Great questions of our time

Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group discusses David Graeber’s ideas and activism

When I heard that David Graeber had died so unexpectedly in Venice on September 2, it seemed that a massive chunk of my familiar world’s intellectual and cultural ecosystem had suddenly gone. In some ways, it reminded me of the dread I had felt years earlier on hearing of the death of sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

David did his fieldwork in Madagascar and taught in the United States until Yale University decided on political grounds not to renew his contract. He made frequent trips to London, where direct-action politics quickly brought us together. Delighted that we had met up, in 2007 I invited him to write the lead article in the first issue of Radical Anthropology. Titled ‘Revolution in reverse’, it was a thoughtful attempt to explain why, quite suddenly, our hopeful slogans of only a decade earlier - including the very idea that ‘Another world is possible’ - now seemed so sadly unrealistic. The article was tentatively exploring alternatives to what David termed “the insurrectionary model” - the idea that a worldwide proletarian uprising could overthrow capitalism and establish a global cooperative social order all in one go.

Suggesting something more modest, he was encouraging us to celebrate elements of communism in all our relationships, irrespective of our wider political surroundings. His mentor, Marshall Sahlins, in a touching obituary, put it well when he described David as determined “to show how ostensibly dominated peoples, by their own means, subverted the states, kings and other coercive institutions afflicting them to create self-governing enclaves of community”.1

In 2008, during the banking crisis, David helped inspire unusually imaginative demonstrations against global governance by unelected bankers and, in April 2009, against the London G20 summit. In order to be with us and lend his support, David had temporarily interrupted work on his ground-breaking anthropological study of debt. Two years later, this appeared in print as the book that made his name - Debt: the first five thousand years.2

The book’s first and overwhelming message was that historical origins are important. You will never understand anything about money, debt, wealth or economics if you have no idea how the whole complex of concepts and practices emerged in the first place. To explain the emergence of coinage, for example, David discusses how a bandit or local warlord would gain a fearsome reputation for robbery, pillage and general brutality. To retain the loyalty of his accomplices in crime, he needed to hold out the prospect of continued conquest through violence, promising his followers not just subsistence today, but a specified share of loot from the robberies of tomorrow. Among the bandit’s followers, a metal coin stamped as their leader’s personal ‘promise to pay’ would be treated as itself a form of wealth for as long as confidence in future conquests held up.3

Such promises - seeds of today’s mountains of hallucinatory money - had no credibility beyond the boundaries of the territory under that warlord’s control. But today, as a consequence of globalisation, the entire planet has for the first time fallen victim to the wider system of violence concealed under the misleading term, ‘debt’. David’s book proved an absolute sensation - read not only by anti-capitalist activists, but by many of the senior bankers and economists whom David was targeting.

Here, as in much of his writing, David broke from mainstream thinking by highlighting the critical role of violence, war and slavery in creating and shaping the basic institutions of what we now call ‘the economy’. For many of us in the Radical Anthropology Group, all this was a hugely welcome endorsement of Frederick Engels’ classic pronouncement that the state consists essentially of “armed bodies of men” - and that, as a precondition of communist liberation, the whole barbaric apparatus needs to be put aside and confined to a museum.4

Human origins

Linked to David’s economic studies were his insights into the origins of human language, symbolic culture and distinctively human consciousness. These are vastly complex issues and not areas in which David chose to specialise. Nevertheless, particularly in his Fragments of an anarchist anthropology, David always managed to convey the most basic points in refreshingly blunt terms. In this typical passage, David explains why violence is his central theme:

Because violence, particularly structural violence, creates ignorance. If you have the power to hit people over the head whenever you want, you don’t have to trouble yourself too much figuring out what they think is going on, and therefore, generally speaking, you don’t. Hence the sure-fire way to simplify social arrangements, to ignore the incredibly complex play of perspectives, passions, insights, desires and mutual understandings that human life is really made of is to make a rule and threaten to attack anyone who breaks it. This is why violence has always been the favoured recourse of the stupid: it is the one form of stupidity to which it is almost impossible to come up with an intelligent response. It is also, of course, the basis of the state.5

