When the news broke that 59-year-old anthropologist, critic of inequality, and activist David Graeber had died on Sept. 2, few Chinese noticed. Aside from a few messages of shock and grief from Graeber’s personal acquaintances and some write-ups that sought to contextualize his work for a broader audience, the country’s media outlets were relatively restrained in their coverage.
The absence of homages to Graeber in Chinese media reflects the anthropologist’s limited influence in the country. Only two of his books have been published on the Chinese mainland: the radical, magisterial “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” and the booklet “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.” As he was in the West, Graeber was overshadowed in China by his more traditional “public intellectual” peers, such as Steven Pinker, Niall Ferguson, and Thomas Friedman.
Perhaps this is understandable. Rather than positioning himself as a prophet, speaking to the masses only through mainstream media outlets and publishers, Graeber preferred to engage in public affairs at the grassroots level, whether in the urban camps of Occupy Wall Street or the deserts of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, better known as Rojava. Most of his potential audience in China still tends to picture anthropologists as bookish academics carrying out dry research projects, not powerful activists with the ability — and the will — to effect far-reaching, systemic changes.
The English and Simplified Chinese editions of David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” From Douban
Graeber also fit awkwardly between the two dominant ideologies of reform-era China: Marxism and liberalism. Many public discussions and debates in the country take the Marxist or liberal values and perspectives of their participants for granted. The anarchist ideals Graeber espoused are either marginalized or simply absent. Chinese thinkers might argue over whether Occupy Wall Street was yet another example of the failure of capitalism, but few have any interest in the movement’s organizational structure or intrinsic political significance.
Yet it would be wrong to conclude that Graeber’s work is of no interest to Chinese readers. His 2018 book “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” may not be about China, but it’s not hard to see parallels with contemporary Chinese life in Graeber’s analysis of why our jobs feel so meaningless, even as they vacuum up evermore of our time. Indeed, although worker movements in China remain primarily focused on redressing labor law violations, as opposed to rethinking the broader worker-employer relationship, they also contain reflections on work ethics. When Alibaba founder Jack Ma attempted to quell employee protests against the company’s grueling “996” work schedule by touting the model as a blessing, his comments were met by a wave of cynicism from younger Chinese sick of moralizing justifications for excessive workloads.
This September, during a national debate over how to better protect food delivery workers’ rights, a journalist friend of mine joked: “When manufacturing and retail workers are laid off, they come to big cities to deliver takeaway orders. Then, thanks to them, white-collar workers are ‘lucky’ enough to be able to attend two extra meetings on their lunch breaks.” The riff could easily have been taken from one of Graeber’s books, so perfectly it evokes one of the central ideas of his work: that everyone is trapped in a system spinning out of control. This is true whether you’re a delivery worker racing against the clock to keep up with an inhumane dispatching algorithm; a white-collar employee buried under mountains of meetings, paperwork, and evaluations; or a creative who’s been forced to bid farewell to workplace stability in favor of the anxiety-inducing world of freelancing and social media self-promotion.
On the plus side, Graeber’s insights also offer Chinese readers an idea of how to address these problems. Instead of confrontation, chaos, or even violence — all closely linked with anarchism in China’s public imagination — Graeber suggests an approach that emphasizes “direct action,” including self-management and mutual aid. For example, he describes how Rojava successfully responded to COVID-19 by mobilizing communities to manufacture personal protective equipment and improve public health precautions. Viewed more broadly, it’s an approach that suggests new ways of thinking about advancing work, housing, and life around the world.
In some respects, these ideas area already being adopted. Over the past few years, Chinese artists, designers, scholars, and educators have come together to engage with social issues ranging from gentrification to gender through such diverse forms as experimental music-making, street theater, and seminars. Participants in these collectives decide almost everything democratically, from what their next project will be to which co-living space to rent, one member of a Shanghai-based collective told me. Within these collectives, Graeber regularly pops up in discussions and on reading lists, though another collective member I spoke with took pains to clarify that he was hardly the group’s only ideological reference point.
Similar trends can be seen in the intellectual world, where independent knowledge-sharing communities have taken to social media to translate and introduce works by Graeber and others like him, helping to compensate for the publishing industry’s indifference to their ideas.
Of course, “direct action” has its limits. Grassroots communities often find themselves facing a similar dilemma: whether to expand their influence or to protect their autonomy by remaining on the margins. Currently, most collectives prefer to remain out of the spotlight, but the very existence of these groups attests to the possibility that ordinary people can take an active role in their society.
Graeber’s most fervent hope for humankind lay in the ability to imagine a different world — and the prerequisite for any change is the realization that there are alternative ways of life. It’s all too easy to feel powerless in the face of the ideological splits and planetwide crises currently undermining our lives, but that very powerlessness reminds us why Graeber’s legacy is worth holding on to. When institutions aren’t enough, we can always do things on our own.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: David Graeber attends a lecture in New York, Sept. 19, 2014. Hiroyuki Ito/People Visual)