David Graeber’s posthumous new book explores how pirates created liberalism

David Graeber’s posthumous new book explores how pirates created liberalism


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Acclaimed “Anarchist Anthropologist” David Graeber passed away in 2020, leaving behind an incredible legacy of scathingly insightful examinations of economics and human culture. In addition to being credited with coining the whole “We are the 99%” idea, Graeber is perhaps best known for his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs. Graeber published one book shortly after his death, titled The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, and there’s now a second posthumous book to follow: Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia, which is out today. Here’s the official blurb:

The final posthumous work by the coauthor of the major New York Times bestseller The Dawn of Everything.

Pirates have long lived in the realm of romance and fantasy, symbolizing risk, lawlessness, and radical visions of freedom. But at the root of this mythology is a rich history of pirate societies―vibrant, imaginative experiments in self-governance and alternative social formations at the edges of the European empire.

In graduate school, David Graeber conducted ethnographic field research in Madagascar for his doctoral thesis on the island’s politics and history of slavery and magic. During this time, he encountered the Zana-Malata, an ethnic group of mixed descendants of the many pirates who settled on the island at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia, Graeber’s final posthumous book, is the outgrowth of this early research and the culmination of ideas that he developed in his classic, bestselling works Debt and The Dawn of Everything (written with the archaeologist David Wengrow). In this lively, incisive exploration, Graeber considers how the protodemocratic, even libertarian practices of the Zana-Malata came to shape the Enlightenment project defined for too long as distinctly European. He illuminates the non-European origins of what we consider to be “Western” thought and endeavors to recover forgotten forms of social and political order that gesture toward new, hopeful possibilities for the future.

I’ve had an audio copy of the book for a while now, and was hoping to have finished listening to it already; but alas, it’s really hard to multitask toddler-watching and Graeberian economics. Still, I’m looking forward to it. The idea of modern economic history having a basis in piratedom calls to mind Under The Banner of King Death, the graphic novel adaptation of Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, which I reviewed here back in October 2022. The difference, of course, being Graeber’s scintillating prose and uncannily conversational ability to communicate huge ideas with humor, thoughtfulness, and gravitas.

Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia [David Graeber / Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

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January 24, 2023 at 04:14AM

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