Possibilities — Introduction

By David Graeber

Entry 5667


From: holdoffhunger [id: 1]


Untitled Anarchism Possibilities Introduction

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(1961 - 2020)

Anarchist, Anthropologist, Occupy Movement Organizer, and Anti-Bullshit Jobs Activist

David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. His influential work in economic anthropology, particularly his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs , and his leading role in the Occupy movement, earned him recognition as one of the foremost anthropologists and left-wing thinkers of his time. Born in New York to a working-class Jewish family, Graeber studied at Purchase College and the University of Chicago, where he conducted ethnographic research in Madagascar under Marshall Sahlins and obtained his doctorate in 1996. He was an assistant professor at Yale University from 1998 to 2005, when the university controversially decided not to renew his contract before he was eligible for tenure. Unable to secure another position in the United States, he entered an "academic exile" in England, where he was a lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths' College from 2008 to 2013, and a professor at the London School of Economic... (From: Wikipedia.org / TheGuardian.com.)

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I decided to call this collection Possibilities because the word encompasses much of what originally inspired me to become an anthropologist. I was drawn to the discipline because it opens windows on other possible forms of human social existence; because it served as a constant reminder that most of what we assume to be immutable has been, in other times and places, arranged quite differently, and therefore, that human possibilities are in almost every way greater than we ordinarily imagine. Anthropology also affords us new possible perspectives on familiar problems: ways of thinking about the rise of capitalism from the perspective of West Africa, European manners from the perspective of Amazonia, or, for that matter, West African or Amazonian masquerades from the perspective of Chinese festivals or Medieval European carnival.

One common feature of the essays collected in this book is that they are meant to keep possibilities open. They are not, in any sense, an attempt to create a single grand theory of anything—let alone, a single grand theory of everything. Think of them instead as an attempt to put some of the pluralism I espouse in the later essays into practice.

I often make the argument that (at least as a theoretical problem) incommensurability is greatly overrated. Take any two people, even in the same family or community, and you are likely to find half a dozen incommensurable perspectives. None of us completely understand each other. In practice, the fact that we don’t rarely gets in the way of our living together, working together, or loving one another, and it is often an actual advantage when people, say, come together to solve a common, practical problem. It’s only when we start imagining that the world is somehow generated by the descriptions we make of it that incommensurability becomes a well-nigh existential dilemma. Of course, the world is not really generated by the descriptions we make of it, as most of us are, occasionally, forced to recognize when some aspect of the world we had not included in our descriptions suddenly contrives to hit us on the head (sometimes figuratively, sometimes not). This book, then, is meant to assemble a series of different and sometimes even incommensurable perspectives on a very real world. They are unified, above all, by a commitment to the idea that that world could possibly look very different than it does—but just as much, perhaps, by the belief that, ultimately, the very combination of anger and curiosity, of intellectual play and creative pleasure that goes into crafting any worthwhile piece of critical social theory also itself partakes of something of the powers that could transform that world into something better. What unites them, then, is a utopian ideal.

The 3-part organization of the volume is broadly autobiographical. Part I, entitled “Some Thoughts on the Origins of Our Current Predicament,” represents the kind of work I was doing in the 1980s in graduate school at the University of Chicago. Much of it emerges from research into the origins of capitalism. However, since, as my old mentor Marshall Sahlins has never ceased to point out, capitalism has by now played such a fundamental role in shaping our fundamental assumptions about the nature of human beings, human desires, and the very possibilities for human social relations, all of these essays are by necessity reflections on such larger questions at the same time. I first began trying to puzzle out some of these issues in my Masters paper, submitted in 1987—a much shorter, and updated, version of which appears as Chapter 1. This essay, ostensibly about the history of manners, has a curious history in its own right. Shortly after I finished it, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was visiting the University of Chicago anthropology department. Bourdieu was then at the height of his popularity, and everyone wanted to meet him, but he was much more interested in talking to students than with faculty—since, as he later remarked to a group of us, “with students, you can actually discuss ideas. Your colleagues, all they want to do is kill you.” He announced office hours, and for several days beforehand there was a sign-up sheet on the door. I myself was far too timid to actually put my name on it. As it turned out, so was most everyone else. Late on the afternoon of Bourdieu’s visit, my friend Becky came down to the student lounge after spending an hour talking to him and assured me that—no, really—Bourdieu was extremely friendly and easy to talk to and, not only that, there was still an empty slot at the end of his schedule. I went up, wrote down my name, and ultimately ended up walking him to his hotel, talking about manners. He was, he explained, quite fascinated by the subject. Bourdieu asked for a copy of my paper, and the next day called me back to announce that he found the argument extremely original and urged me to produce a shorter version for publication in France.

