Monday, October 27, 2014

Anarchy in the PhD: David Graeber as Theory

I'm really excited that my chief supervisor is encouraging me to use David Graeber's work as theory in my doctoral thesis. Graeber's writing is actually engaging and interesting... and doesn't require an academic dictionary to read!

A good description, certainly, requires appeal to theory, but in ethnography, theory is properly deployed in the service of description rather than the other way around. (Graeber 2009, 509)

David Graeber is a highly-regarded anthropologist and anarchist activist known for his involvement in the so-called ‘anti-globalisation’ movement (Walker 2012). As Graeber points out, what has been labelled ‘anti-globalisation’ is actually only resisting the form of globalisation that only applies to capital and commodities, which undermines the sovereignty of people and enforces heavy state boundaries.  The movement is pro-globalisation in terms of human freedom and has been active in resisting imposed boundaries such as state borders (2002, 2009). He defines contemporary anarchism as a movement about reinventing democracy through practicing new forms of decentralised organization which, he notes, have often been based on examples from outside the Western tradition (2002, 9). Graeber seems to actively avoid using academic jargon, making his work widely accessible. Instead of using terms like hegemony, Graeber describes forms of oppression which are deeply internalized including racism, sexism, class bias, and homophobia, all of which are forms of violence (2009, 352).He is also known for his work on an anthropological theory of value which explains value as a model of human meaning-making, much more complex and broad than reductive economist paradigms.

Strong critique of Neoliberal ideology
Graeber argues that Neoliberal ideology has been particularly effective in making itself seem natural and inevitable they combine the presumably natural desire to own things (2009, 729). In his book Debt, the firsty 5000 years, Graeber critiques the assumptions made by Neoliberal thinkers and economists make, dating back to Adam Smith. He talks about ‘the myth of barter’: economists often talk about money as a common-sense alternative to the old fashioned barter societies which were difficult and messy, however Graeber states that anthropologists have never discovered any such ‘barter society’. Bartering only really occurred between potentially enemy tribes. Within tribes complex kinship relationships meant gifting and exchanges rich in social meaning that take personal relationships into account and that functional ancient credit systems proceeded money by thousands of years (2011, 34-50).  Graeber exposes the religion of Adam Smith showing how his myth of a separate economic world has now become economic common sense. He also describes a false dichotomy of market and state as the trap of the 20th century. Markets and state are constructed as opposites, and the only possible options. Actually, he argues, stateless societies tend to be those without markets and history shows that markets are almost always created by, dependent on, and reinforced by states, they require states and government has almost always been involved in big money systems (2011, 71). The only known historical markets which were relatively ‘free’ of state intervention were ancient Islamic ones that functioned precisely because of Islam’s ban of ursury (lending money for interest) (2011, 321).  Graeber claims that economists agree that neoliberal ‘markets’ aren’t real: they are mathematical models imagining a self-contained world where everyone has the same motivation, knowledge and self-interest (2011, 114), this fits with Smith, Hobbes and Locke’s imaginary world where 30-40 year old men immerge from the earth fully formed and must decide whether to kill or trade with one-another (210). Graeber describes the economic perspective of turning human relations into mathematics as inherently violent (2011, 14). He argues that economic laws are not rational but theological, based on the Christian assumption of self-interest, that we are all sinners (2011, 332, 333) and that “any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons” (2011, 385). He claims that it is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it primarily been organised around free-labour, and that it’s not about freedom (2011, 350, 351).

Critiques of the state
From an anarchist perspective such as Graeber’s, the coercive force of the state is everywhere. Most of all, it adheres in anything large, heavy, and economically valuable that cannot easily be hidden away. Nations are seen as purely imaginary constructs which become "real" when they threaten to send in the army (2009, 283). Graeber describes the ontology of the market and state as one that uses language to assert its power as if it were a natural or scientific law and discusses how this conception of ‘forces’ may stem from the Western language being based on nouns: static objects relying on largely invisible forces to demonstrate obvious movement.  He claims that the while the state and the market operate on ontologies of violence, that the activists he has worked with operate on an entirely different ontology: one of imagination. The former is continually engaged in destruction and maintaining lopsided power dynamics while the latter is continuously in the process of creation (2009, 511, 512). He perceives the wider movement of the “left” as one based on the premise that human beings actively create the world we live in, therefore there is no reason we should not be able to create one we actually like:  “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” (2009, 515).

