Join 3,557 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


horizontal democracy
November 27, 2011 11:11 AM   Subscribe

David Graeber profile: Meet the anthropologist, activist [1,2], and anarchist who helped transform a hapless rally into a global protest movement... " 'Most people don't think anarchism is a bad idea. They think it's insane,' says Graeber. 'Yeah, sure it would be great not to have prisons and police and hierarchical structures of authority, but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn't work, right?' Graeber's father, however, had seen it work."
posted by kliuless (70 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
So we're hacking the site and taking it away from our Mod overlords?
posted by Ironmouth at 11:28 AM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


D. G. was a member of metafilter for a day earlier this year.
posted by bukvich at 11:28 AM on November 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


what does it say about a person that the first thing they think of when they hear about this is "but everybody will just start terrorizing and killing each other"

i mean are they going to take bathroom breaks in between murders or what
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:34 AM on November 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


I don't think everybody is going to start killing people, but I think somebody will. Organized society helps to protect us, as a whole, from the rare outliers.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:37 AM on November 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Debt: The First 5,000 Years is absolute genius and everyone should read it. The business week article calls it alternate history but that isn't true at all, and I kinda think that the writer didn't know that alternate history meant fiction.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 11:37 AM on November 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


maybe we could all run away while they use the bathroom
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:40 AM on November 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


I alway hear "but people would just start killing and raping and robbing people if there wasnt a strong government" as "I will start killing and raping and ropping people if there isn't something to stop me."
posted by fuq at 11:43 AM on November 27, 2011 [20 favorites]


Oh, and the first link is the one everyone should click, it's a profile of Graber from Business Week (I know, hilarious) that is actually very good.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 11:44 AM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think everybody is going to start killing people, but I think somebody will. Organized society helps to protect us, as a whole, from the rare outliers.

Who says anarchism couldn't be an organized society? It's often mistook as advocating for chaos and lawlessness rather than consentual, noncoercive order and cooperation.

I won't even get into how "organized society" often provides a shelter of legitimacy for killers and other people who decidedly do not have society's best interest in mind.
posted by entropone at 11:47 AM on November 27, 2011 [16 favorites]


Does anyone else believe that Libertarianism and Anarchism have pretty much the same goals, but are marketed differently, and expect different end results?
posted by kmartino at 11:58 AM on November 27, 2011


Graeber is fantastic. Seconding The Devil Tesla, the linked Businessweek article is surprisingly good. I'm reading Direct Action after finishing DebtDirect Action is probably a little inside-baseball for some tastes but it's not bad.

Here is a nice blog entry he wrote about writing broadly-scoped, generalist "big" books for a popular audience as a practicing scholar (he is writing specifically in the context of Debt).

Does anyone else believe that Libertarianism and Anarchism have pretty much the same goals, but are marketed differently, and expect different end results?

They're not really the same thing at all. Right-libertarianism sets itself up in opposition to state power. Anarchism is often conceived of similarly by people who are not especially familiar with it but in fact it is more about being opposed to hierarchy and coercion in all contexts, not just the context of state action.

I don't think everybody is going to start killing people, but I think somebody will.

Quite a few somebodies already do.
posted by enn at 12:05 PM on November 27, 2011 [13 favorites]


kmartino: "Libertarianism" was anarchism, they were exact synonyms, until a few Americans (Murray Rothbard and other fans of Ludwig von Mises) deliberately coopted the term within the united states. To be a libertarian that advocated capitalism was a contradiction.

I'll let Chomsky take it from here.
posted by phrontist at 12:06 PM on November 27, 2011 [13 favorites]


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Revolution#Criticism

Those times in history when the ends brutally justify the means are mostly due to an idealism that has promised utopia.
posted by Brian B. at 12:09 PM on November 27, 2011


I hope this post can stick to David Graeber more than anarchism in general. This Anarchism FAQ is a good resource.
posted by phrontist at 12:10 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Brian B.: Did you read the whole section? The degree of coercion exercised by some anarchist elements is controversial. They fell short of their ideals in those days, no doubt, but how much worse would most other societies at the time have faired by those standards?
posted by phrontist at 12:15 PM on November 27, 2011


