Halfway through the epic work of historical reconstruction in The Dawn of Everything, the authors write:
Since our species came into existence, there have been only two sustained periods of warm climate of the kind that might support an agricultural economy for long enough to leave some trace in the archaeological record. The first was the Eemian interglacial, which took place around 130,000 years ago […] The second is the one we are living in now [,] the Holocene […] Many earth scientists now consider the Holocene over and done.
This moment of Late Holocene uncertainty, largely ascribable to industrially induced global climate change, frames my reading of this book’s significance.
The good news, if David Graeber and David Wengrow are correct, is that large-scale agriculture is not essential to human thriving, though it may be needed to sustain a population as large as today’s. Their book provides one of the better critiques of the idea of an “agricultural revolution” that changed human capacities for social organization either for the better—as defenders of “civilization” have long argued—or for the worse—as Garden of Eden mythologies and, in a different inflection, interpretations of hunting and foraging cultures as “the original affluent society” might suggest. Instead, gardening, horticulture, and plant-based knowledge have long been part of a mix alongside gathering, hunting, fishing, and other forms of subsistence. More pertinently for Graeber and Wengrow’s argument, these practices have all been accompanied by multiple variations in social organization and cultural values, less the product of some evolutionary sequence of events than the result of human choice.
The authors’ message is a hopeful one: that humans aren’t predetermined by our ecological conditions or by teleological or evolutionary sequences where one thing follows inexorably from the last, but rather that we have options and have always acted on those options. As they put it in the midst of an illuminating account of cultural differences among Indigenous peoples on North America’s West Coast, “the process by which cultures define themselves against one another is always, at root, political, since it involves self-conscious arguments about the proper way to live.” This extended hypothesis about human political choice is developed over a profusion of examples from research (much of it recent) covering the entire history of humanity.
Graeber and Wengrow’s exegeses on countless topics—from Minoan Crete and Ukraine’s fourth millennium BCE “mega-sites” to Andean ayllus and the comparative study of California’s “shatter-zone” and Northwest Coast potlatch cultures—are rich and fascinating and more than sufficient to make the case that our knowledge of the past is still in its infancy. But the book’s significance is in its overall argument, which intervenes in popular conceptions of the “big story” of humanity. Graeber and Wengrow aim to render a “truly radical account” of human history, one that would “retell” history “from the perspectives of the times and places in between” the periods of overarching hierarchic authority—periods they consider “exceptional islands of political hierarchy, surrounded by much larger territories whose inhabitants […] systematically avoided fixed, overarching systems of authority” (emphases mine). They acknowledge their work to be only preliminary to such a history, a kind of ground-clearing that drops “the teleological habit of thought.” This means that instead of asking, How did inequality originate?—as if once it was here, we can no longer wish it away—they ask, How did we get stuck in it?
Since one of the authors (Graeber) was a political anarchist, it’s not surprising that the book’s boldest move is to deconstruct the notion of “the state” into three elements: the control of violence or physical force in a territory, constituting “sovereignty;” the control of knowledge and information, which they hastily equate with “bureaucracy” (leaving one to wonder where contemporary media might fit in); and charismatic power. Sometimes, as they show, these phenomena emerged on their own, as with charismatic political spectacle among the Olmecs or administrative bureaucracy by esoteric knowledge-keeping elites at the Peruvian highland center of Chavín de Huántar; and sometimes in combination, as with the Egyptian Old Kingdom’s hybrid of sovereignty with bureaucracy or Classic Maya elites’ mixture of physical force with charisma. Only rarely have they emerged in their full combination, Graeber and Wengrow claim, as in today’s state-based global system.
Their point seems to be that even if political violence, bureaucratic rule, and the charismatic “politics of spectacle” appear in one package today, democracy, deliberation, and even play are always possible. Play in fact forms something of a fulcrum within the book: there are “play kingdoms” and “play farming,” with the latter described as “the proclivity of human societies to move (freely) in and out of farming”—a kind of recreational farming that is far from the tedium of full-scale agriculture. The authors equate the latter with fellow anarchist Murray Bookchin’s notion of an “ecology of freedom” (the entire book can be considered a rigorous updating of Bookchin’s ambitious but now outdated book of that title).
And there is a frequent return to one of the authors’ favorite subtopics: the liberatory possibilities of the imagination as exemplified by seasonal rituals, festivals, and revolutionary upheavals. Seasonal festivals for instance can upend relations of power not just once or twice a year. Rather, as Graeber and Wengrow show, some societies have demarcated a regular, several months-long alternation between radically different modes of sociality. Ritual play, they write, can constitute “a site of social experimentation,” with “the festival year” serving “as a veritable encyclopaedia of possible political forms.” This is the way they treat human history at large: as a veritable encyclopaedia of possibilities, none of which were foreclosed at the outset or are unavailable to us now.
