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Action and Reflection, or Notes toward a Theory of Wealth and Power

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Abstract

Dutch settlers, as any American schoolchild can tell you, bought Manhattan Island from the local Indians for twenty-four dollars worth of beads and trinkets. The story could be considered one of the founding myths of the United States; in a nation based on commerce, the very paradigm of a really good deal. The story itself is probably untrue (the Indians probably thought they were receiving a gift of colorful exotica as a token of peaceful intentions and were in exchange granting the Dutch the right to make use of the land, not to “own” it permanently), but the fact that so many of the people European merchants and settlers did encounter around the globe were willing to accept European beads, in exchange for land or anything else, has come to stand, in our popular imagination, as one of the defining features of their “primitiveness”—a childish inability to distinguish worthless baubles from things of genuine value.

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  • Anthropological Theory
  • Founding Myth
  • Personal Adornment
  • Indian Ocean Trade

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Moby Duck and Donald, captured by the Aridians (Arabs), start blowing soap bubbles, with which the natives are enchanted. “Ha ha. They break when you catch them. Hee, hee.” Ali-Ben-Goli, the chief, says “it’s real magic. My people are laughing like children. They cannot imagine how it works.” “It’s only a secret passed from generation to generation,” says Moby, “I will reveal it if you give us our freedom” … The chief, in amazement, exclaims “Freedom? That’s not all I’ll give you. Gold, jewels. My treasure is yours, if you reveal the secret.” The Arabs consent to their own despoliation. “We have jewels, but they are of no use to us. They don’t make us laugh like magic bubbles.”

—Dorfman and Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck (1975:51)

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© 2001 David Graeber

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Graeber, D. (2001). Action and Reflection, or Notes toward a Theory of Wealth and Power. In: Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780312299064_4

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