The Dawn of Everything: a new history of humanity
‘[M]ost people rarely think about the broad sweep of human history […]. They don’t have much reason to. In so far as the question comes up at all, it’s usually when reflecting on why the world seems to be in such a
mess and why human beings so often treat each other badly; the reasons for war, greed, exploitation, systematic indifference to others’ suffering. Were we always like that, or did something at some point go wrong?’
Co-authored by the late anthropologist David Graeber and Professor of Comparative Archaeology David Wengrow (2021), The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is the first of Graeber’s works to be published posthumously. The former is the man whom much of the western political left treated as the public intellectual of the 2011 Occupy! movement (1) passed away whilst visiting Venice (Italy), quite suddenly from necrotic pancreatitis, aged fifty-nine; the latter is amongst the world’s foremost experts in the transitions between Neolithic societies and early states. Offering up ‘a new history of humankind’, the book aims ‘to challenge some of the more stubborn assumptions of mainstream social science’, and, true to form, the authors ensure to call out the needless bureaucracy that typifies contemporary life and prevents many from engaging in the forms of politics that shape their everyday lives.
‘[M]uch of what we think we know of this distant era is actually a myth – indeed it is our origin myth, a modern equivalent of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden’. – David Priestland (2021)
As Gideon Lewis-Kraus (2021) states ‘[m]oments of sociopolitical tumult have a way of generating all-encompassing explanatory histories’, yet, often, the emergent narratives oversimplify and posit a mono-cultural and, at all times, linear account. Thus, this book serves as an opportunity to challenge the near homogenous fallacy that social Darwinism is the truth of humanity’s past and that, ultimately, all we can strive towards in social democracies is ‘minor tinkering’ – dictatorships and other authoritarian regimes being the obvious examples of radical overhauls that, frequently, are permitted to take place until it interferes with the neoliberal ambitions of the West. Though we rarely discuss it in such terms, social Darwinism is, in fact, the default of how many understand society. It sits alongside terms like ‘Alpha male’ (a concept dismissed by the very person who fostered the notion as outdated and strenuous [David Mech, 1999]), and eugenics-style arguments that suggest humanity is simply a virus overpopulating the Earth and, therefore, that inequality is not the fault of capitalism with its interconnected history of Calvinism, but of simply having too many children. The text is far more in line with texts like Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 Mutual Aid, which, itself, challenged Darwinian beliefs.
Early on, the authors take aim at the ‘foundational assumption of our economic system that humans are, at base, somewhat nasty and selfish creatures, basing their assumptions on cynical, egoistic calculation rather than altruism or cooperation’. The scope of The Dawn of Everything is reminiscent of Graber’s (2011) Debt: The First 5,000 Years, aiming, as it does, to challenge prevailing narratives. Likewise, in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, (2) Graeber endeavored to stitch together the emerging literature from anarchists and radically-inclined thinkers both in and out of the academy to cement a distinct field when others might challenge its legitimacy.
Writing this report, as I am from Glasgow (Scotland), in the week of COP26, that Graeber and Wengrow (2021) outline how, even as folk of all classes now – to some extent – recognise that ‘ever widening gulf between the haves and have nots’ holds some relevance, though beyond a certain class of political elite, that the conference has been an outright failure is an emerging consensus. As the authors state, we cannot accept a narrative that ‘frames the issue[s] in a way that people who benefit from [existing] structures can still find reassuring since it implies that no meaningful solution can ever be possible’. When there are people treated as if ‘their needs are not important and their lives have no intrinsic worth’ leaves me thinking of Mia Mottley (Prime Minister of Barbados) and her depiction this week on how countries such as hers are abandoned by much of the climate crisis movement. As Swedish activist Greta Thunberg stated, ‘It should be obvious that we cannot solve a crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place’; a similar premise underpins The Dawn of Everything. Readers may be interested to know that a Glaswegian man serves as the chief protagonist in an anecdotal exploring the ever shifting parameters some apply when positioning themselves as more authentic and ideologically pure than others when negative actions are undertaken by those they once considered their allies – not exactly an alien concept in Scottish politics.
It’s also nice to see takedowns of frauds like Steven Pinker (see chapter #1) who, time and time again, reduces violence and propensity to the quantifiable rather than the quality or mechanisms of life, culture, and governance as he relies on ‘anecdotes and images’ of random individuals via his cherry picking approach to science such as his fetishising ‘savage brutality’ in his portrayals of the ‘Iceman’ Ötzi, or Helena Valero and her abduction by the Yanomami. This sits juxtaposed acknowledgement of how huge swathes of social science reduces ‘just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on’, and, therefore, ‘all real progress [is] rooted in the courage to say things that are [deemed at the time to be] so slightly ridiculous’. The reality, therefore, is best understood and analysed in its rich complexity – think Marxism understanding of economics, think intersectionality, or gender studies, critical pedagogy, and queer theory. As such, the authors explore the abundance of non-western texts, concepts, ideologies, and beliefs that demonstrate just how inauthentic and, indeed, dishonest, dominant social theories of our lives and our histories are today. It’s quite intriguing to note that Pinker is amongst those to have positioned himself internationally, Yineng (2020) noted, ‘as a prophet, speaking to the masses only through mainstream media outlets and publishers’, thus illustrating part of the reason a collated text such as this from Graeber and Wengrow may struggle to reach the same audiences or ‘markets’ as the likes of Pinker, Peterson, or Harari.
