For the intellectual history of our century, one of the most important books published in 2021 will probably be David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a monumental description of the evolution of the first human societies and of our understanding thereof. The book is conceived as a kind anarchist of reply to some recent and famous bestsellers (like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, though others are explicitly mentioned), works that the authors consider dangerously influenced by a too Darwinian-materialist-liberal-capitalist ideology. Actually, the best known author of the two, Graeber (who died suddenly while being on vacation in Venice just after finishing the book, one year before its publication) had gained world fame both from his anarchist political activism after the 2008 crisis and from his works on anarchist economic anthropology, the best known one being his 2018 book Bullshit jobs, in which he documented and tried to explain the ubiquity of meaningless employments as an instrument of class domination; and in a way, the main (and non concealed) goal of The Down is just trying to complement that criticism of our contemporary world with a historical (or more often pre-historical or proto-historical) narrative that attempts to demolish the common idea that this economic and political system, in which most people is more or less violently subordinated to others, is the necessary result of an inexorable, natural-law-guided evolutionary process. Graeber and Wengrow try to show, instead, that history might have been different, and they mainly do it by showing that in many cases it was actually different from the uniform and linear evolution our modern dogmas make us believe. In principle, the book was conceived as ‘a history of inequality’, but the authors confess they soon discovered that this goal was too clumsy, mostly because the very concept of ‘inequality’ lead us unconsciously to think in terms of social facts that can be easily quantified and also ‘dealt with little by little’, instead of by more radical means. Instead, they tried to ask a more philosophical question, which is how and why humans ended losing our freedom.
I cannot offer here a detailed summary of the plentiful facts the authors collect in order to underpin their conclusions (you are invited to enjoy the details in the book itself, which deserves a careful and engaging reading if you love the history of the pre-modern societies), but I shall try my best to give you the flavour of their main argument… and why I think it is not tenable, in spite of finding myself a lot of interesting and compelling things within the almost 700 pages of the book. First of all, the authors do not pretend to deceive anybody by making us think that theirs is a scientific work of, say, totally value-free historical investigation: the text is full of sentences like human history ‘going wrong’ at some point, and we permanently perceive the sympathy of the authors by the ‘good boys’ (and most often, girls) and their disapproval of the history’s ‘villains’. To visualise this difference in an almost cinematographic fashion the authors themselves employ, the former would be those ‘primitive’ societies to which the westerners that had been captured as children would be eager to come back every time they were ‘rescued’; whereas the ‘baddies’ are, of course, those societies that are based on submission and domination through the use of diverse forms of violence, societies very often terribly wanting in terms of mutual solidarity (that is, most historic societies, which often means ‘empires’). The main ‘freedoms’ the authors consider are, hence, those ‘delights’ that some primitive societies offered to their members, and that made them (the societies) so enjoyable for the latter in spite of their apparent material poverty. This value-laden character of the book does not become an intellectual problem tout court, just because it is wholly transparent, as well as a honest way of organising the facts around the book’s arguments, and hence, something that helps the construction of criticisms, as I shall try here.
In my view, about this question the book contains two main philosophical arguments (though, of course, they are backed by historical, rather than by conceptual pieces of evidence). One, less central claim, is that our contemporary praise of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as the most important political values, was in fact something totally alien to the western mentality as this had evolved until the 17th century, and was most likely ‘engrafted’ or even ‘culturally appropriated’ from the first contacts of European intellectuals with native North Americans. It was rare the Enlightenment philosophe that didn’t write a book depicting the European society through the (often very imaginary) eyes of some ‘savage’ people, usually criticising the despotic political practices of western states, after the tremendous success of the 1704 French book Dialogues avec le sauvage Adario, by the baron of Lahontan (copiously quoted in The Dawn), but actually, before that, the very idea that society should better be organised in something like ‘a democratic way’ would have sounded to most European people as the closest thing to the nonsensical. Many of the French illuministes, including Montesquieu, might even have interacted with some native American delegates that visited Paris during the 18th century, and learned directly from them the ideas about how a society without a despotic ‘sovereign’ might function. Even if this intellectual influence is very speculative (for example, there is no way of knowing for certain to what extent Lahontan transfigured what he heard in his travels through North America before actually committing them to paper some decades later, in his exile in Amsterdam, and it is also a little dishonest to discard the work of philosophers that, decades before Lahontan, already had argued for a radically republican way of government, like Spinoza for example), I think there is no problem in accepting that there might have been some influence on European philosophers from the native Americans’ arguments about the things they despised in European societies, and even that the momentousness of the value of freedom may have gained a lot of appeal at that time in history just because of the living example of societies without anything resembling a central power. I also accept that the idea that ‘democracy was born in ancient Athens’ is more a myth than a reality, not only because the Athenian democratic experience was usually seen with abhorrence by most later Europeans till the late Modern Age, but also because many other societies had been ‘democratic’ many millennia before the Greek language even existed, and (even more importantly) because many of these other democracies would probably have been much more profoundly democratic that Pericles’ Athens, not to say in comparison with our own ‘democracies’.
