By Marshall Sahlins

Kings. It was already apparent in the twentieth century to the anthropologist A.M.Hocart, one of David’s favorites, that as he said, “So far from having done with divine kingship, we seem to be returning to it in a more virulent form.”

Now in America the would-be king is literally virulent, spreading his coronavirus disease wherever he goes. It is the opposite of the Royal Touch of the medieval kings who could cure their people’s scrofula with their royal hand. Instead of the Royal Touch, the president of the United States gives us the Middle Finger.

No government ever told Englishmen how to line up in a queue, as Hocart was fond of saying: it is an agreement among perfect strangers based on tradition of the rights of the first comer. ‘Self help,’ Hocart called it: “Anyhow,” as he wrote, “whoever governs, it is not the king, but self help.” I think David respected Hocart because both his own politics and anthropology were based on the same idea. “Anarchy,” David called it, and he documented it by profound cross-cultural scholarship, referring to the many ways people collectively organized their lives by their own lights—from their kinship relations to their notions of morality and reciprocity—without the benefit of law or state.

Recently I had occasion to reflect on David’s career since I had known him as PhD student at the University of Chicago. I can do no better here than sum up as I wrote then: One of David’s books is titled “Possibilities.” It is an apt description of all his work. It is an even better description of his life. Offering unimagined possibilities of freedom was his gift to us.

— Marshall Sahlins