David Graeber’s Breakfast by Goh Byeong-gwon

by Goh Byeong-gwon

David's death is still difficult to believe, even though quite some time has now passed. When I heard the news, I sat down with a thud. I could not feel anything, not even sadness. It was as if a bullet had passed through my body. I felt a certain energy, a certain joy had left me at that moment.

I only met him several times, but his name always meant energy and joy to me. Even when he spoke about the world of exploitation and oppression, or the people who were in pain, his dazzling ideas and eye-opening interpretations made people jubilant. I remember the first time I heard him speak about direct action. He said that direct action was to act as if the pre-existing power structures no longer existed and as if we were already free. Even though these were merely words explaining the idea and we were not anywhere close to actually doing something, my body sensed the freedom and shook with joy.

It was not just me who felt this. When David gave a series of talks at our collective SuyuNomo in Seoul, I could hear the audience exclaim in amazement. I particularly remember one moment. With his typical facial expression almost bursting into a grin, David told the story of Santa Claus and thieves. Both enter houses through the chimney. Where does Santa Claus get all of those presents? Could it be that they were stolen?  David then contrasted the capitalist market economy with the distribution system of bandits who steal from the rich only to share with the poor. He then connected the latter to communism, quoting the famous saying, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” Everyone laughed. That night, David seemed like Santa Claus with a bag full of stories, and it felt like those of us in the room had become a group of thieves partying over stolen goods. That day, I realised that our commune was made up of things that people gave us freely and that we were also to give away these gifts freely to others.

You didn’t need to have received intensive academic training in order to understand David’s words. Rather, I should say: David was someone who was able to convey his thoughts to those who did not have academic training. It was around 2009 when I took him to a commune of women who had fled sexual trafficking in Seoul. The people there asked David if he could tell them something that would give them hope. David’s answer was that there was a machine of politics that dominates and exploits the world right now, but that that machine was starting to break down. He said that the machine was coming apart all across the globe, wherever people were helping one another. Just like this place. Therefore, he said, your commune is where hope is made. Everyone beamed and cheered at this.

The concepts David used worked well in actual on-the-ground situations in social movements. His concepts were different from those of typical scholars, whose ideas only circulated within academia. Over ten years ago, I once discussed David’s concept of interpretive labor with striking workers at a major discount store. The workers immediately understood what the concept meant from their own experience. There was absolutely no need to add any explanation. Recently, I shared his idea of “bullshit jobs” with disabilities rights activists, who have been engaged in a struggle to demand employment for those with severe disabilities. By applying his concepts, we were able to perceive and understand the struggle through a new perspective. The South Korean government pumps in a huge amount of public funds to protect corporate employment. We demanded that the government stop wasting money protecting these jobs, which only help the corporations make greater profits. We believe that not only do such jobs have little social significance whatsoever, they actually harm society and the environment. Instead, we demanded the government to fully recognize the public nature of the activities of disabled people and fund them, because we believe that the actions that disabled people engage in—from holding cultural events to participating in street struggles that challenge discrimination—create socially relevant meaning, value and solidarity. This struggle has been hugely successful in recent years.

Hearing and reading David’s words helped us see problems differently and made us feel that we could try a different form of activism or live a different form of life. So when I think of David, even in this moment of remembrance after his sudden departure, I somehow have mainly joyous thoughts and memories rather than sad ones.

In spring of 2011, I travelled to the US after our commune SuyuNomo experienced a split. I met David in the summer of that year in New York. It was quite late in the evening.  As we chatted at a diner, the subject of the ‘movements of the squares’ that had manifested in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe came up. I asked if something like that would be possible in New York City. David said that it wouldn’t be easy. “Thirty thousand police strut around here. It’s a police city,” he said. But then, he immediately leaned over to me with a mischievous expression and whispered, as if conveying a directive to a secret agent, “But something will happen next month.” He said that he along with some friends were going to make something interesting happen on September 17th. He was talking about Occupy Wall Street. He also invited me to participate in it, which I did. Experiencing the small liberated area in the middle of New York with David and his friends, I gained valuable energy (My dear friend Sabu Kohso was also tremendously helpful in this regard).

That night, David took me around some neighborhoods in New York. They were places he had spent his childhood. He then told me many stories—from his parents’ apartment being provided by a labor union to episodes from his school days. He even went over the unique traits of each neighborhood in New York City. Not being so fluent in English, I could not follow every word. Perhaps more words than I could hold on to scattered across the New York night sky (This also happened in Seoul where we talked as we walked the streets. Unable to keep up, I had to let the stories flow by). He kept on talking even though he knew that I could not understand very well. Nonetheless, I received so much energy just from his expression and gestures. What a cool person. I thought.

Now that David is gone, an empty space has formed inside of me. However, I resist filling this space with things like sadness, fear or powerlessness. Such sentiments are so unlike David Graeber. I remember the first time I met him. In the fall of 2006, we were able to invite him to Seoul with the help of our friends in Japan. On the morning of his second day in Seoul, he was up early checking his email in the cafe of SuyuNomo. I saw him suddenly cover his mouth with his hand. He was transfixed on the computer monitor. Tears welled up in his eyes. He then said that a good friend of his had been shot in Oaxaca, Mexico and passed away.  It must have been the media activist Brad Will. David then restlessly walked around the table for some time.  How the rest of that day passed, I do not remember. I remember meeting David the next morning. He had a bunch of red spots on his face. He had spent the night at the collective housing for SuyuNomo. Making a mischievously dramatic face, he told us what a great battle he had fought. He had battled with mosquitos all night. He exclaimed that, despite being injured in the battle, he handed a terrible defeat to the army of mosquitos. He made everyone laugh. He then proceeded to eat the breakfast prepared by our friends, and he did so with gusto.

It was David who left us this time, in the fall of 2020. Now, what remains for me to do is to prepare breakfast with some friends and enjoy it with gusto. That is what David did in 2006, and that is what I need to do in 2020.