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Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

David Graeber (2004)


Most academics seem to have only the vaguest idea what anarchism is even about; or dismiss it with the crudest stereotypes. (“Anarchist organization! But isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”) In the United States there are thousands of academic Marxists of one sort or another, but hardly a dozen scholars willing openly to call themselves anarchists. (2)

But it also makes it easier to understand why there are so few anarchists in the academy. It’s not just that anarchism does not tend to have much use for high theory. It’s that it is primarily concerned with forms of practice; it insists, before anything else, that one’s means must be consonant with one’s ends; one cannot create freedom through authoritarian means; in fact, as much as possible, one must oneself, in one’s relations with one’s friends and allies, embody the society one wishes to create. This does not square very well with operating within the university, perhaps the only Western institution other than the Catholic Church and British monarchy that has survived in much the same form from the Middle Ages, doing intellectual battle at conferences in expensive hotels, and trying to pretend all this somehow furthers revolution. At the very least, one would imagine being an openly anarchist professor would mean challenging the way universities are run—and I don’t mean by demanding an anarchist studies department, either—and that, of course, is going to get one in far more trouble than anything one could ever write. (6-7)

against policy (a tiny manifesto):
The notion of “policy” presumes a state or governing apparatus which imposes its will on others. “Policy” is the negation of politics; policy is by definition something concocted by some form of elite, which presumes it knows better than others how their affairs are to be conducted. By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs. (9)

It’s not so much that anthropologists embraced anarchism, or even, were consciously espousing anarchist ideas; it’s more that they moved in the same circles, their ideas tended to bounce off one another, that there was something about anthropological thought in particular—its keen awareness of the very range of human possibilities—that gave it an affinity to anarchism from the very beginning. (13)

Before Mauss, the universal assumption had been that economies without money or markets had operated by means of “barter”; they were trying to engage in market behavior (acquire useful goods and services at the least cost to themselves, get rich if possible...), they just hadn’t yet developed very sophisticated ways of going about it. Mauss demonstrated that in fact, such economies were really “gift economies.” They were not based on calculation, but on a refusal to calculate; they were rooted in an ethical system which consciously rejected most of what we would consider the basic principles of economics. It was not that they had not yet learned to seek profit through the most efficient means. They would have found the very premise that the point of an economic transaction—at least, one with someone who was not your enemy—was to seek the greatest profit deeply offensive.
It is significant that the one (of the few) overtly anarchist anthropologists of recent memory, another Frenchman, Pierre Clastres, became famous for making a similar argument on the political level. He insisted political anthropologists had still not completely gotten over the old evolutionist perspectives that saw the state primarily as a more sophisticated form of organization than what had come before; stateless peoples, such as the Amazonian societies Clastres studied, were tacitly assumed not to have attained the level of say, the Aztecs or the Inca. But what if, he proposed, Amazonians were not entirely unaware of what the elementary forms of state power might be like—what it would mean to allow some men to give everyone else orders which could not be questioned, since they were backed up by the threat of force—and were for that very reason determined to ensure such things never came about? What if they considered the fundamental premises of our political science morally objectionable?
The parallels between the two arguments are actually quite striking. In gift economies there are, often, venues for enterprising individuals: But everything is arranged in such a way they could never be used as a platform for creating permanent inequalities of wealth, since self-aggrandizing types all end up competing to see who can give the most away. In Amazonian (or North American) societies, the institution of the chief played the same role on a political level: the position was so demanding, and so little rewarding, so hedged about by safeguards, that there was no way for power-hungry individuals to do much with it. Amazonians might not have literally whacked off the ruler’s head every few years, but it’s not an entirely inappropriate metaphor. By these lights these were all, in a very real sense, anarchist societies. (21-3)

The most common criticism of Clastres is to ask how his Amazonians could really be organizing their societies against the emergence of something they have never actually experienced. A naive question, but it points to something equally naive in Clastres’ own approach. Clastres manages to talk blithely about the uncompromised egalitarianism of the very same Amazonian societies, for instance, famous for their use of gang rape as a weapon to terrorize women who transgress proper gender roles. It’s a blind spot so glaring one has to wonder how he could possibly miss out on it; especially considering it provides an answer to just that question. Perhaps Amazonian men understand what arbitrary, unquestionable power, backed by force, would be like because they themselves wield that sort of power over their wives and daughters. Perhaps for that very reason they would not like to see structures capable of inflicting it on them. It’s worth pointing out because Clastres is, in many ways, a naive romantic. Fom another perspective, though, there’s no mystery here at all. After all, we are talking about the fact that most Amazonians don’t want to give others the power to threaten them with physical injury if they don’t do as they are told. Maybe we should better be asking what it says about ourselves that we feel this attitude needs any sort of explanation. (23-4)

