Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Full transcript below.
David Graeber was an anthropologist, proponent of anarchism, and participant in many movement struggles of the past two decades including the Alter-Globalization movement and Occupy Wall Street. Among his popular authored books includes Debt: The First 5,000 Years, The Utopia of Rules, Bullshit Jobs, and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. He passed on September 2, 2020.
We discuss his ideas and celebrate his memory in this conversation with comrades Tony Vogt, member of the IWW and co-founder of the Anarres Project for Alternative Futures, and Shane Capra, an organizer and participant in the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking and member of the IWW.
Our discussion covers topics of leadership and charisma, the tension between play and games, and falling in love with a ghost you cannot capture.
Before getting into the episode, wanted to give a shout out to our most recent patron, Adam, who became a strike captain via our Laborwave Patreon.
You can join the Patreon as well by going to patreon.com/laborwave. As Adam has recently joined, they will be receiving in the mail very shortly a custom made Laborwave t-shirt, illustrated zine of our Dinner Table After the Revolution episode, and some really cool hand drawn stickers. We also continually give gifts as we go, and you get access to the early release of our episodes. So welcome Adam to Laborwave, we really appreciate you joining the Patreon. I also want to give a shout out to In The Red Records, they have recently given Laborwave permission to use the music of their artists on our show. So you'll be hearing during our musical breaks music from In The Red Records.
Today we chose, in celebration of David Graeber, to keep the music fun and spirited in keeping with his legacy. So this song is called Shake Real Low by King Khan and BBQ Show, and you'll be hearing it in the outro to this episode. My guests on this episode are two comrades. Tony Vogt, who in introducing himself omitted the fact that he is also a co-founder and participant in the Anarres Project for Alternative Futures, which puts out really great content and recently started releasing YouTube videos, discussing broad ranging subjects, and particularly a lot of focus on Star Trek and the leftist themes within.
So check out the Anarres Project at anarresproject.org. Shane Capra also joins us, who is one of the founders and participants in the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking. Both of these projects you can learn more about in our show links. We've also got some really cool episodes coming up, including another in our mini series, After the Revolution, where we talk to Shawn from the Srsly Wrong podcast about Malls After the Revolution. We're also going to have conversations with the Angry Workers, do another discussion of Comrades Read Together, talking about the book No Shortcuts, and we're planning and scheduling a conversation with Marianne Garneau, editor and writer for Organizing Work and Nick Driedger, a consistent contributor to Organizing Work, about the future of the IWW.
All of that and more coming up on Laborwave. Please follow us on our social media, we are at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and leave reviews and like our content on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and SoundCloud. We hope you enjoy this conversation about David Graeber. Laborwave Radio: Joined today by two comrades to discuss the life and legacy of the now recently passed David Graeber. Before we talk about Graeber's life and legacy, and some of these ideas, I want to give my guests the opportunity to introduce themselves. So I can see most quickly Tony, on my screen, so how about we start with you? Tony can you just introduce yourself to our listeners?
TV: I'm Tony Vogt, I am a long time Wobbly, as was David Graeber, and I'm also part of the faculty union at Oregon State University. I'm an instructor in philosophy there and I've been involved in social movements for the last 40 years.
LR: And Shane can you introduce yourself?
SC: My name is Shane. I'm one of the organizers that runs the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking, I'm also in the IWW but I'm just a little baby, and I've been doing lots of different anarchist and radical projects since I was a teenager.
LR: Yeah, I'm really happy to have you both here. Full disclosure, I had been an attendee of the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking and I thought it was a great week out camping and getting exposed to a lot of new perspectives. And learning how to climb trees, I have not yet utilized those acquired skills, but one of these days. And Tony and I also have a great history in that he's often served as a mentor to me in my learning and political imagination. So this is a great crew to have this conversation with.
I'm not going to like give too much of a rehearsal of David Graeber cause I think a lot of folks are fairly well acquainted and aware of who he is. But just very briefly, Graeber was an anthropologist, and he was also known as a very key proponent of anarchism as a political perspective. He wrote a lot of books, probably the most famous, I would say is Debt the First 5,000 Years. He also wrote The Democracy Project, The Utopia of Rules, more recently Bullshit Jobs. And for anarchists in particular, I think his big, big book is Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, which was a little slim primer that quite frankly is a great introduction and a lot of his work and thinking.
He passed away recently on September 2nd at the age of 59, causes still unknown to my knowledge. But what we were going to do is just kind of have a little panel discussion about some of his ideas that influenced us the most or the ones that we want to like chew on the most, talk about things we like, maybe things we didn't like, and just give a little bit of a celebration to somebody who I think lived with a very rebellious spirit and a rebellious soul. And I imagine he is probably having a lot of fun wherever you might be today. So who would like to maybe kick it off with just, when I invited you to the talk, what was the first thing that you thought of when you thought of Graeber and things that he's impacted you by?
SC: One of the first things that I was thinking about was like, I am in my early thirties, so you know, I was a teenager when I was getting involved and stuff, and I basically started organizing and identifying as an anarchist as a teenager, right at the time when the Green Scare was happening. So it was like 2005-2006, and 9/11, the Anti-War Movement, and the Green Scare sort of all combined to end the spirit that sort of drove the Global Justice Movement. And I think in a lot of ways, I came into this sort of era where, you know, I was reading all these books that were like, oh, there is going to be these giant mass summit shut downs and black blocs and this really building momentum, and it was all gone.
