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Anarchism, existentialism and anthropology

Anarchism, existentialism and anthropology mutually imply one another as a philosophy, a political outlook, and as a way of understanding the world and the people in it.

By Paul Durrenberger

Beyond the borders of states, in the contested interstices between them were places where people learned to live with each other as people, granting that all people were like themselves, equal and consequential beings who could fashion their own lives from the materials at hand. Thus lived most people on our planet from the time we walked out of Africa until recently.

Archaeologists tell the stories of how, in fertile valleys and deltas agriculture grew and then cities and governments crystalized and began to regularize life with their twin agencies of force and religion, military and church. These grew rapidly and inexorably from their centers in the Near East and China, toward Europe and sprang up again in Central and South America after people had arrived from Asia. Where states met they clashed. And defined borders, either the impermeable ones they defined with maps and governors or the permeable ones where their influence waned outward from the center.

Archaeologists also tell the stories of people without writing, those remnant peoples who lived with their prophets and shamans in the borders. But because they leave but scant evidence behind them, the stories are sketchy at best.

Cultural anthropologists go to the borders to live with similar people and tell stories of how they live by codes they developed in the living without benefit of school, church or government.

In todayís world such places are few and far between, dangerous places where the worldís states search out and destroy their enemies. But before that time, the borderlands were less foreboding, places the regularizing reach of states had bypassed because they were not worth the effort. To them went those castoffs the states threw off in their great drives to define and unify: prophets, anthropologists, missionaries, and more recently revolutionaries and terrorists.

Many who have lived in those areas return with stories of human potential, encouraged by what they have seen of the power of our speciesí humanity. That encounter haunts people of states after they return to their own lives enmeshed in those systems of writing and religion, their codes and recipes and rule-books of everything from justice to salvation, their standardized languages of ethics, law, religion, sexuality and life.

In their imaginations they can see a potential that the states blind from birth, the potential of life beyond the borders. And, infected by the sanity of the madness they have witnessed, they are compelled to tell the stories. When they do, whether in Bolivia (Conzelman 2006,2015), Thailand (Durrenberger 2014a), or Madagascar (Graeber 2004) they are stories of anarchism as people live it, not as one among many political philosophies or doctrines but as a way of being and living.

David Graeber (2004) has written the book on anarchist anthropology and James C. Scott (2014) has written the book on the ethnography of anarchism. Living with people who are anarchists but do not profess to be has to change a person. People like Daniel Graeber, James Scott, Caroline Conzelman and I have seen anarchism in practice and know the look and feel of egalitarian life. I saw it in my fieldwork among Lisu in northern Thailand (Durrenberger 2014 a).

In her struggles to define herself with respect to religious practices when she was young, my step-daughter, Ayshe asked me if there were people who respected the power of nature, of mountains and stones and weather and the sheer vivacity of living things like grass and trees. I explained to her that we anthropologists know them as animists but those people have no name for their religion because to them itís just a way of life. Anarchism is like that.
When I lived in central Pennsylvania and again here in eastern Iowa I have enjoyed the company and friendship of a number of people of the Quaker faith. They donít put themselves above others. They are strongly egalitarian, hence the resistance to setting a clergy above the congregation. They are hard-working and frugal but recognize that not all hard work pays off in material rewards; hard work is its own reward as are frugality and simplicity. These virtues are foreign to the ruling ideology in the United States, meritocratic individualism (Newman 1988,1993;Durrenberger,2001). Quakers arenít judgmental and they arenít preachy. I am not sure about the finer points of their theology or doctrine, but I know their everyday practice.

Aristocracies assigned rank according to birth. But in democracies nobody is supposed to be any better than anybody else. The ideology holds that an individualís merit is earned by hard work and determines a personís standing. So, Lave argues (1988) schools provide a means for assigning merit according to academic performance. Just as every American knows s/he is equal to everyone, everyone knows their standing in their high school graduating class and quite possibly in their university class. Schools of education devote untold effort to determining how best to measure merit via various kinds of examinations. To annually assess the merit of the professors as a basis for their salaries, university administrators develop elaborate systems that appear to be empirical metrics for computing human value (Durrenberger 2014a).

I mention the Quakers only because their practice runs so counter to the common practice that is highlighted in universities by our systems of merit pay and grading that all comes down to putting one person above another, to valuing one more than another. And I find something fundamentally inhumane about that practice.

In his 1963 Culture against Man, Jules Henry saw the pervasive and pernicious influence of this meritocratic ideology. It dictates that by our intrinsic merit and hard work we deserve what we get and get what we deserve. Newmanís (1988) ethnography has shown how, because of no fault of their own when they lose the jobs upon which their sense of accomplishment depends, people who credit that ideology destroy themselves. My experience as a person and as an ethnographer indicates to me that this ideology is in every sense wrong.

That and my secular outlook define me as an anarchist.

