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Human History, Retold by David Graeber

Issue 269

Anthropologist David Graeber’s final book is an epic, ambitious romp through the past 30,000 years of social evolution.

Steven Sherman Feb 14

Related: The Invention of Debt: An Interview with David Graeber by Irina Ivanova and David Graeber in The Indypendent by John Tarleton

For the 10 years before his death in 2020, David Graeber was perhaps the most prominent left public intellectual in the world. And unlike other contenders, such as David Harvey and Slavoj Zizek, he immersed himself in the world of social movements, playing a concrete role in organizing Occupy Wall Street. His posthumous book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, co-authored with archeologist David Wengrow, is a major event: A bestselling far-left text that is a direct challenge to conventional wisdom on many fronts. Critics better versed in the last couple of decades of archeological and anthropological research will no doubt offer empirically grounded assessments. From my position, this book is a huge prod to utopian thinking that touches on many topics unfamiliar to most readers. At the same time, for all its ambitions, it sidesteps or avoids a few key areas.

The Dawn of Everything begins with a lengthy section of throat-clearing, in which Graeber and Wengrow hope to make clear the inadequacies of an evolutionary perspective on human history and the related question of the origins of social inequality. The evolutionary perspective, in which social organization was propelled forward by productive advances, most notably agriculture, and ascended from small, mobile bands to chiefdoms to empires and eventually nation-states, has been critiqued by anthropologists for decades, but it remains influential both within academic life and for public intellectuals like Stephen Pinker and Jared Diamond.

This has long been related to the question, “What are the origins of social inequality?” Graeber and Wengrow offer plenty of evidence that the evolutionary process for human societies was more uneven than has been suggested, and that centralized power by no means held a monopoly on technological innovations. Ultimately, they offer a somewhat different account of the “fall from grace.” In their view, humans have always been political animals, reinventing their social relations. What were once conceived as three fundamental rights, however — the right to disobey, the right to flee, and the right to reinvent social relations — have largely been forgotten or cast aside. So now, we are stuck with territorial states that enforce obedience with guns and traduce any rights to flee or reinvent ourselves.

This brings us to the book’s second orienting framework, the substitution of the question “How did we (virtually all of humanity) get stuck with territorial states?” for “What are the origins of social inequality?” They never really offer a convincing answer, nor do they consider seriously that the origins-of-inequality question is far more popular because virtually everyone on the left of the political spectrum agrees that extreme inequality is a problem, while there is nothing remotely like such a consensus around the existence of states. Nevertheless, the trip they take through early human history inspired by these questions is highly illuminating, and will shake up many readers’ preconceptions.

The Dawn of Everything hardly offers a linear perspective on early human history, if such a thing were possible. It jumps around from hemisphere to hemisphere, continent to continent, region to region. It says little about Western European social structures after the heyday of the ancient Greeks, but in North America, it traces some patterns through the contact between Western imperialists and indigenous peoples from the 15th through 18th centuries.

Graeber and Wengrow hope to make clear the inadequacies of an evolutionary perspective on human history and the related question of the origins of social inequality.

Nevertheless, the unifying vision is strong, and their thematic emphasis is clear. Throughout, they argue that self-consciousness about political arrangements is pretty much the essence of humans, as much a part of the consciousness of smaller groups with little technology as it is for modern people, who often lose sight of their own political capacity, as states seem natural and unmovable. Whereas evolutionary perspectives (including Marxism) tend to argue that survival impels technological innovation, which in turn enables and even necessitates transforming social structures, for Graeber and Wengrow, early humanity was far more playful.

They emphasize that some groups had seasonal social structures, toggling between more egalitarian and more hierarchical structures depending on the time of year. States emerge but also dissolve — sometimes, they hint, without providing much evidence, because of rebellious rejection of hierarchy. Different peoples go in different directions because of schismogenesis, literally “creation of division,” an anthropological term for the process of differentiating themselves from each other, rather than deep environmental factors.

