Fragments of an anarchist anthropology

- book review, notes and thoughts

Anti fascism, Decolonization, Social change, Anarchism, Graeber

This post is a review, summary, notes, and reflections of the book “Fragments of an anarchist anthropology” by David Graeber. This is the second book I read from him and it immediately joined the list of my favorite books. The first one I read, Bullshit Jobs, is also in my list of favorites. The more I read from him, the sadder I get that he passed away recently. What a huge loss to humanity. I can only but wonder what his future work would look like, but am happy he blessed us with his perspective while he was around.

Wow, what a book! This super short book is a page turner, I swallowed it in a couple of sittings during holidays and it was so incredibly transforming and taught me so much that now I want to keep reading more on these topics.

Disclosure, I read the edition in Spanish, so I might have mistranslated some of my notes in English. I’m also not an anthropologist and not well-versed in anarchy, so bear with me :)

The purpose of the book seems to be presenting some pathways for exploring what a foundation for anarchist theory could look like. It discusses some very big topics like the nature of democracy, the nature of work, the birth of cultures, what is a revolution, and how to make one.

What I liked about it đź‘Ť #

It reads incredibly well, every point in the book is well connected, and the book is basically self-sufficient, meaning that hardly ever a concept was introduced without an explanation. It’s direct, succinct, and wonderful. Reading it is like reading something of the importance of Paulo Freire, but understanding it as clearly as if it were a very light novel.

What I disliked đź‘Ž #

I would have liked if it had clearer references. I don’t think it would have made any difference to the soundness of his arguments as most references were for illustration purposes only, but some of them got me really curious and then I did not have enough information to seek the exact source. For example, at some point he mentions part of the lyrics from a brazilian popular song, and I would love to go listen to it but I couldn’t find it :(

Quick Preface #

Before I share my notes on the book, let me introduce some basic concepts to those are not familiar: what is anthropology, who is David Graber, and what is anarchism. Sources for these explanations: Wikipedia aned Graeber himself. Click on the toggles to open the content.

David Graeber David Graeber was an USian anthropologist, professor, and anarchist activist. He was involved with the global justice movement and was one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street movement. His main area of work was in economic anthropology, which attempts to explain human economy in a very wide cultural scope and not just limited to a small number of "modern" western societies. He wrote several books, from which the most famous is Debt: the first 5000 years. According to him, his best book was the first one he wrote, [Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar](
AnthropologyAnthropology is the scientific study of humanity, concerned with human behavior, human biology, cultures, societies and linguistics, in both the present and past, including past human species. **Ethnography **is a method used in anthropology of observing people's actions to extract the logic behind it
AnarchismAnarchism is a political philosophy that is sceptical of authority and rejects all involuntary, coercive forms of hierarchy. It's a historically left-wing movement, placed on the farthest left of the political spectrum, and has a strong historical association with anti-capitalism and socialism. It's important to note that anarchism is an organizational practice, not a theory. It seeks to coexist and find projects of mutual benefit. Its decentralized nature of finding **coexistence is fundamentally incompatible with having a single unified theory. **However, the fact it can’t have a single theory doesn’t mean it wouldn't benefit from intellectual analysis tools, and this is the thing Graeber seems to want to foster with this book.

What I learned from Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology #

So much! As I said before, it is a life transforming book. Below are some notes and thoughts.

Disclaimer: The writings below are not necessarily written with the best reading flow in mind, they’re for my own understanding and remembering what I read. Some sentences are directly copied from the book, not necessarily in the order they appear, and are not necessarily written down here in the most connected way. I have just reorganized some things in the ways that made most sense to me.

Click on the toggles to open the content:

Anarchism is important but not valued in academia almost by definition

The impact of anarchism in social movements is as important today as marxism in the social movements of the 60s. However, marxism still has a higher regard in academia than anarchism for a number of reasons:

  • Marx himself was an academic
  • Marxist schools are fruit of “great man” theories (marxism, leninism, maoism…), while anarchist schools refers to organizational practices (anarcho-syndicalism, cooperativism…);
  • Anarchism believes freedom cannot be generated through authority and academic institutions are right along the catholic church and the monarchy in terms of western institutions not very suited for practicing it.
Capitalism is optional and there are viable alternatives

Alternative organizations for society not only are possible but have already existed and continue to exist today. When people try to argue that there is no successful example of anarchism implementation in the past, that is very incorrect because it’s an attempt to reach for a concept of successful state-nation, which goes into direct conflict with the very definition of anarchism. There are, in fact, multiple self-organizing societies, we just don’t know much about them because of racism, European exceptionalism, and bizarre notions we have of what constitutes a democracy. Graeber proposes studying these viable alternatives that have been already created as contributions, instead of trying to prescribe new strategies for people follow.

