David Graeber’s Anarchist Thought: A Survey

Center for a Stateless Society No. 17 (Winter-Spring 2014), download this study PDF

Introduction: The Primacy of Everyday Life

David Graeber chose, as the epigraph to his book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, a quote from Pyotr Kropotkin’s article on Anarchism for the Encyclopedia Britannica. In it Kropotkin stated that, in an anarchist society, harmony would be

obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free arrangements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.

The interesting thing about this is that it could serve as an accurate description of virtually any anarchist society, including the libertarian communist sort favored by Kropotkin, Goldman or Malatesta, the kind of anarcho-syndicalism favored by most of the Wobblies and CNT, the anarcho-collectivism of Bakunin, the mutualism of Proudhon, or the market anarchism of Thomas Hodgskin and Benjamin Tucker. And it’s appropriate that Graeber chose it as his epigraph, because his affection for “freely constituted groups” and the “free arrangements” concluded between them is bigger than any doctrinaire attempt to pigeonhole such groups and arrangements as business firms operating in the cash nexus or moneyless collectives.

Graeber, as we already saw to be the case with Elinor Ostrom, is characterized above all by a faith in human creativity and agency, and an unwillingness to let a priori theoretical formulations either preempt either his perceptions of the particularity and “is-ness” of history, or to interfere with the ability of ordinary, face-to-face groupings of people on the spot to develop workable arrangements—whatever they may be—among themselves. Graeber is one of those anarchist (or anarchist-ish) thinkers who, despite possibly identifying with a particular hyphenated variant of anarchism, have an affection for the variety and particularity of self-organized, human-scale institutions that goes beyond ideological label. These people, likewise, see the relationships between individual human beings in ways that can’t be reduced to simple abstractions like the cash nexus or doctrinaire socialism.

If we really want to understand the moral grounds of economic life and, by extension, human life, it seems to me that we must start… with the very small things: the everyday details of social existence, the way we treat our friends, enemies, and children—often with gestures so tiny (passing the salt, bumming a cigarette) that we ordinarily never stop to think about them at all. Anthropology has shown us just how different and numerous are the ways in which humans have been known to organize themselves. But it also reveals some remarkable commonalities….

Graeber’s anarchism is, above all else, human-centered. It entails a high regard for human agency and reasonableness. Rather than fitting actual human beings into some idealized anarchist paradigm, he displays an openness to—and celebration of—whatever humans may actually do in exercising that agency and reasonableness. Anarchy isn’t what people will do “after the Revolution,” when some sort of “New Anarchist Man” has emerged who can be trusted with autonomy; it’s what they do right now. “Anarchists are simply people who believe human beings are capable of behaving in a reasonable fashion without having to be forced to.”

At their very simplest, anarchist beliefs turn on to two elementary assumptions. The first is that human beings are, under ordinary circumstances, about as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be, and can organize themselves and their communities without needing to be told how. The second is that power corrupts. Most of all, anarchism is just a matter of having the courage to take the simple principles of common decency that we all live by, and to follow them through to their logical conclusions. Odd though this may seem, in most important ways you are probably already an anarchist — you just don’t realize it.

Let’s start by taking a few examples from everyday life.

  • If there’s a line to get on a crowded bus, do you wait your turn and refrain from elbowing your way past others even in the absence of police?

If you answered “yes”, then you are used to acting like an anarchist! The most basic anarchist principle is self-organization: the assumption that human beings do not need to be threatened with prosecution in order to be able to come to reasonable understandings with each other, or to treat each other with dignity and respect….

To cut a long story short: anarchists believe that for the most part it is power itself, and the effects of power, that make people stupid and irresponsible.

  • Are you a member of a club or sports team or any other voluntary organization where decisions are not imposed by one leader but made on the basis of general consent?