The problem, it soon turned out, was that it proved very difficult to shorten (it was an intricate and tangled argument), and while we both agreed the best thing was for us to sit down together and go over it, I never managed to raise the money to get myself to Paris to do so. Actually, it was an excellent example of the sort of mechanisms of social class reproduction in academia that Bourdieu himself spent so much of his time exposing: it seemed no coincidence that I, one of the few students in the department from a working class background, always seemed to be the one who—despite endless formal honors—never seemed to be able to get my hands on any of the university or outside funding that magically seemed to appear for those whose parents were doctors, lawyers, or themselves academics. (True, Bourdieu himself did once suggest he could find money for me once I got to Paris, but this turned out to be an example of another of his principles: that intellectual prestige by no means guarantees academic power. Insiders assured me that he was in no position to guarantee the money would actually appear.)

I eventually published a truncated version of the manners essay in Comparative Studies in Society and History, more than a decade later. Few seem to have noticed it—largely, I think, since it fell between the cracks, being neither quite anthropology, nor history. I had by then fallen out of contact with Bourdieu. But then, four years later, in the heyday of the global justice movement, we suddenly came very close to establishing contact once again.

Bourdieu had by this time become involved in a project called Raisons d’Agir, aimed at creating alliances between scholars, activists, and radical labor unions. Apparently, Bourdieu had been for some time trying to locate scholars in the US engaged in analogous projects, without much success, and had just got word about my work with the New York City Direct Action Network. I had received a message from an intermediary that I was to prepare for a phone call from Bourdieu on September 11th. Unfortunately, that was September 11th 2001. I was living in Manhattan at the time, and, of course, owing to the destruction of the Towers, phone lines were down. I was a little confused as to why Bourdieu never ended up calling later on, but eventually learned that he was already quite ill. He died of cancer not long thereafter.

But here I jump ahead.

I have always felt the Manners paper contained important arguments. It is not only a paper about manners and what Bourdieu would no doubt call the “habitus” of possessive individualism—those deeply internalized habits of thinking and feeling about the world that develop when people who become accustomed, even without realizing it, to viewing everything around them primarily as actual or potential commercial property. It is also a reflection on the very nature of hierarchy, its most elementary building-blocks, and about how forms of resistance as subtle as foul language, merrymaking, and apparently dubious personal hygiene habits simultaneously challenge and reinforce it. While I did not write it with an explicitly political intention, it always seemed to me that the political implications were clear enough (though also complex and endlessly debatable) and I have tried to highlight them a bit more in the current version.

The other three essays in Part I were written later, but they pursue many of the same themes, with the political implications, usually, far more explicit. The essay on consumption is new, but it was conceived during the lonely days when I was writing my dissertation in the early 1990s. University of Chicago does not provide any support for those at the writing stage, so for several years I was spending much of my daylight hours working for interlibrary loan and at various odd jobs, trying to do my own work at night, and to ignore the fact that my teeth were falling out due to lack of dental care as my faculty advisers (mostly) carefully avoided me. One of the great saving graces of my library job (aside from generally delightful coworkers: Gail and Willy I will always especially remember) was that my supervisor was in a different building, so I managed, periodically, to hide out in the Regenstein stacks and snatch a half hour here and there to absorb unusual books I might never have otherwise encountered. It was there I first discovered Colin Campbell’s The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, certainly the most creative and interesting of the generally rather tiresome literature of former counter-culture types turned prosperous middle-class professors trying to demonstrate why, despite their consumption-oriented existence, they had not, in fact, sold out. The book was brilliant, but somehow obviously wrong. This bothered me. I felt there was something important to be said about it, but didn’t know what.

It was around the same time, when returning from my library job to my office at the anthropology department in Haskell Hall, that I passed a collection of ambulances and police cars, to learn that Iouan Couliano, a Romanian historian of religions, had been assassinated on the third floor of Swift, the building next to ours. (A man with a silenced pistol had shot him from the adjoining stall in the men’s bathroom on the third floor. The next day at my job, I heard that the library, on hearing the news, had immediately leaped into action, sending someone to gather all the library books from his office before they were sequestered by the police as possible evidence.) That was a bad couple years for Romanian-born historians of religion at the U of C: Mircea Eliade had died the year before, after which his library mysteriously caught on fire. At any rate, I decided, as a kind of tribute, to read Couliano’s last book, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance—and quickly decided that, while shamelessly sensationalistic, it also was somehow important, and formed a complement to Campbell. Understanding the connection, I thought, would surely provide a key to understanding what I had always found so problematic about the cult of “consumption” so prevalent in Cultural Studies and related trendy theory of the time.

