Looking to the Past to Imagine the Future: A Review of Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything
In each of his many books, David Graeber takes aim at commonly held bourgeois notions of “human nature” and beliefs about distant human history. These myths of origin are convenient for the ruling class as they uphold the current status quo as naturally ordained: in past times this order was assumed to be given by God, and now in our secular age are the necessary outcome of evolution and nebulous ideas of “progress.” This critique itself is nothing new: Karl Marx saw this same continuation between religious and secular ideologies of the ruling class when he wrote that “the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form.” 1 Graeber’s academic work as an anthropologist allows him to draw on a wealth of examples from his field, painting a far more interesting picture of the complex forms of social organization humans have created across time.
Graeber’s work is academically rigorous, yet his writing style does not fall into the trap of excessive jargon and dryness. His ability to convey the nuances of academic debates in casual prose that foregrounds storytelling makes his intimidatingly long works quite pleasant to read. This new collaboration with archeologist David Wengrow builds upon Graeber’s earlier scholarship but is much more ambitious in scope – it isn’t called The Dawn of Everything for nothing. Graeber and Wengrow explore such wide-ranging topics as Enlightenment philosophers’ reactions to Indigenous critiques of European civilization, how the state does not have an “origin” and myths about the agrarian revolution. Yet their book is mainly a polemic against the belief that our current society is the inevitable outcome of history and an invitation to view our present as dynamic, filled with possibilities for how our world could be organized differently.
Graeber and Wengrow explicitly place their work in opposition to cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker who argues in his 2012 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined “that humans lived in a state of anarchy until the emergence of civilization some five thousand years ago, when sedentary farmers first coalesced into cities and states and developed the first governments.” 2 While many might find comfort in Pinker’s belief that we are somehow more rational and less prone to violence than our ancestors of many centuries ago, Graeber and Wengrow rightly point out that this view works handily as a justification for the existence of the capitalist nation states, police forces, wage-labour, and imperialism that we currently live under. After all, if things look bad now, from Pinker’s view we can take comfort that we must be living better than our “barbaric” ancestors. This view is a reiteration of the 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s claim that humanity originally living in a state of war of “every man, against every man” until we eventually developed a system of absolute monarchy in which people were guaranteed protection by a king in exchange for submitting their individual freedoms to that king. 3 Graeber and Wengrow give a wealth of examples for why this myth bears no resemblance to actual human history. 4 Instead, they ask why speculation about the origins of human inequality became important in the first place. The answer they give is quite interesting: “If we ask, not ‘what are the origins of social inequality?’ but ‘what are the origins of the question about the origins of social inequality?’… then we are immediately confronted with a long history of Europeans arguing with one another about the nature of faraway societies: in this case, particularly in the Eastern Woodlands of North America” (96).
Graeber and Wengrow note that the question of “equality” emerged onto the scene of European intellectual debate at a particular moment in the 17th century. Looking into the wider context around Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1755 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, they show that “Fascination with the question of social inequality was relatively new in the 1700s, and it had everything to do with the shock and confusion that followed Europe’s sudden integration into a global economy, where it had long been a very minor player” (91-92). According to Graeber and Wengrow, questions about the origin of inequality as a topic of political philosophy had everything to do with European colonial expansion into the Americas, as settlers and missionaries found Indigenous communities they came to “civilize” had often developed and articulated difficult critiques of the kind of “civilization” European colonizers believed to be divinely sanctioned. Graeber and Wengrow write that “‘the origin of social inequality’ is not a problem which would have made sense to anyone in the Middle Ages. Ranks and hierarchies were assumed to have existed from the very beginning” (100). However, the massive social inequality between the aristocracy and peasantry in Europe could no longer be taken for granted as colonizers began to encounter complex societies structured in very different, and often far more egalitarian ways from their own. Thus, social inequality came to be seen not as a fact of life, but as a specific phenomenon that must not have always existed in the same way.
Graeber and Wengrow point out that Rousseau and Hobbes’ speculations over what an “original” state of human nature missed the point of Indigenous critiques of European colonizers. First, while European intellectuals took Indigenous peoples they encountered as possible models for what their own prehistories might have looked like, the reality is that Indigenous societies were on their own paths of social and political development–– casting them as representations of Europe’s past was nothing but a colonial fantasy. Second, while the belief that humanity existed in an original state of equality nicely mirrors the biblical myth of the garden of Eden and humanity’s fall from grace, it does not correspond to actual history. By surveying a rather daunting list of examples from anthropology, Graeber and Wengrow attempt to break down many of the widely held beliefs about human history and attempt to tell a new story about humanity’s distant history.
The narrative around humanity’s fall from an original state of equality is usually pinned to the moment humans began agricultural projects. This supposedly caused an irrevocable shift where people stopped living in small bands of individuals and began developing large population centers requiring bureaucratic administration and therefore, hierarchy. This epochal shift is sometimes referred to as “the agrarian revolution.” The idea that equality is only possible at a small local level and that any complex social organization necessarily requires a degree of inequality is a truism often lorded over leftists by liberal ideologues. Yet Graeber and Wengrow argue that the anthropological data shows that there is no reason to assume that a small group of individuals will inherently form an egalitarian society, nor that a large group of individuals will inherently form a hierarchical society. Furthermore, agriculture was not a singular invention that caused an irrevocable shift from nomadic hunting and gathering to settled farming. Instead, Graeber and Wengrow show that “fluid ecological arrangements – combining garden cultivation, flood-retreat farming on the margins of lakes or springs, small-scale landscape management (e.g. by burning, pruning and terracing) and the corralling or keeping of animals in semi-wild states, combined with a spectrum of hunting, fishing and collecting activities – were once typical of human societies in many parts of the world” (816). This diversity of methods might shift and adapt to various conditions but does not map neatly onto the standard “agrarian revolution” model which assumes that agriculture is necessarily the most ideal form for self-sustenance across all contexts and places.
