Review of David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology


Review of David Graeber,

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology,

Paradigm (2004)

Herbert Gintis

James Woodburn ("Egalitarian Societies", Man 17,3 (1982):431-451) offers the following general description of a large number of extant hunter-gatherer societies: "Social groupings are flexible and constantly changing in composition...People are not dependent on specific other people for access to basic requirements" and "relationships between people, whether relationships of kinship or other relationships, stress sharing and mutuality but do not involve long-term binding commitments and dependencies." (p. 434) These societies, he suggests, are

"profoundly egalitarian... [they] systematically eliminate distinctions--other than those between the sexes--of wealth, of power and of status... relationships between men and women are quite variable in these societies, although in all of them women have far more independence than is usual in [modern societies]."

Christopher Boehm concurs with Woodburn in his famous book Hierarchy in the Forest (2000).

He observes that we humans share with other primates the striving for hierarchical power, but hunter-gatherers successfully countered the dominance aspirations of "bullies" by what he calls

"reverse dominance hierarchy." By this he means that hunter-gatherers do not accept being controlled by an alpha-male, and are extremely sensitive to attempts of group members to accumulate power. When an individual appears to be stepping out of line by threatening or killing group members, he will be warned and punished. If this behavior continues and he cannot be ostracized, the group will delegate one or more members (usually including at least one close relative of the offender) to kill him. Boehm's message in Hierarchy in the Forest is that

"egalitarianism...involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on antihierarchical feelings" and that we are genetically predisposed to exhibit these antihierarchical feels, because individuals with excessively pro-hierarchical feelings have tended to be underrepresented in the gene pool through the process of reverse dominance hierarchy.

These societies are anthropologist David Graeber's inspiration for this short and engaging book on the possibilities for an anarchist society. "The basic principles of anarchism---selforganization, voluntary association, mutual aid," he correctly asserts, are "forms of human behavior [that have] been around as about as long as humanity." (p. 3) Moreover, he suggests that we can go back to older and simpler forms of social organization: "The West may have introduced some new possibilities, but it hasn't canceled any of the old ones out." (p. 51)

What Graeber does not tell us is that the highly egalitarian societies of which he approves are virtually universally "immediate-return" societies. In immediate return societies group members obtain direct return from their labor in hunting and gathering, with food lasting at most a few days. The tools and weapons they use are highly portable. The alternative to immediate-return

societies are "delayed return" societies in which the group recognizes that individuals hold rights over some sorts of valuable assets. The main types of such assets are valuable means of production, such as boats, nets, and beehives, processed and stored food or materials, and herds of animals. In delayed-return societies this egalitarianism gives way to highly inegalitarian forms of social stratification akin to those in modern societies: lineages, clans, chiefdoms and the like.

As commentator pointed out to me, Graeber does touch on this issue, as follows: "There have been all sorts of successful experiments: experiments with worker's self-management, like

Mondragon; economic projects based on the idea of the gift economy, like Linux; all sorts of political organizations based on consensus and direct democracy..."

However, these experiments have being going on for more than a century and have never amounted to more than a blip on the economic charts. Linux, Mozilla Foxfire and other voluntary contribution software initiatives have become megolith profit-maximizing firms.

Except for a few outliers, like the Apache server and Aptana Studio, professional software developers use commercial software. Worker self-management, which I championed for many years, only works in firms with very low capital per head (such as law firms) or where the capital is extremely marketable (such as airlines) and where the degree of differentiation of the work force is very low. Moreover, successful worker-owned firms hire labor in the second generation and become capitalist owners themselves. All this is well described in the literature.

I am not sure exactly why delayed-return societies have been able to overcome the innate egalitarian morality of which Graeber is so wistfully fond. Most likely the basis for egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer groups with lethal weapons (knives, spears, poisoned arrows, and the like) is the ability of any man to kill any other, if only by taking him by surprise or in his sleep. This capacity, by the way, is completely lacking in other primate species, which therefore rather prefer either solitary life or a social dominancy hierarchy with an alpha-male who rules by virtue of force alone. In delayed-return societies, there are forms of wealth that an aspiring despot can use to forge durable alliances protecting him from the masses whom he exploits.

My conclusion is that only delayed-return societies can support a high level of material wellbeing, and such societies have the military power to control or marginalize any immediate-return society that might arise. Even if all societies magically became egalitarian and stateless, a mutant with an eye towards exploiting the weak could use delayed-return techniques to grow and eventually control and supplant egalitarian immediate-return societies.

Anarchism is thus anachronistic, except for a small group of people who want to opt out of the world system and live in its social interstices. This does not mean that one cannot be an egalitarian. Indeed, the rise of liberal democratic capitalism and representative government have shifted the balance of power, even in delayed-return societies, to the masses---at least by contrast with the despotic and corrupt systems in the poor countries of the world today, and by equally strong contrast with the despotic and totalitarian systems of the past.

The anarchists are disillusioned with liberal democratic capitalism because it is so unequal, and it leave so much poverty to itself while the rich and privileged wallow in obscene luxury. In fact, the only corrective for this situation is more democracy and more control over the aspirations of despots.

The history of freedom is indeed U-shaped.. Our immediate-return hunter-gatherer ancestors were dignified and free, but life still was nasty, brutish and short. With the rise of delayed-return societies (agriculture, settled trade, bureaucratic state institutions), social dominance hierarchy was reestablished, but the democratic collective action of the masses of subjects since the mideighteenth century has turned the tide in favor of democracy and welfare-state capitalism.