“Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe”

by zunguzungu

I am tempted to make an unkind pun on the word “lie” in the title of this Chronicle of Higher Education article, which claims that the “Movement’s principles arise from scholarship on anarchy,” in particular those of David Graeber:

Occupy Wall Street’s most defining characteristics—its decentralized nature and its intensive process of participatory, consensus-based decision-making—are rooted in other precincts of academe and activism: in the scholarship of anarchism and, specifically, in an ethnography of central Madagascar.

It was on this island nation off the coast of Africa that David Graeber, one of the movement’s early organizers, who has been called one of its main intellectual sources, spent 20 months between 1989 and 1991. He studied the people of Betafo, a community of descendants of nobles and of slaves, for his 2007 book, Lost People.

But that would be unkind and gratuitous, so I won’t. I asked Graeber on twitter what he thought of this, and he responded in fairly unambiguous terms:

“they are silly. The Chronicle one was bizarre. I was at best an intergenerational conduit like many others”

The funny thing is that the Chronicle article also notes that “It is far from clear, of course, how attuned the protesters are to the scholarship of Mr. Graeber, other critical theorists, or academics who study anarchism,” albeit a solid eleven paragraphs after unambiguously claiming its “roots” and “principles” in academic scholarship. And they even quote Graeber as saying that

 “The fact I was being promoted as a celebrity is a danger. It’s the kids who made this happen.”

But let us note how you can bury a statement like this in an article with that title and thereby neutralize it. How, after all, is that not a contradiction of the title? There might be a way to reconcile the two — maybe, and I’m not sure — but I feel confident in saying that the tension between them is far more important, and so much more at stake in the difference, than the comparatively banal fact that David Graeber’s book is floating around Zucotti park.

On twitter a couple seconds ago — and good lord this is a strange blogpost to write in that respect — Graeber responded to Arsala Khan‘s query by reiterating that

I merely helped better connect young activists with older traditions they already knew about, ie, facilitation…”

and then to Meghan Krausch by saying:

“yeah it’s totally odd. Guy completely misunderstood what I said. Very frustrating”

Why would a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter misunderstand what Graeber said to give him — and academic scholarship — a kind of influence that sort of runs at direct tangent to the entire thrust of his and OWS’s message? One can only speculate!

I don’t mean to take easy shots at the Chronicle — whose work ranges from the very good to the very bad — especially since the article itself doesn’t make the misleading claims that the headline does. But this sort of thing, and this argument, is worth documenting, not least because giving a rhizomatic structure “roots” is to deny that it is rhizomatic. And to attribute its existence and vitality to the books being read — which nourish it with nutrients from the soil of Madagascar? — rather than to the crushing presence of late capitalist hegemony or whatever we’re calling it, well, that apparently descriptive claim has a powerful series of ideological presumptions embedded within it. Most importantly, by placing the importance of David Graeber in his scholarship — the books he wrote while safely ensconsed in an ivory tower of some sort — we ignore the fact that, as Malcolm Harris pointed out on twitter, the important thing about Graeber is that he showed up.

Perhaps most importantly, it gives me an opportunity to link to this.

UPDATE. David Graeber responds in comments:

What I actually told the author of that article was (1) I spent some time in Madagascar observing consensus process being used but didn’t completely understandit, (2) when I got involved in the Direct Action Network ten years later, I realizedthat  the kind of directly democratic consensus process they were trying to develop was a kind of amateur version of what people in Madagascar already knew how to do, and had been doing for centuries, (3) I also realized that DAN folk were in part trying to develop a process and form of organization which would be the exact opposite of the classic tiny Trotskyite or Maoist group with an intellectual line that everyone has to adhere to, top-down organization, and sectarian mode of argument – and that in fact, that ridiculous sectarian mode of argument they were trying to move away from was exactly the way I had been taught to think and argue as an academic.

So you can see how I was a bit puzzled how it turned out!

I think the sexism angle is very important here too. We are used to thinking of consensus, facilitation, etc as “anarchist process” and it has become so but it emerges just as much or more from the feminist tradition, which insisted that people at least try to practice their anti-authoritarian ideals in their actual day-to-day relations with one another, even the most intimate… These were things that were developed within feminist-informed activist practice, NOT academic theory, which tends quite frankly to be dismissive and even contemptuous of such developments, and insofar as I feel I have made a contribution, it has been in putting my academic training and instincts on hold, being willing to shut up and listen now and then, and then try to convey some of what has been learning from this very pragmatic
process to the academics and intellectuals themselves.