Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is filled with interesting and provocative ideas. Graeber wants to ally the discipline of anthropology with the anarchist currents that have shown up, most recently, in the anti-globalization movement. Each, he says, has a lot to offer the other.
What anarchism can offer anthropology, according to Graeber, is a way out of academicist impasses, a way that anthropology might change the world, rather than merely interpret it (to use a Marxian formulation to which Graeber might well be averse; here he soft-pedals the Marxist slant that was more apparent in his previous — and more traditionally academic — book, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value). This is the most upfront side of the book, but also its least convincing one. For I fear that here Graeber overly idealizes academia, and the discipline of anthropology in particular. Despite all his rote Foucault-bashing, and sneering at mainstream academics as “people who like to think of themselves as political radicals even though all they do is write essays likely to be read by a few dozen other people in an institutional environment” (71), he in fact buys into the authority of normative academic “knowledge” much more than I think is necessary or justified. Most obviously, this is apparent in the fact that Graeber never questions the interests and biases of “downwardly-studying” ethnographic researchers or participant-observers themselves. Graeber’s claim that anthropology has had “an affinity to anarchism from the very beginning”, because of anthropology’s “keen awareness of the very range of human possibilities” (13) is disingenuous at best, given the tangled nature of anthropology’s origins (as both an expression of and revolt against European colonialism), not to mention its institutional investments today. It’s not that Graeber doesn’t know that “the discipline we know today was made possible by horrific schemes of conquest, colonization, and mass murder” (96); but he seems to think that the “vast archive of human experience” possessed by anthropologists is uninflected by these origins, and only needs to be shared more publically in order to be efficacious.
Graeber is far more interesting when he writes about what anthropology can offer anarchism: a wider range of both social theory and observation of social practices than is available in orthodox Western theory and philosophy alone. Graeber discusses Marcel Mauss’ theory of the gift as an alternative to orthodox economic assumptions about the centrality of markets and “exchange”, and Pierre Clastres’ arguments about societies that explicitly sought to avoid the formation of a State. He cites numerous anthropological examples of social formations that have not taken on the form of State authority, or that have existed in the interstices of States and that have “autonomized” themselves or exempted themselves from its control. He suggests ways that we can dispense with the myth of “revolution” as some ultimate and complete rupture with the past, without thereby resigning ourselves to what hardcore Marxists used to disparage as mere “reformism.” And, paralleling arguments that I am more familiar with in other fields (given my limited knowledge of anthropology), he critiques the common assumption that “modernity” itself represents a radical break from all the rest of human history. And I haven’t even scratched the surface here of the wide range of Graeber’s historical examples and theoretical suggestions.
Graeber’s ideas are rich and wide-ranging; he pushes us to expand the boundaries of what we admit to be possible, or even thinkable. It’s very much the exhilarating spirit of May 1968: be realistic, demand the impossible; though Graeber rightly does not couch his exhortations in the form of an appeal to return to the 1960s, or to any other mythologized past of radical political hope. There is, thankfully, no nostalgia, and no call to order, or reverencing of past political models, in this book.
The main problem I have with Graeber’s argument is this. Graeber’s emphasis on the State as the enemy misconstrues, I believe, the role of the “market,” and of concentrations of capital. Like many other anarchists, Graeber is all too ready to see “free market” capitalism, commodification and consumption, and the wage system itself — all of which he denounces — as being adjuncts and epiphenomena of State power. This seems to me to be exactly wrong. While capitalist markets, the wage system, the private ownership of the means of production, the ever-increasing “branding” and commodification and corporate appropriation of all forms of human creativity and activity, and so on, of course could not sustain themselves without relying upon State power, and more generally without exerting and monopolizing power in the political realm, this does not make them functions of State power. It does not follow that State power comes first, either pragmatically or ideologically. Rather the reverse. Marxist political economy, and Foucaultian analytics of power, different as they are from one another, both view State power as an effect and an instrument of social, political, technological, and economic power relations, rather than as the source, or the most basic component, of those relations.
I am not arguing for a monocausal theory (like the so-called “vulgar-marxist” one that would reduce everything to an ultimate economic “base”); and I don’t think that Graeber, in his focus on the State, is monocausally reductionist either. (He mentions, among other things, the differences between the State as an ideal, and the actual ways that peoples’ lives are controlled and constrained, and points out that these two need not correspond). But I do think the difference in emphasis is crucial. For one thing, Graeber’s overestimation of the importance of the State leads him to underestimate other (non-state) impediments to freedom. How successful can “self-organization” be, today, in the absence of any economic resources? Graeber adopts the Italian autonomists’ ideas about “exodus” and “engaged withdrawal” from “capitalism and the liberal state” (60ff), but he ignores, again, the autonomists’ grounding in political economy. There are a lot of things worse than the “liberal state.” So-called “free enterprise,” for one thing. The dismantling of the welfare state in the US and other Western countries over the last quarter-century has not led to more opportunities for self-organization and empowerment, but less. States have increasingly withdrawn from what Manuel Castells calls the “black holes of informational capitalism,” but the people unfortunate enough to be stuck in those black holes are still subject to the terror of the “free market,” and what Marxists used to call “the international division of labor.”
When Graeber really lost me, though, was with his praise of decision-making through “consensus,” instead of compulsion. Me, I don’t see much of a difference between having to obey hateful and stupid orders issued by clueless assholes (the Leninist model as well as the State and corporate one), and having to sit in meetings for hours on end while the same clueless assholes make endless objections and qualifications that all have to be worked through before the meeting can come to an end. It’s torture either way, and I’m not convinced that the one method is even any more “democratic” than the other. Anarchist “consensus” is just another way of enforcing conformity and group solidarity, by wearing people down until they are browbeaten into agreement; it’s every bit as stifling and oppressive as military hierarchies and fraternity initiations and the “discipline” of the “free market” are. Empirically, different mixtures of these procedures might be more or less oppressive, less or more democratic, in particular instances; there are cases where the looser form of self-determination that Graeber praises might be welcome in comparison to the alternatives. But let’s not kid ourselves that decision-making through “consensus” somehow eliminates inequalities of power, or that it expands human freedom, or that it’s a desirable social ideal.

3 Responses to “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology”

  1. linkage says:

    The Pinocchio Theory: Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology…

  2. a few things rotating around

    – Steven yields yet another excellent review, this one of David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. His critiques of anarchism and especially “consensus” procedures are spot on:

    “Anarchist “consensus” is just another way of enforcing…

  3. […] anarchist anthropologist famously booted from Yale, has been discussed at length in blog land before. Everyone should definitely look over link no. 2 in that little triplet, where his analysis of how […]