Keir Martin: Great Resignations and Bad Colleagues: Reflections on an Anarchist Anthropology

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is a book that fizzes with a multiplicity of ideas; so many that they seem on occasion to overgrow the boundaries of the text. In the text, we see many themes that were to be developed in more detail in later years, in other books such as Debt: The First 5 000 years (2011), Bullshit Jobs (2018)and his posthumous magnum opus, co-authored with David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). All of the different overflowing themes share a common underlying thread, however; namely a desire to learn from and explore the multiplicity of alternatives to hierarchy and competition that are already in existence, often underneath our noses, rather than lay down a fixed template for resistance. Rather than trying to re-solve the Leninist question of What is to be done?, David continuously asked us to reflect upon the implications of What is being done?. It is in this regard that David’s anarchism and his anthropology most clearly complement each other. By slowing down and paying attention to the variety of ways in which people step outside and subvert hierarchy in order to live a life more worth living, anthropology might become the liberatory discipline par excellence – if only its practitioners were able to realise the potential power within their practice.

Let me take one example from Fragments. On page 60, David discusses the Italian autonomist theory of “revolutionary exodus,” a theory itself inspired by a previous refusal of large numbers of young Italians to engage in wage-labour. David (Graeber 2004, 60) writes that, “[…] in all this Italy seems to have acted as a kind of laboratory for future social movements, anticipating trends that are now beginning to happen on a global scale.” If this was true when David wrote Fragments back in 2004, how much more is it today, when the so-called Great Resignation poses the greatest threat to the return of business as usual in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Julie Andrews from the Sound of Music standing in front of a mountain, arms outstretched as she twirls happily. Meme text reads "This is me quitting my job."
Image 1: Viral internet meme conveying the happiness of resigning

A quick scan of headlines on National Public Radio in the US tells the story. “Business should be booming – if only there were enough workers for the job”, or “As the Pandemic recedes, millions of workers are saying I quit”. And why are they quitting? “I think the pandemic has changed my mindset in a way, like I really value my time,” says Jonathan Caballero, a 27-year-old software engineer who previously commuted 45 minutes each way to work on a daily basis. NPR reports that now he “believes that work has to accommodate life.” Alyssa Casey, a researcher for the federal government states that, “I think the pandemic just allowed for time. You just have more time to think about what you really want.” And NPR reports of 42-year-old restaurant manager Jeremy Golembiewski and his decision to join the Great Resignation:

“In the months that followed, Golembiewski’s life changed. He was spending time doing fun things like setting up a playroom in his garage for his two young children and cooking dinner for the family. At age 42, he got a glimpse of what life could be like if he didn’t have to put in 50 to 60 hours a week at the restaurant and miss Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas morning with his family. ‘I want to see my 1-year-old and my 5-year-old’s faces light up when they come out and see the tree and all the presents that I spent six hours at night assembling and putting out,’ says Golembiewski, who got his first restaurant job at 16 as a dishwasher at the Big Boy chain in Michigan.”

Golembiewski apparently comes from humble origins, but even high-end executives are not immune from the humanising influence of the lockdown. Will Station, a vice-president at Boeing, is reported as becoming “emotional thinking about how much [of his children’s lives] he’s missed and how much he’s getting to experience now.” “I got to see my kids and see their world in a way that I’ve never experienced before,” he says. “It’s very special.” “Even with all the chaos, this has been a bonus year for me.”

NPR also reports in June that people quitting jobs in normal times would signal a healthy economy. But these are not “normal times”; the pandemic led to the worst recession in US history and still a record 4 million quit their jobs in April. The situation has continued in the months since. “The Great Resignation appears to be getting worse” complain Kylie Logan and Lance Lambert on the Fortune news website – who, for some reason, seem unhappy that thousands of working people such as Station and Golembiewski are discovering the joy of spending irreplaceable time with their growing children. In September, a new record of 4.4 million resignations were recorded.

