on kings

on kings.png

In anthropology as much as in popular imagination, kings are figures of fascination and intrigue, heroes or tyrants in ways presidents and prime ministers can never be. This collection of essays by two of the world’s most distinguished anthropologists—David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins—explores what kingship actually is, historically and anthropologically. As they show, kings are symbols for more than just sovereignty: indeed, the study of kingship offers a unique window into fundamental dilemmas concerning the very nature of power, meaning, and the human condition.


David Graeber


notes/quotes (skipping around):

5 – the people as nursemaids of the king

notes on monarchs as children, women’s uprisings, and the return of the ancestral dead in central madagascar – david

267 (250)

in merina kingdom of the n central plateau of madagascar, kings were quite often rep’d as infants, toddlers, or petulant adolescents..  two ways.. 1\ accompanied by a sense that while the living ruler could be seen as a kind of perpetual minor, it was dead kings .. who really rep’d mature authority.. 2\ gave subjects a language w which to chasten/admonish rulers..

271 (254)

the curious thing is that the term maditra..  is not really a generic word for irresponsible or headstrong behavior. it’s used when referring to children or figures of authority.. esp royalty – but only rarely anybody else..  what was it about powerful people and recalcitrant (having an obstinately uncooperative attitude toward authority or discipline) children.. that people found analogous..

272 (255)

(on doing fieldwork in 91-92).. everyone seemed to feel that dead kings were very much preferable to live ones.. as soon as placed inside stone chambers of tomb.. everything changed.. and monarchs are immediately transformed in to ‘holy spirits’ capable of protecting the living from the very disasters they used to inflict on them in life..

all the more striking because in the 19th cent there is simply no sigh of such sentiments.. they are nowhere to be found in the voluminous malagasy lit of the time, which tended to rep ancient kings as wise and benevolent founders of contemporary institutions

273 (256)

as soon as colonial period 1895-1950 begins, such stories seem to pop up out of nowhere. so how did popular views of royalty change so rapidly

my first attempt at an answer.. the one i develop in lost people.. was that the change of attitudes had something to do w the shock of colonization..

practically first thing french colonial regime did after conquering madagscar in 1895 was to dissolve the monarchy, but they also abolished slavery at same time..

under the police state regime that followed, christianity became about the only institutional form in which it was possible to express nationalist sentiments.. combine w the continued presence of a population of ex slaves living in uncomfortable proximity to their former master.. created an environ where slavery became a continual source of guilt and embarrassment.. a reality that had to be so constantly hidden it ended up seeming the hidden reality behind everything..  t.. when i asked rural people about precolonial history, almost no matter what i asked about, my interlocutors would half the time assume i was really asking about slavery

all powers of command – whether royal or colonial power – seemed to fuse together in people’s minds as so many extensions of the principle of slavery, of making one person an extension of another’s will as a result ..t.. even wage labor was frowned upon, at least among adults

sounds like the esko (and most everyone else’s) version of workwork is always solving other people’s problems


from this thread of ch 5 tweets:

@davidgraeber ‘all powers of command – whether royal or colonial power – seemed to fuse together in people’s minds as so many extensions of the principle of slavery, of making one person an extension of another’s will as a result’ @davidgraeber

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/monk51295/status/972570415045394432

got this

@monk51295 all this is just stuff that was in my book Lost People, which I always felt was a pretty good ethnography, that no one ever ever reads

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/davidgraeber/status/972577273726586881

which led to this

@monk51295 @davidgraeber It’s accessible online if you don’t mind that format

DG, well maybe, reading huge ethnographies is Lost on People :P :D

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/inside_lemon/status/972624999830999040

and this

@monk51295 Library Genesis

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/dreamysleeper/status/972639436210130944

i did download it from library genesis.. but now can’t find that specific link (or i’d put it here)

so finishing my spot reading of on kings.. then onto lost people.. yay

curiosity, this moral condemnation of relations of command was particularly marked among the descendants of the free population, the descendants of hova (commoners) or andriana.. the actual descendants fo slaves, who constituted roughly a third of the population, do not feel they are in a position to be nearly so punctilious about such matters:: in fact, they were not only more likely to become zanadranos.. mediumistic curers who still tended the tombs of royal ancestors, they were also the  most willing to join the actual military, work for wages, or otherwise subordinate themselves to others in ways that would ultimately extricate (free) themselves from poverty

