David Graeber and Radical Communication

Author: Dom Rottman

30 December 2020

Early this September, David Graeber, American anarchist, anthropologist, and activist, passed away at the age of 59. Intellectually speaking, the man was a bit of a misfit. While Graeber interacted with and, more importantly, participated in the public sphere (with the Occupy movement, for example) more than the average academic, referring to him as a “public intellectual” doesn’t feel quite right. Though certainly eloquent and not without a unique charisma, Graeber lacked the sort of magnetic personality, brazen fervor, and bourgeois ego that characterizes someone like Jordan Peterson or Christopher Hitchens. Moreover, Anarchism has had an inescapable PR problem in relation to other ideologies in both the academy and the public sphere. This problem was compounded further by the fact that whatever Graeber did for the latter would hurt him in the former, whether that be his activism or the cardinal sin of writing in English rather than jargon. That such writing is considered crude, irrelevant, and unprofessional frustrates me the most about the academy and academic life. Committing to such writing anyway in spite of this is one of the great reasons why I admire Graeber.

Disdain for understandable English severs any remaining bonds and widens the gulf between the academy and common, public life. Anti-intellectualism is indeed a rampant disease, but intelligentsia’s faithful defenders would rather kick and scream and blame Republicans than even try to understand why people run from the ivory tower’s tall and daunting shadow to begin with. If the academy, whether it be its fruits or its members, is to have an impact on public life as so many both within and without it desire, then its natural (if it really can’t be helped) insularity is an impediment to continually cross and communication is an essential. How can conversation, the essential political activity, take place when an entity is unwilling to properly communicate to the public? The academy cannot both have an impact on society and preserve its unnervingly white insularity, identity, and holier-than-though aura. David Graeber, consciously or unconsciously, understood this. There is little which distinguishes his academic writing from his “public” writing, though neither are less rigorous for it. His corpus of work reflects this lack of distinction as well, having written everything from several short essays and articles to his major monograph Debt: The First 5000 Years, to published books about his anthropological work on value theory or the Malagasy. This wide range of work which has a nearly seamless interconnected style is a true model not just for the “public intellectual”–a term not so unproblematic–but the academic in public life. It is a model which opens up possibilities for the expression of ideas beyond the intimidating tome or jargon-filled, rigidly formatted academic paper, which is usually locked behind a paywall anyway. Consider, for example, my first exposure to Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Even a mere impression suggests it is an unusual work. Physically, it is a bookshelf oddity, printed on paper no larger than a kindle and clocking in at a slim and readable 105 pages. As for its title, any author is usually loathe to title any work as “fragments,” even if that’s what they really are, perhaps for fear of suggesting that their work here is somehow less dignified even though that’s usually hardly the case (many books today begin with the title “notes,” which apparently sounds better). Absent of unpleasant and unnecessary formalities and formatting constraints, Graeber frees himself to express valuable thoughts that might otherwise go unheard.

“What follows are a series of thoughts, sketches of potential theories, and tiny manifestos–all meant to offer a glimpse at the outline of a body of radical theory that does not actually exist, though it might possibly exist at some point in the future.”

This opening sentence of Fragments projects an unusual form of intellectual exploration that might ordinarily not go beyond the author’s notebook. We might remember Theodor Adorno’s “Essay as Form,” which I briefly explored in another piece, where Adorno characterizes the essay as nothing more than a critical piercing into the blank page for its own sake, with everything else being unnecessary or even damaging. Admittedly, this might make Fragments seem more nebulous and therefore more intimidating than it actually is. Yet it is this apparent chaos that actually lends writing a remarkable fluidity. It is eminently readable to anyone unfamiliar with anthropology, like myself, and anyone unfamiliar with Anarchism. Graeber didn’t lie with his opening sentence; mid-chapter he will dedicate a few paragraphs to a sidebar of theory or a story about the Malagasy people, and then get right back to what he was talking about, all in a seamless fashion. The point is that sacrifice of form isn’t much of a sacrifice at all when it allows for not only the expression of otherwise withheld ideas but also the readability and accessibility of those ideas. When those ideas are radical, such qualities are doubly important.

Graeber’s corpus reflects an understanding that communication is a two-way street. One’s words cannot just be occasionally tossed aimlessly like coins to peasants but always something open to appraisal and inquiry. In other words, if the theories, ideas, and knowledge of the academy are so useful and important to society, why hide them behind some arcane word soup?

It’s not just academics who could learn a thing or two from Graeber’s writing. Anarchists and believers in radical ideas in general should look to Graeber not just for his useful philosophical and political ideas, but how he presents them. In my experience as a radical person, there are two major problems in the communication of radical ideas.

The first problem is rather obvious: getting people on board, or at the very least willing to hear you out and ruminate on your words for a bit. Consider, for example, headlines. Yes, they’re supposed to be pithy and attention-grabbing, but they aren’t supposed to be so shocking and outrageous that they get retweeted around social media in a parade of mockery. Social media, and twitter in particular, with its tendency to corrupt dialogue and communication, makes the care and precision of radical communication all the more important in an environment of limited attention spans and actually limited characters (I recall an article passed around titled something to the effect of “why reading has declined,” which wasn’t an article at all but led to some rather sobering social media comments). While headlines in particular aren’t always applicable, and although Graeber is not a journalist, the ultimate lesson is one of first impressions. Headlines, sub-headlines, first words, tweets, et cetera, are essential pieces of any writing but must be taken even more delicately with radical communication so as to enthrall without repulsion. Above I mentioned the significance of the word Fragments. Consider the titles of Graeber’s other works: Debt–short, straightforward, literally one word. Bullshit Jobs–short, vulgar, makes you wonder if you have one. “Are you an Anarchist? The answer may surprise you!”–tongue-in-cheek, relaxed tone, uses the forbidden A-word. While using labels, especially one as strong as “Anarchist,” is usually a good way to prevent people from reading anything beyond the word, the humor in satirizing clickbait articles combined with such a preposterous notion (“yeah, I think I’d know if I was an anarchist”) does well to entice readers.

