A Review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow
I recently finished the late David Graeber and David Wengrow’s fascinating new book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2021) and wanted to offer a few scattered reflections.
First, on the book itself. Graeber and Wengrow position it as the latest salvo in Macrohistory, a genre of historical argument described best by example. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution all serve as fine types of the mold.
More specifically, Graeber and Wengrow argue that the last thirty or so years of archeological and anthropological research throw a massive monkey wrench in the grand narratives of the historical determinists. No longer, say the two Davids, can we posit human history as culminating in the State. Rather, we must look towards the origins, the beginnings, as a period of great political flexibility that eventually resulted in a profound indigenous critique of the West.
The argument is impressionistic. Graeber and Wengrow spend most of the book gallivanting around the world, from Cahokia to Catalhoyuk, cataloging a veritable cornucopia of “egalitarian” political arrangements across prehistory. The Dawn of Everything is worth reading for the diversity of examples alone, and Graeber and Wengrow maintain an accessible, conversational, and witty tone throughout—a rarity in the genre.
The people documented in The Dawn of Everything don’t lack political and social creativity. Graeber and Wengrow find individuals who farm (but only playfully), kings with a semiannual reign, grand ritual sites coalescing organically for nomadic hunter-gatherers, and neighboring tribes that differentiate themselves through the process of schismogenesis: defining their own identity by subverting the practices of their neighbors. They dig up evidence of horrific genocidal reprisals, and they find elaborately-preserved dwarves and other atypical humans—testaments to the cruelty and care humanity is capable of.
Graeber’s famous line about the relationship between anarchism and anthropology is worth quoting: “[T]here’s always been an affinity between anthropology and anarchism, simply because anthropologists know that a society without a state is possible. There’s been plenty of them.” This puts them in direct opposition to many fellow practitioners in the field, for Macrohistory has a markedly conservative bent (a subject for another essay, perhaps).
But in a time of plagues and populists, one senses that the doors of political possibility are opened at least a bit wider now than they ever have been. Thus, The Dawn of Everything enters the discourse at a fortuitous time.
Graeber and Wengrow insist that our current political situation is in no way inevitable—that it is a result of choice and, therefore, transformable in the near future. Graeber’s anarchist commitments are laced throughout the work, and the work is pitched as a lesson in asking proper questions that can generate distance from and skepticism toward our current political and economic regime.
So, the million-dollar question. Do they succeed? Am I, properly habituated away from the fatalistic bromides of a neoliberal school of history and empowered to regard the savages of the distant past as egalitarian experimenters, now ready to deploy my own faculties of political imagination and seize the reins of History?
The problem is less that I think Graeber and Wengrow are wrong (on the contrary, in fact), and more that I think that the remedies to our own political decadence will come not from a properly anarchist reading of recent digs in the steppes of Kazakhstan or the depths of the Amazon rainforest, but rather from an excavation of the philosophical underpinnings of the age we currently inhabit.
This is not to say that the egalitarians of ages gone by have nothing to teach us; I was touched by the exposition of Kandiaronk (perhaps the greatest Native American interlocutor who delivered a profound critique of Western European civilization) and by the rather marvelous instances of voluntary cooperation required to build huge shrines and other sites of religious significance (all without permanent rulers). Clearly, greatness of spirit at both the individual and social level arises in a multitude of political forms, both old and new.
But where I think the most productive path forward lies is not in a blanket condemnation of “The West” (sidestepping the massive and fruitful discussion of what does and does not constitute European civilization) but in a measured, sober outlook to the problems of the present. To use terms from the book, I’m not convinced we, like the Osage peoples, must “go to a new country,” or re-found our political order.
This gets at the heart of Athwart’s mission: A remembrance of things past, gratitude for things present, and optimism for things to come. Graeber and Wengrow help us remember forgotten political forms and ways of living together. But their argument is in service of tearing down the social order we (may) enjoy. They rightfully find much to celebrate in the past. But they find little to cherish about the here and now.
Graeber and Wengrow appoint themselves mythbusters—the conclusion is a somewhat self-congratulatory explanation of how they’ve definitively refuted the great myths of the State that hold us benighted moderns in a kind of thrall to faceless domination, economic devastation, and social dissolution.
But Big History, for all its virtues, can’t tell us what’s next. Perhaps the most salient lesson to draw from The Dawn of Everything—apart from the political creativity of our ancient brethren—is the limits of grand historical narrative as compared to the contingency, agency, and dignity afforded to individual human beings.
One of the more interesting elements of their argument is that with an egalitarian lens, we see grand contributions to human life, whether it be bread-making or deliberative councils or animal husbandry, as flowing from gender equality that fosters “ritual play”—basically, sanctioned experimentation. And so, while Graeber and Wengrow suggest the lesson of radically increasing the level of political freedom afforded to allegedly-restrained moderns, I suggest the strengthening of institutions that foster technological creativity and experimentation.
Put a different way, I suspect the path out of technological and economic stagnation is probably not found in radically weakening our sense of legal, moral, and political obligations to our communities but rather in practicing and promoting our openness, inventiveness, and sheer creativity—which, I hope, can flourish in the political forms of this day and age.