Inside Story

A reservoir of possibilities

David Graeber’s latest book isn’t his best, but still we love it

Holly High & Joshua O. Reno Books 28 July 2023 2704 words

“I’m a scholar who subscribes to anarchist principles and occasionally acts on them”: anthropologist David Graeber. ullstein bild via Getty Images

In 2019, the year before his death, David Graeber published Les pirates des lumières ou la veritable histoire de libertalia, the French translation (by Philippe Mortimer) of a book that hadn’t appeared in English. The publisher was an obscure press serendipitously called Libertalia, the name given to a putative pirate utopia described in Charles Johnson’s 1724 General History of the Pyrates.

Now Graeber’s book on pirates has been published in English, and unlike many of his earlier (and, we would suggest, finer) works it is likely to be available in a bookshop near you. But those picking up Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia as a first foray into Graeber’s work may be left wondering what all the fuss is about. After some promising passages in the introduction, the vast bulk of Pirate Enlightenment is preoccupied with reframing the history of a small area on Madagascar’s coast.

Though it is evidently part of an intensive, erudite and carefully thought-out argument, Graeber’s exposition comes with muted academic credentials. The referencing style makes it hard to follow exactly who said what in this debate, at least on our reading, and there is no map or glossary. As with conversations between twitchers, part of the pleasure is in the seemingly arcane detail, but this pleasure is not easily shared by outsiders.

The details Graeber patently enjoys concern Betsimisaraka (an apparently egalitarian settlement that sometimes masqueraded as a kingdom), Zanahary (meaning “God” and also the name of the heir of the imputed “King” of Betsimisaraka), mivorika (a ritual practice) and Zana-Malata (descendants of pirates living in Madagascar today). Graeber proceeds as if a familiarity with and interest in these can be assumed, much as more conventional writers often assume readers are familiar with key European Enlightenment thinkers.

To continue the pirate metaphor, Pirate Enlightenment may leave many readers feeling marooned. That said, we are glad it was published. And glad we read it. Even if we still can’t say we thoroughly understand this period of Madagascar’s history, we did enjoy watching Graeber think about and through it.

Pirate Enlightenment is all we have of Graeber’s work on pirates, a topic that bookends his career. He first picked up the interest when he met descendants of pirates in Madagascar during his PhD fieldwork, and it again occupied him at the time of his death. But readers would certainly get more out of Pirate Enlightenment if they had a sense of the greater trajectory of Graeber’s work. A treasure map, of sorts.

O Captain! My Captain!

Holly remembers first reading Graeber in 2006 on a long-haul flight from New York to Bangkok. The book, published in 2004, was Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, and it seemed to break every rule of anthropological writing at that time. There was no ethnographic vignette. Ideas were presented simply. It was small enough to fit in your pocket. It was funny, and hopeful. It spoke directly, not to or through French theorists from the 1970s.

Holly was reading it because James C. Scott, a professor of politics at Yale, had told her he thought Graeber was a genius. Scott and Graeber had worked together at the university, but Graeber was dismissed the year before Holly arrived. As a freshly minted PhD graduate, she was electrified by even a second-order brush with genius. Fragments was electrifying, too. It had an “as if” quality: Graeber was writing about an anarchist anthropology, an anthropology that did not yet exist. He was writing as if it could exist, and should, a position that was radical for its time.

Josh’s first dose of Graeber was Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. This 2001 book felt like an invitation to the kind of discussion he had yearned to have with colleagues. Again there was an “as if” quality: Graeber spoke as if we all knew that a debate about value was raging, but in fact his work was part of bringing it into reality. Next on Josh and Holly’s reading list was Graeber’s 2007 Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, a book that succinctly encapsulated a vision for anthropology as a “reservoir of possibilities.”

This prefigurative quality to Graeber’s early books was part of his practice as an anarchist anthropologist. At the time of his death, the tagline on his Twitter account commanded: “I see anarchism as something you do not an identity so don’t call me the anarchist anthropologist.” Perhaps the closest he came to conceding to the label was when he said, “I’m a scholar who subscribes to anarchist principles and occasionally acts on them.”

