Fact Over Fiction: An Invitation to The Dawn of Everything

— The NotA Collective

This is an entry in our new series of “invitations” to books. For previous examples, see our invitations to Beyond Inclusion, The Thorat Report and The Caste of Merit.

Conventional (even contemporary) narratives of the origins of inequality broadly fall into two categories, which we will call Team Rousseau and Team Hobbes, named for the authors of their respective founding texts: Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men and Hobbes’ Leviathan.

Team Rousseau holds that primitive humans lived in small, egalitarian, nomadic bands that lived off the land, hunting game and gathering berries, nuts, and fruit. After the advent of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ they settled down into small towns, which set in motion a cascade of events that led to modern science, poetry, and philosophy, but also private property, militias, war, slavery, and bureaucracy. This version of events has a decidedly Biblical flavour: “a fall from grace, a technological transposition of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis”.1

Team Hobbes, on the other hand, holds that humans are fundamentally selfish, that life in primitive societies was “nasty, brutish, and short”, and that the only reason we haven’t gone ahead and killed each other (in a “bellum omnium contra omnes,” or war of all against all) is because the modern state, with its laws and enforcement bureaus, serves to repress our baser instincts towards violence and mayhem. This version of events is deeply pessimistic, since “there were no origins of inequality, because humans are naturally somewhat thuggish creatures and our beginnings were a miserable, violent affair”.

Naturally, those on the political left favour Team Rousseau (think “primitive communism”), and those on the political right favour Team Hobbes (think “more crime calls for more police”). Graeber and Wengrow point out that both teams make certain assumptions about primitive humans in a “state of nature”, i.e. prior to the existence of organised societies. And here’s the rub: neither of these accounts of primitive humans has an iota of truth in them.

It is, however, becoming increasingly clear what that truth might look like. Based on recent advances in archaeology, we learn that

“… 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. Agriculture, in turn, did not mean the inception of private property, nor did it mark an irreversible step towards inequality. In fact, many of the first farming communities were relatively free of ranks and hierarchies. And far from setting class differences in stone, a surprising number of the world’s earliest cities were organized on robustly egalitarian lines, with no need for authoritarian rulers, ambitious warrior-politicians, or even bossy administrators.”

The Dawn of Everything is an effort to tell the story of the birth of civilisation in a way that doesn’t reduce primitive humans to unthinking, knuckle-dragging brutes. “We are projects of collective self-creation,” the authors affirm, and they subsequently ask:

“What if we approached human history that way? What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures who deserve to be understood as such? What if, instead of telling a story about how our species fell from some idyllic state of equality, we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?”

Seamlessly weaving together archaeological and anthropological findings, The Dawn of Everything is passionately argued, ambitious in vision, expansive in scope, and significant in its political implications. Naturally, a book of this scale is difficult to condense into a standard Invitation, so instead of only partially relaying Graeber and Wengrow’s arguments, we’re going to give you just one good reason to read this book:

Multifariousness.

Human societies have taken a seemingly infinite number of forms across space and time. Some were ruled by chiefs or kings whose orders could be ignored. Others adopted wildly different forms of social and political organisation (for example, alternating between villages-with-chiefs and nomadic-egalitarianism) at different times of the year, depending on seasonal convenience. Some took to agriculture like fish to water and stuck to it. Others preferred to continue foraging and hunting, possibly because farming seemed like a lot more work and likely left them with very little free time. Some came together to build massive cities with very little material inequality or hierarchy. Others built cities to give this new thing called ‘urban life’ the good ol’ college try, and then subsequently abandoned them to return to their roving hunter-gatherer bands. Some of these cities had no temples. Others didn’t seem to need bureaucracies. Some undertook massive public housing projects, which most modern states still can’t seem to figure out. Some were even direct democracies. In essence, Graeber and Wengrow throw the kitchen sink of modern archaeological and anthropological evidence at us, all of which points to something quite remarkable: early humans were actively and consciously experimenting with manifold forms of social organisation and modes of production. Play was an important part of life: Play-farming, play-warring, politics-as-sport, even play-kings.

How do Graeber and Wengrow propose to “change the course of human history” with these insights?2 By showing us that the course we thought it followed was largely conjectural, politically hopeless, and just plain dull. By showing us instead that the true course of human history is varied and rich and complex and pregnant with possibilities of a more egalitarian future. By showing us the heights we had once reached, and rekindling the hope that we might reach them once more.

What does all this mean for us at Notes on the Academy, you might ask? Well, for starters, it seems that primitive human societies were more imaginative, more open-minded, and more willing to experiment with different forms of organisation than our university administrators and tenured professors. Universities all across the country (the world, even!) look and act the same way, and it hasn’t occurred to any of these eminences in charge that maybe — just maybe! — many of the problems plaguing academia today have to do with how it is organised in the first place. That is an unfortunate state of affairs.


Five years ago, in the process of shipping his belongings back home, my roommate forgot to pack a few books that belonged to him. I never alerted him to this oversight and since then I have called these books my own. Among these books was David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, which despite its foreboding size seemed, as I flipped through it a bit at random, accessible and inviting. The Dawn of Everything is no different, and while some of the chapters are rather heavy on archaeological and anthropological details, the authors do a splendid job of shepherding the reader through them.

After finishing Debt I, like many others, found myself in an exceptionally cheerful state. I also found it difficult to not immediately reach for another book by Graeber. Anticipating the same reaction, we invite you to experience this rare joy yourself.3


Footnotes
  1. All quotes in this article are taken from The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) by D. Graeber & D. Wengrow. ↩︎

  2. Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. (2018, March 2). How to change the course of human history. Eurozine. ↩︎

  3. Here are some books by David Graeber that we have enjoyed reading. Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (2001); Fragments of Anarchist Anthropology (2004); Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009); Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011); The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015); Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018). ↩︎

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