The Dawn of Everything rewrites history so we can reimagine the future

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (allenlane) by David Graeber and David Wengrow launches at the LSE this Wednesday.

The myth that there is no political alternative has been with us since European colonisation. Structural racism is built on white Europeans defining themselves as the apex of human progress, furthest away from everyone else on an evolutionary ladder, as we have risen the highest via agriculture, property, cities, nation states and the industrial revolution. The message says: if you want writing, music, art and the like, suck up all the exploitation. The Dawn of Everything untangles this myth – and many more – from reality. Published 18 October and written by anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow, it releases our collective ancestors from caricatures. Essentially, it undermines the cornerstones of ongoing oppression of the majority of people; whilst freeing us all to imagine different political futures.

The book explores the fluidity of social systems – some dominated by a few, others co-created by the multitude. But there is no concrete law of history determining what happened, nor what will happen. Today, if you say that the world could be more just, you will often be told to grow up: a complex yet just society cannot exist as it hasn’t existed, goes the almost reflex-like supposed common sense. The Dawn of Everything shatters this dogma, with examples spanning thirty millennia.

Reader travels through ancient non-hierarchical cities with no evidence of centralized power; to contemporary and ancient settings, where people lived seasonally with different forms of society. Graeber and Wengrow guide us into complex hunter gatherer societies that reject farming, to kingdoms that transform into something towards utopian. One amazing story is Hopewell, in mid Turtle Island (now called North America) between 100 BC and AD 500: evidence shows that indigenous nations at times converged, in a decentralized manner to co-create public works, share and feast together and create a ‘celebration of differences’ that bonded nations who spoke different languages.

Another revelation is about the supposed ‘Enlightenment’, the initial European colonisation period. The established narrative suggests this is when European (rich, white male) thinkers lifted away the Dark Ages with ideas of liberty, democracy, and rational debate. Apparently the globalisation of these ideas is the pay-off against colonisation’s crimes, for apologists at least. Whilst Graeber and Wengrow do not disagree that Medieval Europe was a Christian fundamentalist backwater, they tell a different story. Democratic notions came from survivors of indigenous colonisation. Their ideas went viral in 18th Century Europe, spreading like wildfire in best-selling fiction and non-fiction accounts of dialogues between the colonised and colonisers, on both on page and stage. However, these were attacked and the counter-stories are with us still today.

In turn, indigenous critiques of Europe got European thinkers asking what went wrong. Their responses were diverse, but implications similar. Many European writers started running towards a similar thought experiment: borrowing biblical overtures, they played God. These narratives saw humanity as a one-way street, a journey where primitive people fell from grace for some reason or other. Rousseau, Hobbes and Marx were three proponents. Indigenous peoples and their critiques were written off. The Dawn of Everything catalogues how these myths are still prevalent today; respun and repackaged by eminent historians. This history is not only wrong and boring; misreading history tells us there is no alternative.

A co-authored project

The Dawn of Everything was completed less than a month before David Graeber died, on 2 September 2020. For everyone that knew David or was inspired by his thinking and activism this book is another joyful gift. For me, like many, he was both a friend and inspiration, making the joy mixed with grief.

The void left by David Graeber cannot overshadow how this book was co-written with archaeologist David Wengrow, a UCL Professor of Comparative Archaeology, whose specialities include the areas where Asia, Africa and Europe converge. Wengrow and Graeber began this project a decade ago. Firstly as a sideline, it morphed into something far more serious – this book. Despite the scale of the argument, the book is written in a passionate, occasionally sarcastic yet empathetic co-voice. Watching lectures, talks and teach-outs given before Graeber’s passing, you can see the two Davids riffing off each other in this way.

This is an incredible work that tears down mono-history that serves the establishment’s vested interests – yet David Graeber had so much more to give. He bimbled through life with amused curiosity, infectiously playful, somehow infused with timeless wisdom. It does not seem fitting that he amplifies the voices of those who passed before him; he should be with us to continue the conversations.