David attacked the entire community of professional anthropologists for persistently hiding their secrets away, mapping landscapes of alternative lifeways, only to confine their findings to obscure journals - apparently desperate to prevent ordinary people from knowing. He complained in Fragments:

In many ways, anthropology seems a discipline terrified of its own potential. It is, for example, the only discipline in a position to make generalisations about humanity as a whole - since it is the only discipline that actually takes all of humanity into account ... Yet it resolutely refuses to do so.6

Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human. It embraces human biology, psychology, genetics, primatology, kinship, religion, prehistory, evolution and many other things. Full understanding would involve transgressing the boundary between anthropology’s internal divisions - especially the brutal and damaging barbed-wire fence segregating those who study biology from those specialising in cultural diversity.

David felt comfortable only on one side of this fence. While insisting that humans are instinctively communist creatures, consequently he stopped short of teaming up with our biological and primatological colleagues who for decades have been dedicated to working out where on earth these sensitive, caring, other-regarding social instincts could possibly have come from in evolutionary terms.

Why do humans have distinctively cooperative eyes, for example - eyes quite different in design from those of any ape?7 Or again how, when and why did evolving human mothers trust others to nurse, carry and care for their babies - something which no chimpanzee mother would dream of risking?8 Suspicious of all schools of modern Darwinian theory and instead recommending to us the theories propounded by the 19th century anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, David inexplicably showed no interest in any of these questions. His interest in human origins, then, stopped curiously short at the most critical point.

Only recently have I felt able to understand how and why David positioned himself within his institutional environment in this way. As a North American recently arrived in England, the people who mattered to him were those who had profoundly shaped the intellectual and political landscape of his earlier years. Two hugely influential figures - both American - stand out. The first was David’s teacher and sponsor from his early years - the renowned cultural anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins.

In the 1960s, Sahlins was fascinated by the despotic sexual and social arrangements of monkeys and apes - and the extraordinary contrast between them and our own species, which becomes evident when we turn to the assertive egalitarianism characteristic of human hunter-gatherers.9 Anticipating the later archaeological concept of a ‘human revolution’, Sahlins pictured the transition from chimpanzee-style dominance to the egalitarianism of early humans as a momentous social and political leap. But, to understand David, it is important to acknowledge that Sahlins did not follow up these threads. This was because, from around 1977, he took to anathematising the entire discipline of evolutionary anthropology, denouncing Darwinism in its modern form as reactionary ideology, not science.10 Anyone familiar with David’s work will recognise Sahlins’ influence here. That barbed-wire fence segregating my good friends who study chimpanzees from my other good friends who study humans is still, unfortunately, very much intact.

At the opposite extreme was an American figure who influenced David not directly, but in reverse. John Zerzan is a ‘primitivist’. He seems to think we should go back to the Stone Age, renouncing modern technology. He admires hunter-gatherers, claiming that these people are not alienated because they fortunately lack language, which he describes as an oppressive institution.11 Struggling alongside my colleagues to keep up with peer-reviewed science, I never found time to study such nonsense. I am told, however, that among some American anarchists Zerzan is taken quite seriously. Here is David’s response:

Primitivists like John Zerzan who, in trying to whittle away what seems to divide us from pure, unmediated experience, end up whittling away absolutely everything. Zerzan’s increasingly popular works end up condemning the very existence of language, math, time-keeping, music, and all forms of art and representation. They are all written off as forms of alienation, leaving us with a kind of impossible evolutionary ideal: the only truly non-alienated human being was not even quite human, but more a kind of perfect ape, in some kind of currently unimaginable telepathic connection with its fellows, at one with wild nature, living maybe about a hundred thousand years ago. True revolution could only mean somehow returning to that. How it is that aficionados of this sort of thing still manage to engage in effective political action (because it’s been my experience that many do quite remarkable work) is itself a fascinating sociological question. But surely an alternative analysis of alienation might be useful here.12

I cite these withering comments because they may help explain something which, at first, I could not understand. Soon after I met David, it became clear to me that he had little, if any, interest in either evolutionary anthropology or hunter-gatherer research. Only with the passing of time did I realise that for David any mention of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism rang alarm bells in his mind. Primitivism! I wonder if David associated our kind of radical anthropology with Zerzan. That would explain a lot. Since our discussions have tragically ended, we may never know.

