Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Book Notes: Graeber and Wengrow on The Dawn of Everything

Practically every periodical I look at in print or online has lately been enthusing about the new "history of everything" by David Graeber (and David Wengrow) called The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.

Recent histories of humanity tell us that the hunter-gathering stage was a pretty good one for some hundreds of thousands of years. Then came the development of agriculture: fundamental to human "progress" but also, for most peoples who made the transition, a pretty bad trade. With agriculture, argue the big theorists, came population growth, diversification, and social organization -- but also ten thousand years of overcrowding, overwork, poverty, hierarchy, and oppression, with plagues thrown in. Jared Diamond made this case compellingly in Guns. Germs, and Steel, but others have followed the path. Even in a small way me, in my young readers' history of the world, From Then to Now. 

In The Dawn of Everything, apparently, Graeber and Wengrow marshall a lot of anthropological evidence to argue that both kinds of early society were a lot more diverse than the simple model above allows. They find agricultural societies that were not hierarchical and oppressive, and non-agricultural societies that had urban forms and complex social structures without hierarchy and oppression, and even societies that shifted back and forth from one mode to the other and never got into the agriculture trap, if it existed. From the publisher's blurb:

If humans did not spend 95% of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? What was really happening during the periods that we usually describe as the emergence of "the state"? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume.

Graeber is famous for his previous book Debt: The First 5000 Years, that demolished the economics profession's highly rationalist and abstract images of debt and money. Debt (like this new book) draws on anthropological fieldwork and theory to create a more human and compelling vision.  I confess I found Debt a bit smart-ass and clever after a few chapters, stronger for casting doubt on widely-held clich├ęs than for building a really coherent argument.

And maybe The Dawn of Everything, a search for happy anarchists in the distant past as models for happy anarchists in the present and future, is a bit the same. But it's catching eyes.      

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