The late David Graeber and David Wengrow’s (henceforth GW) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Allen Lane, 2021) is the newest big book of revisionist global history on the block. I’ve been fighting the urge to write a review of it, but since it illuminates several themes of interest to this blog, what follows is a white flag of surrender to that fine ambition.

When I say The Dawn of Everything is a big book, I mean really big. Several reviewers of my own tome commented with palpable tiredness about how exhaustively argued (272 pages), endnoted (12 pages) and referenced (12 pages) it is, but it’s a mere pamphlet compared to GW’s numbers in this regard (526, 83 and 63, since you asked). I mention this partly to remind myself to say something later in this review about the rights and wrongs of quantification, and partly to dramatize the point that it’s impossible to summarize GW’s book and do any justice to the depth of their analysis, so I’m not even going to try.

What I am going to do is pick out a few themes that chime with my own interests, which, broadly speaking, are how to rethink almost the entirety of the present world political and economic system in the face of profound ecological and social crisis. As is often the way of such things, I’m going to focus a bit more on where I disagree or am uncertain about GW’s analysis than on points of agreement, so I just want to say upfront that their book is a magnificent achievement and a crowning glory for the extraordinary David Graeber before, alas too soon, he left us to join the ancestors.

Although GW’s book defies summary, I’ll offer a quick thumbnail anyway. Standard modern global histories tell us that our genus Homo emerged about 2 million years ago. These hominins of our genus, so the story goes, lived for most of that time in small, egalitarian foraging bands where nothing very interesting happened for multiple tens of thousands of years until men invented agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago. This enabled the accumulation of surplus, the division of labour, social stratification and the emergence of centralized states, culminating in the incredible technological mastery of the last couple of centuries centred around Europe and its offshoots.

This is often told as a story of heroic progress that puts white, agricultural men in the historical driving seat, but often enough the story is inverted, the heroes become villains, and we are called back to a time of innocent, egalitarian, non-racist, non-sexist foraging. This solidifies a seemingly immovable modern duality: upwards to a brighter future or downwards from a brighter past. Progress or a fall from grace, modernity or nostalgia, accelerationism or primitivism. Like GW, I’ve done my best over the years to escape this airless duality, but it’s a struggle. I hope their book becomes an important waymark in its overcoming.

In GW’s revisionist account, a lot of very interesting things happened during human ‘prehistory’ – in particular, playful and transitory experimentation with both egalitarian and stratified forms of society across vast interconnected human landscapes of continental scale. Then women invented agriculture (or, better, horticulture), basically as a niche craft specialization. For a long while nobody took it any more seriously than all the other ways people had of messing around outdoors. But eventually it did, literally, take root across much of the world, creating more populous but smaller, more localized societies that were more inclined to stress their cultural differences from one another. There was no definite relationship between the emergence of agriculture and the emergence of stratified, centralized polities. Historically, both foragers and farmers created large urban centres based on bottom up, relatively egalitarian forms of self-organization, but they also created ones with a parade of emperors, kings and other bigwigs.

We tend to dignify the latter with the concept of ‘the state’, but there’s never really been such a thing as ‘the state’ with a core, enduring set of attributes. Nevertheless, nowadays we do seem to have lost our human capacity for playful experimentation and are ‘stuck’ within a system of stratified, centralized polities. In GW’s words,

“There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of its population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion” (p.76).

Amen to that.

Though their story differs from the anti-heroic version of the standard history, ultimately GW are fighting against similar biases in global histories that they see as too male, too white, too agrarian and too focused on centralized political power. At the same time, they’re underwhelmed by counter-histories concerning the superior mystic wisdom of ancient and indigenous peoples. Theirs is a humanistic tale that paints everybody in every society as creative and confused in the same measure, and perfectly capable of sustained critical reflection about their own society and others they encounter.

I have few quarrels with most of that, though I do think GW get into some tangles as they try to unfurl this argument over the grand sweep of history. Still, there’s an aspect of their grand narrative about the questionable concept of ‘the state’ that I’d like to highlight. Where GW criticize the modern tendency to define ourselves as living within the confines of the state and then cast back through history to locate its origins and the reasons for its successful persistence, I’d extrapolate their critique forwards. All too frequently, people project the trappings of what they understand to be ‘the state’ into the future and ridicule the idea that it may not persist, with jibes like Leigh Phillips’s ‘collapse porn’ shtick. But from GW’s telling, there’s no reason to find ‘collapse’ unlikely. The various elements that define a state regularly get scrambled and recombine in different ways. What historians call Dark Ages are often when centralized power wanes and ordinary people come into their own. So maybe folks should quit the name calling. Maybe we ‘doomers’ are really the optimists?