Power plays

The Dawn of Everything should cause a rupture, as Graeber and Wengrow are pointing out how hollow the ivory tower in which many acclaimed thinkers dwell. Its basis is as solid as a bouncy castle, without the fun. This means there will likely be a huge backlash as it deflates the work and egos of status-quo extremists.

Francis Fukuyama, one well-known high priest of Eurocentric prehistory, is lambasted. Most famous for his assertion that neoliberalism represented the end of history, Graeber and Wengrow take him to task for suggesting humans were basically ape-like, living in small bands until agriculture came along. Fukuyama’s assumptions are contradicted by swathes of evidence. Similar criticism is directed at household names and award-winning grand narrative historians including Jared Diamond, neo-Hobbesian Steven Pinker and the famous anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. In mis-telling history, Graeber and Wengrow write: “Anthropology, it must be confessed, did not play a stellar role.”

Whilst history is often said to be written by the winners, prehistory it seems is often written about the writers, or their beliefs. One example is market fundamentalists. They suggest that goods moving around the world before cities existed prove there are markets, discounting far more plausible explanations. Graeber and Wengrow are clear cut that a “ lack of imagination is not itself an argument.”

For readers that have not dug far into archaeology the book offers explosive notions about prehistory. It is new. The last 200 000 years were only considered for less than 200 years, when the discovery of cave paintings retired the doctrine that God created the world four millennia ago. For academics digging into prehistorical evidence is scant; yet, as Graeber and Wengrow point out, new evidence is arising all the time that contradicts the Eurocentric canon. Another problem is that academic disciplines are not talking to each other, unlike the book’s two authors.

Whilst discrediting grand narrators, The Dawn of Everything elevates thinkers who explore plurality. We hear of many anthropologists who do celebrate the humanity of their subjects. We hear from critical sociologists who fully consider how racism, patriarchy and other oppressions have reframed our view of freedom to a diluted version. Particular attention is given to Kandiaronk. This 18th Century philosopher spokesperson of the indigenous American Wendat nation was a key player in spreading democratic ideals to Europe; even if he was since written out of history.

Critics might suggest The Dawn of Everything is all over the place. But that is the point. History is all over the place. It discusses the evidence that slavery and war have been abolished for periods, but obviously restarted again. Humans were often free and played with social possibilities, play and ritual itself a space for experimentation and a repository of knowledge. A pluralistic view of history is liberating. For instance, Graeber and Wengrow tell us that from the beginning, women must be written into the history of scientific discoveries; from inventing bread and even further back.

This book concludes answering questions that weave together during its pages. How did we get stuck? Why did play kings become real kings? Why did so many fluid societies get so rigid and hierarchical? Violence is part of the answer, not least European imperialism creating a Eurocentric world. Yet the book delves deeper too.

The Dawn of Everything posits a positive notion on what it means to be free, and looks at different ways this was eroded. There is no simple overarching theory, humanity is not like that. Instead it discusses many ebbs and flows. One thread is how societies reflect the oppression or liberty of the households. The authors had planned to write more books, including one about the present. It seems reasonable to imagine, in these, that this theme would have extended about the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, aka Rojava. Here a democratic revolution is underway both in the household and society, one that Graeber also did so much to support.

Another factor that explains why we are stuck is that the ‘there is no alternative’ has a self-perpetuating momentum, which the book aims to block. Graeber and Wengrow suggest we need a new language and logic to look at the past, from which we can reimagine our future.

The title is a provocation. “The Dawn of Everything” was an expression used by racist historian-philosopher, Mircea Eliade, about people he considered ‘primitive’. He thought all the real history happened earlier in these people’s mythical dream times. Instead, in contemporary times, he considered them stagnant: going through the motions, as he thought they did not have imagination or intelligence to do anything else. The title inverts all this, suggesting contemporary Eurocentric society is a mythical time, where people just go round in circles. But by breaking this myth we can ascribe ourselves the imagination and intelligence to make the world differently.

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Comments (15)

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  1. Mons Meg says:

    Yep, Graeber and Wengrow are right about the [European] Enlightenment and its subsequent colonisation of the globe. Their world-system theory has provided a fruitful heuristic for the interpretation of history and ‘grand scale’ social change. World-system theory is a holistic multidisciplinary approach to history and social change which emphasises hegemonic world-systems (e.g. the Enlightenment) rather than nation-states as the primary unit of analysis.