And so it was sort of like being in love with a ghost. And I think David Graeber's work, you know, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Direct Action: An Ethnography really sort of like laid out this map of that ghost we were sort of inheriting, and it was all sort of smashed to bits and gone at that point. And so that was sort of like the teenage me, was like reading these books, being animated by them, and finding none of it. So that was my first brush with David Graeber.
LR: I feel similar in that I came to political activation later in life. So I was already in my mid twenties—my chronology is so fuzzy, I don't even know how old I was ever—but I think I was in my mid twenties and it was really in Occupy Wall Street. So Occupy Wall Street happened at the same time that a lot of other things were happening for me personally. And I didn't directly participate as much as I wish I had, I did a little bit, but not that much, and this was in Atlanta. And then when it was crushed and when it was over, I was kinda more shocked by just what happened, you know, how it was like brutalized by the police and just within a week swept away.
And within that, I started actually trying to dig in and learn more and come to educate myself about it. And I came to the Democracy Project eventually, and I came to like fall in love with Occupy Wall Street, and feeling like I missed out on it. And I think that that's kind of a similar to what you were saying Shane, it's almost like, you know, chasing a ghost, like trying to like get tapped into this moment and spirit in time and place that just was always out of my grasp a little bit. Tony how about you share?
TV: Yeah one of the things about Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is it's a great introduction for anybody who's unfamiliar, not just with Graeber, but with anarchism. And it's really accessible, well, pretty accessible, it's still a slight bit academic and scholarly, and he's been critiqued for that, but he was a scholar. Even though he was an anarchist scholar, even though he came from a working class background—and he had some important things to say about being working class in the academy—but it's a spirited book, it's fun, it's got verve, or chutzpah. I think it has sparked a lot of people to search further into the history and Anarchist perspectives.
And I've given it as a gift to the number of people. I'm just going to say, I mourn his passing. I miss his voice. He was onto some really interesting things in these last few years that he will now not get a chance to develop. And so I guess it's up to the rest of us. SC: I think, to sort of go off of something that, Alex, you were saying about Occupy Wall Street and this idea of being in love with the movement that just ended before you joined up. I was sort of invovled as a teenager and one of the things that radicalized me—I was this young anarcho-punk kid and I was getting more politically serious, and when I was 18 I was riding my bike around and got a flat tire.
And I went to this collective bike shop that was in the basement of a community center called Stone Soup, and sort of just by wandering up after working on my bike I met these weird people doing Food Not Bombs, and they had this library and this Infoshop community social center space. And in a lot of ways what was sort of animating that was this Direct Action Network, Global Action Network—which was part of the DAN stuff in the global justice period—hung on longer than it did in other places, I would say it ended in probably 2007. And so I was sort of in this echo of the Global Justice Movement in the things that I was reading about in David Graeber, but I was doing more community organizing than, like, these gigantic spokescouncils of 500 spokes and all these affinity groups, and there was barely any of that around, until when Occupy Wall Street happened I was like, "Oh yeah this is it, and here's the rule book that we took from zines and reading David Graeber."
And we were like, "Okay, we're going to go down to Occupy Wall Street." And we didn't really know to expect. So an affinity group I was in a went down, and our only goal was to not get arrested. But we got to Occupy Wall Street the very first night, and we were in this march that was going to Wall Street. We got to a fence and we were like, "Okay, now we pull down the fence," and everybody was like, "Oh there are a lot of cops, these cops are going to stop us, the cops are stopping us, let's go back to the park." So we were like, "What?!" We were expecting this stuff of the global justice period, and then we went back to the park and had a long-ass meeting.
And we were like, "This sucks let's leave." We thought it was never going to go anywhere. And one of the things that's memorable of that was David Graeber being there and inventing the People's Mic in order to make that bad meeting happen. But I remember leaving really fed up, and like you missed your moment and then you missed your moment.
LR: Yeah. I mean, it maybe seems like a weird connection, but it actually reminds me of the Great Gatsby. You know how Gatsby has this romanticized vision of the love of his life, Daisy. And he like has pined and yearned for years and years to reconnect and recapture this love, this moment in time that he idealizes was like the peak of his life. And then when he comes back to encounter her, he realizes that it was all in his imagination more than the reality. Like the reality really didn't live up to the expectations at all. It was kind of crushing. So anyway, that's what it connects to for me, you saying that. It's like, there are these moments where I think, even still today, we're prone to probably glamorize and highly exaggerate the rebellious moments in time, the experiences of it, the reality of it.
A lot of times, anarchist organizing has a lot of boring meetings. It's not just throwing Molotov cocktails and soup cans at the police.
TV: I must be an outlier because I generally like meetings, political meetings, Wobbly meetings. And my first really wonderful experience at a meeting was in 1983 in the anti-nuke movement. My affinity group got arrested with about a thousand other people and thrown into a big circus tent, surrounded by barbed wire. We had refused to give our names upon arrest. So the cops were closing in and I experienced my first spokescouncil meeting with about 500 people and saw it work and it blew me away.
So there are these moments in movements that truly are real. And you don't have to romanticize them. And they're hard, they're scary, but they're real. And I think Graeber was inspired by some of those moments himself. I also experienced that to some degree in the Occupy movement, even in smaller cities in Oregon. Of course Occupy was everywhere, right. There was an Occupy Antarctica.