Of inequality and freedom

A big part of the fizz of human history arises because we’re simultaneously creatures that like to construct pecking orders and status gradations among ourselves, with a taste for attaching ourselves as flunkies to people higher up the heap, and creatures that like to demolish these gradations and emphasize our equality and autonomy. I don’t think the standard historical narratives we tell about ourselves emphasize this point and its oddity enough. When we devise political schemes that only find a place for one of these modalities, they usually soon founder as the other one asserts itself.

In his book Hierarchy in the Forest,Christopher Boehm has argued that the hierarchy/equality duality is an evolutionary legacy – both from our deep ancestry in a great ape lineage given to rigid (male) status ranking, and from our long human gestation in face-to-face foraging societies where egalitarian cooperation was a winning strategy. I find this plausible, based largely on a long period of intensive participant observation fieldwork that I began in about 1982 involving many evenings drinking in the pub, where I’ve found pompous self-aggrandizement and its negation via the fine art of taking the piss to be on display in roughly equal measure. The latter seems necessarily based on small-scale, face-to-face interaction and the micropolitics of gesture and language.

GW invoke Boehm respectfully, before scorning his view of a long egalitarian gestation in face-to-face groups. The truth, as they like to point out, is that we have vanishingly little idea of what people were doing and thinking over most of the 2-million-year history of our genus, so it’s wise to avoid guesswork. But this argument cuts both ways. GW present plausible archaeological evidence that foraging peoples prior to the spread of agriculture (but mostly only just prior to the spread of agriculture) played with status ranking and were part of much larger interacting populations. But this doesn’t prove our ancestors weren’t playing the egalitarian face-to-face band game most of the time through our evolutionary history. Their suggestion otherwise involves its own kind of guesswork. I feel that, as here, a little too often in their book they build some big conjectures on fragmentary evidence.

So to the idea that Paleolithic foraging peoples engaged in building urban hierarchies, I guess my response is ‘OK, but how often?’ GW do not, thankfully, attempt the kind of absurd, evidence-mangling quantifications that the likes of Steven Pinker engage in to prove his notions about the awfulness of the past, but without knowing how often pre-agricultural foragers built mass, status-ranked societies over the last couple of million years it’s hard to assess the weight of GW’s argument.

In the early part of their book, GW critique the whole emphasis of modern political thinking on equality, placing their emphasis instead on freedom. In some ways, their take is similar to the one I’ve been discussing recently under the banner of autonomy or self-possession. But I think they stretch the distinction a bit too far. It’s difficult to be truly autonomous in societies of great inequality, and as GW themselves ably document, societies that emphasize self-possession usually go to some lengths to ensure that inequalities don’t get out of hand. So in important ways freedom and (relative) equality are two sides of the same coin.

GW’s real kicker on the matter of equality comes later in the book when they discuss the unhappy confluence of sovereign power with bureaucracy that generates a good deal of what we understand by the notion of ‘the’ state. Impersonal notions of formal equality – treating people as interchangeable units or tokens of some particular class – is, they say, usually the harbinger of extreme political violence and inequality. Their position seems close to the civic republicanism that I’ve outlined in my own writings. What ultimately matters the most to people is not metrics of social equality but a sense that we’re participants in a political community that takes seriously what we have to say and gives us some leeway to lead the life we choose.

Such questions of participation were at the heart of political debates in Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries as older forms of royal and imperial rule gave way to a modern politics shaped by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Unfortunately, GW miss the opportunity to get into this when they discuss these two thinkers in the early – and in my opinion, weakest – part of the book. GW have a different agenda, relating to what they call ‘the indigenous critique’, which leads them into a dismayingly superficial contrast between Rousseau and Hobbes as theorists of the original human condition, with Rousseau supposedly detecting a kind of propertyless primitive communism and Hobbes, by contrast, famously characterizing human life in this state of nature as “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”.

The problem is, neither Rousseau nor Hobbes were actually talking about the original human condition, as GW acknowledge without ever really getting out of the tailspin they set up for themselves by suggesting that they were (in fact, they concede, the historical event that most framed Hobbes’s thinking was the English Civil War concluding the same year he published his famous phrase). I hope to say more about the questions Hobbes was asking, probably in my next post, because I think we urgently need to ask similar questions again across much of the world today. I also think we need to find different answers to his ones, but the inspiration of his thinking lies in the way he formulated the problem of how people can form political communities from first principles.

