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Fragments of an anarchist in anthropology: The legacy of David Graeber

Graeber was among the most influential and innovative contemporary anthropologists and a committed activist

Occupy MovementSocial MovementsSocialism

David Graeber, left, speaks at Maagdenhuis occupation, University of Amsterdam, 2015. To his left, political theorist Enzo Rossi. Photo by Guido van Nispen/Wikimedia Commons.

On September 2, David Graeber died in Venice, Italy. He was among the most influential and innovative contemporary anthropologists and a committed activist. His research ranged from the legacy of slavery in Madagascar to the financialization of capital and the global economic crisis.

Chief among his academic contributions are his anthropological approach to a theory of value and his incisive analysis of state bureaucracy. Although his work was deeply rooted in an anthropological lineage, it was above all informed by his commitment to an emancipatory politics of anarcho-communism. As he stated in his Twitter bio, he viewed “anarchism as something you do” rather than an identity. He was not an “anarchist anthropologist”—rather, he advocated for an “anarchist anthropology.” Raised by working-class intellectuals, Graeber always ensured that his work was both academically innovative and politically impactful.

Graeber’s most important scholarly contribution may be his theory of value which, though rooted in anthropological discourses, draws on sociology, linguistics, psychology, and economics. Synthesizing a Marxist understanding of commodities, alienation, and commodity fetishism with the theory of gift exchange and reciprocity of early twentieth-century anthropologist Marcel Mauss, he developed a theory applicable to both capitalist and non-capitalist societies.

Graeber applied this understanding of value in his 544-page bestselling book Debt: The First 5,000 Years*, in which he problematized the common presentation of economic history—that society evolved from a barter system to one with a set currency and eventually to a credit economy. He argued that, in fact, debt precedes currency; money is an abstract representation of debt. Graeber held that money emerged primarily to represent unpayable debts, such as ‘blood debts’ or ‘life debts,’ as he preferred to call them, which emerge when a life is taken and the only possible repayment is another life. In such situations, the bereaved could be forced to accept monetary compensation (often by the state). Graeber argued that such unpayable debts only come to appear payable when the debtor is forced to accept human life as measurable monetarily. He believed that today’s debt society is rooted in this history, with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund that can now enforce global debts.

Graeber also explored the strong association between debt and immorality. He identified three primary moral principles upon which economic relations could be founded. The first, ‘baseline communism,’ refers to the moral obligation to help others, often expressed in times of economic collapse. The second, ‘exchange,’ is the balancing structure governing our economic relations. The third is ‘hierarchy,’ which sets the rules of reciprocity. Equality assumes the obligation to reciprocate; hierarchy erases that rule.

Upon this foundation, Graeber developed his understanding of ‘interpretive labour,’ inspired by feminist Standpoint Theory. In situations of conflict, two parties with equal power must learn as much about one another as possible. But when one party has an overwhelming advantage, the imaginative work is left to be done by the disadvantaged group. For example, the poor are often left trying to understand those at the top in order to survive in a system that they do not control, while the wealthy are free to ignore the suffering of those at the bottom. Similarly, as a large and powerful institution backed by the threat of force, the bureaucratic state does not need to perform any interpretive labour to understand the people it governs in order to function effectively.

Graeber was troubled by the absence of a satisfactory left wing critique of bureaucracy, opening the door for right wing populism—which does provide a critique of ‘big government’—to take hold under the proposition that the market can replace bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, intended as a means to rationalize everything, has become in practice a way to ignore society’s needs and subtleties in favour of efficiency for the ruling class and the maintenance of the status quo.

In response, Graeber developed a framework for a strong left wing critique of bureaucracy and a case for direct democracy. Although he maintained a belief in the universality of ‘baseline communism,’ he observed how those living in capitalist societies have been convinced by the right that communism is an unachievable dream, leading to an acceptance of neoliberal bureaucracy as rational. However, he maintained hope, arguing for the fundamental creativity of the left, which by definition does not accept the world as it is, while the right is rooted in an ontology of violence. He believed that, through interpretive labour, the left could develop its plans for change.

Graeber observed, in a highly popular article in STRIKE! magazine, and later in an acclaimed book, the rise of what he called “bullshit jobs.” He noted that, in 1930, John Maynard Keynes had anticipated that by the end of the twentieth century, technology would have advanced enough that a 15-hour work week would be possible. Graeber believed that Keynes was right, but that this work reduction did not come into being because technology was used to extract more labour from workers. To do so, pointless jobs were created. Millions of people spend their lives locked in an irrational economy, working in jobs that even they recognize are unnecessary.

Fundamentally opposed to violence, Graeber advocated against traditional insurrectionary models for revolution and instead advocated for direct action, as an anarchist and long-time member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

His most praxis-oriented work, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology proposed that anthropologists are well-positioned for proposing anarchist solutions, given their experience analyzing the inner-workings of so-called ‘primitive societies.’ But they must become more politically vocal, envisioning and advocating alternative systems to capitalism.

Graeber lived out his principles, balancing his PhD work at the University of Chicago and professorial appointments at Yale, Goldsmiths, and the London School of Economics, with social activism. He was closely involved with the Global Justice Movement and was on the front lines of the 2001 protests against the neoliberal Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, later documented in his book Direct Action: An Ethnography.

He was a prominent organizer of the Occupy Wall Street movement and is credited with coining the phrase “We are the 99%” in response to the growing power of debt through rising student loans and medical costs. Graeber questioned the morality of the obligation, suggesting that to stop paying one’s debts could be the beginning of building a revolution.

Through his praxis of anarchist anthropology, Graeber demonstrated to radical academics of all disciplines how to engage in critical politics as much through activism as through research. Perhaps more importantly, the people he wrote about were also the people he wrote for. Most of his publications were intended to be accessible, offering a new radical politics to both academia’s left and the everyday working people with whom he always identified and alongside whom he always fought.

The loss of Graeber is both enormous and devastating. Honouring his memory means maintaining a belief that we are able to change the world and that it rests on all of us, in our research and our action, to bring the revolution to life.

Jonah Durrant Olsen is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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