I first encountered David Graeber in early 2011, pitching his new book “Debt – The First 5000 Years” on rtv’s Keiser Report. That was before the anthropologist got world famous for “Debt” and the OWS slogan: “We are the “99%”. He told Keiser that when he started “Debt” he had no idea he was about to write a book about money. Keiser was nodding knowingly. Reading “Debt” was a massive eye opener on my learning curve. I am confident his late book will be, too. ‘This is not a book. This is an intellectual feast’, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, not someone known for gratuitous generosity in his book reviews.
‘Pacey and potentially revolutionary’ Sunday Times
‘Iconoclastic and irreverent … an exhilarating read’ The Guardian
‘Boldly ambitious, entertaining and thought-provoking’ Observer
‘This is not a book. This is an intellectual feast’ Nassim Nicholas Taleb
For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike – either free and equal, 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 reaction to indigenous critiques of European society, and why they are wrong. In doing so, they overturn our view of human history, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery and civilization itself.
Drawing on path-breaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we begin to see what’s really there. If humans did not spend 95 per cent 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 history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful 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 faith in the power of direct action.
‘Fascinating, thought-provoking, groundbreaking. A book that will generate debate for years to come’ Rutger Bregman
‘Graeber and Wengrow have effectively overturned everything I ever thought about the history of the world. The most profound and exciting book I’ve read in thirty years’ Robin D. G. Kelley
britishlibrary.uk Recent advances in science have allowed us to discover more about early human societies than ever before. From egalitarian early cities in Mexico and Mesopotamia to part-time kings and queens in Ice Age Europe, this ambitious new world history brings together the latest scholarship and archaeological evidence to tell a new story about the last 30,000 years. An intellectual collaboration between the anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything challenges our assumptions about the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy and slavery and, in doing this, overturns everything we thought we knew about human behaviour. It also offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom and new ways of organising society.
lithub.com 11/2021 sample – The Dawn of Everything Is Not a Book About the Origins of Inequality – Or, Why Rousseau and Hobbes Can Suck It – By David Graeber and David Wengrow
…”This is the fourth book of David Graeber’s that I have reviewed. With the others, Debt, The Democracy Project (Occupy Wall Street) and Bullshit Jobs, Graeber proved himself to be so widely read, so insightful, so challenging and in so many widely dispersed domains, it was a major crime that he died weeks after finishing The Dawn of Everything. He died last year at the age of 59, depriving the world of another three decades of his no-holds-barred attacks on misconceptions, misinformation, errors and outright lies in so much of modern life. He was a bad by in the way Noam Chomsky is a bad boy, slinging discoveries and truths left and right regardless of how they might offend the establishment in government, military or academia.
David Wengrow spent ten years working with Graeber on this book. They clearly had too much fun. The research is, as I hope I’ve transmitted, phenomenal. I have not read any of his other books (mostly on archaeology), but this book is so well done, he is now on my list going forward. Together, they found so much that is new, so much that needs correcting and so many gaps where nothing is written at all, that this would have been the first of a shelf of books that would have rewritten the social sciences completely. We can only hope.”… read whole review
tribunemag.co.uk 10/2021 David Graeber’s Final Challenge – A new book by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber is a rejection of the fatalistic myths of human history – and a defence of our power to shape our own world. By Giulio Ongaro
“Origin myths the world over have a basic psychological effect: regardless of their scientific validity, they have the sly power of justifying existing states of affairs, while simultaneously contouring a perception of what the world might look like in the future. Modern capitalist society has built itself upon two variants of one such myth. As one story goes, life as primitive hunter-gatherers was ‘nasty, brutish and short’ until the invention of the state allowed us to flourish. The other story says that in their childlike state of nature, humans were happy and free, and that it was only with the advent of civilisation that ‘they all ran headlong to their chains’. These are two variants of the same myth because they both posit an unilinear historical trajectory, one that begins from simple egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands and ends with increasing social complexity and hierarchy. They also nurture a similar fatalistic perspective on the future: whether we go with Hobbes (the first) or Rousseau (the second), we are left with the idea that the most we can do to change our current predicament is, at best, a bit of modest political tinkering. Hierarchy and inequality are the inevitable price to pay for having truly come of age. Both versions of the myth picture the human past as a primordial soup of small bands of hunter-gatherers, lacking in vision and critical thought, and where nothing much happened until we embarked on the process that, with the advent of agriculture and the birth of cities, culminated in the modern Enlightenment. …
