The late David Graeber and David Wengrow have written a breakthrough book that upends simplistic notions of human history; they also take to task renowned figures like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and more recent ones like Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, and Yuval Noah Harari. According to the two Davids, two grand narratives have animated the story of history. The first promulgated by Rousseau (and cast into a modern from by Harari) postulated that humans lived a bucolic, egalitarian, happy existence in small bands of hunter-gatherers. The Agricultural Revolution, with its surplus of food, and the emergence of cities, gave rise to the state, literature, science, and philosophy, “but at the same time, almost everything bad in human life: patriarchy, standing armies, mass executions,” police, and bureaucracy. (Graeber, 2021 p. 2) In this view, farming was humanity’s greatest mistake for it make us prisoners to ever-increasing demands for more production, first agricultural and eventually industrial.
On the other hand, Hobbes’ narrative was worse: humans are inherently selfish, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, with a state of war or extreme violence persisting throughout prehistory. (Graeber, 2021 p. 3) Indeed, progress from this benighted state is only possible because of the tools of the state that repress our baser instincts: governments, courts, bureaucracies, police, and so on. In a Hobbesian world, we may well have lived in small bands, but under a domineering alpha-male leader. We have been trained to prioritize our long term interests and contain our worse impulses precisely because of the power of the state to compel and coerce.
Graeber and Wengrow set out to refute these two narratives by gathering new research in archaeology, anthropology and other fields to show that human societies prior to farming were not just small, egalitarian bands; even after agriculture was established, strongly hierarchical societies were not inevitable. Furthermore, they marshal evidence to show that these simple narratives were the result of “a conservative backlash against critiques of European civilization”, and those critiques originated with Native American observers of European society, who were unimpressed with the supposedly superior European missionaries and colonizers and their civilization. (Graeber, 2021 p. 7) The development of states and the imposition of European values throughout the world, including the destruction of other civilizations, mass enslavement, etc., are portrayed by many writers, like Steven Pinker, as a normal extension of human nature as it has always been, and was a price worth paying to attain “European notions of freedom, equality before the law, and human rights”. (Graeber, 2021 p. 18)
The Indigenous Critique
In 1754, a debate emerged in Europe about the origins of social inequality, which Jean Jacques Rousseau answered in his famous essay, Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind. According to Graeber and Wengrow, this question seemed to come out of the blue in a Medieval society that had never presumed a reason for any social organization other than inequality. In fact, it was precipitated by the European encounter with indigenous American intellectuals who critiqued the societies of their European invaders. This critique was brought back to Europe by missionaries and travelers and led to the “Age of Reason” and the Enlightenment. In 1608, theologians sent to convert the indigenous found that “the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert that they were… ‘richer’ than the French. The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort and time.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 38)
Other accounts from Jesuits and other missionaries asserted that the Wendat, native to the Lake Huron region, were more generous, individually free, and egalitarian than the French of the same period. They also found that the Wendat system of justice had many advantages in that it socialized guilt, thus motivating the entire community to keep the peace and curb individual offenses. Moreover, “missionaries frequently reported that American women were considered to have full control over their own bodies, and that therefore unmarried women had sexual liberty and married women could divorce at will.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 44) In fact, ideas of individual liberty and freedom were foreign to the European missionaries and they were taken aback by how “sinful” these concepts were. Still they learned from the indigenous Americans about reasoned debate, personal liberty and the rejection of arbitrary power. Europeans learned how these were related to each other in the native societies because those societies’ leaders ruled by consensus and had to resort to argue rather than compel with force.
One particularly important Wendat philosopher-statesman was Kandiaronk, who “was a truly remarkable individual: a courageous warrior, brilliant orator and unusually skilful politician”. (Graeber, 2021 p. 49) His critique of European values was documented by the French aristocrat, Lahontan; for example, of money, Kondiaronk argued: (Graeber, 2021 p. 55)
I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French,the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one could preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity— of all the world’s worst behaviour. Fathers sell their children, husbands their wives, wives betray their husbands, brothers kill each other, friends are false, and all because of money. In the light of all this, tell me that we Wendat are not right in refusing to touch, or so much as to look at silver?