Yet Fragments still stands as the most comprehensive attempt to think about anthropology and anarchism together. Even if he never aspired to be “the” anarchist anthropologist, Graeber’s work did eventually come to constitute an example of actually existing anarchist anthropology. In that sense, Fragments can be read as a gesture towards an anarchist anthropology yet to come, and Graeber’s later work as bringing that anthropology into being. It outlined what Graeber saw as the three most important directions in anarchism at the time of writing: the anti-globalisation movement, the struggle against work, and democracy. He went on to write an ethnography of the first, and a popular salvo about each of the other two.

Fragments also identified a new theory of the state and authority as a priority; and he went on to co-author On Kings with Marshall Sahlins (in our estimation this is perhaps his best but most overlooked book). And it proposed that anthropologists can find inspiration for conceptual work in the ideas and practices of activists; in his later intellectual work, he elaborated on the anti-globalisation movement’s use of “play” as a practice, and the Occupy movement’s practice of “care.”

In this way, Fragments can be read as a recipe for the career that was to come, a foreshadowing of the general shape of the contributions he would make. Graeber’s anthropology seems to have grown to fit his own sense of what an anarchist anthropology would look like.

He did this work despite spending half of that career feeling as if no one was particularly interested in what he was up to. From the publication of Value in 2001 until Debt: The First 5000 Years appeared in 2011, he was relatively unknown, even in his own discipline. He had published two very long ethnographies (Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar in 2007 and Direct Action: An Ethnography in 2009) that demonstrated his commitment to ethnography as detailed description as well as the more theoretical books about value, anarchism and possibilities. But from his perspective at least, these seemed to fall on deaf ears.

It was a situation he wore heavily. He described to both Josh and Holly a sense of “exile” from US academia, a sentiment he also aired in his books. He found refuge within London’s system of universities, where he could at least work but had to struggle with extensive administrative work.

Debt, largely written at Goldsmiths College, was the first book he produced in exile. From its publication to his death in 2020 at the age of fifty-nine, his career entered a new era — one he would barely live long enough to enjoy — in which his combined activism and intellectual work earned him global recognition as a public intellectual. Thrilled, he spent 2011 busy figuring out his next project. He applied for and received a Leverhulme grant to return to Madagascar but instead went to work with the activist group Adbusters in Canada and then helped with the Occupy Wall Street action. While he is often credited with coming up with the slogan “We are the 99 per cent,” he only claimed to be part of the conversation during which the slogan emerged.

Graeber never aspired to be a captain — of a ship or an activist movement or an intellectual sectarian group. Our evocation of the Walt Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is tongue-in-cheek; Graeber wrote several very entertaining parodies of sectarian groups that had arranged themselves around a Great Man and the ideas attributed to him. Instead, he aspired to be part of important conversations. And, as we both knew Graeber before he was a well-known public intellectual, we do miss the conversations with our friend.

In that sense, the reference to the poem is not so misplaced. We believe the best way to “Walk the deck my Captain lies” (to quote Whitman further) is to carry on the conversation. We don’t propose to create another “-ism” based on Graeber’s oeuvre, or an awkward adjective from his name. Instead, we believe that anthropology and activism after David Graeber can be — and we hope will be — carried on by all of us from our own unique perspectives, with purpose, and in dialogue with one another. In short, it won’t be him, it will be all of us.

X marks the spot

The conclusion to Pirate Enlightenment begins with the opening of a Malagasy folktale: “God and Man were inseparable companions. One day God said to Man: why don’t you go for a walk around on earth for a while so we can find some new topics for conversation.”

We wish that Graeber had translated his French source in gender-neutral English, or at least explained his choices, because surely what he means by “God” and “Man” is the deity and humanity. Leaving this quibble aside, the quotation foreshadows some of the most important themes of his conclusion: “conversation is always one of the principal forms of human activity everywhere — all humans, throughout history, have divided their time largely between working, playing, resting, and discussing things with one another.”

Graeber used this foundational assumption to reread existing evidence about the imputed egalitarian pirate settlements in Madagascar, which had previously been dismissed by historians as tall tales. These become thinkable when one assumes these people were just as capable as experimenting with new political possibilities as the European Enlightenment thinkers who came after them.

Accordingly, Graeber reads the egalitarian settlement of Betsimisaraka not as an unexplained anomaly but as a great achievement made by mature people who knew of different political possibilities from around the world, including aboard pirate ships. If this enclave was cut off from the slave trade and hierarchical rule that was so evident elsewhere, it was no mistake. It was the result of an intentional experiment in political possibilities.

