The Dawn of Everything

Review

8th February 2022
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The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Graeber sadly passed away before the book’s official release. He was a prolific anarchist writer, and his work continues to push boundaries. Wengrow brings the perspective of an archaeologist which brings insight into modern archaeological thought that has not reached very far outside of those circles. This book combines that niche knowledge with the perspective of people who are interested in thinking about things in a different way, instead of starting with the old assumptions about the shape of history. The book takes the reader through the journey of the authors’ thought processes and is unafraid of saying, “we don’t know this… yet” and allows the reader to feel excited about the prospect of new discoveries that further rock the foundations of widespread assumptions about history. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in history, anthropology, or if you spend time thinking about alternative social realities to our modern order. The book is easy to read as it is low on jargon and split into neat subsections in each chapter. The end of each chapter has a small overview of the things discussed. The book is not overtly political, but you can see the mind of an anarchist at work, dismantling common assumptions, tearing down an old order of long-dead white European men to bring into view the possibility that human history is far more varied than they could have imagined and so is its future.

The Dawn of Everything starts with an admission that the authors had started this project as a fun aside to their more serious work and that they were aiming to look at the origins of social inequality. What they realised, however, was that the question is heavily loaded. It assumes a time without inequality (a Roussouian State of Nature) that humans fell out of ala The Garden of Eden. Also, inequality is a problematic focus. In the modern day we assume equality to be a sign of progressive politics, but equality of what? For whom? Those questions are highly context dependent. Perhaps, they say, we should look for a different starting point. There is, therefore, almost as much discussion around the writings and contexts of past European anthropologists and where their assumptions came from (spoiler alert, they were quite racist) as there is discussion of ancient history. The authors claim that Turgot (amongst other Europeans) developed his theory of social evolution as a direct response to indigenous critique, such as that of Kandiaronk, a Wendat orator, who launched scathing critiques of French society. He pointed to the severe lack of individual freedoms in French society. One thing they try and debunk is the idea of the ‘noble savage’ in which it is posited that Europeans were merely making up fake indigenous people to argue with in their works to avoid censorship. Such historians typically frame this position as a critique of Western arrogance (‘how can you suggest that genocidal imperialists were actually listening to those whose societies they were in the process of stamping out?’), but this idea could be the truest form of Western arrogance. For there is no contesting that European traders, missionaries and settlers did actually engage in prolonged conversations with people they encountered in what they called the New World, and lived among them, even as they colluded in their destruction. We know many came to embrace principles of freedom and equality (principles absent in their countries previously) and cited these encounters as a profound influence. The authors state emphatically that, “to deny any possibility that they were right is, effectively, to insist that indigenous people could not possibly have any real impact on history. It is, in fact, a way of infantilizing non-Westerners: a practice denounced by these very same authors.”

We have a tendency to view people in the past as simply performing their historical roles in social evolutionary theory, rather than as intentional, political actors who were just as (if not more so) diverse, conscious and smart as we are today. This book takes a different perspective, with radical implications. The main thing this book tries to get across to the reader is that the evidence stacking up about different societies all across the globe in many cases fails to fit within the established order of history (social evolution). For many years Western archaeologists and anthropologists have had an extremely linear idea of human ‘progress’ or ‘development’. Starting with ‘egalitarian bands’ of hunter-gatherers, followed by the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ which would, inevitably, lead to things like private property, kings and administration. This, in turn, they say, were the beginnings of totalitarianism, police forces and a march inexorably to the modern state. Such a narrative will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a game such as ‘Civilization 5’ (I know I have, too much). This story of events has been considered fairly left-wing for a while and it certainly looks it next to the philosophy of someone like Hobbes. Hobbes, by contrast, saw humanity before ‘civilisation’ as a constant state of all vs all and civilisation as the solution. What Graeber and Wengrow attempt to show is how both of these interpretations are proving to be incorrect based on recent archaeological and ethnographic findings.

The truth appears to be far more complex, with societies showing varying levels of oppression and lack of freedoms. The interesting thing is that these societies did not need agriculture to be oppressive, nor did agricultural societies necessarily mean oppression. They also place an emphasis on seasonal change, with many societies altering their social conditions depending on the season. Moving between often very different social conditions, such as from authoritarianism to large amounts of individual freedom and back again, is difficult to imagine for us now. In a social evolutionary theory of history these societies would be moving up and down the ‘inevitable’ course of history towards statehood and all the way back again like a yo-yo depending on the season. One example is the Nambikwara in the 1940’s. Levi-Strauss observed that during the rainy season they occupied villages and practised horticulture; during the rest of the year, they dispersed into small foraging bands. “Chiefs made or lost their reputations by acting as heroic leaders during the ‘nomadic adventures’ of the dry season, during which times they typically gave orders, resolved crises and behaved in what would at any other time be considered an unacceptably authoritarian manner; in the wet season, a time of much greater ease and abundance, they relied on those reputations to attract followers to settle around them in villages, where they employed only gentle persuasion and led by example to guide their followers in the construction of houses and tending of gardens.” So, the true question is, how did we get stuck? The rest of the book begins to try and answer that question.

Graeber and Wengrow posit three orders of political forms: sovereignty, administration and charismatic competition. Modern states are one way in which these three principles of domination happened to come together. We once assumed ‘civilisation’ and ‘states’ to be conjoined entities that came down to us as a historical package. This book attempts to rectify that assumption. They say, “If mutual aid, social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality or simply caring for others are the kind of things that really go to make civilizations, then this true history of civilization is only just starting to be written.” Women are at the centre of this idea of civilisation. What passes as civilisation now may be a form of gendered appropriation by men, etching their claims in stone, of some earlier system of knowledge that had women at its centre. Concentration of power is often accompanied by the marginalization of women. The implications of this new way of looking at things are in some ways tragic, things didn’t’ have to be this way, it wasn’t inevitable. On the other hand, it suggests that things can be different in the here and now, we are not doomed to this fate of being ‘stuck’. This has particular relevance for anarchists today trying to carve out a new social reality, one that isn’t based on hierarchy and patriarchy.

However, Kai Minosh Pyle (@greatlakesqueer on Twitter) argues that the ideas in the book build on Indigenous American examples whilst only citing eight Indigenous writers, only two of which are still alive. This represents a failure to engage with Indigenous thinkers in the modern day despite the book’s reliance on arguments Indigenous writers have been making for some time (by the authors’ own admission). They also point out the weird absence of Black thinkers and Africa in general, which could do with expansion in later books. These points of critique are extremely valid, isn’t it high time Black and Indigenous were academically recognised when talking about their own history? Please read the rest of their review thread here: https://twitter.com/greatlakesqueer/status/1478109789712433152

You can read the book here: https://blackbooksdotpub.files.wordpress.com/2021/10/david-graeber-david-wengrow-the-dawn-of-everything_-a-new-history-of-humanity-farrar-straus-and-giroux-2021.pdf

Lewis Williams

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