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Announcement ::
An Interview with Professor David Graeber
15 May 2005
Without Cause: Yale Fires An Acclaimed Anarchist Scholar

David Graeber, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University, and the author of Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, among many other scholarly publications. Last week Prof. Graeber was informed that his teaching contract at Yale would not be extended. However, it was not Graeber's scholarship that was ever in question; rather it was his political philosophies that may have played a heavy hand in the administration's unwarranted decision. Graeber, a renowned anarchist scholar, recently spoke with CounterPuncher Joshua Frank about the fiasco. As one of our other favorite anthropologists David Price put it, this "is a ghastly look under the hood at how academic knowledge is manufactured at America's 'finest' institutions."
Joshua Frank: Prof. Graeber, can you talk a little bit about the circumstances leading up to Yale's decision not to renew your teaching contract? How much of their decision do you think was based on your political persuasion and activism?

David Graeber: Well, it's impossible to say anything for certain because no official reasons were given for the decision and I'm not allowed to know what was said in the senior faculty meeting where my case was discussed. In fact, if anyone who attended were to tell me what I was accused of, they would themselves be accused of violating "confidentiality" and they would get in trouble, too. But one thing that was repeatedly stressed to me when I was preparing my material for review is that no one is really taking issue with my scholarship. In fact, it was occasionally hinted to me that if anything I publish too much, have received too much international recognition, and had too many enthusiastic letters of support from students. All that might have actually weighed against me. Again, I have no way of knowing if that's really true, because everything is a secret. But I'd be willing to say this much: What happened to me was extremely irregular - almost unheard of, really. It happened despite the fact that I'm one of best published scholars and most popular teachers in the department. Does it have anything to do with the fact that I'm also one of the only declared anarchist scholars in the academy? I'll leave it to your readers to make up their own minds.

JF: If I am not mistaken, you have been up for review at Yale before, correct? What has changed since those reviews were held?

DG: I had an official third-year review and I had no problems with that, they told me I was doing fine. Then, after that, I started writing essays defending anarchism, and getting involved in big mobilizations against the IMF and G8 as well organizing with the peace movement. When I got back from my sabbatical, everything had changed. Several of the senior profs wouldn't even say hello to me. I was assigned no committee work. When I came up for review in my sixth year for promotion to term associate - normally a rubber stamp - suddenly, several senior faculty virulently opposed my promotion on the grounds that I didn't do any committee work. Not surprising since they refused to give me any. They also produced a whole panoply of petty charges - "he comes late to class," that sort of thing - which, as usual, I was not allowed to know about much less respond to. Of course I was acting exactly as I'd acted for the first three years, too, but suddenly it was a terrible problem. The vote deadlocked so they took it to the Dean who told them they couldn't fire someone without a warning, so I was given a letter telling me I had to do something about my "unreliability" and do more service work. My contract was extended for just two years instead of the usual four, and I was told they would vote at the end of the next year to see if it would be extended (so that I would be able to come up for tenure.) So this year I've been running the colloquium series, doing all sorts of extra teaching - this term for instance, I effectively taught three courses instead of the required two because I had one weekly class with undergraduates who were all taking independent studies with me - taught one of the most popular courses in Yale (Myth and Ritual, with 137 students) ... But on Friday May 6, I was informed that they had voted not to renew my contract anyway and offered no explanation as to why.

JF: I know there is no union you can turn to at Yale for support, as faculty members are not allowed to unionize, but have you reached out to the Graduate Employee and Student Organization (GESO, Yale's graduate student union)? I know they are not recognized as a legitimate union by the university, but have they been an ally in all of this?