I suspect all this turbulence stems from the very nature of the human condition. There would appear to be no society which does not see human life as fundamentally a problem. However much they might differ on what they deem the problem to be, at the very least, the existence of work, sex, and reproduction are seen as fraught with all sorts of quandaries; human desires are always fickle; and then there’s the fact that we’re all going to die. So there’s a lot to be troubled by. None of these dilemmas are going to vanish if we eliminate structural inequalities (much though I think this would radically improve things in just about every other way). Indeed, the fantasy that it might, that the human condition, desire, mortality, can all be somehow resolved seems to be an especially dangerous one, an image of utopia which always seems to lurk somewhere behind the pretentions of Power and the state. (31)

The dice are loaded. You can’t win. Because when the skeptic says “society,” what he really means is “state,” even “nation-state.” Since no one is going to produce an example of an anarchist state—that would be a contradiction in terms—what we’re really being asked for is an example of a modern nation-state with the government somehow plucked away: a situation in which the government of Canada, to take a random example, has been overthrown, or for some reason abolished itself, and no new one has taken its place but instead all former Canadian citizens begin to organize themselves into libertarian collectives. Obviously this would never be allowed to happen. In the past, whenever it even looked like it might—here, the Paris commune and Spanish civil war are excellent examples— the politicians running pretty much every state in the vicinity have been willing to put their differences on hold until those trying to bring such a situation about had been rounded up and shot. (39)

If there is one logical error underlying all this, it rests on imagining that social or even technological change takes the same form of what Thomas Kuhn has called “the structure of scientific revolutions.” Kuhn is referring to events like the shift from a Newtonian to Einsteinian universe: suddenly there is an intellectual breakthrough and afterwards, the universe is different. Applied to anything other than scientific revolutions, it implies that the world really was equivalent to our knowledge of it, and the moment we change the principles on which our knowledge is based, reality changes too. This is just the sort of basic intellectual mistake developmental psychologists say we’re supposed to get over in early childhood, but it seems few of us really do.(43)

A revolution on a world scale will take a very long time. But it is also possible to recognize that it is already starting to happen. The easiest way to get our minds around it is to stop thinking about revolution as a thing—“the” revolution, the great cataclysmic break—and instead ask “what is revolutionary action?” We could then suggest: revolutionary action is any collective action which rejects, and therefore confronts, some form of power or domination and in doing so, reconstitutes social relations—even within the collectivity—in that light. Revolutionary action does not necessarily have to aim to topple governments. Attempts to create autonomous communities in the face of power (using Castoriadis’ definition here: ones that constitute themselves, collectively make their own rules or principles of operation, and continually reexamine them), would, for instance, be almost by definition revolutionary acts. And history shows us that the continual accumulation of such acts can change (almost) everything. (45)

a thought experiment, or, blowing up walls
What I am proposing, essentially, is that we engage in a kind of thought experiment. What if, as a recent title put it, “we have never been modern”? What if there never was any fundamental break, and therefore, we are not living in a fundamentally different moral, social, or political universe than the Piaroa or Tiv or rural Malagasy?
There are a million different ways to define “modernity.” According to some it mainly has to do with science and technology, for others it’s a matter of individualism; others, capitalism, or bureaucratic rationality, or alienation, or an ideal of freedom of one sort or another. However they define it, almost everyone agrees that at somewhere in the sixteenth, or seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries, a Great Transformation occurred, that it occurred in Western Europe and its settler colonies, and that because of it, we became “modern.” And that once we did, we became a fundamentally different sort of creature than anything that had come before.
But what if we kicked this whole apparatus away? What if we blew up the wall? What if we accepted that the people who Columbus or Vasco da Gama “discovered” on their expeditions were just us? Or certainly, just as much “us” as Columbus and Vasco da Gama ever were?
I’m not arguing that nothing important has changed over the last five hundred years, any more than I’m arguing that cultural differences are unimportant. In one sense everyone, every community, every individual for that matter, lives in their own unique universe. By “blowing up walls,” I mean most of all, blowing up the arrogant, unreflecting assumptions which tell us we have nothing in common with 98% of people who ever lived, so we don’t really have to think about them. Since, after all, if you assume the fundamental break, the only theoretical question you can ask is some variation on “what makes us so special?” Once we get rid of those assumptions, decide to at least entertain the notion we aren’t quite so special as we might like to think, we can also begin to think about what really has changed and what hasn’t. (46-7)

