Physical Anthropology


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David Graeber argues for the development of a novel, or somewhat novel approach to Anarchist theory in his long pamphlet called Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.  Anthropologists, he notes, are the people who interact on a daily basis with contemporary anarchist societies.  Yet they are too often silent on how indigenous peoples and their methods for living can speak to those living in the paradigm of civilization – they fear they will be called romantics.  Graeber implores his fellow anthropologists to break their silence and put together a theory of anarchism based on anthropology and crafted by the anthropological method of ethnography.  Ultimately he lays out tenets of the theory that scientists should explore in the future.

The first tenet of the “nonexistent science” would be a new theory of the state.  States seem to posses a dual character – that of institutionalized raiding (what subjects actually experience on a day to day basis) and that of a utopian project (how the state is described in the written record) (65).  This is easy to see in the more recent records of statecraft, such as the colonization of Africa and regime changes in the Middle East, where external power molded a new satellite state for the benefit of the parent state.  But Graeber notes that theorists must “[distinguish] between the relevant ideal of rulership and the mechanics of rule, without assuming that there is necessarily all that much correspondence between them” (66).  This approach is useful for understanding the parent state, where any colonial exploitation should be hidden or “validated” by some sort of cosmology.  This cosmology, however, need not extend more than “a few dozen yards of the monarch in any direction” (66).

 The Greek city-states are good examples of the disconnect between ideals and mechanics.  Herodotus describes the Persian Empire as a system based on “obedience and absolute power” whereas the Greek system is based on “civic autonomy, freedom, and equality” (66).  These are the competing ideals of rulership (at least from the Greek perspective).  Yet as Graeber points out, the Persians exerted very little control over their subjects’ daily lives when compared to how the Athenians treated their slaves or how the Spartans treated most of the Laconian population (66).

 So a theory of the state must be able to explain the disconnect between the ideal of rulership and the mechanics of rule, as well as the disconnect between the ideal of the state and the mechanics of state rule, as they are similar but not exactly the same.  This leads to the second tenet of an anarchist anthropology: a theory of political entities that are not states.  One immediately thinks of the Paris Commune, the people’s attempt to create a non-state in the shell of a state.  But it might be easier to look back at Athens.  The most common definition of a “state” implies bureaucratic normalization, citizenship, and a monopoly of force belonging to the state apparatus.  However, Athens had a minimal state, and imported Scythian archers to serve as its police force.  And the idea of citizenship came before any notion of statehood (69).  So Graeber argues that Athens was not a city-state at all but a different form of political organization, perhaps similar to what the Paris Commune would have developed into had it been given the chance.  It is therefore necessary for scientists, including Anthropologists, to clarify just what a state is and what types of political entities exist, or have existed in the past, that are not states.

 The corporation fits this description quite well, and should be studied extensively, especially by those who think that states are stable entities with a deterministic, evolutionary track.  Jeffery Kaplan makes a very relevant point in his article “Consent of the Governed” with regard to the ever expanding power of the entity called the corporation.  Among the various examples of corporate power, he mentions the case of a waste disposal corporation that sued to overturn a Virginia law banning waste dumping from other states.  The corporation won in court.  In another instance, Smithfield Foods sued to overturn Iowa’s citizen initiative that banned meatpacking companies from owning livestock (Kaplan, 19).  These cases are just within the United States.  And corporations wield much more power in the postcolonial Third World.  They raise a very important question: “By what authority can a conglomeration of capital and property, whose existence is granted by the public, deny the right of a sovereign people to govern itself democratically?” (Kaplan, 20).

 Another example of a non-state political entity is the NGO, organizations like GATT, the WTO, the UN, the IMF, and even less obvious ones like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International.  All of these organizations have tremendous power in the political arena without much of a state structure (the UN might be an exception here).  A particularly obnoxious NGO is the WTO, which regularly overturns member nations’ laws if they hinder the free movement of capital in the slightest.  Examples of laws that have been overturned are EPA standards for cleaner gasoline, regulations banning overfishing, the precautionary principle, laws against growth hormones used in livestock, and the list goes on (Kaplan, 23).

 Even the conservation NGOs have plenty of political muscle and have used it to completely change the lives of people the world over – people like the Batwa of southwestern Uganda.  This indigenous population that had lived in the dense forests for thousands of years was forced off their ancestral land to the cheers of many Western conservation groups.  They were accused of hunting Silverback Gorillas, an accusation the Batwa vehemently denied.  But the hegemonic power of conservation NGOs was enough to convince the Ugandan government that the move was necessary (Dowie, 65-66).  Any theory of political non-states must adequately explain the power and influence of NGOs.

