For those of us who counted him as an inspiration, 2021 brought a small consolation: the posthumous publication of The Dawn of Everything, a mammoth book he co-wrote with the archaeologist David Wengrow in a collaborative process that took most of a decade to come to fruition.
Dawn is a book that challenges the orthodoxy on the origin, nature and inevitability of inequality and hierarchy, and the relationship these bear to different modes of production, such as urban vs rural, farmer vs hunter-gatherer, etc. It is a vast thesis that weaves together anthropology, archaeology, botany, evolutionary science, geology, and disparate other subjects to make a complex argument that touches on nearly every part of human political economy, leisure, liberty and history.
It’s a genuinely remarkable book, as is evidenced by the different angles stressed by reviewers. If you haven’t read Dawn and you tried to figure out what it was about from the reviews in the Guardian, the New York Times, and Crooked Timber (part 1, part 2), you could be forgiven for thinking that they were reviews of three different books. But if you’ve read it, it makes perfect sense that the reviews would have to pick an area of focus for any summary, and that there are many such foci to choose from.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
I could easily write a dozen essays inspired by this book (and I might end up doing so), but the thing that struck me most off the bat is Graeber and Wengrow’s account of the origin of differences between cultures.
The Davids have set out to overturn the orthodoxy of the “agricultural revolution,” a kind of cod-anthropological theory that holds that humanity spent a long time as “savage” hunter-gatherers of relatively equal wealth and very little hierarchy; then we invented agriculture and got stuck to one place, where we created hierarchies and social structures and inequality.
But as Graeber and Wengrow shows, the actual anthropological and archaeological records do not support this account. There are hunter-gatherers that have hierarchy and inequality, or one or the other but not both. There are farmers who have neither. The ruins of some impressively large cities show no evidence of a bureaucracy or formal leadership (others show rigid stratification). In other words, neither urban life nor agricultural life, nor nomadic life correlate to any particular social arrangement.
So what does account for the differences between, say, indigenous peoples of California and those of the Pacific Northwest (or other adjacent peoples around the world)?
According to the Davids, new cultures are budded off of others — a process called schizmogenesis — when one group of people define themselves in opposition to another: “They are the kind of people who have kings, so we are the kinds of people who do not.” Or “They are the kind of people whose leaders demonstrate their nobility by never working, so we are the kind of people whose leaders make a show of doing heavy labor.”
This notion grabbed me, because it explained so much about the changes in attitudes I’d seen among my (erstwhile?) friends and allies in the “progressive” world during the Trump years and through the covid pandemic. Specifically, it explained how people who considered themselves politically liberal or even leftist were transformed into defenders of voting machine companies and the pharmaceutical industry, and champions of the FBI.
What Kind of People Are We?
This isn’t a one-sided affair, of course. The global authoritarian right once championed spy agencies, for authoritarian reasons. As the political scientist Corey Robin writes in The Reactionary Mind, the core tenet of conservativism is to be found in Plato’s Republic: namely, that some people are born to rule and most are born to be ruled over, and we are all better off when the correct people (be they kings, Americans, white people, businessmen, Christians, straight people, men, etc) are in charge. When the wrong people are in charge, their misrule produces shared misery and, eventually, civilizational collapse (note that Robin’s definition of rightism would easily encompass Xi Jin Ping’s China and Stalin’s USSR).
In other words, conservativism is an intrinsically antimajoritarian proposition, the rule of the many by the few, whose “burden of leadership” naturally comes with certain material and social rewards. The ground state of conservativism is the fear that the many will rise up and redistribute the wealth and power of the few, and so conservatives love spy agencies.
Until they didn’t.
The fear that spy agencies were conspiring against Trump reversed their polarity in the conservative mind. Conservatives, having cheered spy agencies’ use of provocateurs, surveillance, dirty tricks and blacklisting against socialists, Black liberationists, AIDS activists, and other progressives, woke up one morning convinced that they were being targeted using these same tactics and turned on the spy agencies.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the liberal love affair with the “intelligence community.” Since when is the CIA a force for progressivism? But Graeber and Wengrow’s account of schizmogenesis through differentiation (“We’re the kind of people who disagree with them”) made it all snap into place.
Anti-Abortion As a Sign of Crypto-Papism
I grew up in the pro-Choice movement. I literally spent my earliest days in counter-protests outside of Dr Henry Morgentaler’s abortion clinic in Toronto, and by the time I was a teenager, I was involved in active clinic defense, helping hold back deranged, foaming Christian protesters who brandished plastic foetuses and signs bearing graphic images of aborted foetuses at women who were trying to enter the clinic.
So I had a front-row seat for the transformation of evangelical view of abortion. When Morgantaler’s clinics first opened, the protesters who showed up were almost uniformly Catholic (including busloads of kids from Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic school system).
