High Practice

In Interviews on 29 March 2011 at 8:37 pm

An Interview with David Graeber

Is it possible to speak of the activist and the academic as the same person? What can be done to revive the relationship between critical thought and practice? The emergence of the alter-globalization movement has provoked some interesting responses to these questions.

STIR: You have said “It’s hard to think of another time when there has been such a gulf between intellectuals and activists; between theorists of revolution and its practitioners”.  Why do you think that this has become so extreme and do you think it could be a legacy of the Frankfurt Critical School or is the Frankfurt Critical School just another expression of this legacy?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, I think both of those things are true.  I think it is helpful to put the Frankfurt School in its historical context.  It seems that people have been cruel to them and in a way it is easy to do because they were so elitist, snobby and condescending.  This makes it really hard not to feel that way about them but they have become such whipping boys.  When they said that the media is manipulating the masses, they were considered to be arrogant, but we have to remember that they were Jews who came from Germany in the thirties, and it was clear that the masses were being manipulated by the mass media and they understood that.  I think that one of the main legacies of the Frankfurt school, though, is one of failed revolution.  There were so many attempts at that idea of spontaneity that said ‘let’s arm the proletarians and take it from here’.  They did that a lot of times, and there were uprisings and even times when they had seemed to have won but it ultimately didn’t work.  So much philosophy comes from radical social transformations and it proved much harder than they thought it was going to be.

Marx’s Capital, for that matter, was a reaction to the failure of the revolutions of 1848.  The question that comes out of this is why is capitalism proving to be harder nut to crack than we thought it would be?  Well, we have to really think about what capitalism is.  Thus, this tradition of Western Marxism grew out of a certain disenchantment and disappointment with spontaneous revolutionary activity and it proved to be utterly congruent with the structures of the academy.  This was because of the sectarian thought that Marxism seemed to encourage and this happened to dovetail beautifully with the way you are supposed to act as an academic entrepreneur.  As a result, I think you need to consider what happened during the sixties when you have a widespread proto-revolutionary movement which was very much located on campuses, and which made this crazed sectarianism appear as if it corresponded to the real world changes that were taking place.

Also, there is the Foucauldian legacy and I think that (Michel) Foucault is strongly latched onto in the American academy.  To put it crudely, if you have people who have a lot of knowledge but not much power, it is really reassuring to have someone tell you that knowledge is power.  The consequence of this is that these academics can continue having arguments with each other as if there was something at stake.  So, I think that people drifted off into this never-never land in the sixties and the Frankfurt School may have opened the possibility of the university believing that it was engaging in politics, but they weren’t because they were not doing anything that would affect anybody outside of the academy.  Then, when social movements showed up that contained completely different principles than what they had established as the definition of radicalism, I think they were hurt.  They showed up and said ‘We will be your vanguard’, but people basically ignored them!

There are so many ironies but the one I enjoy picking on, because it irritated me, is that people reacted to the Frankfurt School tradition by saying that ‘anybody who does not see working class consumerism as form of ironic resistance and subcultural assertion against capitalism is an elitist snob and puritanical killjoy’.  So, there is an approach that considers any critique of consumerism as wrong.  This is to say, basically, that all cultures and subcultures are radical forms of resistance and it became an assumption that when anybody said anything critical about advertising it was immediately condemned.  And it was always in the name of real workers who really like their motorcycles, who watch television a lot because they like it – real workers don’t buy that bullshit.  But the irony is that no-one actually bought their books.

There were whole genres of subcultures like punk rock that was drawing freely on Situationism, which was exactly the sort of thing that those guys claimed they were trying to get away from because they considered it elitist and anti-worker. So, nobody read their stuff and apparently a lot of workers did find something inspiring in the message that they were being manipulated.  It was a moment like that where people, who mainly because they were only talking to each other in a situation, believed they represented true radicalism when they encountered people who were sufficiently inspired by other forms of radicalism.  This horrified them as it turned out that people had not been listening to what they were saying.

STIR: The title of that article in the New Left Review was The New Anarchism.  So, what is new and what did it break from?

DG: Well, I didn’t make up that title! With a magazine like that you do not get to make up the title!  And some people say ‘Oh he is the anarchist-anthropologist’, something I have never described myself as, or ‘he is the new anarchist guy’, which is also not my expression.

I think that the anarchist tradition has been rewired largely by input, first of all and most importantly, from feminism and second of all, from spiritual and indigenous traditions.  I think that the idea that other people are already practicing this on an interpersonal level is now being taken seriously.  However, the key break, if you look at the history of consensus process, which is now called anarchist process (which could just as easily be called feminist process).  It is not a process that anarchism held out as the process they believed in for the most part in the history of anarchism (even if anarchists often did things in this way).  I remember hearing somewhere that during the strikes by anarcho-syndicalists during the Spanish Civil War, by the CNT for example, all decisions had to be unanimous and if you didn’t agree to the strike then you didn’t have to strike.  This is one reason why they tended to get complete compliance!  So, they were using consensus process, generally, but not formally.  This also occurred with many groups that had voting systems but actually used consensus process.  The reason for this is because you cannot ask people to risk their neck if they were against the decision. It is the form of decision making that is coherent with a system where people are not forced to do things against their will and where you do not want to force them.

