The Dawn of Everything (David Graeber, David Wengrow)

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike―either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself.
Drawing on pathbreaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume.
The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom, new ways of organizing society. This is a monumental book of formidable intellectual range, animated by curiosity, moral vision, and a faith in the power of direct action.

6 thoughts on “The Dawn of Everything (David Graeber, David Wengrow)

  1. shinichi Post author

    The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow review – inequality is not the price of civilisation

    An archaeologist and an anthropologist dismantle received wisdom about the way early societies operated

    by David Priestland

    History matters. As we debate statues and slavery and dispute the role of empire, we have become accustomed to constant sparring over the past. But there is one branch of history that has, so far, remained above the fray: the story of our very early past, the “dawn” of humanity. For the anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow, this consensus is a problem. As they argue in this iconoclastic and irreverent book, much of what we think we know of this distant era is actually a myth – indeed it is our origin myth, a modern equivalent of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. At its core is a story of the rise of civilisation and, with it, the rise of the state. Like all origin myths, this narrative has enormous power, and its reach and resilience are preventing us from thinking clearly about our present crises.

    This myth, they argue, can be found on the shelves of every high-street and airport bookshop, in super-sellers such as Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday and Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. All of these books share a common assumption: as societies become larger, more complex, wealthy and “civilised”, they inevitably become less equal. Early humans, it is said, lived like the foragers of the Kalahari, in small, mobile bands that were casually egalitarian and democratic. But this primitive idyll or Hobbesian hell (views differ) disappeared with settlement and farming, which required the management of labour and land. The emergence of early cities, and ultimately states, demanded even steeper hierarchies, and with them the whole civilisational package – leaders, administrators, the division of labour and social classes. The lesson, then, is clear: human equality and freedom have to be traded for progress.

    Graeber and Wengrow see the origins of this “stagist” narrative in Enlightenment thought, and show that it has been so persistently appealing because it can be used by radicals as well as liberals. For early liberals such as Adam Smith, it was a positive story that could be deployed to justify the rise in inequality brought by commerce and the structure of the modern state. But a variation on the story, put forward by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, proved just as useful to the left: in the “state of nature” man was originally free, but with the coming of agriculture, property and so on, he ended up in chains. And Friedrich Engels fused Rousseau’s “noble savage” fable with Darwinist evolutionary ideas, to produce a more optimistic Marxist narrative of historical progress: primitive communism is superseded by private property and states, and then by a modern, proletarian communism.

    It is this tale – in both its liberal and more radical forms – which Graeber and Wengrow seek to dismantle using recent anthropological and archaeological research. Excavations in Louisiana, for example, show that in about 1600BC Native Americans built giant earthworks for mass gatherings, drawing people from hundreds of miles around – evidence that shatters the notion that all foragers lived simple, isolated lives.

    Meanwhile, the so-called “agricultural revolution” – the Neolithic Faustian bargain when humanity swapped egalitarian simplicity for wealth, status and hierarchy – simply didn’t happen. The shift from foraging to agriculture was slow and patchy; much of what has been thought of as farming was actually small-scale horticulture, and perfectly compatible with flat social structures. Similarly, the rise of cities did not necessitate kings, priests and bureaucrats. Indus valley settlements such as Harappa (c2600BC) show no signs of palaces or temples and instead suggest dispersed, not concentrated power. While Graeber and Wengrow are open about the very limited evidence and the disputes over its interpretation, they build a compelling case.

    Yet they reserve particular scorn for another myth: the assumption that the “savage” was stupid as well as noble. In an age that worships the tech-gods of Silicon Valley, it is tempting to believe that we are more sapiens than our distant ancestors. But 17th-century Jesuit missionaries were exasperated to discover the intellectual agility of the Native American Wendat people in resisting conversion; indeed, they showed themselves more eloquent than the “shrewdest citizens and merchants in France”. This sophistication was attributed to the Wendats’ democratic councils, which were “held almost every day in the Villages, and on almost all matters” and “improve[d] their capacity for talking”. These skills and habits, Graeber and Wengrow suggest, actually made so-called primitive peoples more truly “political animals” than we are now – engaged in the day-to-day business of organising their communities rather than impotently tweeting about it.

