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The Anarchist’s Cooked-Book | Focus

An expansive new history of human political life is exhilarating, but ultimately an exercise in the same myth-making the authors condemn.

When I went to my local bookstore to pick up a copy of David Wengrow and the late David Graeber’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, it was sold out. I placed an order to pick it up, but when I didn’t hear back from the bookstore for a week, I called and asked when it might arrive. It could be at least several more days, the employee on the line said; I might even need to wait for a whole new round of print. When it did arrive, the store’s shelf of reserved books was dotted with copies, thick red and tangerine spines as bold as the book’s contents.

That’s a long way of saying this is a book that’s made waves among the casually lettered class, and for good reason. With lively, pugilistic prose, and an unrelenting flow of anthropological and archaeological examples, Dawn’s authors attempt to blow a massive hole in conventional accounts of human social evolution.

The conventional account, they tell us, goes something like this: human societies began as simple—but egalitarian and democratic—bands of hunter gatherers. Around twelve thousand years ago, a radical shift took place, in which we settled down and began farming. This was also the first emergence of social and economic inequality, as the possibility of food storage permitted division of labor and the formation of elite classes whose task it was to organize the rest of us towards ever more production. Over the following millennia, society became increasingly complex. We built cities—also, according to the authors’ account of the conventional explanation, ruled by monarchs—and proto-states. Inequality got worse, but we got more productive, more creative, and smarter. Ultimately, societies converged, through all ugly manners of warfare, oppression, and greed, on the modern nation-state, which has made us all materially better off despite its less-than-ideal origins.

According to the authors, that’s all wrong. No political order, from bands to villages to cities, necessarily corresponds with any hierarchy or lack thereof. Some hunger-gatherers owned slaves, they tell us, and—crucially—early cities with agriculture might have been entirely free of rulers. Complexity and hierarchy are not as intrinsically linked as the authors would have us believe other social scientists say.

Not satisfied by simply declaring the account of social evolution in question wrong, the authors trace it back to its alleged source. The book’s second chapter engages in a clever double movement that helps to clear the ground for the authors’ case, by suggesting two things. First, Graeber and Wengrow write that much of European Enlightenment thought (on freedom, equality, and democracy) was actually influenced by indigenous American political thought. Second, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau bastardized that tradition through their own limited imaginations. By suggesting both that such thinkers (mainly Rousseau; Hobbes is not the focus of the study) were influenced by genuine philosophical traditions despite bastardizing them in their own works, the authors allow for the possibility that there’s something to learn from indigenous communities while at the same time avoiding pernicious “noble savage” tropes. Rousseau, in their telling, is a mythmaker whose narrative of innocent first men corrupted by society is the origin of the unfortunate conventional tale we hear today. He was a man with a political project, which generated both the appeal of his tale and its alleged limitations.

With the ground cleared of falsities, the authors lead the reader on a tour of global pre-history, armed with a stunning array of examples, as well as an extensive bibliography that ostensibly backs their claims. If the book’s positive case can be summarized in a sentence, it’s that humans have always been far more imaginative, reflective, and thoughtful, politically and otherwise, than we moderns credit them. If the examples they muster in service of that case are even half-true—which, as I’ll suggest later, many of them might be—then Graeber and Wengrow are probably correct. Material circumstance, or the particular mode of production of any given society, is not the determinant of social fate that we so often think.

For example, in the fifth chapter of their book, Graeber and Wengrow recount the fascinating history of two neighboring Amerindian tribes on the west coast of North America. Both tribes were foragers, but one, the Kwakiutl, permitted chattel slavery and was marked by strict hierarchies. The other tribe in question, the Yurok, did not allow for the ownership of other humans and operated on a kind of proto-capitalism with strict property rights. The authors explain how modes of production cannot account for the differences in political structure, that the tribes’ systems diverged through a process of conscious cultural and political differentiation. Not modes of production, but thoughtful and reflective politics, bound only by imagination, the authors tell us time and again, are what mark us for who we are. Other examples, like foraging societies that dispersed into democratic-egalitarian bands during some parts of the year and hierarchies in others, serve to complement the authors’ claims.

This notion of human possibilities bounded by reflection and imagination, especially in the context of pre-history or, perhaps more importantly, non-Western history, is one of Dawn’s great insights. There’s a line from notions of “primitive”-ness to racism and justification of structural global inequalities that I’ll pass on litigating here, but suffice it to say that Graeber and Wengrow have done a service by focusing on both pre-history, where notions of primitive ignorance originate, and non-Western examples of serious political thought. Moreover, lurking throughout the book is the crucial point that democracy—although I fundamentally disagree with the authors on what “democracy” means—is possible because those of us who participate in collective social projects, not just the elite or the educated, are able to think about the problems and possibilities that define human society.

But there are limits—big ones—to The Dawn of Everything. It’s not explicit, but the book is more or less an anarchist manifesto. Graeber (by all accounts a surpassingly brilliant man who died before his time just after the book’s completion last year) and Wengrow clearly have a political project: to jolt the imaginations of humans stuck in dry, boring, and evil capitalism towards more desirable ends. That isn’t a limit in itself, of course. If their case were ironclad then it might just be a revolutionary piece of work.