Violence and Privilege
Graeber sees violence as the only form of human interaction that could possibly not be considered communication as one does not have to consider the other person very much to hit them, violence is connected with disconnection.  He echoes feminist theorists, constructing patriarchy as violence against women and describes how the underprivileged are constantly engaged in interpretive labour, imagining how the more-privileged see things: “victims of structural violence do indeed tend to care about their beneficiaries far more than those beneficiaries care about them. In fact, this might well be the single most powerful force preserving such relations-aside from the violence itself” (2009, 517).  He suggests developing a new language in which what was traditionally conceived as “women’s work” is considered the primary form of labour, “and other forms merely variants” (2009, 523).  Graeber uses the term ‘alienation’, drawing on Marx’s concept that alienation occurs when we lose control over the essentially human capacity to create things and the situationist critique of consumer-capitalism as alienating (533). He describes the activist preference for Situationalist theorists over postmodernist. One critique of the Situationalists is that they didn’t write much about oppression like racism and sexism. Graeber argues that this may be precisely what is so powerful about their work:
If we imagine capitalism as a game, then it is one thing to bewail the fate of the losers, or to point out that most players will lose, or even that the rules are written so unfairly that certain categories of player are hound to lose. It is quite another to say that the game destroys the souls even of those who win. To say the latter is to say the game is simply pointless. Even the prize is bad (2009, 526).
‘Freedom’, in without the market, could not possibly be a series of isolated choices, instead, Graeber reconstructs freedom as the ability to choose one’s commitments to others (531).

Human economies
Graeber discusses an anthropological perspective on diverse economies, where everything is very connected, as opposed to the neoliberal ‘market’ economy which is about disconnection. He states that all human relations are based on reciprocity but that not all human interactions are about exchange, only some are (2011, 98, 122). In many societies, to cancel ones debts with another person indicates wanting to cut all ties (and is quite rude unless you are strangers).  Graeber claims that “primitive” money was not used as exchange but to mediate gifts and that what he calls social currencies and human economies are primarily about the rearranging, creation, destruction of things not the accumulation of wealth (2011, 124, 130). Whereas the neoliberal ‘market’ puts a price on people and strips them of inherent value, “In a human economy, each person is unique and of comparable value” (2011, 158). In human economies, money is a way of acknowledging pricelessness of things of meaning which expresses how much we cannot buy and sell human beings and even unique personal possessions. The most functioning free-markets, such as the ancient Islamic ones, where ursury was banned, are actually about cooperation not competition and exhibit codes of honour, trust and mutual aid more typical of human economies  (2011, 208, 385)

Graeber redefines communism as a fundamental part of human society: “from each according to his needs, to each according to his abilities” (2011, 98). He argues that we all act like communists most of the time, in being considerate and helpful, and that capitalism is actually built on a bedrock of communism.  Money is constructed in different ways, as: a tool, credit and debit, measurement, trust, a way of comparing, somewhere in between a commodity and a debt token, a symbolic IOU (2011, 75). Graeber also describes money as something like magic: it only works if we believe in it (2011, 342).  He uses anthropological examples to illustrate that more egalitarian societies than ours exist and that slipping into hierarchy is not inevitable, but must always be guarded against (2011, 116).  He looks at the historical connection between property and slavery, and claims that Ancient Greeks would see the difference between a slave and an indebted wage-labourer as a legal nicety, at best (2011, 211). He describes corporations as inherently violent “structures designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit” (2011, 320).  He describes a contemporary middle class crisis of inclusion in which everyone is encouraged to grab a chunk of the profits of their own exploitation (2011, 376), but despite this dominant ideology which treats the basis of sociality itself (reciprocity, debt and communism) as abusive, demonic and criminal, people continue to love one-another (2011, 379).

Graeber, D. 2002. The new anarchists. The New Left Review, 13.
Graeber, D. 2009. Direct action: an ethnography. Oakland: AK Press
Graeber, D. 2011. Debt: the first 5000 years
Walker, H. 2012. On anarchist anthropology. Anthropology of this century, 3.


  1. Thanks for this piece! I especially like that you pulled out this quote: If we imagine capitalism as a game, then it is one thing to bewail the fate of the losers, or to point out that most players will lose, or even that the rules are written so unfairly that certain categories of player are hound to lose. It is quite another to say that the game destroys the souls even of those who win. To say the latter is to say the game is simply pointless. Even the prize is bad (2009, 526).

    I read Direct Action in my Masters program (I'm a PhD student now, about 5 years later) and have been carrying that quote with me for some time. That's how I found your blog.

    Thanks again!