I was part of the anarchist community in the Twin Cities in the early 90s, and was part of a number of organizations and activities that were organized collaboratively and in a non-hierarchic manner. It works. It's also time consuming, demands a level of engagement that we don't usually offer, and takes a really long time. I suspect this is true of most political systems, but usually people like me are left out of that process.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:16 PM on November 27, 2011 [11 favorites]


notes towards a more consistent framework for understanding what Graeber is talking about in Debt... are in his "Anthropological Theory of Value" which is really fragments towards of an anarchist critique of marxism more than anything else. since marxism is really a theory of capitalism the critique gets extended. he get's distracted by some really naive metaphysics early on tho. and the book loses focus.

for someone who is apparently a student of '68, OWS strikes me as exhibit A of a "Spectacle." While Graeber slices and dices the post-modernists i.e. Foucalt, it's not clear to me what Graeber thinks about Debord's memento mori for mass public uprising in late capitalism...
posted by ennui.bz at 12:19 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure Graeber's father's experience in the Spanish Civil War are quite so stellar an argument for the ability of an anarchist state to provide security. What are Fascists, exactly, if not the epitome of those elements in society that use a power vacuum as an opportunity to kill who they want and take property and power by force? And they won, they crushed the libertarian socialist utopia under their boots and took everything for themselves.

Left anarchists can present some pretty trenchant criticism of both liberal democractic and authoritarian socialist states, but at least both of those methods of government provide some way of defending themselves. There are a lot of people and organizations in this world that are willing to use violence to get what they want, and the idea that there aren't, or that they can always be defeated non-violently, is simply a fantasy on a par with the anarcho-capitalists' benevolent invisible hand.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 12:23 PM on November 27, 2011 [7 favorites]


The concept of a society without coercive power is absurd. One of the fundamental functions of communication itself is coercion, ie to induce another person to take an action that the inducer desires them to take, for whatever reason. "Help me move this log", for example, comes with implicit contexts: it is not against your interests to have the log moved, it helps you to have the log moved, if you help me with this I may in the past or future help you with somethng, you are my friend and friendship includes an obligation to help me do things, etc. The moment you engage in collective endeavor, you create expectations; if expectations go unmet often enough and if they are important enough, humans feel anger. Anger is a prompt to coercion. All angry animals coerce. It is an instinct as deep-set and vital as the territorialism that underlies libertarian philosophy.

Even with minimal anger, differing expectations must be resolved. If rational argument and emotional appeal are unable to resolve the matter, one or the other party must give up its expectation, or escalate to violence. Alternatively, they may ask a third party to decide on some basis, and abide by the third party's decision. However if they do not abide by the decision, this merely puts the third party into the same position as the party it decided for: argue, appeal, escalate to violence, or call in another adjudicator.

At some point, you either make the obstinate one help move the log, or you give up on the idea of logs heavier than a certain weight (or collective endeavors more complex than a certain level) being able to be done by your idealistic society.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 12:25 PM on November 27, 2011 [7 favorites]


(also, his Anthro. Theory of Value goes into more detail about the Iroquois "dream" economy, which is really fascinating... I don't know what other accesible resources there are on this...)
posted by ennui.bz at 12:26 PM on November 27, 2011


There are a lot of people and organizations in this world that are willing to use violence to get what they want, and the idea that there aren't, or that they can always be defeated non-violently

Not all anarchists are pacifists. The Spanish Anarchists were defeated by an international fascist coalition and undermined by the communists from within. This despite attracting volunteers from around the world.
posted by phrontist at 12:33 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The concept of a society without coercive power is absurd.

Without directly addressing your arguments, I just want to point out that one of the nice things about reading David Graeber is that all of his discussion of any hypothetical anarchist society is very much informed by his knowledge of real, existing societies that he has studied as an anthropologist. Because of this his work seems much more grounded than that of many other utopian theorists.
posted by enn at 12:33 PM on November 27, 2011 [12 favorites]


The concept of a society without coercive power is absurd.

And yet, such societies and communities exist.
posted by entropone at 12:36 PM on November 27, 2011 [6 favorites]


I just want to point out that one of the nice things about reading David Graeber is that all of his discussion of any hypothetical anarchist society is very much informed by his knowledge of real, existing societies that he has studied as an anthropologist.

