place in the world is earned through his activism. He is speaking to the rest of the world not to a circumscribed, elite academia. He immediately won my respect. I heard him speak in May 2016 at the launch of Volume 1 of Manifesto for a Democratic Civilisation: The Age of Masked Gods and Disguised Kings by Abdullah Öcalan to which he wrote the preface. My first impression held.
It was in Hamburg where we were both invited to attend a huge conference on Capitalist and Democratic Modernity organised by the Kurdish movement that I got to know him a little. We sat together at dinner every evening. I was a little in awe of him. He had a habit of saying something witty rather quietly and then laughing. I would laugh along with him even though I hadn’t quite heard the words. On the short journey in the car to the restaurant from the conference, he would pull out his laptop and work on the proofs of what was to become his book on Bullshit jobs. We talked a little about its thesis. I remember telling him about the large number of bullshit jobs in India but he was there before me.
He struck me as humorous, hardworking, humble and a man of huge intellect. Since then I regularly bumped into him at various Kurdish events.
While I was drafting my chapter on Rojava for my book on Patriarchy, I was mulling over the role of ideology in mobilising political change. I couldn’t find quite the right books to read so I emailed him for advice. He felt the question was too broad and that most writers had approached it in relation to specific changes or specific ideologies. He said, ‘the relation of ideology and movements is so complicated, and it seems to change profoundly in different movements. I’ve been trying to understand the difference between Marxists and anarchists in this regard for years. I go over some of it in my own book on Direct Action which I’ll include but I don’t know if it’ll be extremely useful, especially as I don’t do a lit (literature) survey – but the section 211 to 222 might be provocative anyway.’
He was generous enough to send me the entire manuscript. I responded saying, ‘It certainly made me look at anarchism from a different perspective. And by your classifications, what’s going on in Rojava then is not ‘anarchism’ particularly in terms of their subservience to a central ‘theory’ or authority as in Apo. You quote David Wieck on this point to argue that anarchists shun ‘high theory’. I had in fact been trying to square my own fascination with the Rojava revolution with a lifelong feminist tradition of campaigning for a more ‘progressive’ state, not being able to envision how else you could be protected from the community, in our case, as represented by religious, conservative self-appointed spokesmen.’
I continued, ‘I was also struck by this line (in his preface) “How, then, do we think about a political movement in which the practice comes first and theory is essentially, secondary?” I wonder if this is really possible. Does that mean that egalitarianism is essentially a practice? Having never experienced it myself, I have always seen it as an idea which must be fought for.
I didn’t get a response to this. But as part of my continuing research for my book, I set myself the soul destroying task of reading quite a lot of the glossy magazine produced by ISIS, Dabiq. To my amusement and surprise, I found it quoted David Graeber so that led to another exchange of emails.
I asked David, ‘BTW, did you know you were quoted in Dabiq, the ISIS rag:
Gold and warfare have always lived hand in hand, as financial author David Graeber writes. “Over the course of the wars of expansion during the time of the Umayyad Empire, enormous quantities of gold and silver were looted from palaces, temples, and monasteries and stamped into coinage, allowing the Caliphate to produce gold dinars and silver dirhams of remarkable purity.”’
‘Yeah yeah I was quoted on both sides on the ISIS gold coin issue. I guess this was that captured British journalist guy – what was his name? What happened to him anyway?’
The name he was reaching out for was John Cantlie. We then had quite an amusing and philosophical discussion about whether Cantlie had genuinely adopted ISIS ideology or whether it was a survival strategy.
David wondered, ‘well he was captured and knowing that others (including journalists no?) were beheaded, agreed to cooperate. I do sometimes ask myself: what might I have done in a similar situation? I like to think I’d have said “okay, martyr me if you have to, I won’t write your propaganda.” But then maybe I’d play along hoping they’d trust me enough so I could flee and then tell everyone ISIS’s secrets. Or… it’s hard to say. Put secret messages in the text? How would you do that? I just sometimes wonder.’
I said, ‘I hate to put myself into these ‘what if’ scenarios of extreme pressure on my value systems – perhaps because I fear the answer will not make me proud. The only time I’m truly courageous (to the point of foolishness) is when I’m fuelled by anger but anger is usually short-lived so what happens when the anger subsides. Hopefully it never does in situations like that.
But Cantlie sounds genuinely angry with the Brits for having let him and his family down and then he slips into the ISIS analysis of all that is wrong with the West.’
David came back with ‘yeah it would be interesting to psychoanalyze what’s going on there. Fortunately I’m not really into that sort of thing.’ But David was not happy that Cantlie had misrepresented him, ‘weird thing is he totally missed the point of what I was saying in that passage!’
I said, ‘I wouldn’t worry about his misinterpretation. It’s not like you want to reach out to the Dabiq readership (many of whom are hopefully dead by now) on the finer points of the theory of money.’ David came back with ‘True enough’.
I then met him on two more memorable occasions. He came to my place for dinner along with Estella Schmid and Debbie Bookchin. I remember being faintly annoyed because he brought along a young woman, without asking permission, an ex-student, who none of us knew. But even that transpired to be for a genuinely good reason. He later told my daughter that she was being stalked by someone on the campus and was upset by this and had gone to see him. In order to give her an escape route, both physically and emotionally, he said, ‘I’m going to a friend’s for dinner. Come along.’
In September 2018, we both spoke at the memorial service for the tragically short-lived Mehmet Aksoy who first introduced me to the existence of Rojava, editor of kurdishquestion.com, film maker, campaigner and a fine human being, who was killed by an ISIS suicide mission while filming on the frontline in Raqqa in 2017. David spoke movingly of the worlds that Mehmet opened up for him. Speaking about premature loss feels so poignant now when David too has left us, long before his job on earth was done.
When I wrote the obituary on Mehmet for The Guardian, David messaged me to say ‘that was beautifully done.’ We had a mutual moan about the strict guidelines for obits at the paper. I complained that they had stripped out every bit of poetry in my piece, even the line about survivors which I had tried to make more original and hopeful by saying ‘Mehmet is survived by the Kurdish freedom movement,’ was deleted.
I think I can say that about David too. David is survived by the Kurdish freedom movement. How else to feel hopeful about such a devastating loss?