Through the chronicles of Lahontan and many others during the half century to 1750, the indigenous critique of European values revolutionized European thought and helped usher in the Age of Enlightenment. Thinkers like Rousseau would largely agree with Kandiaronk and adopt their thinking. Interpreting the chronicles of writers like Lahontan about their debates and encounters with native American philosophers and their sophisticated critiques, future historians assumed the natives were mere props staged to make the arguments for European philosophers, who were wary of upsetting the prevailing authorities. They arrogantly assumed these “simple” people could not have had such original critiques. But in fact, these were historical accounts.
In all likelihood, social organization in human prehistory was extraordinarily diverse, as was their physical diversity. By contrast, today, human beings are fairly uniform. It was long assumed that something remarkable happened about 45,000 years ago, when humans emerged in a particularly creative form. But it now appears that this assumption is mistaken; in fact, it reflects the bulk of archaeological work having taken place in Europe, when Homo sapiens first appeared there. “With each year that passes, new evidence accumulates for early behavioural complexity elsewhere: not just Africa, but also the Arabian Peninsula, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent…. A cave site on the coast of Kenya called Panga ya Saidi is yielding evidence of shell beads and worked pigments stretching back 60,000 years; and research on the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi is opening vistas on to an unsuspected world of cave art, many thousands of years older than the famous images of Lascaux and Altamira, on the other side of Eurasia.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 85)
Grand monuments, ornate burials and other by products of sophisticated societies go back some 30,000 years, when hunter-gatherers predominated. Structures like those found at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey are products of hunter-gatherers, but show that these societies had “evolved institutions to support major public works, projects, and monumental constructions, and thus had a complex social hierarchy prior to their adoption of farming”. (Graeber, 2021 p. 90)
The Davids take Yuval Noah Harari to task for perpetuating myths about the primitive, ape-like behavior of humans prior to the advent of farming. They ridicule Harari for “insisting either that for countless millennia we had modern brains, but for some reason decided to live like monkeys anyway; or that we had the ability to overcome our simian instincts and organize ourselves in an endless variety of ways, but for some equally obscure reason only ever chose one way to organize ourselves.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 93)
In fact, they cite recent work that prehistoric societies may have had multifaceted organizations: both foraging bands at some times of the year and gathering together in concentrated settlements at other times. The reason for this seasonal organization may have had to do with the need to muster labor for regular periods of superabundance, in the late summer and autumn, when herds of animals or ripened cereals, nuts and other foodstuffs would have been plentiful. Stonehenge and other artifacts reflect similar patterns of seasonal societal organization: “They shifted back and forth between alternative social arrangements, building monuments and then closing them down again, allowing the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year then dismantling them — all, it would seem, on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. The same individual could experience life in what looks to us sometimes like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes like something with at least some of the characteristics we now identify with states.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 111) These distinct states encompassed both very hierarchical patterns and very egalitarian ones. Our ancestors thrived in this constant ebb and flow for thousands of years. So, how did we get stuck into a single pattern?
Counterintuitively, in the prehistoric age, humans lived much more wide-ranging lives in that they regularly migrated hundreds if not thousands of miles. They could draw upon a network of clans that were obliged to host and feed them. Oddly, as number of humans increased, their range of motion decreased. People were on the move for many reasons, including the desire to preserve one’s personal freedoms.
Conventional wisdom holds that agricultural surpluses allowed complex societies with precise division of labor to form. However, it doesn’t immediately follow that private property inevitably developed; there were 6000 years between the first farmers and the first states. Forager societies could develop complex structures, including hierarchies, long before the adoption of agriculture; they also developed “other forms of knowledge as well: cosmology, geology, philosophy, medicine, ethics, fauna, flora, ideas about property, social structure, and aesthetics”. (Graeber, 2021 p. 144) Some forager societies “developed a material infrastructure capable of supporting royal courts and standing armies” at places like Poverty Point in present-day Louisiana or Sannai Maruyama in Japan, or Kastelli Griant’s Church in Finland. (Graeber, 2021 p. 157)
Sacred rites in forager societies gave rise to private property through the practice of holding certain things sacred and “is as old as humanity itself”. (Graeber, 2021 p. 163) For example, the Polynesian notion that a sacred object was tabu, not to be touched, is a clear progenitor of property rights.