The Great Resignation is one of those phenomena that shows most clearly the interconnection of aspects of life that are often kept conceptually separate. We see in the examples above not simply an individualistic “take this job and shove it” kind of mood, but also the ways in which the refusal of work seems to open the possibility for reimagining the possibilities of gendered relations of kinship and care, which anthropologists have long argued are intimately and unavoidably entwined with the world of paid employment. There was quite a bit of talk in last week’s seminar on Debt of the way in which David was sceptical of the kind of “great transformation” picture of the emergence of capitalist modernity that is an otherwise conventional framing for political economic anthropologists. And indeed, in Fragments (2004, 46), David is quite explicit about this scepticism, stating that,

 “[…] almost everyone agrees that at somewhere in the sixteenth, or seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries, a Great Transformation occurred, that it occurred in Western Europe and its settler colonies, and that because of it, we became ‘modern’. And that once we did, we became a fundamentally different sort of creature than anything that had come before. But what if we kicked this whole apparatus away?”

It’s worth making the point however, that David’s argument was not, as he put it, “that nothing important has happened over the past 500 years, any more than I’m arguing that cultural differences are unimportant.” It was rather that once we drop the assumption that this always has to be the starting framing of analysis, and once we decide to “at least entertain the notion that we aren’t quite so special as we like to think, we can also begin to think about what really has changed and what hasn’t.” Alternatives to what we think we are can potentially to be found in our present daily practice; not necessarily to be sought before the total transformation of the rise of capitalism or after the great transformation of the total revolution that is yet to come. David was concerned with the way in which the fetishisation of something called the “market” or the “economy” as separate from the rest of society prioritised particular relational obligations over others – not least the way in which life accommodates work not the other way round, as critiqued by Caballero. This is in many regards an eminently Polanyian critique of the rhetorical disembedding of the market economy from society and the consequent setting up of that market economy as society’s driving institution. And he was always keen to point out that in our daily practice market rationality relies upon – or is, in Polanyi’s (1944) terms, still embedded within – other moral perspectives and practices. Both David and Polanyi knew that any transformation that has occurred in recent centuries – great or otherwise – could never create an economy with the people left out, and that any attempt to do so was doomed to be nothing but a shallow liberal utopia.

Although the Great Resignation came as a surprise to many, one suspects it would not have come as a surprise to David, nor to Polanyi, who might well have seen it as an example of the famous “double movement” by which society, in this case in the shape of Golembiewski, Station, and millions more like them, protect themselves from a disembedded market morality and prioritise the reproduction of persons over the production of objects and economic value. For David it would have been further proof, if more were needed, that something radically different to what we think we are now has been within us and in front of us all along. We might well find radical differences before the great transformation, after the revolution or at the end of a tributary of the Amazon River, but we don’t necessarily have to. We’re as likely to find them in an Amazon distribution centre – if we know how to look. David was fascinated by the grand historical or reassuringly exotic ethnographic examples that have long been the stock in trade of anthropology– he wouldn’t have spent so long conducting fieldwork on magic in Madagascar or researching the role of wampum in early American colonial contacts if he wasn’t. But he also pointed out that assuming that these were the only potential points from which radical difference could be observed meant that we likely overlook them in other spaces.

David felt that the most common use of anthropology by radicals and anarchists, the vision of the egalitarian hunter-gatherer paradise, was of limited value. “I do not think we’re losing much if we admit that human beings never really lived in the Garden of Eden,” he argues in Fragments, again presaging the more fully worked out and demonstrated argument underpinning The Dawn of Everything. Examples from different times and places are not necessarily to be used as examples or templates of “anarchist societies” to contrast what David calls “imaginary totalities” to our own. Whatever new forms of sociality you and I and Station and Golembiewski and the rest of us will build, it is unlikely to look much like !Kung San or the Baining. Such romantic appropriations are vulnerable to a number of entirely reasonable conservative objections. So, in order to give up hierarchy, we have to give up antibiotics, central heating and clean water too? The alternative that you have to offer Station and Golembiewski is that they establish an imaginary totality called an “anarchist society” that goes endlessly wandering across the Orange County in search of nuts and berries? If this is the only or the main use that radicals and anarchists can make of the anthropological record, then doesn’t it implicitly accept or at the very least strengthen the teleology that The Dawn of Everything sets out to weaken – namely that even if our past might have been a Rousseauian paradise rather than a Hobbesian nightmare – that social complexity and technology by their very definition require ever more complex and technologically developed forms of monitoring, control, discipline, hierarchy and oppression? Instead, if, as David suggests in Fragments, we “knock down the walls’ in our thought that separate complex from simple (or the West from the Rest) than this “can allow us to see this history as a resource in much more interesting ways.”

