The Anarchist in the Academy

A couple days ago, fellow Savage Mind Alex wrote on his own blog about David Graeber, the Yale anthropologist recently fired for his anarchist activism. Not so much, it should be noted, for his ideology: as Graeber explains in his Counterpunch interview, although there was some opposition to his work, the real tipping point was his involvement with campus politics. By defending one of the organizers of a graduate student unionizing drive, Graeber took his ideology out of the classroom, violating one of the central, if rarely stated, tenets of academic leftism.

In his recent book, Threatening Anthropology, David Price points out that anthropologists are not generally “let go” for their beliefs alone. Leslie White was as Red as they come, ideologically, but avoided FBI and other official scrutiny during the McCarthy era because he restricted his Marxism to his written work; meanwhile, activist anthropologists like Gene Weltfish and Paul Radin were hounded by government agents, forced out of jobs, and generally harassed, even when their connections to Communism were tenuous or non-existent. In every case he examined, it was activism, usually anti-racist, and not ideology that fueled the McCarthyist witch hunts.

In the wake of the teach-in movement, the ’68 student rebellion, and the Kent State massacre in ’70, the academy and the government came to a more or less one-sided “gentlemmen’s agreement” (as noted in one of the essays in The Politics of Interpretation — unfortunately I’m moving next week and my copy is packed away, so I cannot properly credit this). The terms were simple: professors were given the freedom to pursue whatever radical ideas they wished in the classroom without fear, but that freedom extended only so far as their classroom doors. Outside of their (our) classrooms, they (we) were expected to support the status quo — or face the consequences.

Graeber understood this — as he puts it in the Counterpunch interview, “I figured we all have to make our little compromises, mine would be: I’d be an activist in New York, and a scholar in New Haven.” The “activis[m] in New York” might have made some of his colleagues nervous — after all, he was flouting the terms of the agreement, though not as an academic — it seems clear that, if he’d kept his nose clean at Yale, he would have passed his review with ease on the strength of his research and publications.

This devitalization of professorial activism goes unnoted in the “liberal academia” debate, but it bears noting. It helps to explain the situation described by Jonathan Knight of the AAUP in response to the recent Rothman, Lichter and Nevitte study of campus leftism: “It’s hard to see that these liberal views cut very deeply into the education of students. In fact, a number of studies show the core values that students bring into the university are not very much altered by being in college.” Of course, we already knew that — while college professors are, according to the study, 72% liberal, a recent Harris Poll found that the general population is only 18% liberal — at a time when over half of all Americans have at least some college education.

A petition urging Yale to reconsider Graeber’s case is online for those who want to support his cause. But Graeber is just one figure in what is becoming an increasingly frightening academic climate. As in the McCarthy era, anthropologists are bearing the brunt of the attack. When McCarthy waved his paper in the air and claimed to have the names of 205 “known Communists” employed by and “shaping the policy of” the State Department, the only specific detail he gave was that one of the listees was “a professor of anthropology, a woman” (most likely Gene Weltfish). 50 years later, the American Council of Trustees and Alumnae published their report “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It” (scroll down; you have to email ACTA for a copy, but that’s not important — they later changed what I’m about to reference), which included an appendix of campus responses to 9/11 that were not unequivocal enough for ACTA in their condemnation of the attacks. Of the 117 academics thus targeted by ACTA, 6 of them were anthropologists (9 if we count the linguists) — more than 5% (and nearly 10% if, again, we count the linguists), far outweighing our representation in academia as a whole. While this figure should make us very proud indeed — misunderstood and maligned by Lynne Cheney’s conservabots is nothing short of a badge of honor as far as I’m concerned — such attacks are cutting closer and closer to where we live: our jobs. Graeber may well find work elsewhere, or Yale may even re-extend his contract, but the word is out: watch what you say and, more importantly, what you do. Or else.

For a taste of Graeber’s thought, check out his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, downloadable for free from Marshall Sahlin’s Prickly Paradigm Press.

11 thoughts on “The Anarchist in the Academy

  1. Pingback: AnthroBlogs
  2. Pingback: The B-Log
  3. Thanks for this article. Informative with lots of great links.

    I wonder, though, if Graeber’s situation can only be explained by the existence of, as you put it, “central tenet of academic leftism.”

    Might it not also depend on one’s clout? Noam Chomsky has not been dismissed yet, and Columbia University defended the late Edward Said when photographs of him throwing rocks (purportedly at the Israeli army) drew criticism.

    I do appreciate your casting of Graeber’s plight in terms of McCarthyism. To keep with the anthropological tradition of looking across national traditions, here is another ‘historical’ precedent: Gary Leupp, a Japan historian at Tufts, published a short article in Counterpunch in which he draws a parallel between what is happening to Graeber and the firing of leftist scholars from university posts during wartime Japan (1930s-40s).