Equality and Inequality
Equality and inequality arose from environmental circumstances. Two examples in geographically proximate locations illustrate this principle. Aboriginals in California enjoyed a diverse, rich habitat with fish, game and tree crops (e.g., nuts and acorns). Foraging and an ascetic lifestyle characterized these indigenous Californians. It turns out the bounty of the land encouraged this form of society: it made no sense to accumulate surplus production when it was readily available to be gathered whenever needed. Processing them into food was labor intensive, but “back loaded” in that most of the effort was expended just prior to consumption. This source of food meant that small, egalitarian groups could thrive and didn’t need a complex organizing state.
On the other hand, the nearby Kwakiutl in the Pacific Northwest developed a society based on processing fish. Fish harvesting was a complex, arduous affair requiring long term planning, seasonal variations, catching, transporting, drying, storing, and protecting the caches of fish and fish products like oil. The resulting foodstuffs were very high in calories, but were “front loaded” in that they required labor long before they could be consumed. They also required defenses against theft and inter-group raids. This food source and the environment led to a slave-owning society because normal men and women of the tribes eschewed the hard work of catching and preparing the fish. Such a society inevitably became hierarchical and developed perverse ways for leaders to show their wealth, such as the potlatch and the creation of luxury goods. Some of these luxury goods existed solely to be destroyed in an act signifying the wealth of its owner.
“Slavery … became commonplace on the Northwest Coast largely because an ambitious aristocracy found itself unable to reduce its free subjects to a dependable workforce. The ensuing violence seems to have spread until those” at the boundary between the northwest and “northern California gradually found themselves obliged to create institutions capable of insulating them from it…. A schismogenetic process ensued, whereby coastal peoples came to define themselves increasingly against each other.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 207)
“For Northwest Coast societies, wealth … consisted above all of heirloom treasures, whose value was based on the fact that each was unique and there was nothing in the world like it. Equality between title holders was simply inconceivable…. In California, the most important forms of wealth consisted of currencies whose value lay in the degree to which each … was exactly the same, and could therefore be counted — and, generally speaking, such wealth was not inherited but destroyed on the owner’s death.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 208)
Thus two very distinct types of societies evolved adjacent to each other, driven by their resources and environment. They thrived by distinguishing themselves from each other: one by eschewing hard work, the other by glorifying it and expecting it from their leaders. Schismogenesis in various forms continues to this day when groups or nations define themselves in contradistinction to each other. A simple, if trivial, example is how the people of New Jersey distinguish themselves from other Americans by their disdain for pumping their own gasoline. (Economist, 2022)
The first type of farming practiced by humans in the neolithic period (7000 or more years BC), was “flood retreat”. “Flood-retreat farming is a distinctly lackadaisical way to raise crops. The work of soil preparation is given over mostly to nature. Seasonal flooding does the work of tillage, annually sifting and refreshing the soil. As the waters recede they leave behind a fertile bed of alluvial earth, where seed can be broadcast. This was garden cultivation on a small scale with no need for deforestation, weeding or irrigation.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 235) It is remarkably efficient, requiring little central management. Boundaries and walls to demarcate property as envisioned by Harari and Rousseau are not necessary or even possible because nature is constantly shifting the cultivateable ground seasonally. “Early cultivators, it seems, were doing the minimum amount of subsistence work needed to stay in their given locations, which they occupied for reasons other than farming: hunting, foraging, fishing, trading and more.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 236)
These neolithic farmers lived with nature and exploited alluvial soils in river beds, springs, and lakes. Thus, there was no “Agricultural Revolution” that ushered a strict change from the carefree life of the hunter-gatherer to that of the enslaved farmer, toiling to produce a surplus for distant rulers of an oppressive hierarchy. Indeed, it is “among upland groups, furthest removed from a dependence on agriculture, that we find stratification and violence becoming entrenched; while their lowland counterparts … come out looking decidedly more egalitarian; and much of this egalitarianism relates to an increase in the economic and social visibility of women, reflected in their art and ritual.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 248)
Freedom and Agriculture
Plants and animals were domesticated in 15 or 20 independent areas, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. In fact, for most of our human history, we have chosen to move in and out of farming: “to farm without fully becoming farmers; raise crops and animals without surrendering too much of one’s existence to the logistical rigours of agriculture; and retain a food web sufficiently broad as to prevent cultivation from becoming a matter of life and death. It is just this sort of ecological flexibility that tends to be excluded from conventional narratives of world history, which present the planting of a single seed as a point of no return.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 261) This seems to have gone on for thousands of years. “Neolithic farming was an experiment that could fail — and, on occasion, did,” for a variety of reasons, including inadequate labor supply, soil exhaustion, disease and harvest failures, as seen in the archeological record throughout the world. (Graeber, 2021 p. 273)
Farming was a last resort: it was tried when no other easier option was available, since the risk in an all-in strategy was high. Central as well in this was the personal freedom that people gave up to become farmers. Prudently, our ancestors had a hedge strategy that was “all of the above”: hunting, gathering, and farming.
