David Graeber’s last book, co-authored with archeologist David Wengrow, is a glorious trampling of conventional discourse about what makes us human and what makes human societies work. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity takes on the conventional controversies about these questions and plies the annals of anthropology and the most recent findings in archeology to raise new, better, more important questions.
The book starts with intellectual history — no not the dull he said, they thought kind of account. Rather they show that the origins of the questions posed by European intellectuals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lay in the encounter with the indigenous peoples of the so-called “New World” and their critiques of European behavior. The widely read accounts by often scandalized missionaries of debates with the eloquent “savages” they met in New France and New England reverberated in the salons of Europe and brought notions, and examples, of free societies where, paradoxically to Western notions of freedom even today, no one could compel another, but everyone took account of the needs of everyone else. This story is worth absorbing all by itself. But of course there is more, much more.
As a start to a review, I’ll just quote from a crucial turning point in a very large book, at the end of the author’s dismissal of the modern question about “the origins of inequality.”
For far too long, we have been generating myths. As a result, we’ve been mostly asking the wrong questions: … Were our earliest ancestors simple and egalitarian, or complex and stratified? Is human nature innocent or corrupt? Are we, as a species, inherently co-operative or competitive, kind or selfish, good or evil?
Perhaps all these questions blind us to what really makes us human in the first place, which is our capacity — as moral and social beings — to negotiate between such alternatives…. it is more interesting to start asking other questions as well. If nothing else, surely the time has come to stop the swinging pendulum that has fixated generations of philosophers, historians and social scientists, leading their gaze from Hobbes to Rousseau, from Rousseau to Hobbes and back again. We do not have to choose any more between an egalitarian or hierarchical start to the human story. Let us bid farewell to the ‘childhood of Man’ and acknowledge … that our early ancestors were not just our cognitive equals, but our intellectual peers too.
…. [I]t’s becoming increasingly clear that the earliest known evidence of human social life resembles a carnival parade of political forms, far more than it does the drab abstractions of [social] evolutionary theory. If there is a riddle here it’s this: why, after millenia of constructing and disassembling forms of hierarchy, did Homo sapiens — supposedly the wisest of apes — allow permanent and intractable systems of inequality to take root?”(2021) pp. 118-119.
This is a carnival romp over the bones of fossilized social theory and official wisdom. It threatens to “turn the world upside down.” If widely absorbed, it might only take concerted action to once again provide us with the opportunity to realize that slogan that “a new world is possible.” As the authors note,
May Day came to be chosen as the date for the international workers’ holiday largely because so many British peasant revolts had historically begun on that riotous festival. Villagers who played at ‘turning the world upside down’ would periodically decide they actually preferred the world upside down, and took measures to keep it that way.P. 117.