YOU don’t know who you’ve got till he’s gone. The untimely death in Venice this week of the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber could easily seem like the most obscure of academic obituaries.

But this was also the guy who defined the “99%” of the Occupy movement, thereby highlighting the 1% of society to which profits and assets have been accumulating over the last few decades.

Graeber also defined the phenomenon of “bullshit jobs” a few years ago – a bold distinguishing of “unnecessary” from “necessary” labour. Which the pandemic’s shutdowns and quarantines has only made more relevant.

Graeber’s next and last book – The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity, written with David Wengrow – aims to show how new archaeological finds turn upside down our assumptions about the human past.

What if the accepted story of bucolic hunter-gatherers, smashed by the authoritarian tendencies of farming and cities, is just… wrong? Early cities seem to have experimented with egalitarian relationships as much as hierarchical ones: we didn’t just fall from nomadic grace into grim modern times.

Graeber wonders: should this make us more optimistic about our capacity for radical social change in the present?

We have lost a brilliant mind who also plausibly argued that a mass cancellation of consumer debt had many historical precedents, explained why we don’t yet have jet packs and space wheels (as the 1950s-70s visions of the future promised) and posited that maybe the very point of material existence is to have playful fun.

Yes, my kinda guy (and that of notable others too: both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn were out very early on Twitter with fulsome condolences). I want to profile him as an admirer of his theories and research.

But I also believe Graeber is an example of the kind of daring, fearless public thinker that we need a lot more of in Scotland. That is, if we don’t want the pieces of these times to settle back into a “new normal” that’s even worse than the old one.

There’s no doubt that the distinctiveness of Graeber’s thought is rooted in his expertise as an anthropologist. How that different from, say, a sociologist? There are two distinctions.

Firstly, anthropology believes it’s a “science of all human behaviour throughout time”, not just of the modern era. Secondly, anthropologists have an interest in how evolutionary pressures, our biology and deep nature, condition how humans live together (sociology prefers humans to be a “blank slate”).

So to do “anarchist anthropology”, as one of Graeber’s earliest books is titled, is to be sensitive to all the various ways that humans have ever dealt with power, authority and resources.

But it’s also to pick a fight with crude, elitist interpretations of Darwinism’s relevance to human society. This could be summed up as biology justifying “the survival of the fittest”, the competitive struggle for advantage.

In probably his final essay, Graeber profiles the importance of Peter Kropotkin’s classic 19th-century pamphlet Mutual Aid (yes, related to those “mutual aid” community networks which have been going on all through Covid-19).

David’s scholarly insight is that Kropotkin was tapping into a separate Russian scientific tradition of understanding evolution. This observed and highlighted co-operation, as much as competition, between webs of animals and species.

To restore the balance between these approaches is also a political act – because it disturbs our assumptions of what we take to be the “natural behaviour” of humanity.

As Graeber writes: “[Richard Dawkins’s] phrase ‘the selfish gene’ was not chosen fortuitously. Kropotkin had revealed behaviour in the natural world that was exactly the opposite of selfishness. The entire game of Darwinists, now, is to find some reason, any reason, to continue to insist that even the most playful, loving, whimsical, heroically self-sacrificing, or sociable behaviour is really selfish after all”.

It’s actually moving to see how this final piece from Graeber casts backwards over all of his work, revealing a powerful consistency. Graeber helped both to coin the 99% slogan and inspire the original Occupy protests in New York’s Zuccotti Park, summer 2011.

There, he operated on the assumption that the wildly diverse groups in the square would be able to self-organise among themselves, using “horizontal” methods like person-to-person networks and collective hand signals. News media and internet communicated these techniques virally and globally (I’m rarely in a civic or activist meeting where they are not currently used).

In The Democracy Project, his book on the Occupy experience, Graeber observes: “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems, rather than to make them worse”.

THIS quote makes sense of Graeber’s other two great interventions – his massive book on 5000 years of debt and his definition of a “bullshit job”.

In the Debt book, he uses his “anarchist anthropology” tools to dig into the past. There he finds – contrary to received wisdom, not least from Adam Smith – that credit and debt has always preceded currency, bullion and barter.

Everyday life binds people together, indebts them to each other through common actions, “gifts, marriages, and general sociability”, says Graeber. Yet when this burden of informal debt weighed the population down, Mesopotamian kings took the right to declare a “Jubilee”. This was a massive debt of forgiveness that “wiped the tablets clean” and restarted society.

Again, Graeber’s grasp of the variety of our long human history opens up options for the present. Climate crisis and the pandemic are forcing us to imagine and act globally. Is such a debt jubilee – our species helping itself, as we face our ultimate challenge – so unthinkable and impractical?

And finally, take Graeber’s 2018 nose-thumb at the contemporary work ethic, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. This essay also proceeds from his deep assumption about how much human nature is, by default, co-operative.

He entertainingly defines bullshit jobs in five categories. There are “flunkies” (those whose services make the powerful feel even more powerful), “goons” (those who are hucksters for their employers), “duct tapers (those who fix the damage of their superiors), “box tickers” (those who monitor your performance) and “taskmasters” (those who middle-manage you).

Discard those and then we’re turning to each other, in rich webs of experience and expertise, to figure out how to get shared, human-centred tasks and goals done. And why shouldn’t the removal of bullshit work (over 40% of the total, estimates Graeber) be accompanied by a redistribution of necessary labour, realising John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 vision of a 15-hour working week?

Is this such a crazy notion? Haven’t we had a strong hint, in our furloughs and reconnection with our communities, of just how attractive that kind of existence might be?

Like many, I was somewhat startled and delighted this week to hear that Universal Basic Income was a likely outcome of Scottish independence in the First Minister’s Programme For Government.

(I haven’t been assiduously watching, but I’ve been told that Sturgeon has strongly and publicly warmed to the policy, as her daily Covid updates have proceeded).

In a recent New Statesman interview – and again consistently – Graeber supports UBI because it “detaches livelihood from work …UBI is basically about freedom. What would happen if you said to people: ‘I trust you to decide for yourself what you want to contribute to society?’”

Doesn’t that case speak to the very spirit of this independence movement?

We have a robust momentum for Yes – but we are also a national community in a turbulent global storm. Orthodox thinking alone will certainly not generate enough options to steer us through.

The work of the late, and dearly lamented, David Graeber is very much worth investigating.