What makes Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything an instant classic is its comprehensive scientific demolition of this myth – what they call ‘the Myth of the Stupid Savage’. Not a shred of archaeological evidence tells us that the picture of the human past is remotely close to what the foundational myth suggests. …
If comparisons must be made, they should be made with works of similar calibre in other fields, most credibly, I venture, with the works of Galileo or Darwin. Graeber and Wengrow do to human history what the first two did to astronomy and biology respectively. The book produces a similar decentring effect: in dethroning our self-appointed position at the pinnacle of social evolution, it deals a blow to the teleological thinking that so insidiously shape our understanding of history. With the exception that while works such as Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and On the Origin of Species hinted at the relative insignificance of humans in the face of the cosmos, The Dawn of Everything explores all the possibilities we have to act within it. And if Galileo and Darwin stirred turmoil of their own, this will do even more so for precisely this reason. Ultimately, a society that accepts the story presented here as its official origin story—a story that is taught in its schools, that seeps into its public consciousness—will have to be radically different than the society we are currently living in.”
timesofindia.indiatimes.com/ 12/11/2021 The story of us & what we can be: Questioning current narratives on humans
sciencenews.org. 9/11/2021 ‘The Dawn of Everything’ rewrites 40,000 years of human history – A new book recasts social evolution as surprisingly varied
Concerns abound about what’s gone wrong in modern societies. Many scholars explain growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots as partly a by-product of living in dense, urban populations. The bigger the crowd, from this perspective, the more we need power brokers to run the show. Societies have scaled up for thousands of years, which has magnified the distance between the wealthy and those left wanting.
In The Dawn of Everything, anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow challenge the assumption that bigger societies inevitably produce a range of inequalities. Using examples from past societies, the pair also rejects the popular idea that social evolution occurred in stages.
Such stages, according to conventional wisdom, began with humans living in small hunter-gatherer bands where everyone was on equal footing. Then an agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago fueled population growth and the emergence of tribes, then chiefdoms and eventually bureaucratic states. Or perhaps murderous alpha males dominated ancient hunter-gatherer groups. If so, early states may have represented attempts to corral our selfish, violent natures.
Neither scenario makes sense to Graeber and Wengrow. Their research synthesis — which extends for 526 pages — paints a more hopeful picture of social life over the last 30,000 to 40,000 years. For most of that time, the authors argue, humans have tactically alternated between small and large social setups. Some social systems featured ruling elites, working stiffs and enslaved people. Others emphasized decentralized, collective decision making. Some were run by men, others by women. The big question — one the authors can’t yet answer — is why, after tens of thousands of years of social flexibility, many people today can’t conceive of how society might effectively be reorganized.
Hunter-gatherers have a long history of revamping social systems from one season to the next, the authors write. About a century ago, researchers observed that Indigenous populations in North America and elsewhere often operated in small, mobile groups for part of the year and crystallized into large, sedentary communities the rest of the year. For example, each winter, Canada’s Northwest Coast Kwakiutl hunter-gatherers built wooden structures where nobles ruled over designated commoners and enslaved people, and held banquets called potlatch. In summers, aristocratic courts disbanded, and clans with less formal social ranks fished along the coast.
Many Late Stone Age hunter-gatherers similarly assembled and dismantled social systems on a seasonal basis, evidence gathered over the last few decades suggests. Scattered discoveries of elaborate graves for apparently esteemed individuals (SN: 10/5/17) and huge structures made of stone (SN: 2/11/21), mammoth bones and other material dot Eurasian landscapes. The graves may hold individuals who were accorded special status, at least at times of the year when mobile groups formed large communities and built large structures, the authors speculate. Seasonal gatherings to conduct rituals and feasts probably occurred at the monumental sites. No signs of centralized power, such as palaces or storehouses, accompany those sites.