    This book brings together the fruits of Graeber and Wengrow’s world-system-theory-guided research over the past 20-odd years. Following his untimely death just over a year ago, it will stand as a memorial to Graeber’s contribution to anarchist theory and activism.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    The ‘there is no alternative’ trope has been one which has been used for centuries and has become hegemonic as far as the education and news media services are concerned. Essentially the message is that “the rich are rich because they are better than the rest of us, and because of their initiative, we live better lives than the brutish ones we would have had were it not for the ambition and single-mindedness of the rich. So, know your place and be grateful to your betters.”

    Of course they tailor it to imply that white people are ‘exceptional’ so, although we are not as good as the rich people, we are better than all the other races, and so we should ensure that we keep the lesser breeds in their place. This is called ‘divide and rule’.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Essentially the message is that of essentialism; that there’s a fixed natural order (‘truth’) to which we ought to conform our cognitive, evaluative, and practical behaviour, and that any deviation from this order ought to be corrected. The task of correcting such deviance among ‘savages’, ‘queers’, ‘criminals’, ‘the immoral’, ‘the insane’, and all other ’delinquents’ was – and still is – considered to be ‘the white man’s burden’ of the bourgeoisie.

      The Enlightenment was the elevation of bourgeois ideology to ‘truth’. Colonisation was – and is – the global extension of its hegemony. Decolonisation involves the deconstruction of that ‘truth’ and the proliferation of forbidden alternatives.

      Politically, anti-essentialism or anarchism (of both the ‘alt-right’ and ‘alt-left’ varieties) manifests itself in programmes for the disconnection of decentralised and dissensual communities of interest from the discipline of a correctional centralised government; in pluralism, in contrast to nationalism, in other words.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Mons Meg, are you on about your mythical moral guardians of Middle Scotland again?

        1. Mons Meg says:

          I’m not aware of having discoursed on any such ‘moral guardians’ at any time. We’re talking here about Graeber and Wengrow’s forthcoming book and how it challenges the hegemony by which the bourgeois ideology of Enlightenment has colonised the world.

      2. Wul says:

        “Politically…anarchism…manifests itself in programmes for the disconnection of decentralised and dissensual communities of interest from the discipline of a correctional centralised government; in pluralism, in contrast to nationalism, in other words.”

        What happens if the only available route to decentralisation is being sought by “nationalists” ? Is nationalism always bad? Does wanting to live within a smaller nation, with smaller local authorities, make me a nationalist?

        1. Mons Meg says:

          If ‘nationalists’ offered me a programme for the disconnection of decentralised and dissensual communities of interest from the discipline of a correctional centralised government, then I’d vote for them. Otherwise, I’m not interested.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    ‘No alternative’ means no competing ideology, stagnation, corruption, a degradation in patterns of interaction and a vicious downward spiral, surely?

    Sounds worth reading, although some of these themes are surely represented in anti-colonial movements and thought (say, Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization by Robert A Williams jr) rather than necessarily being innovations by the authors. I also think Silvia Federici makes a strong argument for how more fluid social structures were suppressed by European hierarchies in Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Germaine Greer wrote about how dynastic (including child) marriage spread from royalty and aristocracy down into upper middle classes, but was rejected by most commoners, helping to fix privilege over generations, and accumulate power and riches within ever-fewer families.

    The (incomplete) rise of Europeans from a superstitious, filthy Christian backwater relies much on the idea communism that sprung from printed book culture, translation movements (particularly those from outside Europe) that recycled ancient texts, and the importation of ideas from clearly more advanced cultures it encountered during the age of expanding global contact. It seems like a historic accident that Latin alphabet texts were so suitable for print (and later digital) technologies, and once the Indo-Arabic numeral system replaced the awful Roman one (perhaps the Conservatives want to bring that back too) the groundwork was laid for rational new technical languages.

