In The Dawn of Everything, the late anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow ask how we got stuck in the ways of thinking and the ways of life we have now. This review is from my personal perspectives on science and revolutionary thought. Because we live in a world divided into nation-states, because capitalism rules our lives, because the boss tells us what we can and cannot do – we forget that things were different before. We forget that we ever had any sort of freedom. Graeber and Wengrow identify these freedoms as
(1) the freedom to move away,
(2) the freedom to disobey, and
(3) the freedom to shape society in a way that we choose.
They identify the Enlightenment as the source of many of the ways of thinking with which we are stuck. They trace how many of the good ideas that came out of the Enlightenment, particularly about freedom, were cribbed from Native Americans like Kandiaronk (a philosopher-statesman from the Wendat Confederacy, people living around the Great Lakes under French colonial rule in the late 18th century). They describe how the conceptualization of human history as a series of material stages came about. This conventional narrative starts with small bands of hunter-gatherers, progresses through the invention of agriculture, the founding of cities (where some priest or king tells everybody else what to do), to your workplace (where your boss tells you what to do). Other than how it ends up at socialism, then communism, the Marxist conception of human history does not differ greatly from the contemporary conventional narrative. While such evolutionary accounts of human history are now commonplace, it is important to keep in mind that until Darwin and the fossil record came to be accepted, educated Western thought simply accepted the biblical story of the creation of the Earth.
The book is so long because Graeber and Wengrow lay out the case for why this conventional narrative is simply a just-so story, i.e. wrong. Much of the evidence marshalled is a recounting of archaeology that has happened in the last thirty years. Some of it is Wengrow’s own work. To appreciate it properly, one has to have a maps program open, so one can look up just where Göbekli Tepe (Turkey), Poverty Point (Louisiana), or Taljanky (Ukraine) are. The archaeological finds already in museums are reinterpreted, e.g. Minoan Crete as a polity ruled by women. Societies dependent on hunting and gathering are shown to have been organized on regional scales. Cities are shown to have been organized without the central authority of priests or kings. In the end, The Dawn of Everything demonstrates that humans have been less tolerant of bosses and more creative in how they come together in societies than we usually give them credit for.
When we say, “the conventional evolutionary account,” or “the Marxist conception of human history,” we are working within the materialist paradigm, the philosophical stance that matter makes up the world around us. When scientists declare themselves to be materialists, they are generally aligning themselves with a view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter, i.e. “vulgar materialism.” I will admit to having been at one time a vulgar materialist myself.
As a kid, I wanted to become a physicist, like my father, despite having figured out that they were a goofy bunch of people. The Holy Grail of physics is the Theory of Everything (TOE) that will unite the very small (quantum mechanics) and the very large (relativity). I realized, at a young enough age, that I didn’t have the mathematical chops to make it as a physicist. What I am left with from my pocket protector-wearing days is a conviction that all the stuff around us is matter (and energy, too, but energy is just matter because E=mc2).
Around the time that I gave up on physics, some so-called friends decided that I should never be happy again and suggested that I read Chomsky (because once you realize that what he says is true, it’s hard to be happy ever again). From The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, I went onto read the Marx for Beginners comic book. I learned that Marx stood Hegel’s dialectic on its head – so that we’re not just talking about ideas, but we’re talking about the material world.
The idea that history was driven by great (Enlightenment) ideals like “liberty and justice for all” seemed like a bunch of bullshit to me. In contrast, the Marxist view of history, that material conditions and relations of production determine societal organization, made more sense to me – because, well, it’s about the material world. For Marx and Engels, the progress of history is marked by primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism – and, when the proletariat overthrows the capitalists, socialism. We get to communism when the state withers away. Class struggle is the engine of this progress. While there may be a “superstructure” of culture and ideology, the material world is fundamental. While I came to accept that the dialectical materialist perspective can be useful, as demonstrated by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin in The Dialectical Biologist (1985), I had difficulty abandoning my vulgar materialist viewpoint.
Since learning that Marx kicked the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin out of the First International, I decided that I was going to side with the anarchists. But I have always largely thought of my allegiance to anarchism as something of an emotional choice, driven by my dislike of being told what to do. Anarchists have always had an endearing, impractical sense of style. For example, during the Spanish Civil War, they still had to achieve consensus, making sure that the nudists were also on board. Anarchists believe in the inherent goodness of people – such that if there were no authority, people would naturally organize themselves into a functional and fair society.
Nevertheless, in regard to how history has played out, and the way things work in contemporary society, it has seemed to me that Marx had given us the proper framework. Of course, the rich set things up so they get richer, and the poor get poorer.
For a long time, Chomsky was the only person that I had ever met who called himself an anarchist, and even much of Chomsky’s analysis seemed to me to be much in accordance with Marxist analysis. So, over the years, while calling myself an anarchist, I have often hung out with people who espouse some brand of Marxism or Marxism-Leninism. In my mind, I fly a flag that’s half black and half red, like that of the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo- Federación Anarquista Ibérica (CNT-FAI).
