In 1998, two years after completing his PhD, Graeber became assistant professor at Yale University, then became associate professor. In May 2005, the Yale Anthropology department decided not to renew Graeber's contract, preventing consideration for tenure which was scheduled for 2008. Pointing to Graeber's anthropological scholarship, his supporters (including fellow anthropologists, former students and activists) claimed that the decision was politically motivated. More than 4,500 people signed petitions supporting him, and anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins, Laura Nader, Michael Taussig, and Maurice Bloch called for Yale to rescind its decision. Bloch, who had been a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and the Collège de France, and writer on Madagascar, made the following statement about Graeber in a letter to the university:
His writings on anthropological theory are outstanding. I consider him the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world.
The Yale administration argued that Graeber's dismissal was in keeping with Yale's policy of granting tenure to few junior faculty (thus generating the widespread false impression that this was, in fact, a tenure case) and gave no formal explanation for its actions. Graeber has suggested that the University's decision might have been influenced by his support of a student of his who was targeted for expulsion because of her membership in GESO, Yale's graduate student union.
In December 2005, Graeber agreed to leave the university after a one-year paid sabbatical. That spring he taught two final classes: "Introduction to Cultural Anthropology" (attended by more than 200 students) and a seminar entitled "Direct Action and Radical Social Theory".
On 25 May 2006, Graeber was invited to give the Malinowski Lecture at the London School of Economics. Each year, the anthropology department at the university asks an anthropologist at a relatively early stage of their career to give the Malinowski Lecture, and only invites those who are considered to have made a significant contribution to anthropological theory. Graeber's address was entitled "Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity". This lecture has since been edited into an essay, entitled "Dead zones of the imagination: On violence, bureaucracy and interpretive labor". That same year, Graeber was asked to present the keynote address in the 100th anniversary Diamond Jubilee meetings of the Association of Social Anthropologists. In April 2011, he presented the anthropology department's annual Distinguished Lecture at Berkeley, and in May 2012 delivered the Second Annual Marilyn Strathern Lecture at Cambridge (the first was delivered by Marilyn Strathern).
Graeber is the author of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. He has done extensive anthropological work in Madagascar, writing his doctoral thesis (The Disastrous Ordeal of 1987: Memory and Violence in Rural Madagascar) on the continuing social division between the descendants of nobles and the descendants of former slaves. A book based on his dissertation, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar, appeared from Indiana University Press in September 2007. A book of collected essays, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire was published by AK Press in November 2007 and Direct Action: An Ethnography appeared from the same press in August 2009, as well as a collection of essays co-edited with Stevphen Shukaitis called Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations//Collective Theorization (AK Press, May 2007). These were followed by a major historical monograph, Debt: The First 5000 Years (Melville House), which appeared in July 2011. Speaking about Debt with the Brooklyn Rail, Graeber remarked:
The IMF (International Monetary Fund) and what they did to countries in the Global South—which is, of course, exactly the same thing bankers are starting to do at home now—is just a modern version of this old story. That is, creditors and governments saying you’re having a financial crisis, you owe money, obviously you must pay your debts. There’s no question of forgiving debts. Therefore, people are going to have to stop eating so much. The money has to be extracted from the most vulnerable members of society. Lives are destroyed; millions of people die. People would never dream of supporting such a policy until you say, "Well, they have to pay their debts."
In December 2017, Graeber and his former teacher Marshall Sahlins released a collection of essays entitled "On Kings" outlining a theory, inspired by A. M. Hocart, of the origins of human sovereignty in cosmological ritual. Graeber contributed essays on the Shilluk and Merina kingdoms, and a final essay that explored what he called "the constitutive war between king and people." He is currently working on a historical work on the origins of social inequality with University College London archaeologist David Wengrow.
Much of Graeber's recent scholarship has focused on the topic of "bullshit jobs," proliferated by administrative bloat and what Graeber calls "managerial feudalism". One of the points he raises in his 2013 book The Democracy Project – on the Occupy movement – is the increase in what he calls bullshit jobs, referring to forms of employment that even those holding the jobs feel should not or do not need to exist. He sees such jobs as being typically "concentrated in professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers". As he explained also in an article in STRIKE! magazine:
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.