On this point, GW make a great play for their ‘indigenous critique’ idea that such first-principles political thinking in early modern Europe was first crafted by indigenous people from beyond Europe’s boundaries, specifically from North America, as a response to their colonial encounters with Europeans, and this was then adopted by Europeans themselves with the indigenous origins being airbrushed out. Already, this is ruffling feathers among specialists of 18th century European history. Whatever the case, ultimately GW’s stronger contribution is probably their argument that ordinary people everywhere are perfectly capable of producing articulate critiques of the political forms taken by their own and other societies.

Three political forms

Let’s examine those forms. To greatly simplify GW’s analysis, and perhaps to extrapolate them somewhat faithlessly into an analysis of my own contriving, GW argue that there are basically three broad kinds of political society. There are republics, involving bottom-up political self-organisation by ordinary people operating more or less as equals. There are aristocratic ‘house’ societies, involving predatory warrior leaders and petty would-be kings with an unstable power expressed through fighting, gifting, feasting and general rape and pillage. And there are empires, in which the petty kings have grown up into more stable monarchies, usually by combining political sovereignty – that is, a sacred sense of authority – with bureaucratic organization.

GW’s sympathies are with the republics, as mine are, and a big part of their book is concerned to show that people can and have orchestrated them many times worldwide throughout history in the face of the other forms of politics. They’re also concerned to show how the different political forms often emerge through deliberate local differentiation from neighbouring forms (what GW call ‘schismogenesis’). So the house societies of eastern Anatolia emerged as a counter to the urban republics of Mesopotamia, and the egalitarian republics of indigenous, pre-European California emerged as a counter to the house societies of the Pacific Northwest.

All of this I find interesting and plausible. I’m just not sure how easy it really is to form bottom-up, more or less egalitarian republics. Again, I want GW to show us not just that this has happened, but how much it’s happened and what proportion of the people who’ve lived since the Neolithic have enjoyed true republican freedom. This isn’t something that can be quantified precisely from the archaeological record, but I think we have a rough idea. At one point, GW quote political scientist James Scott without demur in his view that “the period from about 3000BC to AD 1600 was a fairly miserable one for the bulk of the world’s farmers” (p.445). That’s a pretty large slice of humanity exempted from the freedoms that GW champion. And I’m not even sure it got much better after 1600.

At issue here is the way different kinds of political power interact. In GW’s Californian example, people chose to forge relatively egalitarian and peaceful non-slaveholding societies in deliberate contrast to the aristocratic, slaveholding house societies of the Pacific Northwest, and apparently did so with considerable success (interestingly, GW say this was accompanied with strong private property rights and the development of money systems within Californian societies that also deliberately avoided agriculture). But my feeling is that such successes are historically quite rare. I suspect that the non-egalitarian violence of house societies is easier to project historically, particularly when it allies with the non-egalitarian violence of empires. This is James Scott’s argument. Ordinary people living under imperial rule got squeezed between the legalized violence of the regime and the predatory violence of ‘barbarian’ peoples in the peripheries of empire.

Still, these forms of power aren’t static, and opportunities lie in their changing realities. Often, emperors are too busy playing with their sacred power behind the walls of their palaces to care too much about what their subjects are doing, so provided the latter pay their taxes and don’t challenge imperial power too directly, life in an empire isn’t always so bad. Likewise, in modern nation states, mini empires of the latter day, a strange nationalist alchemy has turned the sacred power of the emperor into the sacred power of the people themselves, giving ordinary folks a chance to press their advantage – albeit often at the expense of foreigners or enemies within.

House or warrior societies also provide opportunities for advancement for anyone who can project charismatic authority and is good at cracking heads. Or at least for any man. No doubt, there’s a kind of playfulness in a hell-raising, slave-raiding, heavy-drinking, sexually predatory house society of charismatic leaders and their henchmen. But this kind of play is highly gendered, and looks a lot more fun for the ones in charge of the playing than the ones being played.

GW generally present republican societies as more measured, more attentive to the dynamics of power and to the ways power can be corrupted and more focused on distributed power than in the other two political forms, where inegalitarian power ultimately is centred one someplace or someone. Gendered perspectives are a constant undertow in their book, and in some ways republicanism emerges from it as a more ‘female’ political form – more inclusive, connected and communicative. This contrasts with the way that in practice the historical republican tradition in Europe from classical times to the present has so often been militarist and masculinist, perhaps because civic republics have often been embattled enclaves carved out in times of trouble from larger warring polities.

