Speculative Narratives of ‘Reassuring Certitude’: Strategic Foundationalism in Post-Truth Populism

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation


David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a work of Left populism that attempts to displace hegemonic narratives of economic debt, particularly the moral axiom that debts must be repaid. It’s also an example of strategic foundationalism. Graeber sets out to prove that his counternarrative is supported by incontestable empirical evidence, giving him recourse to objectivism and positivism, and prompting him to dismiss Nietzsche’s influential work on debt as ‘fantasy’.

In this paper, I explain the political consequences of the different approaches taken by Graeber and Nietzsche. From this I suggest that Graeber is trying to mitigate the anxiety caused by the disappearance of the ground of signification. Hoping to produce a conceptually accessible and convincing text, Graeber offers what Derrida calls the ‘reassuring certitude’ of an illusory foundation. But this epistemic premise is a gamble. While the strategic foundationalism of Debt gives it counterhegemonic force, it risks reinscribing and perpetuating the very economic logic that Graeber aims to displace. To draw out the relationship between fictionality and risk, I describe Debt as a speculative narrative: an imaginative retelling of the past that also speculates in the economic sense, staking something on a profitable return in the future.

Given that we’re now living in a time of epistemic uncertainty – the so-called post-truth era – I think we should take the risks of strategic foundationalism seriously. What we owe to Graeber, perhaps, is to attend closely to the effects of his wager.
Period21 Jan 2021
Event titleDemocracy and Populism: Equality, Truth, and Disagreement In The Age Of Covid
Event typeConference
LocationBrighton, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • David Graeber
  • Populism
  • Nietzsche
  • Post-Truth
  • Postfoundationalism