An interview with David Graeber

Cutting friends' hair in the kitchen or living room is an experience shared by many. Outside of this domestic exchange we see the sociality of the barbershop, with its sometimes chaotic and lively environments, as providing a public space for different kinds of economies and relationships to happen. Often situated within a locality of different groups of people, it is an interesting space to explore notions of community and commonality; a politics of difference.
Referencing the 17th/18th century salons where French philosophers would build knowledge through conversation, our salon looks to provide a material base of exchange, to work alongside internet based discussion and oriented towards an economy of care amongst participants. As the basis of exchange is aid rather than money the relationships are geared more towards friendship, requiring trust and degrees of intimacy, rather than financial gain.
In ancient Greece the Agora was both marketplace, and forum of public assembly and debate. Reconceptualising the barbershop reintroduces this culture of assembly and debate to the contemporary high street, with the intention of developing notions of post-capitalist economies and structures of mutual support.
In this interview, David Graeber outlines communism as it exists today, as the foundation of all sociability, and also how the fundamentals of communism exists within capitalism, especially in relation to creativity.

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DG Where does that phrase come from anyway- self confessed anarchist? Self-proclaimed, self-appointed? It's like in the newspaper you can just be an anarchist, it's like he even admits he's an anarchist.

RH Ok lets ease back (Lowers DG's chair down to sink level)

LB When was the last time you had a haircut David?

DG That was in New York, maybe a month and a half ago, maybe 2 months.

LB You said it was too short?

DG Yeah, the guy wasn't my usual barber, it was my usual barbershop but there was another guy there and he did it too short and not very well I think.

LB Keep your head back

RH Hows that water?

DG Yeah its fine, as long as its not shockingly hot or shockingly cold, no it's kind of pleasant even.

The way I always like to think of it is that most people don't think anarchism is a bad idea, they think its insane. They think it would be lovely to have a society based on mutual aid with no police or prisons and the system would never really happen, and of course its never because anybody thinks they'd not be able to handle it, but they think that everyone else wouldn't be able to handle it.

I come from a lefty background, my father fought in Spain. He actually lived in Barcelona during the revolution there, so he always swore anarchism as a legitimate political philosophy. The International Brigades were against the anarchists of course, he was kind of the balanced view, but the major thing was that he didn't think it was crazy. Yes people can organise things collectively and democratically I've seen it happen. So when you aren't brought up to think of it as crazy it's almost hard not to be an anarchist.

So I always thought of myself as an anarchist, philosophically for much of my life, but in terms of actual social movements, well two things happened: One that I became an anthropologist and went to Madagascar and just by coincidence I kind of stumbled into a place where the state had ceased to function, or really exist, the police for example wouldn't go off the paved road. But the amazing thing was it took me about 6 months to even figure out that was going on because no one really wanted to talk about it and pretend the government was still really there. And so one thing I realised is that state authority doesn't do as much as we think it does, that people could continue with their daily existence as they had without that. So at any rate I had stumbled into a kind of anarchist enclave. I got back and was teaching at Yale and suddenly I discovered that the social movement I'd always wished to exist.

I had occasionally tried to get involved in anarchist politics in the 80's but wasn't that inspired by what I'd found, it was mostly what I sometimes call the Bob Black period- people who are sectarian parties of one shouting at each other and it wasn't a lot of fun so I never got involved, but suddenly the movement I really wished to have existed did- the counter-globalisation movement- so I just sort of jumped in.

LB Maybe that's somewhere we can start, we've put you in this massive anarchist flag because you are so comfortable identifying as an anarchist, but why is it do you think there is a general discomfort with the language of anarchism or anarchist flags, even amongst anarchists or people who we would say practice anarchism?

DG Thats a funny thing, I mean I myself am a bit ambivalent, if were a community organiser it certainly wouldn't be the aspect of myself I would necessarily advertise. I work in universities, it's almost a form of intellectual honestly, you know, this is where my ideas are coming from, if I pretended otherwise I would just feel like a fraud. And also theres a combination of being true to ones ancestors and acknowledging them, but also annoying the right sort of people. So for my particular situation it seemed like using the word was useful. But whether it was wise thing to do sometimes I wonder. I never quite draped myself in the red and black flag in that way, I like to think of myself as a small-a anarchist actually- yes i'm an anarchist and if you ask me what I am I'll say that- but I prefer to work in groups that don't have capital-A anarchist in the name, I like groups that work like anarchists, organise under anarchist principles, embody anarchist ideals but are open to anyone who's willing to act that way, whatever they choose to call themselves.

LB You often strike a difference in your work between anarchism and more marxist ideas- marxism is very much an intellectual theory and an identity through the theory, whereas anarchism doesn't even need to be called anarchism and it can just be a practice.

