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Never Fully European


David Graeber’s Final Books

David Graeber’s death in September 2020 was a tragedy. Few radicals are as intellectually curious and creative as he was.

Different but the same. Matonge, Brussels.

Only 59 at the time, it was especially frustrating given the work Graeber still had ahead of him – glimpses of which can be had from the books he had in process that he never got to see published.

This is not to say that Graeber didn’t get much done during his short career. Beginning with his fieldwork in Madagascar, he expanded his brief to publish on a wide range of topics.

Debt: The First 5000 Years, the 2011 book that brought him to prominence outside of academia, was an exemplary exercise in translating scholarly research for the general public.

David Graeber was a precise reader of texts. This was arguably an outgrowth of his training in anthropology, a discipline which expanded its ambit in recent decades far beyond its historic focus on primitive and pre-modern peoples and cultures.

Graeber was also an unapologetic political activist. His participation in the Zuccotti Park occupation and advocacy for Syria’s Kurds was only the tip of the iceberg. Graebers’s anarchism found expression in the books and articles that he produced.

Since his death, two further publications have appeared which add fascinating new dimensions to Graeber’s already considerable oeuvre.

In the first of these, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Graeber and his co-author, archaeologist David Wengrow, attempted a thorough rethinking of the political implications of more than 10,000 years of human history.

If this seems like an ambitious project, it is. Graeber and Wengrow set out to destabilise a large body of received wisdom on the political development of political of human society.

Admittedly, there is an important element of speculation to the effort. Written sources are increasingly limited as one moves back in time. And much of the argument from archaeological source material involves a strong element of inference.

The Dawn of Everything nonetheless covers a lot of ground. The book centres on the basis for social development, from small bands to chiefdoms to settled agriculture, and cities with increasingly complex and restrictive bureaucratic and political institutions.

This narrative is the sort of thing that one is taught in school, and it has the status not merely of a truism but as a nostrum in popular culture.

We live in constrained communities because those are the only kind that will work for societies as numerous and as dense as our own.

As Graeber and Wengrow point out in copious examples, this view is predicated on a failure to take into account up-to-date readings of relevant scholarship and a propensity to read the present backwards into the past.

According to the authors, academia still clings to the view that non-literary cultures were composed of simple-minded people, lacking in complex culture and living in an ahistorical present for tens of thousands of years.

Evidence from both archaeology and anthropology (and other disciplines) shows that societies have taken a wide range of forms over the last 10,000 years and that there is no unambiguous pattern of development.

One of the clearest implications of this argument is that human beings have lived in various political conditions, sometimes abandoning one for another for wholly new modes of social organisation.

The quality of the evidence for this varies. The further back one goes, the more often one finds constructions such as, “there is no reason to assume that…” or “the possibility cannot be excluded”.

Graeber and Wengrow are on firmer ground when they argue that the political thought of the European Enlightenment was leavened in significant and interesting ways with ideas drawn from aboriginal peoples.

One of the book’s most interesting and compelling sections looks at the writings of Baron de Lahontan, a late seventeenth-century French soldier whose experiences among the Wyandot (Huron) people of North America formed the basis of an aboriginal critique of European society and politics.

The precocious mixing of cultures and ways of thought, once assumed to be separate, also forms the basis for Graeber’s final posthumous work.

In Pirate Enlightenment, Or the Real Libertalia, Graeber comes full circle, returning to Madagascar to think through the meaning of a mythical pirate utopia on the island.

Pirate Enlightenment is a tour-de-force that turns a critical eye to received wisdom. Graeber attempts to draw a connection between stories of pirates creating a free community outside the bounds of control of the European states from which they had come and the stubbornly antiauthoritarian character of the societies of northeastern Madagascar.

The source material for the project is thin. There are a few contemporary reports that occasionally agree, but more often contradict each other. It is clear that, in the last decades of the seventeenth century, some pirates settled on Madagascar’s east coast, creating their own settlements and intermarrying with the locals.

The book is made more complicated in that it becomes clear that the people being written about often lied to or otherwise misled visitors about political and social conditions.

Pirate Enlightenment seems to have two overlapping goals. One is to make as much sense as possible of the available evidence. Graeber does a yeoman’s work parsing various overlapping and contradictory stories into a coherent narrative of settlement and integration between Europeans and the locals.

A second agenda is somewhat less clear. Graeber wants to make a point about political organisation, specifically people’s propensity to choose ways of living and organising themselves without regard for any normative developmental sequence.

As with The Dawn of Everything, Graeber argues that certain kinds of political and social organisation traditionally viewed as European were the result of a hybridisation of European and aboriginal cultures.

Much of this is a worthy enterprise but stalls on the aboriginal front. This is not entirely the fault of the author. Graeber is compelled by the scarcity and unevenness of his sources to expend a lot of energy on speculation. Everything reads thin, and his argument is often difficult to follow.

And so one is left with a feeling of unfinished business, of a book built on drafts by an editor, leaving more questions than answers.

However, the questions that The Dawn of Everything does raise are fascinating, and if some are the kind that cannot ever be definitively answered, they at least can frame future discussions in new and perhaps more productive ways.

Most importantly, Graeber insistently asks why we live how we live. He was at his most effective when pointing out that things could be otherwise and asking precisely why it was that people failed to see that this was the case.

This attitude is crucial if people are going to reclaim the heritage of utopian thinking that has been so comprehensively snowed under by the there-is-no-alternative worldview that has dominated the neoliberal world since the last decades of the Cold War.

To propose that things could be organised differently or that human beings might collectively decide to reorient themselves coherently constitutes revolutionary thinking in the conditions we now find ourselves.

If that revolutionary project remains unfinished, asking the right questions is the first step to its reignition.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.