Common wisdom assumed that the rise of cities soon led to the emergence of states, with specialized roles and stratified social classes. Civilization built great things, but also produced much suffering and misery for the underclasses. This assumption seems unsupported by the archeological record: “cities governed themselves for centuries without any sign of the temples and palaces that would only emerge later…. In many early cities, there is simply no evidence of either a class of administrators or any other sort of ruling stratum. In others, centralized power seems to appear and then disappear. It would seem that the mere fact of urban life does not, necessarily, imply any particular form of political organization, and never did.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 277)
Early cities seemed to be more ecologically diverse than later ones and few of them showed signs of authoritarian rule. And the largest early ones were in Mesoamerica (e.g., Teotihuacan), not Eurasia. Some early cities, for instance those in present-day Ukraine, might have had up to 10,000 inhabitants, with structures arrayed in uniform, egalitarian patterns, without a grand, ceremonial center. They practiced some form of communal self-governance. These kinds of egalitarian cities were seen in other parts of the world, including Mesopotamia: “far from needing rulers to manage urban life, it seems most Mesopotamian urbanites were organized into autonomous self-governing units, which might react to offensive overlords either by driving them out or by abandoning the city entirely.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 304)
However, nearby, from 3100 BC, a warrior aristocracy arose in the hills. We find “for the first time … tombs of men who, in life, were clearly considered heroic individuals of some sort, accompanied to the afterlife by prodigious quantities of metal weaponry, treasures, elaborate textiles and drinking gear.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 310) These aristocracies seemed to have arisen in schismogenetic reaction to the egalitarian cities of the Mesopotamian plains.
While self-governing, communal, egalitarian cities were not the only form of social organization in the neolithic period, they seemed to be remarkably common throughout the world.
Social Housing in the Americas
Teotihuacan, perhaps the earliest of the great Mesoamerican cities, was shrouded in legend and mystery, but it thrived from the years 100 BC to 600 AD. Royal or other aristocratic trappings such as the ceremonial ball-court, depictions of kingly figures, or images of domination are entirely absent from the archeological record. In the beginning, “Teotihuacan had gone some way down the road to authoritarian rule, but then around AD 300 suddenly reversed course: possibly there was a revolution of sorts, followed by a more equal distribution of the city’s resources and the establishment of a kind of ‘collective governance’.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 332) Their society seemed to be formed as a rejection of dynastic personality cults, in contrast to the contemporary Maya and Olmec civilizations — another case of schismogenesis. Art and other remaining evidence point to an egalitarian, decentralized society. However, around 550 AD, Teotihuacan began a rapid decline, probably from internal disintegration.
From detailed records of the Spanish Conquistadors, the Tlaxcala were a society that practiced servant-style leadership: “Tlaxcala was indeed an indigenous republic governed not by a king, nor even by rotating officeholders, but by a council of elected officials (teuctli) answerable to the citizenry as a whole.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 355) Current archeology supports “the existence of an indigenous republic at Tlaxcala long before Cortés set foot on Mexican soil, while later written sources leave us in little doubt as to its democratic credentials. …The political traditions of Tlaxcala are not an anomaly, but lie in one broad stream of urban development which can be traced back, in outline, to the experiments in social welfare undertaken 1,000 years earlier at Teotihuacan.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 358)
States were assumed to be required for complex societies to emerge. In this telling, agricultural surpluses allowed specialist classes to emerge and fulfill key functions of state government, such as administrators, warriors, priests, and other bureaucrats. In so doing, it also enabled full time scholars, artists, writers, and great monuments. But, in our history, it was possible for complex societies to emerge that didn’t result in a concomitant state.
According to the authors, three principles determine social power: the control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma. They now form the basis of state power. Great bureaucracies are needed to extend state power, not just to enforce state power but to also gather, store, and process information. In the modern state, these three principles are evolved into “a combination of sovereignty, bureaucracy, and a competitive political field”. (Graeber, 2021 p. 367) But what if this isn’t how things needed to develop?