Be that as it may, the real break came about in the late sixties and early seventies within women’s groups in a reaction against the de facto consensus that was being used in the sixties, but where they really did take these principles seriously.  This was also present in the civil rights movement, for example.  There is a famous story where a facilitator during a protest said he would not tell people what to do and that they would have to reach a consensus by themselves.  Then, some guy got so frustrated that he pulled out a gun and said ‘I can’t take this anymore, make a decision and tell me what to do or I’ll kill you!’ And the facilitator said ‘Well, you’re going to have to shoot me!’  Then, there was a movement against that at the end of the sixties where people argued that they needed to become more disciplined and militant.  One expression of this was the Black Panthers and the Weathermen who rejected this soft consensus and decided to become self-structured and command-structured because they thought this is how you have a revolution.  Then, the women’s movement was a rejection of this already implicit obnoxious machismo and women decided to break from it.  The women’s movement then went back to loose consensus-based circles that were primarily for consciousness raising.  This was very effective but then they discovered that the groups were growing fast and this created a critical mass issue.  What they found was that it was possible to do it with eight people or with twelve people, but when it gets larger a visible hierarchy appears and this is when the pamphlet ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ came out.

The Academy in Laputa from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels

The next step was an appeal to the Quakers because they had been involved in peace organizing.  However, the Quakers considered the consensus process that they had been using for hundreds of years as a religious sacrament and they felt that teaching it to people would be proselytizing and they obviously did not want to proselytize!  But there was a group of radical queer Quakers who had broken with the hierarchy and who agreed to teach them how to do it.  Thus, there was an interesting convergence between religious people and radical feminists and that is where the consensus process that was adopted by the anarchist movement was taken from.  There was a synergy between spirituality and feminism and between anarchist and other direct action orientated movements, and this is what reinvigorated this tradition and in so far as there is something new it is primarily because of that.

STIR: The university is still, largely, a place dominated by ‘theory for theory’s sake’.  What do you think the university can do to cease being a closed community and resume its relationship with the activists who animate the principles and perform the propositions that are meant to be the consequences invoked by critical theory?

DG: I’m not sure, but it is a really interesting question.  I have not thought about it all that much because it seems so distant.  I think that institutionally, given the existing institutional structures of universities, it cannot be achieved through an integration of structures.  I think this because when you are developing structures based on principles and direct action – actual democracy – you have to create certain walls between yourself and institutional structures that are utterly different, and people certainly do this.  There are experiments where there are certain institutions that act as walls and take money from activity fees and direct it towards social projects, but do it in such a way that they are organised by consensus.  Also, they make it so that people do not have to worry about pleasing the university.  This is obviously very hard to do but I think that Universities can do this by providing a space where they are tolerant and do not demand that much from students.  However, I do not think you can do this formally unless you change the structure of the university entirely.

What you can do is let people use your Xerox machine!  There are a million types of resources that exist on campuses from space, to machines, to food that you can make accessible to those involved in alternative organizing.  I wrote a very funny piece, once, about grade inflation saying that it was a political victory won by student in the sixties to give them time to engage in alternative types of activities! Then you could decide how to allocate your time if you are guaranteed an A – you could study Nietzsche or you could smash the state – it’s up to you!  So, a lot of people will spend that time experimenting with sex, drugs and music and not smash the state at all and that is fine too.

However, the tragedy of the university is that it has become the only place for the exploration of alternative forms of value and they are, therefore, all packed into one place.  Thus, if you want to engage in strange forms of drag in a non-commoditized place, or if you want to engage in thinking about truth and beauty, or if you want to engage in politics, there is really no other locus in which you can experience that engagement in a detachment from the market.  So, really, all the university can do is make resources freely available and create a safe place.

If you look back to the university in the sixties, it was a place that cops would not enter.  People forget this.  The reason that what happened at Columbia University in 1968, when the University called the police in and the subsequent battles that took place, was considered to be so dramatic was because this was the first time a University had allowed the police in to make an intervention.  It did not matter if there was an occupation or anything, it was a matter of principle that the government was not to be involved and that negotiations took place within the University itself.  However, nowadays they bring in the army, first thing!  What is important, then, is the reestablishment of the University as an autonomous space that is about the creation of other forms of value, making resources freely available and then laying off students.  I think this is the most a university can do under its current form of organization.

David Graeber teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, Lost People, and Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire. He has written for Harper’s, The Nation, Mute, and The New Left Review.

His new book The History of Debt will be published by Melville House in April 2011.

  1. Is the University really detached from the market? If so, how? Thank you for the interview and post. Interesting read.

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