LR: Well it reminds me of—so, in the preparation for this talk, I revisited some of Graeber's works that I like the most. It has been a little while since I read them. So I kind of remembered a lot of like, why he's so appealing as a writer. I will say like Tony, you mentioned earlier, he was maybe a little academic at times, I acknowledge that that's true, but I will say he's one of the few academic writers I encounter that actually writes to be understood, which I find refreshing. And you can tell he's having fun as he's writing. I think that there's something there's just some fun that you have as a reader, but what you were saying about meetings, about those moments, it reminds me of his work in The Utopia of Rules where he's talking about bureaucracy and the kind of hidden underlying appeal of bureaucracy, even for radicals and even for anarchists.
And he defines it as the distinction between play and games, desiring play versus desiring games. And these moments of Occupy, these explosive moments, these were moments of rebellion, not just Occupy, but things that seem spontaneous, I think tap into our desires for play, which is spontaneous creative moments of expression. But he says bureaucracies are more about the desire for games, which are rule-bound affairs where you understand the rules, there's no ambiguity about it, and by abiding by the rules of games, you actually can win at, I guess, the games of life. I think that these are actually still a lot of the arguments we're still having within radical circles about: How do we organize?
What's the necessity of the logistics behind things? How much do we need to have games versus play? And everybody's kind of trying to invoke these different desires and inject it in movement spaces. Maybe that sounds really abstract.
TV: How can we make decisions together that honor the radical imagination and bring out all of our capacities? And I think this is something that's an ongoing project within movements. Nobody's really figured it out, but there are moments when it happens. And it's really worthwhile. Graeber spoke to this somewhat. He's got on YouTube, I think—God, was it a TEDx talk? Did he actually give one? He has one called something like Political Pleasure, which is sort of subversive and he begins by saying, "I've got to admit, I like meetings." And then he goes on to talk about how meetings have been robbed from us, like the coming together to make decisions and not just make decisions, but honor each other's capacities for a radical imagination and play.
And I don't know if you two know his essay called What's the Point if We Can't Have Fun? Yeah, it's a great essay, and he actually argues for a a materialist metaphysics of play and intentionality, from any kind of organization from the subatomic all the way up to the biological. So he's actually saying the universe is imbued with this kind of a sense of play. It has the potentiality of that. And it's built into, even on a material basis, its built into our very bodies, and it's built into everything around us.
That's a really interesting essay. And of course he's building on kinds of philosophies that are opposed to mechanistic philosophies, trying to open the space for imagining a whole different world and how to relate to it.
SC: I don't think you can be some sort of pure insurrectionary person who just shows up to the riot and reads all the rest of the time. Mostly people enjoy meetings to whatever extent. It seems like it's like, some meetings are bad and some meetings are good. I think the impulse of direct democracy is beyond the concept of meetings though. But I think the essay about play and his style of writing are a big factor of why he's popular. If you think about other quasi-academic or academic people who are a public mouthpiece for anarchism, like Noam Chomsky.
I love Noam Chomsky but he's boring as fuck. And David Graeber really brings it in and he's like, "I'm going to write an essay about Batman. I'm just going to be really goofy." And you can even see it in his online presence. When someone critiques him online he gets kind of mad at them, but he responds in funny ways. And we need that in leadership. Humor and play are part of—I don't know if folks are familiar with the book Joyful Militancy but I think it's a useful injection into an anti-Marxist and really rigid way of trying to change the world.
Not Marxist, more vanguardist I guess.
LR: I think you're right. That is one of the things that appeals to me is that he's having fun and he's kind of bringing fun into politics. And I think it's valid, but right now I'm perceiving, in general, an extreme problem of morale and inspiration. And of course we're a living through a pandemic, and in the Pacific Northwest, wildfires getting more and more intense every year, the police shootings of especially black folks in the streets, just continuing without any breaks. I get why it's easy to feel cynical right now, but morale can really spread and undermine our organizing efforts in and of itself and that we need to have things to fight for and to believe in, and be sparked and motivated and animated by an imagination of something better.
Because what I found in all of my organizing experience is that trying insist on practicality by all means and just go for inches motivates nobody. And nobody wants to come back to the meetings. Nobody wants to participate that much. We need more joy, we need more fun in our movement spaces. And I think Graeber's work helps bring some of that into the conversation.
TV: Yeah, one of the ways I think he helps is because he's really good at reframing things, taking unexamined assumptions about everything: debt, work, meetings, political action, human evolution. You know, his latest work with his friend David Wengrow—he is an archeologist—and they were trying to reimagine how human beings evolved, and departed from the story that we all know: that we all started in small bands, and then there was agriculture and it established cities and they became hierarchical and so on and so forth.
And he actually writes with his archeologist collaborator, that's not the story that archeology tells or anthropologists now tell. It's wrong, really, basically wrong. And so he proposes another way of looking at ourselves as an evolving species. He says the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. He says our species did not. In fact spend most of its history in tiny bands. Agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution. And then he says, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on these questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public, even scholars in other disciplines, let alone reflect on the larger political implications.
So there's a whole essay he puts out called How to Change the Course of Human History (at least the part that's already happened).
LR: I want to follow up immediately on that because when I was reflecting on Graeber's passing and the ways that I think my ideas have been mostly shaped by him. One of the biggest things for me that I've come to realize is that I believe fully one of the monopoly powers of the state that's not often highlighted enough is a monopoly over the political imagination. Like the state has a monopoly over violence. We hear that all the time, right? But I think that the state also has a monopoly over the political imagination, meaning the understanding and definition of what politics is, narrowly defining it, and then creating this kind of shallowness around what's possible.