Fortunately, the debate about hunter-gatherers and human origins is sure to be enriched with the publication of David’s forthcoming book, The dawn of everything: a new history of humanity, but continuing this crucial debate without David will be both frustrating and deeply sad.13

When it mattered

Anthropological issues aside, David’s political judgement was consistently reliable. Having earned some fame, David had access from time to time to mainstream media. When he used this to make political points, his eloquence was potent.

Take his response when Jeremy Corbyn was being smeared as an anti-Semite by supporters of Israel in league with Britain’s racist establishment. David talked movingly about being Jewish in order to convey his outrage at the way his identity was being coopted to spread vicious lies. Or again take his willingness to risk arrest by putting himself forward with Extinction Rebellion activists to block central London’s bridges. When it really mattered, David would be there.

Finally, on a more personal note, I will never forget his publicly declared solidarity at a stressful time in my life, when the University of East London Corporate Management Team suspended me for my activism. I still treasure David’s eloquent words:

The idea of suspending a professor for saying they’d like to see a revolution is absolutely chilling: by that standard, half the people whose work we teach would not themselves qualify to teach in our schools. It’s all the more ridiculous considering everyone is perfectly well aware Chris is not an advocate of violence. Shutting down the Alternative Summit was absolutely disgraceful. This is precisely the kind of resistance to government policies - the thoughtful discussion of alternatives - that one would have thought universities were there to encourage. Does UEL really want to go down in history as opening a new page in the suppression of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech? Because, if they continue this way, that’s certainly what they will be most known for throughout the world.

“For a very long time,” David wrote in the first chapter of Debt, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice.”

David could be loud, he could be rude and he was certainly never afraid to attack anyone. But he also had a gentle, modest side to him - shown when he once unexpectedly came across my pet rabbit, Roo, in the hallway. Charmed by a rabbit at complete liberty, he gently stooped down to say hello.

I have lost a good comrade and friend.

  1. nybooks.com/daily/2020/09/05/david-graeber-1961-2020.↩︎

  2. D Graeber Debt: the first 5,000 years New York 2011.↩︎

  3. Ibid pp229-74.↩︎

  4. F Engels (1884) The origin of the family, private property and the state. New York 1972.↩︎

  5. D Graeber Fragments of an anarchist anthropology Chicago 2004, pp72-73.↩︎

  6. Ibid p96.↩︎

  7. M Tomasello, B Hare, H Lehmann and J Call, ‘Reliance on head versus eyes in the gaze following of great apes and human infants: the cooperative eye hypothesis’ Journal of Human Evolution 52, 2007. pp314-20.↩︎

  8. SB Hrdy Mothers and others: the evolutionary origins of mutual understanding London 2009.↩︎

  9. MD Sahlins, ‘The origin of society’ Scientific American 203(3), 1960. pp76-87; MD Sahlins, ‘The social life of monkeys, apes and primitive man’ Human Biology 31 (1959), pp54-73. Reprinted in DD Quiatt (ed) Primates on primates. Minneapolis 1972, pp3-18.↩︎

  10. M Sahlins The use and abuse of biology London 1977.↩︎

  11. J Zerzan, ‘Running on emptiness: The failure of symbolic thought’ Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed spring/summer 1997, pp29-35.↩︎

  12. D Graeber Fragments of an anarchist anthropology Chicago 2004, p74.↩︎

  13. David Graeber’s forthcoming book, The dawn of everything: a new history of humanity (2021), is co-authored with his colleague, the archaeologist, David Wengrow.↩︎