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David Graeber: Pirate Enlightenment

The great anthropologist is no more. He told tall tales, rejected authority, and favored egalitarianism and freedom. It is fitting, then, that the last of Graeber’s books to appear in English is about pirates.

Posted on February 8, 2023.

Madagascar, around 1700.

It is the Golden Age of Piracy. The northeastern coast of the island is home to hundreds of pirates seeking refuge from the British and French navies. Most crews have risen up against their captains, condemning themselves to death if they are ever caught. The pirates need a place to unload their booty and stock up for new raids. The island of Madagascar seems like the ideal place.

This is the breeding ground of the Enlightenment.

If this is the best of all possible worlds...

Look, I love David Graeber’s work. The anthropologist wrote in a casual, even funny tone of voice that nearly made you forget that there was a great mind at work. His readers are bombarded with facts ranging from erudite to inspiring, from infuriating to unexpected, but always in the most accessible way possible. As if he had joined you in a bar trying to piss off that one friend who works in finance.

You know the type I am talking about. The Leibnizian optimists who believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Sure, there are some problems: climate change, poverty, war, racism, sexism, people making loud phone calls — the list goes on. But the true optimist believes that these problems are either inevitable, or will eventually be solved by just continuing what we have been doing all along. Technology and green economic growth will stop climate change (any day now, I hope), racism will end once everyone has a university degree, and so on. Such believers in the never-ending march of progress essentially support the status quo. Which would be fine if this were truly, in Leibniz’ words, the best of all possible worlds.

An important strand of Graeber’s work has us question this assumption. Bullshit jobs is an ethnography of those modern-day Western workers whose jobs are, by their own admission, bullshit. Some polls indicate that this may concern up to forty percent of Dutch employees. Of course, bar-visiting finance-types might argue that capitalism does not create bullshit jobs in the private sector: market efficiencies would eliminate them. But that does not ring true to the office workers who can complete their daily tasks in an hour, their main purpose ostensibly being to make their managers seem important. It also does not ring true to the corporate lawyers whose only job is to ward off attacks by other firms’ lawyers.

And then there are bureaucrats. So. Many. Bureaucrats. Graeber’s Utopia of rules dives into the origins and the effects of bureaucracy. He argues that bureaucracy is very good at keeping violence just out of sight. Violence is of course the best way to make someone unfamiliar do what you want. Forms are a close second. They relieve us of the need to understand others, to empathise with them. While circumventing all this interpretative labor can sometimes be convenient, it also leads to a major loss in creativity. Graeber even goes so far as to argue that we have not produced major scientific advances for half a century, and that bureaucracy may be to blame.

All this calls that question from Voltaire’s Candide to mind: if this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?

... what are the others like?

The answer to Voltaire’s question comes from the major body of Graeber’s work.

One of his most popular books, Debt: the first 5000 years, dismantles what he calls the myth of barter. This myth holds that money was introduced to simplify barter between people, only to later be co-opted by states. In some way or another, this story made its way from Adam Smith all the way to present day economics textbooks — including, I might add, the one I had to buy as an undergraduate student. There is, sadly, no evidence to corroborate the myth of barter. What actually happened is best explained by the master himself (or by a lesser god if you don’t want to leave). Suffice it to say, reality is much more complicated, but thankfully, also much more interesting. Money — or debt, to be precise — was always entangled in local cultures and their histories, in the dynamics of class, ethnicity, religion, violence, sex, and death. None of these things made it into my economics textbook. Graeber rightfully denounces the laziness of economists unwilling to look beyond their own dogma and learn from the other social sciences.

His previous book, The Dawn of Everything, co-authored with David Wengrow, continues the shin-kicking. If the book’s subtitle is to be believed, The Dawn of Everything contains a new history of humanity. I feel I can be a bit critical here and state that the book falls short on that count. It sounds like the sort of thing an editor would add to your cover. But The Dawn of Everything is not a grand history of prehistoric societies. Rather, it is an attempt to refute many of our prejudices about such societies. In doing so, the authors show once more that history is much more complicated and interesting than we may have thought.

