Don Kalb: HAU not: For David Graeber and the anthropological precariate

When HAU was launched, my grad students at Central European University were celebrating. Open access! Finally, a breach in the wall that separated the haves from the have-nots. Their local universities in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe hardly had the resources to pay for these Western journals offered at extortionate prices by the likes of Elsevier, Springer, Oxford, Chicago. Indeed, even CEU did not have sufficient means to pay all the subscriptions that scholars were asking for. Now the have-nots would finally have unlimited access. More, the HAU journal preached what it imagined itself to embody: self-conscious intellectual revolution in the apparently newly found horizontalist mode: Occupy anthropology! For the intellectual assertion of the commons! My rightly rebellious students loved it. And went on producing some great open access undertakings—but not in academia—that helped to feed the ongoing mobilizations in their countries (most prominently: They had all my support while we continued to disagree about HAU.

I had made an academic journal for 25 years. With hard work from many people and ultimately the marketing, technical, and financial support of a small and dedicated publisher, Berghahn, we had turned it from a minor Dutch comradely undertaking into one of the very few recognized international journals in anthropology that have ever emerged from the non-Anglo world. I knew what I was talking about, when, as a Leftist anthropologist, I told my students that OA in academia might perhaps be a possibility, but that it was much more likely to become based in endless exploitation of precarious academics on every level. And that it would serve to fortify the prestige economies of the old Ivy League–Oxbridge axis (a metaphor, of course) and the anthropologies they had generated and upheld. I told them it was an unsustainable proposition to run a journal without money, unless you could trade on old prestige and turn that into the fictitious accumulation of a pyramid scheme for a few years. I explained to them how much dedicated work a journal needs. Not just once, perpetually, without stop, no opt-outs. Not just any work, but dedicated work, requiring training and experience to perform it efficiently and reliably. This includes lots of time consuming collaborative ingenuity. And that no one will ever really thank you for that. For all these reasons, people had to be paid, not in academic IOUs or status conferral by association, but as much as possible in something as banal as money. I told them to learn to think not as consumers on a global academic market but as intellectual producers and research workers in the extremely uneven and exploitative world of international academia and its fading chimera of middle-class creative lives. They did not buy it. And they did not like me saying it.

When HAU approached my department, as it did others, with the request to transfer to the journal close to a $1,000 a year (if I remember well) and so buy a seat on an undefined “board,” I blocked the effort of several junior colleagues who desperately wished to occupy that seat on the department’s cost. Again, I was not liked for apparently sabotaging an imagined boost to their careers. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Manchester, Oslo, Bergen, Vienna, and many more departments in Europe and the United States thought like my junior colleagues (Bergen and Oslo stopped paying in 2017 after requiring da Col to give more details about expenditures, which never happened). The CEU library was even ready to transfer a yearly amount that it would never have been willing to pay as a subscription, three or four times more than what a decent journal costs, just in awe to the cherished OA idea. Exploitation of aspiring young, precarious academics was now combined with outright extortion of institutions who were ready to pay up to be allowed to bask themselves in the old prestige of a Cambridge-Chicago axis. The HAU pyramid scheme was evolving.

We now know that the executive man at the top was all but kind and honest. It is good that his excesses have been exposed in a remarkable anthropological #MeToo moment. Interestingly, this was allowed to come into the open through an informal alliance between David Graeber, who was crudely disposed of his role as “Editor at Large” after clashing with da Col, and the exploited workers. On their own, Graeber or the HAU precariate would never have gotten so much public attention. It was their alliance that allowed Graeber an attack that was not just selfish, and Graeber’s gesture allowed the frustrations of the precariate to be publicized and get attention.

