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Stevphen Shukaitis, "David Graeber's <i>Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology</i>"

Anthropology Against the State:
A Review of David Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

Stevphen Shukaitis

If there is any question thrown at organizers within the various tendrils of the global justice movement intended to make our efforts appear utopian and unrealizable, it would have to be “I understand what you’re against, but what are you for?” The implicit idea being that there is no reason to believe that another world is possible in more than a rhetorical sense, or at least not examples to prove such is possible. Frequently those of us who dream of a liberated world without a market or state structures turn to anthropology for inspiration from the thousands of years of human history where such didn’t exist. Anthropologists, worried about being accused of romanticizing populations, have generally responded to these inquiries with a confused silence.

In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology Yale based anthropologist and political activist David Graeber asks, “what if that wasn’t the case?” Drawing from the rich history of ethnographic materials and anthropological records as well as critical theory and current practices within the global justice movement Graeber demonstrates that there is an endless variety of revolutionary political and social organization to draw from. Rejecting both the Hobbesian fable of the “war of all against all” and the blatant forms of racism and Eurocentrism used to argue that so called “primitive” societies have no bearing on and are completely removed from the world we live in, Graeber explores the endless variety of political and organization which have existed throughout the world. From the Tsimhety of northwest Madagascar to Amazonian tribes what emerges are the dynamics of struggle and contention, of insurrection and resistance that have existed not just through the past two hundred years of European history but arguably since the dawn of human existence.The anthropological cannon, from James Frazer to Pierre Clastres, once removed from its arcane status as obscure purely academic knowledge, brims with ideas and examples of social organization that could be of use to organizers seeking for alternatives practices. Organizers and radical theorists have long drawn from anthropology to find useful ideas for their work, from the Situationists usage of the potlatch of the Kwakiutl to current practices of consensus, which have existed through numerous indigenous societies throughout the world long before activists began to employ them for spokescouncils. Anarchism in this light is revealed not to be a political philosophy invented by a particular set of bearded European males sometime in the 1800s, but rather the practices of voluntary association, cooperation, and egalitarian social arrangements pervading societies worldwide.

Similarly Graeber connects currents of thought within autonomist traditions, such as the ideas of exodus and counterpower, to social structures within indigenous societies that operate in very much a similar manner. Particularly interesting is his exploration of the idea of ethnogenesis, or how enduring political projects and communities sediment and come to be recognized as ethnic categories. One can see such both in communities that formed in Madagascar as well as in the nomadic tribes formed in the United States by the mixing of escape slaves, indentured European servants, and Native American populations.

The greatest flaw of the book is that Graeber is throwing out so many ideas and concepts at such a dizzying pace that he never really has time to delve into any of them at great depth. But perhaps that’s half the point. Drawing from the practice of ethnography in an attempt to reformulate radical intellectual practice, he argues that the task is to draw and tease out the hidden symbolic and pragmatic aspects of what people are doing and to give such information back as gifts. By beginning to draw out the liberatory possibilities contained within anthropology Graeber sets out not to define and delimit exactly what an anarchist anthropology is, but to point in some of the possible directions that those of us struggling for a better world could take such knowledge.

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, published by Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004. It can be downloaded for free here.