Beyond the State
David Graeber and David Wengrow’s anarchist history of humanity.
By Daniel Immerwahr SEPTEMBER 20, 2021
Protest speaks a language of forceful insistence. “Defund the police,” “Build the wall”—the unyielding demands go back to Moses’ “Let my people go.” So it was curious when the July 2011 issue of the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters ran a cryptic call to arms: a ballerina posing atop the famous Charging Bull statue on Wall Street, with the question “What is our one demand?” printed above her in red. The question wasn’t answered; readers were only told, “#OccupyWallStreet. September 17th. Bring tent.”
BOOKS IN REVIEW
THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING: A NEW HISTORY OF HUMANITY By David Graeber and David Wengrow
In retrospect, it’s astonishing that such a vague entreaty worked, especially since Adbusters declined to organize the action. After issuing the call, the magazine had “almost nothing to do with it,” its cofounder admitted. Instead, an unaffiliated group called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, composed largely of socialists, announced a planning meeting the next month at Bowling Green in Manhattan’s financial district. The meeting was tacked on to a protest the group had organized against Republican attempts to enforce the federal debt ceiling and gut social services.
“They were going to make speeches, and then we were going to march under waving banners,” said the anarchist David Graeber, who attended the meeting. “Who fucking cares?” Graeber and some like-minded thinkers defected to the other side of the park, sat in a circle, and discussed less hierarchical possibilities. “We quickly determined we had no idea what we were actually going to do,” he recalled. And yet it was this freewheeling collection of anarchists, Zapatistas, and squatters that formed the organizational seed of Occupy Wall Street, an explosive movement that held Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan for two months, made headlines, and set off more than 200 occupations globally.
What was the occupiers’ one demand? They never said. And as they practiced a leaderless form of democracy, there was no one to say. The movement did have a slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent,” informed by recent economics research exposing the gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else. Yet the occupiers didn’t seem particularly inspired by the technical solutions that economists proposed. When Joseph Stiglitz, the World Bank’s former chief economist and a critic of unregulated capitalism, came to Zuccotti Park to complain about how financial markets had “misallocated capital,” he looked adorably out of place in his collared dress shirt and khakis, surrounded by activists in kaffiyehs, baseball caps, and hoodies.
Journalists trying to understand this inchoate insurgency turned for answers to Graeber, a seasoned veteran of the global justice movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s and a central figure in Zuccotti Park. It helped that he was a witty commentator with a knack for summing things up crisply. He’d been the one to suggest the language of “the 99 percent,” which he’d adapted from an article by Stiglitz. Graeber was also, as some of his fellow occupiers were surprised to learn, a major anthropological theorist. Starting as an expert on highland Madagascar, Graeber had become a free-range thinker specializing in questions of hierarchy and value but interested in virtually everything. He’d recently written a 600-page ethnography of the protests against neoliberal globalization—protests he’d joined himself.
Graeber’s academic career had faltered when he was denied tenure at Yale and was effectively locked out of the US academy (he suspected that his politics were the problem). But he’d found a new position in London, and his fifth book, the hefty Debt: The First 5,000 Years, had come out to significant buzz just months before Occupy Wall Street began. Its sweeping attack on the economic assumptions behind austerity politics seemed to fit the moment perfectly.https://buy.tinypass.com/checkout/template/cacheableShow?aid=NmGa4IzWHL&templateId=OTFVM3RHWZ0B&offerId=fakeOfferId&experienceId=EXAO0X9CQ04A&iframeId=offer_6a607d574eb5007ae5e3-0&displayMode=inline&widget=template&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.thenation.com
And it truly was a moment. Occupy Wall Street, Spain’s Indignados movement, and the Arab Spring all erupted in 2011, sending shock waves around the planet. Occupations took place from Oslo to Tel Aviv. It seemed briefly as if the foundations of our corporate-led order might crack—and, in a way, they did. In the United States, the language of “the 99 percent” is now commonplace, and Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were all arguably propelled to their high perches within Democratic politics by the protests of 2011.
