Over ten years, the late anthropologist and political activist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow shared thoughts, explored ideas and conducted research on an impressive scale to produce a ground-breaking book that was finally published at the end of last year, more than a year after Graeber’s death at the age of 59. Such an exceptional collaboration was bound to contain a bevy of interesting insights about how human societies function and evolve over time. But The Dawn of Everything offers much more than that. It is nothing less than a compelling invitation to reframe and radically rethink our shared understanding of humanity’s history and prehistory. While ranging across the globe and far back in time to make their case, the authors aim at demolishing the powerful, widely accepted idées reçues that our schools, media and writers of popular science have fed to us in the form of what has become a quasi-official account of “the evolution of civilization.”
In their reading, Europe’s vaunted scientific revolution that began in the 17th century marks the moment when a certain sclerosis of thinking about the broad sweep of human history began to set in. Only three years after the Treaty of Westphalia that confirmed the triumph of the idea of the nation state, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, in which he proposed what appeared to be a “rational” view of human prehistory. According to Hobbes, civilization emerged as a process of political and economic organization that, by building solid institutions, tamed humanity’s initial anarchic state of war of all against all. The secret of a rational civilization’s success was the establishment of hierarchies that forced obedience on the otherwise unruly masses.
More than a century after Hobbes, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau turned the Hobbesian view on its head. He posited the existence of what generations since Rousseau have called “the noble savage,” the innocent hunter-gatherers who cared for little more than thriving in their local settings. Graeber and Wengrow more accurately describe Rousseau’s characterization of innocent humanity as “the stupid savage.” These poor unreflecting, convivial souls were overwhelmed, displaced and their innocent culture corrupted by the principle of property and wealth that followed the discovery of agriculture. They were forced against their will to accept artificial hierarchies and even tyranny.
Paradoxically, the seemingly contrary beliefs attributed to these two philosophers continue to haunt our post-industrial culture. They combine to produce an effect that both restricts our understanding of human history and limits — if not eliminates — our ability to devise political systems designed to respect both the reality of human nature and nature itself. Despite their opposition, the cultural heritage of Hobbes and Rousseau have reinforced the uncritical acceptance of a politicized status quo in which the authors claim we have been “stuck” for some time.
Theorizing the nation state
For Hobbes, the march of history required the emergence of political hierarchy to rein in the selfish and violent instincts of savage, uncultured beings. For Rousseau, the establishment of sophisticated political institutions canceled the original state of human freedom, stifling our naturally cooperative instincts. That binary Hobbes-Rousseau duopoly has defined an artificial line of demarcation between what we now think of as conservative and liberal political ideologies. Hobbesians — cultural conservatives — may complain about some of the features and consequences of the exercise of authority, but they believe human behavior must be severely policed. Rousseauists — the cultural left — predominantly believe that if we just learned to be kind to one another, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we wouldn’t need the repressive institutions that hinder our pursuit of happiness. Both have regrets, but both conservatives and liberals have accepted the political, economic and military status quo of the modern nation state as inevitable.
To get us unstuck, the authors offer a variegated view of societies stretching over space and time, most of the examples deriving from the prehistoric past. Their descriptions are based on the most up-to-date archaeological research. Graeber and Wengrow paint a compellingly varied picture of the surprising choices human societies were capable of imagining and implementing as they worked out their institutions and elaborated their patterns of behavior.
The examples the authors cite persuasively debunk the now commonly accepted idea that there was only one overriding pattern in the evolution of government and social organization, and that it proceeded through a series of logical and ultimately inevitable phases to lead us into the modern world. They contest the deterministic view that certain events, such as the discovery of the benefits of agriculture or the creation of more efficient technology, left the societies that profited from them no other choice than to march forward towards an ever more sophisticated, technology-oriented civilization, transforming their institutions, cultures and relationships to accommodate and adapt to the supposed laws of the “brave, new world” thus unveiled.