Hence the genesis of the idea. It only really came together, however, some years later when I read Agamben’s newly translated Stanzas, and realized that Couliano must have pirated almost all his central ideas from a then-obscure Italian philosopher who, however, he almost completely failed to cite, except in a couple rather snarky critical footnotes when he happened to disagree with him. (I am not saying, however, that we should add Agamben to the list of suspects—it seems pretty well established that Couliano was murdered by the Romanian secret police.) I ended up putting the pieces together for a panel called “The New Keywords: Unmasking the Terms of an Emerging Orthodoxy,” co-organized with Lauren Leve, at the American Anthropology Association meetings of 2003.

The essays in Part I, then, had radically different incubation periods. The piece on capitalism and slavery, for example, was originally inspired by the close relation between slavery and wage-labor I observed in Madagascar, and then noted again in documents about nineteenth-century Madagascar, while writing my dissertation. Over time, I began noticing Madagascar was by no means unique: wage-labor contracts appear to have developed from within the institution of slavery in many times and places, from ancient Greece to the Malay and Swahili mercantile city-states of the Indian Ocean. Historically, I think one can say wage-labor, at least considered as a contractual arrangement, emerged from slavery—a point I intend to explore it in greater detail elsewhere. However, this particular argument only crystallized when I came to know Immanuel Wallerstein at Yale and began to grapple with the finer points of World-Systems analysis. The essay on fetishism, finally, was originally written to be part of the last chapter of my book Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, but had to be cut for space. Again, it traces back to a grad school fascination: in this case with the work of William Pietz, work that instantly struck me as important, even if it took me almost a decade to figure out why. This last essay also is the first to turn from the origins of capitalism in Medieval and Early Modern Europe to begin to look at Africa, and the some of the questions of authority that dominate Part II.

Part II, “Provisional Autonomous Zone: Dilemmas of Authority in Rural Madagascar,” consists of essays written and rewritten over the decade or so after I conducted my research in the area surrounding the town of Arivonimamo in the province of Antananarivo between 1989 and 1991. Most are ostensibly concerned with longstanding anthropological concerns like magic, witchcraft, kinship, and mortuary ritual. Still, I think the political implications are clear enough. What binds all of them together is that they are all ultimately reflections on the nature of authority.

I should explain that I had long considered myself an anarchist. It follows quite naturally, I think, from the way I was brought up. This is not to say that my parents were anarchists themselves. Rather, I say this because it has always seemed to me that almost anyone who believes that anarchism is a viable political philosophy—that it would actually be possible to have a society without states or classes, based on principles of voluntary association, self-organization, and mutual aid—is likely to feel that wouldn’t be a bad idea. If most people have a problem with anarchism (that is, those who actually have a clear idea what anarchism is) it’s not because they don’t think it is an appealing vision, but because they have been taught to assume that such a society would not be possible. I was never taught this. I grew up in a family of 1930s radicals: my father had fought in Spain, my mother had been the female lead in the famous labor musical Pins & Needles. Like so many Americans who became radicalized in the 1930s, they were first drawn to the Communist Party, then broke with it. Though we were in no way prosperous (my father worked as a plate stripper, doing photo offset lithography—an occupation never especially lucrative to begin with; then he lost most of his pension when the industry fell apart around the time of his retirement), I grew up in a house full of books and ideas, and even more, in an environment full of the awareness of human possibilities. My father, for example, had been an ambulance driver for the International Brigades in Spain during the war. He was based in Barcelona and had thus had the opportunity to live for some time in a place with no formal government under conditions of worker control. While of course the Internationals were heavily propagandized against the anarchists, he himself was quite impressed with those he knew (including his sanitario, the medic assigned to his ambulance, with whom he became good friends), and became deeply indignant over the suppression of the revolution by the Republican government. In later life, he developed a fascination with the emergency paper money issued by local townships and collectives during the war, and even published a scholarly essay on anarchist paper money in Spain—perhaps the only one that exists. (On the desk near me right now is an “honorary mention” plaque from some numismatical society for the essay, dated 1972. They spelled his name wrong.) Anyway, I was never taught to see anarchism as a pipe dream. Among my parents and their friends, it was always seen as at least a viable political philosophy. As a result, I suppose, it was almost inevitable that I would eventually come to embrace it. Still, in the 1980s at least, my commitment remained largely one of principle. I had occasionally made minor efforts to get involved in anarchist politics, but almost invariably ended up disappointed, finding the scene to be dominated largely by squabbling egomaniacs, each of whom seemed to behave like a sectarian party of one, with almost no feeling of community. In this, I think I was just unlucky: pockets of genuine community did actually exist at that time. I just never happened into one. It was something of an irony, then, that after casting about a while for a likely field site, I eventually wandered into a place where the state had, effectively, ceased to exist, and that, for a long time, I didn’t even realize it. The first essay of the second section, “Provisional Autonomous Zone,” describes something of this situation.