DG Yes exactly, so theres some people who are such anarchists that they wont call themselves Anarchists for that reason. Sometimes I wonder in embracing the title, if I have a vice it sometimes that, someone once called me anti-sectarian sectarian, I'm so anti-sectarian I pick unnecessary fights with sectarians over the issue. For me its an example of being the same thing. But I do think that what anarchism means to me above all is thinking about how we live and practice.

LB But does that mean that anarchism is only a practice, it's never a reached point, there is no kind of anarchist utopia that we're working towards, it's just purely a methodology?

DG No i think its more asintotic*, you know, I mean you're never going to get to perfection of anything, but I do think we are already living in anarchism to some degree whenever we treat each other the way people should really be treated, whenever we make a decision democratically, whenever we operate according to the principles of mutual aid, we are performing anarchism, when you do direct action. Most people, even though they would never use the word, would act like anarchist maybe 40-70 per cent of the time. So we're already living in anarchism to a certain degree, the question is what do we do with the rest of the 60-30 per cent.

RH We're just going to turn you back round now and I'll just finish drying your hair.

DG Yeh, so probably if we can get it down to one per cent (laughs) we might not be able to get it beyond that but 99 per cent is good enough for me.

RH How does that feel (Towel drying hair)?

DG O, feels good.

LB Maybe we should talk about the hair cut?

DG O yes, I don't know, what pops into your head when you see my hair?

LB What did pop into my head originally was a Mohawk…

DG Noooo...

LB …but you've just ruled that out. We often do a lot of squat haircuts, with shaved bits and rat-tails…

DG (unconvinced) nnyyeaah I'm radical in a lot of things…

LB But not in hair- thats ok.

So, anarchism, you were just saying is something that 30 per cent of people live..

DG No no, everybody lives 30- 70 per cent of the time- I just made those numbers up but I wouldn't be at all surprised.

LB Because you say a similar thing about communism, can you define what you mean by communism?

DG O, well I sort of take the classic definition of communism as being from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs. So anything that you do, or any social relation you have, which is organised on that principle- well it's a communist relationship. So for example, we're all communist with our best friends, because if they really need something then we provide it, and we do it on the basis of what we can do. But to some degree, if you have real amicable social relations with anyone that has to be true to some kind of minimal extent, anyone who isn't some complete enemy or alien creature to you, I mean, you could think of society as being defined as those people where at least, on that level, even humanity to some degree, if the need is great enough, or the demand is small enough then everyone acts like a communist. I mean if someone is drowning, or if someone needs a light. So you know in a way, communism is the baseline of all sociability. All other social relations are built on top of communism.

LB And by that you mean, if you came up to me in the street and said I need a lighter, I wouldn't say 'five pounds please'…

DG Exactly. So there's a sort of minimal sort of baseline communism, I call it, that anybody that isn't completely hostile or alien to one another would have. And you know in different societies it extends to different degrees, so that it's pretty much impossible to refuse a request for food, no matter what it is really, just cant do it. There's this great Maori story I always like to quote about this annoying guy, I think name Taringa, who used to hang around the shore when people came back from fishing and say, 'Wow octopus! I love octopus', you know, then they have to give it to him, and he never stopped, never really did much fishing himself, would always be there. So after about 5 years people got so sick of him, that they formed a little war party, ambushed him and killed him...

(laughs) know its actually easier just to kill the guy than to say, 'no Im not going to give you the octopus'.

LB I often pick up a really strong prefigurative politics in your ideas, in your work and theory. But that to me, like, if we're already living communism now, then how do we make that a greater thing in our lives? It doesn't so much imply a methodology or a strategy. So whereas Marxism would say, we have this clear analysis, we have to use these means to get to this place, you're starting from this place, do you understand?

DG Yes, well ok, I've been thinking about this recently and I've also made the argument that capitalism is simply a bad way of organising communism. Most corporations operate by that principle internally. But the thing is that the type of communism that exists within most institutions today is a really bad form of communism. Just because something is communistic doesn't mean its necessarily good, so you have extraordinary hierarchical nightmare forms of communist co-operation, and then you have much more egalitarian ones, so the question in a way is how do we reform existing forms of communism from within? Make them more anarchistic for example. And one thing that had occurred to me, I don't know if it's always true, but I think its true, is that the more creative the undertaking that you're involved with, the more the type of communism you have to apply has to be open-ended, egalitarian and open to everyone. So creativity almost demands that your form of communism becomes healthier and no matter what you yourself might be inclined to do. There's this marxist guys called Mouffe, I can't quite remember, who had a student who went off and did research on the origins of Apple computers. Apparently they're all people who had dropped out of IBM, and are all sort of weird Republican-Libertarian-pot-smoking type people. But they ended up creating these democratic circles which operated exactly like anarchist affinity groups where they sit around and make decisions by consensus and get really stoned, just like affinity groups, and they did it because they were trying to be maximumly innovative and they found that was the only thing that worked. So ironically you know, capitalists, even though they got the whole RH etoric that, you know, communists had to give up because they discovered that capitalism is the only thing that works. Within capitalism its exactly the other way around. They had to create an egalitarian form of communism at that, as opposed to the scary factory-based hierarchical forms of communism, just to be an effective and innovative corporation. Now obviously thats not going to lead to revolution, but it shows that tension there. What we really have to think about is how to reform existing forms of communism from within.

