Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia
By David Graeber
FSG: 208 pages, $27
If you buy books linked from our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.
In a pirate stronghold on Madagascar’s lush east coast, the son of a native sorceress and an itinerant buccaneer unites warring kingdoms, fends off a mountain tyrant, and secures a lasting peace. In the hands of most historians and storytellers, this would be a straightforward tale of adventure and heroism in an exotic locale.
Not for David Graeber. In her book, “Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia”, the point is not the bluster – although some bluster does give in – but the real story of anti-authoritarianism, gender economics and direct democracy behind a legendary 18th century pirate province The bloody tip of the Enlightenment’s democratic revolution, in this narrative, would not be found in a Parisian guillotine, but in the fragile consensus forged in long meetings on a distant island.
This is the second posthumous book by the anarchist anthropologist and social critic, who died suddenly aged 59 in 2020. In many ways it can be read as an addendum to 2021’s “The Dawn of Everything”, which Graeber co-wrote with the archaeologist David Wengrow as a door-lock argument against the standard story of civilization progressing inexorably from hunter-gatherer bands to hierarchical complex city-states, without any room for human ingenuity or experimentation.
The point of “Dawn” was not to advocate a new teleology or to present a single idea, in the style of Jared Diamond or Yuval Noah Harari, of how humans can live because of what came before. On the contrary, the book was a compendium of destabilizing alternatives, a dissertation on the fundamental construction of things, leading to the conclusion that what makes us human is the capacity to imagine, speak and decide what we want to do together.
Graeber wielded history, anthropology and archeology like an axe, opening holes in the walls built around us to show the reader perspectives of other possible worlds. His earlier book, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” which launched him from academia and leftist organizing to popular nonfiction shelves, synthesized millennia of economic history with a similar goal: to undermine the standard money account, homo economicus. In “Bull-Jobs,” his 2018 book based on a viral essay, he questioned why so many of us seem to go to work only to do mindless tasks we find distasteful. Graeber clearly described his purpose in the book’s introduction: “I would like this book to be an arrow aimed at the heart of our own civilization.”
“Pirate Enlightenment” began its life as part of “On Kings,” an academic anthropology book that Graeber published in 2017 based on his dissertation research in Madagascar undertaken in the early 1990s. again, he found the subject of the Zana-Malata, a distinct ethnic group descended from pirates, and the Betsimisaraka, the larger group whose name translates as “the misunderstood many”, too interesting to limit to one chapter.
After the runaway success of “Dawn,” readers will likely come to this book as an expansion pack of sorts to her earlier work – and in a way, it fits the mold. The essence of the argument is that the Zana-Malata, son of a pirate, Tom Ratsimilaho, was incorrectly portrayed as a European civilizer from the coast of Madagascar. Instead, Graeber writes, this historical figure blended pirate and Malagasy forms of democracy to create a period of peace without slavery, coercion or (too much) hierarchy.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that Graeber might have produced a different book had he been alive to see it published. In his most popular works, Graeber developed a lighthearted, conversational style. He focused on individual stories and specific personalities, but was careful (for the most part) to make sure the reader knew why we were investigating the grain distribution rituals of the Sumerian city-states or the contrasting work cultures of the neighboring tribes of the Northern California. As much as he invited us to observe the trees up close, we still had a feeling of the Graeber forest.
Critics of “Debt” and “Breaking Dawn” criticized this garrulous style, which at times elided factual errors or made rhetorical leaps that would not pass academic peer review. Graeber occasionally pointed to a blank space in the historical record, which the prevailing wisdom had filled in with ideology and myth, only to fill that space with its own tenuous counter-history.
But man, was this story compelling. Graeber mastered the art of extracting new research from its field of origin and contextualizing it for the lay reader. If it took 100 pages to summarize decades of intellectual debate and discovery about hunter-gatherer societies to arrive at a point, that’s how long it would take – and the conclusion was all the more satisfying for the legwork required to get there.
“Pirate Enlightenment” could have used more of this expansive style and less minute detail in arguing against established scholarship. It is interesting, for example, that descendants of pirates replaced an earlier, possibly Jewish, caste of ritual cattle slaughterers, but it is difficult to connect this with the thesis of tracing the beginning of the Enlightenment to the western Indian Ocean. You can see the forest through the trees if you squint, but the book is much closer to its origins as an academic text.
In the spirit of Graeber’s utopian thinking, it’s easy to imagine a slightly different book as an amusing sting to Graeber’s popular career – a book that weaves material from Madagascar into the stories of pirates as proletarian rebels against imperial capital, building illegal republics. in the Caribbean islands. These are stories that other popular scholars and writers have told, but I would love to read Graeber’s kaleidoscopic, stubborn, optimistic take on the whole skull and crossbones story.
Flashes of that larger story shine through, and the book moves forward in Graeber’s mission: to destabilize our idea of what’s possible and show that humans can, and often do, create egalitarian worlds built on points of consensus rather than the sharp edge of a cleaver.