In fact, most examples of early states didn’t have full time bureaucrats, priests, judges, or even soldiers. Most of the government was run with a part time, rotating work force that had other responsibilities, including running their own businesses or tending to their occupations. Governments were seasonal and sporadic, organizing then disbanding. “History now demonstrates is that [civilization and the state] actually refer to complex amalgams of elements which have entirely different origins and which are currently in the process of drifting apart.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 431) State formation has no predetermined pattern. “It can mean a game of honour or chance gone terribly wrong, or the incorrigible growth of a particular ritual for feeding the dead; it can mean industrial slaughter, the appropriation by men of female knowledge, or governance by a college of priestesses. But, … the range of possibilities is far from limitless. In fact, there seem to be both logical and historical constraints on the variety of ways in which power can expand its scope; these limits are the basis of our ‘three principles’ of sovereignty, administration and competitive politics.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 439)
The archeological record seems to indicate that it is unwise to project our understanding of contemporary nation states onto other, earlier civilizations to explain their formation.
The Indigenous Critique
The indigenous critique had a huge impact on money, faith, hereditary power, women’s rights, and personal freedoms, and ignited the French Enlightenment. It also caused a reaction among Europeans that infantilized the indigenous critics and framed history as a narrative of steady progress from an idealized “Garden of Eden”. In this narrative, humans evolved from bands to tribes to chiefdoms, and finally to states. But evidence has shown that this simple progression isn’t accurate.
North America or at least great parts of it seemed to have an extensive and uniform clan system, which cut across other forms of social organization such as local tribes. Clans were represented far and wide; a traveler in North America belonging to a clan could expect to be welcomed, sheltered and fed by a fellow clan member thousands of miles away. In this way, clans were a form of diplomacy.
The Osage, which was a civilization rooted in the Great Plains, developed institutions and practices that anticipated Montesquieu and his creation of modern politics. It is likely that Montesquieu learned of these practices since “the chapters in The Spirit of the Laws which speculate on the modes of savage government seem an almost exact reproduction of what Montesquieu would likely have heard from them”. (Graeber, 2021 p. 481)
By the time indigenous North Americans came in contact with Europeans, the Osage were gone, but others carried on similar philosophies and social organizations. In so doing “not only did indigenous North Americans manage almost entirely to sidestep the evolutionary trap that we assume must always lead, eventually, from agriculture to the rise of some all-powerful state or empire; but in doing so they developed political sensibilities that were ultimately to have a deep influence on Enlightenment thinkers and, through them, are still with us today. In this sense, at least, the Wendat won the argument.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 492)
History, as interpreted by grand historians like Rousseau or Harari or even Hobbes, is seen marching towards some eschatological end, passing through increasingly sophisticated eras such as the Stone, Bronze, Iron Ages, or through a series of breakthroughs, such as the Agricultural, Urban, and Industrial Revolutions. But, the emergence of agriculture was not like the invention of the steam power or electricity. Much of our knowledge comes from centuries of accumulated knowledge throughout the neolithic period. Often these breakthroughs began with a form of play, such as wheeled play toys made by Mesoamericans, even though they didn’t use wheeled implements for doing real work. Instead, it seems more credible to think of “history as a continual series of new ideas and innovations, technical or otherwise, during which different communities made collective decisions about which technologies they saw fit to apply to everyday purposes, and which to keep confined to the domain of experimentation or ritual play.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 501)
The same freedom applied to our social organization: “the evidence … from Palaeolithic times onwards suggests that many — perhaps even most — people did not merely imagine or enact different social orders at different times of year, but actually lived in them for extended periods of time.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 502) In short, we happily changed our economic and social orders, often seasonally; moreover, we enjoyed three basic freedoms: “(1) the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings; (2) the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others; and (3) the freedom to shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 503) But somehow, we have largely lost these freedoms.
Though far from definitive, it seems that human societies began to define themselves in contrast to each other, the product of a process of schismogenesis. And between these culture groups, organized violence, which may have began as a type of “play war”, eventually led to real war, with real deadly consequences. This external warfare may have led to the loss of internal freedoms. In turn, state power grew from basic forms of social power (violence, knowledge, and charisma) that scale up or down from the family to empire. In large scale social organizations, these basic forms became sovereignty, bureaucracy, and politics.