But that’s not the case. The Dawn of Everything is, despite its virtues, riddled with speculations, half-truths, and exaggerations. One of the most egregious tendencies in the book is to radically overstate the case presented in the academic literature cited in the book’s footnotes. Other reviews of Dawn have pointed this out as well, all highlighting different clever sleights-of-hand by the authors, but it’s worth bringing it to readers’ attention here, too.

In their discussion of the Indus Valley civilizations, for example, the authors assert that there isn’t any strong evidence of the existence of monarchic rule. That’s true enough, based on the academic literature available. But Graeber and Wengrow go further than highlighting the absence of rich burials or palaces, asserting that the society might have been radically self-governed by its inhabitants. For this, there’s also no strong evidence, but they claim that one can certainly imagine it to be true. So, why not?

That might be sufficient for the authors, but a dive into the footnotes, particularly into works by the Italian scholar Massimo Vidale (who Graeber and Wengrow cite favorably) should leave responsible readers wanting. The authors mention some houses in Indus cities like Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were larger than others, indicating at least material inequality, but they leave off asking what that means. Vidale’s analysis interrogates rather than ignores differences in the size of houses, and he suggests the possibility of different city quarters more or less ruled by prominent families. Now, that’s also speculation, but his scholarship is recent. Recall that Graeber and Wengrow assert that the scholarly consensus supports their perspective, so it’s odd that they would cite recent scholarship that catalogues evidence contradicting one of their cases.

The authors’ case is most shaky exactly where it’s most important: the assertion that anarchic principles are scalable to the level of mass society. If cities don’t need rulers, even elected ones, then maybe today we don’t need them either, or at least that’s what’s implied. Of course, it’s a bit of a stretch to make a leap between a ruler-less city of tens of thousands to today’s cities of millions but, even ignoring that, their logic doesn’t quite hold up.

Graeber and Wengrow collapse the Indus civilizations (and other urban examples) that weren’t overtly authoritarian into a grand anarchic tradition, a binary that suggests if kings weren’t present, then the people ruled without any fear of coercion. It’s true that cities in the millennia before modernity often featured different forms of social organization. Ancient Athens, of course, is the obvious example, but the political scientist Charles Tilly, in his cataloguing of the development of European states from the Middle Ages to today, pays close attention to the development of cities as compared to rural aristocracies. He notes how the confluence of so many different interests in one place might lead to non-monarchical, but still hierarchical, structures of governance.

Tilly’s decades-old study of the development of states is presumably part and parcel of the “conventional” narrative Graeber and Wengrow seek to demolish. But, contrary to their bold claims, there’s nothing inherently incompatible between Tilly’s work and recent scholarship. Unfortunately for Dawn’s authors, there’s no smoking anarchic gun. Liberal democracy may be new, but classical republicanism is old, and it’s not particularly jolting to assert that pre-historical city-states—or Meso-American ones in the centuries before first contact—may have practiced something like it. It’s probably for the best that we don’t wrap republicanism into a narrative of European ethnocentrism (which happens often enough), but that’s not the same thing as an empirical triumph for anarchists.

The authors’ speculation is not just limited to one case, or even the topic of pre-historical cities. When there is archaeological evidence of kings among foraging societies in pre-history, for example, Graeber and Wengrow tend to suggest that they were “play” kings, engaged in a kind of theater that didn’t mean much. When evidence of monarchy is absent from pre-historic urban sites, however, they suggest we should take it at face value. Their speculative claims later return as certainties, and by the time the reader reaches the end of the book, everything we know about the past and the future has somehow been turned on its head.

In many ways, Graeber and Wengrow are rather closer to their ideological opponent, the ghost of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, than they indicate at the outset of Dawn. Rousseau, a romantic fearful of the consequences of both capitalism and absolutism, developed a myth of whole and innocent humans in nature in his Discourse on the Origin of  Inequality. Scholars can quibble about the extent to which that myth was conscious or not, but it laid the foundation for a treatise on proper social organization in modernity, The Social Contract. He consciously sought to break what he saw as the pernicious myths of Hobbes and John Locke, who in turn sought to break the myths of the Church, which had its own account of the human condition. Myths stacked upon myths stacked upon myths, each with dueling accounts of how we were, determining the possibilities of what we are and can—or ought t0—be.

The Dawn of Everything is more Rousseauian than the authors would probably care to admit, an exercise in romantic mythmaking that seeks to liberate modern man from his drab and oppressive shackles. That it drapes itself in the credibility of modern academia hardly alters what it is. As I read it, I found myself at alternating moments enraptured by fascinating examples, and angrily scribbling notes in the margins. It’s both excellent and utterly maddening. Perhaps some of Dawn’s narrative, which seeks to restore the average citizen’s confidence in his or her capacity for serious political thought, is beneficial. Its borderline utopianism, in which the only limit to human possibility is imagination, and which whispers that we can throw off the yoke of all government and enjoy the benefits of modern life without much tradeoff, seems a rather less than ideal political horizon to set for ourselves. With its remarkable readership and arresting prose, we’ll have to see which, if any, of Dawn’s lessons stick.

Further Reading

  • The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow.
  • Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992, by Charles Tilly.
  • "Aspects of Palace Life at Mohenjo-Daro," by Massimo Vidale, in South Asian Studies.
  • "Heterarchic Powers in the Ancient Indus Cities," by Massimo Vidale, in Journal of Asian Civilizations.
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