There was a reason for that. In the early days of the fight over a woman’s right to choose, Protestants —including evangelicals — viewed abortion as a Catholic issue, and evangelicals who grew too exercised over abortion were suspected of crypto-Papism. Recall that the Catholic-Protestant split is one of the most consequential examples of schizmogenesis, and that Protestant terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan lumped Catholics in with Jews, Black people, Communists and their other sworn enemies.
So for years, the people protesting outside the Morgentaler Clinic were always Catholics and never Protestants, until, one day, they weren’t.
I periodically mull this over and shake my head. There are evangelicals alive today who were around and politically conscious in the days when caring about abortion put you in danger of being ostracized by your co-religionists, and today those exact same people would literally vote for a philandering, foul-mouthed likely atheist so long as he promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who’d make abortion illegal.
In the space of a single lifetime, they went from mocking people who cared about abortion to caring about nothing except abortion.
I couldn’t figure this out, and then a bunch of progressives who knew chapter-and-verse about the US “Intelligence Community”’s role in overthrowing democratic governments, torturing and disappearing people, mass spying, and worse, suddenly woke up one morning and defined themselves as “the kinds of people who love the Intelligence Community, unlike Fox viewers, who hate the Intelligence Community.”
Voting Machines Are Garbage
Voting machines are, if anything, worse than James Comey.
Progressives know this. Or at least, we knew it. Remember when the advice was to cast an absentee ballot so it would be hand-counted, avoiding voting machines and their ability to steal your vote and give it to the GW Bush?
But then Trumpland became a fever swamp of deranged conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting and other voting machine vendors, and so conservatives became “the kinds of people who don’t trust voting machines” and so many progressives became “the kinds of people who think voting machines are great, actually.”
Big Pharma is Even Worse Than Voting Machines
As bad as Comey and voting machines are, pharma is even worse. It’s not clear to me whether Big Pharma is worse than military profiteers in terms of regulatory capture, disregard for evidence, corruption and profiteering, but in any event, it’s a close-run thing.
And yet, the right’s anti-vax rhetoric has a bunch of progressives defending the likes of Pfizer, Moderna and even Johnson & Johnson. Yes, Johnson & Johnson, the company that was “The Kingpin of the Opiod Epidemic” in many states. Johnson & Johnson, the company that told women to dust their vulvas with asbestos. Johnson & Johnson, the company that sold women “vaginal meshes” that could only be removed by effectively excising most of their organs and tissue below the navel (J&J really hate women’s reproductive organs).
I like plenty of the Beatles’ catalog and there’s plenty of jazz I enjoy, but I don’t imagine that whether or not you like the Beatles or Mingus makes much of a difference to the lives of people around you.
That’s not true of all-powerful spy agencies, badly secured voting machines or rapacious pharma giants. These constitute a genuine danger to progressive causes and human thriving.
The world is complex and technical. Most of us are not equipped to determine whether the claims of spy agencies, voting machine vendors or pharma companies are trustworthy. Even if you can “do the research” and figure it out for yourself, there are hundreds of other issues (food safety standards, the software on a Boeing 737 Max, thorium reactors, claims about the recyclability of mobile phones or plastic bags, etc etc) that are every bit as thorny that you need to figure out where you stand on. No one has enough time to figure it all out for themselves.
It’s perfectly reasonable to find a group of people you trust and take your cues from them. If all your friends enjoyed a TV show, you might, too. If all your friends trust their tap water, it’s fine to bet that at least a few of them have dug into the issue and have a good reason for that trust.
Likewise the “intelligence community”: you can hate Trump’s authoritarianism, lying and corruption, but that doesn’t mean you should buy a James Comey votive candle. Even if Comey takes on Trump, that doesn’t mean he won’t be coming for you when he’s done. Hell, it doesn’t mean that he ever stopped coming for you. Comey can walk and chew gum.
And we can argue that vaccines work and fight against anti-vax sentiment without simping for Big Pharma. When someone on Fox or OANN says vaccines can’t be trusted because Big Pharma cares about profits and doesn’t care who they murder, you can rebut them without claiming that Big Pharma isn’t guilty of mass murder and without arguing that Big Pharma doesn’t have its regulators wrapped around its collective pinky finger. They are, and they do.
What Kind Of People Are We?
The longstanding, lately ended conservative love-affair with spy agencies has its roots in ideology:
Rule of the few over the many (Robin);
“In-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect” (Wilhot);
“Human rights aren’t more important than property rights because property rights are human rights” (Brust).
The theory of schimzogenesis gives us a perfectly good ideology of leftism: pluralism, equality before the law, human rights over property rights.
If we are going to differentiate ourselves from conservatives, let it be informed by these fundamentals.
After all, it doesn’t matter whether Fox News loves or hates the CIA — the CIA will still hate you.