Also, over the years, Gregory Maskarinec, my teacher of anthropology, philosophy, and history – by urging Nietzsche on me – convinced me to abandon the vulgar materialist (or perhaps science chauvinist) view of science, the belief that scientists have a front seat to reality. As Richard Rorty notes, representationalists appeal to physics as the scientific field that provides a “skyhook” – the idea that description of phenomena in terms of subatomic particles is a viewpoint that accords with reality, in other words, a God’s eye view (Rorty, Objectivity, relativism, and truth, 1991).
Nowadays, physicists tell us about such as extra dimensions and multiple universes. They tell us that we can’t see most of the matter in the universe because it’s dark matter. They tell us that most of the “stuff” in the universe is dark energy. Some call the dominant explanatory framework in contemporary particle physics – string theory – into question. Such developments in the so-called “hard sciences” should remind us that physics, too, is a product of human activity.
While physicists would not accept such an assertion, I therefore maintain that physics, too, is a language game. Each field is its own language game, a suburb of the city of discourse in which we all reside (Wittgenstein, Philosophical investigations, 1953). Antirepresentationalists such as Rorty maintain that none of these fields have a privileged relationship to reality. He suggests that we see “the entire culture, from physics to poetry, as a single, continuous, seamless activity in which the divisions are merely institutional and pedagogical” (Rorty 1991, p. 76).
Pragmatism . . . does not erect Science as an idol to fill the place once held by God. It views science as one genre of literature – or, put the other way around, literature and the arts as inquiries, on the same footing as scientific inquiries. . . . Physics is a way of trying to cope with various bits of the universe; ethics is a matter of trying to cope with other bits (Rorty 1982, Consequences of Pragmatism, p. xliii).
If this is the case for the natural sciences, it holds as well for the social sciences, as well as for what we consider to be “common sense” about the way things work, and why the world is the way it is.
Graeber and Wengrow are no more tolerant of the historical materialist account as they are of politically conservative accounts. They seem to reserve some special ire, though, for contemporary popular authors of Grand Narratives about human history, Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. Perhaps they felt it more important to debunk the gurus of Silicon Valley rather than those who want to overthrow capitalism.
Jared Diamond does not reference the Marxist tradition, but his method is also to ascribe history to material conditions. His methodology parallels the “cultural materialism” of anthropologist Marvin Harris. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond outlines how accidents of geography determined European colonization of the rest of the world. Inasmuch as he discounts the fitness or cultural superiority of the white man and touts his efforts as anti-racist, initially I myself found Diamond’s perspective appealing. The Dawn of Everything often mentions “guns, germs, and steel” as shorthand for the technological superiority of European colonialists.
Graeber and Wengrow cite multiple examples of how people did not pursue the most materially or economically advantageous course. Specifically, they note how the archaeological record shows that people often chose not to farm, even when they could have done so. That is to say, humans have not always succumbed to the “iron laws of history.”
Their view is that humans living in ancient societies were much like us, capable of political reasoning. When the people of Taosi (China) thought that their self-appointed rulers were a bunch of jerks, it appears that they rose up against them and trashed their palace around 2000 BC. They chose, instead, to design a city where everybody had a decent living space. Something similar seems to have happened at Teotihuacan (Mexico) around 300 AD, when the warrior aristocracy was overthrown, and subsequent housing was constructed along apparently egalitarian lines.
At first, I thought of Yuval Noah Harari’s emphasis on narratives as akin to that of Nietzsche. Whether it was money, states, or religions – in Sapiens, Harari suggests that it is humankind’s evolutionary fitness to tell and believe stories that allowed the species to conquer the planet. His formulation seems parallel to Nietzche’s insight that it wasn’t God that created Man; it was Man that created God. That is not, however, to what Graeber and Wengrow object.
The objection that Graeber and Wengrow raise is that when Harari suggests that the social arrangements of ancient hunter-gatherers may have varied greatly, he says they might have varied as much as how the behavior of chimpanzees differ from that of bonobos. What is evident here is that Harari ascribes much of human behavior to the evolutionary heritage that humans possess. His perspective is thus consistent with that of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology – controversial and contested scientific paradigms. This is more evident in Harari’s follow-up book Homo Deus, in which he argues that organisms are nothing more that algorithms, that therefore, there is no such thing as free will.
Part of Diamond and Harari’s appeal for the TED Talk crowd is their referencing of “science.” Essentially accusing Diamond of not staying in his lane, Graeber and Wengrow point out that Diamond has a PhD in the physiology of the gallbladder. Harari is a historian of medieval warfare.
