From Courant Alternatif (Magazine of the OCL) 304, November 2020
David Graeber: an anarchist anthropologist?
At a time when posthumous tributes are multiplying following the death of the academic D. Graeber, known for his many books (which have had great success in bookstores in particular Debt, 5000 years of history) and his political activism (he actively participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and publicly supported Chiapas and most recently Rojava), we have decided to offer a short review of his main work in social anthropology.
The current of anarchist anthropology
Over the years, D. Graeber has become a key figure in the so-called “radical” left and in anti-globalization movements. He claimed to belong to the current of anarchist anthropology in which we find anthropologists and ethnologists, known to libertarians for the most part, such as P. Clastres, M. Sahlins, J.-C. Scott or C. Macdonald. Anarchist anthropology "poses through concrete case studies the very current, if not acute, question of power and inequalities, or more precisely of their control and rejection by a certain number of ancient or recent societies." This current is fruitful in the criticism of modern capitalist society: it has notably demonstrated the existence of societies which, although ignorant of both the State and marked inequalities in wealth,
If he is inspired by the work of the authors cited above, D. Graeber remains nonetheless critical of this current. In his book Pour une anthropologie anarchiste, he criticizes P. Clastres for having been too lenient on the violence present within the institutions of so-called primitive societies (eg rite of passage to adulthood among the Guayakis consisting of scarifications, relations with neighboring groups extremely conflictual) as well as the presence of dominance in interpersonal relationships (elders / young people, men / women). Thus, he does not fall into the trap of idealizing primitive societies2 (unlike primitivists such as J. Zerzan), nor into that of axiological neutrality (M. Weber) imposed in the social sciences. In the same vein, he also denounces, in a recent article3 co-written with D. Wengrow, the Rousseauist myth of the "good savage" and the teleological account of "civilization" which is based on the idea spread by several contemporary authors (eg J. Diamond, Fukuyama, P. Shepard , etc.) that economic inequalities appeared with agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution. However, this account has been refuted by numerous counter-examples from archaeological and ethnological observations4. This being the case, when D. Graeber and D. Wengrow announced, as a counterpoise to the idea of the evolution of human societies towards ever more progress and social inequalities, that the societies of the recent Paleolithic showed signs of inequality of wealth based on archaeological "evidence", one cannot help but read an opposition by reaction,
A Seductive But… Wrong History of Debt
This lack of rigour is also present in D. Graeber's main work: Debt, 5000 years of history. To summarize quickly, after a very convincing criticism of the “myth of barter” popularized by the philosopher and economist A. Smith, whom he describes as “the imaginary world of barter”, he inscribes the concept of debt in a historical continuity since ancient Mesopotamia. through the Western Middle Ages to the present day. In doing so, he establishes an anachronism and a sociocentrism by projecting the current logic of debt on pre-capitalist societies with their own cultural logics5. In addition, it offers an imprecise definition of debt, based solely on quantification (whereas the demonstration of a social use of threat / violence to obtain debt settlement seems to us a more relevant criterion to qualify it), which does not allow us to distinguish between a debt of a simple moral obligation. We also learn in this book that "money and debt come into play at exactly the same time", which is not true! It is commonly accepted that debt arose before money6. In societies without wealth, it existed in the form of services provided by the son-in-law and it will be replaced by the price of the bride (bridewealth) while the price of blood (wergeld) will replace the law of retaliation. Throughout his book, it naturalizes the economy (in its modern sense) without taking into account the fact that the basic categories of capitalism which form it (such as money, commodity, value or labor) have a specific meaning for each social organization and are not transhistoric7. By making it a universal functioning of human societies, it thus makes it impossible to go beyond it outright and obliges reform to improve its functioning.
D. Graeber thinks of History in a completely moral way, and not in terms of social structures, with a binary opposition between creditors and debtors referring to an antagonism between the “rich” and the “poor” who are called the 99% during the Occupy Wall Street movement. This reasoning implies that capitalism is above all a matter of personal domination (and not of exploitation) of a tiny oligarchy over the mass of people through the logic of debt which, according to him, constitutes the engine of History (farewell to the struggle classes: it will therefore be a question of moralizing the creditors in favour of a sharing of wealth between the debtors). With Occupy, he calls for a moratorium on the debt… a strategy that has proved ineffective in the past. Indeed,
But here we are reassured, we learn, still in Debt, 5000 years of history, that communism has nothing to do with "ownership of the means of production" but rather constitutes the "foundation of all human sociability" in the form of "fundamental communism" which "manifests itself above all in what we call love" (sic) and which is already present everywhere in society. There is no need for a revolutionary break, the change is already there: he was in fact convinced that capitalism had already ended8 ... Throughout his works or during interviews, it is moreover clearly visible that his criticism focuses on “Drifts” of neoliberalism (financialization of the economy, the generalized credit system (debt), the ultra-rich (1%), the extended bureaucracy, management, “stupid jobs”, etc.