The authors are keen to discredit the idea that “the birth of agriculture” inexorably implied the reorganization of societies around the principle of property and the accumulation of wealth. Citing examples from the the Fertile Crescent that reveal a variety of social changes after the advent of agriculture, Graeber and Wengrow complain that “it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘what were the social implications of the transition to farming?’ — as if there was necessarily just one transition, and one set of implications.” They point out that, contrary to what “most general works on the course of human history” tell us, any researcher or student “of agrarian societies knows that people inclined to expand agriculture sustainably, without privatizing land or surrendering its management to a class of overseers, have always found ways to do so.”
So why do we continue to entertain the idea that farming cannot be dissociated from the culture of private poverty and the accumulation of wealth? One explanation might be that our political and economic leaders feel motivated to inculcate the belief that today’s capitalist creed of “greed is good” is an immutable principle comparable to Darwinian evolution. This conveniently justifies the underlying logic of the consumer society. Such a belief may be designed to liberate us from grappling with any lingering moral scruples concerning the unbridled pursuit of self-interest. The authors present mountains of evidence that serve to demonstrate the disconnect between the discovery of farming and the neoliberal ideology of private property.
Analyzing the testimony from the New World
The first surprise in the book occurs when the authors turn the tables on the usual image we have of anthropological observation. Instead of beginning, as most anthropology does, with a demonstration of the capacity of evolved, literate, civilized and intellectually disciplined Europeans or North Americans to venture into the heart of darkness with the aim of describing and deciphering the cultures of previously unobserved societies, the authors begin by citing the testimony of indigenous Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries who had the occasion to travel to Europe. This experience cast the observed in the role of observers. Some of them assumed the task of anthropologists ready to comment on the curious rules and customs of European society.
A telling example the authors cite is the discourse of the Huron Chief Kondiaronk as transmitted, with likely literary embellishment, by an impoverished French aristocrat, the Baron de Lahontan. In his book, Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Traveled (1703), based on his interviews with Kondiaronk, gives voice to the Native American who astutely compares life in France with pre-colonial North America.
Do you seriously imagine that I would be happy to live like one of the inhabitants of Paris? To take two hours every morning just to put on my shirt and make up? To bow and scrape before every obnoxious galoot I meet on the street who happens to have been born with an inheritance? Do you actually imagine I could carry a purse full of coins and not immediately hand them over to people who are hungry? That I would carry a sword but not immediately draw it on the first band of thugs I see rounding up the destitute to press them into Naval service? If, on the other hand, Europeans were to adopt an American way of life, it might take a while to adjust but in the end you will be far happier.
Kondiaronk’s ideas as expressed in Lahontan’s dialogue are consistent with the testimony of European missionaries who interacted with Native Americans at the time. Lahontan’s work set off a popular literary trend in Europe of fictional commentaries on the follies and foibles of European civilization as judged by imaginary visitors from Persia, China or Tahiti. In the case of Kondiaronk, our authors highlight not only his commentary on Europe, but also what this comparative discourse revealed about social structure and moral principles that regulated life back in the Chief’s “Indian” lands. These were, of course, lands that would in subsequent centuries be transformed into what generations of US politicians like to refer to as the “shining city on a hill.” The city, as most people are aware, whose defensive walls have taken the form of an imposing military-industrial complex, has now spilled down the sides of the hill and well beyond.
Are human societies and civilization the same thing?
A famous scene at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, evoked an idea that has been drummed into the heads of every school child in recent centuries: that there was a mysterious moment in human history we call the “dawn of civilization.” Kubrick’s version was pessimistic and passably Hobbesian. We have all been taught to understand that the world we were born into is something we flatter with the title “civilization.” But has there ever been a more ambiguous word? Mahatma Gandhi once highlighted its ambiguity thanks to his undeniably witty response to an inquirer who had the temerity to ask him what he thought about Western civilization. According to legend, Gandhi responded “I think it would be a good idea.”
Graeber and Wengrow maintain that, instead of thinking of civilization as a simple good idea, we should see it as a lot of good ideas, and of course some bad ones, as well. The authors make the essential point that, contrary to the reigning ideas about how civilization developed almost as a linear process, there is no simple pattern of evolution from primitive to civilized, from a society of dispersed foragers to the megacities of the 21st century. The book contains detailed descriptions of an impressive variety of types of social and economic organization that appear to have emerged not just out of necessity but as conscious, socially coordinated attempts to produce ways of life appropriate to differentiating environments and to the disposition of each specific population.
