Adam's Reviews > Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber
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's review
Jan 12, 09

bookshelves: lefty
Read in August, 2008

“But the anarchists were right. I think anthropologists should make common cause with them. We have tools at our fingertips that could be of enormous importance for human freedom. Let's start taking some responsibility for it” (105).

Despite it seeming compelling and obvious, this is one of the the only two books that I'm aware of that explore the points of congruence between anthropology and anarchism (the other one is Harold Barclay's “People Without Government” -- soon to be reviewed). It's a connection that I became aware of as an undergraduate anthropology student, and on which I've reflected since meeting many anarchists.

For me, anthropology begins with the dismantling of all that we take for granted as natural, human, and universal; “to familiarize the unfamiliar and de-familiarize the familiar.” By way of comparison with other societies, anthropology demonstrates the infinite possibilities for human organization. The importance of anthropology for anarchism is that it demonstrates the possibilities of living in other conditions; namely, in the absence of capitalism or the state.

The beginning of any revolutionary process is the ability to imagine alternatives; to dream. Anarchism is revolutionary because it is, as one anarchist anthology is titled; Demanding the Impossible. “Impossible” because we are unable to imagine life without the institutions so pervasive to us, not least of which being capitalism and the state.

Thanks to anthropology, imagining alternatives to our lived reality doesn't have to remain in our dreams; we can do it by trying to put ourselves in the shoes of those people who walk in a a wholly alternate reality.

It should come as no surprise, then, that there have always been anthropologists who have identified with anarchism or have had anarchist sympathies (Radcliffe-Brown; Mauss). The several publications that explicitly look at the relationship between anarchism and anthropology either identify anthropological studies of autonomous/self-governing societies, identify anarchists in the field of anthropology, or the explore point of convergence between anarchism and anthropology is methodology/practice. The latter is of most interest to me, and on which Graeber most concentrates.

A point of congruence between anthropology and anarchism that I've thought a lot about, and which I think Graeber should have explored more, is how the practice of ethnography can be instructive for the practice of democratic organizational practice. Graeber discusses at length the anarchist ideals behind consensus-building, but doesn't talk about the sort of “consensus” that ethnographic research seeks to establish, through a negotiation of understandings between participant-observer and informant. This is something I plan on writing about some day....

Greaber's principle argument is that anthropologists are the exclusive owners of information about communities and societies that function without states or capitalist economies. It is therefore anthropologists' responsibility to share this information and engage people in dialogue who wish to build liberated relationships and communities.

Graeber also challenges the notion of human history in the same way that Thomas Kuhn challenged scientific history; arguing that human history has always been characterized by continual social change, and revolutions were not “things;” sudden ruptures of homeostasis, but rather gradual accumulation of counterpowers. Graeber builds on Italian Autonomist (see Antonio Negri) ideas about “evasion” or “engaged withrawl,” and makes the memorable statement: “there are times when the stupidest thing one could possibly do is raise a red or black flag and issue defiant declarations. Sometimes the sensible thing is just to pretend nothing has changed, allow official state representatives to keep their dignity, even show up at their offices and fill out a form now and then, but otherwise, ignore them” (64). Glib, and perhaps an overstatement. But his example from indigenous Madagascaran groups is much more compelling than the Crimethinc types.

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