But what we see in the more recent ethnographic record is endless variety. There were huntergatherer societies with nobles and slaves, there are agrarian societies that are fiercely egalitarian. Even in Clastres’ favored stomping grounds in Amazonia, one finds some groups who can justly be described as anarchists, like the Piaroa, living alongside others (say, the warlike Sherente) who are clearly anything but. And “societies” are constantly reforming, skipping back and forth between what we think of as different evolutionary stages.
I do not think we’re losing much if we admit that humans never really lived in the garden of Eden. Knocking the walls down can allow us to see this history as a resource to us in much more interesting ways. (54)

The Vezo lived alongside the Sakalava monarchies but like the Tsimihety, they managed to remain independent of them because, as legend has it, whenever they learned royal representatives were on the way to visit them, they would all get in their canoes and wait offshore until they went away. Those fishing villages that did succumb became Sakalava, not Vezo.(58)

In many other parts of Madagascar as well, it often seems that no one really takes on their full authority until they are dead. So perhaps the Sakalava case is not that extraordinary. But it reveals one very common way of avoiding the direct effects of power: if one cannot simply step out of its path, like the Vezo or Tsimihety, one can, as it were, try to fossilize it. In the Sakalava case the ossification of the state is quite literal: the kings who are still worshipped take the physical form of royal relics, they are literally teeth and bones. But this approach is probably far more commonplace than we would be given to suspect. (59)

The theory of exodus proposes that the most effective way of opposing capitalism and the liberal state is not through direct confrontation but by means of what Paolo Virno has called “engaged withdrawal,” mass defection by those wishing to create new forms of community. One need only glance at the historical record to confirm that most successful forms of popular resistance have taken precisely this form. They have not involved challenging power head on (this usually leads to being slaughtered, or if not, turning into some—often even uglier—variant of the very thing one first challenged) but from one or another strategy of slipping away from its grasp, from flight, desertion, the founding of new communities. (60-1)