Likewise, he asks us to understand the Enlightenment not as a Western invention that sprang sui generis from a few Great Men’s minds, but as the result of a conversation that involved many parties. Quite possibly, these conversations involved stories about Betsimisaraka, even if these were garbled in the confused accounts of pirates.

For readers with some knowledge of anthropology, it might help to think here of Marshall Sahlins’s “structure of the conjuncture.” Like Sahlins’s much earlier account of the arrival of Captain Cook’s ships in Hawaii, Graeber argues that when pirate ships reached the coast of Madagascar they didn’t so much instigate change as become incorporated into an ongoing process of political experimentation. Part of this process — as news, scandal and outlandish tale — made its way back into the salon conversations and writings now associated with the Enlightenment.

At the start of an epilogue to his 1996 dissertation (largely about history in Madagascar), Graeber defines political action as “actions intended to influence people who are not present when the action is being taken.” He differentiates this from political power, or “the ability to stop others from acting that way.” Most accounts of history privilege political power, according to his definition, meaning they are about domination and control.

Pirates never had empires or dominions as such, but they did spread stories. In Graeber’s assessment, “Pirate ships surrounded themselves with stories of daring and terror, one could even say, armed and armoured themselves with such stories, but on board ship, they seem to have conducted their affairs through conversation, deliberation and debate.” These stories resulted in actions: people all over the world became afraid to ship the ill-gotten gains of colonialism.

Centuries later, the stories still circulate. Arguably like Graeber himself, pirates made use of this very ordinary capacity for conversation to speak as if another world did exist, and as a way of bringing alternatives into being. Graeber understood the Enlightenment as this kind of conversation — one that began as a pleasurable pursuit and ended up changing the world. At least some of that change was emancipatory.

Dialogism was basic to Graeber’s work. It informed his understanding of human nature, his approach to ethnography, his politics and his vision for anthropology. (We detail this conclusion in our forthcoming book, As If Already Free: Anthropology and Activism After David Graeber.) A commitment to dialogism means recognising that ideas and insights never emerge whole from the mind of one thinker. Graeber understood ideas as learned from and shared in ongoing dialogue with others, including everyday people. That included his engagement with contemporaries, but also those who came before and, he hoped, those still to come.

Graeber often approached conversation as a form of play in which new and possibly previously unthought of possibilities could be toyed with, and sometimes even come into being. As he wrote in the preface of Pirate Enlightenment, “I hope the reader has as much fun as I did.” He was partly inspired to take play seriously after his involvement with the alter-globalisation movement, which deployed giant puppets and other playful imagery. He used play to think through social possibility: often free play generates its own rules (play with no rules is not fun for long) and sometimes is the beginning of a game which solidifies into a new enduring arrangement.

This processual view of human being, which he once described as “Heraclitean,” assumes that “what is most essential about human beings is not what they are at any given moment, but what they have the capacity to become.” It follows from this view of human experience that social movements and revolutions cannot be a European invention. In the Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), he and co-author David Wengrow argue that all people everywhere have the capacity for intentional social change, and this fact likely explains much of the diversity we see in the ethnographic record, history and prehistory. In Pirate Enlightenment, he argues that there is no reason to assume that fables and facts about pirates weren’t part of the political experiments of the Enlightenment.

He believed that people, everywhere, are capable of radical self-conscious experimentation. Moments of play, temporary rules or social movements can solidify so that “we tend to become slaves of our own creations.” He was not opposed to rules: he saw them as an inevitable part of everyday human experience and a necessary part of any play that remains fun long-term. His vision for freedom was not a freedom from rules, but rather a freedom to choose the rules one lives by, and to live in awareness that one has that potential, knowing new rules could always be erected and old ones torn down. In this sense, Pirate Enlightenment can be read as continuing themes that are more fully developed in his other works.

Pirate Enlightenment also introduces themes not yet fully developed. The idea that the control of women’s sexuality sits at the core of inequality but can also be resisted with fundamentally egalitarian consequences is an important thread, though to our reading it appears nascent. Perhaps he would have developed this more in later works.

Looked at this way, it is heartbreaking to be left wondering what we lost when Graeber left far too soon. Looked at another way, though, the conversation goes on. His books can be read as invitations to conversation. If Pirate Enlightenment is a desert island, it is also a sandpit for play, a creative space for generating new ideas. Indeed, this could be said about all his work. As we hope it will be. •

Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia
By David Graeber | Allen Lane | $35 | 208 pages