    However, my anthropology is weak and I am sure I will learn a lot from Graeber’s and Wengrow’s work.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Yep, both Graeber’s and Wengrow’s work – and especially Graeber’s – does continue the discourse of decolonisation. It is based, however, on original research in their respective academic fields and is to that extent ‘innovative’.

      A key text for me on issues of global coloniality, the geopolitics of knowledge, transmodernity, border thinking, and pluriversality is Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh on Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. It provides some useful context for reading Graeber and Wengrow’s work.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        Do all these academics live in the ‘west’?
        If they do (and I suspect they’ve all got cushy academic jobs in western universities) doesn’t this prove the power of the ‘Enlightment’?

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Yes, they do; and many of them are indeed tenured. And the discourse they advance is an Enlightenment discourse, as they’d be the first to admit. No one can escape their history.

          What they do, however, is create a ‘negative space’ or ‘legitimacy’ for other epistemologies that have been marginalised or ‘forbidden’ by the global hegemony of European culture and from which they themselves, as European bourgeois thinkers, are cognitively excluded. They don’t themselves claim to speak with any authority, but they do create room in which ‘others’ may speak.

          If you’re at all interested in the struggle against cognitive injustice (the failure to recognise the different ways of knowing by which people across the globe run their lives and provide meaning to their existence), have a read at Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ 2014 book, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide, which draws on his extensive fieldwork in Brazil, Cabo Verde, Macau, Mozambique, South Africa, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and India. In it, he argues that global social justice isn’t possible without global cognitive justice and that colonisation (the ‘cognitive imperialism’ of the global North) has profoundly marginalised the knowledge and wisdom of the global South. He also goes on to contend that it’s ecologically imperative that the world recovers and valorises its epistemological diversity and to outline a kind of ‘bottom-up cosmopolitanism’, by which conviviality, solidarity, and life might triumph over the logic of market-ridden greed and individualism.

  4. Gordon Asher says:

    Magic, huge thanks fer that Steve: have been so looking forward tae this coming out – and would have missed that book launch if you hadnae flagged it! (that’s tomorrow’s procrastination sorted 😉 )Cheers, G

  5. A 12th-level Elven bard says:

    Yes, there was no such myth as “there was no alternative” before European colonisation. It never existed before. It definitely never existed among non-Europeans — in, say, the Hindu caste system or the many many peoples in Asia and Africa who have believed that their rulers are divine.

  6. Alex Shenfield says:

    Perhaps the key to understanding the past, if such a single entity exists, is the human need and propensity to seek the optimal means of survival (comprising but not restricted to the basics of food, clothing and shelter) as circumstances shift. Such shifts could include both the seasonally foreseeable, and the unforeseeables of greater changes (flood, drought and wars to name but a few examples). Change rather than stasis is the great constant in human history and one that no human society could ever entirely predict or ignore. The human reactions to changes would not only impact the economic but also the social, psychological and political. Thus, small rearrangements could lead to sweeping transformations. It is also possible that some efforts to cope with change were unsuccessful. It is also possible that some changes provided opportunities for the grasping and power hungry to seize power. In any case, change rolls on inexorably and we poor humans continue to do our (highly variable) best to cope, as we are now attempting to cope with the grim challenges of pandemic and climate change. If Fukuyama’s end of history comes about it will be because we will have failed to deal with the latter.

  7. KH says:

    This is an interesting view of the book, but it seems to take everything the book states as established fact. This can be disputed on two grounds, one – that various experts in e.g.; the Enlightenment or Native American culture have criticised the authors’ uncritical acceptance of a particular reading of dialogues between Europeans and Native Americans, including Kondiaronk (not “Kandiaronk”) accepting them as factual, when they may be fictionalised and using the Native spokesman as a mouthpiece for European criticisms of European issues; two – the earliest periods lack much in terms of artifacts, esp. written accounts, etc. so any interpretation of the evidence is just that, an interpretation.

    I happen to incline towards the views of the authors and see the need for a “new imaginary” to rethink how we might live and which critiques the received wisdom that the way things are is the only way they can be. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should receive their conclusions (or those of any author on this topic) uncritically.

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