Global Anarchism: Cooperating to Reinvent Democracy

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Authors: David Graeber

The following are excerpts from Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, © David Graeber, published by Prickly Paradigm Press. David Graeber was fired in May 2005, apparently for political reasons, from his professorship at Yale University. In the essay, he argues for anthropologists to begin sharing the gift of knowledge of human cultural diversity; that there are hundreds of examples of societies, though imperfect, based on principles of cooperation. The rest of us can be inspired by and build upon these examples as we struggle to refashion our societies. The subheads and links have been added by Peacework for this edition.

Full Article:

Cooperative Economics

[Marcel Mauss], ...the inventor of French anthropology... was also a revolutionary socialist. For much of his life, he managed a consumer co-op in Paris, and was constantly writing screeds for socialist newspapers, carrying out projects of research on co-ops in other countries, and trying to create links between co-ops in order to build an alternative, anti-capitalist, economy.

His most famous work was written in response to the crisis of socialism he saw in Lenin's reintroduction of the market in the Soviet Union in the 1920s: If it was impossible to simply legislate the money economy away, even in Russia, the least monetarized society in Europe, then perhaps revolutionaries needed to start looking at the ethnographic record to see what sort of creature the market really was, and what viable alternatives to capitalism might look like.

Hence his Essay on the Gift, written in 1925, which argued (among other things) that the origin of all contracts lies in communism, an unconditional commitment to another's needs, and that despite endless economic textbooks to the contrary, there has never been an economy based on barter: that actually-existing societies which do not employ money have instead been gift economies in which the distinctions we now make between interest and altruism, person and property, freedom and obligation, simply did not exist. Mauss believed socialism could never be built by state fiat but only gradually, from below, that it was possible to begin building a new society based on mutual aid and self-organization "in the shell of the old"; he felt that existing popular practices provided the basis both for a moral critique of capitalism and possible glimpses of what that future society would be like. All of these are classic anarchist positions. (Mauss' works are available, as a gift, online in French.)

Community Building As Revolutionary Action

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. History shows us that the accumulation of such acts can change (almost) everything.

Consensus Decision Making

In North America, [anarchist] consensus process emerged more than anything else through the feminist movement, as part of broad backlash against some of the more obnoxious, self-aggrandizing macho leadership styles of the 1960s New Left. Much of the procedure was originally adopted from the Quakers, and Quaker-inspired groups; the Quakers, in turn, claim to have been inspired by Native American practice. How much the latter is really true is, in historical terms, difficult to determine*.

Nonetheless, Native American decision-making did normally work by some form of consensus. Actually, so do most popular assemblies around the world now, from the Tzeltal or Tzotzil or Tojolobal-speaking communities in Chiapas to Malagasy fokon'olona. After having lived in Madagascar for two years, I was startled, the first time I started attending meetings of the Direct Action Network in New York, by how familiar it all seemed — the main difference was that the DAN process was so much more formalized and explicit. It had to be, since everyone in DAN was just figuring out how to make decisions this way, and everything had to be spelled out; whereas in Madagascar, everyone had been doing this since they learned to speak. 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."

...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.

One of the most encouraging things about these new, anarchist-inspired movements is that they propose a new form of internationalism. This time — the second wave of internationalism one could call it, or just anarchist globalization— the movement of organizational forms has largely gone the other way.

It's not just consensus process: the idea of mass nonviolent direct action first developed in South Africaand India; the current network model was first proposed by rebels in Chiapas; even the notion of the affinity group came out of Spain and Latin America.

I want to emphasize... how completely racist the international reaction to the Zapatista rebellion has really been. Because, though so much of the rhetoric about "identity" effectively ignores this, what the Zapatistas were proposing to do was 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 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 with 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.

For more on David Graeber's contract struggle at Yale, please see http://counterpunch.org/frank05132005.html. For a petition to support his cause, see http://www.petitiononline.com/dgraeber/.

* (Editor's Note in web edition: While there were Quakers who were inspired by Native American practices (see the influence on Quaker suffragist feminists, for example), Quaker styles of worship and decision-making akin to finding the "sense of the meeting" seem to have been developed in the earliest days of the Religious Society of Friends in England in the 1650s, with no known direct Native American connection. Thanks to Chel Avery of the Quaker Information Center and historian Larry Ingle for historical advice on this question.)