    Graeber was, until his death last year at the age of 59, among the world’s most famous anarchists and an intellectual leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement (now celebrating its 10th anniversary). The Dawn of Everything certainly follows a long tradition of anti-statist anthropology. An early example was Mutual Aid (1902) by the anarchist geographer Prince Kropotkin, which provided an alternative to the fashionable evolutionary histories of his era, and defended “savage” peoples against the harsh judgments of imperialists and Marxists alike. And in his 1972 essay The Original Affluent Society, the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wondered whether the Kalahari foragers, with their two- to four-hour working day, were really so much worse off than the nine-to-five office or factory worker.

    Importantly, Graeber and Wengrow do not idealise a particular “golden age”; we are not being urged to embrace a Palaeolithic lifestyle. They stress the sheer variety and hybridity of early human societies – hierarchical and non-hierarchical, equal in some respects and not in others. Indeed, peoples like the Cherokee or the Inuit even alternated between authoritarianism and democracy depending on the season. Nevertheless, the authors make their sympathies clear: they admire experimentation, imagination and playfulness, as well as mastery of the art of not being governed, to use historian James C Scott’s term.

    The Dawn of Everything is an exhilarating read, but it’s unclear how effectively it makes the case for anarchism. Sceptical readers will be driven to ask: if states in their current form are really so unnecessary, why have they become so dominant across the world? To address this, Graeber and Wengrow would have needed to offer a much fuller account of why modern states emerged, how they could have been avoided and how we might live without them. This is what Kropotkin tried to do, and such questions seem particularly pressing when the sheer complexity and interconnectedness of current global challenges lead many to conclude that we need more state capacity, not less.

    Even so, myth-busting is a crucial task in itself. As we seek new, sustainable ways to organise our world, we need to understand the full range of ways our ancestors thought and lived. And we must certainly question conventional versions of our history which we have accepted, unexamined, for far too long.

  2. shinichi Post author

    Max Planck once remarked that new scientific truths don’t replace old ones by convincing established scientists that they were wrong; they do so because proponents of the older theory eventually die, and generations that follow find the new truths and theories to be familiar, obvious even. We are optimists. We like to think it will not take that long.

    In fact, we have already taken a first step. We can see more clearly now what is going on when, for example, a study that is rigorous in every other respect begins from the unexamined assumption that there was some ‘original’ form of human society; that its nature was fundamentally good or evil; that a time before inequality and political awareness existed; that something happened to change all this; that ‘civilization’ and ‘complexity’ always come at the price of human freedoms; that participatory democracy is natural in small groups but cannot possibly scale up to anything like a city or a nation state.

    We know, now, that we are in the presence of myths.

  3. shinichi Post author

    Most people today also believe they live in free societies (indeed, they often insist that, politically at least, this is what is most important about their societies), but the freedoms which form the moral basis of a nation like the United States are, largely, formal freedoms.

    American citizens have the right to travel wherever they like – provided, of course, they have the money for transport and accommodation. They are free from ever having to obey the arbitrary orders of superiors – unless, of course, they have to get a job. In this sense, it is almost possible to say the Wendat had play chiefs and real freedoms, while most of today have to make do with real chiefs and play freedoms. Or to put the matter more technically: what the Hadza, Wendat or ‘egalitarian’ people such as the Nuer seem to have been concerned with were not so much formal as substantive ones. They were less interested in the right to travel than in the possibility of actually doing so (hence, the matter was typically framed as an obligation to provide hospitality to strangers). Mutual aid – what contemporary European observers often referred to as ‘communism’ – was seen as the necessary condition for individual autonomy.

  4. shinichi Post author

    If something did go terribly wrong in human history – and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did – then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence, to such a degree that some now feel this particular type of freedom hardly even existed, or was barely exercised, for the greater part of human history.

  5. shinichi Post author

    History, in Renaissance Europe of the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, was not a story of progress. It was largely a series of disasters.


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