Yet these are socialist-style successes. What of the protest’s anarchist origins and principles—its governance by general assembly, working groups, and “spokes councils”? Occupy was more than a plea for financial regulation; it was also a stunning display of how much hell utopians sleeping in tents could raise. For Graeber, those utopians’ nonhierarchical forms of organization, not their indistinct demands, were what really mattered. Most people, he wrote, “have been taught since a very young age to have extremely limited political horizons, an extremely narrow sense of human possibility.” Their idea of democracy is limited to voters electing rulers, and they struggle to imagine free people collectively managing their own affairs. Zuccotti Park’s leaderless decision-making showed what that might look like.
Another way to show that, Graeber believed, was for anthropologists to document societies that have gotten by without structures of domination. And so, for more than a decade, he worked with the archaeologist David Wengrow on another book, focused on early non-state societies. What began as “a diversion” for the authors became an epic, the 700-page first installment of a tetralogy that would “easily outsell The Lord of the Rings,” Graeber playfully predicted. Wider in scope than even Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the projected series was to be a grand retelling of the history of our species.
But it was a story that Graeber would never fully tell. On August 6, 2020, at 9:18 pm, he declared the first volume finished. Less than a month later, on September 2, he died suddenly of necrotic pancreatitis in Venice. Wengrow carried the book to publication, just in time for Occupy Wall Street’s 10th anniversary. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is a work of dizzying ambition, one that seeks to rescue stateless societies from the condescension with which they’re usually treated. Yet it succeeds better in uprooting conventional wisdom than in laying down a narrative of its own. The result is a book that is both thrilling and exasperating, showcasing the promise and the perils of the anarchist approach to history.
History, as a field, is often inhospitable to anarchists; its usual fare—kings, battles, and Nazis—doesn’t offer them much to work with. But push further back, into the eras we know about from archaeological digs, and things perk up. Many early societies, Graeber and Wengrow note, lacked states as we would recognize them.
Why didn’t early humans construct durable hierarchies? The conventional and oft-repeated wisdom is that they simply lacked the capacity. Life then was a primordial soup of politics, a sea of anarchy. “Civilization” evolved only in time, the first halting steps taken by the handful of societies that managed to spawn cities, mint coins, and erect temples. These early coalescences of order, we tell ourselves, are the success stories.
Sympathy for civilization is baked into our terminology. For example, we divide ancient Egypt into golden and dark ages: the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, when the pyramids were built, and the First, Second, and Third Intermediate Periods, unfortunate eras of disarray. But should we really think about them that way? Graeber and Wengrow point out that the Middle Kingdom’s vaunted “strong and stable government” rested on “crippling taxation, state-sponsored suppression of ethnic minorities, and the growth of forced labour to support royal mining expeditions and construction projects—not to mention the brutal plundering of Egypt’s southern neighbours for slaves and gold.” However impressive the Middle Kingdom’s pyramids were, most people, preferring not to be military conscripts or slaves, would surely rather have lived in the Second Intermediate Period. So why do we take large monuments as the measure of a society’s achievement? Shouldn’t we rather take them as evidence of something having gone horribly awry?
In our obsession with order, the authors contend, we write off most prehistoric and ancient peoples as essentially children. We treat their lack of strong states as a failure, so that vast spans of humanity’s time line appear to be populated by dim-witted ancestors who couldn’t figure out how to establish cities, plant grain, or build tombs for their rulers. What we rarely consider is that they might have chosen to fashion their societies as they did—that they might have contemplated creating states and thought better of it.
Our forebears crafted their societies intentionally and intelligently: This is the fundamental, electrifying insight of The Dawn of Everything. It’s a book that refuses to dismiss long-ago peoples as corks floating on the waves of prehistory. Instead, it treats them as reflective political thinkers from whom we might learn something.
Graeber and Wengrow are thus keenly interested in the institutions that these ancient peoples created. Humanity before agriculture, they argue, was not an endless file of primitive egalitarian bands but a “carnival parade” of “bold social experiments”: cities without rulers, fishing societies with slaves, foragers with long-distance social coordination.
Our ancestors were inventive, Graeber and Wengrow insist, because they had options. Without territorial states hemming them in, they could slide in and out of social configurations more easily. They might visit a neighboring society that arranged its affairs differently. Or they might, like the Cheyenne and Lakota, enjoy a seasonal rotation: a strong central government during the buffalo hunt, then a dispersal into small autonomous bands when it ended.