Shattering ‘the Myth of the Stupid Savage’
‘Origin myths the world over have a basic psychological [-] the sly power of justifying existing states of affairs, while simultaneously contouring one’s sense of what the world might look like in the future’. – Giulio Ongaro (2021)
From the earliest examples drawn upon, much of it paying tribute to scholars actor the globe (include those in the West today, many of whom are of non-western heritage), the authors detail how for ‘European audiences, the indigenous critique [came] as a shock to the system[,] revealing possibilities for human emancipation that, once disclosed, could hardly be ignored’. There’s talk of how – by comparison to the powers of the liberal and capitalist societies of the West, communities elsewhere (who were often engaging in trade as a form of socialisation and exchange of cultures and joy as much as for the need to barter goods), held less means by suggested right of birth to rule over others – Engels is noted to have drawn on the practices of the Seneca Iroquois as an example of ‘primitive communism’ – itself a contrast to Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’. It’s worth adding that others have proposed similar interpretations of societies in neolithic Orkney (Scotland; Childe, 1935); the Métis in Canada and parts of the U.S. (Bourgeault, 1983); and Andamanese peoples in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (India) (Radcliffe-Brown, 1922); whilst Graeber and Wengrow note the seeming absence of a central government in Çatalhöyük (modern day Turkey) despite its population of several thousand during the Neolithic era, or the pan-societal and unilateral rise in living standards for all in Teotihuacán (once the most populous city in the Americas, circa 0-500 A.D.) amongst their own examples. Each of these early and contemporary societies being rooted in cooperation and compassion, the authors outline contradict many of the ‘great’ philosophers who offered grand claims about the origins and relationships of humankind (think Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s proclamations of early man as solitary, living in fear of violent conflict; see also Nancy Yousef, 2001).
It’s been proposed in almost every evaluation of the book, thus far, that we should consider The Dawn of Everything in the same vein as recent breakthroughs from academia into popular interest – Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018); and, if we go a decade back, Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order (2011; this text also directly addressed by Graeber and Wengrow). Thus, when examples of hyperlocalised political interaction are observed such as the Wyandot in Ontario, and the broader emphasis on dialogue (both inner and interpersonal) as fundamental to intellectual development, the myth of the West bringing civilisation to the global south are shown for the fallacy that they are. The authors emphasise the simplicity of the ‘[t]he reason archeological evidence from Europe is so rich is that European governments tend to be rich and that European professional institutions, learned societies, and university departments have been pursuing history on their own doorstep far longer than in other parts’.
‘If there is a defining trait of our prehistorical condition it is its bewildering capacity of shifting, almost constantly, across a diverse array of social systems of all kinds of political, economic, and religious nature’. – Giulio Ongaro (2021)
Returning to Priestland, the authors ‘stress the sheer variety and hybridity of early human societies – hierarchical and non-hierarchical, equal in some respects and not in others’. Through the 704 pages, ‘they admire experimentation, imagination and playfulness, as well as mastery of the art of not being governed’, and highlight how the emergence of agrarian practices is, generally, depicted as resulting in justified governance. Again and again, we’re told that when crops could be gathered with some degree of certainty across seasons, suddenly, there was a need for bureaucracy – someone to oversee reserves and ensure there was plenty for times of scarcity. This would, most of us will agree, be a logical step; yet, the version recounted to us is one that led to taxation and that, ultimately, can be understood as proto-capitalist. Mythical rulers, often unseen by the masses, proclaimed domain over lands and demanded payment for ‘permitting’ the commoners to use ‘their’ land. These distinctions become all the more fascinating when the authors highlight Robert Lowie’s argument that ‘most indigenous American societies, from Montreal to Tierra del Fuego, were effectively anarchist’, with leaders holding responsibility as mediator rather than all-powerful dictator or ruler. Further still, such political structures and ways of being, the authors repeatedly emphasise, were not the result of naivety or lack of awareness of other dynamics, but a distinct choice – evidence of trade spanning hundreds of miles cited as proof of critical consciousness in choosing structures of governance as traders would have been exposed to any number of alternative social compositions.
As Lewis-Kraus (2021) surmised, this is not another account of ‘inequality of income or wealth but inequality of power’, one that questions ‘why so many people obey the orders of so few’. It’s also an account of how colonial powers warped and twisted their own notions of law, with Locke, for example, situated indigenous peoples as part of the land rather than those who dedicated their labour to it for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. These were, as Eirk Molvar (2021) outlined, ‘continuously occupied for as much as 24,000 years’ prior to European invasion. As such, European invaders proclaimed that the native people held no right to land – indeed, in many cases, they were treated as part of the land rather than recognised for their humanity; much of this is reflected in the way slaves were taken from this homes, uprooted, and, essentially, repurposed. Rather than deifying indigenous people, however, The Dawn of Everything remains committed to its anti-capitalist narrative, questioning and challenging the origins and mechanism of inequality.
It’s a challenging read, enormously comprehensive, and, for many, it’s thoroughness will mean mustering the energy to complete it. That said, it’s more than worthwhile, validating to those active within or sympathetic to anti-colonialism, which, as ever more are becoming aware of, is intimately tied to our struggles for climate justice, racial equality, and the fight to end poverty. As Fischer (2021) stated ‘[b]asic fixtures of life, rules and institutions that had come to feel inevitable — in 2020 and 2021, they felt less inevitable than before’; the timing for such a publication composed of many examples of alternatives feels right.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S., and available from Penguin
Books Ltd. through your local radical book shop. These include Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh, and Calton Books in Glasgow.
1. For contemporary accounts on the legacy of the Occupy! Movement and its links to the Occupy Sandy, Strike Debt, Dakota Access Pipeline, Y’en a Marre, and the Black Lives Matter protests see Milkman et al. (2021), and Mampilly (2021), amongst others.
2. In the text, Graeber (2004) laid the very premise for The Dawn of Everything, suggesting that ‘since one cannot know a radically better world is not possible, are we not betraying everyone by insisting on continuing to justify and reproduce the mess we have today?’
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