He argues the field of anthropology is particularly equipped to tell us about such societies, which are typically studied within this field and not among historians or sociologists. The organizational practices of such societies are anarchist in nature, and can be called anarchist, even if they don’t declare themselves that way, because anarchy is about practice. There are communities in Madagascar that consider relations of power between people something immoral, or, at the very least, something that doesn’t belong to their culture, like something that is done by the French, evil Kings, or slave-owner. In their collective imaginary, all kinds of human dominance, including something like military work or salaried work, is seen as a variant of forced work or slavery. Even the concept of leadership is suspicious, it’s a faux-pas for an adult to continuously give orders to another.

Alternatives to capitalism do not have anything to do with a rupture from modernity

There are plenty of examples of anarchist implementation within technological western society (some cooperatives, open source projects, specific organizations). But the main point Graeber tries to raise attention to is that anarchist communities are not “primitive”, nor are they under any temporal isolation. Not only they go through their own internal changes and revolutions, they simply do not intend to resemble to a state.

There’s not a consensus on when exactly “modernity” started, but its concept is tightly linked to industrialization and the European colonial expansion. The thing is, historical sociology tries to answer the question of what is the particular advantage of the west and the answer is: basically none. Nothing tangible separates the humans of the “”modern world”” from the rest of the history of humanity (a history that typically excludes the marginal communities). The majority of issues of our “modern” society is the same as the rest of society (race, class, gender…). That means there is no such thing “cultural development”, and linking that to modern western society would imply that dispossessing, kidnapping, enslaving and exterminating millions of people is a sign of superiority.

The West is not superior

Western arrogance keeps mistaking means with predisposition as if this is a natural evolution of events, as if would be insulting to non-europeans to say others wouldn’t have done the same given the opportunity. But there are two issues with this absurd thought: we can’t say that without evidence of similar genocidal character in other societies, and we can’t say other societies did not have similar opportunities.

There were multiple groups with the power to do this type of damage, such as the Ming dynasty, for example, but the fact is that nobody else did anything remotely similar to this scale of horror. 1450 Europe was not “superior”. They were not a world leader in technological, social, financial, military (not even naval) aspects compared with many other known urbanised centers at the time. They were simply in a privileged geographic position for navigation, looted an incredible amount of wealth through genocide, then used that wealth to conduct their industrial revolution and destroy Asia’s (which had a more advanced textile industry than Europe).

To sum up, it is ridiculous to think of capitalism as just a “financial instrument”. Displacing the population of entire regions and genocide a huge chunk of the world to obtain the optimal accumulation of money or sugar or whatever in the market is more than a mere “financial instrument”. It’s extremely important to understand that there are multiple societies without money that don’t have it not because they don’t have the technology, but because they actually just don’t want to.** **Not all no-money societies were pre-technological-concept-of-money. It is incorrect to assume that their exchanges are just basic emulations of market and that they just don’t know yet how to profit efficiently. The way society organizes itself is not necessarily related to technology, there were hunter-gatherers with nobles and slaves and equalitarian agrarian communities. The study of amazonian communities uncovers plenty of societies today who are aware of fundamental premises of mainstream societies but just find them offensive or morally unacceptable.

Note: I can personally confirm this view is present in direct indigenous sources, and I recommend the books from Ailton Krenak, a Brazilian indigenous movement leader, if you’re interested in hearing more perspectives of this sort. Hopefully one day I’ll make a post about one of his books, Ideas to postpone the end of the world.

Imagining utopias is valid and desirable

One common criticism of some ideologies is that they are too utopian as if that is somehow too unrealistic or is bound to cause trouble. However, Graeber argues that desiring utopias is perfectly fine. Stalinists did not create an oppression machinery due to excess of idealism, on the contrary, the use of force was more likely caused by lack of imagination.

We could waste our times arguing if it’s possible to remove all structural inequalities, as if this doubt somehow justifies not attempting to make things better. The thing is there is no society that doesn’t consider human life itself as a fundamental problem full of tensions. Even the elimination of all structural inequalities is not expected to remove all struggle. There are multiple things that removing capitalism is not going to fix. But the societies we take our examples from don’t have to be perfect, we can take just the contributions we wish.** **

Note: Rosa Luxembourg also wrote specifically about this topic. Her goal was was to do a critical analysis given the context at the time of the Russian Revolution, not as recipes.

Every society carries the seed of their own destruction and has some form of counter-power. Counter-power exists both as resistance (counter-power seen in current western societies) and as maintenance - even when a society practices the extinction of power there are institutions to prevent its creation (“Clastrian machine”). Given changes in popular practice can happen extremely fast after a turbulence, the best explanation for it is that no change actually happened and that it was all already in the collective moral imaginary of that society. These invisible imaginary spaces is where the potential for uprising and practical change comes from.