The second, more interesting argument, in The Dawn of Everything refers to what are the ‘freedoms’ that matter. Graeber and Wengrow identify three of them: the freedom to move away, the freedom to disobey orders, and the freedom to reorganize social relations. Many readers may be surprised that other more traditional rights are not given relevance, nor even mentioned, like the freedom of thought, of speech, of vote, of choice of profession, and others that use to occupy the first pages of modern Constitutions and Declarations of Rights. Graeber’s and Wengrow’s freedoms are indeed much more radical than those (after all, they are anarchists). The native North Americans that European colonist mostly found in what is now the East of the US and Canada (contrarily to what Spanish conquistadores found in Mexico or Peru, for example) lived in very small communities relatively independent of the neighbouring ones, and, even if they were not mere foragers, but had some noticeable amount of ‘gardening’ agriculture, they simply may go to a different place if others tried to subjugate them (the book mentions that indigenous women may even have deliberately spaced their births in order not to have a total population so big that there was not enough land for that kind of wandering life, but I take this cum grano salis: other, not so explicitly long-term reasons, may very well have justified birth control). But such a radical ‘freedom to move away’ is nearly unimaginable in a world as crowded as our own: even if we grant the right to choose a country or city of residence, things are now not so simple as to let anybody build a cottage, hunt rabbits and plant pumpkins wherever they want.
Much weirder sounds to many of us the second liberty, the freedom to disobey orders, for, after all, we tend to interpret democracy as containing the principle of ‘the rule of law’, and laws are… well… things to be obeyed. We understand political liberty as not having to obey arbitrary orders by despotic tyrants (be these your king, your teacher, your husband, or your boss), but most of our freedoms essentially depend on the assumption that other people obey the laws (so that they don’t kill, rape, robe, or otherwise exploit us). What makes you free is not, in our societies, whether you obey or disobey the laws, but the fact that other people usually obey them, plus the fact that the laws are chosen through a relatively democratic procedure. If people had the ‘freedom to disobey’ those laws, the laws that protect you, then you would have a very small chance of being really free in any meaningful sense, at least in a society where almost anything you get and do, from food to housing, from travel to study, essentially depends on things that thousands of other people, most of them totally unknown to you, have decided to do. Hence, the ‘freedom to disobey’, more even than the freedom to move, seems to be possible only in very small and simple societies, and totally incompatible with the internal complexity and interdependence of most historic civilisations, no matter how many monstrosities many of those societies may have contained as well.
But the third of the liberties is probably the most important for the book’s argument, and also the most problematic from a philosophical point of view. To begin with, it is a freedom totally different from the other two, because the former were to be exercised at the level of single individuals or very small groups (perhaps a few families at most), whereas ‘the freedom to reorganise social relations’ is essentially what we can term a collective capacity: it is the society as a whole who ‘reorganises itself’, through a long and extended process of plural deliberation. Graeber and Wengrow apply this concept to another of the most fundamental ideas of their book: the polemical claim that one of the most important ‘mechanisms’ of differentiation and evolution of human societies is what they call schismogenesis, the capacity of separating and differentiating in a deliberate way from neighbouring communities to which one does one want ‘to look alike’. Our authors devote many pages to argue that this ‘choosing to become different from others’ is one cause of the diversity of human cultures much more important than the ‘ecological’, ‘optimising’, or ‘adaptationist’ mechanisms that (just because they look much more ‘scientific’) are most popular amongst social scientists. And I grant them that this may be as they say: after all, this is what ‘culture’ means, and we must also accept Graeber’s and Wengrow’s claim that human history (or ‘the evolution of cultures’) is utterly unpredictable no matter how many complex quantitative models we try to build in order to corset it.
But, in the first place, I suspect that this superiority of ‘the cultural’ and ‘the meaningful’ over ‘the material’ or ‘the ecologically efficient’ may justify to see long term historical movements (I mean, those encompassing more than one generation, say) as the result of something remotely similar to ‘small group face to face deliberation’ (even if literally thousands of such deliberations take place within this process, of course, since they tend to be led by it, rather than leading it). In the second place, insisting in the collective nature of this ‘capacity of reorganising the society’ hides the fact that many people within the society may oppose the ‘collective decision’: Graeber and Wengrow tend to write as if (to use one of their own examples) native Californian tribes ‘chose’ to become as different as possible as those to the North in the Pacific coast, and hence, the former became much more pacific, egalitarian, and hard-working than the latter, even rejecting having slaves, as the latter had. One can certainly imagine a centuries old process of ‘conversation’ in which native Californians reinforced their ‘gentle’ values and ‘unanimously decide’ becoming more and more that kind of pacific human beings (though the process is, for us, completely conjectural, of course), but one may justifiably be much more skeptic when trying to apply the same scenario to the societies of the Pacific North, in which the ‘conversations’ between the masters and the slaves may have sounded not so much courteous. And, in the third and last place, in our own ultracomplex and overpopulated societies it is basically unimaginable how this ‘freedom to reorganise social relations’ could work in a way too much different from the perhaps not much inspiring combination of our liberal democratic mechanisms and the rather chaotic evolution of social and cultural fashions.
In short, even accepting Graeber’s and Wengrow’s argument that history is mostly unpredictable, that the evolution of ultracomplex societies based on power differences may have been not historically unavoidable, that ‘primitive’ societies may have experimented with a much more diverse catalogue of social organisations than we imagine, and that many ‘simpler’ cultures (including even not too big ‘civilisations’, like the Minoan bronze age society) may have been much more free and ‘humane’ than the most monumental empires (even perhaps, as they often suggest, thanks to the former having been ruled mostly by women), I think The Dawn of Everything makes an excellent reading in speculative history, but offers very little as a philosophical guide to reorganise our own societies in a much more democratic direction. At most, being basically concerned as it is about our cultural origins, the book can easily become, if not the Bible of wokism (of which it captures most of its clichés), at least its Pentateuch.
Graeber, D., 2018, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, Penguin.
Graeber, D., and D. Wengrow, 2021, The Down of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Harari, Y., 2014, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harvill Secker.