Today anthropologists talk constantly about the need for “public scholarship.” There are programs that promote it and a handful of anthropologists who successfully publish in popular venues such as the Huffington Post (e.g., the indefatigable Paul Stoller). The problem is that the textual tics and high-mandarin vocabulary of contemporary social science are hard to unlearn after decades of trafficking in them. This makes it especially challenging for academics to write theoretically rich accounts capable of engaging ordinary readers. We think we know how to do it, but few of us succeed.
An exception is David Graeber, an anthropologist and self-described anarchist who moved to a position in the UK after a high-profile departure from Yale a decade ago. Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, was widely reviewed in the trade press and is described as an “international best-seller,” although what that means in actual sales isn’t clear to me. Perhaps it’s enough to say that it doubtless beat the average lifetime sales of a typical work of anthropology (well under a thousand copies these days, I’m told) by several orders of magnitude. Not every review of Debt was glowing—a book covering so much history is bound to violate the understandings of some experts—but many reviewers found it witty, accessible, and convincing.
What is distinctive about Graeber’s writing, aside from its anarchist underpinnings, is its conversational quality. He sometimes grapples with the work of major theorists (Lévi-Strauss, Jameson, Weber, Marx, etc.) but always manages to represent their thinking with refreshing clarity. Whether critics find his arguments right or wrong is less interesting than is his ability to make the ideas seem worthy of contemplation because of what they tell us about contemporary realities, including the multiple ways that capitalism shapes our experience and understanding of the world. And he’s often funny, which helps.
These gifts are on display in Graeber’s latest work, The Utopia of Rules, a collection of essays on bureaucracy—its history, key features, and impact on societies and individuals.