He admits to being an anarchist since he was 16.
posted by Brian B. at 12:40 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Extracted from the naked capitalism link:

Yves here. I have to note that David DeGraw of Amped Status is widely credited as the originator of “We are the 99%.”

. . . and . . .

Someone—this time I remember quite clearly it was me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a half dozen others had equally strong memories of being the first to come up with it—suggested, “well, why not call ourselves ‘the 99%’?
posted by bukvich at 12:44 PM on November 27, 2011


And yet, such societies and communities exist.

All too often, they only exist in the history books, after being eradicated by one of the many societies which not only do have coercive power but are extremely enthusiastic about applying it to anyone that can't stop them.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 1:17 PM on November 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


He admits to being an anarchist since he was 16.

If this is supposed to have any bearing on Graeber's anthropological knowledge, it strikes me as quite fallacious.

His having been an anarchist since he was 16 may well have prompted him to study actually existing societies that resemble what an anarchist would like to achieve on a larger scale.
posted by kenko at 1:21 PM on November 27, 2011 [6 favorites]


He admits to being an anarchist since he was 16.

Impressive. I didn't mature until I'd had a few jobs and seen a few elections go by.
posted by phrontist at 1:44 PM on November 27, 2011 [11 favorites]


If this is supposed to have any bearing on Graeber's anthropological knowledge, it strikes me as quite fallacious.

I never proposed that he had any special knowledge about anarchy. To me, he's merely a true believer, like most people, servicing their lost paradise worldview. To the degree that this has personal meaning to him, or what he hopes to personally gain by it, I wouldn't know. That's his secret.
posted by Brian B. at 1:44 PM on November 27, 2011


Also, to refrain from exercising coercive power is not the same as having none. This refraining is in itself coercive. "See this big stick? I am carefully not using it on you. Let's agree not to use big sticks." Big sticks still exist. The moment someone makes someone else angry enough, it's time to pick them up.

If you are ever in a situation where you have no coercive power, this is only because someone more powerful has removed it from you. Perhaps they have done so through persuasion rather than violence, and perhaps you would agree that they are correct; this just means that their argument, or likeability, or social status, has triumphed over yours. Engagement in arguments, such as this one here, is coercive activity; however non-violent the body of the anarchist, his mind is committed to the triumph of his ideas. When enough people agree, he thinks, we can switch over as a society to acceptance of his paradigms.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:57 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Look, we need a King. Hobbes said so!
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:01 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here's Graeber on Democracy Now a couple of months ago:

"Occupy Wall Street": Thousands March in NYC Financial District, Set Up Protest Encampment

David Graeber: The Debt of the American Poor Should Be Forgiven
posted by homunculus at 2:01 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


It works. It's also time consuming, demands a level of engagement that we don't usually offer, and takes a really long time.

And that time-consuming, attention-consuming element is why it ultimately will not work overall. You say that you were part of an anarchist community - in other words, a group of people who wanted to take part in that kind of system. And it still took a long time and called for a high level of participation. It strikes me that trying to incorporate people who DON'T want to expend that kind of time and engagement would make the process even more time-consuming and attention-consuming, and it would ultimately fall apart.

In short -- a fantastic idea on paper, except for it neglecting to take into account that some people are stupid, selfish bastards.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:15 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


for someone who is apparently a student of '68, OWS strikes me as exhibit A of a "Spectacle." While Graeber slices and dices the post-modernists i.e. Foucalt, it's not clear to me what Graeber thinks about Debord's memento mori for mass public uprising in late capitalism...

I'm not sure what Graeber may think, but as the person who translated the Debord text linked above (The Society of the Spectacle), it seems to me that the OWS movement is a superlative example of the sort of antihierarchical and participatory revolt against the spectacle system that Debord's book was intended to foster and elucidate.

I know that we are not supposed to link to our own websites, but in this context I hope I will be forgiven for mentioning that the already-linked-to site with the Debord book also includes an article specifically about the situationist/OWS connections entitled "The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011)".
posted by Bureau of Public Secrets at 2:25 PM on November 27, 2011 [20 favorites]


Yeah, sure it would be great not to have prisons and police and hierarchical structures of authority, but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn't work, right?