So, when David introduces the example of the Italian autonomists’ “engaged withdrawal” mentioned earlier, he does it immediately after a discussion of Kasja Eckholm’s analysis of the Kongo monarchy as an empty shell that people simply withdrew from. What relevance might this historical practice have for today, David asks? Taking the walls of separation between Italian modernity and Kongolese non-modernity as our assumed starting point means that we almost inevitably find ourselves finding the essential radical difference that we assume they must express. But knocking down the conceptual walls enables us to see the shared desire for greater freedom and the reproduction of valued human relations that they embody. Throughout Fragments, David uses such examples, but in a manner designed to stress the ways in which they might, to some extent at least, express such a common shared desire. Differences exist – differences of perspective, power, and privilege. For an anarchist like David, this almost went without saying. But they are differences that come in and out of being in shifting contexts, not the expression of ahistorical essentialised cultural difference that could only ever be understood by a small coterie of scholars who would be able to see over the wall that separates West from Rest. They are often the differences that emerge within and from oneself, such as the shift in perspective when men such as those mentioned above see their children and their own lives in a different light and attempt to withdraw from the obligations that seek to nullify that new perspective. And if we can’t see how radical and important that is, this is simply because so many of us have naturalised and now fail to even notice the bizarre character of capitalist cosmology. It’s a cosmology that insists that we must believe in the existence of a mysterious cosmic invisible hand that will distribute goods in a fair and efficient manner to us – at least if we worship it properly by (among other things) sacrificing our children to it, in the form of giving up so much precious life-enriching time with them in order to appease its demands, as made manifest in “the labour market.” It’s a cosmology as wild and fascinating as anything else we find in the ethnographic record. And David would point out that the rejection of it that we see today is therefore a potentially profound and revolutionary one, but one that is far less likely to be “taken seriously” in some corners of a discipline still wedded to what Arjun Appadurai famously referred to as “sightings of the savage” as its default mode of intellectual or political critique.

I should note in passing that David would not have been too pleased with me for wheeling out Appadurai in defence of his position. It is fair to say that David was not a great fan. Two weeks ago, Chris Gregory mentioned having initially thought that David was something of a “bullshit artist.” I can confirm the truth of this account. The first time I met David was at a conference in Cambridge about 10 years ago – Chris, David and I were billeted together at a college some distance from the other participants and so spent quite a bit of time together. Chris would complain to me after breakfast that it was bad enough having to listen to the man bullshit endlessly at the conference, but having to endure it first thing in the morning before he’d even woken up properly was another thing altogether. And then when Chris was out of the room, David started talking to me about how thrilled he was to be spending time with the author of Gifts and Commodities (1982), one of his favourite books,and how misguided and intellectually dishonest he felt that Appadurai’s critique of it in The Social Life of Things (1986)had been. It was a slightly awkward situation to manage, although I wasn’t surprised to hear that Chris had come round a few years later. David was on occasion a difficult man to converse with – especially over breakfast – but I knew that the quality and ambition of David’s work would prove irresistible to Chris in the long run.

In following years, David would occasionally ask us rhetorically, “Why do they always refer to me as ‘the anarchist anthropologist,’ why not refer to Appadurai as ‘the neoliberal anthropologist’?” It’s just as accurate but doesn’t get constantly attached to his name as a pejorative in the same way. Of course, David knew that he was being slightly disingenuous here – Appadurai hadn’t authored a book entitled Fragments of a Neoliberal Anthropology, so whether or not David was correct to label him as such, it’s not surprising that such a label was less easily attached to him than it was to David. But the underlying point that David was making – that his own scholarship was endlessly and subtly sneered at and undermined by repeatedly introducing him as such, even when it wasn’t necessarily relevant – was valid and important to make. And it was typical of David that rather than shy away from the association with anarchist theory – that he knew would be used to belittle him and his work – he instead chose to take the prejudice on head first, early in his career, before he had the security of tenure.

