Everything Is Just Dandy!

David Graeber – Anarchism, academia, and the avant-garde

The Anarchist Library

Author: David Graeber
Title: Anarchism, academia, and the avant-garde
Date: 2009
Notes: PDF available at https://libcom.org/article/contemporary-anarchist-studies-introductory-anthology-anarchy-academy
Source: Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy (ed. Randall Amster et al.), chapter 10. Online: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780203891735-18/anarchism-academia-avant-garde-david-graeber

Initially, I was to write a critical auto-ethnography of my life in the academy. But I quickly realized that writing critically about the academy is almost impossible. During the 1980s, we all became used to the idea of reflexive anthropology, the effort to probe behind the apparent authority of ethnographic texts to reveal the complex relations of power and domination that went into making them. The result was an outpouring of ethnographic meditations on the politics of fieldwork. But even as a graduate student, it always seemed to me there was something oddly missing here. Ethnographic texts, after all, are not actually written in the field. They are written at universities. Reflexive anthropology, however, almost never had anything to say about the power relations under which these texts were actually composed.

In retrospect, the reason seems simple enough: when one is in the field, all the power is on one side – or at least, could easily be imagined as being so. To meditate on one’s own power is not going to offend anyone (in fact, it’s something of a classic upper-middle-class preoccupation), and even if it does, there’s likely nothing those who are offended can do about it. The moment one returns from the field and begins writing, however, the power relations are reversed. While one is writing his or her dissertation, one is, typically, a penniless graduate student, whose entire career could very possibly be destroyed by one impolitic interaction with a committee member. While one is transforming the dissertation into a book, one is typically an adjunct or untenured Assistant Professor, desperately trying not to step on any powerful toes and land a real permanent job. Any anthropologist in such a situation will, in fact, mostly likely spend many hours developing complex, nuanced, and extremely detailed ethnographic analyses of the power relations this entails, but that critique can never, by definition, be published, because anyone who did so would be committing academic suicide.

One can only imagine the fate of, say, a female graduate student who wrote an essay documenting the sexual politics of her department, let alone the sexual overtures of her committee members, or, say, one of working-class background who published a description of the practices of Marxist professors who regularly cite Pierre Bourdieu’s (1993) analyses of the reproduction of class privilege in academic settings, and then in their actual lives act as if Bourdieu had been writing a how-to book instead of a critique. By the time one is a senior faculty member, and thus secure in their position, one might be able to get away with publishing such an analysis. But by then – unless one is reminiscing – one’s very situation of power guarantees the object can no longer be perceived. On the one hand, my thoughts lead me to the conclusion that it would be safer to admit to being an anarchist than to write an honest auto-ethnography of the academy. On the other hand, I am an anarchist. And it strikes me that the dilemmas that come out of this reality provide an interesting commentary on the academy and its modus operandi, which I present in this chapter.

Consensus and direct democracy

I conducted my doctoral research in a rural community in Madagascar, during a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s in which most of the countryside there had been largely abandoned by the state. Rural communities, and even to some degree towns, were to a large extent self-governing; no one was really paying taxes, and if a crime was committed the police would not come. Public decisions, when they had to be made, tended to be made by a kind of informal consensus process. I wrote a little bit about the latter in my dissertation but, like most anthropologists, I couldn’t think of all that much interesting to say about it. In fact I only really came to understand what was interesting about consensus retrospectively, when, ten years later, I became an activist in New York. By that time, almost all North American anarchist groups operated by some form of consensus process, and the process worked so well – it really seems about the only form of decision-making fully consistent with non-top-down styles of organization – that it had been widely adopted by anyone interested in direct democracy.

There is enormous variation among different styles and forms of consensus but one thing almost all the North American variants have in common is that they are organized in conscious opposition to the style of organization and, especially, of debate typical of the classical sectarian Marxist groups. The latter are invariably organized around some Master Theoretician, who offers a comprehensive analysis of the world situation and, usually, of human history as a whole, but very little theoretical reflection on more immediate questions of organization and practice. Anarchist-inspired groups tend to operate on the assumption that no one could, or probably should, ever convert another person completely to one’s own point of view, that decision-making structures are ways of managing diversity, and therefore, that one should concentrate instead on maintaining egalitarian processes and considering immediate questions of action in the present.