Which leads to the question of how to neutralize the state apparatus itself, in the absence of a politics of direct confrontation. No doubt some states and corporate elites will collapse of their own dead weight; a few already have; but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they all will. Here, the Sakalava and BaKongo might be able to provide us some useful suggestions. What cannot be destroyed can, nonetheless, be diverted, frozen, transformed, and gradually deprived of its substance—which in the case of states, is ultimately their capacity to inspire terror. What would this mean under contemporary conditions? It’s not entirely clear. Perhaps existing state apparati will gradually be reduced to window-dressing as the substance is pulled out of them from above and below: i.e., both from the growth of international institutions, and from devolution to local and regional forms of selfgovernance. Perhaps government by media spectacle will devolve into spectacle pure and simple (somewhat along the lines of what Paul Lafargue, Marx’s West Indian son-in-law and author of The Right to Be Lazy, implied when he suggested that after the revolution, politicians would still be able to fulfill a useful social function in the entertainment industry). More likely it will happen in ways we cannot even anticipate. But no doubt there are ways in which it is happening already. As Neoliberal states move towards new forms of feudalism, concentrating their guns increasingly around gated communities, insurrectionary spaces open up that we don’t even know about. The Merina rice farmers described in the last section understand what many would-be revolutionaries do not: that there are times when the stupidest thing one could possibly do is raise a red or black flag and issue defiant declarations. Sometimes the sensible thing is just to pretend nothing has changed, allow official state representatives to keep their dignity, even show up at their offices and fill out a form now and then, but otherwise, ignore them. (62-3) Tenets of a Non-existent Science
Let me outline a few of the areas of theory an anarchist anthropology might wish to explore:
States have a peculiar dual character. They are at the same time forms of institutionalized raiding or extortion, and utopian projects. The first certainly reflects the way states are actually experienced, by any communities that retain some degree of autonomy; the second however is how they tend to appear in the written record.
In one sense states are the “imaginary totality” par excellence, and much of the confusion entailed in theories of the state historically lies in an inability or unwillingness to recognize this. For the most part, states were ideas, ways of imagining social order as something one could get a grip on, models of control. This is why the first known works of social theory, whether from Persia, or China, or ancient Greece, were always framed as theories of statecraft. This has had two disastrous effects. One is to give utopianism a bad name. (The word “utopia” first calls to mind the image of an ideal city, usually, with perfect geometry—the image seems to harken back originally to the royal military camp: a geometrical space which is entirely the emanation of a single, individual will, a fantasy of total control.) All this has had dire political consequences, to say the least. The second is that we tend to assume that states, and social order, even societies, largely correspond. In other words, we have a tendency to take the most grandiose, even paranoid, claims of world-rulers seriously, assuming that whatever cosmological projects they claimed to be pursuing actually did correspond, at least roughly, to something on the ground. Whereas it is likely that in many such cases, these claims ordinarily only applied fully within a few dozen yards of the monarch in any direction, and most subjects were much more likely to see ruling elites, on a day-to-day basis, as something much along the lines of predatory raiders.
An adequate theory of states would then have to begin by distinguishing in each case between the relevant ideal of rulership (which can be almost anything, a need to enforce military style discipline, the ability to provide perfect theatrical representation of gracious living which will inspire others, the need to provide the gods with endless human hearts to fend off the apocalypse...), and the mechanics of rule, without assuming that there is necessarily all that much correspondence between them. (There might be. But this has to be empirically established.) For example: much of the mythology of “the West” goes back to Herodotus’ description of an epochal clash between the Persian Empire, based on an ideal of obedience and absolute power, and the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta, based on ideals of civic autonomy, freedom and equality. It’s not that these ideas—especially their vivid representations in poets like Aeschylus or historians like Herodotus—are not important. One could not possibly understand Western history without them. But their very importance and vividness long blinded historians to what is becoming the increasingly clear reality: that whatever its ideals, the Achmaenid Empire was a pretty light touch when it came to the day-to-day control of its subjects’ lives, particularly in comparison with the degree of control exercised by Athenians over their slaves or Spartans over the overwhelming majority of the Laconian population, who were helots. Whatever the ideals, the reality, for most people involved, was much the other way around.
One of the most striking discoveries of evolutionary anthropology has been that it is perfectly possible to have kings and nobles and all the exterior trappings of monarchy without having a state in the mechanical sense at all. One should think this might be of some interest to all those political philosophers who spill so much ink arguing about theories of “sovereignty”—since it suggests that most sovereigns were not heads of state and that their favorite technical term actually is built on a near-impossible ideal, in which royal power actually does manage to translate its cosmological pretensions into genuine bureaucratic control of a given territorial population. (Something like this started happening in Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but almost as soon as it did, the sovereign’s personal power was replaced by a fictive person called “the people,” allowing the bureaucracy to take over almost entirely.) But so far as I’m aware, political philosophers have as yet had nothing to say on the subject. I suspect this is largely due to an extremely poor choice of terms. Evolutionary anthropologists refer to kingdoms which lack full-fledged coercive bureaucracies as “chiefdoms,” a term which evokes images more of Geronimo or Sitting Bull than Solomon, Louis the Pious, or the Yellow Emperor. And of course the evolutionist framework itself ensures that such structures are seen as something which immediately precedes the emergence of the state, not an alternative form, or even something a state can turn into. To clarify all this would be a major historical project. (65-8)

Athens’ police force consisted of Scythian archers imported from what’s now Russia or Ukraine, and something of their legal standing might be gleaned from the fact that, by Athenian law, a slave’s testimony was not admissible as evidence in court unless it was obtained under torture. (69)

With the current crisis of the nation-state and rapid increase in international institutions which are not exactly states, but in many ways just as obnoxious, juxtaposed against attempts to create international institutions which do many of the same things as states but would be considerably less obnoxious, the lack of such a body of theory is becoming a genuine crisis. (70)

At the very least we need a proper theory of the history of wage labor, and relations like it. Since after all, it is in performing wage labor, not in buying and selling, that most humans now waste away most of their waking hours and it is that which makes them miserable. (71)