Graeber and Wengrow show that this ecological flexibility extends to social formations in their exploration of the origins of the state. Going over a series of definitions liberals and Marxists have given for what a state actually is, they note that each definition takes for granted that a state will necessarily emerge in any sufficiently large and complex society. In a rhetorical move that should be familiar by now, they flip this assumption on its head and instead ask what historical conditions give rise to states in the first place. They show that much of the existing research on this topic is clouded by a tendency of assuming our modern state institutions as a template to read onto past societies. Graeber and Wengrow give a comparative reading of archeological sites from Minoan Crete, Tell Sabi Abyad in modern day Syria, Chavín de Huántar in modern Peru, among many others to show that what has been called “early state formation” by many anthropologists has referred to an incredibly diverse set of social practices that do not resemble each other in any overarching ways. This section is probably the least satisfying in terms of drawing out a clear-cut set of proposals about how to develop a better understanding of what a state is. The closest they come is by comparing it to the emergence of agriculture; as a process by which “loose and flexible methods of cultivation which leave people free to pursue any number of other seasonal activities – turned into more serious agriculture, play kingdoms began to take on more substance as well” (904). While this provides a nice refutation of overly simplistic notions of societal evolution, it does not leave the reader with a clear understanding of how to understand the function of the state in our present day.
There is a clear political upshot to all of this: if humans have formed societies in remarkably creative and varied ways in the past, then there is no reason that our present societies necessarily have to be structured the way they currently are. There is a recurrent critique of appeals to “human nature” in Graeber and Wengrow’s work, often expressed in their unpacking of common assumptions about the “evolutionary” development of society which often leans on the assumption that humans in past times were not as intelligent or self-reflective as we are now. By contrast, Graeber and Wengrow exemplify just how creative and open to new forms of organizing society humans have been throughout history.
While I greatly enjoyed The Dawn of Everything and recommend it as an excellent radical rethinking of commonly held assumptions about human anthropology, I do have some lingering questions about the book. First, while some have done the work of bringing Graeber’s work into conversation with Marx’s anthropological writings, 5 Graeber and Wengrow only ever makes passing reference to left wing traditions critiquing liberalism’s story of human origins. There is an implicit argument against the Marxist concept of “modes of production” throughout The Dawn of Everything, as this too is a theory about the origins of human inequality. However, while passing jabs are made at the concept, Graeber and Wengrow never unpack what they understand this concept to mean, nor do they articulate their specific critiques of it. In their engagement with anarchist thinkers, one chapter is named after Murry Bookchin’s Ecology of Freedom, and Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid is repeatedly invoked. Yet again, there is no sustained engagement with these thinker’s bodies of work in the way there is with Rousseau and Hobbes. The lack of engagement with other radical thinkers allows the book to avoid getting caught up in factional left-wing infighting, but it also means that it does not always have much to say to those already familiar with radical left-wing political thought.
If the intent of the book is to be a polemic aiming to win over those familiar with Pinker and other mainstream liberal intellectuals, the book loses some of its rhetorical punch in its sheer length. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a long, in-depth read, but some sections of the text did not feel like they worked to advance any specific thesis. While many of the given anthropological examples were incredibly fascinating, there were so many given that the function of individual examples began to get lost. This was a critique I also hold of Graeber’s earlier book Debt: The First 5,000 Years which began with an excellent point about how the origins of money are not found in relations of barter as taught by mainstream economics, instead arguing that money originated as a way of keeping track of the debts individuals and groups owed to each other. However, the thesis eventually moved into the background with later arguments not directly building off of its implications. If the purpose of the text is to challenge commonly held assumptions about the nature of early human history and the audience is anticipated to be those generally unfamiliar with existing radical left debates about the topic, a long and winding text is likely to lose all but the most committed readers. Graeber has successfully written polemics before such as his short, sharp, and highly relatable 2013 essay titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” which was met with immediate widespread success. Later this essay was developed into a book length work in 2018 which suffered from some of the same issues I have noted about his other works.
The most interesting aspect of The Dawn of Everything was the argument that the origins of Enlightenment values of democracy and freedom emerged from Indigenous peoples’ critiques of European societies. While this aspect of the book has earned the most criticism, I am eager to see how future scholarship responds to and develops this line of thinking. The emphasis on human agency within the book was inspiring––there are many accounts of how societies have consciously chosen to restructure themselves across time creating a sense of possibility for our own future. Yet, a broadened sense of possibility is not itself a political program. Graeber and Wengrow are right to shift the question of social evolution from “how did we get here” to “how did we get stuck” thinking that our present society is the only way we can organize the world (286). However, they do not attempt to answer this question nor provide much of a roadmap for how to start.
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