David Graeber, Debt, Monogamy, Property, Theft and Airstrips: a slightly far flung network of neurological association



I have been enjoying following all the non-anthropological commentary and discussion about Graeber’s new book ‘Debt: the first 5000 years‘ over the last few weeks. It’s amazing to see the technique of defamiliarisation through anthropological description and analysis have such an effect on such a scale.

Anyhow, I was reading through some such commentary this morning about debt and indebtedness and I was reminded of the artwork or graffiti featured above.

I came across this picture quite a while ago and it made me laugh. It still makes me laugh. It is, of course, a neat play on Proudhon’s ‘property is theft.’ I’m not sure that Proudhon would find it so funny, which only makes it all the more so. Or perhaps he would. Or perhaps we can imagine.

When I first came across this picture I humoured myself for almost an hour, substituting ‘property’ for ‘monogamy’ in Proudhon’s ‘What is Property?‘ as, for example,

‘If I were asked to answer the following question: WHAT IS SLAVERY? and I should answer in one word, IT IS MURDER, my meaning would be understood at once.


No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him.


Why, then, to this other question: WHAT IS  PROPERTY  MONOGAMY? may I not likewise answer, IT IS ROBBERY, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?’

With debt, indebtedness and servitude in mind, on a more serious note, I do actually think that ‘marriage’ (rather than monogamy) is a perfectly appropriate substitute for ‘property’ in this case. Perhaps Proudhon would agree. I know Emma would.

As an anthropologist, a feminist and normal person I think that there is something really insidious about the very notion or idea of the ‘contract’. As a cultural concept it is really quite undeniably perverse – if we cannot trust one another in free association then we must bind each to the other by tether. Nice. Even better under the threat of violence (should we attempt to break that tether or bond). Some kind of social optimism that is.

On an ethnographic note – the first encounter Yolŋu (with whom I work) had with the ‘contract’ was when they were contracted to clear areas of land for remote gravel airstrips on the Homelands in Arnhem Land. The experience obviously left an impression – today the Yolŋu matha term for ‘airstrip’ or ‘airport’ is ‘gundarak‘ – derived I was told from English word for ‘contract’.

There is actually quite a discrete register of vocabulary in Yolŋu matha, through which one could trace the history of the local encounter with commerce and trade – including the substantial corpus of ‘Macassan’ loanwords from pre-colonial trade relations with people from Sulawesi and surrounds (via the port of Makassar). The most obvious example, for instance, is ‘money’, which in Yolŋu matha is ‘rrupiya‘.


I should be writing my thesis. THE END/

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Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, General personal writings

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