Recently David Graeber and I wrote an article together attempting to explain why anarchist ideas have received almost no attention in the academy. When you think of it, academia is full of Marxist radicals, but only a handful of professed anarchists. We came to a conclusion that it must have something to do with anarchism’s concern with forms of practice; with its insistence that one’s means most be consonant with one’s ends; with its stubborn rejection of the idea that we can create freedom through authoritarian means, embracing instead the position that we should embody the society we wish to create.
All of this does not square very well with operating within a university. The university has survived in much the same form since the middle ages, waging intellectual battles at conferences, re-enforcing class distinctions, making cabalistic decisions in secret rooms. As we stated in our article: “At the very least, one would imagine being an openly anarchist professor would mean challenging the way universities are run and that, of course, is going to get one in far more trouble than anything one could ever write”.
Ironically enough, as if he was testing his own hypothesis, internationally respected anarchist anthropologist, David Graeber, was fired from Yale University a few days ago. Of course, that wasn’t the official explanation. The official one reads that “his contract wasn’t renewed” because of his lack of “collegiality”. If you would allow me to translate this: the “lack of collegiality” that David had showed was when he was trying to defend his graduate students who were graduate union organizers.
Union organizers are regularly targeted at Yale. When one brilliant graduate student organizer was almost kicked out for clearly fabricated reasons, David Graeber was the only member of her committee with the courage to openly stand up for her at that committee meeting, and then later at a faculty meeting. On David Graeber’s behalf, Yale graduate students have initiated a petition which has been signed by almost all graduate and good number of undergraduate students of anthropology.
So, why has David Graeber been given the boot? To begin with the obvious, he is an unrepentant anarchist. David Graeber was one of the spokespeople for the Anti Capitalist Convergence during the World Economic Forum protests in New York. He was an activist with Direct Action Network. He is one of the founding members of the Peoples Global Action infopoint in New York. And he had authored many essays and articles on anarchism. But he never did any organizing or activism on campus.
What perhaps was David Graeber’s greatest crime was simply his apparently over optimistic belief that he could remain true to his anarchist principles within the academy. Graeber believes that graduate school should be more than a training camp for becoming a commodity on the academic market. Rather it should also be about joy and creativity. Anyone who goes through a graduate program knows that such institutions are all about socialization as an academic, much of which requires the destruction of the sense of joy and creativity in learning, thinking and imagining that draws people to become scholars in the first place. For certain, some universities are worse then others. For various reasons, Yale seems to specialize in this kind of soul-crushing sport.
David Graeber offered his students an alternative model. He believes that it’s possible to be an academic intellectual and not an academic prostitute, that it is possible not to sacrifice everything that makes life enjoyable, that it is possible to be both intellectually productive and politically committed. Given such convictions, is it little wonder that David Graeber was given the boot?
As a close friend of David’s, I have witnessed a somewhat frantic activity on the behalf of a few members of the Yale faculty to have him fired. Not incidentally, these faculty members have not been speaking to David since his name was mentioned in the papers in conjunction with the WEF protests three years ago. But ostracizing him was difficult. Not only because of some decent colleagues who ardently defended him. Since that time David has published two well respected books and articles in dozens of languages. Two years ago the Yale bureaucracy renewed David’s contract for only two years, citing his behavior as not being in accordance with Yale’s “academic ethics” and said that his contract might be extended two more years if he improved “his behavior”.
Last Tuesday a meeting was held to consider David’s reappointment. Only senior faculty were allowed to attend and David was not permitted to respond to his accusations, nor where his accusers expected to present evidence. After an extended slander fest, participants seem to have concluded that it doesn’t really matter if the accusations are false and trivial, because his presence is clearly divisive thus it would be safer to just kick him out.
As someone who has spent many wonderful moments with David, I am certainly not neutral here. But neither should you be. This issue extends beyond the academic career of David Graeber. And beyond the price one may have to pay for advocating anarchism in the academy. In this country, at this exciting and surreal point of its history, this could happen, as it already has, on so many different levels, to anybody who refuses to participate in the Salem-like atmosphere that is being systematically promoted in institutions like Yale, or Columbia, or Colorado. To support David Graeber is to say that we have had enough of this nation-wide persecution of leftist professors, accused of ‘falsifying’ their “Native American identity”, of supporting anti-Semitism, or of being anarchists. To support David Graeber means to support academic freedom and to reject the conformist dictate of fear and obedience in the US academy.