Beyond its title, “Are you an Anarchist” is a model essay for introducing and sparking the contemplation of radical ideas to unfamiliar readers. Outside of well-conducted interviews, a socratic-esque style of communication, where (non-entrapping) questions are posed to the interlocutor under the assumption that they have, at the very least, a functioning rational capacity, has been lost. It has become fashionable to, in radical communication also, pretend as if rhetoric somehow exists floating independently in a void, in a space without context or audience, on account of rhetors taking their existence so for granted. Not only does slipping into this mistake make it easier to take rhetoric out of context, but it also makes rhetoric generally less effective. There is no sense in writing without readers. How helpful can it be to forget they exist? Graeber, however, is always keenly aware of the reader’s presence in all of his writing, quite explicitly so in this essay where he, in the spirit of dialogue, poses questions to the reader.

“If there’s a line to get on a crowded bus, do you wait your turn and refrain from elbowing your way past others even in the absence of police?”

“Are you a member of a club or sports team or any other voluntary organization where decisions are not imposed by one leader but made on the basis of general consent?”

“Do you believe that most politicians are selfish, egotistical swine who don’t really care about the public interest? Do you think we live in an economic system which is stupid and unfair?”

“Do you really believe those things you tell your children (or that your parents told you)?”

These are all, of course, questions about the average person’s everyday life. If it is a rather simple and easy way to connect to a wider audience, it is regardless a connection sorely missing in radical literature. Few actually want to read authors like Marx and Engels, even if their names weren’t scary, and publications like Jacobin, which might actually dare to let radical ideas come to press, can only do so much. Just like the academy, there’s no reason for radicals to hide their secrets.

The second chief problem with radical communication comes down to tone. Often, radical writers are very angry and filled with righteous indignation. It’s not difficult to imagine why; believing that the systems and mechanisms of the status quo are actively destroying the fabric of society and life itself is enough to rile someone up during their morning commute. In recent years, liberals have gotten a taste of this daily pressure based on how often The Orange Menace shows up in the morning news and as the object of their rage-filled columns and social media rants. Radicals, however, have long accepted this morning pressure as a companion to their coffee. People from nearly all political positions, from myself, other radicals, conservatives, right-libertarians, Europeans, even liberals themselves have found the vitriol of the liberal media so exhausting and unpleasant that we have all come to ignore it after a while, thankful they’ll finally shut up come late January. It should be no surprise, then, that radicals, who have been angry since at least 1848, are either–usually–suppressed, or ignored. In radical rhetoric, there is often a time and place to speak with an acid tongue, but just as often there are times to be inviting, down to earth, and affable while still getting the reader or interlocutor out of their comfort zone. Graeber almost always exercises rhetoric in the latter, likely in the knowledge that there is no short supply of the former.

Let’s examine the last of Graeber’s questions that I quoted above: “Do you really believe those things you tell your children (or that your parents told you)?” Not only is this question powerful in its relational capacity, it sets a tone of great affirmative meaning. Almost everyone takes their parent-child relationships seriously. Graeber could very well turn this on readers and call them hypocrites for participating in a society in contradiction to the common moral sense of parenting. But even if that were helpful, would that even be correct? Parents tend to not lie to their children. Parents make mistakes just like anyone else but are on the whole a moral role model for their children. The point is, again, to get the reader to contemplate: I do sincerely believe what I tell my children; why the hell do I resent going to work, distrust strangers, and look over my shoulder every two minutes? As much as society needs a right kick in the ass, the reader, who is just as much a victim of society as a part of it, sometimes doesn’t. Really, who doesn’t want to build a better world for their children? It is well and reasonable enough for people to work for a financially stable future for their children–Graeber reminds us that “even now, most of us spend more of our money on our friends and families than on ourselves”–isn’t it just as if not more important to work for a morally stable future? There are ways, if difficult to find or make, to get a rise out of people without righteous indignation. I understand that calls to “be civil” are often dogwhistles for silencing points of view, but really, this is neither being angry nor civil. Do you honestly think people are comfortable being asked, in a public forum, about things like their marriage or how they raise their kids? The fact that such things are “nobody’s business” is probably a sign that it’s actually everyone’s business. When it comes to building a radically better society, the family ought to be, among other structures, a critical object of conversation. People sometimes don’t respond well to anger, not necessarily because it makes them uncomfortable, but sometimes because its unhelpful, exhausting, or just downright annoying. At the same time, we are not defined by just our rational capacity. Dialogue can and should involve vulnerability, but there’s no need for dialogue to always be an antagonistic contest between two wills and ideals. Graeber is hardly if ever against the reader; in fact, Graeber’s exhortation to follow through on one’s promises to their children is more supportive than anything. When it comes to radical communication, a change in tone or language does not sacrifice the essential quality of disruption. Indeed, with the wrong tone, an audience may prove to be more impervious to disruption than otherwise.

Great ideas require great communicators, especially in a world dominated by the 280-character thought vomit. As much as the difficulty of communication involves responsibility and the ability to get out of one’s own way, there will still be intentional obstacles to effective radical communication: character limits, jargon, clickbait, “publish or perish,” ragebait articles to garner clicks and sell subscriptions, and so on. Fortunately, radical communication is designed and aimed not just to pierce such obstacles, but destroy them. By writing as if one were already free and unimpeded by such obstacles, they are often well left to rot, revealed to be as stupid and unnecessary as they are. In such manner we are free now as ever to follow Graeber’s mantra: to build a new world in the shell of the old.