I’m less optimistic than GW about the prospects for people to throw off the shackles of their oppression with a republican politics of freedom because of this embattled history, and because of the difficulties of escaping status inequalities that are underwritten with violence. Nevertheless, GW convincingly show that these difficulties can be overcome in certain situations. It seems possible that the post-capitalist and post fossil fuel world we may now be entering will be one of these situations – what I called in A Small Farm Future ‘supersedure situations’, where people improvise local politics in the face of waning state power. Generally, I think GW understate the advantages held by imperial and royal/warrior power in projecting itself, which is why they keep asking how it is that we got ‘stuck’ with it. They’re still asking this on page 503 of their book, by which time you’d have hoped they’d have an answer. But they do convincingly show that not everyone always gets stuck.

Of gender, households, families … and gardens

In fact, they do sort of have an answer to how we got stuck, in their interesting but rather undeveloped argument that royal and imperial power is modelled after the structure of patriarchal households. As GW see it, this is what gives inegalitarian violence its staying power. What matters isn’t really the king or the patriarch’s arbitrary violence, which ebbs and flows like the weather. It’s the fact that their capacity for violence is contained within a house (or a kingdom, for which the house is a metaphor) where there are ongoing relationships of care between people that gives this capacity its ongoing human force and that can turn violent weather into a stable climate. I’ll note in passing regarding recent discussions on this blog that in GW’s presentation, the kingdom comes after, or is modelled after, the family or the household – so the household gets priority.

I find all this quite persuasive, and it’s changed my views somewhat on points I made in A Small Farm Future about gender and household organization. I don’t recant the overarching analysis I presented there, just the particular spin I put on it. I’ll comment further on that in a separate post. For now, I’ll just note that GW’s argument about the nexus of violence and care only gets us so far in understanding how we get ‘stuck’ with sovereign power, because it merely displaces the question onto how we get ‘stuck’ with patriarchal household organization – a form, they note, that has been widespread historically.

Still, GW show us that on plenty of occasions historically patriarchal sovereign power gets flipped, and not necessarily for any apparent structural reason. It’s as if that more egalitarian, more republican and perhaps more female mode of politics is always there in the wings, awaiting its moment. And that, I think, is an important take home from their book. Never discount the possibility of transforming patriarchal sovereign power.

Another take home from their book, although GW don’t remark on it, is the ubiquity of small, family-based households as a basic unit of social organization. Again and again across their case studies ranging worldwide over human history, they present evidence of small family-based residential units. They choose to emphasize other things, like the way that these small units interact in numerous commons-based formats, and the way that official scripts for what constitutes a family get subverted in practice. These things are worth saying. But they don’t undermine the fact that small, face-to-face, kinship-based household units are so often the building blocks of human societies. The tendency to gloss over this and to de-emphasize kinship in the contemporary social sciences seems to me something of a blind spot that ultimately will need correcting.

GW pave the way for this correction quite nicely here and there – for example when they show how indigenous people in certain parts of North America prior to European colonization opted for scattered family homesteading as a means to escape sovereign patriarchal power, which is not always how the history of American homesteading is presented. But they pull their punches, and their rather weak argument against kin-based social organization – “many humans just don’t like their families very much” (p.279) – succumbs to the problem that many humans just don’t like anyone they have to negotiate social and economic relationships with long-term. Looking at its ubiquity throughout history, it’s tempting to conclude that appropriately sophisticated forms of kinship organization seem to be the best of a bad job in this respect.

GW’s take on kinship has its limitations, but their discussion of gender is more impressive. Their account of farming’s origins as a playful, egalitarian craft specialism of women in their role as expert experimental scientists of the domestic was a particular delight. I found these arguments plausible, although again with something of a surfeit of speculation over evidence. It rings true that people took slowly to farming, and in early agrarian sites like Çatalhöyük avoided certain livestock domesticates because hunting was more fun.

But GW’s view that the Bible’s Garden of Eden story ill fits this narrative surprised me. Surely the idea that Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and bade Adam do the same nicely captures this sense of female knowledge and mastery, and its longer consequences? In truth, I doubt the Eden story involves any memory of what was happening at places like Çatalhöyük. We’re closer today to the era of the Yahwist source for that story than s/he was to the era of Çatalhöyük. I say ‘s/he’ because some have speculated that the Yahwist writer of the Eden story was a woman, and a case can be made that the story is less straightforwardly misogynistic than it’s often presented. Perhaps it’s an attempt to make intelligible a kind of multi-millennial male sulk about the need to stop playing in the woods and assume domestic responsibilities. More on that another time, perhaps. But it leaves us with the same general problem bequeathed by GW’s own enigmatic text: why have we got so stuck with patriarchal household organization, sovereign power, and the state?

