Review: The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Humans once lived in idyllic, hippie tribes where everyone was equal and happy and presumably had heaps of sex and did heaps of drugs.

Or, humans once lived in a brutal world where everyone was out for themselves, human nature red in tooth and claw.

Either way, then agriculture came along, and with it cities, empires and eventually modern nation states. In the first story, this is an unhappy but inevitable result of farming. In the second, it’s a necessary evolution to control our worst impulses.

Anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow take both stories (which really, they argue, are the same story) and blow them to smithereens in this exhilarating trip through 30,000 years of human history. At minimum, they demolish the idea that the human story is a one way journey to where we are today, sparked first by farming then the formation of cities. Instead, it is is messy and fascinating, full of detours, cul de sacs, back-tracking and creativity. “What happens,” they write, “if we we treat the rejection of urban life, or of slavery, in certain times and places as something just as significant as the emergence of those same phenomena in others?” A book like this might be the result.

When the Davids began, over ten years ago, they were wondering about the origins of inequality (which is what French Enlightenment scholar Jean-Jacques Rousseau was pondering when he came up with that first story above). But they soon decided that this is the wrong question. The failure of these grand narratives, they argue, is that they are not supported by evidence, they’re boring, and they’re politically lethal. Instead, the Davids came to wonder how we had lost our fundamental freedoms. These they conceive of as: freedom of movement; freedom to obey or disobey as one pleases; and freedom to create new social relationships. In sum, they allow for what the Davids call “self-conscious political thought”, the ability to imagine different ways of living, and mould our social spaces to those dreams. These freedoms, they argue, have been subdued in modern nation states, which most of us today live in, by three fundamental forms of domination: violence (expressed via sovereignty in modern states, or arbitrary power over one’s subjects), knowledge (bureaucracies in modern states) and charisma (competitive politics). These are subtle ideas but the Davids test them thoroughly, and are transparent where the evidence is sparse, such as the emergence of patriarchal households, which seem central to the spread of these forms of domination. These they leave for future research, and sadly following the death of David Graeber in 2020, they will be questions picked up by others. Graeber was an anarchist and was a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement, so in some sense the focus on freedom is inevitable. But why not, when we can’t really know how much difference human agency makes in history?

Precisely where one wishes to set the dial between freedom and determinism is largely a matter of taste. Since this book is mainly about freedom, it seems appropriate to set the dial a bit further to the left than usual, and to explore the possibility that human beings have more collective say over their own destiny than we ordinarily assume.

To flesh out their idea the two authors trawl through centuries of research and thought to retell our global history, and particularly our social arrangements. Much of this research, they write, is new and remains hidden in esoteric journals. Other thinking is neglected, usually because it was thought by a woman or an Indigenous person, or out of fashion.

What emerges is a parade of different ways of living. So we meet ice age hunter-gatherers who came together in their thousands to build enormous monuments, farmers who ditched their crops for much of the year, cities that governed themselves without rulers. Simply read as a tour of alternative ways of living, it is spectacular. For instance, there’s the Peruvian society of Chavín de Huántar with their abstract, impenetrable art which may have only made sense when under the influence of psychedelics. Or, Minoan Crete in which women took the most powerful roles in society and the men were relegated to playthings and follies, as depicted in their art. Or take again the continent-wide culture of the Hopewell in North America, which seems organised specifically to avoid the forms of domination that so plague modern states. The point the Davids are making is that there is nothing inevitable about the emergence of our political arrangements today. The Davids’ mode is possibility. Don’t like this part of human society? Here’s one where everyone got on perfectly well without it.

What’s really so awful with the way we live now? The Davids don’t attempt to answer this particular question, and they will no doubt find many sympathetic readers. They take for granted that something has gone terribly wrong, suggesting that we’ve got “stuck”, simply pointing to the fact that since their three forms of domination merged in modern states people have attempted to enslave, murder and destroy entire civilisations. Increasingly it’s also clear that our particular kind of state is leading us down a path of ecological ruin. And what other form of political arrangement could generate the actual possibility of human extinction through the abuse of nuclear physics? Given the choice, as the Davids show, many Westerners on colonial frontiers abandoned their society for what they saw as greater freedom

While exploring their garden of historical delights, the Davids also recount how the myth of inevitable progress (or descent) came about, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and Rousseau in the Enlightenment and moving though imperialism and scientific racism. They explore evidence that the ideas that sparked this Western revolution in thought actually came from Indigenous Americans, or at least in dialogue with them, whom Europeans were encountering, dispossessing and massacring around the time. In fact until the Enlightenment and outside Western philosophy this idea of dialogue being central to political thought was taken for granted. “Humans,” the Davids argue, “were [seen as] only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to sway each other’s views, or working out a common problem.”

This book is itself a kind of dialogue with the past, written to make you think, question, laugh, and think again. The Davids are chatty, conversational authors, keen to impress and entertain. They take the sword to the darlings of other popular big histories: Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari and many others are gleefully, if politely, demolished. It is an enormously impressive feat of scholarship (notes and references make up more than a third of my hardcover edition). It demands your engagement and curiosity, and will not reward anyone asleep at the wheel. May it inspire decades of political and intellectual debate.

Gay rating: not gay.

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