274 (257)

it would often be explained to me that the world ‘soldier’ here was really just a polite way of saying ‘slave’.. t

nature and legitimacy of the power of kinds was being contested.. the most compelling evidence is the fact that almost all the foreign observations about subjects’ unquestioning obedience to the sovereign refered not to kings, but to queens.. during 78 yrs 1816-1895.. only two men sat on throne.. during their total of 14 yrs.. all other heads of state were women..

275 (258)

another military coup in 1863 led to a compromise where from then on.. only women would actually sit on the merina throne.. the last three queens..  were all selected by and secretly married to.. the common prime minister, rainilaiarivony.. the general who actually held the ultimate political authority

if what we are dealing w is essentially a ploy, a series of queens put up as figureheads.. what was it that made the generals think such a ploy would be effective.. there was little precedent for women rulers in merina history

276 (259)

i am not aware of any other kingdom on record, anywhere in the world, where a clique of commoners seized power and legitimated their rule by placing a series of exclusively female monarch on the throne..

even more.. have to ask why the ploy actually was effective..   because while both radamas faced strong popular resistance.. by all accounts.. the queens.. however oppressive the military cliques.. and they were often very oppressive.. did not..

277 (260)

1824.. radama’s new british trained army.. fresh from conquest of the sakalava kingdom of boina.. marching south thru mivamahamay.. largely open country dotted w occasional forests.. renowned for its dense herds of feral cattle, which the soldiers stopped to hung.. the only inhabitants.. were a band of several thousand runaways from the highlands.. most of them manendy.. members of a famous warrior caste who had once served radama’s father.. they had presented themselves at the court of th eking of boina, who granted them leave to establish themselves in this no man’s land.. there they formed what hastie referred to as ‘manendy republic’ welcoming a variety of other refugees from the highlands.. who ranged from escaped slaves to various unseated princes and their retainers.. this motley crew soon became notorious for launching marauding raids on radama’s subjects in the highlands, and in the process, accumulating a great deal of moveable wealth..

278 (261)

had a supreme leader: a ‘prophetess’.. widely feared across the region.. (captured).. her people probably not more than a few hundred.. had a certain reputation.. not so much for military might as for knowledge of dangerous meds..

282 (265)

one of striking elements of the leiloza story  as told around mount ambohitrambo today is that it talks about forced labor.. fánompóana.. or royal service.. every subject was expected to perform some form of labor for the sovereign..

283 (266)

while stories about kinds nowadays regularly emphasize their injustice and cruelty, those stories almost never have anything to say about fánompóana

19th cent sources, on the other hand, often seem to talk of nothing els..  foreign observers would regularly remark that the bulk of an adult merina subject’s waking hours was spent either performing fánompóana for the queen or avoiding doing so, and everything from school attendance to military service was considered a form of royal service. not only was fanompoana the central principle of governance, it was key to the status system

285 (268)

mediums, and curers in general, are often referred to as mpitaiza olona, the nursemaids, nurturers, or carers of others.. the verb mitaiza is ordinarily used for either breastfeeding infant or, by extension, taking care of a small, dependent child..  it can also be used for caring for the sick, . more so.. the benevolent, nurturant authority of someone more able and knowledgeable.. .. two levels.. the mediums and the royal spirits that possess them..

286 (269)

ordinarily, mediums are simply ‘pressed down’ by these spirits, which means that while in trance they remain at least party conscious, yet hear disembodied voiced, or even see visions, directing them..

voices.. crazywise.. ness..

if you ask whoa re the local elders, you will almost invariably be told that the real elders are all dead: ‘only we children remain.’