And the Margaret Thatcher motto is a classic, right? "There is no Alternative." That's an obvious example of monopolized political imagination. I used to think that it was a shallow imagination, I even just said that word shallow. It's not. It's actually a rich and fully developed imagination, it's just a bad one. It's an imagination that believes that the world has to look this way. And that's just another story that we've told ourselves. So for me, I've realized so much of my frustration in organizing spaces has come from recognizing that what people call common sense and pragmatism and practicality is actually a highly utopian imagination in and of itself that they are not even aware of.
And I can link that insight so closely to Graeber's works, and the way that he has blasted away assumptions like Tony is talking about.
SC: I think that's a good point, and gets into some of the stuff that Gramsci was talking about with cultural hegemony. But I think David Graeber takes it in a lot more of a broader strokes zone in a pretty accessible way of doing it. That seems to be a lot of his power, of like, here's his book Debt, and it's going to erase how we're supposed to academically and culturally think of money. So Tony, did that book that was supposed to come after that essay, How to Change the Course of Human History, actually come out? Because I would be fascinated to read the book.
TV: Yeah, and his collaborator's name is David Wengrow. So Graeber and Wengrow. I think it's going to come out, I think I read somewhere that it's going to come out maybe in the next few months. I mean, he did this for Debt. He did it for what we call productive work. He had this thing he used to say regularly when he talked, which he said, "Now think about it, we think of productive work as like working to produce a mug or a glass." He said, "But you only do that at one time. Then the rest of the work is cleaning it, taking care of it for 20 years."
So he's trying to reframe work as caring work and as the work of maintenance and sustaining our lives together, and not just merely defined as productive work. So he was really good at reframing things. I appreciated that in him. LR: Because the production under capitalist terms is a narrowed definition of production, right? It is the production of things specifically, but not the production of people, as I've heard David Graeber describe it.
SC: I'm not sure if you're familiar with Paul Goodman, his role in the '60s, and even in the '40s and '50s, sort of being this anarchist gadfly that put out these works that focused on these certain subsets and tried to turn things on their head and make him make us look at them in different ways. He's not really well remembered, Tony probably has a better grasp on him than I do.
TV: I used to read him back when. It's been decades and decades. But that's interesting you mentioned him in relationship to Graeber because there's a way in which there's a similarity there. They're both very accessible. They're both kind of provocateurs with really good imaginations. They both can be really funny. That's an interesting connection.
SC: And they both died pretty fucking young. The role that they played in somewhat similar in my mind, just for a different era, where it was like, this is the one voice for anarchism or this sort of version of an anti-capitalist that's going to get any air time. And they're sort of goofy. And it's been important. One of the things that, you know, rereading some of the essays on possibilities, and one of the things that he talks about is the idea of a joking relationship, and what is politeness. And that joking relationships tend to be more horizontal and egalitarian.
Like, the ability to have jokes with each other. You know, you don't say poop to the queen was the thing he wrote. But I think having a public leader or figure, or like a mouth piece, and having them be funny, is really important for movements. But also inflected around this anarchist "What is leadership?" question. So it was striking to me, especially with their later work, how similar it was. Like, Bullshit Jobs is like the same book as People or Personnel by Paul Goodman. It's just really interesting.
LR: I wonder though if that brings up one of these tensions around leadership, and kind of things in organizing spaces that shall not be said out loud, and that is that charisma matters in organizing.
Like I think that anarchists, and I include myself within this category, are very invested in horizontal networks and like trying to blast away hierarchies wherever possible. And more specifically social hierarchies, right? Sometimes organizations need a bit of hierarchy or at least bureaucracy within them. And because of that, I think there was a real tendency to want to push against like the charismatic leader model, which was maybe a model that, like Martin Luther King Jr. represented better. But at the same time, it is fair to acknowledge that Graeber had charisma. And I think that that's a lot of the reason that he actually gained influence, not the only, he was still a brilliant writer. He had a lot of insights, but his charisma mattered. He was funny.
And I know you said Chomsky is boring. Which, I guess now. But Chomsky in the nineties was a pretty lively. And I thought he had his own brand of charisma, amongst particular people. So I don't know, Graeber was really prone to ask a lot of open-ended questions, even end his essays with questions rather than conclusions. So I'm kind of just throwing this out here as an open question. How much does charisma really matter on our organizing and how much are we willing to even acknowledge it.
SC: I think it matters a lot. It's sort of a skeleton in the closet for a lot of folks, and it can replace a lot of other things, or mask over a lot of other things.
But yeah, the anarchist hand-wringing around leadership is not functional, in my opinion. We both need leaders, and you can have leadership models that are accountable. And saying we don't have them—in some ways like Joe Freeman's The Tyranny of Structurelessness. You can have organizational models that don't have leaders and have that be systematic, but I think pretending to not need them is no good, because it's sort of just this opaque movement that has no public interface, and what it has is only at a local level.
It feels fairly hard to understand.
TV: I wish Graeber had written more about that. I'm not sure what we're talking about when we're talking about charisma. I kind of know, it's like, okay, does it mean that you are able to get people to listen to you? Are you able to move them? And if so, then there are people who have that developed more so than other people. And as anarchists, we hope those are also people, like I hear Graeber was to some degree personally, aware of their own charisma and willing to step out of roles when he felt like he was given too much authority, he wanted to reflect it back to the people who wanted to give it to them, and say, "No, do for yourselves."