Academics love Michel Foucault’s argument that identifies knowledge and power, and insists that brute force is no longer a major factor in social control. They love it because it flatters them: the perfect formula for people who like to think of themselves as political radicals even though all they do is write essays likely to be read by a few dozen other people in an institutional environment. Of course, if any of these academics were to walk into their university library to consult some volume of Foucault without having remembered to bring a valid ID, and decided to enter the stacks anyway, they would soon discover that brute force is really not so far away as they like to imagine—a man with a big stick, trained in exactly how hard to hit people with it, would rapidly appear to eject them.
In fact the threat of that man with the stick permeates our world at every moment; most of us have given up even thinking of crossing the innumerable lines and barriers he creates, just so we don’t have to remind ourselves of his existence. If you see a hungry woman standing several yards away from a huge pile of food—a daily occurrence for most of us who live in cities—there is a reason you can’t just take some and give it to her. A man with a big stick will come and very likely hit you. Anarchists, in contrast, have always delighted in reminding us of him. Residents of the squatter community of Christiana, Denmark, for example, have a Christmastide ritual where they dress in Santa suits, take toys from department stores and distribute them to children on the street, partly just so everyone can relish the images of the cops beating down Santa and snatching the toys back from crying children.
Such a theoretical emphasis opens the way to a theory of the relation of power not with knowledge, but with ignorance and stupidity. Because violence, particularly structural violence, where all the power is on one side, 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 favored 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.
Contrary to popular belief, bureaucracies do not create stupidity. They are ways of managing situations that are already inherently stupid because they are, ultimately, based on the arbitrariness of force.
Ultimately this should lead to a theory of the relation of violence and the imagination. Why is it that the folks on the bottom (the victims of structural violence) are always imagining what it must be like for the folks on top (the beneficiaries of structural violence), but it almost never occurs to the folks on top to wonder what it might be like to be on the bottom? Human beings being the sympathetic creatures that they are this tends to become one of the main bastions of any system of inequality—the downtrodden actually care about their oppressors, at least, far more than their oppressors care about them—but this seems itself to be an effect of structural violence. (71-3)

It is common wisdom among anarchists, autonomists, Situationists, and other new revolutionaries that the old breed of grim, determined, self-sacrificing revolutionary, who sees the world only in terms of suffering will ultimately only produce more suffering himself. Certainly that’s what has tended to happen in the past. Hence the emphasis on pleasure, carnival, on creating “temporary autonomous zones” where one can live as if one is already free. (74)

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. (76)

Q: How many voters does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. Because voters can’t change anything.(77)

As I’ve mentioned, the “anti-globalization movement” is increasingly anarchist in inspiration. In the long run the anarchist position on globalization is obvious: the effacement of nation-states will mean the elimination of national borders. This is genuine globalization. Anything else is just a sham. (77)

The moment the average resident of Tanzania, or Laos, was no longer forbidden to relocate to Minneapolis or Rotterdam, the government of every rich and powerful country in the world would certainly decide nothing was more important than finding a way to make sure people in Tanzania and Laos preferred to stay there. Do you really think they couldn’t come up with something?
The point is that despite the endless rhetoric about “complex, subtle, intractable issues” (justifying decades of expensive research by the rich and their well-paid flunkies), the anarchist program would probably have resolved most of them in five or six years. But, you will say, these demands are entirely unrealistic! True enough. But why are they unrealistic? Mainly, because those rich guys meeting in the Waldorf would never stand for any of it. This is why we say they are themselves the problem. (78-9)

So the Wobblies have reappeared, with what was to be the next step in their program, even back in the ‘20s: the 16-hour week. (“4-day week, 4-hour day.”) Again, on the face of it, this seems completely unrealistic, even insane. But has anyone carried out a feasibility study? After all, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that a considerable chunk of the hours worked in America are only actually necessary to compensate for problems created by the fact that Americans work too much. (Consider here such jobs as all-night pizza deliveryman or dog-washer, or those women who run nighttime day care centers for the children of women who have to work nights providing child care for businesswomen...not to mention the endless hours spent by specialists cleaning up the emotional and physical damage caused by overwork, the injuries, suicides, divorces, murderous rampages, producing the drugs to pacify the children...)
So what jobs are really necessary?
Well, for starters, there are lots of jobs whose disappearance, almost everyone would agree, would be a net gain for humanity. Consider here telemarketers, stretch-SUV manufacturers, or for that matter, corporate lawyers. We could also eliminate the entire advertising and PR industries, fire all politicians and their staffs, eliminate anyone remotely connected with an HMO, without even beginning to get near essential social functions. The elimination of advertising would also reduce the production, shipping, and selling of unnecessary products, since those items people actually do want or need, they will still figure out a way to find out about. The elimination of radical inequalities would mean we would no longer require the services of most of the millions currently employed as doormen, private security forces, prison guards, or SWAT teams—not to mention the military. Beyond that, we’d have to do research. Financiers, insurers, and investment bankers are all essentially parasitic beings, but there might be some useful functions in these sectors that could not simply be replaced with software. All in all we might discover that if we identified the work that really did need to be done to maintain a comfortable and ecologically sustainable standard of living, and redistribute the hours, it may turn out that the Wobbly platform is perfectly realistic. Especially if we bear in mind that it’s not like anyone would be forced to stop working after four hours if they didn’t feel like it. A lot of people do enjoy their jobs, certainly more than they would lounging around doing nothing all day (that’s why in prisons, when they want to punish inmates, they take away their right to work), and if one has eliminated the endless indignities and sadomasochistic games that inevitably follow from top-down organization, one would expect a lot more would. It might even turn out that no one will have to work more than they particularly want to. (80-1)