To me, the problem with anarchism is the opposite one: behind the formal non-hierarchical, non-coercive structures, someone or some group wields power in secret. Often these are the "facilitators" or "coordinators" of meetings. This is essentially what's happening at Occupy Wall Street:
As things stand right now, the club of anarchists who run the General Assembly and have been stifling every sort of attempt at structured organizations have (paradoxically) established a bizarre authoritarian regime under the banner of anti-authoritarianism
The context is a dispute about whether OWS should issue demands. A group of Marxists created the Demands working, and the anarchist "facilitators" of the General Assembly have attempted minor acts of sabotage - disrupting meetings, taking down the Demands working group information from the web site.

The most interesting thing is that one of the key instigators of this is someone going by the name of Ketchup, who was interviewed on Steven Colbert's show. When he asked her if she was a representative for the movement, she replied that she is just one ordinary person and does not represent anyone but herself.

To me, this is the true danger of anarchist collectives. The formal structures do not prevent power from concentrating in a few hands, but this fact is consistently denied and hidden from view, making us more vulnerable to the arbitrary use of power, not less.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:31 PM on November 27, 2011 [22 favorites]


I think there's a lot of strawman-based scorn about anarchism, and a lot of it is bundled into assumptions that many, most, or all anarchists want... something. In this thread there's this notion that anarchism is about this utopian ideal. And I've known a lot of anarchists and I don't know any that talk about that. Instead they talk about structuring their own communities nonhierarchically. It's pretty simple.

The bottom line is that people are trying to live the way they want to live, people are trying to live justly, and there are a lot of different ways to do that.
posted by entropone at 2:45 PM on November 27, 2011 [6 favorites]


The Situationists and the Occupation Movements is the essay referred to by the commenter three previous.

BPS dude: Linking to your site in comments is copacetic. Linking to your site on a front page post is a no-no.
posted by bukvich at 3:03 PM on November 27, 2011


In short -- a fantastic idea on paper, except for it neglecting to take into account that some people are stupid, selfish bastards.

I think it's a terrible idea in theory, and I believe adherents are often those who are in denial of their deepest fascist tendencies. It's often the attitude: "If I can't have control then there shouldn't be any control." I note that people who work hard and share generously are always free to do this under almost any regime, so it's not about sharing. Anarchism is more like a vast moralizing experiment that sinks if we're bad, floats if we're good, just like a Puritan witch. Also, it's never to blame for any system failure because it's ego driven, not systematic. On that score, Graeber rightly points out that our current money system is our invention, under our ownership, and we can do whatever we want with it. I agree. But the biggest mistake would be to overlook it's social value in using it to tax those who fortuitously make a lot of it, rather than undoing their enterprise by equating it with greed. Communists already tried that one.
posted by Brian B. at 3:08 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Organized society helps to protect us, as a whole, from the rare outliers.

This. And the further investment in protection from increasingly rare outliers increases exponentially.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:25 PM on November 27, 2011


behind the formal non-hierarchical, non-coercive structures, someone or some group wields power in secret

This is in fact exactly the sort of thing anarchists think about all the time, and that other left theories woefully ignore. Furthermore, if people really are stupid and selfish, that's all the more reason not to give them authority over one another.
posted by cthuljew at 3:29 PM on November 27, 2011 [15 favorites]


Does anyone else believe that Libertarianism and Anarchism have pretty much the same goals, but are marketed differently, and expect different end results?

They haven't always been marketed separately. From this 1972 interview with Murray Rothbard,

"In other words, we believe that capitalism is the fullest expression of anarchism, and anarchism is the fullest expression of capitalism. Not only are they compatible, but you can't really have one without the other. True anarchism will be capitalism, and true capitalism will be anarchism."
posted by BigSky at 4:18 PM on November 27, 2011


@phrontist

thanks, chomsky (thomsky)
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:56 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Human beings existed for nearly two-hundred-thousand years without establishing governments; there was a very long time from the appearance of the first human beings to anything we would recognize as a hierarchical state.

Thus, the position that human beings necessarily resort to founding governments, or somehow need governments, is obviously not true.

That we can still function as anarchists today, in anarchist communities, is no surprise if you consider that we have lived longer as anarchists than as anything else.

