College Guide


April 16, 2013 6:03 PM Too Liberal to Be a Professor?

By Daniel Luzer

Despite the assertion of many conservatives that academia is saturated by political liberalism, there’s at least one very famous liberal anthropologist, David Graeber, who’s having a hard time getting a job in academia. Graeber, formerly an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale, couldn’t get hired in the United States.

Why? Well there’s this. According to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Who’s afraid of David Graeber? [Graeber’s latest book] The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement…discusses Mr. Graeber’s involvement in the Occupy Wall Street movement and the idea that principles drawn from anarchist theory—a wholesale rejection of current electoral politics, for starters, in favor of groups operating on the basis of consensus—offer an alternative to our present polity, which he calls “organized bribery” (or “mafia capitalism”).
Mr. Graeber is a star in the left-academic world. He played a part in establishing the nonhierarchical “organization” of the Occupy movement, in its early days in Manhattan, and his 500-plus-page Debt: The First 5,000 Years struck scholars for its verve and sweep. It made the case that lending and borrowing evolved out of humane, communitarian impulses in premodern societies—out of a free-floating interest in the common weal—and only later became institutionalized actions spawning moral guilt and legal punishment.

There’s liberal, and then there’s liberal. The Democratic-voting, global-warming-concerned, national-health care-supporting professor is a very common feature in American academia, but advocacy of “wholesale rejection of current electoral politics,” that’s something else.

Yale, where Graeber used to teach, controversially refused to rehire him in 2005. Other job applications in this country also went nowhere. It is notoriously difficult to get a tenure-track academic job in the United States, but one wouldn’t think it wouldn’t be quite so hard for Graeber, who is, according to the Chronicle possibly “the most influential anthropologist in the world.”

Anthropology has a reputation for being a discipline particularly saturated with leftists. According to Graeber, however:

I would say that what we see is a university system which mitigates against creativity and any form of daring. It’s incredibly conformist and it represents itself as the opposite, and I think this kind of conformism is a result of the bureaucratization of the university.

He might have a point. Then again, it might also be his reputation for being “difficult” that hasn’t been terribly helpful for job searches. The realities of academic human resources are so complex that it’s a little hard to figure out what’s happened in Graeber’s career in America.

But he’ll be okay. He recently secured a professorship at the London School of Economics. His exile continues, but as exiles go, it could be a lot worse.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Walker on April 16, 2013 7:22 PM:

    I sincerely doubt that his inability to get hired has anything to do with his politics. Indeed, from what I have read from him, I suspect the issue is his horrible scholarship.

    In his book Debt, Graeber makes the claim that "Apple Computers ... was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other's garages." That quote is just a marvel; think about how many things are wrong with it.

    Brad DeLong has an impressive take-down, exposing some the poor scholarship in that book.

  • TR on April 16, 2013 7:31 PM:

    Wow, Walker, that is some impressively wrong stuff there. How did that book even make it to print?

  • mathguy on April 17, 2013 5:59 PM:

    The Chronicle article is ridiculously obsequious. When someone makes the howling errors he did (hey Graeber: ever heard of Google?), he more than deserves what he got from DeLong.

  • Crissa on April 17, 2013 6:25 PM:

    Seems more like nit-picking, since Brad DeLong is ignoring that the operational board is as Graeber describes, as well as the appointments' backgrounds on the leading board.

    I know it hurts to get punched from the left, but complaining is hardly going to get you anywhere.

  • Brian R. on April 17, 2013 8:08 PM:

    Wait, so he was too liberal for academia ... which is why the famously radical New School passed on him? Really?

    It couldn't be that his scholarship was riddled with errors? Or that he was spending a great deal of time away from Yale engaged in activist causes that had nothing to do with his actual job? Or that he's apparently a bit of an egomaniac?

    I love his complaint that he applied to seventeen jobs and didn't get any of them, so therefore the entire U.S. and Canadian academic systems must be engaged in a massive left-wing conspiracy against him. Sure, that must be it. No junior scholar has ever applied for seventeen jobs and come up empty before. No sir. Never.

    It must be because he keeps it so real. Academia can't handle his truth! (And certainly not because much of his truth seems to be false.)

  • Shane Taylor on April 18, 2013 9:11 AM:

    David Graeber is an apologist for Occupy violence.

    Is that liberal?

  • Keith Humphreys on April 18, 2013 9:22 AM:

    ...forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other's garage

    I like the image of Wozniak flipping open his laptop to show Jobs his mock up of a strange new device called a personal computer.

  • hornblower on April 18, 2013 1:40 PM:

    I heard this fellow on PBS radio. He lost me when he talked about meetings with no leadership. Having been at many meeting, there are always people who talk much and say nothing.
    He also said we shouldn't vote but pick political leaders by lottery. My plumber would make a fine Sec. of Treasury.

  • Rich on April 18, 2013 3:58 PM:

    I wonder where this guy has applied and how he's approached it. Academic jobs in anthropology are tough to find. OTOH, someone who has taught at Yale, even if they've fallen from grace in some way, can find a job. It may not be at a school of comparable prestige, but it's likely to be at a place that's credible. Arguably the most dominant paradigm in anthropology is a close relative of critical studies which emphasizes political economy and puts more emphasis on looking at text than on field work. If people with those backgrounds can find jobs in academia, so can Graeber.

  • TR on April 18, 2013 4:11 PM:

    Rich: In the CHE comments (which Graber is obsessively posting in) someone asked him why he didn't apply for a broader set of jobs than the top postings, why he didn't pursue jobs at state schools, and he says he was told not to bother. They'd never take anyone from Yale.

    Which, if you look at the faculty roster for any state school anthropology department, is utter bullshit.

    Here, I pulled up SUNY-Albany at random. Two Yale PhDs on the faculty there, plus plenty of folks from Berkeley, UCLA etc.

    You could do this with any comparable state school, I bet.

    If he really wanted to teach -- and teach non-elite working-class folks like he says he does -- then there are plenty of options. It seems he'd rather posture than do that though.