Rather than appearing as a frozen state of relationships determined by phenomena such as the economy of agriculture and the rise of cities, the various civilizations the authors describe, ranging across every continent, appear far more fluid and open to local creativity than our standard narrative allows for. In contrast, the homogenization of culture that has been taking place and rapidly accelerating at least for the past century could be characterized as the return to a more primitive mindset.
In many ways, our globalized civilization has never been more fragmented. Today’s news is dominated by different groups, including governments, media, identity communities and special interests, all desperately trying to impose the validity of their way of thinking about social and political issues. They all tend to reduce or downright reject the possibility of dialogue and debate. Those who, even in a recent past, still celebrated the humanism bequeathed by the Renaissance, judged that kind of parochialism as uncivilized and characteristic of a “primitive” worldview.
When Machiavelli analyzed the mechanics of power, among the tools he recommended for a successful prince was the virtue of cultural adaptivity. That advice is no longer heeded by today’s princes. Instead, the trend is that those who identify with a particular worldview and have the power to back it up will reject out of hand even the consideration of other worldviews. This has notably infected US foreign policy, at least since the George W Bush administration, and has now become the norm. It reflects an attitude asserting that talking to an adversary compromises one’s integrity.
We are in a privileged position today to see how this attitude plays out in real events. It was the case during the war in Syria, when Americans refused to consider negotiations with Bashar al-Assad because he was the villain. More recently, days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that there was no point negotiating with the Russians to avoid a war the State Department itself believed inevitable. The reason given was that Russia had refused to accept the sacrosanct principle that the sovereignty of a nation state included the freedom to join NATO and become the vassal of a superpower. Given the Russians starting position, there was nothing to discuss and so the fireworks could begin. After several weeks of destruction and killing, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy began insisting that neutrality is something he would envisage, which would exclude joining NATO. Even today, as the carnage continues, the US, sure of its principles, appears to be saying, that cannot happen, at least not yet and possibly, not even not on your life (i.e. Ukrainian, not American lives).
The startling example of Teotihuacan
The Dawn of Everything brings home the lesson that nothing is inevitable. Societies are capable of change and may even succeed in inverting the principles they seemed to represent. The authors describe in detail the transformation of Teotihuacan, the site in Mexico whose monumental pyramids testify to the existence of a severely hierarchical, authoritarian tradition. At one critical point in its history, Teotihuacan’s population — through a process of decision no one can explain — became a successful and durable “utopian experiment in urban life,” a truly egalitarian society. It wasn’t a regression to some dimly remembered forager culture. It was manifestly the result of a conscious and well reasoned social choice.
However constraining the social rules of many of the societies described in the book may appear, the authors insist that prehistoric societies retained a fundamental awareness of a trio of very real freedoms not written into any society’s bureaucratic bill of rights. They list them as the freedom to move, to disobey and to create. This implies the exercise of both critical insight and the freedom to experiment at the level of an entire society, a category of freedom that has disappeared in the era of the nation state. In that sense, history has indeed evolved. We have lost what were once assumed to be manifest freedoms. Once upon a time, migration from a perceived dystopia to another more amenable culture appeared to be a natural choice for ill-adapted individuals. Or an entire population, such as in Teotihuacan, could simply recreate its social rules.
Along with the modern belief in progress, humanity has thus moved away from its earlier phases of societal creativity to a form of social organization that, as the authors insist, has now become “stuck.” Today’s social organization systematically stifles experimentation and has increasingly adopted homogeneity as an implicit and legitimated constraining ideal. Resisting that homogeneity or critiquing it, as we are seeing today, can lead to systematic censorship and, in some cases, to highly orchestrated accusations of treason. Every citizen today in almost every corner of the world is now expected to uncritically endorse the abstract hierarchy called the state, an entity that claims in its generosity to offer its citizens a national identity.
