David Graeber, who died of undisclosed causes on Wednesday at the age of 59, was a prominent anthropologist who taught at the London School of Economics—and famously, an anarchist—but he disliked being referred to as “the anarchist anthropologist,” as he inevitably was. Most people, he thought, misunderstood what anarchism meant. Even those who didn’t associate it with running street battles and wanton crimes against property dismissed it as farcically utopian. “Most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea, they think it’s insane,” he told me. “Yeah, sure it would be great not to have prisons and police and hierarchical structures of authority, but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn’t work, right?”
Graeber thought it could. His Kansas-born father had enlisted with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, alongside anarchists who had briefly run Barcelona according to their principles. (Graeber’s mother had her own left-wing bona fides, once starring in an International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union musical that improbably became a Broadway hit). Indeed, Graeber believed that it was much of contemporary life, lived in the grip of economic and political realities no one bothered to question, that was truly insane. He made his name by assaulting what he saw as its central pillars, both in his brilliant, idiosyncratic writing and in his participation and leadership of large-scale, left-wing street demonstrations in Quebec City, Philadelphia, New York, and Genoa, Italy.