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Jason Adams, "David Graeber's Anarchist Anthropology"

This review is from the current edition of the excellent "Green Pepper". The theme for this issue is "Life Beyond The Market".

"On the Inseparability of High Theory and Low Theory:
Critical Review of David Graeber´s Fragments of an
Anarchist Anthropology

Jason Adams

While it is somewhat surprising, it certainly is
fitting that a book series edited by Marsall Sahlins
should produce a book such as David Graeber's recent
offering, which attempts to lay the groundwork for
what he hopes will develop into an 'anarchist
anthropology'. Indeed, in the last three decades of
the twentieth century, it was the work of Sahlins and
other critical anthropologists such as Richard Lee and
Pierre Clastres that produced some of the most
outstanding changes within anarchist theory. In this
time of new social movements (ranging from
environmentalism to indigenism to feminism and
beyond), the academic authority of critical
anthropological theory was one of the most important
factors that allowed the former predominance of 'class
struggle' anarchism to move into its current position
as but one of many other forms of legitimate political
contestation, thus eternally pluralizing the terrain
on which all forms of domination might be challenged.

This diversification of anarchist political theory is
easily discovered for instance, in such important
developments as the social-ecological thought of
Murray Bookchin, the ontological anarchism of Hakim
Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson), and the
anarchist-primitivism of John Zerzan, each of which
made their highly influential arguments through
reference to these anthropologists, as well as
Frankfurt School figures like Horkheimer and Adorno,
and at times, poststructuralist theorists like
Foucault, Deleuze and Irigaray.

The critical turn
within anthropology that inadvertently brought this
change about within anarchism was one that initially
sought to counter earlier chauvinist interpretations
of non-Western societies, which tended to assume as
"common-sense" the racist Hobbesian fable which holds
that those political communities which are not the
product of modern territorial states necessarily
revert to a violent, tyrannical war of "all against

In opposition to such fantastic yet nonetheless
pervasive ideas, these critical anthropologists
demonstrated to the contrary that while they did not
have SUVs, computers or cell phones, such "primitive"
societies actually tended to work far fewer hours per
week than we do today, whilst easily meeting the daily
food, clothing and shelter needs of the entire
population, a feat paradoxically unheard of in our
overdeveloped technological societies of today (which,
of course, are supposed to be the 'affluent'

So this is why Graeber`s book is so important at this
particular moment, an unparalleled time in which
anarchism has suddenly attained a status within
academia comparable to that of Marxism several
generations earlier. It "completes the circle", so
that rather than critical anthropology always being
the driving force transforming the outer limits of
anarchist discourse, anarchism itself can help to
transform the discipline of of anthropology as well
(as well as political science, sociology and so on).

Because he pursues this line from a perspective that
is rooted in the anarchistic practice of the
antigloblization movement, his framework seems to hold
far more potentiality than the increasingly worn
approaches of either Bookchin or Zerzan, though not
perhaps, of Hakim Bey. Neither romanticizing nor
condemning tribal societies, Graeber argues that "what
we see in the more recent ethnographic record is
endless variety. There were hunter-gatherer societies
with nobles and slaves, there are agrarian societies
that are fiercely egalitarian", with the implication
that "other societies have social movements and
revolutions" as well, which means that the long
history from which contemporary radicals can draw for
examples of anarchism in practice is actually much
more expansive than previously assumed.

To this end,
he shows how in a process commonly referred to as
"ethnogenesis", many of the more egalitarian tribes
were founded as the result of a radical political
rebellion within already-established tribes (as was
the case for instance, in the Tsimihety people who
refused to follow the customs of the authoritarian
Sakalava monarchy in 16th century Madagascar).

surprisingly common occurrence is then compared to
that which Italian autonomists such of Paolo Virno
have described as revolutionary 'exodus', an example
of which is the mass defection of working class youth
from official society through the refusal of factory
labor and the creation of a drop-out culture of
squats, social centers, and other autonomous
institutions in the Seventies.

Yet despite the many positive aspects of this essay,
Graeber makes his biggest mistake when he assumes that
what he calls 'low theory' (movement-based theory that
supposedly recieves no influence from the likes of
elitist academic thinkers) is necessarily superior in
terms of its antiauthoritarian potentiality to that of
'high theory' (academia-based theory that pays no
attention to social movements and functions only
within a closed circuit).