The rigidity of a world divided into nation states
In our democracies, we may enjoy (within limits) the privilege of criticizing policies and specific people in power, but we mustn’t call into question the authority of the state. Even the Olympic Games serve to consolidate this perception of the state as the central feature of our identity. Willingly or unwillingly, we share a set of political values, a structure of authority and largely emotional connections of belonging to a nation. This is not unnatural. The capacity humans have to identify with the locality and social groupings in which they were raised is universal. But it can turn into a social constraint when a powerful political entity imposes a more abstract, less locally inspired set of principles or beliefs on its citizens. A European concept born in the 17th century and exported through the tentacles of colonialism, has left humanity under the authority of what we now call the nation state. As citizens, we are told from birth that we “belong to” our nation state.
All nation states invent and then disseminate their specific historical narrative. In most cases, they rely on existing mythologies and legends that highlight local features and traditions as well as celebrate their geographical specificity. Others, especially those with potentially global ambitions, tend towards teleological accounts of their own history that they seek to merge with a more general spiritual, moral or scientific idea of historical evolution. This kind of narrative, a trend spawned by the European Enlightenment, appeals to values that are deemed universal, and serves to grant the nation states that elaborate it a superior moral standing that exists in the minds of its leaders and is shared by its citizens.
Once the nation state finds what it is looking for, it enriches the narrative to make it as spiritual, moral or scientific as it can, according to its needs and living traditions. Each of our modern nation states has thus crafted its unique history. By appealing to various universal political concepts, such as democracy, equality and liberty, some nation states often prefer to create a narrative of progress over time towards an ideal that shares whatever convenient combination of spiritual, moral and scientific assumptions each one is capable of devising. This also includes what in Chapter 10, Graeber and Wengrow call the tendency of nation states to “scour the ancient world for embryonic versions of our modern nation states.” A past that was very different thus can thus be mobilized to justify the current order.
This helps us to understand the source of the standard reading of human social evolution, even in the clever variations of writers such as Yuval Noah Harari, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker, who present it as a logical process. It is a process the authors critique throughout the book. In its standard version this narrative leads inexorably from hunter-gatherer societies towards our shared idea of modern civilization dominated by nation states and property or possession, proverbially defined as being “9/10s of the law.” This model supposes that, except for possible minor variations, everything happened with a Darwinian logic and could not have developed otherwise.
A full century before Darwin, in his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope formulated the tenet that stands at the basis of the modern belief in progress: “One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.” Most people now consider that Leibnizian sentiment too absolute, especially after Voltaire so sardonically picked it apart in Candide. Nevertheless, the idea that history followed a logical, possibly pre-ordained path to reach the type of complex social and economic organization we have today is cemented into the foundation of our civilization’s mindset.
When compared with the multiple examples of creativity practiced by the diversity of the civilizations the authors describe, the reigning ideas we have about the nature of civilization may thus seem simplistic. Our teachers at school taught us to think of the arc of history as a steady progress towards today’s civilization, disturbed only by occasional moments of regression. Through an impressive variety of examples, the authors of The Dawn of Everything show that the laws our contemporary theoreticians hold to be self-evident simply did not kick in as automatically as they seem to suppose. The book can be read as a methodological guide to rethinking, not just prehistory, but history itself.
Schismogenesis and social creativity
One compelling concept the authors develop and return to at various points is what they call schismogenesis, a term coined in the 1930s by the ground-breaking sociologist and anthropologist, Geoffrey Bateson. It describes “people’s tendency to define themselves against one another.” Bateson’s purely psychological treatment of the phenomenon meant that he viewed schismogenesis as a destructive element in the relationships between individuals.
But when the authors apply the concept to societies, the term takes on a different character. At the level of coexisting societies, schismogenesis becomes a factor of creativity. It generates behaviors in which groups seek to define an alternative strategy for constructing their social values and institutions. They do it by reacting to and often inverting the values of a neighboring society. One of the outcomes of schismogenesis can be to correct the distortions created by one culture by emphasizing the opposite.
The authors examine at some length a telling example of schismogenesis between two foraging societies on the Pacific coast of North American territory extending from modern California to Canada. They describe a curiously symbiotic relationship between the Kwakiutl, a hierarchical society in the north that practiced slavery but eschewed the notion of private property, and the Yuroks, a largely egalitarian society that lived to their south. Everything about the pair of cultures differentiated them. The authors contrast “the flamboyant extravagance of one” with “the austere simplicity of the other.”