Well, while I’m on the subject of idealized gardens, I’d like to suggest GW might have profitably explored the distinction between horticulture and agriculture more fully in pondering this question. They point to many ancient examples of mass urban residence that didn’t ultimately lead to repressive state sovereignty. And they invoke the case of indigenous North America to suggest “it’s simply not true to say that if one falls into the trap of ‘state formation’ there’s no getting out” (p.481), based largely on their analysis of the rise and fall of Cahokia in present-day Illinois from around the 11th to the 14th centuries.

These examples, even the urban ones, generally involve people who were producing their own subsistence either through foraging or mixed horticulture. They didn’t seem to involve worlds with a lot of non-producers, or producers largely dependent on arable grain monocultures and herding. I’m not suggesting these crop choices drove the politics. Maybe it’s the other way around. The people who were able to retain their self-possession were the ones who didn’t get sucked into arable and pastoral dependence. Either way, if this is true people’s options for escaping state sovereignty across much of the world today look bleak. But maybe not impossible with a turn to horticulture and a small farm future?

Idealism and materialism

David Graeber was blessed with the ability to write sophisticated social science in accessible and (almost) jargon-free ways while addressing real world political issues, and The Dawn of Everything is no exception. I’m not going to humiliate myself by taking a deep dive into the underlying social theory of the book and reveal my inadequacies by comparison, but I do just want to venture some closing thoughts on questions of idealism and materialism. It’s a topic of interest mostly just to professional social scientists, philosophers and Marxists, but I hope to show that it may have wider implications in our present political moment as we try to get unstuck.

For social scientists, ‘idealism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived ultimately through the ideas that people have about it, whereas ‘materialism’ refers to the view that society is shaped and perceived through the real underlying material conditions in which people live. Marxist versions of materialism hold that societies progress in determinate ways as a result of internal tensions, and their resolution, grounded in material conditions such as class conflict.

GW don’t have an awful lot of truck with Marxist materialism, inclining towards an idealist sense that social change is driven more by cultural movements than material conditions and conflicts. And they add an individualist element – people are self-conscious architects of their own cultural change, not just automata representing some broad class or cultural type.

I agree with them, and I imagine they’ll get some stick from Marxists for failing to espouse the approved materialism. Well, join the club. My feeling is that Marxists can be quite tolerant of idealist elements when circumstances suit, but as I read GW’s book and thought about the kind of Marxist critiques that have been levelled at me, it occurred to me that it may be time to turn Marxist materialism on its head.

Marxists don’t really like the ‘idealist’ notion that people just self-consciously reconstruct the political cultures they inherit, but those Marxists that have criticized me along ‘collapse porn’ or ‘disaster feudalism’ lines happily operate with the idealist notion that the vast inertial ship of modern fossil-fuelled industrial technology can simply be repurposed for the benefit of the many and not the few. GW’s book has helped me clarify my conviction that it more likely works the other way around. The inertial ship of industrial high technology is a material drag that must be abandoned (I know oil companies are villains, but the energetic-industrial problems we now face don’t arise solely or mainly because of their villainy). We can abandon it if we develop a different politics around food, energy and habitation, which is basically to say a different set of ideas about how we ought to live. Out of this, different material practices can emerge.

In that sense, I endorse GW’s upbeat conclusion that it’s within people’s power to change things and remake their social world – not a power or a social world restricted to particular classes, groups, genders or political ideologies, but one available to everyone. And this, I must stress, is not a ‘liberal’ or still less a conservative position, but a populist republican one, as I shall explore in more detail in another post.

At the same time, there’s another material drag on republican possibilities in our evolutionary predilection for status aggrandizement as well as status equality. So the dangers of arbitrary sovereign power reasserting itself are ever present, as subjects of regimes inspired by Marxist egalitarianism might perhaps attest. It’s probably unwise to bet against new emperors or new patriarchies emerging. All the same, GW give us plenty of inspiration for trying to stop them.

So concludes this review – and also I think my blogging for the year. Many thanks to commenters old and new for sharing their thoughts with me, which makes writing this blog the continuing pleasure that it is. My apologies for not always finding the time to respond as fully as I’d like. I hope to be back in the new year to finally finish the long-running blog cycle about my book. In the meantime, if you’d like a little more small farm futurology to tide you over, there’s always this and this. So wishing everyone happy holidays, and see you soon, I hope.