The other essays in Part II are, as I say, about authority. While the people I knew in Madagascar were for the most part remarkably effective in their resistance to most forms of imposed authority—they had, in fact, so rebelled against those things they found most obnoxious in the former colonial regime that they had reorganized much of their own daily lives to avoid them—one could hardly describe the society I observed as egalitarian. There were ancient divisions of status. The population where I was living was divided between the descendants of andriana or “nobles,” former free subjects of the Merina kingdom, and the descendants of their former slaves. There were rich and poor. The rich were not, perhaps, so very rich, especially in the countryside, and most people were about equally poor, but divisions were keenly felt. And, of course, there were even more elementary divisions, within families or small communities, though these latter were often curiously entangled with what would otherwise seem like egalitarian principles. The old had authority over the young—but, almost everyone would insist, because of all the people in a community, elders were the least inclined to act like what we would consider “leaders.” Men, in most contexts, had more authority than women—but largely because they were seen as less inclined to give other people orders. All of the essays in Part II are meant to explore these apparent paradoxes in one way or another, relying on the traditional anthropological assumption that, to truly understand something—in this case, the essential nature of authority—it is best to examine its least familiar manifestations.

The set ends with a previously unpublished essay called “Oppression,” that takes the argument about the nature of authority even further, arguing that the traditional anthropological concept of cultural relativism, as normally applied, is really a matter of being relativistic about everything except structures of authority. In its place, I propose a somewhat clumsily labeled “dialogic relativism”: one that begins by observing that, even though what traditional authorities have to say about the nature of truth, beauty, or human nature might vary wildly from culture to culture, there is no place on earth where traditional authorities go completely unchallenged, and the ways people have of challenging them have a lot more in common than most of us would ever have expected.

Part III, “Direct Action, Direct Democracy, and Social Theory,” sets off from my involvement in the global justice movement, beginning in 2000. I was employed by Yale University at that time, and still, while an anarchist in theory, almost completely uninvolved in any sort of organizing. My major contribution to American political life at that point in my life was as occasional cultural commentator for the Chicago-based lefty journal In These Times, where, my primary accomplishment up to that time had been an essay on the subversive implications of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Actually, I’m still quite proud of that. That essay was, I believe it has been established, the very first essay ever written by an academic on the subject of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I invented Buffy Studies! It did earn me a brief mention in Entertainment Weekly, but it could hardly count as a significant contribution to American political life.)

Then one day, in November 1999, after having just finished the last lecture for a class called “Power, Violence, and Cosmology,” I strolled out to pick up a newspaper and saw the headline that martial law had been declared in Seattle.

I was as taken aback as anyone. The next day I received an email from Joe Knowles, my editor at ITT. “You’re an anarchist,” he wrote (or he might not have used exactly those words), “do you think you could figure out who those kids with the black masks breaking all the windows were? What’s the deal? Were they agents provocateurs? Or were they really anarchists?” Before long, I was assembling all the information I could get on contemporary anarchism, and discovering that, in those years when I was not paying attention, the movement I always wished existed had actually come into being. Not long after, I was showing up with my friend Stuart for the actions against the IMF in Washington in April 2000, and getting involved in the New York City branch of the Direct Action Network. Soon, I was a regular at DAN meetings, helping to organize actions, and attending endless trainings in the art of facilitation and consensus.

