Book review: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow.
This book is about narratives of human progress. I.e. the natural progression from egalitarian bands of maybe 20 people, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states, with increasing inequality and domination by centralized bureaucracy. That progress is usually presumed to be driven by changes in occupations from foragers, to gardeners, to farmers, to industry.
Western intellectuals focus on debates between two narratives: Hobbesians, who see this mostly as advances from a nasty state of nature, and those following in Rousseau’s footsteps, who imagine early human societies as somewhat closer to a Garden of Eden. Both narratives suggest that farming societies were miserable places that were either small advances or unavoidable tragedies, depending on what you think they replaced.
Graeber and Wengrow dispute multiple aspects of these narratives. The book isn’t quite organized enough for me to boil their message down to a single sentence. But I’ll focus on what I consider to be the most valuable thread: we should be uncertain about whether humanity made (is making?) a big mistake by accepting oppression as an inevitable price of material wealth.
The Dawn of Everything asks us to imagine that humans could build (and may have been building) sophisticated civilizations without domination by powerful states, and maybe without depending on farming.
The book doesn’t mention Burning Man, possibly to appeal to a broader audience than those who have accurate information about it. But I’ll assume my readers understand Burning Man culture, and use it as an example of the quasi-anarchist culture that Graeber and Wengrow hope for.
Occupy Wall Street (in which Graeber was active) shared some of this culture, but mixed with too much statist framing to be a clean example.
Freedom and Equality
Graeber and Wengrow lament the loss of freedom that’s associated with modern society. They use a somewhat nonstandard notion of freedom, focused on:
(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.
Nothing here about being secure in one’s property or livelihood. E.g. at Burning Man, almost all order is maintained via peer pressure, with approximately no police-like backup. If you want your bike to be treated as your property, rely on locks, not the threat of force. Peer pressure is enough to ensure that people don’t steal food or shelter, because the culture of sharing ensures people don’t develop a temptation to steal. (I’m excluding the interface between Burning Man and the outside world, which does depend a bit on police backup).
For the Haudenosaunee, the giving of orders is represented as being almost as serious an outrage as the eating of human flesh.
But there’s one exception: dreams became divine orders which everyone had to obey for brief periods of time.
Needless to say, there were few more terrible crimes than to falsify a dream.
Their original idea behind the book was to focus on the origins of inequality, but that framing had problems. It’s unclear whether there ever was a time with no inequality.
Which kind(s) of inequality should we care about? Wealth? Income? Power? Opportunity? Access to the tribe’s deepest secrets? There’s plenty of variation in which of those a society cares about. Also, inequality of one of these doesn’t necessarily mean inequality of another. Native Americans apparently didn’t have much ability to convert wealth to power (why not? I’m guessing some sort of cultural obstacles).
The book tries to portray the worldview of societies that are more egalitarian than ours. A focus on the origins of inequality would frame that analysis in a very Western way. Graeber and Wengrow aim to frame the discussion in a way that would better reflect what the other societies consider important.
Most discussion of the origins of Western culture focuses on ancient Greece, or Christianity, or other forces acting within Europe.
Dawn of Everything focuses instead on the ideas that Europe took from cultures on other continents.
Europe allegedly imported the nation-state from China.
More importantly, Europe learned a lot from interacting with the new world. Some of that learning involved incorporating features of anarchism, such as approval of freedom and equality.
The book claims that Europeans mostly disapproved of freedom and equality circa 1700. E.g. they paraphrase Turgot as saying “the freedom and equality of savages is not a sign of their superiority; it’s a sign of inferiority, since it is only possible in a society where each household is self-sufficient, and, therefore, equally poor.”.
European objections to freedom seem to have focused on whether the “savages” obeyed commands from entities above them in the hierarchy (mainly God’s commands, but likely also kings, lords, etc.). It was apparently hard to even translate the concept of obedience into some native languages. The book exaggerates by implying a more general European rejection of freedom.
American intellectuals criticized European culture, and there’s some evidence that a book describing these critiques was read in Europe. (Note that American, in the context of this book, sometimes means mainly the people from the Wendat Confederacy, but probably applies to most of the people in what is now the US and Canada.)
Graeber and Wengrow want us to believe that Enlightenment ideas of progress and social evolution were developed in reaction to those critiques. The narrative of a natural set of stages of development (hunter, gardener, farmer, industrialist) enabled Europeans to treat American critiques as coming from people who were too primitive to deserve a place in intellectual debate.
Did American ideals cause Europeans to yearn for equality and freedoms that they wouldn’t have otherwise wanted? The timing is somewhat suggestive.
The book typically pushes a narrative under which America was mostly as nice as Burning Man before Europeans conquered it, but occasionally mentions downsides such as famine and torture of war captives. I’m unclear whether Graeber and Wengrow think these are important issues – maybe 18th century Europe did similar enough things that these issues say little about which societies were better?
This quote from Kandiaronk expresses a similarly odd attitude toward how pleasant America was:
If you abandoned conceptions of mine and thine, yes, such distinctions between men would dissolve. A leveling equality would take place among you, as it now does among the Wendat. And yes, for the first thirty years after the banishing of self-interest no doubt you would indeed see a certain desolation as those who are only qualified to eat, drink, sleep, and take pleasure would languish and die, but their progeny would be fit for our way of living.
The Dawn of Farming and Cities
The authors dispute the stereotype under which the invention of farming generated cities, inequality, states, and dependence on a few crops, and that farming spread like an epidemic.
