David Graeber


The premise of this project is that what we refer to as “the state” is not a unitary entity, but an arbitrary historical convergence of a number of forms and principles of power (sovereignty, heroic aristocracy, administrative bureaucracies, various popular and elite deliberative forms) that have separate historical origins and can exist entirely independently of one another. As a result, history affords endless examples of political entities (“chiefdoms”, Mesopotamian temple complexes, Classical “city-states”) that are clearly organized around certain principles we associate with states, and are strikingly absent in others. Our inability to account for such entities is striking. Instead distinguishing these elements and tracing how they have, historically, come together and drifted apart, examining the affinities and tensions between them, can provide both a more compelling way to look at history, and afford important insights into the apparent global crisis of the contemporary state.

The Research Idea

States, I’ve argued, are peculiar historical hybrids: a combination of utopian projects, and predatory raiding system. Contemporary states are even more so. In fact, if one examines the world historical origins of the various features that have come together in what we consider the modern state, one finds a series of principles with radically different origins that have rarely, if ever, before occurred together in the same political system, including (but certainly not limited to):

  • sovereignty, in the sense described above, the combination of principles of utopia and violence
  • the heroic or aristocratic principle, explicitly evoked by the 18th century framers of modern constitutions, who were aware, for instance, that election was traditionally the aristocratic and not the democratic mode of selecting officials, but since largely naturalized and forgotten
  • bureaucratic/administrative mechanisms of governance

One of the most striking things revealed by the ethnographic and historical record is that these principles, far from being mutually entailed, need have no necessary relation at all. In the past I have explored the case of the Shilluk as an almost pure case of sovereignty in which any attempt to impose an administrative system was halted by immediate popular opposition. The sovereign and heroic principles have tended to be historical competitors or at least alternatives, rather than appearing together.

The aim of the project is to explore how these elements have historically interacted, how they ultimately came together, and also, may now be in the process of drifting apart.

The Focus

Literature on the state and state forms is of course voluminous. Yet it often reveals a striking lack of long-term historical, or ethnographic, perspective. The recent burgeoning literature on “biopower,” which starts from the premise that there was a profound break in the 18th and 19th centuries where sovereign power first came to be concerned with managing the health, fertility and prosperity of subject populations. The problem with the initial premise is it’s simply wrong. Even a glance at Frazer’s Golden Bough reveals sovereign power has always been intimately tied to the health, fertility and prosperity of its subjects; the question is how it became detached. The terms developed here suggest it might have been a turn to the heroic principle, which is not about relations of sovereign and population, but between heroic figures and their retainers; the significant 18th and 19th century change was a reemergence of this sovereign principle and its partial displacement onto administrative systems which had in most times and places not been directly concerned with such matters.

This is obviously just one example but it conveys a sense of the sort of interventions this project would be making.


The value of coming to a richer understanding of the nature of what we blandly refer to as “the state” need hardly be explained. Despite many pronouncements about the immanent death of the state form, recent years have seen the opposite: a reassertion particularly of the coercive aspects of states (the “deep state” as its increasingly being called) and an increase of day-to-day bureaucratization. The underlying assumption that one can speak of “the state” as a single entity with a single overarching logic – whether it be sovereignty, administration, or based on some other overarching principle – is precisely the problem. Liberating our tools of analysis from such existing straightjackets should make it possible to understand global events, and possible future directions of powerful institutions, in a fresh light with many important political implications.

Theory & Evidence Base

The overall theoretical and evidential approach to be deployed is my own, one I have been developing over the course of a decade of related research projects, combining a very specific sort of Marxian value theory (most explicitly outlined in my book “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value”, 2001) and what I call a Maussian emphasis on the simultaneous juxtaposition of apparently contradictory social principles in any apparent social totality. In recent years, I have been applying this approach with certain elements of world-systems analysis so apply it to broad historical questions in an attempt to revive the now-largely-abandoned tradition of grand historical-ethnographic narratives. My best known work in this vein was Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, which, though written to be accessible to a popular audience, was in fact an intensely scholarly work and has had a not insignificant impact on international debate on the topic. A more modestly scaled example of the same approach is the piece “Culture as Creative Refusal”, presented as the 2nd Annual Strathern Lecture at Cambridge in May 2012, which suggested what anthropologists have thought of as “cultures” in world-historical terms might be as easily conceived as social movements that were to some degree successful in achieving their aims. This project is in many ways a continuation of that approach.


I am proposing a project primarily of library research. It is one of the strange dilemmas of successful academic life that one has very little time to read – and even more, to read things that one is not absolutely sure will be strictly relevant to some specific point in whatever one is writing. But of course it’s from such risk-taking that new insights are usually achieved. The freedom to move around will also give me the opportunity to engage with a very wide interdisciplinary range of scholars across the world.


My main aim is to write a book on the topic, although of course there will also be essays and lectures of various sorts. Generally speaking my work tends to combine peer-reviewed academic venues and more political, journalistic, or popular ones. There is always a cross-fertilization here. I have also, since the success of “Debt”, been besieged by requests to give keynote addresses at academic and even literary and artistic conferences so this will also provide a major venue for dissemination of ideas and analyses developed in this project.


This work is nothing if not interdisciplinary. Like “Debt,” it will bring to bear tools and materials from history, anthropology, sociology, economics, religious studies, and various specialized fields like Assyriology, Classics, Sinology, etc. It also is based on the premise that it is only through the fusion of those fields, and the deepest possible historical and widest possible cross-cultural perspective, that one can begin to seriously think about the nature and future of the state – matters which can hardly be of more pressing global political concern.