But may I say that I am not surprised? What astounds me much more than the exposure of the figure of the asshole (as Elizabeth Dunn usefully summarized the character traits at issue) is the sheer cunning of the con man who—I say this with respect—even without the necessary degrees succeeded in transforming an unsustainable undertaking into a fully fledged pyramid scheme that breathed hope and spelled new magic for a happily superstitious discipline in very uncertain times. He did so by combining crude exploitation and extortion with a smartly set up, effervescent, and continuously expanding prestige economy. This lured ever-more players into the game. There was now a visible multiplication of academic value going on, an accumulation that was deliberately wielded toward realizing exciting broad goals. The project was nothing less than a rush to offer anthropology a renewed connection with what the discipline in these years fantasized as its original destiny (wrongly, as Patrick Neveling has stressed). With Mauss, who was inordinately elevated on a pedestal, suggested so by David Graeber, this was imagined to be something like the wholesome outside to capitalism, colonialism, exploitation, and hierarchy. Conforming the ideal of OA itself, anthropology was reimagined as a horizontal commons energized by an intellectual alter-politics embedded in alter-socialities of the Strathern kind, nothing less than a gift from humanity itself to the world. Willingly flirting with all the fashions and sentiments of the 2010s—from gifts and reciprocities to ontology and actor-network theory—and shamelessly aspiring to define the cannon and nurture further disciplinary musealization, the project assembled multiple dozens of senior anthropologists and hundreds of aspiring young scholars into a discipline-wide force.

When I say this, I am not trying to blame the con man. After all, he did not fake it, no effort to hide. The first and only book in the HAU series of anthropological keywords was literally about fakes, edited by da Col. Nor did he dissemble that he never completed his PhD. Rather, I am pointing at the wider discipline that actively engaged in making the bubble possible. This concerns first of all the many senior and very senior academics who delighted in being put on HAU’s resounding honor lists or showcased in its sprawling activities. I must confess I am also dismayed by the many young academics who felt that the renewed capture of the field by old elitist anthropology was genuinely a hip and swinging event, indeed, a revolution. They all helped to energize this pyramid scheme to inflate and acquire shocking proportions. Just before the bubble blew, it had become sheer omnipresent.

And then it blew. Significantly, only at the moment that final relief from the unsustainability that OA had thrown on it had arrived, with the move toward Chicago University Press and the end of open access. The rottenness was exposed just after the deal with Chicago was done. Could it not have come half a year earlier? I don’t think so.

Should we not, beyond pointing at the crude behavior of the key actor—which is in most aspects hardly unique, as Dunn also underlines—begin to ask why it is that only in our discipline the combined impact of the advent of OA and the revolts of 2011 has been so forcefully and imaginatively consequential? Why not among the geographers or the sociologists? And what about the world out there while the HAU party was going on? Similar speculative and disruptive bubbles. These have also been years of serious political defeats, reversals of 2011, that may have momentous consequences in the years ahead, hardly studied as such by the revolutionary HAU crowd (I appreciate the travels of Graeber and Gershon on the exploitative labor markets, but the contradictions are much and much larger than that). Are there no inner connections here between absences and presences? And, if one seeks a Left emancipative politics, should one then not organize oneself commensurately, without insisting on “radical sacrifice” from young precarious foot soldiers in order to produce value that is then extracted and valorized by others higher up in the game and rarely given back? Should we not require our horizontalist gurus to take some responsibility over their organizational offspring? OA has lent itself perfectly to brute academic capitalism and hierarchy, just as internet platforms in other sectors have not brought the horizontalist information society promised by early internet utopias. On the contrary. OA is one of the academic forms in which the disruption generated by the current techno-financialized rounds of creative destruction and monumental forms of rent taking by capital in the wider society appear. We need theories that prepare us for such surprises within academia and outside. Is the HAU pantheon of any help here? My baseline is: there is no outside. Deal with that.

Don Kalb is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen, and Senior Researcher at Utrecht University. He leads the Frontiers of Value project in Bergen and co-leads, with Chris Hann, the Financialization Project at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle. He is the founding editor of Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology and Focaalblog.

Cite as: Kalb, Don. 2018. “HAU not: For David Graeber and the anthropological precariate.” FocaalBlog, 26 June.