In identifying the contingent and noninevitable nature of the modern state, Graeber and Wengrow’s book recalls those of Bruno Latour, whose work since We Have Never Been Modern has showed how the structuring categories of the modern world—with politics separated from science, religion, law, art, and so on—have come together and how these mixtures could have been, and often have been, arranged differently. Graeber rejected the “ontological turn” that Latour’s project is associated with on the grounds that it allows for no dialogue across cultural differences. The choice of Graeber and Wengrow of seventeenth-century Mackinac Huron leader Kandiaronk as a pivotal historical figure is therefore apt and insightful: Kandiaronk’s critiques of European society brought him to Montreal and Paris and ostensibly influenced European Enlightenment self-critiques, in turn reshaping the possibilities for modern life.
In arguing for dialogue across cultural differences, however, Graeber and Wengrow aren’t far from Latour’s notion of “diplomacy,” which he sees as the only way for ontologically distinctive social orders to arrive at mutually recognizable “parliamentary” agreements. On the surface, Graeber and Wengrow, by valuing political discourse and decision-making, appear to be Chomskian rationalists in contrast to Latourian “cosmopoliticians” or Foucauldian genealogists (recall the famous televised non-debate between Chomsky and Foucault), but given their enthusiastic affirmation of ritual and play, the difference among these perspectives seems one of mere emphasis.
The flipside to Graeber and Wengrow’s tripartite conception of the state is another triad, that of three freedoms: “(1) the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings; (2) the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issues by others; and (3) the freedom to shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones.” One cannot help but discern a contemporary impulse here, one associated with support for migrants and sundry dissenters. Graeber and Wengrow appear to trace a very modern duality—one that opposes a democratic small-s state (founded on citizenly recognition, constitutionalist agreements, and basic conceptions of personal and collective liberty) against oligarchy in any of its forms (monarchic, aristocratic, warlordist, heroic/charismatic, etc). If their goal is to narrate the past without preconceptions, then Graeber and Wengrow have no more succeeded than others before them.
There is a counter-argument to the anti-determinism in The Dawn of Everything, which the authors don’t adequately consider. Scalar dynamics give historical processes “path-dependencies” rendering some things more possible and others less so. When a new technology is introduced and begins to spread, it can create utterly new options for social organization while rendering others obsolete. (Think of the internet, or of how the invention of the automobile left the bicycle as an option but eliminated the horse-drawn carriage, a trend E. F. Schumacher called “the law of the disappearing middle.”) Or when a particular type of society becomes aggressive toward others, the others are forced to respond, which they do by taking on some of the characteristics of the aggressive outside force, giving rise to an inevitable drive for the spread of new systems of aggression and new ways of holding it in check (as Andrew Bard Schmookler argued in a persuasive yet somewhat forgotten book called The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution). We might call this not determinism (historical or technological) but selectionism: certain features are “selected for” in the long run rather like nature is said to “select” heritable genetic traits via evolution, except that here it’s not some mysterious force of “nature” doing the selecting but us—humans and other creatures responding to our situations. If humans, as Marx said, “make our own history, but not under conditions of our own choosing,” historical research needs to probe both the evolution of those “conditions” and the choices made. Graeber and Wengrow “select” a focus on the latter (human agency) because prevailing metanarratives de-emphasize it, but the two go hand in hand.
One could argue, in fact, that ours is already a time of great self-conscious political debate—between (and within) conservatives and liberals, religious or cultural traditionalists and progressives, libertarians and socialists, elitists and populists. And, moreover, that what Graeber and Wengrow are attempting to do—to wipe away the teleological conceptions of human “ascent” or “descent”—is already being done by none other than the end of the Holocene. If the long period of sustained, “civilizationally conducive” climate is coming to an end, then surely we are already in the position the authors wish to place us: that of having to choose what to do next, without any guarantees of success.
How does Graeber and Wengrow’s reinterpretation of the arc of history enable us to choose an appropriate course from the present set of precarious “conditions not of our choosing”? Toward the end of the book they write:
Perhaps if our species does endure, and we one day look backwards from this as yet unknowable future, aspects of the remote past that now seem like anomalies—say, bureaucracies that work on a community scale; cities governed by neighbourhood councils; systems of government where women hold a preponderance of formal positions; or forms of land management based on care-taking rather than ownership and extraction—will seem like the really significant breakthroughs, and great stone pyramids or statues more like historical curiosities.
This list of what Graeber and Wengrow call breakthroughs may seem mundane and close to what one might find in some corners of Amsterdam, Stockholm, Rojavan Kurdistan, or the Mayan uplands of Chiapas today. There are other examples, from permaculture and community land trusts to various measures of ecoregional land management (to name a few). When the balance of gravity, however, lies with oil and gas companies, big agriculture, hypermilitarized states, and billions of humans addicted to entertainment spectacles and high-consumption lifestyles, we may need to tease apart more than just “the state” when considering our future. Economic systems, for instance, aren’t dealt with very directly in this book, at least not in the “world-systemic” forms that we find them today. Culture—including ideology, imagination, religion, and so on—is dealt with somewhat better, if also less systematically than “the state.” If Graeber and Wengrow show there is life (a lot of it) outside of “the state,” it should be remembered that they mean a certain kind of state and that other states are possible along with other ways of theorizing them. Developing those alternatives isn’t really the task of the book, which would be better suited to a further, future-oriented volume—and which makes Graeber’s premature death all the more of a loss to everyone. In any case, the larger process of upending the current “conditions not of our choosing,” for all of us, lies ahead.