This might give the reader a chance to have a glance at what anarchist, and anarchist-inspired, organizing is actually like—some of the contours of the new world now being built in the shell of the old—and to show what the historical-ethnographic perspective I’ve been trying to develop here, our non-existent science, might be able to contribute to it.
The first cycle of the new global uprising— what the press still insists on referring to, increasingly ridiculously, as “the anti-globalization movement”— began with the autonomous municipalities of Chiapas and came to a head with the asambleas barreales of Buenos Aires, and cities throughout Argentina. There is hardly room here to tell the whole story: beginning with the Zapatistas’ rejection of the idea of seizing power and their attempt instead to create a model of democratic self-organization to inspire the rest of Mexico; their initiation of an international network (People’s Global Action, or PGA) which then put out the calls for days of action against the WTO (in Seattle), IMF (in Washington, Prague...) and so on; and finally, the collapse of the Argentine economy, and the overwhelming popular uprising which, again, rejected the very idea that one could find a solution by replacing one set of politicians with another. The slogan of the Argentine movement was, from the start, que se vayan todas—get rid of the lot of them. Instead of a new government they created a vast network of alternative institutions, starting with popular assemblies to govern each urban neighborhood (the only limitation on participation is that one cannot be employed by a political party), hundreds of occupied, worker-managed factories, a complex system of “barter” and newfangled alternative currency system to keep them in operation—in short, an endless variation on the theme of direct democracy.
All of this has happened completely below the radar screen of the corporate media, which also missed the point of the great mobilizations. The organization of these actions was meant to be a living illustration of what a truly democratic world might be like, from the festive puppets to the careful organization of affinity groups and spokescouncils, all operating without a leadership structure, always based on principles of consensus-based direct democracy. It was the kind of organization which most people would have, had they simply heard it proposed, written off as a pipe-dream; but it worked, and so effectively that the police departments of city after city were completely flummoxed with how to deal with them. Of course, this also had something to do with the unprecedented tactics (hundreds of activists in fairy suits tickling police with feather dusters, or padded with so many inflatable inner tubes and rubber cushions they seemed to roll along like the Michelin man over barricades, incapable of damaging anyone else but also pretty much impervious to police batons...), which completely confused traditional categories of violence and nonviolence. (82-4)

In fact, as anthropologists are aware, just about every known human community which has to come to group decisions has employed some variation of what I’m calling “consensus process”—every one, that is, which is not in some way or another drawing on the tradition of ancient Greece. Majoritarian democracy, in the formal, Roberts Rules of Ordertype sense rarely emerges of its own accord. It’s curious that almost no one, anthropologists included, ever seems to ask oneself why this should be. (86-7)