What gives corporations and NGOs so much power is often called globalization, the crisis of the nation-state in full view.  And any theory that touches upon globalization must also include capitalism.  So Graeber calls for a newer, better theory of capitalism, one that focuses on the wage-labor system itself, not just on who gains from production.  A good source to look at for insights into this theory is Bob Black, a post-left anarchist and author of The Abolition of Work.  Not only does Black attack wage labor directly, he attacks work itself directly and therefore adds much needed insight into another tenet of anarchist anthropology: alienation.  Graeber calls a new theory of alienation the ultimate prize for the new theory (75).

Black elucidates alienation when he emphatically declares “in order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.”  Describing work as “production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick,” Black believes that it is this huge facet of everyday life that drives the alienation of modern society.  Work occurs increasingly in a setting of heavy surveillance, ensuring servility.  And more than just working, people have “jobs,” monotonous tasks that drain the worker of creativity and interest (Black).

 Echoing Foucault, Black argues that discipline is a common theme in the workplace, the school, the prison, and the mental hospital.  Discipline is the mean by which those with power tell their subjects not only what to do, but how to do it, how much to make, how fast to make it, when to arrive, when to leave, what to say, how to say it, and so many other robotic commands.

 Black’s answer to the alienation of the workplace also adds a great deal to yet another tenet of anarchist anthropological theory: a theory of political happiness.  Black’s answer to alienation and an idea of political happiness is a ludic revolution.  He envisions a world where 90 percent of the jobs (the percentage he estimates are system-serving) disappear and the rest are divided up communally to be done at will in a manner that makes them enjoyable.  He also envisions the abolishment of the nuclear family, schools, childhood, and a number of other robust (and dangerous) modes of control.

 Black certainly seems a bit far from the mainstream even of anarchism, which makes sense considering the fact that he criticizes it and  Marxism as being “conservative” ideologies.  But as he floats on apparently the same boat as Quinn and Zerzan, his insight is useful in studying anarchism from an anthropological standpoint.  He may be radical, but as Quinn says “If the world is to be saved, it will not be by old minds with new programs but by new minds with no programs at all” (Quinn, 7).

 So what would a non-program for a non-state look like?  From an economic perspective it may look like what Marcel Mauss described.  He demonstrated that “primitive” economies (assumed to be barter systems without the benefits of currency, weights, and measures) were more like gift economies than anything else, with their primary purpose being to strengthen social bonds (Graeber, 21-22).

 Politically, it helps to study counterpower as a force for the prevention of domination.  In hierarchical societies, counterpower manifests itself as subversion, that immensely strong “popular ability to innovate entirely new politics, economic, and social forms…the power to create constitutions” (Graeber, 36).  In nonhierarchical, egalitarian societies, counterpower can be seen as the dominant form of social power.  “It stands guard over what are seen as certain frightening possibilities within the society itself: notably against the emergence of systematic forms of political or economic dominance” (Graeber, 35).

 Consider the Piaroa of the Orinoco in what is today Venezuela.  They are a highly egalitarian society, greatly valuing personal autonomy.  Yet their cosmology involves constant invisible war which spiritual entities are constantly fighting.  Physical murder is almost unheard of, but all death is caused by spiritual murder and must “be avenged by the magical massacre of whole [unknown] communities” (27).  So their cosmological warfare acts as a proxy to prevent the breakdown of their actual society.

 This too may be a bit in the ether, but the point is that for an anarchist anthropology to exist, scientists must glean functional truths from people past and present who have had functioning societies that are not based on hierarchy and domination.  Anthropology, according to Graeber is the science in the best position to develop a theory of anarchism in touch with reality, and it is time they did so.

Works Cited

Black, Bob. The Abolition of Work. The Deoxyribonucleic Hyperdimension. 9 Dec. 2009


Dowie, Mark. “Conservation Refugees.” The Future of Nature. Ed. Barry Lopez.          Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2007. 14-26. 65-77.

Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm   Press, 2004.

Kaplan, Jeffery. “Consent of the Governed.” The Future of Nature. Ed. Barry Lopez.    Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2007. 14-26.

Quinn, Daniel.  Beyond Civilization. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

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