In the end, the Graeber of The Dawn of Everything is the same Graeber that wrote Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology(2004), Debt (2011), and Bullshit Jobs (2018). He is the same Graeber that participated in Occupy Wall Street. In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow discern what they discern in ethnographic accounts and the archaeological record because of their anarchist mindset. They see periods such as the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt as times when it sucked to be a forced laborer or an oppressed minority. They note how the supposedly chaotic dark ages in between were more livable for such ordinary people.
While they are clear about their political commitments and do not deny the influence of such on their work within anthropology or archaeology, Graeber and Wengrow are careful not to draw too many implications for contemporary society. Perhaps this was intended for subsequent volumes prior to Graeber’s unfortunate demise. That The Dawn of Everything has been reviewed so widely and is selling so well is surely because it is intended for popular audiences as a corrective to the grand narratives told by figures such as Diamond and Harari.
I will therefore do my own unwarranted extrapolation and consider the implications for my own dithering between Marxism and anarchism. Firstly, Graeber and Wengrow teach us that there are no iron laws of history. The current masters of the Universe would have you believe that There Is No Alternative to capitalism, that the tech billionaires have the right to monetize your personal data and build rockets to colonize Mars. Graeber and Wengrow tell us that our ancestors told their own assholes where they could get off.
Recognizing that Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism continue to animate many movements around the world, I suggest that no matter how much time Marx spent in the library of the British Museum in the 19th century and however much he might have taken an interest in indigenous cultures, there have been many advances in anthropology and archaeology since. Moreover, while he might have stood Hegel on his head, Marx was a creature of his time, steeped in the Continental philosophy that succeeded the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Rather than hankering for “scientific socialism,” we should realize that human affairs require the application of volition, i.e. free will. When the old formulas don’t work, we have to come up with new ones.
So, we don’t have to all put all of our energies into helping the proletariat to develop enough union power to overthrow the capitalists. Graeber and Wengrow tell us that our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t necessarily look up to the Conan the Barbarian in their midst. They tell us that when our slave or serf ancestors had had enough, they revolted against their masters.
Within the past two decades, global capitalism has nearly collapsed twice. Both times, our so-called leaders have rescued the corporations while workers watched their jobs disappear or banks take their houses. Meanwhile the wealth of billionaires skyrocketed. Now that capital needs its workers back, the workers are thinking twice about going back to their Bullshit Jobs. By forcing some workers to stay at home, the pandemic has made us realize how commuting and long hours at the office has the cost of fewer hours devoted to family and other pursuits. Other workers, from meat packers to health care workers, were told that they were essential workers and were told to stay at their posts, no matter how dangerous it became. As the pandemic dragged on, it became more obvious to these essential workers just how little they mattered to their bosses.
While Graeber views his stance in Bullshit Jobs as distinct from Marxism, his debt to Marx’s formulation of alienation seems obvious. Marx pointed out that under capitalism, the worker is (1) alienated from the product of their labor, so that the worker becomes (2) alienated from the means of production, and the worker is (3) alienated from other workers – resulting in (4) alienation from their own humanity. The pandemic has brought to the consciousness of workers just how alienated we are. We now seek ways to be less alienated, together with our co-workers and the people that we serve.
Graeber’s vision for revolutionary practice were outlined in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. There Graeber asks, “what, precisely, are the possible dimensions of non-alienated experience?” (p. 75)
The moment we stop insisting on viewing all forms of action only by their function in reproducing larger, total, forms of inequality of power, we will also be able to see that anarchist social relations and non-alienated forms of action are all around us. And this is critical because it already shows that anarchism is, already, and has always been, one of the main bases for human interaction. (p. 76)
It’s good to talk about revolution, even if it’s just a Rinky-Dink Revolution. It’s therapeutic for us. As Graeber points out,
Totalities, in particular, are always creatures of the imagination. Nations, societies, ideologies, closed systems…none of these really exist. Reality is always infinitely messier than that – even if the belief that they exist is an undeniable social force. For one thing, the habit of thought which defines the world, or society, as a totalizing system (in which every element takes on its significance only in relation to the others) tends to lead almost inevitably to a view of revolutions as cataclysmic ruptures. (pp. 43-44)
That is, we should no longer think of the coming revolution in terms of storming the Bastille or a Leninist seizure of power. Rather, we should look to “hundreds of activists in fairy suits tickling police with feather dusters” (p. 84).
. . . the old breed of grim, determined, self-sacrificing revolutionary, who sees the world only in terms of suffering will ultimately only produce more suffering himself. Certainly that’s what has tended to happen in the past. Hence the emphasis on pleasure, carnival, on creating “temporary autonomous zones” where one can live as if one is already free. The ideal of the “festival of resistance” with its crazy music and giant puppets is, quite consciously, to return to the late medieval world of huge wickerwork giants and dragons, maypoles and morris dancing; the very world the Puritan pioneers of the “capitalist spirit” hated so much and ultimately managed to destroy. (p. 74)
Obviously, Occupy is prefigured here. More to the point, we have to find ways to do our own work in non-alienated ways – and live as if we are already free.