The real reason for the unwillingness of most scholars to see a Sulawezi or Tallensi village council as “democratic”—well, aside from simple racism, the reluctance to admit anyone Westerners slaughtered with such relative impunity were quite on the level as Pericles—is that they do not vote. Now, admittedly, this is an interesting fact. Why not? If we accept the idea that a show of hands, or having everyone who supports a proposition stand on one side of the plaza and everyone against stand on the other, are not really such incredibly sophisticated ideas that they never would have occurred to anyone until some ancient genius “invented” them, then why are they so rarely employed? Again, we seem to have an example of explicit rejection. Over and over, across the world, from Australia to Siberia, egalitarian communities have preferred some variation on consensus process. Why?
The explanation I would propose is this: it is much easier, in a face-to-face community, to figure out what most members of that community want to do, than to figure out how to convince those who do not to go along with it. Consensus decision-making is typical of societies where there would be no way to compel a minority to agree with a majority decision— either because there is no state with a monopoly of coercive force, or because the state has nothing to do with local decision-making. If there is no way to compel those who find a majority decision distasteful to go along with it, then the last thing one would want to do is to hold a vote: a public contest which someone will be seen to lose. Voting would be the most likely means to guarantee humiliations, resentments, hatreds, in the end, the destruction of communities. What is seen as an elaborate and difficult process of finding consensus is, in fact, a long process of making sure no one walks away feeling that their views have been totally ignored.
Majority democracy, we might say, can only emerge when two factors coincide:
1. a feeling that people should have equal say in making group decisions, and
2. a coercive apparatus capable of enforcing those decisions.
For most of human history, it has been extremely unusual to have both at the same time. Where egalitarian societies exist, it is also usually considered wrong to impose systematic coercion. Where a machinery of coercion did exist, it did not even occur to those wielding it that they were enforcing any sort of popular will.
It is of obvious relevance that Ancient Greece was one of the most competitive societies known to history. It was a society that tended to make everything into a public contest, from athletics to philosophy or tragic drama or just about anything else. So it might not seem entirely surprising that they made political decision-making into a public contest as well. Even more crucial though was the fact that decisions were made by a populace in arms. Aristotle, in his Politics, remarks that the constitution of a Greek city-state will normally depend on the chief arm of its military: if this is cavalry, it will be an aristocracy, since horses are expensive. If hoplite infantry, it will have an oligarchy, as all could not afford the armor and training. If its power was based in the navy or light infantry, one could expect a democracy, as anyone can row, or use a sling. In other words if a man is armed, then one pretty much has to take his opinions into account. One can see how this worked at its starkest in Xenophon’s Anabasis, which tells the story of an army of Greek mercenaries who suddenly find themselves leaderless and lost in the middle of Persia. They elect new officers, and then hold a collective vote to decide what to do next. In a case like this, even if the vote was 60/40, everyone could see the balance of forces and what would happen if things actually came to blows. Every vote was, in a real sense, a conquest.
Roman legions could be similarly democratic; this was the main reason they were never allowed to enter the city of Rome. And when Machiavelli revived the notion of a democratic republic at the dawn of the “modern” era, he immediately reverted to the notion of a populace in arms. This in turn might help explain the term “democracy” itself, which appears to have been coined as something of a slur by its elitist opponents: it literally means the “force” or even “violence” of the people. Kratos, not archos. The elitists who coined the term always considered democracy not too far from simple rioting or mob rule; though of course their solution was the permanent conquest of the people by someone else. And ironically, when they did manage to suppress democracy for this reason, which was usually, the result was that the only way the general populace’s will was known was precisely through rioting, a practice that became quite institutionalized in, say, imperial Rome or eighteenth-century England. (88-91)

I noted earlier that all social orders are in some sense at war with themselves. Those unwilling to establish an apparatus of violence for enforcing decisions necessarily have to develop an apparatus for creating and maintaining social consensus (at least in that minimal sense of ensuring malcontents can still feel they have freely chosen to go along with bad decisions); as an apparent result, the internal war ends up projected outwards into endless night battles and forms of spectral violence. Majoritarian direct democracy is constantly threatening to make those lines of force explicit. For this reason it does tend to be rather unstable: or more precisely, if it does last, it’s because its institutional forms (the medieval city, New England town council, for that matter gallup polls, referendums...) are almost invariably ensconced within a larger framework of governance in which ruling elites use that very instability to justify their ultimate monopoly of the means of violence. Finally, the threat of this instability becomes an excuse for a form of “democracy” so minimal that it comes down to nothing more than insisting that ruling elites should occasionally consult with “the public”—in carefully staged contests, replete with rather meaningless jousts and tournaments—to reestablish their right to go on making their decisions for them.
It’s a trap. Bouncing back and forth between the two ensures it will remain extremely unlikely that one could ever imagine it would be possible for people to manage their own lives, without the help of “representatives.” It’s for this reason the new global movement has begun by reinventing the very meaning of democracy. To do so ultimately means, once again, coming to terms with the fact that “we”—whether as “the West” (whatever that means), as the “modern world,” or anything else—are not really as special as we like to think we are; that we’re not the only people ever to have practiced democracy; that in fact, rather than disseminating democracy around the world, “Western” governments have been spending at least as much time inserting themselves into the lives of people who have been practicing democracy for thousands of years, and in one way or another, telling them to cut it out. (92-3)