So the interesting question, to me at least, is not whether anarchism can work, but if (and how) anarchism could thrive outside of something approximating our ancestral environment.
posted by edguardo at 5:47 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Human beings existed for nearly two-hundred-thousand years without establishing governments; there was a very long time from the appearance of the first human beings to anything we would recognize as a hierarchical state.

Thus, the position that human beings necessarily resort to founding governments, or somehow need governments, is obviously not true.


Interesting dilemma. Let's see, do I want to eat the maggots growing on a buzzard-eaten carcass for lunch, or have a fresh sandwich made from ingredients from 50 different vendors? I think I'll choose the sandwich on most days.
posted by Brian B. at 6:07 PM on November 27, 2011


People who eat ancestral diets are not unhealthy. Quite the opposite, apparently.
posted by edguardo at 6:22 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Orlov's posted an interesting (long) article on his site today (by feralscholar) that references the pros and cons of having 'organization' and 'policy' viz.,

I love the way OWS stays unpredictable. That is absolutely this occupy-thing’s greatest strength.

I have questions, and ideas, however, about what happens next, about follow-up, about what the 99% of the 99% can do and, more importantly, should do. I’m not proposing, as many leftists will, that the movement “get itself organized,” select leaders, develop a strategy, etc. In fact, I vigorously oppose strategies on principle, because I believe most of them are simply designed to put a few people in charge of a lot of people who are then charged to carry out the strategy. More on that further along.

Before I can explain myself, I need to at least describe the premise for these ideas.

Premise

The premise begins that all the changes that are implied in the demands – such as they are – of the movement are not applicable to all people in all places at all times. The greatest value of this movement is not in its ability to expose certain sufferings and change certain policies, but in its ability to expose – with no unified intention to do so – all the reasons we need to abandon the entire system of which “policy” is only one essential working component.

This is an argument that is not won in this movement yet, because many people who are supportive of OWS et al still maintain the sincere and good-willing belief that governments and other policy-making institutions are somehow independent of their actual actions, like machines, and they can be taken over – like exchanging a bad driver for a good one in an automobile.
I respect that belief insofar as it is a belief people cleave to out of genuine good will. These people are not collaborators or sheep; and those who characterize them that way are both wrong and mean. I love the people who want to change the policies, because I am convinced that they want to do it out of a genuine sense of care about others.

My argument: Even machines cannot be made independent of their makers and users. The problem with the system is not the driver. It is the car.

This is my premise. If I am wrong, then ignore everything hereafter.

posted by infini at 6:26 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


People who eat ancestral diets are not unhealthy. Quite the opposite, apparently.

As long as we're debating that this is what anarchism really means, I'm delighted to agree. The logistics are impossible though. We need sewers, clean water, organized food production due to population. How would we eliminate so many people to bring back fantasy island?
posted by Brian B. at 6:37 PM on November 27, 2011


And that time-consuming, attention-consuming element is why it ultimately will not work overall. You say that you were part of an anarchist community - in other words, a group of people who wanted to take part in that kind of system. And it still took a long time and called for a high level of participation.

Anarchist theories allow for representational decision making -- in fact, if you flipped the governmental structure of the United States so that power actually flowed from the bottom up, it's very similar to anarchist systems of large-group organizing.

We didn't use that system because people wanted to be involved in decisions. But anarchism doesn't demand full-engagement in every decision made. It just allows for it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:46 PM on November 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Anarchist theories allow for representational decision making -- in fact, if you flipped the governmental structure of the United States so that power actually flowed from the bottom up, it's very similar to anarchist systems of large-group organizing.

Like Shalom's Parpolity...?
posted by edguardo at 6:49 PM on November 27, 2011


@Brian B

that is an interesting question but i am also interested in the obverse of it, i.e. how much worse are things going to get in terms of authority as the complexity of sustaining our way of life increases
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:17 PM on November 27, 2011


Like Shalom's Parpolity...?