Does this sound familiar? Hunter-gatherers used to live in small, egalitarian bands. At some point, they invented agriculture. Because they didn’t want any slackers taking the crops they had labored over for months, they started calling land their own. This lead to the rise of private property, which needed to be guaranteed by force — hence, bureaucracy and states came into being. And states need someone in charge, which is where we get social classes from.

Many popular authors who have written about the history of humanity — Rousseau, but more recently also Harari, Diamond, and Pinker — follow more or less this narrative. Graeber and Wengrow use a massive list of recent archeological and anthropological evidence to slap them across the face. Their book lists many real-life deviations from this story: states without agriculture, cities without hierarchies, societies changing their structure with the seasons, and so on. The point is not just that the way we think of human history is wrong, it would also be impossible to come up with a neat alternative. There is not just one mistake in our common sense that the book proposes we fix. There is no grand narrative that could ever capture the complexity of human history. The world we live in today is not the end stage of some natural process; it is just one of many possible alternatives. We chose to create it, and we could choose another.

Pirates and the Enlightenment

Creating a new society is exactly what the pirates of Madagascar did. Pirate ships were more or less egalitarian places, the captain serving largely as an impressive figurehead for tall tales. In case there was some argument, the pirates used sortition to determine judges. They would listen to all parties and settle on a fine. Not only did the pirates show they did not need state-like structures, they also did not need God. Blasphemy seems to have been par for the course. The pirate settlements on Madagascar continued this practice. They slowly blended into the native Malagasy culture, where men and women enjoyed much more sexual freedom than in Europe, and where kings had no real power except to occasionally mobilise men for wars.

All this is described in detail in Pirate Enlightenment, or the real Libertalia, Graeber’s last book to appear in English. (Given that he passed away over two years ago, I feel somewhat confident he will stop publishing soon.) What makes these pirates even more interesting is that contemporary European states received envoys from them. Those were likely frauds, but they were taken quite seriously at the time: Peter the Great even contemplated an alliance with the pirates. The envoys brought stories about exotic pirate kingdoms, exposing Europeans to the concepts of liberty and secularism that they would later claim for themselves, calling it the Enlightenment.

Seems like a stretch, right? The fact stories of pirate kingdoms were circulating in Europe at the time does not, by itself, nullify the contributions of European thinkers. Rest assured: the book does not claim that pirates on the Malagasy coast actually came up with the entire Enlightenment. It does question our assumption that the Enlightenment was an entirely European affair.

In a similar vein, The Dawn of Everything dedicates one of its best chapters to Kandiaronk, a Huron statesman who also visited Europe around the time of the pirate envoys. Huron society also featured the egalitarianism and freedom that Europe so sorely lacked. A book with Kandiaronk’s criticisms of European culture was widely read in Europe’s coffee houses at the time, but largely forgotten today.

Considering the perspectives of pirates, the Malagasy, or native Americans can make our historiography less Eurocentric. Of course non-Europeans had political thoughts, even very profound ones. We’re just not used to hearing about them, and the worlds they inspired.

The politics of imagination

Back to Voltaire’s question. Graeber’s corpus not only captures the pain and drudgery of modern live, it also presents many societies and individuals who are more interesting than we, quite literally, could ever imagine. Graeber effectively pushes the boundaries of our imagination. In doing so, he manages to turn Voltaire’s question on its head: if all these other worlds are possible, why would this one be the best?

Answer: it isn’t.

David Graeber was not only a prominent scholar. He was also a political activist and a well-known anarchist. This shines through in his writing, which simultaneously makes us question our society and provides a glimpse of alternatives. In the end, we have to concede that human societies are not governed by any natural laws to speak of; we are free to create the society we want. With all these options open to us, why would we not choose something better?

So get angry, protest, reject it all. Be human, be free. Become a pirate.