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Choosing Civilization

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Choosing Civilization

Seeking to change the present by reinterpreting the past, a new book puts its agenda before accuracy. November 19, 2021
The Social Order

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 704 pp., $23)

Some years ago, I watched an interactive course taught by Yale political science professor Ian Shapiro. Shapiro posed a simple question to his two students, a young American man and a young woman from a developing country: “If there were no government, no state at all, what do you think life would be like?”

The woman replied, “Well, from my experience, I come from the world of the failed state. And this much I know: It’s not pretty and it’s gruesome violence. . . . It’s just humiliating, I would say, for human beings to live in a state without structure, without real authority.”

The man then said, “I think for the most part humans are generally good, they’re good natured and I think it’ll be all right. . . . I have a rosy picture of the human condition, I think.”

The woman stifled a laugh, turned to the professor, and said, “I say that he is American. He’s American. This is why he thinks that.”

In The Dawn of Everything, authors David Graeber—an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and anarchist activist who helped organize the Occupy Wall Street movement and died last year at 59—and David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, offer a novel history of humanity, challenging what they describe as “received wisdom” concerning the development of human societies. “The world of hunter-gatherers as it existed before the coming of agriculture was one of bold social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forms, far more than it does the drab abstractions of evolutionary theory,” they write.

Surrounding discussions of their book is a certain prefix. The Atlantic’s review of the book is titled, “Human History Gets a Rewrite.” The New York Times contends that the authors aim to “rewrite the story of our shared past—and future.” The New Yorker claims that the book “revitalizes” possibilities for society. And Graeber and Wengrow repeatedly ask the reader to “rethink,” “reimagine,” and “reconsider” everything we think we know about the development of human societies, suggesting that humans have become “stuck” to such an extent that we can no longer imagine the possibility of “reinventing” ourselves.

The book is intended, in part, to serve as a rejoinder to other sweeping histories, such as Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. These books, Graeber and Wengrow argue, propagate a false conception of human history. (The authors scorn Pinker as “a modern psychologist making it up as he goes along” and Diamond as a holder of “a Ph.D. on the physiology of the gall bladder.”)

The most well-known version of this history, according to The Dawn of Everything, is that between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens appeared. From that point on, the story supposedly goes, not much occurred. People lived in small bands of egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, until the rise of agriculture approximately 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Humans, formerly mobile in search of food, became stationary and built complex societies, out of which arose hierarchy, inequality, and tyranny. Agriculture gave us chiefdoms, organized warfare, and widespread exploitation.

Much of this story, the authors write, stems from a book titled Hierarchy in The Forest by the renowned anthropologist Christopher Boehm. According to Graeber and Wengrow: “Before about 12,000 years ago, Boehm insists, humans were basically egalitarian . . . according to Boehm, for about 200,000 years political animals chose to live just one way.”

One problem: this isn’t what Boehm wrote. Here is the actual quote: “Once one band, somewhere, invented an egalitarian order, this radical change in social ways of doing things would become visible to its neighbors. The advantages would have been evident wherever subordinates were ambivalent about being dominated, particularly in bands with very aggressive bullies. Furthermore, the advantages of well-equalized variance reduction would have been obvious to members of despotic bands whose alpha types could be counted on to monopolize meat just when it was scarce. One would expect a gradual cultural diffusion to take place, with attractive egalitarian traditions replacing despotic ones locally. During periods of scarcity-driven migration, bands surely were mixed around a great deal, as they followed their individual strategies in coping with climatic changes. . . . The statistical chances of a despotic band’s coming into contact with an egalitarian band would have increased, and as a result the rate of cultural diffusion would have been accelerated. Over time, migration patterns over longer distances could have fairly rapidly spread this political invention from one continent to another.”

Plainly, Boehm did not claim that, until 12,000 years ago, “humans were basically egalitarian.” In fact, he is suggesting that humans developed a variety of different political systems and that gradually, hunter-gatherers mostly converged on an egalitarian system. Early humans saw a way of life that appealed to them and pursued it. This is actually consistent with the claims in The Dawn of Everything that preagricultural humans exercised agency when constructing their societies, and that a wide variety of societal arrangements existed. In fact, this may have been what happened with states: as societies grew more complex, some societies leaned toward anarchy and others were more organized. Gradually, humans came to favor organized, hierarchical structures.

It seems that Graeber and Wengrow mischaracterized Boehm’s claim, and then spent a large portion of the book arguing against their own mischaracterization. As for the non-anthropologists with whom they disagree, such as Pinker and Diamond, the authors reject their work by implying they are not properly credentialed.

In any case, others have likewise spotted glaring errors in the book. In a review in The Nation, Northwestern University historian Daniel Immerwahr judges the book’s claim that colonial American settlers captured by indigenous people “almost invariably” chose to stay with them to be “ballistically false” and writes that the source Graeber and Wengrow cite “actually argues the opposite.”

One gets a distinct sense that the authors had a favored vision of history in mind and compiled a book with only evidence favorable to their views.

Graeber and Wengrow make no effort to conceal their political leanings and desire for a stateless society. According to the New York Times, Wengrow reported that one of Graeber’s favorite catchphrases was, “We are going to change the course of human history—starting with the past.”