Today, social arrangements are pretty much the same everywhere, but premodern people sampled from a wide menu. Surely, Graeber and Wengrow argue, this must have made them political connoisseurs, with a keen sense of all the possibilities beyond inequalities, armies, and kings.
So why did the parade end? How did a crazy quilt of social possibility become the wall-to-wall carpeting of stratified states? The usual answer is that states are evolutionarily dominant, that there’s something natural or at least inevitable about them. Give people enough time, goes the theory, and they’ll form durable hierarchies, because states are the big-boy pants of politics. The Dawn of Everything rejects that view and instead offers hundreds of pages of people thoughtfully avoiding states, subverting them, or replacing them with alternatives.
Still, the ubiquity of hierarchical states today is the challenge that any anarchist history must confront. It resembles the challenge that Karl Marx’s theory once faced: If capitalism is supposed to collapse under the weight of its contradictions, then why isn’t the whole world communist by now? There was a generation or two of Marxist writers who, tasked with answering that question, hacked through the thicket of modern history. “Ah, Poland,” they would exclaim. “The problem there was Dmowski’s nationalist movement, an ultimately bourgeois formation that misdirected working-class political energies.” In a way, the inaccuracy of Marx’s central prediction proved extraordinarily generative. It forced Marxists to theorize incessantly; they needed a take on everything.
The Dawn of Everything has a similar feel. Confronting the statist theory that durable hierarchies are inevitable, Graeber and Wengrow cede no ground and fight at every corner. They care—a lot—about whether the ancient town of Çatalhöyük sourced its crops from dry land or riverbeds. (“The distinction is important for a variety of reasons, not just ecological but also historical, even political.”) They care, too, whether the palace at Taosi in 2000 bce was razed in an imperial reshuffling or a revolt. Does the difficulty we have reading graven images from the Chavín de Huántar site in Peru prove that it wasn’t an “actual empire”? Graeber and Wengrow have views.
This relentless revisionism can be exhilarating, but it’s also exhausting. Consider the pre-Aztec city of Teotihuacan in modern-day Mexico. It is an immense site with pyramids, but its pictorial art is short on recognizable rulers. Does that mean it “had found a way to govern itself without overlords,” as Graeber and Wengrow posit? Perhaps, but there are images of Teotihuacano lords at the Mayan site of Tikal. Cue a four-page section in which Graeber and Wengrow argue that the lords depicted weren’t true royals but “unscrupulous foreigners” who’d arrived in Tikal claiming ranks they’d never attained—a sort of ancient Mesoamerican stolen valor.
The readers of Graeber’s previous work will recognize this provocative style; he was a wildly creative thinker who excelled at subverting received wisdom. But he was better known for being interesting than right, and he would gleefully make pronouncements that either couldn’t be confirmed (the Iraq War was retribution for Saddam Hussein’s insistence that Iraqi oil exports be paid for in euros) or were never meant to be (“White-collar workers don’t actually do anything”).
In The Dawn of Everything, this interpretative brashness feeds off our lack of firm knowledge about the distant past. When only potsherds remain, conjecture can run wild. Graeber and Wengrow dutifully acknowledge the need for caution, but this doesn’t stop them from dismissing rival theories with assurance. It’s hard not to wonder whether this book, which zips merrily across time and space and hypothesizes confidently in the face of scant or confusing evidence, can be trusted.
Certainly, the part closest to my area of expertise raises questions. In arguing that people hate hierarchies, Graeber and Wengrow twice assert that settlers in the colonial Americas who’d been “captured or adopted” by Indigenous societies “almost invariably” chose to stay with them. By contrast, Indigenous people taken into European societies “almost invariably did just the opposite: either escaping at the earliest opportunity, or—having tried their best to adjust, and ultimately failed—returning to indigenous society to live out their last days.”
Big if true, as they say, but the claim is ballistically false, and the sole scholarly authority that Graeber and Wengrow cite—a 1977 dissertation—actually argues the opposite. “Persons of all races and cultural backgrounds reacted to captivity in much the same way” is its thesis; generally, young children assimilated into their new culture and older captives didn’t. Many captured settlers returned, including the frontiersman Daniel Boone, the Puritan minister John Williams, and the author Mary Rowlandson. And there’s a long history of Native people attending settler schools, befriending or marrying whites, and adopting European religious practices. Such choices were surely shaped by colonialism, but to deny they were ever made is absurd.