Social flexibility and experimentation, rather than a revolutionary shift, also characterized ancient transitions to agriculture, Graeber and Wengrow write. Middle Eastern village excavations now indicate that the domestication of cereals and other crops occurred in fits and starts from around 12,000 to 9,000 years ago. Ancient Fertile Crescent communities periodically gave farming a go while still hunting, foraging, fishing and trading. Early cultivators were in no rush to treat tracts of land as private property or to form political systems headed by kings, the authors conclude.
Even in early cities of Mesopotamia and Eurasia around 6,000 years ago (SN: 2/19/20), absolute rule by monarchs did not exist. Collective decisions were made by district councils and citizen assemblies, archaeological evidence suggests. In contrast, authoritarian, violent political systems appeared in the region’s mobile, nonagricultural populations at that time.
Early states formed in piecemeal fashion, the authors argue. These political systems incorporated one or more of three basic elements of domination: violent control of the masses by authorities, bureaucratic management of special knowledge and information, and public demonstrations of rulers’ power and charisma. Egypt’s early rulers more than 4,000 years ago fused violent coercion of their subjects with extensive bureaucratic controls over daily affairs. Classic Maya rulers in Central America 1,100 years ago or more relied on administrators to monitor cosmic events while grounding earthly power in violent control and alliances with other kings.
States can take many forms, though. Graeber and Wengrow point to Bronze Age Minoan society on Crete as an example of a political system run by priestesses who called on citizens to transcend individuality via ecstatic experiences that bound the population together.
What seems to have changed today is that basic social liberties have receded, the authors contend. The freedom to relocate to new kinds of communities, to disobey commands issued by others and to create new social systems or alternate between different ones has become a scarce commodity. Finding ways to reclaim that freedom is a major challenge.
These examples give just a taste of the geographic and historical ground covered by the authors. Shortly after finishing writing the book, Graeber, who died in 2020, tweeted: “My brain feels bruised with numb surprise.” That sense of revelation animates this provocative take on humankind’s social journey.
nytimes.com 11/2021 What if Everything You Learned About Human History Is Wrong? – In “The Dawn of Everything,” the anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow aim to rewrite the story of our shared past — and future. review by Jennifer Schuessler
…”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.”
thetimes.co.uk 10/2021 The Dawn of Everything – How Sapiens got it wrong: Everyone from Yuval Noah Harari to Steven Pinker is savaged in this revolutionary look at where we came from – review by Bryan Appleyard
First, a brief history of our species: humans appeared 300,000 years ago, then nothing much happened until 288,000 years later when some bright spark invented agriculture. Then it was all plain sailing to capitalism, global warfare, iPhones and Facebook. That, with a few added details, is the story taught in schools and universities. And it is, according to the authors of this long, pacey and potentially revolutionary book, a myth.
At the core of this myth lies the belief that humans were, until they became farmers, still basically apes who hunted and foraged in bands of 30 or so. Yuval Noah Harari, one of the many distinguished figures lacerated in this book, said that these early human bands might have been as violent as chimpanzees …”…
theguardian.com 10/2021 The Dawn of Everything 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. …
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. …”…
…”The author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs, Graeber, it’s worth bearing in mind, was a committed anarchist who was instrumental in setting up the Occupy Wall Street protest. Another factor that bears consideration is that both archaeology and anthropology are disciplines that are notoriously vulnerable to subjective interpretation. Such “distant times can become a vast canvas for the working out of our collective fantasies”, the authors caution, but then do not entirely heed their own warning. While readily acknowledging the limitations of verifiable evidence, they nonetheless engage in creative speculation, albeit with a host of covering “most likelys”.
All the same, the strength of the book is the manner in which it asks us to rethink our assumptions. It isn’t, say the authors, that earlier humans were egalitarian, for there were often differences in material wealth. Rather, they enjoyed an equality of social – and therefore political – participation and, moreover, a shared sense of freedom: of movement, to disobey command and to “shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones”.
Most significantly, the authors replace the idea of humanity being forced along through evolutionary stages with a picture of prehistoric communities making their own conscious decisions of how to live. Our distant forebears were not hopeless puppets of historical inevitability but masters of their own trajectory. …”…
kirkusreviews.com An ingenious new look at “the broad sweep of human history” and many of its “foundational” stories. A fascinating, intellectually challenging big book about big ideas.