Citing the historically well documented societies of Athens and Sparta, they explain how such societies “end up joined within a common system of differences, even as they attempt to distinguish themselves from one another.” Each one “becomes an indispensable alter ego, the necessary and ever-present example of what one should never wish to be.”
The contrast between the two societies on the West Coast of America may remind us of a similar contrast in 17th century England between the Puritans (Roundheads) and the Royalists (Cavaliers) that turned into a civil war and led to the beheading of the king. The difference between the North American and English examples is that the schismogenetic conflict in England took the form of a civil war within the framework of a nation state. To preserve the integrity of England, one party had to achieve absolute victory, leaving no possibility of coexistence within the borders of the state. The Kwakiutl and Yuroks were neighbors who interacted, but like Athens and Sparta, they remained geographically separate.
Graeber and Wengrow insist on the importance of cultural diversity as a laboratory of creativity. The point Graeber and Wengrow make is quite different from the current liberal idea that cultural differences should be tolerated, and that we should all agree to live together while seeking ways of sharing the similar if not the same values. History reveals that diversity is a permanent feature of human societies. It can lead to conflict but it also opens up the possibility of social and societal innovation. Highly differentiated neighboring societies are a natural occurrence. Differentiation allows the exercise of the three essential freedoms the authors believe to be at the core of all viable social organization: “the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey and the freedom to create or transform social relationships.”
The deeper problem of freedom
Throughout his career, David Graeber insisted on the ambiguity of our ideas of freedom that are too easily codified into sclerotic ideologies. He also insisted on the need to embrace the challenge of that ambiguity and to see it as a permanent invitation to modify what exists and especially create and build what is different. Embracing this challenge is the key to any hope we have to become unstuck from a fixed worldview that has spawned institutions seemingly focused on restricting social creativity.
Graeber and Wengrow’s book is not only about the intellectual origins of our current quandary. It also presents a rich panorama of examples demonstrating how the facile theories we have created and cling to are contradicted by reality. They document a wide variety of real responses by societies across the globe over many millennia to numerous environmental and social challenges. The authors seem to be hoping we 21st century humans might take the hint from our own complex past to find a way of being at least as creative as many societies of yore. Perhaps, by relying more on history instead of artificial theories of history, we will be able to better respond to the range of challenges that now confront us.
Among those challenges is a huge one that has become more visible in recent weeks. Prominent politicians, notably in the US and China, have been telling us that we are now in the process of defining a “new world order.” The war in Ukraine has become a powerful accelerator of a movement that was already clearly underway. The positioning of the nations of the world is already revealing a manifest and growing split, not just between the West and the East, that will inevitably lead to a redistribution of power, but also between the developed, white nations sometimes abusively referred to “the free world” and the rest of humanity.
US President Joe Biden has called this moment of decision-making as an “inflection point,” by which he seems to mean a moment that requires reinforcing the existing order to preserve it. Others appear to see it as a schismogenetic moment in which the equivalent of a tectonic shift may be taking place. The transformations of societies in the past that Graeber and Wengrow describe tell us that such a moment can represent an opportunity for creativity. But in a world dominated by nuclear armed nation states sharing a global financial system that itself has become a weapon of mass destruction, the margin for creativity may turn out to be limited.
The Dawn of Everything was written with a definite sense of geopolitical awareness, but it focuses on our knowledge of the past and avoids directly broaching any of the issues that face contemporary society. It can be read as a rich exploration of the struggles human societies have always engaged in as each sought to find its place among its neighbors and within its physical environment. It contains a treasure trove of examples of social organization, cultural construction and economic creativity that invites us to broaden our understanding of our species’ past and perhaps better prepare for its future. The book’s insights may even help us to become unstuck.
Not many people have the time or energy to keep up with everything that happens in the various digs around the world, which are constantly unveiling new knowledge and new hypotheses about societies that disappeared thousands of years ago. The lay reader should welcome Graeber and Wengrow’s book as, if nothing else, a fascinating introduction to the global state of the entire discipline of archaeology as well as a wide-ranging update of its methodological orientations. But The Dawn of Civilization is also a major work of anthropological reflection that should incite its readers to think of social creativity in a new light, even if our political leaders will most likely fail to notice its significance in this historical moment.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.