If you answered “yes”, then you belong to an organization which works on anarchist principles! Another basic anarchist principle is voluntary association. This is simply a matter of applying democratic principles to ordinary life. The only difference is that anarchists believe it should be possible to have a society in which everything could be organized along these lines, all groups based on the free consent of their members, and therefore, that all top-down, military styles of organization like armies or bureaucracies or large corporations, based on chains of command, would no longer be necessary. Perhaps you don’t believe that would be possible. Perhaps you do. But every time you reach an agreement by consensus, rather than threats, every time you make a voluntary arrangement with another person, come to an understanding, or reach a compromise by taking due consideration of the other person’s particular situation or needs, you are being an anarchist — even if you don’t realize it.

Anarchism is just the way people act when they are free to do as they choose, and when they deal with others who are equally free — and therefore aware of the responsibility to others that entails.

Graeber’s approach to the form of a hypothetical anarchist society is simple: take away all forms of domination, or of unilateral, unaccountable authority by some people over others, put people together, and see what they come up with.

As we shall see below, Graeber critiques totalizing and idealized visions of the state. Similarly, anarchy itself, rather than a totalizing system, is just a way people interact with one another, and that (as Colin Ward…) it’s all around us right now.

We could start with a kind of sociology of micro-utopias, the counterpart of a parallel typology of forms of alienation, alienated and nonalienated forms of action… The moment we stop insisting on viewing all forms of action only by their function in reproducing larger, total, forms of inequality of power, we will also be able to see that anarchist social relations and non-alienated forms of action are all around us. And this is critical because it already shows that anarchism is, already, and has always been, one of the main bases for human interaction. We self-organize and engage in mutual aid all the time. We always have.

Graeber’s definition of “Anarchy,” accordingly, is quite simple. It’s whatever people decide to do, whatever arrangements out the countless ones possible they make among themselves, when they’re not threatened with violence:

…a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society—and that defines a “free society” as one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence. History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage, or wage labor, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police. Even deeper structural inequalities like racism and sexism are ultimately based on the (more subtle and insidious) threat of force. Anarchists thus envision a world based on equality and solidarity, in which human beings would be free to associate with one another to pursue any endless variety of visions, projects, and conceptions of what they find valuable in life. When people ask me what sorts of organization could exist in an anarchist society, I always answer: any form of organization one can imagine, and probably many we presently can’t, with only one proviso—they would be limited to ones that could exist without anyone having the ability, at any point, to call on armed men to show up and say “I don’t care what you have to say about this; shut up and do what you’re told.”

Graeber considers himself “a small-a anarchist,” on the side of whatever particular social forms free, mutually consenting people work out for themselves when out from under the thumb of authority.

I’m less interested in figuring out what sort of anarchist I am than in working in broad coalitions that operate in accord with anarchist principles: movements that are not trying to work through or become governments; movements uninterested in assuming the role of de facto government institutions like trade organizations or capitalist firms; groups that focus on making our relations with each other a model of the world we wish to create. In other words, people working toward truly free societies. After all, it’s hard to figure out exactly what kind of anarchism makes the most sense when so many questions can only be answered further down the road. Would there be a role for markets in a truly free society? How could we know? I myself am confident, based on history, that even if we did try to maintain a market economy in such a free society— that is, one in which there would be no state to enforce contracts, so that agreements came to be based only on trust—economic relations would rapidly morph into something libertarians would find completely unrecognizable, and would soon not resemble anything we are used to thinking of as a “market” at all. I certainly can’t imagine anyone agreeing to work for wages if they have any other options. But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. I am less interested in working out what the detailed architecture of what a free society would be like than in creating the conditions that would enable us to find out.

* * *

Myself, I am less interested in deciding what sort of economic system we should have in a free society than in creating the means by which people can make such decisions for themselves.

It’s highly unlikely this would turn out to resemble any particular monolithic hyphenated model of anarchism, like anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-communism, or any other schematized vision of society. It would be much more likely to include a blend of all sort of things, most of which already probably exist in nascent form today all around us. In addition to gift and sharing economies, peer-production, etc., it might very well include significant elements of market exchange—although Graeber is highly skeptical that anything remotely resembling “anarcho-capitalism” could come about or be sustained entirely through voluntary agreement.