Graeber, a former professor of anthropology at London School of Economics who died in 2020, and Wengrow, professor of comparative archaeology at University College London, take a dim view of conventional accounts of the rise of civilizations, emphasize contributions from Indigenous cultures and the missteps of the great Enlightenment thinkers, and draw countless thought-provoking conclusions. In 1651, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes proclaimed that humans require laws and government authority because life in primitive cultures was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A few decades later, French thinker Rousseau wrote that humans in a state of nature were free until they acquired property that required legal protection. Graeber and Wengrow point out that these conceptions of historical progression dominate the opinions of many experts, who assume that society passed through stages of development: hunter-gatherers, farmers, urban-industrial society, and so on. Graeber and Wengrow maintain that no scientific evidence supports this view, adding that traditional scholarship says little about “prehistory,” during which supposedly egalitarian hunter-gatherers roamed and foraged until about 10,000 years ago, when they purportedly took up agriculture and things became interesting. This orthodox view dismisses countless peoples who had royal courts and standing armies, built palaces, and accumulated wealth. As the authors write, “there is simply no reason to assume that the adoption of agriculture in more remote periods also meant the inception of private land ownership, territoriality, or an irreversible departure from forager egalitarianism.” Many early cities thrived for centuries with no sign of hierarchy, contradicting scholars who assume that authoritarian rule appears naturally whenever large populations gather. The quest for the “origin of the state,” given scattered and contradictory evidence, may be a fool’s errand. Graeber and Wengrow, while providing no definitive answers, cast grave doubts on those theories that have been advanced to date.
A fascinating, intellectually challenging big book about big ideas.
theatlantic.com 11/2021 Human History Gets a Rewrite – A brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change. By William Deresiewicz
Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk. Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder. That person was David Graeber. In the 20 years after our lunch, he published two books; was let go by Yale despite a stellar record (a move universally attributed to his radical politics); published two more books; got a job at Goldsmiths, University of London; published four more books, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a magisterial revisionary history of human society from Sumer to the present; got a job at the London School of Economics; published two more books and co-wrote a third; and established himself not only as among the foremost social thinkers of our time—blazingly original, stunningly wide-ranging, impossibly well read—but also as an organizer and intellectual leader of the activist left on both sides of the Atlantic, credited, among other things, with helping launch the Occupy movement and coin its slogan, “We are the 99 percent.” On September 2, 2020, at the age of 59, David Graeber died of necrotizing pancreatitis while on vacation in Venice. The news hit me like a blow. How many books have we lost, I thought, that will never get written now? How many insights, how much wisdom, will remain forever unexpressed? The appearance of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is thus bittersweet, at once a final, unexpected gift and a reminder of what might have been. In his foreword, Graeber’s co-author, David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, mentions that the two had planned no fewer than three sequels. And what a gift it is, no less ambitious a project than its subtitle claims. The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau; elaborated by subsequent thinkers; popularized today by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Steven Pinker; and accepted more or less universally. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men. Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us). It is also, according to Graeber and Wengrow, completely wrong. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries that span the globe, as well as deep reading in often neglected historical sources (their bibliography runs to 63 pages), the two dismantle not only every element of the received account but also the assumptions that it rests on. Yes, we’ve had bands, tribes, cities, and states; agriculture, inequality, and bureaucracy, but what each of these were, how they developed, and how we got from one to the next—all this and more, the authors comprehensively rewrite. More important, they demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring. The bulk of the book (which weighs in at more than 500 pages) takes us from the Ice Age to the early states (Egypt, China, Mexico, Peru). In fact, it starts by glancing back before the Ice Age to the dawn of the species. Homo sapiens developed in Africa, but it did so across the continent, from Morocco to the Cape, not just in the eastern savannas, and in a great variety of regional forms that only later coalesced into modern humans. There was no anthropological Garden of Eden, in other words—no Tanzanian plain inhabited by “mitochondrial Eve” and her