Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber

Fragments of an Anarchist AnthropologyI cannot deny that I am a bit of a sucker for attractive matching booksbonus points if they are small—so this weekend when I found myself wandering among the essays published by Prickly Paradigm Press a couple of them followed me home. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology was for me.

David Graeber presents in this essay “a series of thoughts, sketches of potential theories, and tiny manifestos—all meant to offer a glimpse at the outline of a body of radical theory that does not actually exist, though it might possibly exist at some point in the future.” This means that over the course of 105 small pages he presents idea after idea, most of them very interesting, without so much time spent fleshing them out. But as he says, the radical theory he has in mind does not yet exist. Of the two general questions in the book, “What does anarchism have to offer anthropology?” and “What does anthropology have to offer anarchism?” the latter is of much more interest to me. His experience of living in and studying actual stateless communities is certainly fascinating in itself.

Graeber opens the essay by defining anarchism—sort of—and by defending utopianism and also defusing typical reactions to the idea of statelessness. I think he does a particularly good job at this. Discussing the problem of being asked to produce an example of real-life, functional anarchy, he comes to one of his best passages.

The dice are loaded. You can’t win. Because when the skeptic says “society,” what he really means is “state,” even “nation-state.” Since no one is going to produce an example of an anarchist state—that would be a contradiction in terms—what we’re really being asked for is an example of a modern nation-state with the government somehow plucked away: a situation in which the government of Canada, to take a random example, has been overthrown, or for some reason abolished itself, and no new one has taken its place but instead all former Canadian citizens begin to organize themselves into libertarian collectives.

There is a way out, which is to accept that anarchist forms of organization would not look anything like a state. That they would involve an endless variety of communities, associations, networks, projects, on every conceivable scale, overlapping and intersecting in any way we could imagine and possibly many that we can’t. Some would be quite local, others global. Perhaps all they would have in common is that none would involve anyone showing up with weapons and telling everyone else to shut up and do what they were told. And that, since anarchists are not actually trying to seize power within any national territory, the process of one system replacing the other will not take the form of some sudden revolutionary cataclysm—the storming of a Bastille, the seizing of a Winter Palace—but will necessarily be gradual, the creation of alternative forms of organization on a world scale, new forms of communication, new, less alienated ways of organizing life, which will, eventually, make currently existing forms of power seem stupid and beside the point.

He does particularly well in explaining why the traditional idea of “revolution” is not a particularly useful one here, and does explore some of these “alternative forms of organization.” But over and over again it felt so limiting.

The essay swings from subtly to not-so-subtly assuming that anarchism includes a rejection of markets. At first it’s hard to tell; when Graeber lists different schools of thought, “Anarcho-Syndicalists, Anarcho-Communists, Insurrectionists, Cooperativists, Individualists, Platformists…” he (conspicuously?) leaves out anarcho-capitalists. But then he includes individualists. Hmm. There is some seemingly standard and mild bashing of “capitalism,” which isn’t clearly defined for a while, and he tentatively describes himself as a “libertarian, practice-oriented Marxist” (contradiction in terms? you decide). He describes communities like the Tiv, with “no political institutions larger than the compound,” but where “[m]arkets were protected, and market rules enforced by charms which embodied diseases and were said to be powered by human body parts and blood.” And then makes statements like the following, which seem to indicate at least some economic ignorance: “They would have found the very premise that the point of an economic transaction—at least, one with someone who was not your enemy—was to seek the greatest profit deeply offensive.” Or complains about those who “assume that whatever one does that isn’t working is ‘consumption’ because what’s really important about it is that manufactured products are involved.”

Graeber has a lot of interesting things to say when it comes to the intersection of anarchism and the academy, revolution, and ethnographies, but alienates a significant constituency. Probably that is fine with him. My real problem was that the rejection wasn’t more explicit. I hardly expect someone to do the work of arguing against markets or private property in the middle of a 100-page essay about some other topic, but there was too much ambiguity around his use of the word “capitalism,” the phrase “free market,” and his description of nonmarket economies for far too long. (Maybe it wasn’t that ambiguous, I don’t know, maybe I wanted to be too charitable.)

But then, there’s also some confusion about coercion itself. Graeber describes at length the consensus process popular among certain anarchist groups, notably in Chiapas and among anti-globalization activists (a term he dislikes). Steven Shaviro, coming from a very different place from myself, had a partly similar reaction when he wrote about the essay a few years ago:

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.

I couldn’t have said it much better myself, so I didn’t try. And when Graeber gets into the kinds of things he presumably wants to decide through consensus, he starts to sound like a full-fledged technocrat—kind of a surprise, actually. Here, on the feasibility of the International Workers of the World plank of a 16-hour work week:

So what jobs are really necessary?

Well, for starters, there are lots of jobs whose disappearance, almost everyone would agree, would be a net gain for humanity. Consider here telemarketers, stretch-SUV manufacturers, or for that matter, corporate lawyers. We could also eliminate the entire advertising and PR industries, fire all politicians and their staffs, eliminate anyone remotely connected with an HMO, without even beginning to get near essential social functions. The elimination of advertising would also reduce the production, shipping, and selling of unnecessary products, since those items people actually do want or need, they will still figure out a way to find out about. The elimination of radical inequalities would mean we would no longer require the services of most of the millions currently employed as doormen, private security forces, prison guards, or SWAT teams—not to mention the military. Beyond that, we’d have to do research. Financiers, insurers, and investment bankers are all essentially parasitic beings, but there might be some useful functions in these sectors that could not simply be replaced with software. All in all we might discover that if we identified the work that really did need to be done to maintain a comfortable and ecologically sustainable standard of living, and redistribute the hours, it may turn out that the Wobbly platform is perfectly realistic.

Don’t worry, he goes on to say that “it’s not like anyone would be forced to stop working after four hours if they didn’t feel like it.” Phew! But he’s got to have some way to prevent people entering into wage-labor contracts…