Image 2: Book cover of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

Fragments is a book that I found a little frustrating on first read. I found the way in which it jumped from point to point and back again a little – well – fragmentary. Much as I am sure that David was aware that there was a certain contradiction in the author of a book entitled Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, complaining that people referred to him as “the anarchist anthropologist,” I was aware that I was kind of missing the point in my frustration at the fragmentary nature of a book with the same title. I felt myself to be in a similar position to the kind of American tourist one occasionally overhears in Copenhagen, loudly complaining that the statue of the Little Mermaid is kind of small. On second reading, however, it went a lot better. As with a conversation with David in real life, one simply had to allow oneself to go with the flow – and if one did, it was a conversational experience like no other. Like Chris, I felt David to be a little much on first meeting – particularly before I’d managed to get to the coffee machine. But in later years, as I got to know him better, I looked forward to those wonderful rambling conversations that went from Ray Davies, through Lukacs on to Rodney Dangerfield and then back home via a detour to discuss 18th century Madagascan pirates.

I think David’s intellectual range sometimes irritated those who envied it and wanted to pull him back into the narrow arid scripture scholarship of the intellectual silos that they had settled for and claimed as their little empires of dirt. The kinds of people who write things in peer-review such as “I can’t believe that the author of this paper on value seems totally unaware of Malinowski’s seminal footnote on Trobriand yam exchange from 1937.” I suspect that what upset these kinds of people most about David was that they knew he probably was aware of the precious little nuggets of knowledge that they had devoted their lives to curating; it was just that – as he always did – he had chosen to go his own way and make his own connections. And in many regards, that was David’s greatest gift to the academy. This is a profession in which success is often driven by networks, nepotism and ass-kissing more than the alleged liberal values of free thought and intellectual inquiry. And in such an environment, David stood out by his consistent refusal to do anything but his own thing.

I’m sure it made him a frustrating colleague at times. But as we all know the category of “good colleague’ is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it means the person who turns their marking in on time and I would not be surprised to hear from colleagues that sometimes David’s contempt for what he might view as the “bullshit” parts of his job left others picking up the pieces. But let us also remember that all too often “being a good colleague’ means being the person who turns a blind eye to bad behaviour and abuse on the part of senior or powerful colleagues out of loyalty to the institution. After years in this profession, my skin tends to crawl when I hear senior colleagues praise the virtues of collegiality– my first instinct is to wonder whose body are we burying or whose mouth are we taping up today? I remain immensely grateful to David for consistently prioritising being a good person over being a good colleague – in this regard at least – and I still, on occasion, miss him very much. His free and sometimes disrespectful spirit is precisely what a profession that all too often demands deference to status, rather than engagement and fresh ideas, needs. And with Fragments we have something that keeps some of that spirit alive – irreverent, bursting with ideas, and most of all principled – whether we all agree with all those principles or not. There’s a spirit of freedom in this short book that senior academics often tell us that we need to squeeze out of ourselves as the price of admission. The greatest gift that David gave us with Fragments is the enduring proof that we don’t have to listen to them.

Keir Martin is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo and was previously Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. His work has focussed on contests over the limits of reciprocal obligation and their role in shaping the boundaries of businesses and other social entities. He conducted his main fieldwork in East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. This work culminated in the publication of his 2013 monograph, The Death of the Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots: Custom and Conflict in East New Britain. He is currently leading a research project on the spread of psychotherapy among the growing middle-classes of Asia. He has published on the contemporary global political economy in a wide variety of academic and media outlets, including The Financial Times and The Guardian.

This text was presented at David Graeber LSE Tribute Seminar on ‘Anarchist Anthropology’.


Appadurai, A. 1986. The social life of things: commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge university press.

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

Graeber, D. 2021. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing.

Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. 2021. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. London, UK: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Gregory, C. 1982. Gifts and commodities. London: Academic Press.

Polanyi, K. 1944. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Cite as: Martin, Keir. 2022. “Great Resignations and Bad Colleagues: Reflections on an Anarchist Anthropology.” FocaalBlog, 13 January.


Keir Martin: Great Resignations and Bad Colleagues: Reflections on an Anarchist Anthropology