287 (270)

two points i believe to be critical.. 1\ the them of nurture, and especially, women’s labor in rearing of children, is a key way of imaging the creative power of ritual;  2\ such relations tend to become the locus of reversals of authority structures.. where ancestors turn into children, or slaves turn into vehicles for kings..

kingdoms org’d on ritual terms.. w/in them no clear distinction between what we would call ‘work’ and what we would call ‘ritual’ could be made..

might state this way: what we call ‘societies’ are always vast coordinated systems of ritualized labor. always too the elementary unit of any such system is some kind of household..  this household is the elementary unit of work, solidarity, domination, and the creation and fashioning of human beings.. in this sense women’s’ labor which tends to predominate w/in households, is also the most fundamental form of work itself. these statement, i think, can be made of any known human society..

interpretive labor

288 (271)

what makes monarchies unique is that, much though there might be all sorts of things going on in the middle of the hierarchy, the very top almost exactly resembles the very bottom.. kingdoms not only begin w households, they also end w one..

diff’s.. but considered households nonetheless.. in the final analysis, they are the same sort of unit, a domestic unit creating, nurturing, and educating children.. that is, producing people .. the household units at the very base..

the diff of course, is that the royal household .. in the vast majority of cases anyway, was only about the creation of people, and did not involve all those other forms of production – of food, clothing, ironware, basketry, and so on – that in ordinary households served as essential material elements for that process of tending, growing, and nurturing human beings. in fact, the tendency in those ordinary households is for what we would label ‘work’ ‘play’ ‘ritual’ and ‘education’ to be, not indistinguishable perhaps, or not usually, but in every way entangled, overlapping, and mutually entailed..  in contrast, royal households could be seen as the first prefiguration of the modern consumer household, which at least ideally is set in a sphere entirely opposed to the ‘production’ of material goods, which is just about the creating and shaping and maintaining of people..  royal households largely divorce the making, shaping, and maintaining of people from the making, shaping, and maintaining of things.. they also separate work, ritual and play, at least when royal figure do plow fields or lay the foundations of buildings, it’s almost invariable as a form of ritual play; it’s not considered actual labor.. royal households will tend to be full of servants and retainers, some of whose work is to continually teach members of the royal family how to behave like proper royalty, just as, say, presidents and prime ministers nowadays tend to be surrounded by hosts of aids and advisors whose function is to teach and remind them how to be proper heads of state..  but rarely do they do a lot of what we’d consider productive work..  what we’d call ‘material production’ tends to be outsourced onto other households..

289 (272)

i think it’s important to problematize received categories in order to understand what’s really going on in monarchies.. ie: the commonplace notion that labor is basically about ‘production’: that it’s typically directed at making thing.. this is simply assumed. but it’s a very odd assumption.. even a moment’s reflection should make clear that nowhere in the world is most activity we would ordinarily refer to as ‘work’ directed at making anything.. this is true even if we restrict ourselves to work directed at material objects.. most such labor isn’t aimed at producing things but at cleaning or maintaining them or moving them around..  a ceramic coffee cup is ‘produced’ just once; it’s washed and stacked a thousand times..  far more energy spent transporting, storing, and disposing .. than in the relatively brief moment of its actual fabrication..

290 (273)

this blindness has any number of pernicious effects,  but .. three points.. 1\ we cannot presume malagasy assumptions about that what work is and what is important about it necessarily mirror our own..   2\ assumptions about nature o work tend to be org’d around ‘paradigmatic labor’  to a large extent .. two most important.. factory work and childcare..  the first has become the paradigm for all paid work, the second, for unremunerated, domestic labor…  3\ in monarchies.. easiest way to understand how work was imagined is by examining the forms of ritualized labor surrounding kings..  emblematic labor.. if paradigmatic labor is what you imagine to be the model for work in general.. emblematic labor is work seen as typical of a certain group of people..  ie: a fisherman..  may get more of his pay from something else.. but seen as fisherman..

291 (274)

i think examining emblematic labor in merina kingdom in this fashion is the best way to understand the structure of the kingdom, and the role of the royal household.. but in order to do so we frist must say something about paradigmatic labor.. in highland madagascar, the paradigm for work in general is not production nor even, precisely, childcare. when people think of ‘work’ they think first and foremost of the bearing of burdens: moving, dragging, and esp, carrying things, which includes everything from carrying babies to dragging trunks of wood to moving earth w shovels… the semantic range of web of associations is quite diff than we are used to.. but once we understand this a lot of other things begin to make much better sense..

the essentials of the matter do not seem to have changed much since the 19th cent.. then as now, work was seen as centered on the household, and was primarily the business of women..  domestic labor here reps the perfect fusion of child-rearing and physical work because women tend to attend to children and carry out other duties simultaneously..