DG: To be honest, I actually tried to avoid getting involved in campus activism for many years. I figured we all have to make our little compromises, mine would be: I'd be an activist in New York, and a scholar in New Haven, and that meant avoiding the whole unionization question as much as I could. In the long run, of course, it was impossible. Our department is extremely divided, certain elements in the senior faculty hate GESO with an infinite passion and campaign tirelessly against it, the students are all factionalized; it's a mess. I supported the principle of unionization of course; I was also very critical of what I saw as the top-down organization of the union (after all, I'm an anarchist - my idea of a good union is the IWW); I just tried to be fair to all sides. But in the end I got drawn in. It all came to a head a few months ago, actually, when certain elements in the senior faculty tried to kick out a very brilliant graduate student who also happened to be one of the department's major organizers. As it turned out, I was the only professor on her committee willing to openly stand up for her during the meeting where they tried to terrorize her into leaving the program. She refused to back down, and with the help of some of my colleagues, we managed to get her through her defense successfully, but after that, certain elements in the senior faculty seemed determined to take revenge.

I'm definitely working with some union people now. But almost all of the graduate students, the most pro-GESO and the most anti-GESO, seem to have been shocked and outraged by what happened. In fact, one of the things that has come of this, that's strangely wonderful, is that it's the first thing that really brought both sides together. The students are organizing and they've put together a petition and are already starting to take all sorts of action to try to pressure the university to reverse the decision.

JF: Do you think some of this extreme tension within your department, and the episode with the grad student you defended, played a role in your contract not being renewed? Or was this just an extension of an already contentious relationship? There seems to be a huge divide between some of the senior faculty and yourself. What else, if anything, have they done to show their dislike for your political persuasion - or is it more your activism that gets under their skin?

DG: I don't want to give the impression that the senior faculty are all the same: there are some amazing, wonderful scholars amongst the senior faculty here. We're really just talking about three, maybe four, who are atrocious bullies. I have five colleagues who were just awesome, and who fought as hard as they could to defend me. It's just that the bullies never give up - they're willing to throw all their time and energy into these battles, since after all, most have long since given up on any meaningful intellectual life - and of course since everything's secret, there's no accountability.

They can tell one lie about you, get caught in it, and then next time around just make up another one and eventually the majority of the faculty will say "it doesn't matter whether what they say is true. If they hate this guy so much, then clearly his presence is divisive. Let's just get rid of him." As for the episode with the grad student: absolutely. Again, some of these people have no intellectual life. In most departments there's one or two characters like that, you know. Their power is the only thing they really have. So anyone challenges that power in any way and they react like cornered tigers. That's why they hate the union so much. That's why they go berserk if anyone stands up to them.

One thing that I've learned in academia is no one much cares what your politics are as long as you don't do anything about them. You can espouse the most radical positions imaginable, as long as you're willing to be a hypocrite about them. The moment you give any signs that you might not be a hypocrite, that you might be capable of standing on principle even when it's not politically convenient, then everything's different. And of course anarchism isn't about high theory: it's precisely the willingness to try to live by your principles.

JF: So are academics not supposed to be activists then? I'm thinking of Ward Churchill's recent controversy at the University of Colorado and Joseph Massad's at Columbia. Do you think your case is symptomatic of a larger problem in the US where radical professors are being targeted for their unpopular political views? Or are these just isolated incidents?

DG: If you'd asked me six months ago, I would have probably said "academics can be activists as long as they do nothing to challenge the structure of the university," or anyone's power within it. If you want to make an issue of labor conditions in Soweto, great, you're a wonderful humanitarian; if you want to make an issue of labor conditions for the janitors who clean your office, that's an entirely different story. But I think you're right, something's changing. I mean, I'm sure it's not like there's someone giving orders from above or anything, but there's a climate suddenly where people feel they can get away with this sort of thing, and the Ward Churchill and Massad cases obviously must have something to do with that. I've been hearing a lot of stories, in recent weeks, about radical teachers suddenly being let go for no apparent reason. They don't even have to dig up something offensive you're supposed to have said any more - at least, in my case no one is even suggesting I did or said anything outrageous, in which case, at least there'd be something to argue about.