Perhaps this misstep doesn’t matter. Graeber and Wengrow can indulge in outsize claims and pet theories because they don’t need to always be right. The Dawn of Everything aims to shoot holes in the myth of the inevitable state, to deflate the notion that advanced societies can’t function without leaders, police, or bureaucrats. The 700-page book is a hail of bullets; if only some hit the target, that’s enough.
Statists believe that overarching hierarchies are both natural and desirable. Graeber and Wengrow energetically attack that position, but the big question still looms: If states aren’t inevitable, why are they everywhere? This question becomes even more of a stumper if, like the authors, you attribute a great deal of agency to non-state peoples. The more thoughtful and capable you take them to be, the harder it becomes to explain how they all came to live in the sorts of societies they ostensibly wouldn’t have chosen.
Two popular history-of-everything writers, Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari, have an answer. The sequence of farming, private property, war, and states was a trap, they write. Humans entered it without realizing they wouldn’t be able to leave, and for most of history, all they found was despotism and disease. The agricultural revolution was thus “the worst mistake in the history of the human race,” as Diamond asserts, or “history’s biggest fraud,” as Harari does.
Graeber and Wengrow recoil at this explanation. Were our ancestors truly doltish enough to tumble, one after another, into the same trap? More important, they’re wary of Diamond’s and Harari’s fatalism, of the suggestion that State Street runs only one way. In Graeber and Wengrow’s rendition, agriculture was, like everything else, a considered and revocable choice. The Dawn of Everything thus tells of people “flirting and tinkering with the possibilities of farming”—taking it up, putting it down—without thereby “enslaving themselves.”
Yet somewhere, something did go “terribly wrong,” Graeber and Wengrow admit. People went from creatively experimenting with kings and farms to getting “stuck” with them. That metaphor—being stuck in states rather than evolving to them—is useful, in that it suggests people might get unstuck. It captures Graeber and Wengrow’s sense that there is no natural progression from leaderless bands to sophisticated hierarchies.
So, again, how did states take over? What’s exasperating about The Dawn of Everything is that it never really answers the question; at most, it offers quick hints and hypotheses. The loss of physical mobility seems important—people’s inability to leave societies they dislike. So does the tendency of bureaucracies to become impersonal and uncaring. Still, blaming durable hierarchies, as Graeber and Wengrow do, on “a confluence of violence and maths” does not settle the issue.
Perhaps the two were leaving this for a later volume, but it’s not clear that they want to give an answer. To do so would be to offer a grand historical narrative, to explain—as Diamond and Harari do—how humanity moved permanently from one thing to another. Yet Graeber and Wengrow seem almost allergic to the idea that there’s any natural sequence in social arrangements. There’s “simply no reason,” they write, to believe that societies require more leadership or bureaucracy as they grow.
The effects of that contention on their narrative are profound. Once you’ve thrown out the notion that there’s some law or pattern governing the development of societies, it becomes hard to tell any overarching story. The Dawn of Everything is thus less a biography of the species than a scrapbook, filled with accounts of different societies doing different things. That is very much on purpose; for Graeber and Wengrow, early history doesn’t march from A to B but instead wanders like a Ouija pointer all over the alphabet.
So are our wandering days over? Not according to Graeber and Wengrow: They believe we can still wriggle free from states. There’s something embarrassing, they acknowledge, in the thought that we could have been living differently this whole time, and thus that “enslavement, genocide, prison camps, even patriarchy or regimes of wage labour never had to happen.” Yet their upbeat conclusion is that “even now, the possibilities for human intervention are far greater than we’re inclined to think.”
This is anarchism’s heady promise: Break people out of their stupor, show them the alternatives, and they’ll take the hint. You occupy the park not to push for policies (what was their one demand?) but as proof of concept, to demonstrate what a society free of domination looks like.
Similarly, an anarchist history, at least in Graeber and Wengrow’s hands, isn’t the story of change over time but a high-spirited tour of political diversity. It’s a chance to lay out the options, with little sense that population growth or new technologies have pushed any of them permanently off the table. Humans lived without states before, thus they can do so again. Because, ultimately, the point isn’t what happened, but rather all the possibilities that remain.