It seems likely that the freedoms that have receded today may have been won back at many times in the past, just as slavery was abolished many times, too. There is no straight line in history as the Rousseauian or Hobbesian myths we adopted suggest: “myth is the way in which human societies give structure and meaning to experience. But the larger mythic structures of history we’ve been deploying for the last several centuries simply don’t work any more; they are impossible to reconcile with the evidence now before our eyes.” (Graeber, 2021 p. 525) These myths have dulled us into thinking that the freedoms we give up are a necessary price to pay civilization. But, our ancestors have shown, it need not be this way.
Commentary and Critique
Graeber and Wengrow have created a readable and fascinating synthesis of recent research in archeology, anthropology and other fields, and overlaid a fresh analysis and narrative of human history. At times they barely conceal their disdain for the likes of Yuval Harari, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and others who populate the canon of grand history writers and who serve up broad, plausible, entertaining theories as proven facts. For example, they take to task Diamond and Harari for claims that wheat domesticated humans, rather than the other way around, and that this was a catastrophe for the human race. However, at times it seemed that writers claiming wheat domesticated humans were doing so tongue planted in cheek! So, Graeber and Wengrow’s protestations seem almost to miss the in-joke.
Graeber and Wengrow bring to much greater light the indigenous critique, the schismogenesis theory of societal development, the seasonal nature of social organizations, the importance and dominance of flood-retreat agriculture for most of human history, the importance of individual human freedoms to our neolithic ancestors, and the sophistication of contemporaneous non-European societies as well as neolithic ones. For all these achievements, the book is a worthy read; in fact, it is a necessary counterpoint to the breezy, at-times-too-clever narratives of Harari, Pinker, Diamond and others.
Yet, Graeber and Wengrow also are a bit guilty of overgeneralizations when they assert that people have fallen into the trap of giving up their freedoms for the comforts and security of the modern state. Isn’t this just the Agricultural Revolution-as-enslavement argument, updated and transposed to the current era? In fact, there were a range of adaptations that humans have made: in the early Industrial Revolution, guilds and others disaffected by the rise of factory production, fought to protect their slower-paced, more human scale work and lifestyle that was oriented around the so-called “putting out system” — a form of cottage industry. Similarly, in the modern period, there are many people who eschew the mindless pursuit of material possessions and live nomadic, even homeless lives because they simply prefer it. (PBS, 2021) Perhaps the authors think that freedoms have been curtailed because they themselves prefer the advantages of a modern, industrial, technological lifestyle over that of, for example, a quasi-nomad.
Graeber is a well-known anarchist who was a chief actor in the Occupy Wall Street sit-in or camp-in. Some of The Dawn of Everything attempts to create the rationale for why an anarchic, anti-hierarchical form of social organization is natural and part of our human history. The scholarship is wide-ranging, but has a feel of a collection of examples and cases that seem all too well groomed to buttress their points. For example, they have been taken to task for their misleading claims that captured Europeans captured by indigenous peoples in the colonial Americas “almost invariably” chose to stay with them (and that indigenous people taken into European societies did the opposite). (Immerwahr, 2021) Thus, the book is a far cry from a systematic review of the available evidence resulting in explanatory theories with varying degrees of confidence; it is a polemic with impressive and extensive examples and analysis to reinforce a point of view.
Graeber and Wengrow document and speculate about the differences in human societies and conclude that our past saw great diversity in social organizations. This seems a sound conclusion, since even today, despite the homogenization of global culture and the pervasiveness of Western economic models, societies are still local and fairly diverse. They also differ at the state level: the state capitalist economy in China is distinct from the social-capitalist economy of Germany or Japan, which are in turn distinct from the market capitalist economy of the US or to some extent the UK. What they fail to explore is why did a few social organizations prevail over others? Why did the hierarchically organized hill people of Mesopotamia go on to create the empires, supplanting the egalitarian valley dwellers? Or the equality-minded denizens of Teotihuacan dissipate, give way to the hierarchical Aztecs? Is it possible that for thousands of years, humans experimented with a range of social organizations that had some advantages (and disadvantages) without any one prevailing? And, isn’t it likely that certain social organizations were more competitive or better adapted at securing resources or developing durable advantages? Or perhaps there were “network effects” to certain forms of social organization that led to the ascendency of some over others? The competition between some geographically adjacent social organizations suggests that hierarchical ones did better and eventually vanquished the others. Such a line of inquiry might have been interesting to pursue.
