A fascinating inquiry, which leads us to rethink the nature of human capacities, as well as the proudest moments of our own history, and our interactions with and indebtedness to the cultures and forgotten intellectuals of indigenous societies. Challenging and illuminating. -- Noam Chomsky
An essential reminder that we are in charge of our own destiny.
We’ve lost so much to the pandemic. Every day I wake up and think of all the lives snuffed out, all the plans smashed, all the stories never told. I think about poor David Graeber, whom I spoke with just a few weeks before his sudden and tragic death in September 2020.
David was a superb writer and an insightful scholar and activist. He helped formulate Occupy’s rallying cry, “We are the 99%” and he wrote magisterial popular works of anthropology like “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” and the incredible “Bullshit Jobs.”
Last autumn, Macmillan published David’s final book, a collaboration with the equally brilliant archaeologist David Wengrow, which they worked on together for a decade and finished shortly before Graeber’s untimely death.
I’ve been reading the book since its publication, taking it slowly and digesting the wealth of beautifully presented evidence for its core argument: that the shape of societies — hierarchical or non, authoritarian or free — is not foreordained by our technology or living arrangements. That we are free to choose who we want to be: equal or unequal, coercive or free, warlike or peaceful.
The Davids begin their book with the Enlightenment and the two poles of its views on civilization. First, there’s the Hobbesian view that we once lived as violent “primitives” whose bestial natures were tamed by the emergence of the hierarchies that inevitably arise with agriculture and are needed to manage the complexity of cities. Then there’s Rousseau, who argued that our “primitive” past was a time of pastoral equality and freedom, but that could not survive the hierarchies that inevitably accompany agriculture and are a regrettable necessity of cities.
Both Rousseau and Hobbes make it clear that these views are thought-experiments, not based on any observation or evidence of these “pre-civilized” ways of being; in their work (and in the writings of other Englightenment thinkers), they make arguments that they claim originated with indigenous Americans.
The attribution of heterodox, egalatarian and anti-coercive ideas to indigenous people is a commonplace of the Enlightenment. From multi-volume, best-selling, widely translated Jesuit accounts of dialogs with American indigenous intellectuals to sold-out plays that ran in Paris for decades, the Enlightenment attributed its ideology of liberty, autonomy and egalatarianism to indigenous people of the “New World.”
And yet, today, these attributions are widely discounted. They are characterized as convenient fairy tales spun by European thinkers who feared violent retribution — expulsion or even death — from the establishment if they put these thoughts in their own mouths, so they put them in the mouths of hypothetical “savages” from across the ocean.
But the Davids make a very compelling case — citing First Nations historians and anthropologists as well as the primary documents of the residents of New France and other American outposts of European societies — that the Enlightenment began with indigenous intellectuals of the Americas. These thinkers hailed from societies where leaders had to rely on persuasion, rather than coercion, to get people to follow their plans. They lived in societies that valued oratory, logic and rhetoric, where the natural response to an objectionable proposition was a devastating counterargument.
These indigenous intellectuals were responsible for “the Indigenous Critique” — a series of dialogs that spanned generations, crisscrossing the Atlantic both in written form and in person, as indigenous intellectuals visited Europe and mercilessly shredded the pre-Enlightenment consensus, inspiring European thinkers to the Enlightenment.
These Europeans — and their intellectual descendants — have devoted much of the time since in trying to formulate a theory for how we ended up the way we are: hierarchical, unequal, coercive. Starting with Rousseau and Hobbes, they spun a theory of the inevitable evolution of society: bands that yield tribes (whether noble or savage), that create agriculture and surplus and kings, that lead to cities and bureaucracy and hierarchy to manage complexity.
But — the Davids argue — the very origins of the Enlightenment disprove this hypothesis. The woodland people of the American northeast — source of the Indigenous Critique — lived in many ways. Some had agriculture but not hierarchy; some had hierarchy and not agriculture. The Americas had vast cities that were self-managed by local councils, and loose confederacies that were highly bureaucratized.
This is the jumping off point for a dizzying, thorough, beautifully told series of histories of ancient civilizations, many of which have only come into focus thanks to recent advances in archaeological technology. They show that every conceivable variation on centralization, coercion, hierarchy, violence, agriculture and urbanism has existed, in multiple places, for hundreds or thousands of years at a time.
More importantly, they reveal how thin the evolutionary theory of human civilization has worn. To maintain the neat picture of societies inevitable “progressing” through “stages,” we need to deploy increasingly unconvincing tricks, like calling 5,000 year periods of cultural stability “intermediate” or “early” or “late.”
But, the Davids say, something has happened. We’ve gotten stuck, here in the “modern” era. Civilizations through human history have all enjoyed some mix of three key freedoms:
I. The freedom to go somewhere else and expect to be welcomed thanks to duties of hospitality;
II. The freedom to disobey orders;
III. The freedom to imagine a different social arrangement.
These three freedoms are so thoroughly expunged from most of our modern world that we can barely imagine them. Indeed, much of the Davids’ work in this books is showing how the people who enjoyed these freedoms led complex, introspective, imaginative lives, rather than existing in a near-animal state.
They suggest that the most important of these freedoms is the third one — the freedom to imagine something else. Though they don’t invoke “capitalist realism” by name here, it’s highly relevant. When Margaret Thatcher declared “there is no alternative” (to unfettered, unequal, destructive unregulated market capitalism), she wanted it to be “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (Jameson).
The attack in imagination itself is the source of our immobilization, our incapacity to disobey orders, our helpless, fatalistic hurtling towards nuclear armageddon and climate collapse.
Seen in this light, Dawn of Everything is a crucial intervention, fuel for a new imagination of a world governed by a radically different theory of human nature. We can organize ourselves without hierarchy, without inequality, without coercion. Our ancestors built stable societies with radically different social arrangements, no matter whether they were complex or simple, urban or agricultural or nomadic.
The just-so story that says we must live this way is well past its sell-by date and I think we know it. Between the pandemic and the wars raging around the world, there is an urgent appetite for change. So much of that urgency has been channeled into authoritarianism, xenophobia and hate, because we’ve lost our ability to imagine solidarity. Lost it? It was stolen from us, but ideological “science” that cherry-picked the evidence to claim that our world was inevitable, not contingent.
David Graeber was one of the most hopeful people I knew, someone who could dream of other ways of being together, whose dreams were informed by his deep scholarship. Most of all, he was able to convey that vision to others.
He and Wengrow produced an important, world-changing book. Read it, and you will never be the same again.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).