Far from history being a story of more and more complex administration producing greater and greater surpluses, the authors emphasize the production of playful rituals that may not have been designed to legitimize permanent hierarchies. They argue, for example, against using elaborate Ice Age burials as evidence of an early turn toward hierarchy. Perhaps the people being buried in these ways weren’t at the top of social hierarchies at all; maybe they were eccentric or differently esteemed. The emphasis on political experimentation and playful rituals not coincidentally bears a certain resemblance to Graeber’s own political practice with the alter-globalization movement of the early 2000s and Occupy Wall Street.

The authors regularly confound readers’ expectations about early humanity. Before agriculture, they say, humans had wider horizons, traveling far throughout their lives and managing relations with groups that covered even more territory, perhaps leaving and joining different groups as they wished. It is more contemporary humans whose space has shrunk. Cities weren’t necessarily the product of empires and kings, they write; many emerged without central rule, running themselves as a series of neighborhoods that managed to function together. Administration and math probably didn’t emerge from the needs of centers of power but were rather technologies that began on a small scale, likely through the initiatives of women. Some of these emergent cultural areas probably had a matriarchal aspect. Early agriculture is better conceptualized as women gardening to cultivate plants for rituals than as centralized rulers’ grand schemes to generate a surplus. Centers of power here aren’t the initiators of technology so much as the appropriators, after bands of marauding men conquer the anarchistic cities.

States, which combine violence, administration (knowledge as power) and charisma, contingently emerge and sometimes fall apart again. In one of the most vivid of the many narratives sketched in the book, the pre-conquest history of North America is depicted as one where a centralized state rose and fell hundreds of years before Europeans invaded, and was eventually replaced by smaller groups that had nevertheless developed ways to interact over vast distances. That state rule was remembered in myth as despised memories of those who sought to order people around. Ultimately, this was the context for the European encounter in the 18th century with indigenous people who could confidently defend their anarchistic societies and deliver powerful critiques of European social organization. In Graeber and Wengrow’s view, the encounter with these views was crucial to the shift associated with the Enlightenment, when elite European thought began to celebrate freedom instead of viewing it negatively.

As they focus, more or less, on the rise of states, several other highly relevant topics get short shrift. Religion is largely seen as the rituals deployed to hold things together. Universal, expansionary, proselytizing faiths like Christianity and Islam are ignored, although they have implications for all the questions Graeber and Wengrow are interested in. The playful aspect of trade — collecting shells just because, more or less — is emphasized, and proto-capitalist elements, in which rulers and others seized upon opportunities to accumulate money ceaselessly, are ignored, although there are many examples of that even in early history.

The efforts to answer the question, “How did we get stuck with states now covering the entirety of the world?” are disappointing. At times they seem to argue that, as if in some dystopian nightmare fiction, playful rituals unexpectedly turn deadly serious and immutable; a person appointed king for a day becomes one. Later they indicate that perhaps charitable efforts, such as bringing widows or orphans into a temple, turn into permanent power over the subjects being helped.

But the covering of the globe with territorial states is a modern, recent feature. Two highly relevant dynamics go unmentioned. First, constant warfare in Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire ultimately required the rise of state-like structures to defend against neighbors, and European power struggles tended to expand to cover more and more of the globe. Second, for most of the 20th century, there was a strong conviction among colonized elites that having modern states of their own was the road to modernity and prosperity. This conviction has been shaken by the lackluster results of post-colonial independence, and power has migrated up toward transnational bureaucracies like the World Trade Organization and downward toward non-state movements like the Zapatistas in Mexico and Kurdish Rojava in northwest Syria.

It is in line with the spirit of this book to ponder what future combinations of states, transnational organizations, and movements will emerge over the next century. Whether they will reinforce or undo inequality and domination, is entirely uncertain.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
By David Graeber & David Wengrow
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Nov. 2021, 692 pages

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