At least there are some stories from Occupy about him doing that. So I don't know, charisma. Because you can have charisma on the right and the left.
LR: Yeah, I think the challenge is the right openly embraces it and they unify under it. And the single leader is a model that works perfectly well for them. So we have this challenge, because yeah I understand what you're saying, charisma as defined in what way. But it's difficult for me to bounce from any space to any space where I don't see some type of charismatic leader having influence over that group. And I think like Shane is saying denying it doesn't benefit us. And maybe that's one of the legacies of Graeber that, he probably wouldn't have put it this way, but Occupy had a legacy of claiming no leaders.
And the challenge and critique to that message that came out of Occupy has, in some ways almost discredited Occupy entirely amongst a certain cadre of leftist that I don't think should be listened to all that much. But unfortunately, they have a platform and they get listened to, and now I see Occupy—even in this anniversary that's just a passing of Occupy—it's characterized as something that was just a drum circle of a bunch of hippies that had no relationship to real people in real life. Because it's like they take these cheap shots about the kind of a leaderless of it, and the horizontal networks of it. So maybe this was one of the legacies that Graeber helped introduce into anarchism itself or into the public consciousness around movement spaces that has had some negative impacts.
SC: I guess this is sort of like, you know, you can kind of see it that way. Certainly a lot of Occupy went in funny directions, sometimes went nowhere, and then ultimately was just repressed, which was ignored. But you really have to think about the bigger picture of what Occupy accomplished. And whether whatever tiny more disciplined organalle, whether it's an affinity group or a vanguardist group or whatever, saying what your impact as that has done? And I would argue Occupy Wall Street captured the energy post-2008 that put class analysis and discourse back into the American public.
And that's directly what led to the Bernie in my eyes. And then that's directly what led to the DSA in my eyes. And where that will lead, who knows. But that's a big impact, that's a cultural shift that would have been impossible without all those hippies beating on their buckets.
TV: It also created space in communities of color that kind of had a problematic relationship with Occupy, in that it was often too much of a white space, but that white space got challenged a lot too. And there were groups like Occupy the Hood. And there were indigenous people that were in relationship to the movement and demanded that they talk about decolonization and not Occupy. So it gave rise to these ripple effects that I think were tensions, but they were creative tensions. And I think productive.
LR: I agree too, with the kind of chronology that Shane provided in terms of one thing influencing the next succession of events.
I think prior to Occupy there were also some explosive moments, like the uprising in Madison amongst labor unions and a coalition of forces, and the Arab Spring, and I think these things were confluences that also helped spark Occupy. And then I agree, Occupy put class politics back on the map, able to talk about it again. And Bernie Sanders openly embraced the rhetoric and language of Occupy Wall Street in all of his campaigning. I mean, he regularly referred to the 1%, and that language we got, we were able to use again because of Occupy. And I agree Bernie's popularity and success led to the success of the DSA. The interesting thing to me is that you will hear some people that have large platforms within the DSA, and like Jacobin and other platforms on the left right now, that acknowledge that Bernie helped them build their socialist organization.
And they will be the same people that'll shit on Occupy at the same time and try to dismiss it as having any bearing or any influence. So they won't acknowledge what I figure is a pretty clear connection. And also I place myself in this legacy too. Occupy helped radicalize me and turn me into the organizer I am today. Those are metrics you can't really capture very easily. How many other people were sparked and inspired and came to a radical politics because of Occupy that we don't know?
TV: Occupy Portland and Occupy Oakland I think I had a whole lot of folks taking on different projects, initiating projects within the movement. And then when Occupy was basically crushed by state repression, like you mentioned earlier Alex, coordinated efforts put it down within a week. It didn't smash all of those projects. A lot of those projects continued. A really small example is here in Corvallis, Alex has been a part of this, our friend Joseph Orosco initiated an Occupy reading group that is still going now, and it started in 2011. There are these demonstrable ongoing projects that change and evolve over time.
LR: Yeah, and that reading group, the Occupy reading group was happening prior to me arriving. I used to live in Corvallis, Oregon. I don't anymore. But prior to me arriving that reading group existed, it was still continuing. And because Occupy had sparked my imagination and helped radicalize me, I was attracted and gravitated to the Occupy a reading group by a flyer. And I started going and quite frankly, no shade to any of my previous professors, but I learned a lot more in those reading groups than in my four years of higher ed. And then my additional years of getting a master's education. So I agree. I think there's lots of things happening that still are directly connected to Occupy that you just can't measure.
And you can't say that it was a complete failure or that it wasn't a real movement or mass politics, or whatever people's claims are these days that want to be critical of it.
SC: I think each time there is a big movement, peak, or a crisis, a new crew of people get dumped into the left, and a lot wash out, but a lot stay. And some of this stuff happened through Occupy and then a lot of people just joined in 2016 because it was "Trump and the rise of fascism" and that was a big sort of birth, and I'm sure the George Floyd response and this wave of Black Lives Matter is going to be an even bigger group of people radicalized and dumped into the left. But if you didn't really know what it was like pre-Occupy, like the foundations or the cultural shift are just not there, or inconvenient to whatever political line you're trying to take, like Jacobin and things like that.