LB And to bring that into context now with the cuts, and austerity, you say that we're working too much anyway, so now everyone's out there with their pre-made socialist banners that say, 'We need all the jobs, fight for every job', should we really have different banners that say, 'We didn't want to work anyway, can we go now?'

DB (Laughs) Yeh! Fine then, bye….

LB Which in a sense then implies we should take up David Cameron's call for mutual aid, Big Society.

DG Well it's ironic isn't it, I think that at the moment the capitalists are sort of seesawing between two possible types of reaction to the fact that they've been exposed as complete frauds in the financial crisis. One is what I call 'kamikaze capitalist' approach. It's like, 'who cares if we create a viable form of capitalism as long as we take out the other guys'; so just full scale attack on anything that looks like it could be the source of any other idea or value, whether its universities, social welfare, anything. The other approach is what they've always done, which you see in Big Society or green capitalism, which is, 'alright, lets take whatever it is that the social movements are coming up with, because we're completely uncreative and have no ideas, but we can just take whatever they're doing and re-package it, re-structure it, and turn it into something destructive, alienating and horrible'- which they're going to try and do with mutual aid, and the question is, I mean that does give us opportunities, isn't that what neoliberalism did, as many people pointed out- 'you want individual self-expressions and experiments in new forms of pleasure and anti-bureaucracy, yeh I'll give you that, want flexibility? We'll give you flexibility' (laughs). So now they're going to do the same with another set of things to co-opt. It does give us an opportunity to take them at their word, in a way thats what the globalisation movement was about - 'all right, you want globalisation? How about real globalisation, how about no borders?'

LB So what does real mutual aid and Big Society look like? Or radical mutual aid?

DG I think we know. I mean we do it all the time. It's recognising the forms of imminent communism as being values in themselves rather than simply being valuable to maintain the platform from which people can then extract profit.

I mean what fascinates me, the haircut is a great example, in that just how much even the things that we do for money, most of the time, are things with involve this intense levels of interpersonal trust and communication, in which the boundaries between our very selves flow into each other. They're all embodiments of the very principles, which then this logic of exchange that we have to look at everything from, tries to make disappear again. So we're constantly living one kind of life and then for very elaborate reasons, that kind of life cant exist. It's unrealistic. It means denying the reality thats around us all the time and most of what we're doing even when we're saying it.

LB How has this experience been, do you feel like we've bonded?

DG Yeh, I mean theres a strange combination of distance and intimacy…

LB (applying wax) This is really horrible! (Laughs)

DG What the wax?

LB Its like glue!

This isn't working….

RH I think we need another hair wash…..

LB (sculpting) How's that?

DG O I got a Mohawk after all…

(while having wax wiped out of his hair, David is asked about using the language of communism today as a provocation, but also as confused) I think we're not a communist movement in that sense, we're a movement that recognises it's already communist and what-are-we-going-to-do-about-that-fact. And thats an argument that I think can be made, because if you make both of those statements at once, you know it's not a case of creating communism in some imaginary mythic form, you know the question is how do we manage the communism that already exists. And I think it is helpful to point out things like that and maybe that kind of a provocative use of the term is over-doing it, I don't know. But I think nothing could be more important right now then changing that language that we're used to using in describing these things, because the thing I think about neoliberalism is that, the war on the imagination is the only one that the capitalists ultimately manage to win. I mean, they didn't win the war to create a viable long-term form of capitalism, they've completely failed at most of the neoliberal projects, the only thing they've managed to succeed is in trying to convince everybody that we're impractical. Which means that they think we're a lot more potentially practical then we do probably. They're more afraid of us than we realise and maybe they know something we don't know, but maybe they're just paranoid and wrong. But that's the context in which we need to think about the use of language, what the point where its ok to uproot common sense, or is it possible to do so when you pull back on that?

LB David I think that's your haircut finished, here's your complimentary napkin, sorry about the wax…

DB Ah well you know, it is in the nature of experiments...

LB You can take it home with you, play around with different shapes, but thanks for talking to us today and thanks for coming.

DG Ah well thank you.

*a point of infinity, in mathematical terms.

This interview was originally conducted to feature in an episode of ‘From Lucky PDF TV, this is Auto Italia LIVE’, part of a five week long series of live television broadcasts held at the Auto Italia South East project space in Peckham, London.

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