An Endlessly Engaging Life: A Review of The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow
Before his sudden death in September of 2020, two weeks after the completion of his final book, The Dawn of Everything, the beloved anthropologist David Graeber had demonstrated a knack for writing about the right thing at the right time. In 2011, his masterwork Debt: The First 5,000 Years, an inquiry into the relationship between debt, morality, and political power, was published just a few months before Occupy Wall St. began an international conversation on much the same. In addition to authoring the book and other writings that circulated in the movement, Graeber was actively involved from the beginning of the encampment, participating in direct actions and assembly meetings, and famously coining the Occupy mantra “We Are the 99%.” In 2013, Graeber, again, struck a chord with a short article titled On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, in which he batted around a few ideas about how a surprising number of jobs seem to be “utterly meaningless,” even to those working them, and speculated that this kind of work had become more widespread than is openly talked about. Within a week of its publication, the article was read by millions and translated into over a dozen languages, prompting countless responses, mostly from those effusively agreeing with Graeber’s premise and wanting to share their own anecdotes of meaningless work. In 2018, Graeber expanded the article, and combined it with the testimonies that readers had sent him, along with some of his past writing on gendered labor, authority, bureaucracy, and imagination, into what became his most accessible and widely read book, Bullshit Jobs. Its main themes, especially his willingness to question what work is actually necessary, foreshadowed many of the discussions that took shape during the the early days of the Covid 19 pandemic as the public found itself split into essential and non-essential workers. In the years since, as droves of workers have quit their jobs in what is being called the Great Resignation, Graeber’s writing has been widely circulated in online communities like the Anti-work sub-reddit, an online forum where millions of users share stories of workplace abuses and encourage one another to quit their jobs and seek more meaningful and less exploited ways of living.
Years before, in 2005, long before Graeber amassed much of a readership, he wrote a pamphlet titled Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, which, maybe more than any other work, serves as a prequel to his final publication. In the pamphlet, he asks, if Anthropology is the academic field most familiar with the variety of social arrangements that have existed without structures of domination – those which have valued cooperation over competition, creativity over conformity, and autonomy over obedience – why does it, as a discipline, so rarely engage with social movements that are, sometimes rather aimlessly, trying to recreate just such conditions. Graeber concluded the pamphlet with a call for his fellow anthropologists to make common cause with social movements because, in short, “we have tools at our fingertips that could be of enormous importance for human freedom.” That same year, Yale University controversially declined to renew his teaching contract, a move that many saw as retaliation for his political affiliations. Sixteen years later, the posthumous release of The Dawn of Everything, coauthored with the archeologist David Wengrow, shows that the incident only sharpened Graeber’s resolve to actualize the kind of ‘anarchist anthropology’ his pamphlet had envisioned, and to do so in a way that could not be ignored. According to Wengrow, Graeber insisted on publishing each section of the book individually in peer reviewed journals before releasing the full compilation in order to head off any efforts to dismiss their findings. What the two present in the volume is a radically different vision of human history, an attempt to broaden our understanding of what we, as a species, have been, that is as doggedly hopeful as it is rigorously researched.
Graeber and Wengrow set out from one of the oldest questions in the social sciences: “what is the origin of inequality?” They begin by turning the question on its head, instead asking, how is it that social theorists of 18th Century Europe came to be interested in the idea of inequality in the first place? The answer, they suggest, is simple: although Enlightenment thinking is often framed as the unique brainchild of individual European male genius, it was actually the result of an explosion of cultural exchange following first contact with the indigenous people of the Americas who had exposed Europeans to entirely different ways of thinking and living. Moreover, Indigenous intellectuals like the Huron-Wendat chief Kandiaronk (who the authors profile at length in the second chapter), were so horrified by the hierarchy, competitiveness, and poverty permeating European culture that they leveled scathing critiques of the inequalities they witnessed.
That this indigenous critique is to thank for enlightenment debates over inequality is plain to see in the historical record. In fact there is simply “no evidence that the Latin terms aequalitas or inaequalitas or their English, French, Spanish, German and Italian cognates were used to describe social relations at all before the time of Columbus,” not to mention that while most Western historians seem to overlook it, the fact is that most enlightenment figures openly “insisted that their ideas of individual liberty and political equality were inspired by Native American sources and examples.” It only makes sense that enlightenment thinkers would have come across indigenous critiques because, at the time, some of the most popular books circulating in Europe were summaries and accounts of cultural exchanges with Native Americans, usually in the form of dialogues and debates. In some of these debates, the European, often a Jesuit priest, argued at length against the idea of freedom as a virtue, a line of argument so utterly untenable by today’s standards that it is clear just how drastically indigenous thinking went on to shape the course of history.