Revolutions are cumulative processes, not single-point-in-time events

According to Graeber, we should stop seeing revolutions as some one-point-in-time events but as a continued process derived from incremental / iterative change. Replacing a system for another cannot happen as some sort of cataclysmic rupture or taking of power, as that demands creating a state apparatus - a group of people with the power to claim legitimate and exclusive use of violence. It necessarily has to be gradual. Under this view, there is no reason to take down governments. He proposes focusing instead on creating autonomous / alternative spaces or communities.

A revolution is then the accumulation of each revolutionary action. So what’s a revolutionary action?

  1. a collective action
  2. that confronts any power or dominance
  3. and rebuilds social relations under a new perspective
Creating new spaces is the best way to confront power

Although academics love Foucault’s theories that force is no longer the main social control, this is proven wrong by the existence of the police. And that is the main force preventing people from taking inequality walls down. The reason why someone can go hungry right next to a giant pile of food in a big city is probably because if you take some of that food and give to the hungry person, the police might show up and beat you. An anarchist community in Denmark dressed in Santa Claus, went in superstores and started giving the toys away to kids to generate the beautiful spectacle of the police hitting the Santas and taking the toys away from crying kids. The main question here is what is the best way to neutralize the state given their claim of rightful use of violence?

In Anthropology, ethnogenesis is a concept kinda like the opposite of genocide, it’s the creation of a new social or ethnic group. Recent ethnogenesis studies are confronting the view of atemporal groups living for thousands of years in ancestral land, and revealing history under a perspective of constant change, with new ethnic groups continuously being created and dissolved. As it turns out, many of these groups resulted from some sort of collective project that largely fits today’s understanding of “social movement” around some specific value.

Theory of revolutionary exodus: proposes that the most efficient way to oppose capitalism is not direct confrontation but mass defection by those who wish to create new forms of community

The Tsimihety are an ethnical group in Madagascar that split from another ethnical group called Saklava. Although the Tsimihety are an ethnical group, their identity is the result of a revolutionary socio-political project. They were the rebels who refused to recognise the Saklava monarchy. Up until today, they are considered the masters of evasion. When French administrators came looking for workers, they would find their entire village abandoned. They did not attempt to take over power (as this would likely result in death) and migrated. There are also lessons to take from marina rice planters: pretend the government has some dignity by doing the bare minimum, and then, after that, ignoring it.

Most successful forms of popular resistance took this form, called by Paolo Virno of “engaged withdrawal”. This might explain why the history of capitalism is tightly connected to the history of creating institutions to control the movement of workforce (from slavery to border control), and is one of the reasons anarchists defend freedom of movement.

Our ideas of democracy have big problems, even direct democracy

Graeber’s hypothesis is that majority democracy is in its origins a fundamentally military institution. Our understanding of democracy was born in ancient Athens. But does this mean that before that it never occurred to anyone to gather a community to make joint decisions? We must come to the realization that we are not the only the people to put democracy into practice, and that when we try to bring democracy to the rest of the world, we are often just ruining it. There have been hundreds of societies, some of them with a lot more equality than Athens, making joint decisions. The reasons why experts disconsider such societies are racism, ignorance, or technicalities such as the fact that popular assemblies do not vote.

Every human community that must make a decision does so by a consensus process, except the ones that are based on ancient greek traditions. Majority voting rarely comes up naturally. It is a result of the following things, and in the history of humanity, very very rarely both of those things coincided:

  • The people has the right to speak in collective decisions
  • There is a coercitive apparatus to enforce decisions upon the minority who disagreed

Graeber calls for us to reanalyse the state as a complex dual relation between imaginary utopia and its reality of elitism and control. In western mythology, the ideals of Athens and Sparta are autonomy, freedom and equality; and the ideals of the Persian empire are obedience and control. However, in reality, the Persian empire treated the totality of its members a lot better than Athens treated its slaves or than Spartans treated the Helots. The Helots were the majority of the population in the region, who did not go through spartan education. They were not considered spartan citizens, they were effectively state-owned serfs.

It’s important to note that ancient Greece was one of the most competitive societies that ever existed. They converted everything into a public competition, athleticism, philosophy, tragedy and anything else, so it is not a surprise that the same applied to decision making. Each vote is in fact a conquest. If you can convince enough people to vote on you, you win, the other side loses, and then the losers either accept it or you have to do something to control them.

Consensus making is hard but worth it and often necessary

The purpose of consensus making is that nobody has their point of view ignored or violated. Affirmations that some anarchist groups and demonstrations lack a cohesive ideology doesn’t make any sense, because the diversity of opinions is a result of the decentralized organization and consensus making, and these are fundamental parts of the ideology of the movement.