Today, we see social organizations in competition with each other: authoritarian state capitalist nations vy against liberal capitalist democracies . According to the authors, a lot of human history was experimentation, often disguised as a form of “play”. Perhaps that experimentation continues today and “play” is sublimated into the all-too-serious matter of sporting competitions, such as at the Olympics. What seems apparent is humans continue to evolve their social organizations, learning from each other and adapting as they encounter challenges.
One of the weak points in the book is the authors’ discussion of property rights and their origins; there’s more than a little suggestion and hinting and supposition. For example, they write rather unconvincingly and speculatively “If private property has an ‘origin’, it is as old as the idea of the sacred, which is likely as old as humanity itself.” (Graeber, 2021 p 163) An argument cannot be made by starting with a conditional proposition which is not proven and which is connected to the argument to be proven! More work needs to be done to trace the manifestations of the “sacred” with property rights as articulated in laws and norms. For example, did Roman Law or English Common Law arise from the notions of the sacred? If so, what was the historical evidence? Or what was the mechanism by which a mystical concept transmogrified into a very concrete physical right? In fact, this is just one example of the weak argumentation, accompanied at times by the drawing of conclusions from selective, cherry-picked examples.
Sometimes the facts used are just inconsistent. Wengrow and Graeber compare Teotihuacan to ancient cities: “the scale of pre-Columbian capitals like Teotihuacan or Tenochtitlan dwarfs that of the earliest cities in China and Mesopotamia, and makes the ‘city-states’ of Bronze Age Greece (like Tiryns and Mycenae) seem little more than fortified hamlets.” (Graeber, 2021 p 285) They point out that Teotihuacan had a population of 100,000, the largest in world, they aver. But they don’t note that this was, by their own reckoning, circa AD 200, around the time of Roman apotheosis. Rome, of course, was estimated to be a city of 1 million inhabitants. Their comparisons to other neolithic cities is incongruous since these were much older, in some cases by thousands of years! This seems a deliberate oversight to lend extra weight to the importance of Mesoamerican civilizations.
The authors note that many neolithic societies and even later ones were run by bureaucrats who were part timers. They suppose this was a way to limit government and bureaucracy. But such a tactic is still not uncommon. The legislature of Texas, a state with a population of 25 million and a larger GDP than Russia’s, is effectively part time, meeting by law only 140 days “on the second Tuesday in January of each odd-numbered year”. (Wikipedia, 2019) Texans might well agree that having a part time legislature enhances individual freedoms.
The ongoing transformation of human social organizations through a process of schismogenesis, competition, and adaptation, continues. The example of the Dutch is illustrative: 500 years ago, the Dutch were tied to a Hapsburg province, but later became a republic, then a monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, and today a part of a supranational polity, the European Union. In this evolution, they changed through a war of liberation, became a great empire, then a middling power, and finally small, but economically important nation, with significant influence in the EU. They gave up and gained much to end where they are. Some of the processes the authors observe and describe continue to the present day. The elapsed time from the Enlightenment to the present day is barely 300 years, less the time it took for Teotihuacan to rise as a hierarchical society, transform itself into a more egalitarian one, and then to decline; so comparatively there’s still plenty of time for us to do far more. We are still trying to find the right balance of our individual freedoms, desire for comfort and security, and aspirations for improving the lot of our families, kin, and community.
Graeber, D. and Wengrow, D. (2021). The Dawn of Everything A New History of Humanity. New York Farrar, Straus And Giroux.
The Economist. (2022). Self-service petrol stations hit a roadblock in New Jersey. [online] Available at: https://www.economist.com/united-states/2022/04/09/self-service-petrol-stations-hit-a-roadblock-in-new-jersey [Accessed 12 Apr. 2022].
Immerwahr, D. (2021). David Graeber and David Wengrow’s Anarchist History of Humanity. [online] www.thenation.com. Available at: https://www.thenation.com/article/society/graeber-wengrow-dawn-of-everything/ [Accessed 16 Apr. 2022].
PBS NewsHour (2021). WATCH: The real world of ‘Nomadland’. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qO-pKYzcY_8.
Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Texas Legislature. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Legislature.