Another Anthropology Is Possible

Matt Wasserman Jan 13, 2006

Inspired by the Zapatistas, anthropologist, global justice activist and fired Yale professor David Graeber attempts to use non-Western political and social practices to extricate left-wing politics from its current impasse.

In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, he delves into the anthropological record to show not only that another world (besides that of contemporary capitalism) is possible, but that other social worlds have existed and continue to exist. Tossing out thoughts and examples, he makes a strong case that anarchism is not an invention of 19th century European males but a tendency found within numerous societies. He also argues that ancient Greece or Revolutionary France are not the birthplaces of democracy but only (somewhat bizarre) examples of democracy. Graeber claims that anthropology can play an important role in liberatory movements as a source of models for various social orders and practices, pointing to the limits of political possibility.

Not everyone is as convinced that the academy has something to offer the movement. In recent weeks a debate has taken place on the NYC Indymedia newswire (see: html) about Graeber’s dismissal from Yale’s anthropology department for his politics and whether anarchist academic is a contradiction in terms. Largely, the fight has been over Graeber’s class identity. One side alleges that as a (Yale) professor, Graeber is part of an elite group – as he himself admits – and thus irredeemably bourgeois, while the other side responds that he is a wage laborer and thus a member of the proletariat.

Both sides of the debate are right – and both are missing the point. Marx was the son of a bourgeois mayor, Engels was a factory owner and Kropotkin was born a Russian prince. So what. Revolutionaries should be judged by their contribution to popular struggles and the transformative project, not their class background or day jobs.

Toward the beginning of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Graeber sets out his goal as aiding in the formulation of a social theory that would “actually be of interest to those who are trying to help bring about a world in which people are free to govern their own affairs.” Brief, interesting and occasionally brilliant, his pamphlet provides clues to what such a social theory might look like – if not much more. Advances in theory beyond the terse and fragmentary nature of the theses offered here will likely depend on advances in practices. Nonetheless, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is an impressive first step towards an academic radicalism that is actually helpful to radical movements.

Available for free here:

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