AI and Bureaucratic Violence : David Graeber’s legacy

by Veronica Barassi

On the 2nd of September 2020, David Graeber died in Venice and the newspapers from all over the world paid their tributes to the radical intellectual, whose work had transformed the way we thought about debt, history, value and imagination. If there is one true thing about Graeber’s work is that it enables us to imagine the multiple possibilities of human life; it deconstructs, revolutionises and trashes most of western-centric understandings of human nature, economic life and anthropological processes. It opens our eyes in a radical way, yet at the same time with a genuine nonchalance. This was Graeber’s talent, as Economopoulos argued : “He had a way of communicating ideas considered radical that made them sound like common sense” (Economopoulos, 2020: para 1). Like Sahlins’ work does, also Graeber’s work really teaches all of us that “human possibilities are always in every way greater than we ordinarily imagine” (Graeber, 2007: 1)”. It is for this reason that – after his death – Marshall Sahlins, wrote: “One of David’s books is titled Possibilities. It is an apt description of all his work. It is an even better title for his life. Offering unimagined possibilities of freedom was his gift to us”. (Sahlins, 2020: para 4).

Sahlins was Graeber’s mentor and Graeber was mine. I worked for David as teaching assistant for two years between 2009 – 2011. He was also my supervisor in the last year of my PhD. David’s humanity, genius and political imagination influenced not only the last years of my PhD but my entire career. I still remember his long monologues, which radiated in all sorts and unexpected directions, as he was writing Debt the first 5000 years. I also remember what a great listener he was. He listened with curiosity, care and without judgement.

It is for this reason that I decided to write an article, in an edited collection in honour of Marshall Sahlins and published by the Annals of the Fondazione Einaudi. In the article DAVID GRAEBER, BUREAUCRATIC VIOLENCE, AND THE CRITIQUE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM,  I draw on the work on The Human Error Project and I explore how Graeber’s work on value, technology and bureaucratic violence sheds a critical light on the emergence of what is commonly understood as “surveillance capitalism” (Zuboff, 2019). I also demonstrate how his theories enable us to truly understand the limitations to human freedom created by our use of data technologies and I argue that the rise of surveillance capitalism – or as he would call it the extension of corporate bureaucracy – has led to the creation of a type of society that reinforces and amplifies the things that Graeber criticised most: social inequality and human reductionism.

Already a year has gone since Graeber passed away but there is no doubt that his work will keep on inspiring me, throughout the Human Error Project and beyond. If you wish to read the full article, you can find it here.