292 (275)

the paradigmatic form of work, then, was and is ,, not seen as a making or building anything, or even maintaining anything, but, rather, lifting things up and moving them around. the importance of such matters can be seen in the fact that , traditionally, who carries what for whom in what circumstances is carefully regulated.. who carries what for whom is probably the most important way of indicating rank..  even well educated not particularly traditional women, i found, would on trips occasionally make (half hearted) offers to carry my backpack, noting that, properly, if a man and woman are of roughly the same age, the man shouldn’t be the one shouldering the burden..

but mainly these rules applies to seniority.. as elsewhere in madagascar, the ranking of children by age is esp important.. proverbs: that elder bros and sisters should speak for their juniors, and juniors, carry burdens for their seniors

293 (276)

the malagasy word for ‘oppression’ is precisely, tsindriana, to be pressed down. and it makes a agreat deal of intuitive sense tha tit should, since one can only imagine the first deep feeling of injustice a child will have at precisely the moment when being a child suddenly pivots from having no responsibilities to having the most onerous responsibilities of all

the opposition between speech and carrying is crucial. it runs thru all political affairs.  speech, particularly formal speech is seen as essentially constituting political society.. public assemblies are called ‘kabary’ which is also the word for formal rhetoric..

harney domination law

speaking was paired w making .. what we’d call ‘production’ and the carrying fo burdens became instead the general figure for any sort of labor.. that.. rather than being creative, was about nurturing, sustaining and maintaining things..

296 (279)

adriana were indeed defined as the kind of people who make things; commoners, as those who fetch and carry them..

297 (280)

when we turn to actual governance, however, things get a bit more complicated. . on the one hand, it refers to a meticulously graded system of ritual labor. on the other, it was the power of the sovereign to make anyone do anything at all

when a heavily armed band appears in a defenseless village its leader can, or course, make anyone do pretty much anything he orders them to do..  what he can make them do when he is not actually physically present is quite another matter. the apparent contradiction at the heart of fánompóana no doubt originates in this very practical circumstance. but that hardly explains why this pragmatic circumstance (being able to order anyone to do anything) should be preserved as a ritual principle .. indeed, as the defn of sovereignty itself..

given the cultural context in which all this took place – all those distinction between speaking, making , carrying.. it was hardly surprising that as a result.. the production of material objects.. should have ended up becoming a special privilege to be allotted to kin and loyal followers, while bearing burdens should e seen as both the essence of real work and , in t broader sense, the key to the creation and maintenance of actual human beings..

298 (281)

in the late 18th cent.. king andrian… used the principle of fánompóana to marshal the manpower to reclaim thousands of hectares of arable land from swamps; in the 19th , his son radama, to compel children to attend mission schools and teenagers to serve in a newly created standing army.. at the same time, wars of expansion brought thousands of slaves into the country…  all this meant that in practice, actual labor arrangement transformed quickly and dramatically. still, in principle, fánompóana remained the basis of the monarchy..

from late 19th cent missionary named houlder:

under rule of this strong personality, as under that of his predecessors, no direct taxes, or next to none, were levied. in lieu thereof came fánompóana, or compulsory unrequited service, such as a slave renders to his master, a very onerous duty and a very questionable exchange..

so.. whether we have money or not.. we have slavery.. as per earlier inclusion.. school.. et al

fánompóana is the genius of the native govt,, and seemed to be its principal end. the rulers were most concerned, not w the promotion of the prosperity and happiness of the people, but w the proper carrying out of service to the queen.. the whole of a native’s life is taken up w doing fánompóana of one sort or another.. anything in the nature of service was fánompóana, from the superintendence of all the arrangements of her majesty’s’ household down to the cleaning of her royal shoes.. from presiding over council of govt.. or running of a province. to the shouldering of a musket in war, and the carrying of a stone or lump of earth in peace.. any and every labor could be exacted at any and every time as to her sovereign will and pleasure..