    Finally, to everyone at Savage Mind, congrats on launching an anthropology blog started! (Are those real pensees in the header background?)

  4. tak,

    Thanks for the comments. The “gentlemen’s agreement” I mention is central, but not the only central tenet! Clout plays a big role in academics, as you mention — see Bourdieu’s _Homo Academicus_. But it should be pointed out that Chomsky made much the same compromise Graeber did when, in the ’60s, he decided to remain at MIT despite its involvement with the war machine, and advocated for that position. I’m not saying I don’t respect their reasons for these compromises, but that they play into the “gentlemen’s agreement”. I suppose I should also point out that this agreement is certainly better than the alternatives — jackbooted thugs busting in the doors of our classrooms.

  5. You folks should leave the digging and gouging and picking and snooping and sniffing around in the political arena to others – you have no designated ‘shamans’ to officially interpret for you and trying to foist this title on some designee by proxy will yield only confusion and an eventual interdisciplinary quagmire of bickering and posturing, all to the detriment of your field. If you persist, you will soon be sponsoring Poetry contests and hawking t-shirts in a desperate attempt at establishing legtimacy.

  6. One more thing: the “gentlemen’s agreement” is clearly subject to erosion from the other side as well. Horowitz’ “Bill of Academic Rights” and the legislation inspired by it are clearly intended to extend the gaze of the state back into the classroom. Felix Moos’ PRISP (see, while not necesarily intended to do so, would have the same effect. Leaving us in the unenviable position of *defending* the already-unfavorable lines drawn in the ’70s…

  7. Yes oneman, Moos’ PRISP project (thanks for the Chronicle URL) and with Horowitz’s doublespeak writ, are quite disconcerting, to say the least.

    Reading your original post, I felt that perhaps David Graeber is depicted as the one breaking the ‘gentleman’s agreement.’ I wonder how established and agreed-upon is this silent rule?

    But as we anthropologists know, public secrets are a bit difficult to get at.

    Your mention of Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus led me to another thought: how would a case like David Graeber’s pan out in countries such as France or Japan, where university professors are much more accepted as public intellectuals (in both the activist and public servant sense) by the society at large?

  8. Sociologists have approached this issue from a number of angles, the most recent and popular being the genre of Public Sociology, in particular as espoused by Burawoy from Berkeley. The political and academic arena may well mix and mingle, but when the political is brought into the academic for advocacy purposes, the nature and behaviors of the audience are not always predictable. Reactionary responses certainly manifest and historically always have, so it should come as no great surprise to anyone that there is some serious backlash in some quarters.

  9. Frankly, I don’t care if it’s to be expected or not. If it should come as no surprise that there is backlash from “some quarters”, then it should also come as no surprise that there is resistance to the arbitrary use of power by its victims. The bottom line is, the academic space is a contested one. Folks like Lynne Cheney would like to see it used solely as a tool for indoctrination — for “defending civilization” (yeah, right). Folks like Graeber would like to see it used as a space for developing, elaborating, and testing ideas — and in the social sciences, that means not only ideas about how society is but how society ought to be. Anthropology, along with sociology and economics, entered the academy as reformer sciences, directed outwards from the academy into society as a whole. Cheney’s vision — and Horowitz’s, while I’m at it — is the reverse, the constraint of the academic space by society. The “gentlemen’s agreement” I mentioned is a middle ground, a Faustian bargain that is essentially a stalemate between the two — ideas trapped in an Ivory Tower while society continues on as before. That this is unsatisfying all around should, if I may be so bold, come as no surprise to anyone.

  10. But you know, the irony is: in the end, I wasn’t really fired for breaking any tacit rule. I didn’t campaign for the union or anything. In the end, I was fired for being a responsible teacher. Some of the senior faculty went after a grad student organizer claiming she was a bad student and tried to kick her out of the program and I was the only faculty member, at first, willing to stand up and say the obvious truth: that her work was good and she shouldn’t be kicked out. In the end, with the help of the union and some other faculty members, we managed to save her. But then they came after me. At least, that certainly was what appeared to be happening from my perspective.
    Of course had they not already tried to kick me out for being an anarchist I wouldn’t have been in a vulnerable position to begin with and it never would have happened.
    On the “gentleman’s agreement” – something like that surely exists, and I knew I was pushing it by being an activist at all. Still, one has to live with oneself. Anyway, you can see some of my own initial reflections on the theme in my “political metaphysics of stupidity” essay which some of my students put on the web page they created for me: It’ll soon appear in The Commoner (
    David Graeber

  11. The CIA’s grip on our campuses is even tighter than even I’d thought. Check out this current piece on Counter Punch on “CIA Skullduggery in Academia”: This goes a long way towards explaining why our title vi funding has been dropping. I guess if we are talking in class we are all working for the military.

  12. Pingback: Vernant

Comments are closed.