At the outset, in chapter one, the authors state that their objections to the standard accounts of human history are threefold. First, they “simply aren’t true.” Second, they “have dire political implications.” And finally, they “make the past needlessly dull.” Presumably, the first objection would be reason enough to reject the received wisdom. But the second two serve the function of bracing readers for the authors’ agenda.

They use the term “communism” with approval and affix this label to the indigenous societies of the Northeast Woodlands because it would have been “quite inconceivable” for those societies to refuse requests by others for food, in apparent contrast with colonial settlers, who were not so generous. Graeber and Wengrow then write, “Insofar as we can speak of communism, it existed not in opposition to but in support of freedom.”

In many small-scale societies, it is indeed taboo to deny food to another who asks. Yet reports also exist of members of these societies who relentlessly ask others for food and contribute nothing in return. As a consequence, others secretly arrange to have the requester killed. Presumably, this is a form of freedom, too.

The authors describe a state as an entity within “a certain stretch of land” that “insists that, within its borders, it is the only institution whose agents can kill people, beat them up, cut off parts of their body or lock them in cages.” Yet they also acknowledge that acts of violence and cruelty occur in “stateless” societies. Do Graeber and Wengrow disapprove of the acts themselves? Or do they disapprove of the fact that in a state, only the government is authorized to commit them? After all, many people today respond with horror to police shootings but react with practiced indifference to citizens murdering one another.

In the book’s early chapters, Graeber and Wengrow argue against the view that early human societies were predominantly egalitarian. They present intriguing findings indicating that some preagricultural indigenous societies in America, such as the Yurok in California, stressed hard work, sacrifice, and individual autonomy; the authors draw a parallel between them and the Puritans, as described in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Yet other indigenous societies such as those in the Northwest Coast maintained hierarchies, nobilities, and aristocracies in which only the elites could hold certain titles and practice chattel slavery; the authors compare these aristocrats to mafia dons. In other words, two preagricultural societies existing in the same period organized vastly different political structures.

The authors also describe research suggesting that indigenous Amazonian societies implemented different authority structures based on the time of year. “Our remote ancestors,” Wengrow and Graeber write, “shifted back and forth between alternative social arrangements.” When food was scarce, the community became more authoritarian as it searched for food. During periods of seasonal abundance, it drifted toward egalitarianism. “With such institutional flexibility,” they continue, “comes the capacity to step outside to boundaries of any given structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in.”

Graeber and Wengrow repeatedly stress the capacity of our ancestors to exercise agency as they organized their political structures. They discuss how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European philosophers believed that “political self-consciousness” was a groundbreaking historical achievement only made possible by the Enlightenment. Before this, they claim, Westerners generally assumed that people blindly followed traditions, never questioning the political systems in which they existed.

Though the book characterizes such preagricultural societies as “bold social experiments,” these societies were not experiments at all. Humans within them were not consciously carrying out investigations into various social arrangements and then choosing which they liked best. Rather, it appears that they were responding to local social and environmental realities and operated within the narrow band of possibilities that those realities allowed. There were “experiments” in the sense that many different types of political arrangements existed, perhaps more than other sweeping histories of humanity suggest, but it does not follow that we can adopt any one of those arrangements in our own societies.

Graeber and Wengrow might disagree. But if one were to suggest that the political institutions and norms of the U.S. or other Western countries could or should be transplanted to other societies around the world, and that these other societies could adopt our political configurations despite hundreds or thousands of years of living differently, I imagine they would disagree, too. Just because humans have managed to organize a variety of different political systems does not mean any one of them can work for any of the others, or that humans in one society would want to adopt the arrangements of another.

The authors state that their book is about freedom and possibilities. “Social science has been largely a study in which human beings are not free: the way that our actions and understandings might be said to be determined by forces outside our control,” they write. The implication is that people today should adopt the examples of our ancestors and reconsider whether states are necessary for complex societal arrangements.

Though they repeatedly ask how we became “stuck” in a system of supposed inequality, oppression, and hierarchy, Graeber and Wengrow never offer an answer. When describing early human societies, the authors underscore the importance of agency, political deliberation, and reflective decision-making. Left unexplored is the possibility that humans in modern societies also have such capacities.

Agency and choice, then, are two themes that loom large in this book. But what if people exercise their freedom to select a possibility that the authors don’t favor?

The book approvingly states that, before the spread of agriculture, humans were not thoughtless or superstitious automatons, helplessly reacting to external stimuli and trapped by the status quo or the circumstances of their culture. Our ancestors exercised choice in how they organized their societies. Some opted for more egalitarian structures, others favored hierarchy, and still others switched between the two orientations, depending on weather and food availability.

Extending this logic, it’s possible that the humans who built and maintain the current structures of society are not thoughtlessly upholding the status quo, either. That is, we’re not “stuck” in a system of hierarchies and conspicuous inequalities. Rather, humans today might also be exercising choice—maintaining and appreciating our current institutions and governments, however imperfect they may be. It would seem odd for the authors to claim that humans of the past were “politically self-conscious,” while humans of the present are mindless automatons.

What if people witnessed what anarchy looks like, like the young woman I mentioned at the start of this review, and decided that they prefer to live in states? If so, then perhaps it’s time to reconsider the belief that humans ever got “stuck.”

Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

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