fánompóana for the govt whether civil or military was bad enough; but it was made a hundred times worse by the fact that the system involved, not only a multitude of petty oppressions and exactions by the persons duly appointed to carry it out, but also the fánompóanaing of one another

obligation ness

the theory was that the unrequited service was rendered to the queen, but unfortunately it did not end w service to royalty. the organization requisite for getting work done for her majesty was system of subordination, by means of which any person who had authority over another could make that person work for his own benefit, and the inevitable result was that there was infinitely more fánompóana done for private individuals that there was for the govt.. the peoples’ lives were often made a perfect misery to them..


299 (282)

most accounts by foreign observers from the period contain similar observations about the simultaneous legitimacy, universality and abusiveness of fánompóana

the principle that royalty service was by its nature the unlimited personal power of the sovereign helps explain one of the more peculiar features of the archival record: much talked about.. yet almost nothing about forced labor in govt’s admin docs themselves..  never ceased to puzzle me..

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apparently then the personalized, arbitrary nature of fanompoana was seen as so essential to its nature that to subsume it w/in the bureaucratic apparatus would have been seen as a violation of principle.. so much so that even registering who was sent on what task might be considered to compromise the absolute power of the queen..

so what did people actually do in service of the queen at height of 19th cent.. question is important because.. sense of absolute legitimacy of fanompoana … was really what held an otherwise corrupt and often brutal govt together..  here we have to turn.. i think.. from lists of what people had to do.. – which mostly don’t exist – .. to lists of what they didn’t have to do: that is.. lists of tasks from which esp privileged groups were considered to be exempt..  these lists almost always include four primary sorts of work: 1\ dragging trees.. 2\ digging earth.. 3\  making charcoal.. 4\ carrying royal baggage..

301 (284)

once again.. tasks centered on dragging/carrying heavy objects..

305 (288)

there’s a continuum here from carrying as pure subordination, to carrying as nurture, to carrying as outright authority..

314 (297)

tompo means both owner and master. . it’s also the root of fanompoana, which literally means ‘the action of making someone else an owner or a master.. so even the king’s mastery of his people.. or ownership of the land, is not an intrinsic quality. the people make him the master and owner by doing whatever he says..

315 (298)

the question is.. how is it that royal immaturity came to be considered objectionable, and not endearing..  the other question.. why the uneasiness w royal power first manifested itself in a broad rejection of make kings in favor of female ones..

341 (324)


Meanwhile the most intellectually ambitious book I release last year was “On Kings” with Marshall Sahlins. Between us I think we made a major contribution to the history of anthropological theory (iidssm) but virtually no one seems to have read it

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/davidgraeber/status/1014507760946438147

David Graeber (@davidgraeber) tweeted at 5:34 AM on Thu, Jul 05, 2018:
interesting thread https://t.co/NZa5UGUTDp

There’s remarkably little of that in the earlier chapters. For all their reputation kings are generally quite constrained by the office.

the consequence for the ruled seems with remarkable consistency to be an institution of enormous arbitrary ritualized slaughter.

As though it were the natural consequence of an arbitrary centralized power. It isn’t real until you’ve killed a ton of people with it.


A great deal of succeeding state ritual is founded on the rightful horror of this practice and a pressing need to find some substitute.

But I think in an important way this account reverses its causation. Outmaneuvering your rivals isn’t the foundation of absolute power.

If the moral legitimacy of what kept you in check remains merely destroying their institutions isn’t enough to legitimate arbitrary rule.

For people to accept it you must break in a remarkably deep way the established moral expectation and interdependency of your society.

You do this by killing, by making the act of killing and your right to their death inextricable from their supposed rightful governance.


this drive to remake society by a great ceremonial violence, then replaced with euphemistic ritual along where it was broken.

euphemism: he substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt


There is no immiserating patriarchy without the witch hunt, there is no nation state without the pointless bloody sacrifice of war.

As there is no revolutionary state without its pointless bloody indiscriminate terror.


All of us come to this with a certain incoherence to our politics. This is inherent to demanding liberation from a position of unfreedom.