The popularity of this indigenous critique left European pride bruised, and the authors suggest that reactionary thinkers scrambling for counter-arguments to protect their sense of superiority developed lines of thinking that have endured to the present day. The Economist A.J.R. Turgot, friend and colleague of Adam Smith, pioneered a line of argument that societies move through stages of development marked by forms of technology and subsistence that are progressively more sophisticated. Thus, the mere fact that some indigenous peoples were hunter gatherers meant that they were inferior. Graeber and Wengrow point out that Turgot latched on to technology and forms of subsistence as central to superiority because, when it came to quality of life, wisdom, happiness, equality, or freedom, eighteenth century Europe was in abysmal shape. But the emphasis on forms of subsistence and technological progress stuck, and eventually developed into its two most enduring forms in the writings of Hobbes and Rousseau. Hobbes essentially argued that indigenous people were equal only in so far as they were equally poor and stupid, that life for the so-called uncivilized was a vicious “war of all against all” and modern powers vested in governments were the only thing keeping people from tearing each other apart – reasoning that remains the bedrock of conservative thought. Rousseau on the other hand, painted indigenous people as coming from a utopian state of innocence, totally unaware of inequality and un-corrupted by the kinds of inevitable technological advances, like agriculture, which had forced Europeans to lose touch with their own Eden.
While both formulations are patently false and racist in their own unique ways, the authors note that Rousseau was not wrong in observing that something had been lost in European culture that clearly did exist among indigenous groups. Settlers, when exposed to indigenous ways of life, overwhelmingly chose to remain, or even to return after failing to re-integrate to European society. Indigenous Americans brought to European society, on the other hand, would invariably seek every opportunity to escape and return home. Even European children separated from their parents and brought to Indigenous communities would often choose to stay. But why? What was so different, so much more appealing about indigenous life? “The fact that we find it hard to imagine how such an alternative life could be endlessly engaging and interesting,” the authors suggest, “is perhaps more a reflection on the limits of our imagination than on the life itself.” Our understanding of life in other times and places, and therefore our idea of what is possible for our lives here and now, is shaped by our own narrow experiences. The authors provide an example: travel routes uncovered by archaeologists. These pathways have frequently been assumed to be trade routes, an assumption that reflects a modern obsession with markets, but, in actuality, these routes served as everything from elaborate circuits traversed by healers and entertainers, to inter-village networks for women’s gambling, to long distance vision quests for individuals guided by dreams. “When we simply guess as to what humans in other times and places might be up to,” the authors write, “we almost invariably make guesses that are far less interesting, far less quirky – in a word, far less human than what was likely going on.” The rest of the book, with this in mind, sets out to retell some of the most widely misunderstood stories that we have come to believe about our past and, with the help of some of the most recent archaeological discoveries, to uncover this more colorful, more imaginative, more human history.
Some of the details the authors cover won’t be new to a student of Anthropology: medieval serfs worked significantly less hours than the modern office or factory worker, and “the hazelnut gatherers and cattle herders who dragged great slabs to build Stonehenge almost certainly worked less than that.” Such details were made widely known in the 1960’s in an essay titled The Original Affluent society by the anthropologist Marshal Sahlins, who would later serve as Graeber’s thesis advisor. The authors confirm that the basic tenets of the essay have held up over time, but it too provided a limited picture of what pre-agricultural life was like. For one thing, the break between pre-agricultural and agricultural was not so clean, not the “revolution” we have been taught, but a long process of experimentation. There were sometimes thousands of years between the first examples of agriculture in a region and any kind of consistent use for subsistence purposes. The first instances of farming looked a lot more like gardening, and were carried out with little effort, often in delta regions where seasonal floods would do most of the work of tilling, fertilizing, and irrigating – such liminal farming spaces also had a sort of built in resistance to measurement, allotment, or enclosure. The first farmers in these spaces, it seems, were women, and they often grew herbs or ornamental crops rather than food staples as had once been assumed. There’s even evidence that early farmers actually worked against traditional hallmarks of plant domestication in order to avoid becoming solely dependent on their own labor to produce crops. The authors use the term “play farming” to describe this millennia long process of leisurely experimentation and learning.
More to the point, Graeber and Wengrow want to get one thing straight – the advent of agriculture was not the revolutionary social, political, cultural catalyst it has been heralded as. There is no evolution of social forms based on subsistence mode. How a group of people obtains its food doesn’t determine how it’s politically or hierarchically structured. In fact, pre-agricultural life was not made up of roving bands of hunter gatherers, but “marked, in many places, by sedentary villages and towns, some by then already ancient, as well as monumental sanctuaries and stockpiled wealth, much of it the work of ritual specialists, highly skilled artisans and architects.” Similarly the authors dispel the idea that greater scale, of a city for example, necessarily results in greater hierarchy. A revelation that upends an assumption so widespread that is long been considered common sense.