For the first two years or so I was working with the Direct Action Network, I didn’t really write anything about it—unless you want to count press releases, calls to action, and reports for In These Times. When I first got involved, I never intended to make my involvement part of a research project. Nonetheless, the experience of working in consensus-based groups sparked a kind of intellectual crisis. I should explain here that the fashion at the time was to dismiss the movement, if not as a bunch of stupid kids who did not understand the complexities of modern economics, then as defenders of an incoherent welter of causes in desperate need of a unifying ideology. I quickly realized that such observers simply didn’t know, or didn’t care to know, what they were looking at. In fact, these groups were rooted, above all, in a commitment to reinventing forms of democratic process; that this was not an abstract ideology, but rooted primarily in developing new forms of practice; that insofar as DAN and other anarchist-inspired groups had an ideology, these new forms of democratic organization and democratic practice were its ideology. In this, they were based on a conscious rejection of the older model of Maoist or Leninist or Trotskyist sects that sought first to define the strategic moment, usually according to the teachings of some Great Intellectual Leader, and then to quibble over finer points of doctrine, while leaving the actual fashioning of democratic practice to some hypothetical point far in the future.

The intellectual shock was the result of two near-simultaneous realizations. The first was that the consensus process I was learning in anarchist circles was really an extremely formal, self-conscious version of the very form of decision-making I had witnessed on a day-to-day basis in Madagascar. It had to be formal and self-conscious, of course, because everything was being reinvented—patched together from bits and pieces learned from Quakers and Native Americans, read about in books, or simply invented by trial and error from thirty years of activist experience of trying to organize networks and collectives on anti-authoritarian lines, a tradition that harkened back at least to the days of early feminism. None of it came at all naturally to us. None of us were very good at it, at least at first. But it was obvious that, if we were going to invent a decision-making process that would actually work for a community in which no one had the power to force anyone else to do anything, it was going to have to look like something like the techniques employed by communities that had been living that way for thousands of years. I was trying, then, to actually do what I had observed everyone do in rural Madagascar, and finding it extremely difficult. The second shock, though, was the realization that one reason I found it so difficult was that my intellectual training had inculcated in me habits of thought and argument far more similar to the idiotic sectarian squabbling of Marxist sects than to anything consistent with these new (for us) forms of democracy.

The essays in Part III, starting with the “Twilight of Vanguardism,” in which I first began to try to piece together the dimensions of the problem, all grow out of that rather disturbing realization. What would an intellectual practice look like, I began wondering, that would be consonant with genuine democracy? Was “democracy” even the right word to be using? If revolutionary intellectuals were not supposed to come up with the proper grand strategic analysis, the proper definition of reality, in order to lead the masses on the correct path, then what precisely was our role to be? Was it possible to move from the kind of strategic debates in which I actually did find myself embroiled while working with the global justice movement to theoretical reflections of general import? I’ve wrestled with questions like these at least to some degree in almost everything I’ve written since: from the diminutive Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology in 2003, to the gargantuan Direct Action: An Ethnography, scheduled to appear next year—and even in my ostensibly more conventional work on value theory and theories of debt. I certainly don’t claim to have come up with any definitive answers. The final three essays, none of which have previously appeared in English, all represent attempts to engage with one or another aspect of this dilemma, by examining, in turn, the history of social theory, the history of the notion of democracy, and the war of images between police and activists in the early days of the global justice movement. Each is a reflection and an experiment. But most of all, each is meant as a gift and an invitation, and attempt to spark the kind of dialogue between scholars, anyone involved in radical social movements, anyone passionately concerned about the human condition, that Pierre Bourdieu had wanted to discuss with me almost six years ago on September 11th.

That particular conversation never happened. As is so often the case, realities unacknowledged in our description of the situation came and hit us on the head. Still, I like to think this book, written in such a way as to (I hope) be accessible to anyone who finds such questions interesting and important, published outside of the usual academic ghetto, is itself one small step to opening such a dialogue today.


March, 2007

From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org

(1961 - 2020)

Anarchist, Anthropologist, Occupy Movement Organizer, and Anti-Bullshit Jobs Activist

David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. His influential work in economic anthropology, particularly his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs , and his leading role in the Occupy movement, earned him recognition as one of the foremost anthropologists and left-wing thinkers of his time. Born in New York to a working-class Jewish family, Graeber studied at Purchase College and the University of Chicago, where he conducted ethnographic research in Madagascar under Marshall Sahlins and obtained his doctorate in 1996. He was an assistant professor at Yale University from 1998 to 2005, when the university controversially decided not to renew his contract before he was eligible for tenure. Unable to secure another position in the United States, he entered an "academic exile" in England, where he was a lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths' College from 2008 to 2013, and a professor at the London School of Economic... (From: Wikipedia.org / TheGuardian.com.)


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