If I had to get analytical about it, maybe I'd put it this way. We're moving from the neoliberal university to the imperial university. Or at least people are trying to move us there. It used to be as long as you didn't challenge the corporatization of the university, you'd be basically okay. But the neoliberal project - where the politicians would all prattle about "free markets and democracy" and what that would actually mean was that the world would be run by a bunch of unelected trade bureaucrats in the interests of Citibank and Monsanto - that kind of fell apart. And of course the groups I've been working with - People's Global Action, the DANs and ACCs and the like - we had a lot to do with that. It threw the global elites into a panic, and of course the normal reaction of global elites when thrown into a panic is to go and start a war. It doesn't really matter who the war's against. The point is once you've got a war, the rules start changing, all sorts of things you'd never be able to get away with otherwise become possible, whether in Haiti or New Haven. In that kind of climate, nasty people start trying to see what they can get away with. "Fire the anarchist for no particular reason? Maybe that'll work."

That's why I feel we have to fight this. I don't think it would be all that hard for me to find another job. My CV and publications kind of speak for themselves. But if you let something like this stand, it hurts everyone. So when people asked me whether they should start mobilizing for me, I said, go right ahead. And the outpouring of support has been just amazing. We already have 1400 signatures from Argentina to Singapore and the petition has only been up for a couple days now. I hear that the European parliament is about to pass a bill specifically about my case. The teacher's union in the UK is going to consider placing Yale on their "gray list." People are mobilizing all over the world.

You can support Prof. Graeber by signing an online petition:

Prof. Graeber can be reached at David.Graeber (at)

Anyone who would like to send further emails of support of Prof. Graeber, please send them to Richard.Levin (at) (President), Andrew.Hill (at) (Chair), Kathryn.Dudley (at) (Director of Graduate Studies), Jon.Butler (at) (Dean), Richard.Sleight (at) (Dean).

Defend Acclaimed Anarchist Scholar David Graeber!

You can support Prof. Graeber by signing an online petition:

Anyone who would like to send further emails of support of Prof. Graeber, please send them to Richard.Levin (at) (President), Andrew.Hill (at) (Chair), Kathryn.Dudley (at) (Director of Graduate Studies), Jon.Butler (at) (Dean), Richard.Sleight (at) (Dean).

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another article on Graeber
13 May 2005

In Support of David Graeber by Andrej Grubacic

Recently David Graeber and I wrote an article together attempting to explain why anarchist ideas have received almost no attention in the academy. When you think of it, academia is full of Marxist radicals, but only a handful of professed anarchists. We came to a conclusion that it must have something to do with anarchism's concern with forms of practice; with its insistence that one's means most be consonant with one's ends; with its stubborn rejection of the idea that we can create freedom through authoritarian means, embracing instead the position that we should embody the society we wish to create. All of this does not square very well with operating within a university. The university has survived in much the same form since the middle ages, waging intellectual battles at conferences, re-enforcing class distinctions, making cabalistic decisions in secret rooms. As we stated in our article: "At the very least, one would imagine being an openly anarchist professor would mean challenging the way universities are run and that, of course, is going to get one in far more trouble than anything one could ever write".

Ironically enough, as if he was testing his own hypothesis, internationally respected anarchist anthropologist, David Graeber, was fired from Yale University a few days ago. Of course, that wasn't the official explanation. The official one reads that "his contract wasn't renewed" because of his lack of "collegiality". If you would allow me to translate this: the "lack of collegiality" that David had showed was when he was trying to defend his graduate students who were graduate union organizers. Union organizers are regularly targeted at Yale. When one brilliant graduate student organizer was almost kicked out for clearly fabricated reasons, David Graeber was the only member of her committee with the courage to openly stand up for her at that committee meeting, and then later at a faculty meeting. On david Graeber's behalf, Yale graduate students have initiated a petition which has been signed by almost all graduate and good number of undergraduate students of anthropology.

So, why has David Graeber been given the boot? To begin with the obvious, he is an unrepentant anarchist. David Graeber was one of the spokespeople for the Anti Capitalist Convergence during the World Economic Forum protests in New York. He was an activist with Direct Action Network. He is one of the founding members of the Peoples Global Action infopoint in New York. And he had authored many essays and articles on anarchism. But he never did any organizing or activism on campus.