The book provides many examples of societies that appeared to make deliberate decisions to avoid farming, or that engaged in “play farming” without becoming dependent on it.
Some cultures managed to build large monuments without clearly qualifying as farming cultures. E.g. Poverty Point, a stone age site, about 1/3 the size of the Burning Man, in an area where there are no stones. Or Stonehenge, whose builders had abandoned grain farming, and were mostly foragers who raised a few animals.
A number of the earliest cities show no sign of having had a government, or inequality.
In Mexico, 5000 years passed between the domestication of corn and squash, and when they became staples.
What looks like decay to a historian who is focused on records / palaces left by oppressive rulers, may have looked like liberation to the average person of the time.
Writing of the “decline” of China’s Long-shan culture (in the middle of a 1400 year period between the rise of cities and the first monarchy):
First, the ostensible ‘state of anarchy’ (elsewhere described as ‘collapse and chaos’) lasted for a considerable period of time, between two and three centuries. Second, the overall size of Taosi during the latter period actually grew from 280 to 300 hectares. This sounds a lot less like collapse than an age of widespread prosperity, following the abolition of a rigid class system. It suggests that after the destruction of the palace, people did not fall into a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ but simply got on with their lives – presumably under what they considered a more equitable system of local-self-governance.
Why wasn’t agriculture developed earlier? I think the authors imagine that people didn’t want it earlier, but they ramble so much after asking the question that I lost track of whether they think they answered it.
Parochial or Cosmopolitan?
Most of us imagine that early humans lived in isolated bands, and that there’s been a trend of increasing contact with more distant people.
Graeber and Wengrow claim the opposite: a trend of increasingly local allegiances. Modern social worlds have generally become parochial, based on boundaries of culture, class, and language.
The study of modern foragers has misled us. They’re isolated because they are confined to marginal land. Pre-Columbian America had continent-wide societies. It was normal for people to travel long distances and find fellow clan members who would provide them with food and shelter. People identified clan members by features such as hair style (e.g. Mohawks). People might be made fun of for having “wrong” beliefs about gods or vaccines, but wouldn’t be punished for them.
But what about Papua New Guinea? It seems to have small tribes on decent land, who are isolated from other tribes by something other than modern states forcing them onto marginal land. I suspect the trend that Graeber and Wengrow see was confined to America.
In the dry season Nambikwara were foragers living in small bands, with chiefs gave orders as if they were petty tyrants. In the wet season, the Nambikwara switched to gardening in villages of several hundred people. The chiefs lost their authority to give orders, and used persuasion instead.
This kind of alternation between two social orders seems somewhat common.
If there’s a riddle here, it’s this: why, after millennia of constructing and disassembling forms of hierarchy, did Homo sapiens … allow permanent and intractable systems of inequality to take root?
The authors complain that we no longer experience those changes, so we’re poor at imagining what alternatives are feasible.
Burning Man is evidence that we do still imagine alternative social orders. But we mostly forget to imagine an alternative way of earning a living. When’s the last time you considered a lifestyle stranger than becoming Amish as a substitute for having a job?
How much of this should we believe? I can imagine that anywhere between 40% and 80% of their surprising claims are accurate. Most of the claims look hard to check. I’ll restrict my fact checking to one point that I care about more than most.
Graeber and Wengrow claim that European settlers in 18th century America were much more likely to choose to live as part of a native tribe than were natives to live as part of a European society. This sounds like an important type of evidence about which society is pleasanter to live in.
They quote Benjamin Franklin reporting that children fit this pattern. However, they also cite The Assimilation of Captives on the American Frontier in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries as if it supports that claim. The more detailed evidence there points to a rather weaker conclusion: adults mostly want to return to whatever culture they grew up in, and the younger children were most likely to assimilate into whatever culture they were reared in, with some exceptions that seem to be due to Native Americans being treated as inferior and/or being kept in boarding schools with other natives who reinforced their original culture.
So this evidence mildly supports the claim that European culture was worse for Native Americans than vice versa, but only seems to say that European racism was causing problems, as opposed to a more general claim about European statism and hierarchy that Graeber and Wengrow try to imply.
Much of the book sounds like this – reckless exaggerations, most of which are trying to counter widespread statist biases that cause comparable(?) exaggerations in the opposite direction.
The book shows that we should doubt that humans needed states in order to produce many of the desirable features of modern society. But the authors don’t ask how many good features would be missing from their anarchist quasi-utopia.
The Burning Man style culture of sharing provides some benefits in terms of community and safety nets, at the likely cost of preventing the accumulation of wealth.
Would we be able to have cell phones without the ability of a corporate hierarchy to order workers to show up on time to run the factories? Or would we be better off without phones?
Is there a way to defund the police without a disastrous increase in crime? There are clearly police-free cultures that are in some sense decent places to live. That doesn’t mean we can get there by abolishing the police – instead, it would require a big enough culture change that police-specific rule changes would be an afterthought. It also doesn’t tell us whether people who grew up relying on police would be able to adapt to a police-free society.
It’s also hard to find evidence that police-free societies can defend themselves against modern armies.
I’ll give a medium-level recommendation to read the first few chapters and the last two chapters as a way to broaden your perspectives about what cultures are possible. Be careful not to trust the book’s claims, or any potentially controversial claims I’ve made in this review.
I’m convinced that the world could have taken a much different path to a wealthy quasi-paradise, one with more freedom and equality. The Dawn of Everything adds a few pieces to the puzzle of how much better such a world could be.