offspring. As for the apparent delay between our biological emergence, and therefore the emergence of our cognitive capacity for culture, and the actual development of culture—a gap of many tens of thousands of years—that, the authors tell us, is an illusion. The more we look, especially in Africa (rather than mainly in Europe, where humans showed up relatively late), the older the evidence we find of complex symbolic behavior. That evidence and more—from the Ice Age, from later Eurasian and Native North American groups—demonstrate, according to Graeber and Wengrow, that hunter-gatherer societies were far more complex, and more varied, than we have imagined. The authors introduce us to sumptuous Ice Age burials (the beadwork at one site alone is thought to have required 10,000 hours of work), as well as to monumental architectural sites like Göbekli Tepe, in modern Turkey, which dates from about 9000 B.C. (at least 6,000 years before Stonehenge) and features intricate carvings of wild beasts. They tell us of Poverty Point, a set of massive, symmetrical earthworks erected in Louisiana around 1600 B.C., a “hunter-gatherer metropolis the size of a Mesopotamian city-state.” They describe an indigenous Amazonian society that shifted seasonally between two entirely different forms of social organization (small, authoritarian nomadic bands during the dry months; large, consensual horticultural settlements during the rainy season). They speak of the kingdom of Calusa, a monarchy of hunter-gatherers the Spanish found when they arrived in Florida. All of these scenarios are unthinkable within the conventional narrative. The overriding point is that hunter-gatherers made choices—conscious, deliberate, collective—about the ways that they wanted to organize their societies: to apportion work, dispose of wealth, distribute power. In other words, they practiced politics. Some of them experimented with agriculture and decided that it wasn’t worth the cost. Others looked at their neighbors and determined to live as differently as possible—a process that Graeber and Wengrow describe in detail with respect to the Indigenous peoples of Northern California, “puritans” who idealized thrift, simplicity, money, and work, in contrast to the ostentatious slaveholding chieftains of the Pacific Northwest. None of these groups, as far as we have reason to believe, resembled the simple savages of popular imagination, unselfconscious innocents who dwelt within a kind of eternal present or cyclical dreamtime, waiting for the Western hand to wake them up and fling them into history. The authors carry this perspective forward to the ages that saw the emergence of farming, of cities, and of kings. In the locations where it first developed, about 10,000 years ago, agriculture did not take over all at once, uniformly and inexorably. (It also didn’t start in only a handful of centers—Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mesoamerica, Peru, the same places where empires would first appear—but more like 15 or 20.) Early farming was typically flood-retreat farming, conducted seasonally in river valleys and wetlands, a process that is much less labor-intensive than the more familiar kind and does not conduce to the development of private property. It was also what the authors call “play farming”: farming as merely one element within a mix of food-producing activities that might include hunting, herding, foraging, and horticulture. Settlements, in other words, preceded agriculture—not, as we’ve thought, the reverse. What’s more, it took some 3,000 years for the Fertile Crescent to go from the first cultivation of wild grains to the completion of the domestication process—about 10 times as long as necessary, recent analyses have shown, had biological considerations been the only ones. Early farming embodied what Graeber and Wengrow call “the ecology of freedom”: the freedom to move in and out of farming, to avoid getting trapped by its demands or endangered by the ecological fragility that it entails. The authors write their chapters on cities against the idea that large populations need layers of bureaucracy to govern them—that scale leads inevitably to political inequality. Many early cities, places with thousands of people, show no sign of centralized administration: no palaces, no communal storage facilities, no evident distinctions of rank or wealth. This is the case with what may be the earliest cities of all, Ukrainian sites like Taljanky, which were discovered only in the 1970s and which date from as early as roughly 4100 B.C., hundreds of years before Uruk, the oldest known city in Mesopotamia. Even in that “land of kings,” urbanism antedated monarchy by centuries. And even after kings arose, “popular councils and citizen assemblies,” Graeber and Wengrow write, “were stable features of government,” with real power and autonomy. Despite what we like to believe, democratic institutions did not begin just once, millennia later, in Athens. If anything, aristocracy emerged in smaller settlements, the warrior societies that flourished in the highlands of the Levant and elsewhere, and that are known to us from epic poetry—a form of existence that remained in tension with agricultural states throughout the history of Eurasia, from Homer to the Mongols and beyond. But the authors’ most compelling instance of urban egalitarianism is undoubtedly Teotihuacan, a Mesoamerican city that rivaled imperial Rome, its contemporary, for size and magnificence. After sliding toward authoritarianism, its people