David Graeber, who passed away suddenly in 2020, was a renowned American anthropologist and libertarian who was the face of the Occupy Wall Street movement. He was also a specialist in debt and had made himself known to the public through the concept of “bullshit jobs”. By analyzing various social movements, he questioned the plight of millions of people who suffer from a lack of meaning in their lives and a feeling of social uselessness. In response, he left us with a book, published in English twenty years ago, in which he sought to uncover the social and anthropological realities, the games of allegiance, the relationships of power and domination that hide behind the abstractions of economic theory. Now published in France, the author denounces the myth of a society conceived as a contract, that is to say, in the language of the market.
A critique of capitalism
He argues that we need a theory of value which, in his view, is neither contained in objects nor carried by feelings, but comes from human action. This theory of value would determine how various cultures “define what is beautiful, worthwhile or simply matters”. David Graeber attempts a novel combination of “a singular reading of Marx” and “some lesser known ideas of Marcel Mauss” that aims to support a critique of capitalism and to unite around institutions that could replace it.
The book focuses on themes of exchange, creativity and power. It draws on the author of Capital, an essential safeguard against any neoliberal drift, while joining the sociologist Marcel Mauss, who believed that anthropology could play a role in the development of a revolutionary theory. The result of this cross-reading is a new representation of the world. Objects that seemed static to us can be seen as dynamic configurations. The social structures that seemed to be frozen become action plans. This would give rise to the feeling that people, without resorting to utopia, would be able to translate into reality the projects they forge in their imagination.
This raises the question of how to change the course of history.