Consensus seeking should never should be attained by trying to convince someone of their point of view, the goal is to reach some common agreement about what to do despite those differences of opinion. The plan is discussed and reformulate, until a proposal that everyone can agree with is reached. There are two general ways of objecting a proposal: staying on the margin (I disagree and will not participate, but will not try to stop you) or blocking (a veto, only used if the proposal violates the reason for being in this group). To avoid senseless vetos, this works better in smaller groups, hence decentralizing when possible.

This is of course, a hard thing to do and takes a lot of work. So why did societies that don’t derive their process from the ancient Greek tradition operate like that instead of voting? The thing is, in a group where every one knows each other, it is a lot easier to figure out what people want than to convince the ones who disagree. Decision making by consensus is characteristic of societies where it would be too difficult to force a minority to accept a majority decision. There must be a mechanism to impose and enforce the decision, such as a state and the monopoly of force, so a majority voting in societies without these institutions would be absurd.

In North American social movements, this sort of consensus method started in feminist movements, adapted from quakers and groups that were inspired on them, which in turn probably inspired themselves on Native Americans. Most popular assemblies today operate like that. Direct Action Network in New York and some villages in Madagascar make decisions in very similar ways, except the process in DAN is very formalized because people need to learn how to operate on it, and in Madagascar this is learned at the same time you learn how to speak.

Salaried work is problematic

Graeber has another book that is solely on this topic, which I heavily recommend, called Bullshit Jobs, so I’m not keeping any notes here. Hopefully I’ll make a post about it in the future :)

Identity politics can limit discourse

Let me start this note by saying that I’m in favour of identity politics because I don’t think that liberation can be achieved without the participation of historically oppressed groups. The very fabric of capitalism is made from racism, hence recognizing identity is important. However, Graeber raised the point of identities being used as a tool to limit the reach of discourse, and after some consideration, I agree, so I plan on keep thinking about this and being more careful about what is the place of identity.

One of the points he raises is that identities are imposed, in the sense that our own definitions are based on the limitations that oppressors put upon us. Any individual attempt to reinvent ourselves is done operating under these limitations. He says the majority of the USians would probably not know how to define themselves if racism disappeared and people really had all of the freedom to define themselves. I don’t actually agree with this analysis, but he shows a compelling example of when focusing on identity can be negative by sharing the case of the Zapatistas:

The Zapatistas are not working to create autonomous communities and advocating for a general reorganization of Mexican society. However, media, and here he includes even progressive and independent media, instead of talking about them as rebels with a radical democracy transformation goal, talks about them as mayas indigenous reinvidicating indigenous autonomy. Their identity is used against them to limit their contributions: Given they are mayans, they are allowed to recognize themselves so, but not allowed to say anything else to the rest of society that is outside of the topic of their mayan identity.

There's a paradox in anthropology and left-wing members of academia that makes them continue to propagate harmful thought

Anthropologists are the only social scientists that know of societies without state in current times, but the discipline that we know today is the result of horrible war strategies, colonization, genocide, just like most academic disciplines. However, as a discipline with direct contact with the victims, they have given it a lot more thought than in other disciplines. It is then paradoxical and scared of its own potential. They occupy a singular position of being able to make theoretical generalizations about humanity, desire, imagination, the self, or sovereignty, that takes into account all humanity and is familiarized with anomalous cases, but emphatically resists and denies to do so. Which is an understandable reaction given how attempts at generalizations have been used by right wing to justify horrible institutions in history. The result is that anthropologists them support themselves on incredibly limited European philosophers for these generalizations, as if these concepts were invented by Plato or Aristotle, developed by Kant or Marquis de Sade, as if nobody ever thought about it before outside of literary traditions of Europe.

Many anthropologists write as if they are very radical and left wing. Are they supposed to be anticapitalists? Even though it is hard to find an anthropologist that speaks well of capitalism, many of them describe our current moment as late stage capitalism, as if declaring it is by the end will help end it, it is equally rare to find one that proposes alternatives to it. Are they liberal then? What are they?

Graber says they’re ample populists, it’s just an announcement that they side with the humble ones and not the elites. This populism is done in practice by showing that the objects of study always successfully resist to some imposition, manipulation, trickery, or homogeneization from above. Their claim is that people appropriate from what comes from above and reinvent it. This is correct to a certain degree, but the problem is that it is the exact same logic of global capitalism: publicity agencies also don’t believe they are imposing, they are just making material available that the public can appropriate. It’s the rhetoric of creative consumption, and the ideology of the new global market, that every human behavior can be described as as production, exchange or consumption. This ideology sustains that what foments the exchange is the fundamentally human thing of searching for profit, and that it is equal all over the world.