“So I got involved”
From The White Review:
The White Review — You have written about how in Madagascar one of the strategies that was used to overthrow state rule, particularly during the French colonial period, was to proxy back power relations into this shadow-world mediated by rituals and magic – a world that the French couldn’t understand and therefore couldn’t contest. What exactly do you mean by this?
David Graeber — In many parts of Madagascar they have this idea that dead kings continue to exist and possess people and retain all their authority. As a result, as Gillian Feeley-Harnik wrote, the Sakalava on the West Coast, could insist that the ultimate authorities in the colonial period were these old women, normally of slave descent, who were entranced and possessed by dead kings. How on earth were the colonialists supposed to negotiate with that?
The White Review — Is this part of the revolutionary ideology in Madagascar?
David Graeber — It’s an interesting thing – there’s a revolutionary ideology in Madagascar but it’s not called a revolutionary ideology, and it’s not called a political ideology &minus it’s identified with an ethnic identity. In fact, one of the projects I’m working on is about that – it’s about how so many of the things we think of as cultures might be better viewed as social movements that were to some degree successful in achieving their aims. Essentially, Malagasy culture is an identity that originally congealed around these escaped slaves who rejected world religions. It can go in any direction – you can have horrible right wing fantasy utopias realised in some cultures, extreme patriarchal ones in others, and so on and so forth. But I think we need to start thinking about history. Radical social movements, revolutionaries, reactionaries and all those things we’re familiar with in contemporary politics weren’t invented two hundred years ago. We’ve been taught that they were – that right and left suddenly came into being, and that all these revolutions suddenly started happening, in the middle of the eighteenth century. But I think they’ve actually been happening for thousands of years, it’s just that we don’t have the language to describe them.
French troops disembarking in Madagascar, Musee de l’Armee, 1895
The White Review — Was it your experiences in Madagascar that inspired you to become an activist? When did you first become active?
David Graeber — I first became active right after the Seattle protest in 1999. Before then I was happy to follow my dad’s advice and simply be a scholar. I had got a job at Yale, which would have thrilled him. True, I had lived in this bizarre semi-anarchist enclave in Madagascar, but I didn’t even fully understand some of the things that were going on there until I got involved in the Direct Action Network. I remember that I had given my last lecture for a course I was teaching at Yale called ‘Power, Violence and Cosmology’, a kind of Political Anthropology course, and I walked out of the class, saw one of those newspaper boxes with the headline ‘Martial Law declared in Seattle’, and I thought ‘What? Martial law? Huh?’ And I discovered the political movement I’d really like to have existed had come into being when I wasn’t paying attention. So I got involved. I learned about consensus, process, direct democracy, and direct action – all these things I knew a little bit about in principle but had never experienced.
The White Review — How do anarchist circles work?
David Graeber — One difference between the kind of anarchist groups I like and the classic Marxist group, for instance, is that we don’t start by defining reality – our points of unity are not our analyses of the situation, but rather what we want to do, the action we want to take, and how we go about it. Plus you have to give one another the benefit of the doubt. One of the principles of the consensus process is that you can’t challenge anyone on their motives; you have to assume that everyone is being honest and has good intentions. Not because you necessarily think it’s true, but as an extension of what might be considered the fundamental anarchist insight: if you treat people like children they will tend to act like children. If you treat them like adults, there’s at least some chance they will act responsibly. Ironically, I found this habit of generosity, this giving people the benefit of the doubt, was the exact opposite of the way I was taught to argue as a scholar.
The White Review — So what might an anarchist approach to academic discussion look like?
David Graeber — I’ve often though what it would mean to conduct intellectual conversation in that spirit, and I still haven’t fully worked it out. I don’t think there is necessarily one solution. One conclusion I came to was about incommensurability. I think we make a big deal out of incommensurability. As Roy Bhaskar long since noted, positivists and post-structuralists hold identical positions in a way – some say if reality did exist we could describe it perfectly, and therefore it should be possible, and some say therefore it’s impossible or that reality doesn’t exist. But they share the same basic assumption. In a similar way, I would argue there’s an assumption that we should be able to come up with arguments in the same language, in terms by which it is possible to definitively win an argument.