Ironically this may be due
not so much to an anarchist concern with dislodging
all forms of domination and authority, as it is to the
self-avowed importance of Marxist "materialism" in the
backdrop of his intellectual pedigree. This form of
thought is one that argues that ideas are always the
products of material conditions and that therefore, to
ever dare to suggest that the opposite might also be
true (that ideas are also important in the bringing
about of new material realities), is inherently
"idealist" and thus elitist in orientation since ideas
are typically monopolized by academics.

While his
intentions ar admirable, Graeber thereby sets up a
binary opposition between 'theory' and 'practice'
where the former is made to reek of an increasingly
stale Marxism, while the latter is made to exude the
freshness of an increasingly popular anarchism, even
though ironically the very basis for this claim is a
fundamentally Marxist one.

But in fact it is not hard to see that both theory
and practice are of equal importance and that they are
actually so thoroughly interwoven that they are
totally inseperable from one another. Really, is it
any better to fetishize action as more important than
theory if that action is based on outdated or
irrelevant theory, which results in actions that waste
our time and undermine our collective potentialities?

Certainly the rethinking and reframing of identities
that was the major focus of the new social movements
that emerged in the wake of the Sixties was based on
this idea: if the experience of being "gay" (a term
that is always negatively defined by its "straight"
opposite) could be reframed under the reappropriated
and radicalized label "queer", as is suggested in the
work of Foucault, sexuality for instance, could thus
become not merely a space for pleasure, but for
radical political resistance as well.

This process of
reframing how reality is understood is really what
so-called "High Theory" is all about (we will get to
this shortly), and therefore it should be of
considerable importance to anyone who wishes to
challenge not only capitalism and statism but also all
other forms of domination and coersion as well.

To be fair, Graeber does at one point say that what
is needed is a "diversity of high theoretical
perspectives", and that his concept of "low theory"
would be "a way of grappling with those real,
immediate questions that emerge from a transformative
project", but the route through which he arrives at
this conclusion is only made possible by way of some
quite ironically non-consensus-seeking "smackdowns" of
those contemporary radical perspectives with which he
apparently disagrees, such as those of

While academics like
Radcliffe-Brown, Mauss and Sorel are deemed worthy of
his respect, for some reason Foucault, Baudrillard and
Virilo and the like are not, despite the fact that
they are all equally privileged in terms of status and
all equally engaged in actually existing social

Perhaps the strangest part of the dialogue
which he generates in this book is the point where he
argues that in order to create an anarchist social
theory we would have to get rid of any trace of
vanguardism, which is fair enough in and of itself,
but is then very akwardly followed by the phrase,
"this is one area where I think anthopology is
particularly well-positioned to help". How would this
'help' not be vanguardist when the 'help' of thinkers
like Foucault is portrayed in such a way that it would
be? Rather than look at those who are creating viable
alternatives and trying to lead them in authoritarian
fashion by issuing off 'prescriptions' (which most of
his intellectual targets have never done), Graeber
argues that radical intellectuals instead should "try
to figure out what might be the larger implications of
what they are (already) doing, and then offer those
ideas back...as gifts" (which, without explaining how,
he insists would be a directly democratic process).

However, while most of those who are influenced by
poststructuralist thought are summarily dismissed by
such passages as "academics love Michel Foucault's
argument that identifies knowledge and power, and
insist that brute force is no longer a major factor in
social control. They love it because it flatters them:
the perfect formula for people who like to think of
themselves as radicals even though all they do is
write essays likely to be read by a few dozen other
people in an institutional environment", he does give
credit to the likes of Peter Lamborn Wilson (Hakim
Bey), whose writings he says demonstrate that
rebellion does indeed occur within tribal societies
(such as the Hopewell and the Mississippian) and that
often hierarchical structures were swept away by civil
unrest so that more egalitarian hunter-gatherer
societies could take over in their place.

Graeber draws attention to Wilson's work on the
hundreds of mixed-race 'maroon' communities (comprised
of runaway European servants, African slaves and their
sympathetic American Indian counterparts) such as the
Melungeons, the Brass-Ankles and the Wee-Sorts that
once populated large swaths of the American East
Coast, all of which of course give further credence to
his preferred autonomist theory of exodus as a viable
method of resistance. But here we must ask, is this to
assert that Mauss, Radcliffe-Brown and company were
somehow not academics, or alternatively, that Foucault
was somehow not also engaged in radical social
movements, such as for instance prison abolition,
queer liberation and the very Italian Autonomia
movement Graeber champions? Especially since he later
concedes that "all social orders are in some sense at
war with themselves. Those unwilling to establish an
apparatus of violence for enforcing decisions
necessarily have to develop an apparatus for creating
and maintaining social consensus, at least in the
minimal sense of ensuring malcontents can still feel
they have freely chosen to go along with bad
decisions", the critical reader of this book is forced
to ask such questions about the contradictions that
lie within.