LR: So maybe we can shift a little bit here, because something else we were talking about within this recent conversation around Occupy and leadership is that Graeber had ideas too around vanguardism. One of my favorite essays of his was titled, The Twilight of Vanguardism. And what I really like about this was kind of, again as Tony was talking about, his ability to reframe just basic assumptions, basic assumptions even on the left, around what a vanguard even means, how it's defined, and who has the hegemony over that idea. Because, you know, a lot of people hear vanguardism, they think Leninist political party of intellectual cadre that basically disconnect themselves from the movement and repress all the people on the bottom.
But that essay was interesting in that he kind of highlighted the origins of even the ideas around vanguardism and even its own inflections within it. Some are more of the intellectualized nature of the vanguard, but then there's this other inflection of vanguardism that's more like the avant garde. Where it's like creative provocateurs and artists, and people that cut against the grain of popular thinking are the ones that can help spark the imagination and spark people in action, maybe even use their charisma in these positive ways to build organizations around them. So just throwing that out there, interesting ideas around leadership that he had even there.
TV: I always appreciated with Graeber that he definitely saw a role for the counterculture, and for artists, and for creative folk, and he had an affinity for that. That's one of the things that you sometimes find it on the left that's easily dismissed. Like again, you know, it's the drum circle, it's reduced to the drum circle, or something like that. It's so much more profound than that. And I love that essay that you're talking about Alex, I would encourage your listeners to read it.
SC: I think it's interesting cause in a lot of ways what I would say was sort of this death knell moment of like, the Soviet Union had fallen apart, we were the last ones standing. He's got those essays with Andrej Grubacic that are sort of like, "the new anarchism, we are the new radical paradigm." And I think those were really important to me as a younger anarchist, being like, all of this is irrelevant, and I didn't need to think about it ever. It's just now that I'm going back and reading any Lenin or Mao, and I'm just like these people suck.
He built so much of the foundation of my thinking around that that I never even bothered. And now I'm going back and I'm like, oh yeah I really shouldn't bother.
TV: I'm trying to think of criticisms of Graeber. I guess I wouldn't call it criticisms. One of the things I wish he had done more in is writing, and I think he might've started doing it more toward the later years, is really acknowledge how much many of his ideas were sparked by for example, people like Sylvia Federici and radical feminism, radical left feminism.
And indigenous peoples, he took inspiration from as an anthropologist, but also as a political thinker. And sometimes he would acknowledge that and I just wish he had made those connections more explicit.
LR: Yeah. I think you're right, that he has made explicit reference to his affinity for the Italian Autonomist movements, but then kind of like once some time, maybe twice some time and then kind of left it alone and stopped talking about it. But you can see without his writing that he clearly had this more autonomous streak, this feminist streak that I think came more out of the Italian Autonomist tradition too, represented by Federici. And this was one of the things that I both like, and also I think you can push on and say that it's a critique of him that's valid.
I like that he was willing to make generalized statements. These are kind of sins in academia, you can't make any sweeping generalizations. He would do it all the time, just to like try to get to a question that he wanted to actually reflect on. But in doing so I think he also would pass over the influence and the ideas, where they were really originating from, and maybe not give enough citation to the people that were probably getting him to think of the ways he was thinking too.
SC: I mean, I guess that's the difference in my eyes between academic and public work. Like who's the audience for your work? And in a lot of ways, I think depending on the book or whatever the essay is, he was kind of talking to the public, slash other anarchists or activists. And that's an interesting audience. And it was a pretty big soap box.
LR: If I could pose this question, trying to get to today. You know, anarchism, I think had a real uptick immediately in the wake of Occupy. And then I think—I'm not trying to say this is a bad thing—but I think DSA and like the brand of like democratic socialism had reigned primary among the left for a little while there. And then these insurrections happen and we're talking about anarchism again. We keep going in flux between all of that, like the flavor of the week on the left. But what do you think about today's anarchist organizing? Like how much power is there in terms of an anarchist movement or the influence of anarchism on the left today, and how much do you think Graeber has kind of helped nurture this movement?
SC: Let's get to some of my critiques of David Graeber, and how I've really sort of gone back to these inspirational works from when I was younger. There was a great essay called Revolution is More than a Word, by Gabriel Kuhn. In that he sort of talks about the phase of David Graeber saying anarchists are ascendant and if you're going to be radical you're probably are going to be an anarchist, are over. And sort of trying to analyze problems within anarchism. And this is in the rise of the DSA and in some of these other, you know, the re-rise of tankies and that sort of vanguardist thinking.
In some ways I think one of the things that David Graeber was really good at was invoking big idea thinking. And he sort of argued in a lot of ways that anarchism is not all of these sects or big-A Anarchism, it's direct democracy and direct action, and anybody who's pro those things and is loosely anticapitalist is an anarchist. And so, that's a very powerful idea because it sort of loosens the cage that we place on ourselves, but it also kind of melted anarchism in a really weird way.
And this was something that Spencer Sunshine in a dissertation talked a lot about, is when you do that you make it such a small-a anarchism that basically any non-profit that runs on consensus becomes anarchist. What does that mean for the left? And did we miss our moment? Because we had this moment where anarchism was very ascendant. And it is and it isn't now. But we haven't capitalized on that, in my opinion, we sort of let it melt into "whatever you're doing is kind of anarchist. So you're anarchist, so great."