To an extent. Anarchists call it federalism, and there is quite a bit of writing about it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:57 PM on November 27, 2011


how much worse are things going to get in terms of authority as the complexity of sustaining our way of life increases

Things could get far more complex, as long as it's logical.
posted by Brian B. at 8:20 PM on November 27, 2011


I have had similar experiences to AlsoMike. It seems like the people that shout the loudest are the ones that end up taking charge, and they also are the ones who systematically pretend that they are not in charge. It removes accountability and gives rise to a passive aggressive political culture-- and this political/organizational culture cannot survive contact with linearly organized forces. The Spanish Civil War is a case in point. I have also noticed the strong authoritarian tendencies among those who most vociferously scream about points of process -- what they are really saying is "I am not in control of this meeting and therefore I will throw a tantrum until I get what I want." This is similar to Brian B.'s point.

It's very off putting. I can't say it's all anarchists, however, since I have worked with quite a few decent folks who seem happy to work with others to achieve common goals at Occupy. I also like the idea of running open meetings , the hand signals, stack taking etc. Those things seem very positive to me and I like them.

To Graeber's point about the anarchist band in Madagascar-- that only works because they have a common orientation. That is, people have lived/worked with each other for many years and share a common background culture. That simply isn't the case in the USA where we have a variety of different ethnic/religious groups and ways of thinking. It's high context communication.

In my experience the closest thing I can think of that parallels what Graeber is talking about is living in East Asia, (Japan, Korea, China) where there is a high premium placed on understanding what you are supposed to do in a group, without anyone telling you. Sometimes the participants can't even articulate why they are doing what they are doing, other than to say "that's not how we do it". It's actually very much more authoritarian and group-pressure oriented than living in the United States.

Finally, what I am seeing from a certain faction of anarchists is a fear of using their own process, when that process produces outcomes that scare them-- they then adopt the standard tactics of any leadership cadre. n reading AlsoMike's linked article, the people doing this, the Facilitators working group, seem unaware that other people have tread the ground before. Anyone who has a passing experience with community organizing, or factional politics will see exactly what the Facilitators are doing. It's definitely polarizing and I can only chalk it up to the relative political inexperience of whomever is coming up with these political moves.
posted by wuwei at 8:43 PM on November 27, 2011 [7 favorites]


This is in fact exactly the sort of thing anarchists think about all the time...

They might think about it, but it's a bit of a generalization to say that they all do. And a big leap to say that because they think about it, they've solved it. It was a problem in 2011 as it was in 1970, and IMO, a good reason to doubt that anarchism is a viable alternative, certainly right now.

I also think that if you really thought about it, you couldn't be an anarchist. An anarchist who is thinking about this is really trying to figure out away around it. Two approaches are possible: the first is to locate the problem in some contingent implementation of anarchist theory -- the ideas are fine, but we need better, more pure practices. The second says maybe the anarchist idea is incomplete, that within anarchist theory, there is some hidden residual authoritarianism -- like maybe anarchism assumes a white, male, heterosexual subject, so the result is a structure that is non-hierarchical, but only for that group of people.

Both of these are ways of purifying anarchism, of locating and eliminating the residue that is believed to corrupt the good intentions of anarchist movements. They're saying the ideal is good, but does the theory/practice live up to the ideal? Are we really being radically anti-authoritarian enough?

But I think the problem is much stranger: it's the very fact that anarchist do live up to the ideal that creates the problem. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams gives the clue as to why:
it is a well-known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are ipso facto, those least suited to do it... anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job... Who can possibly rule if no one who wants to do it can be allowed to?
This sets up the revelation that the President of the Galaxy is a figurehead, and all the real decisions are made in secret by the Ruler of the Universe, who is an anonymous, eccentric man living in a tiny shack on a remote planet. Occasionally, the administrators of the universe visit him to make decisions that affect everyone. The reason he is the Ruler of the Universe is that he is a radical solipsist - he doubts that anything exists outside of his own mind.
"And they ask you," said Zarniwoop, "to take decisions for them? About people's lives, about worlds, about economies, about wars, about everything going on out there in the Universe?"
"Out there?" said the man, "out where?"
"Out there!" said Zarniwoop pointing at the door.
"How can you tell there's anything out there," said the man politely, "the door's closed."
"But you know there's a whole Universe out there!" cried Zarniwoop. "You can't dodge your responsibilities by saying they don't exist!"
The ruler of the Universe thought for a long while whilst Zarniwoop quivered with anger.
"You're very sure of your facts," he said at last, "I couldn't trust the thinking of a man who takes the Universe - if there is one - for granted."
Zarniwoop still quivered, but was silent.
"I only decide about my Universe," continued the man quietly. "My Universe is my eyes and my ears. Anything else is hearsay."
This is the fantasy of the uncorrupted/uncorruptable ruler. The idea is that he is effectively the dictator of the entire universe, but he can be trusted to not be corrupted by power because he refuses to believe that he is in power. Maybe this is how anarchist collectives work. A few people in power but they refuse to acknowledge it, even to the point of self-delusion. Ketchup claims in the interview that she is not a spokesperson and only speaks for herself despite the evidence to the contrary - we can hear in that echoes of the Ruler of the Universe claiming "I only decide about my Universe."

