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November 13, 2011
David Warsh, Proprietor


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The Anthropologists’ Hour

Some of the mystery surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement vanished last week when Bloomberg Businessweek published a profile of anthropologist David Graeber. Previously all I knew about the thinking behind OWS I had learned from a week-long episode in Doonesbury, when radio host Mark Slackmeyer interviewed an organizer with a paper bag over his head.  The guy explained that he didn’t want to create a leadership structure.

But then BW reporter Drake Bennett, building on an earlier story  by Dan Berrett in The Chronicle of Higher Education, provided an especially revealing glimpse of the life of contemporary anarchism in a cover story: Who’s Behind the Mask? David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street. (The New York Times buried a similar story, its interesting material safely tucked away in its middle, the same day that BW appeared.)

Graeber, 50, is a kind of theorist and guru among the small band of activists who last summer planned the occupation of Manhattan’s Zucotti Park – a move which has since spread to many other cities.  The movement at the heart of the demonstration turns out to be “contemporary activist anarchism.”

After graduate work at the University of Chicago, Graeber did fieldwork in central Madagascar between 1989 and 1991. It was there, among the people of the Betafo district, that he formed the ideas about practical anarchy that have now been transplanted to Wall Street. When the International Monetary Fund had required spending cuts, the central government ran out of money: Betafo was “a place where the state picked up stakes and left,” Graeber told the Chronicle’s Berrett.

An egalitarian society thereupon emerged in Betafo, Graeber explained to BW’s Bennett, in which 10,000 people made decisions more or less by consensus.  Bennett wrote, “When necessary, criminal justice was carried out by a mob, but even there a particular sort of consensus pertained; a lynching required permission from the accused parents.”

Hence the “general assemblies” that have been a prominent part of life in Zucotti Park. The “GA” is “the central concept of contemporary anarchist activism,” writes Bennett: “a carefully facilitated group discussion through which decisions are made — not by a few leaders, or even by majority rule, but through consensus.”  Leaders exist, but describe themselves as “horizontals,” not “verticals.”  A single GA, convened last August as an alternative to a conventional top-down march and rally, set the stage for what would become the carefully thought-out occupation of Zucotti Park.

Bennett conveys the drama of a life spent increasingly in opposition.  Born in 1961, a self-described anarchist at 16, Graeber nevertheless prepared for a career as an academic. It was only after he showed up in 1999 for street protests of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle that he began living a more bohemian life. While teaching at Yale, he hung out in New York, joining the Direct Action Network, a collection of activists, artists and pranksters who staged a series of protests until 9/11 altered the landscape for such things.

It hasn’t been easy. Yale cut him loose from its tenure track in 2005, a decision that provoked some controversy at the time. He landed a position as a reader in anthropology at the Goldsmiths campus of the University of London. Various distinguished lecture invitations have somewhat burnished his reputation, but Graeber pretty much has kicked over the traces of academic life. Bennett writes that once the beachhead was established at Zucotti Park, Graeber took off for Austin and a reunion with his anthropologist girlfriend, back from fieldwork in Mexico – he didn’t want to distort the protest’s leaderless structure.

Mainly he has kept up a steady stream of publications, both scholarly and popular. Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams came first, in 2001, a bold attempt to locate Iroquois wampum, Pacific kula exchanges, and the Kwakiutl potlatch “within the flow of world historical processes.” Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology appeared in 2004, one of those little Prickly Paradigm Press books emanating, along with The Baffler, from Chicago. (“Anarchists repeatedly appeal to anthropologists for ideas about how society might be organized on a more egalitarian, less alienating basis.  Anthropologists, terrified of being accused of romanticism, respond with silence.  What if they didn’t?”)

Lost People:  Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar finally appeared in 2007, as did Possibilities:  Essays in Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire.  Two years later Graeber published Direct Action:  An Ethnography, described by its publisher as “the first detailed… study of the global justice movement.” Last year he took a stab at a broad audience with Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  Gillian Tett, of the Financial Times, herself trained as an anthropologist, describes it as “not just thought-provoking, but also exceedingly timely.”

His main policy recommendation:  a Biblical-style “jubilee,” meaning a forgiveness of sovereign and consumer debts. (Pension obligations, too?)  Such “wiping the tablets clean” was common enough in the ancient world, he says, a safety valve that prevented social explosions by forgiving debts when they became too big to repay.  (Today such measures are called “haircuts”; they rarely relieve more than half the debt.)  (Here is Graeber talking about his book on television, and here is a readable extract from the book itself.)

Whether the story of the sudden surge of contemporary activist anarchism will hold up through the coming winter, I cannot say. The lower Manhattan encampment has sparked a host of imitations. I saw a dozen students the other day sitting cross-legged, conducting a small general assembly of their own, in Harvard Yard in front of the statue of John Harvard. The tents, at least, remind us of Hoovervilles.  Those Depression-era collections of ramshackle housing served as vivid symbols of deprivation in the days when poverty was geographically concentrated.  Today, like nearly everything else, poverty became more evenly distributed (and hence less visible) over the landscape.

I confess I got more illumination from the couple hours I spent with I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior, a little book by two university anthropologists and a marketing guru, with a forward by John Maeda, head of the Rhode Island School of Design, than from the two days I spent reading and writing about Graeber – that is, once “man behind the mask” mystery was cleared up. The title, of course, comes from famous “When Harry Met Sally,” in which, to dramatize to her old boyfriend her powers of deception, actress Meg Ryan so convincingly simulates in a delicatessen an ordinarily private transport of intimate delight as to provoke a fellow diner, a woman of a certain age, to tell her waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Alex Bentley, of the University of Bristol; Mark Earls, the London-based marketing consultant; and Michael J. O’Brien, of the University of Missouri, have many interesting things to say about the ways in which social learning takes place. They draw on behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and, yes, anthropology. Anyone who is interested in the enormous role that copying plays in our everyday lives, as opposed to innovation or rational choice, should have a look at it.

They do indeed provide a map, whose utility rests on an interesting distinction between directed copying (emulation) and undirected copying (just guessing), especially when many different possibilities are at hand. This permits them to map (in the west) small group dynamics, the 150-person-or-so circles which evolution equipped the human cognitive apparatus to deal, against (in the east) the population-scale behavior that has become so much more important in the wired-up digital age of best-sellers and “what she’s having.” Somewhere along these axes – the scale of the population and the redundancy of choice (or lack thereof) – must lie a pretty firm prediction about what to expect will happen to the OWW movement, I thought.

But it was late and I was out of time. I went away from the book scratching my head, just as Maeda, the RISDI head, predicted I would.  I wondered exactly what I had learned, besides being persuaded, by the section on “cascades,” to use the Google Ngram tool more frequently, both for work and play. It was enough. I was content to have been reminded that anthropologists had much to say about how the world works, after all.

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One Comment

  1. McBree wrote:

    Well, you can hardly expect “illumnation” from cursory browsing about Graeber on the Internet. Actually reading his boom on debt would certainly be a much better plac eto start. One issue such reading would clarify is the fact that Graeber by no means straightforwardly advocates a jubilee (as you seem to be insinuating here).

    Friday, November 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

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