The final question—one that I’ve admittedly been rather avoiding up to now—is why anthropologists haven’t, so far? I have already described why I think academics, in general, have rarely felt much affinity with anarchism. I’ve talked a little about the radical inclinations in much early twentieth-century anthropology, which often showed a very strong affinity with anarchism, but that seemed to largely evaporate over time. It’s all a little odd. Anthropologists are after all the only group of scholars who know anything about actually-existing stateless societies; many have actually lived in corners of the world where states have ceased to function or at least temporarily pulled up stakes and left, and people are managing their own affairs autonomously; if nothing else, they are keenly aware that the most commonplace assumptions about what would happen in the absence of a state (“but people would just kill each other!”) are factually untrue. (95)

There’s more to it though. In many ways, anthropology seems a discipline terrified of its own potential. It is, for example, the only discipline in a position to make generalizations about humanity as a whole—since it is the only discipline that actually takes all of humanity into account, and is familiar with all the anomalous cases. (“All societies practice marriage, you say? Well that depends on how you define ‘marriage.’ Among the Nayar...”) Yet it resolutely refuses to do so. (97)

Many years ago a French anthropologist named Gerard Althabe wrote a book about Madagascar called Oppression et Liberation dans l’Imaginaire. It’s a catchy phrase. I think it might well be applied to what ends up happening in a lot of anthropological writing. For the most part, what we call “identities” here, in what Paul Gilroy likes to call the “over-developed world,” are forced on people. In the United States, most are the products of ongoing oppression and inequality: someone who is defined as Black is not allowed to forget that during a single moment of their existence; his or her own self-definition is of no significance to the banker who will deny him credit, or the policeman who will arrest him for being in the wrong neighborhood, or the doctor who, in the case of a damaged limb, will be more likely to recommend amputation. All attempts at individual or collective self-fashioning or self-invention have to take place entirely within those extremely violent sets of constraints. (The only real way that could change would be to transform the attitudes of those who have the privilege of being defined as “White”—ultimately, probably, by destroying the category of Whiteness itself.) The fact is though that nobody has any idea how most people in North America would chose to define themselves if institutional racism were to actually vanish—if everyone really were left free to define themselves however they wished. Neither is there much point in speculating about it. The question is how to create a situation where we could find out.
This is what I mean by “liberation in the imaginary.” To think about what it would take to live in a world in which everyone really did have the power to decide for themselves, individually and collectively, what sort of communities they wished to belong to and what sort of identities they wanted to take on—that’s really difficult. To bring about such a world would be almost unimaginably difficult. It would require changing almost everything. It also would meet with stubborn, and ultimately violent, opposition from those who benefit the most from existing arrangements. To instead write as if these identities are already freely created—or largely so—is easy, and it lets one entirely off the hook for the intricate and intractable problems of the degree to which one’s own work is part of this very identity machine. (101-3)

This strategy has not been entirely ineffective. Ten years later, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation is still there, without having hardly had to fire a shot, if only because they have been willing, for the time being, to downplay the “National” part in their name. All I want to emphasize is exactly how patronizing—or, maybe let’s not pull punches here, how completely racist—the international reaction to the Zapatista rebellion has really been. Because what the Zapatistas were proposing to do was exactly to begin that difficult work that, I pointed out, so much of the rhetoric about “identity” effectively ignores: trying to work out what forms of organization, what forms of process and deliberation, would be required to create a world in which people and communities are actually free to determine for themselves what sort of people and communities they wish to be. And what were they told? Effectively, they were informed that, since they were Maya, they could not possibly have anything to say to the world about the processes through which identity is constructed; or about the nature of political possibilities. As Mayas, the only possible political statement they could make to non-Mayas would be about their Maya identity itself. They could assert the right to continue to be Mayan. They could demand recognition as Mayan. But for a Maya to say something to the world that was not simply a comment on their own Maya-ness would be inconceivable.
And who was listening to what they really had to say?
Largely, it seems, a collection of teenage anarchists in Europe and North America, who soon began besieging the summits of the very global elite to whom anthropologists maintain such an uneasy, uncomfortable, alliance.
But the anarchists were right. I think anthropologists should make common cause with them. We have tools at our fingertips that could be of enormous importance for human freedom. Let’s start taking some responsibility for it. (104-5)

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