Highland Madagascar

From Anarchy In Action

In 1989, the anthropologist David Graeber visited and studied Arivonimamo, a town of 10,000 people in the Madagascar highlands. Graeber reports that as a result of cutbacks mandated by 1980s IMF-ordered austerity policies, the state had a very minimal presence in the town and the surrounding rural region of Imerina.[1] It “was considered wrong for adults to be giving one another orders”.[2]


Religious beliefs helped maintain solidarity and prevent inequality and crime:

“Society was overall remarkably peaceable. Yet once again it was surrounded by invisible warfare; just about everyone had access to dangerous medicine or spirits or was willing to let on they might; the night was haunted by witches who danced naked on tombs and rode men like horses; just about all sickness was due to envy, hatred, and magical attack. What’s more, witchcraft bore a strange, ambivalent relation to national identity. While people made rhetorical reference to Malagasy as equal and united “like hairs on a head,” ideals of economic equality were rarely, if ever, invoked; however, it was assumed that anyone who became too rich or powerful would be destroyed by witchcraft, and while witchcraft was the definition of evil, it was also seen as peculiarly Malagasy (charms were just charms but evil charms were called “Malagasy charms”). Insofar as rituals of moral solidarity did occur, and the ideal of equality was invoked, it was largely in the course of rituals held to suppress, expel, or destroy those witches who, perversely, were the twisted embodiment and practical enforcement of the egalitarian ethos of the society itself.”[3]

The highlands' cultures are “not entirely egalitarian: there are...certain key forms of dominance, at least of men over women, elders over juniors.”[4]


People met at assemblies called fokon'olona, where they made decisions by consensus. Anyone could block a decision by making a tsy manaiky aho, meaning “I am no longer in agreement”.[5]


According to Graeber, the market only existed “in theory,” and wage labor was viewed as “morally suspect”.[6] Graeber writes, “I don't want to romanticize the situation. What autonomy rural communities have has been won at the cost of grinding poverty.” Almost all the kids attend state schools, which Graeber accuses of trying to indoctrinate the kids: “The style of teaching was entirely authoritarian, with a heavy emphasis on rote memorization, and the skills that were taught were taught with the expectation that they were to be employed in offices, workshops, or classrooms organized” hierarchially.[7]



There was no police station in Arivonimamo.[8] The closest thing to a police force “was a unit of gendarmes who had barracks somewhat to the west of town. Mainly, they patrolled the highways.”[9] In Arivonimamo, there was a man named Henri who terrorized women and stole from shops. The town decided to get together and kill him, and received permission from Henri's father. So, the next time Henri provoked a fight, a crowd appeared and tried to kill him. Henri escaped but did not return for many years.

“The most significant thing about violence around Arivonimamo was that there was very little of it. Murders were shocking, isolated events; there were very few Henris.”[10]

Neighboring Societies

  1. David Graeber, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (AK Press, 2007), 157-180.
  2. David Graeber, Fragments of An Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigms Press, 2004), 28-29.
  3. Graeber, Fragments, 29.
  4. David Graeber, Fragments, 30.
  5. Graeber, ibid.
  6. . Graeber, Fragments, 28-29.
  7. Graeber, Possibilities.
  8. Graeber, Possibilities., 164.
  9. Graeber, Possibilities.
  10. Graeber, Possibilities, 164.