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