There was no strategy behind that at all. And one of the things is, what actually made the global justice movement was big-A Anarchists in their own groups and in a coalition and in spokescouncils. And so I really feel like, we're always on the front lines of social movements but we never win anarchist goals. We're always just sort of the front lines or the shock troops for liberalism. We haven't seen whether that's true of the George Floyd struggle yet, but it seems like that is one of the negative impacts, in my opinion, of David Graeber is like, he made everyone an anarchist and made no one an anarchist.
LR: I do agree that he had this kind of "anarchism is for everybody" approach, which maybe it is, but I think that there probably was some danger in like trying to make it a broadly appealing and safer for folks to explore, because anarchism is a scary word for many people, particularly newly exposed to the radical left ideas that it could've kind of emptied all meaning and content of what anarchism actually is in practice, or made anything and everything fit within that rubric.
TV: I've heard this critique of him, and I kind of understand it but I also think I depart from it somewhat. I think that his writings are full of examples of how people, in very concrete ways, act and structure themselves in ways that are according to his vision of anarchism, in his understanding of anarchism. I don't think it's just completely formless, but I get the critique and maybe it's because he was championing anarchism at the time that both of you have talked about. And maybe that moment has passed. It has.
But now you see, for example, there's more attention being paid to Black anarchism. And there are Indigenous voices reminding us that a lot of Indigenous societies were anarchist before there was anarchism. And that in fact, European anarchists and libertarian socialists actually drew some of their ideas from having read accounts of Europeans living amongst indigenous people. So I think we're in flux, and always have been, and always will be. And so, and I'm not sure about trying to pin down anarchism as a specific set of practices.
I think his argument was that it was more like general principles. And if you generally follow these principles, the result will be something anarchistic. I would like this discussion though, about what are anarchist goals. If we are always in movements and inspiring movements and a central part of movements, but we ended up with reformism or liberal kinds of achievements. What would we rather see? What are anarchist goals?
LR: I think that's a good question. Before trying to answer it in any way, what you were saying reminds me of Graeber's consistent example of communism in action. He kind of said in some ways like he famously says we are already communist. And his example was, if you work on a project, like a construction project with two other people and one of them says, "Hand me that hammer," the other two don't say "What's in it for me?" You know? That's like the capitalist logic, but people work collaboratively because, his argument is, the most expedient and efficient way to do work together is communism. And he was an anarcho-communist.
So mainly his treatment of anarchism was trying to really hone in on the small, the very granular levels of daily life, and arguing that those granular levels of daily life when scaled up would create something of an anarchism in practice.
That reminds me of, it's very Colin Ward, the Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow sort of thought, that basically the only thing stitching this society together, and all society together, is the anarchist and communist impulse to have mutual aid and to run our lives in these sorts of ways. And I don't think it needs to be outlined like, "Everyone must be an anarcho-syndicalist something something." I think that's good, but that's not really what I see as the goal that should be sold. I think one of the things that David, Graeber sort of left off the table was, if it's just direct democracy and direct action, the question should be asked: Are you against the state?
Are you against capital? Are you against all forms of unjustified hierarchy? And how do you think that's going to be achieved? Without that, those questions of strategy, like a million billion nonprofits and just kind of everybody (are anarchists). And I recognize that that has got power in it, which is part of why David Graeber is massively appealing, but minus those conversations we're sort of left it in the dust by people who will start asking those questions, whether we think their answers are good is another matter.
TV: I totally agree, that wasn't his forte, strategy. The thing about having so few anarchist voices, contemporary voices right now that are public like he was, is that we want—I wanted Graeber to be able to do what we all need to be doing. He couldn't be everything. He was really good at some things and he left some things pretty much untouched. Like I think you've identified, and that's up to us.
LR: I like this conversation around what are the goals that we want to accomplish through anarchism and the strategies to get there. I think that's a really, really hard question, to be honest, because going back to the Occupy people always said, Occupy lacked demands.
That's completely untrue. Occupy said we demand everything. So I think that that is the same. If we're going to talk about anarchist goals it' like everything, right? We want it all. But if I have to be a little bit more specific, you know my position is as a labor organizer, I tend to focus on that because that's where I obviously have my most immediate influence in that. And what I would like to see in terms of some anarchist goals being realized is the labor movement at-large busting out of the labor relations framework that is completely stifling and restrictive and narrowed in term—well, full of a political imagination, but in a very narrowed sense.
Mostly the goals for a lot of organizing campaigns of labor unions is to acquire a collective bargaining agreement. And that's the victory. But that leaves a lot to be desired. There's a lot of questions still in terms of—if any worker's are on this podcast right now that I've talked to me, they would know that I say a lot—winning language in a contract is half the battle. The bigger battle is then enforcing the language that you want, and that is big. And then there's a lot of weapons that bosses and the state have to insure that you don't have the power to enforce those contractual victories. And the IWW I think is not specifically an anarchist organization or an anarchist labor union.
However, I think it's much more prone and open to anarchist strategy and practices. And I think that the broader labor movement, whether they would scoff at this or not, you could probably learn a lot more from at least the IWW's goals and principles, and how they really do prioritize direct action on the shop floor amongst workers to exert power, because we don't necessarily need a contract to win. And that's not just breaking out of the labor relations framework, I think if I'm being more specific, it's breaking out of the state monopoly over politics. Like we don't need to fight the political battle on the state's terms all the time, and the mainstream labor movement I think is a little guilty of that.
