Egalitarian Paradise Lost: David Graeber and the Pirates of Madagascar

Photograph Source: thierry ehrmann – CC BY 2.0

The search across the globe and in history for egalitarian societies turns up some strange finds. One anthropologist, the well-known, radical, recently deceased, best-selling author and a founder of the Occupy movement at Zuccotti Park, David Graeber, discovered such a world in Madagascar, in the settlements of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pirates, recording his observations in a posthumous book, Pirate Enlightenment, Or the Real Libertalia. This portrait of a vanished almost-utopia is no idealization; Graeber lays it out in detail, but the conclusion is unavoidable: citizens of these pirate port towns had far more freedom than your average twenty-first century American prole moiling long hours for monopoly corporations. They also appear to have enjoyed a lot more happiness, you know, that thing we Americans are supposedly free to pursue.

They had more democracy as well: decisions were debated and the majority ruled, unlike this country, where citizens express their preference through the franchise, but somehow when their representatives arrive in the capital the only people they listen to are their donors, and only the richest ones, at that. The pirates off the coast of Africa had no such problems. Had any such tyrannical oligarch of the sort who rule the world from Washington appeared in Madagascar, the pirates would have cut his throat. When they made a choice democratically, it was carried out.

What this book shows is how anemic our so-called freedom and supposed democracy actually are. It does so by barely mentioning our present tribulations but instead conjuring a world that existed centuries ago without those travails, and though it does so with the tools of anthropology and history, it also deploys the descriptive powers of the novelist. The characters in this account, however, actually existed, and they had an expansive sovereignty and independence of action that we wage slaves can only envy.

This pirate culture enchanted Graeber, and given his accomplishments, that’s not surprising. Graeber’s cultural and political contributions were enormous, something highlighted by his untimely 2020 death in Venice at the age of 59. His insightful writings on debt and his Occupy activism influenced people over the globe. With Occupy he helped start a worldwide leftist movement against inequality. And this new, posthumous book reveals some of the origins of his uncommon thinking, which, in turn, shows the rigor of the anthropologist doing field work and the historian steeped in Enlightenment documents.

Graeber regards the past Madagascar society he examines as a home for Enlightenment political experiments, so that his aim is to “consider the history of pirates in Madagascar…in this light.” He notes that “the pirate settlers had since 1697 become increasingly hostile to the slave trade” – no surprise, considering the pirates’ mode of governance, as opposed to their legends. “On pirate ships, it was convenient to develop the reputation of all-powerful and bloodthirsty captains to overawe outsiders, even if, internally, most decisions were made by majority vote.”

The anthropologist admits to being entranced by this society. “One might call pirate legends, then, the most important form of poetic expression produced by that emerging North Atlantic proletariat whose exploitation laid the ground for the industrial revolution.” Graeber also notes enthusiastically that pirates’ “democratic practices were almost completely unprecedented.” Combine that with an ambitious, assertive and indeed aggressive local female population, and something quite unheard of was bound to develop. Though Graeber doesn’t use the term feminism, that’s clearly part of what he’s talking about, because that’s always involved when women seize their destiny and grab control of their lives for their own purposes. Such women did not appall the pirates. Quite the contrary.

These women wanted to trade freely, to intermarry with foreigners and to use their children to create a new aristocracy, and the arrival of the democratically inclined pirates enabled them to do so. “The first result of the appearance of the pirates,” Graeber writes, “was to allow a large number of ambitious women, most apparently of prominent lineages…to essentially take control of their wealth and connections, and, with the pirates, effectively create the port cities that were to dominate the subsequent history of the coast.” (This involved crushing the power of the previous intermediaries, the Zafy Ibrahim.) The children of such intermarriage between pirates and local woman were critical to this effort, “and the key to success would be to ensure that they largely marry one another (or other foreigners).” This is what happened.

So, ambitious local women, egalitarian pirates and some knowledge of European Enlightenment trends generated a rare culture and society. But how did all three intertwine? First and foremost, for Graeber, throughconversation. Pirates “on board ship…conducted their affairs through conversation, deliberation and debate.” Madagascar and Enlightenment society also featured this approach. So Graeber then posits Madagascar as a home for Enlightenment political experiments. Madagascar settlements “seem to have been self-conscious attempts to reproduce that model [pirate democracy at sea] on land, with wild stories of pirate kingdoms to overawe potential foreign friends or enemies, matched by the careful development of egalitarian deliberative processes within. But the very process of the pirates’ settling down, allying themselves with ambitious Malagasy women, starting families, drew them into an entirely different conversational world.”

Pirates aren’t the only ones who conducted political experiments. Graeber did too, with Occupy, when he and others jolted a conversation about economic inequality into the global mainstream. That conversation inspired the fight in the U.S. for a $15 per hour minimum wage, among other things. According to Michael Levitin, in the Atlantic in September 2021, though the movement vanished, “its legacy is everywhere.” The Zuccotti protestors announced: “We are the 99 percent,” and most Americans agreed, according to polls which showed wide support for Occupy, despite the Obama’s contempt and his administration’s crass encouragement of official assaults on it. Americans, by and large, agreed with this turn in the national conversation, which an enthusiastic anthropologist helped spark, an anthropologist whose doctoral advisor was the renowned Marshall Sahlins and who did his field work investigating the roots of egalitarianism, feminism and democracy in Madagascar.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.