It seems like the thinking is "If I repress the fact that I have power, I can't be corrupted by it. Since I can't be corrupted by power, I am allowed to have power." This is how anarchism transforms itself into authoritarianism.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:43 PM on November 27, 2011 [7 favorites]


People's accounts of their personal experiences with the problems in anarchist movements are very interesting reading. However, I think it's worth pointing out that Graeber's work doesn't just invite people to compare our present system with an ideal anarchist one.

Quite the opposite, in fact: one of the interesting things about DEBT is that it points out that on a day-to-day basis, we are all anarchists some of the time ("can I bum a cigarette?"), authoritarians some of the time and capitalists some of the time. Nobody answers a request to pass the salt by asking "how much will you offer me for that". Nobody tries to renegotiate the rules of the road by consensus-based politics whilst driving. A completely capitalist or a completely authoritarian society has as many horrible problems, when you picture it as a thought-experiment, as a completely anarchist one.

DEBT is interesting because it explores these different modes of behaviour and notes that in different societies, one or the other will predominate at different times.

Put another way: it might be that the only kind of society humans can live in is a mixed society. But maybe that mixed society ought to have a greater degree of equality and fairness than the present one - that is, a larger element of anarchism in the mix (without being completely and utterly anarchist in every interaction all the time).
posted by lucien_reeve at 5:44 AM on November 28, 2011 [20 favorites]


One of these days I'm going to figure out how to favorite a thing more than once. Thanks for your comment, lucien_reeve.
posted by entropone at 5:59 AM on November 28, 2011


re: . 'Yeah, sure it would be great not to have prisons and police and hierarchical structures of authority, but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn't work, right?'

That criticism of power applies better to right-wing libertarians than to most kinds of anarchism. Anarchism would build a democratic system of self-governance that would fill that power vacuum and prevent any single person or small group from seizing power.





Quite the opposite, in fact: one of the interesting things about DEBT is that it points out that on a day-to-day basis, we are all anarchists some of the time.


Graeber's analysis of Occupy Wall street was fascinating in that light. He suggested that when people experience democratic organization and a movement for social change they'll be empowered and radicalized by the experience. Hands on learning, rather than debate, instruction, and pulpit lectures.

It's a very, very good point.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:52 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I found this Graeber article (Debt: the first five thousand years) linked off his wikipedia page to be worthwhile. These ideas have been gone through ad nauseum at metafilter and elsewhere; they are nicely summarized in that mute website article.
posted by bukvich at 11:28 AM on November 28, 2011


Nobody answers a request to pass the salt by asking "how much will you offer me for that".

you'd be fucking surprised
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 3:54 PM on November 28, 2011


Fascinating discussion.

I'd call myself an anarchist (or an anarchist sympathiser, at least) so I'm delighted to see anarchism being given a go again. I feel that it may be an idea whose time has finally come. The world is more peaceful, educated, and connected than it's ever been.

But whilst I think that anarchism would be the ideal model if we could start again from scratch, the truth is we don't have that luxury. Attempts to do so always end badly. But as an ideal, I think we could do worse than to aim for a non-hierarchical society.