Graeber has been criticized in the journal Democracy for his efforts of finding evidence that fits his preconceptions when, in 2017, he asked publicly: "Does anyone know any handy rebuttals to the neoliberal/conservative numbers on social progress over the last 30 years? again & again i see these guys trundling out #s that absolute poverty, illiteracy, child malnutrition, child labor, have sharply declined. . . . that life expectancy & education levels have gone way up, worldwide, thus showing the age of structural adjustment etc was a good thing. It strikes me as highly unlikely these numbers are right, or anyway that such improvements are due to privatization, etc. It’s clear this is all put together by right-wing think tanks. Yet where’s the other sides numbers? I’ve found no clear rebuttals."
The left-leaning Berkeley economic-historian Brad DeLong wrote a detailed critique of Graeber's book Debt that ran over many episodes on his own blog. DeLong claims there are "dozens" of errors in chapter 12. He lists in particular that Graeber got wrong the number of presidential appointee in the US Federal Reserve and that contrary to what appeared in the first edition of the book, Apple was not founded by ex-IBM engineers. Graeber has replied to these critics arguing they are based on divergence of interpretation, truncation of his arguments by DeLong and garbling in the "copyediting process" (for an argument about Apple's origins). He admits though that his "biggest actual mistake DeLong managed to detect in the 544 pages of Debt, despite years of flailing away, was (iirc) that [Graeber] got the number of Presidential appointees on the Federal Open Market Committee board wrong" (Graeber wrote it was one when actually it was three). However, Graeber argues that this had no influence on the point he was making in the blamed sentence.
The Guardian gave a mixed review of Graeber's Bullshit Jobs, accusing him of having a "slightly condescending attitude" and attesting to the book's "laboured arguments", while referring to aspects of the book's thesis as "clearly right".
Graeber (left) at a rally for immigrant rights at Union Square, New York City in 2007
In November 2011, Rolling Stone magazine credited Graeber with giving the Occupy Wall Street movement its theme: "We are the 99 percent" though Graeber has written in The Democracy Project that the slogan "was a collective creation".Rolling Stone says Graeber helped create the first New York City General Assembly, with only 60 participants, on August 2. He spent the next six weeks involved with the burgeoning movement, including facilitating general assemblies, attending working group meetings, and organizing legal and medical training and classes on nonviolent resistance. A few days after the encampment of Zuccotti Park began, he left New York for Austin, Texas.
Graeber has argued that the Occupy Wall Street movement's lack of recognition of the legitimacy of either existing political institutions or the legal structure, its embrace of non-hierarchical consensus decision-making and of prefigurative politics make it a fundamentally anarchist project. Comparing it to the Arab Spring, Graeber has claimed that Occupy Wall Street and other contemporary grassroots protests represent "the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire." Writing in Al Jazeera, he has noted that from the beginning the Occupy movement was about a "commitment to answer only to a moral order, not a legal one" and so held meetings without the requisite permits. Defending this early decision of the Occupy movement he has said that "as the public, we should not need permission to occupy public space".
Graeber tweeted in 2014 that he had been evicted from his family's home of over 50 years due to his involvement with Occupy Wall Street. He added that others associated with Occupy had received similar "administrative harassment".
On October 11th 2019, Graeber spoke at an Extinction Rebellion protest in Trafalgar Square. Graeber spoke about the relationship between 'bullshit jobs' and environmental harm, suggesting that the environmental movement should recognize these jobs in combination with unnecessary construction or infrastructure projects, and planned obsolescence as significant issues.
— (June 1, 2003). "The Twilight of Vanguardism". Indymedia DC. Archived from the original on January 12, 2013. Retrieved February 15, 2012. An essay originally delivered as a keynote address during the "History Matters: Social Movements Past, Present, and Future" conference at the New School for Social Research on May 3, 2003
^Graeber, David (2013). The Democracy Project. Spiegel & Grau. p. 41. ISBN978-0812993561. As a matter of historical record, since there is so much discussion of the origin of the slogan "We Are the 99 Percent," the answer is that - appropriately enough - it was a collective creation.