abruptly changed course, abandoning monument-building and human sacrifice for the construction of high-quality public housing. “Many citizens,” the authors write, “enjoyed a standard of living that is rarely achieved across such a wide sector of urban society in any period of urban history, including our own.” And so we arrive at the state, with its structures of central authority, exemplified variously by large-scale kingdoms, by empires, by modern republics—supposedly the climax form, to borrow a term from ecology, of human social organization. What is the state? the authors ask. Not a single stable package that’s persisted all the way from pharaonic Egypt to today, but a shifting combination of, as they enumerate them, the three elementary forms of domination: control of violence (sovereignty), control of information (bureaucracy), and personal charisma (manifested, for example, in electoral politics). Some states have displayed just two, some only one—which means the union of all three, as in the modern state, is not inevitable (and may indeed, with the rise of planetary bureaucracies like the World Trade Organization, be already decomposing). More to the point, the state itself may not be inevitable. For most of the past 5,000 years, the authors write, kingdoms and empires were “exceptional islands of political hierarchy, surrounded by much larger territories whose inhabitants … systematically avoided fixed, overarching systems of authority.” Is “civilization” worth it, the authors want to know, if civilization—ancient Egypt, the Aztecs, imperial Rome, the modern regime of bureaucratic capitalism enforced by state violence—means the loss of what they see as our three basic freedoms: the freedom to disobey, the freedom to go somewhere else, and the freedom to create new social arrangements? Or does civilization rather mean “mutual aid, social co-operation, civic activism, hospitality [and] simply caring for others”? These are questions that Graeber, a committed anarchist—an exponent not of anarchy but of anarchism, the idea that people can get along perfectly well without governments—asked throughout his career. The Dawn of Everything is framed by an account of what the authors call the “indigenous critique.” In a remarkable chapter, they describe the encounter between early French arrivals in North America, primarily Jesuit missionaries, and a series of Native intellectuals—individuals who had inherited a long tradition of political conflict and debate and who had thought deeply and spoke incisively on such matters as “generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment and liberty.” The Indigenous critique, as articulated by these figures in conversation with their French interlocutors, amounted to a wholesale condemnation of French—and, by extension, European—society: its incessant competition, its paucity of kindness and mutual care, its religious dogmatism and irrationalism, and most of all, its horrific inequality and lack of freedom. The authors persuasively argue that Indigenous ideas, carried back and publicized in Europe, went on to inspire the Enlightenment (the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy, they note, had theretofore been all but absent from the Western philosophical tradition). They go further, making the case that the conventional account of human history as a saga of material progress was developed in reaction to the Indigenous critique in order to salvage the honor of the West. We’re richer, went the logic, so we’re better. The authors ask us to rethink what better might actually mean. The Dawn of Everything is not a brief for anarchism, though anarchist values—antiauthoritarianism, participatory democracy, small-c communism—are everywhere implicit in it. Above all, it is a brief for possibility, which was, for Graeber, perhaps the highest value of all. The book is something of a glorious mess, full of fascinating digressions, open questions, and missing pieces. It aims to replace the dominant grand narrative of history not with another of its own devising, but with the outline of a picture, only just becoming visible, of a human past replete with political experiment and creativity. “How did we get stuck?” the authors ask —stuck, that is, in a world of “war, greed, exploitation [and] systematic indifference to others’ suffering”? It’s a pretty good question. “If something did go terribly wrong in human history,” they write, “then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence.” It isn’t clear to me how many possibilities are left us now, in a world of polities whose populations number in the tens or hundreds of millions. But stuck we certainly are. from theatlantic.com
rt.com/podcast 9/2020 In memory of David Graeber – In this episode of the Keiser Report, Max and Stacy eulogize David Graeber, author of ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’. In memory of his work, they look at the accumulation of debt that is seeing young adults moving back in with their parents at the highest rate since the Great Depression and thus depressing the formation of new households – an important part of a healthy economy. In the second half, Max continues his conversation with Otavio ‘Tavi’ Costa, portfolio manager at Crescat Capital, about gold, the dollar, credit exhaustion, deglobalization, and more.
bbc.co.uk/radio4 Promises, Promises: A History of debt – Anthropologist David Graeber explores the ways debt has shaped society over 5,000 years.
Graeber, David; Wengrow, David. The Dawn of Everything – samples