TV: Well, we also need that greater vision that the IWW provides. I mean who is saying these days: The abolition of wage slavery? The taking back of our life energies and our time from the capitalist system that uses us up, and uses up our whole lives, right? So I think you can't just have strategy in a vacuum. You have to have strategy towards something. And so the vision is really important. You've got to know what kind of horizon you're struggling toward. Otherwise you have no way to measure whether you're moving there at all.
SC: I think that's true. I agree with all of that. I think then there's spontaneous—well things are generally not spontaneous—but like for instance the George Floyd stuff, you know, whatever gains might be had on a city-by-city basis, in terms of defunding or abolishing the police. It's slam dunk of a paradigm shift that it is more legitimate for a social movement to be like, "Actually, get rid of the institution. Nationwide, we don't want it, just abolish it." And for a lot of normal, non-activist people to start saying that, that's an anarchist win unto itself.
And I think what Alex was talking about in terms of what if we ruptured the labor movement so it was not funneled into the normal union-drive model and the bureaucratic top-down model so it is this grassroots resistance movement. These are paradigm shifts. They're not like, "And then we've got this reform X, Y, and Z. It's very explicit" Maybe that's the level that we're talking on.
Going back for your listeners, if you haven't read Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and you don't know a Graeber, that's a good place to start. And one of the reasons is because he takes on those really big questions people have, like, what do you mean do away with all national borders? What do you mean do away with all laws? What would happen? And he looks it straight in the face. He's like, well, let's look at that question, was would happened? No spoilers, read it. The other thing I wanted to say about Graeber is that he did have a pretty articulate critique of capitalism. At some point there's a YouTube video of him giving a talk in the last couple of years.
And at some point he talks about how capitalism has failed on all its promises. For example, he says, the promise that every generation will be better off than the generation before it, that's not happening. The promise that capitalism will make the world safe because it'll get everybody involved in economic networking and we're gonna all depend upon each other and so that will lead to the abolishing of war. Well, that didn't work. Technological progress, assuming that you could only have any kind of technological imagination and inventiveness under capitalism, which he says, is bullshit basically, but he says you know, all of the promises of all of us having our own individual hovercrafts by this time.
He's being facetious, but he says even technologically—the iPhone is great, for its purposes, but it's also built on the suffering of others. It also has costs in terms of ecologies and human labor and suffering that really should make us all question what technological progress—who is for and what it is, literally. And he says, can we really reduce it to just the iPhone? Everybody says the iPhone, the iPhone. Isn't our imagination greater than that? And capitalism hasn't been able to deliver on that. And so if it can't deliver on all these promises, why are we still enthralled to it?
And he says, one of the things that keeps us enthralled is culture. Specifically morality, a sense of shame. If we don't do what we're told and do it well, if we don't do our work, if we don't pay off our debts. And he, if you haven't read Graeber on debt, or look up a YouTube video where he's talking about debt, it's really mind blowing. And his approach really opens a lot of space for reimagining how we should relate to each other, what work is, so on and so forth. So he says, what capitalism depends upon now is the ability to shame us.
LR: Well, we've had this conversation for about an hour now, I'm wondering if you all think maybe this is a good way to conclude, because I think we could probably talk for a long time, about Graeber and anarchism and politics more in general. It would be fun to just go around and just have some kind of concluding thoughts. Anything we want to share about, even suggestions and recommendations for Graeber his work or work to follow it. I do also mourn him. Tony, you were saying this earlier. His passing struck me more than I was anticipating it would. And it was a really great experience getting to revisit, reread, and also anticipate this conversation with comrades, celebrating his ideas, having some friendly critiques of them as well.
So I really appreciate you both taking the time to do this with me.
SC: Great. Thanks for having me on. And yeah, it was certainly a blow to be like, "Oh, I thought this person was going to keep on..."Passively I was like, "Oh yeah, David Graeber will keep doing his thing." And I sort of instantly was like, oh we really lost something here, this was a big, big blow.
LR: But let's end on a better note than that. (Laughs) Kind of returning, maybe being a little redundant here, but again, for me, Graeber's attention to the imagination and the creative powers that we have within all of us is the stuff that I consistently return too. And that in particular, I find motivating for me when I'm kind of trapped in these moments of despair. Because the organizing is frustrating. Being within institutions that have their own accumulated history and rigid orthodoxies and ways of doing things is frustrating.
And just desperately beating my head against the wall trying to get people to just imagine the differences, imagine alternatives. It's a taxing and exhausting thing. So revisiting Graeber and coming back to him, there is a lot of power in sharing these ideas and sharing the imagination and just nudging people. Even with workers. When I'm doing my organizing work, I just ask them to imagine your workplace tomorrow the way you want it to look. And even that conversation can open up things for them, and for me, that I just hadn't even thought of before, and can we allow us time and opportunity to really sustain our organizing energy long into the future. So that's, that's where I leave with Graeber.
TV: Yeah, I don't have anything to add that. That's a good end point for me.
LR: Well, with that, I really enjoyed the conversation comrades. Thank you for joining me. LaborWave Radio and we should bring you back on again in the future. Talk about organizing projects. I particularly with a lot to do an update one of these days on the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking, if folks do not know about the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking, you should definitely look it up when we're able to do things in person. Again, it will be a great opportunity to learn some of the ropes of practical Anarchist organizing day-to-day. Thank you Tony and thank you, Shane.
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