Cities populated by tens of thousands began appearing around the world roughly six thousand years ago and there is surprisingly little evidence of any kind of hierarchy among them. Neither, it seems, were they dependent on a rural population to supply their needs, but instead relied on forms of subsistence gardening, animal husbandry, fishing, and continued hunting and gathering in surrounding areas. “The first city dwellers,” the authors write, “did not always leave a harsh footprint on the environment, or on each other.” Graeber and Wengrow provide examples of self governing cities from regions around the world including Ukraine, Turkey, China, central Mexico, Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, the Indus Valley and others. The evidence that most of these early cities were non-hierarchically organized is so compelling the authors argue that the burden of proof is now on those trying to find evidence for hierarchy.
Life in these early cities, the authors write, was one grand social experiment: large public works projects, public housing, elaborate city planning, monuments, temples and more, all before the widespread adoption of farming. In many of the largest early cities, the grandest projects, centrally located, elaborately adorned and monumentally constructed, appear to have been public meeting spaces, likely for citizen’s assemblies, neighborhood councils, and any number of other forms of direct democracy. In fact, popular councils and citizen’s assemblies were simply part of the fabric of life in early cities, even those civilizations that readers will be most familiar with like Sumeria, Akkadia, and other Mesopotamian cities as well as among the Hittites, Phoenicians, Philistines, and Israelites. “In fact,” the authors write, “it is almost impossible to find a city anywhere in the Near East that did not have some equivalent to a popular assembly – or often several assemblies … even … where traditions of monarchy ran deep.”
In the Americas, this applies not only to pre-history, but also to relatively recent history, including the time of first contact with Europeans. Even the conquistador Hernando Cortez wrote at length about the assemblies he encountered in central Mexico, comparing it favorably to the forms of Italian democracy he was familiar with. While we tend to learn the history of the few, large-scale hierarchical empires in the Americas, like those Cortez most directly sought out, Graeber and Wengrow convincingly argue that the majority of indigenous Americans actually lived in social arrangements specifically formed in contrast to these cities, self-consciously arranged in such a way as to prevent forms of domination from emerging. The authors describe a world of constant experimentation and fluidity in the structures that did exist. Some groups, for instance, transitioned from short term rigid hierarchy during a hunting season, to total egalitarian relations during the next. The result of such fluid experimentation seems to have been a much more accepting, creative populous, where eccentricities were celebrated, and individuals could change identities, kin, even names from season to season as a spirit of perpetual reinvention and regeneration flourished. Far from Rousseau’s naive state of innocence, the indigenous people of the Americas were keenly aware of the dangers of hierarchy and had become adept at the art of heading off any signs of individuals amassing coercive power.
The evidence suggests that this fluidity of social forms and an avoidance of hierarchy, alien as it may now seem, was characteristic of most social life for most of human history. The authors suggest that perhaps the most guarded values common to all people were autonomy (as in, the complete freedom of the individual from domination by others) and communism (as in, ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’) – one serving as the necessary precondition for the other. Far from the realm of idealistic fantasy, these were the social relations in cities of hundreds of thousands of people who self-governed for periods of thousands of years. In fact, there are periods in the archeological record of up to 500 years in which entire regions as large as “eastern North America” show remarkably little evidence of traumatic injuries or other forms of interpersonal violence. For the majority of human history, throughout the majority of the world, except for islands of hierarchy, people tended to resist domination and instead live in voluntary associations of mutual support.
A book with such an inspiring reinterpretation of human possibility, written by an author who has on more than one occasion presaged social movements, is a glimmer of hope in a very dark time. As the largest protest movement in US history swept across the country, raising questions of police and prison abolition, demonstrators could have used a vote of confidence from anthropologists who are keenly aware that the kind of possibilities activists are pursuing have not only existed, but thrived for millennia at a time. Abolitionists may be heartened to read the Huron-Wendat chief Kandiaronk’s views on the European penal system: “For my own part, I find it hard to see how you could be much more miserable than you already are. What kind of human, what species of creature, must Europeans be, that they have to be forced to do good, and only refrain from evil because of fear of punishment?”
As Wildcat Workers Unions, Tenant’s Unions, Citizens’ Assemblies, and Mutual Aid Networks are blossoming around the country, participants must wonder on what scale this kind of grassroots self-organization is possible. The answer, according to Graeber and Wengrow, is entire regional federations of metropolises – as big as any hierarchical structure has ever managed and arguably with much greater success.
What kind of a social movement could take form armed with the knowledge of the full spectrum of social forms throughout human history? Could humanity’s oldest values, autonomy and mutual-aid, flourish again? Can the violence and rot of capitalist empire really be undone? If a reader takes one thing from The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow want it to be this: nothing in history was ever predetermined. Neither Hobbes’ mindless automatons nor Rosseau’s innocent children of Eden ever existed. History is alive with self-conscious actors, constantly negotiating the conditions of their lives and with far more possible outcomes than we were ever led to believe. But more importantly, so is the present.
This review was published in collaboration with The Hampton Institute, a proletarian (working class) think tank.