Even what now seem like major screaming ideological divides are likely to sort themselves easily enough in practice. I used to frequent Internet newsgroups in the 1990s, which at the time were full of creatures that called themselves “anarcho-capitalists.”… Most spent a good deal of their time condemning left anarchists as proponents of violence. “How can you be for a free society and be against wage labor? If I want to hire someone to pick my tomatoes, how are you going to stop me except through force?” Logically then any attempt to abolish the wage system can only be enforced by some new version of the KGB. One hears such arguments frequently. What one never hears, significantly, is anyone saying “If I want to hire myself out to pick someone else’s tomatoes, how are you going to stop me except through force?” Everyone seems to imagine that in a future stateless society, they will somehow end up members of the employing class. Nobody seems to think they’ll be the tomato pickers. But where, exactly, do they imagine these tomato pickers are going to come from? Here one might employ a little thought experiment: let’s call it the parable of the divided island. Two groups of idealists each claim half of an island. They agree to draw the border in such a way that there are roughly equal resources on each side. One group proceeds to create an economic system where certain members have property, others have none, and those who have none have no social guarantees: they will be left to starve to death unless they seek employment on any terms the wealthy are willing to offer. The other group creates a system where everyone is guaranteed at least the basic means of existence and welcomes all comers. What possible reason would those slated to be the night watchmen, nurses, and bauxite miners on the anarcho-capitalist side of the island have to stay there? The capitalists would be bereft of their labor force in a matter of weeks. As a result, they’d be forced to patrol their own grounds, empty their own bedpans, and operate their own heavy machinery—that is, unless they quickly began offering their workers such an extravagantly good deal that they might as well be living in a socialist utopia after all.

For this and any number of other reasons, I’m sure that in practice any attempt to create a market economy without armies, police, and prisons to back it up will end up looking nothing like capitalism very quickly. In fact I strongly suspect it will soon look very little like what we are used to thinking of as a market. Obviously I could be wrong. It’s possible someone will attempt this, and the results will be very different than I imagined. In which case, fine, I’ll be wrong. Mainly I’m interested in creating the conditions where we can find out.

(It’s worth bearing in mind that the “voluntary arrangement” between Robinson Crusoe and “Friday” was possible only because Crusoe was able to claim “ownership” of the entire island with the help of a gun.)

Graeber is fairly confident in the ability of average people to work out ways of getting along in the absence of authority. The cases in which the collapse of a state results in a Hobbesian “war of all against all,” like Somalia, are actually a minority. The violence in Somalia resulted mainly from the fact that the state collapsed in the middle of a preexisting war between major warlords, who continued to fight after the state collapsed.

But in most cases, as I myself observed in parts of rural Madagascar, very little happens. Obviously, statistics are unavailable, since the absence of states generally also means the absence of anyone gathering statistics. However, I’ve talked to many anthropologists and others who’ve been in such places and their accounts are surprisingly similar. The police disappear, people stop paying taxes, otherwise they pretty much carry on as they had before. Certainly they do not break into a Hobbesian “war of all against all.”

As a result, we almost never hear about such places at all….

So the real question we have to ask becomes: what is it about the experience of living under a state, that is, in a society where rules are enforced by the threat of prisons and police, and all the forms of inequality and alienation that makes possible, that makes it seem obvious to us that people, under such conditions, would behave in a way that it turns out they don’t actually behave?

The anarchist answer is simple. If you treat people like children, they will tend to act like children. The only successful method anyone has ever devised to encourage others to act like adults is to treat them as if they already are. It’s not infallible. Nothing is. But no other approach has any real chance of success. And the historical experience of what actually does happen in crisis situations demonstrates that even those who have not grown up in a culture of participatory democracy, if you take away their guns or ability to call their lawyers, can suddenly become extremely reasonable. This is all that anarchists are really proposing to do.

So anarchism isn’t just a grand theory that was invented by some big-league thinker, like Marx in the London Museum. It’s what people actually do.

The basic principles of anarchism—self-organization, voluntary association, mutual aid—referred to forms of human behavior they [the so-called “founding figures” of 19th century anarchist thought] assumed to have been around about as long as humanity. …

This study is continued: Center for a Stateless Society No. 17 (Winter-Spring 2014) PDF

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