An occupational hazard of being an anthropologist is an outlook that comes from trying to shed my own cultural conventions to better understand those of other people. The only thing that can make any sense of what any people say and do is a vast sea of assumptions they are never supposed to question. Anthropologists call these ďculture.Ē Itís a revelation to learn that we have one, just as different, reasonable, sensible and reality-based as those assumptions that helped Aztec, Inka, Maya, Nazis, and every other people that has trod our planet make sense of their worlds.

When you question those assumptions that define your realities your world begins to waver. Thatís what anthropologists do. This askew view of the world that lifts up a corner of any culture to look underneath makes me an existentialist in a philosophical sense. What does that mean? Accepting the absurdity of living in a world we can never fully understand and continuing to try even though we know we canít. To fully understand the world, you can take the leap of faith of a political ideology or a religion, a kind of intellectual suicide. Or you can despair of the whole enterprise and kill yourself. Or you can accept the absurdity of it all and appreciate the sense of passion, humor, goodwill, generosity and intensity in life; a sense of heroism and humanism (Camus 1955, Durrenberger 2014a).

But I am an American. No matter how much we try, we can never really shuck our cultures. Americans believe all people were created equal. That should make us all anarchists who reject hierarchy and authority. We also believe that a corollary to equality is democracy. That should settle the matter for once and all. So to me, anarchism is as American as apple pie.

Itís one thing to take seriously the idea of describing cultures or economic systems and developing the methods and habits of observation that make that possible. Trying to explain those things leads to a kind of formal academic writing that Iíve done in scholarly papers and books. But something else happens when those habits of mind ricochet and bounce back on the stuff of your own culture, the stories of daily life we hear and read about in the news or themes that you see repeated so often they become commonplace.

Have you ever heard of a university that strove for adequacy? No, every one of them struggles for nothing less than excellence. What kind of culture calls a retail worker that makes too many mistakes stupid and fires her while giving massive bonuses to bankers who do the same thing and calls them smart? Why are Americans so busy? Why are there so many conspiracies about so many things? Can corporations own people? Why are there still witches among us? What is the American Dream? What gods do Americans hold to be so holy that we sacrifice human beings to them? These are some of the questions I grappled with in radio commentaries and informal essays through the past twenty years and collected in American Fieldnotes (Durrenberger 2014b).

Anthropology aids and abets the American tendency toward egalitarianism and anarchism by sanctioning our sojourns in the borders as well as an existentialist outlook by demanding that we examine the assumptions that underlie all cultures. If you question rather than just accept your and everyone elseís culture, if you reject authority that justifies itself, thatís where you land with both feet.

So, to my mind anarchism, existentialism and anthropology go together or mutually imply one another as a philosophy, a political outlook, and as a way of understanding the world and the people in it.

Paul Durrenberger is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Iowa and Penn State.

Camus, Albert
1955 The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays. New York. Vintage.

Conzelman, Caroline S.
2006. Fieldwork in Coca Country: Investigating Democracy and Development in the Bolivian Andes. In A. Gardner and D. M. Hoffman, eds., Dispatches from the Field: Neophyte Ethnographers in a Changing World. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press. Pgs 119-136

2015. This is What Democracy Looks Like. In P. Durrenberger and S. Erem, eds., Anthropology Unbound: A Field Guide to the 21st Century (third edition). New York, Oxford University Press. Pgs 223-224.

Durrenberger, E. Paul
2001 Explorations of Class and Consciousness in the U.S. Journal of Anthropological Research Vol 57(1). Pgs 41-60.
2014a At the Foot of the Mountain: A Journey through Existentialism, Anthropology and Life. West Branch, Iowa, Draco Hill Press.
2014 b American Fieldnotes: Collected Essays of an Existentialist Anthropologist. West Branch, Iowa, Draco Hill Press.

Graeber, David
2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago, Prickly Paradigm Press.

Henry, Jules
1963. Culture Against Man. New York, Random House.

Lave, Jean
1988 Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics, and Culture in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newman, Katherine S.
1988 The Experience of Downward Mobility in the American Middle Class. New York: The Free Press.

1993 Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream. New York: Basic Books.

Scott, James C.
2012 Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton, Princeton University Press.






Bronislaw #01

Paul Durrenberger

Paul Durrenbereger has done fieldwork in highland and lowland Thailand, Iceland, Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Chicago. He has written many academic papers and books and is now retired and working with his wife, Suzan Erem, to organize the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) to preserve Iowa's land for the production of healthy food.




Bronislaw ē Magazine of provocative open-ended anthropological debate

Who are we? Bronislaw is an online magazine of new anthropological thought and debate. Our main purpose is in one hand to help disseminating anthropological research to a broader public, but in so doing, also to create a space where anthropologists can go beyond the limited frames of academic publishing and allow themselves to develop thoughts and questions that have arisen during research, to broaden fieldwork-based reflections, to expose developing ideas to community debate, or even to join into other contemporary anthropological debates by replying to essays published here or elsewhere.

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