I'm not an academic, but it just makes more sense than anything else. As children we have no innate sense of superiority - we learn to subjugate and sycophantise from our elders. It's a vicious cycle that needs breaking. But even I'm unconvinced it would work - I just think it's the least-worst idea we've got. I fear that human society inevitably tends towards structures of violently enforced hierarchy. I'd love to be proven wrong.
posted by Acey at 4:24 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


you'd be fucking surprised

Graeber does actually discuss a few people who have done something like this, i.e. respond in a capitalist way in situations where such things instinctively feel "inappropriate".

For example, he mentions a father who presented his son with a bill for raising him on the occasion of his son's adulthood. The son paid the bill and never spoke to his father again. (Margaret Atwood tells the same story in her book on debts, Payback - I don't have it to hand, so I don't remember the names of the people involved).
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:50 AM on November 30, 2011


Also, just as a point of interest: I believe that the classical liberal position (much sneered at though it is) is essentially something like this -

People want to be free, but in practice genuine freedom requires social structures to underpin it. We are more free when we work together - police should make us free from the fear of crime; roads and public transport make us free to travel where we wish; food inspectors and public sanitation free us from the need to check our food and water; a health service frees us from fear of sickness etc. etc.

Public goods make us more free. The road to a state of anarchic individualism lies through a developed body of law and organisations that support anarchic individualism - not through tearing everything else down and starting from scratch.

It's not an unanswerable position, but the older I get the more I see that freedoms that I take for granted actually depend on quite a complex social structure.
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:54 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


We had some afaik new links about Anarchism, Spain, and OWS in a deleted thread :

Al Jazeera : Occupy Wall Street's anarchist roots

New Statesman : The Occupy movement's Spanish roots

AdBusters : Breakthrough Occupy ideas from Spain

"Anarchists try to identify power structures. They urge those exercising power to justify themselves." -Noam Chomsky
posted by jeffburdges at 1:01 PM on December 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


sinks if we're bad, floats if we're good, just like a Puritan witch

Brian B., you may be right about everything else, but you have a lot to learn about at least one of witches and Puritans: Puritan witches were bad, and floated; non-witches were good, and sank.
posted by nicwolff at 10:59 AM on December 3, 2011


OWS shares some very unpleasant resemblances to the Paris Commune, a failed revolutionary attempt in the 19th century that later inspired the delight that was the USSR.
posted by shivohum at 11:45 AM on December 3, 2011


Irrelevant. There were various left-wing groups that the participated in overthrowing the Tsar, including anarchist-like groups. After the Tsar fell, the Bolshevik's so-called revolution consisted of consolidating their power by expelling non-communists parties. OWS has kept themselves firmly in Anarchist territory lightyears away from authoritarian systems, like Communism. And people understand the difference today.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:10 PM on December 3, 2011


shivohum: The Commune inspired the USSR like Jesus inspired the Spanish Inquisition.

What does this have to do with OWS though? The author of that piece just keeps sneering about "idealism".
posted by phrontist at 11:06 AM on December 5, 2011


And today I found this discussion with Graeber from 27 November which I think is best presentation I have yet seen on the Debt first 5000 years story.
posted by bukvich at 3:40 PM on December 5, 2011


In particular I really liked this quote:

Rather, I think people haven’t come to fully embrace what sort of money system we’re moving into – as I just suggested. But in a way 2008 let the cat out of the bag. We realize now that if money is owed by really important players, even trillions in debts can be made to disappear or renegotiated away. Money is just a social arrangement, a set of promises or IOUs. Hence, if democracy is to mean anything, it’ll have to mean that everyone gets to weigh in on how these promises are made and renegotiated.
posted by bukvich at 3:46 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


But in a way 2008 let the cat out of the bag. We realize now that if money is owed by really important players, even trillions in debts can be made to disappear or renegotiated away. Money is just a social arrangement, a set of promises or IOUs.

They privatized a public institution by exploiting ignorance about the money supply. Most people don't realize that we ostensibly print, insure, and control our money, but through the banks. It supposedly exists for a public good, and if it didn't, then we're blind fools. There are no rules outside of what we establish for it. It's easy enough to see how the blindness happened. Get everyone to work long hours for money, and the false consciousness that money revalues us quickly takes hold, becoming our absolute reality, rather than a way to raise public funding.
posted by Brian B. at 7:33 PM on December 5, 2011


« Older Audubon's "The Birds of America"...  |  Even a little too much Tylenol... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments