Anthropology and the Return of the Privileged, Unreflexive Class

On the advice of a friend, I recently read David Graeber’s new article in Hau titled “Anthropology and the Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class.” While I agreed generally with his analysis of the current state of academia and the discipline of anthropology in particular, I found his diagnosis of the cause and prescription for change more than a little troubling.

The first part of the article recapitulates many of the same analyses of academia that have been floating around for a while. He describes the “financialization” of academia and the resultant decline of academic thought as faculty become more focused on administrative tasks and meeting benchmarks for funding and publication rather than engaging in meaningful academic work. These are all things I agree with, and have written about myself (here, here, and here). It’s a good analysis and I recommend reading it.

The problem comes in the second part of the article titled “Anthropology and the failure of the 1980s critique.” Here, Graeber essentially blames reflexivity, post-modernism, and post-colonial critique for allowing anthropologists to accept their lot as members of the “professional-managerial elite.” That’s obviously a simplification of the argument, and you should read it for yourself to judge, but, aside from the fact that there seems to be little concrete connection between this section and the prior analysis of the neoliberalization of academia, I find this move very troubling.

There are some good points made. It’s certainly possible to question whether this mode of critique has been as effective as it was meant to be given that it has done little to stem the tide of neoliberalism. That could be the fault of what he pithily refers to as “vulgar foucauldianism” or it could be a demonstration of the power that neoliberalism holds in our world today. In either case, the critiques Graeber identifies – in particular the post-colonial critique – are responses to very important issues within the discipline that should not be brushed aside in favor of his own pet issue of the role of the state and bureaucratization. It’s entirely possible that the problem with the critiques is that they haven’t been carried through enough, and not that they are inherently incapable of addressing neoliberalization – or, as Graeber is suggesting, reinforcing those processes.

This is where I think Graeber’s analysis is most disturbing. Toward the end of the article he provides two caricatures of anthropology faculty:

At the risk of being slightly cartoonish, let me evoke a sketch of two different paradigms of academic authority. On the one hand, we have the patriarchal professor, a figure dominant for most of the twentieth century. A figure of absolute self-assurance, whether pedantic or playful, he is on a day-to-day level at least largely oblivious to the forms of privilege and exploitation that make his life possible, and as a result entirely at peace with himself owing to the existence of an institutional structure that guarantees him near-perfect life security. This is a caricature but, still, anyone who has spent much time in academia has encountered someone who fits the description, and there are still a handful, if rapidly decreasing in number, alive and in positions of authority even today. Nevertheless, such characters are no longer being produced. After all, this is precisely the figure whose privilege was so dramatically challenged in the campus turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. In the neoliberal university, this challenge, combined with the dramatic marketization of academic life that began in the 1980s, has ultimately produced a very different sort of figure of authority. Let us imagine him too as a white male, since white males are, still, most likely to win the academic game—but one who, in the place of the self-assurance of the old patriarchal professor, combines a kind of constant nervous self-examination of his own privilege with a determination to nonetheless deploy all advantages—including that very privilege—in any way he can to prevail in an increasingly precarious academic environment; an environment demanding near-continual acts of reinvention and self-marketing. It’s easy to see how, in the specific case of anthropology, long a preferred refuge for the impractical and eccentric, the reflexive moment played a critical role in creating the soil from which such monstrous figures could emerge.

There’s no doubt that both of these two figures are indeed monstrous. And I’m sure either of them could be applied to Graeber himself at various parts of his career (despite repeatedly invoking his “working class background” as evidence that he “never had any chance of becoming that person under any circumstances”) – as well as myself. But notice, the problem with the first figure is that he is not reflexive at all. The problem with the second figure is not that he is reflexive, but that he is not reflexive enough – not willing to allow those critiques to penetrate his own existence and change the way he behaves in relation to those who do not share his privilege. Instead, he is willing to use a veneer of reflexivity to further his own agenda and gain more privilege. This is a common critique of “white saviorism” and false “allies” within the Black, Latino, and Indigenous anthropologist communities that Graeber would do well to acknowledge. But even in those circumstances the response is not to abandon the reflexive and critical project, but to intensify it and expand it to spaces where it has been relatively under-applied. To do otherwise would be to discount the gains that have been made by these anthropologists, and to discredit the work that continues to be done by them. I can understand that Graeber is trying to propose a different approach, but, first, the connection between reflexive critique and the neoliberalization of the academy is tenuous at best (how about blaming the state leaders who persistently divest their state budgets from education in general and higher education in particular, and, second, the solution he proposes is weak and somewhat self-serving (in that it promotes exactly what he does rather than imagining various possible approaches).

In the end, Graeber seems nostalgic for a kind of golden age of anthropology. He even bemoans the fact that “the works of Boas, Malinowski, or Evans-Pritchard were written today, they would never find a publisher—except, perhaps, outside the academy.” Although he calls for academics to engage with social movements – a proposition I couldn’t agree with more, though it’s not really novel or revolutionary – he also makes the peculiar statement “In retrospect, it’s hard not to see something deeply appealing about the easy self-confidence of that old patriarchal professor…” He then goes on to say that “the problem with entitlement and privilege is not that some people have it, it’s that other people don’t.” Perhaps Graeber should (re?)read Peggy McIntosh’s brief essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” For McIntosh, “some these varieties [of privilege] are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.”

And that’s exactly what I think Graeber is being when he dismisses reflexivity and critical anthropology and the gains that have been made – even if they aren’t enough. I think the ideal would be to make his two caricatures irrelevant because they are no longer representative of the diversity of the discipline. However, this cannot happen unless white male anthropologists like Graeber and myself pay attention to the ways that our privilege affects our positions and make a point of changing the way we respond to these kinds of issues. Graeber’s dismissal of reflexivity as the underlying subjective cause of all of the problems we face in academia makes it easier for us to forget our privilege and leave anthropologists who are not white and male on the periphery. Let’s stop longing for an anthropology that never was, and begin imagining a better anthropology that could be.