Too Liberal to Be a Professor?

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

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