What perhaps was David Graeber's greatest crime was simply his apparently over optimistic belief that he could remain true to his anarchist principles within the academy. Graeber believes that graduate school should be more than a training camp for becoming a commodity on the academic market. Rather it should also be about joy and creativity. Anyone who goes through a graduate program knows that such institutions are all about socialization as an academic, much of which requires the destruction of the sense of joy and creativity in learning, thinking and imagining that draws people to become scholars in the first place. For certain, some universities are worse then others. For various reasons, Yale seems to specialize in this kind of soul-crushing sport.

David Graeber offered his students an alternative model. He believes that it's possible to be an academic intellectual and not an academic prostitute, that it is possible not to sacrifice everything that makes life enjoyable, that it is possible to be both intellectually productive and politically committed. Given such convictions, is it little wonder that David Graeber was given the boot?

As a close friend of David's, I have witnessed a somewhat frantic activity on the behalf of a few members of the Yale faculty to have him fired. Not incidentally, these faculty members have not been speaking to David since his name was mentioned in the papers in conjunction with the WEF protests three years ago. But ostracizing him was difficult. Not only because of few decent colleagues who ardently defended him. Since that time David has published two well respected books and articles in dozens of languages. Last year the Yale bureaucracy renewed David's contract for only two years, citing his behavior as not being in accordance with Yale's "academic ethics" and said that his contract might be extended two more years if he improved "his behavior".

Last Tuesday a meeting was held to consider David's reappointment. Only senior faculty were allowed to attend and David was not permitted to respond to his accusations, nor where his accusers expected to present evidence. After an extended slander fest, participants seem to have concluded that it doesn't really matter if the accusations are false and trivial, because his presence is clearly divisive thus it would be safer to just kick him out.

As someone who has spent many wonderful moments with David, I am certainly not neutral here. But neither should you be. This issue extends beyond the academic career of David Graeber. And beyond the price one may have to pay for advocating anarchism in the academy. In this country, at this exciting and surreal point of its history, this could happen, as it already has, on so many different levels, to anybody who refuses to participate in the Salem-like atmosphere that is being systematically promoted in institutions like Yale, or Columbia, or Colorado. To support David Graeber is to say that we have had enough of this nation-wide persecution of leftist professors, accused of 'falsifying' their "Native American identity", of supporting anti-Semitism, or of being anarchists. To support David Graeber means to support academic freedom and to reject the conformist dictate of fear and obedience in the US academy.
Re: Defend David Graeber, Acclaimed Anarchist Scholar Fired by Yale
14 May 2005
"To support David Graeber is to say that we have had enough of this nation-wide persecution of leftist professors, accused of 'falsifying' their "Native American identity", of supporting anti-Semitism, or of being anarchists. To support David Graeber means to support academic freedom and to reject the conformist dictate of fear and obedience in the US academy."

Check the AIM intelligence website. Not only does Ward Churchill A) Not look Indian, he B) was kicked out of AIM, C) worked for Soldier of Fortune Magazine D) is an art forger and plagiarist E) is a flaming racist. Why connect him to David Graeber?

Secondly, what is this crap about anti-semitism? What does that have to do with anything here? Is it because his name is David? What is this garbage?
Also unlike Churchill
14 May 2005
Gaeber doesn't devalue the lives of people because of their jobs liek Churchill did with some of the victims of 9/11 (he was nice enough to let the cleaning staff off as collateral damage).

I don't consider Graeber in the same league with Churchill , and that is meant as a compliment to Graeber.
Re: An Interview with Professor David Graeber
18 May 2005
"To support David Graeber is to say that we have had enough of this nation-wide persecution of leftist professors, accused...of supporting anti-Semitism..."

Why is this in here you ask? Because leftist professors at Columbia have been accused by their students as being anti-Semitic. And, in case you have not noticed, the contemporary alphabet soup left--WWP, ISO, ANSWER, etc. is rife with anti-Semitism. It may not be obvious to you, but it is to most Jews in this country.