While Graeber says that the dismissal
non-anthropologists often give him and his colleagues
is largely due to the critical reflection of its
practitioners on their collective culpability in
imperial power, and that this merely serves to justify
their continuing ignorance about 90% of human history,
this criticism could even more gracefully be applied
to his dismissive remarks about poststructuralist
academics, who make points about knowledge and power
that quite frankly are NOT AT ALL flattering to
academics, since their beloved 'disciplines' are
unveiled as the bureaucratic machines of power
reproduction that they were created to be in the first
place. When he says that the information
anthropologists have could be very useful if it were
not seen as 'shameful' knowledge, (i.e., drenched in
the blood of millions of indigenous peoples, which it
is), and rather as the universal and common heritage
of humanity that should be opened up to all, the very
same thing could be said of 'high theory', which as I
have written elsewhere, is not the product only of a
few intelligent heads but is actually the result of
the social and political specificities of a particular
time and place: the rebellion of May 1968 throughout
France and much of the rest of Europe as well. Thus a
more productive way to think of 'low theory' would be
to open both the (justifiably) hated disciplines of
anthropology and philosophy to radical reflection and
participation from the broader community, and drawing
on a range of sources: indeed this is why the more
interdisciplinary tradition of Cultural Studies is so
important, because it draws not only on the work of
'European philosophers' (as suggested), but also, and
ironically so, on the ethnography, history and culture
of non-Western peoples all over the world (which is
essentially what he proposes to do with anthropology,
except minus the European philosophers). Yet Graeber
denies this possibility as well, arguing that by
positing that people are always engaged in acts of
resistance at every moment, the logic propping up
Cultural Studies "comes to echo that of global
capitalism", because he assumes, erroneously, that the
only thing that matters to them is the politics of
identity and not of other forms of domination such as
statism or capitalism.

Early on in the book, Graeber suggests that in
addition to anarchist anthropology, the cultivation of
an anarchist sociology, economics, literary theory and
political science might also be worthwhile projects,
the latter of which is something I personally am
particularly interested in promoting since that is the
'discipline' that I have chosen for my graduate school
work. But as interesting as that sounds, would it not
be more exciting to begin to undermine the artificial
separation of these disciplines in the first place,
since it is precisely through this separation that the
possibility of intellectual vanguards (i.e.,
disciplinary experts and specialists) comes about in
the first place? Instead of an anarchist anthropology
then, perhaps we what we would be working towards
would be an anarchist cultural studies, one which
would of course draw on anthropology, but which would
not allow itself to be captured within the limits of
that framework. Graeber grasps at this possibility
when he acknowledges the strangeness that 'exotic
societies' are deemed the exclusive subject of
anthropology, while our own societies are the subject
of the other remaining human sciences, but he does not
continue with this thread to its possible liberatory

After all, if anarchism is about anything,
it is about the abolition of coercion, and certainly
academic disciplines are nothing if not coercive, they
are 'forced intellectual labor camps', and thus if we
wish to create an anarchist space within academia, we
will inevitably be drawn toward some form of
interdisciplinary inquiry that would undermine the
current division of labor with which the current
relations of knowledge, violence and power are
constituted (Foucault never claims that knowledge
completely replaced violence, as Graeber implies, only
that the relationship had shifted and that they all
coexist at once). Such an anarchist approach to
interdisciplinarity would not be one based on the
universalizing illusion of consensus, but one that
would accept the theory of exodus as its primary
structure, one in which BOTH voluntary association and
dissociation would be accepted and promoted alike.

Dissensus is no less important than consensus and this
is so precisely because of the relationship between
power and knowledge that Graeber dismisses as
unimportant; if the rules of consensus are understood
well by one person in the group and not by the others,
that individual automatically has more power than the
others and he or she can manipulate it at will (as he
admits, "one could go on at length about the elaborate
and surprisingly sophisticated methods that have been

Graeber's book is important for many
reasons and will undoubtedly be widely read, but it
will not accomplish its stated goal of developing an
anarchist anthropology unless it contests all forms of
domination, including those enacted by the artificial
division of disciplines themselves, which would of
course mean that the category 'anthropology' would
cease to be a relevant distinction.