Amidst ongoing racial injustice, the threat of global climate change, and the disappointing aftermath of the George Floyd Rebellion, is it still possible to imagine a better world than the one we’re currently living within? In their new work, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow answer this question in the affirmative. Yes, human society not only can be different but for much of human history, it was, in fact, very different. The product of a decade years of writing and exchange between the two authors, this book seeks nothing less than to turn our assumptions about human history on its head. In doing so, the authors confirm the Fanonian positions within the Black Radical Tradition that this world-system is inherently anti-Black and only global revolution can resolve it.
According to the standard view of our species’ history, humans once lived as hunter-gathers in a state of primitive equality. The adoption of agriculture eventually forced these ancient societies to adopt hierarchical forms of the command, and this allowed humanity to produce greater forms of complexity such as cities and global empires. This perspective – the evolutionary theory of human history – views other non-agricultural and non-urban societies as holdovers from a previous stage of human development.
The Dawn of Everything challenges this notion. The authors demonstrate that throughout our history, human societies have vacillated very radically. At times humanity lived within the throes of hierarchical violence where the masses were resigned to slavery and toil. At other times, those at the bottom of society created livelihoods based upon freedom and mutual aid.
Debates about the origins of humanity have frequently revolved around the question of the origins of inequality. Surprisingly, the authors argue that this is the wrong question to ask, since, posed in this way, it assumes that humans once lived in a state of equality but have since fallen from grace. The authors argue that searching for the origins of inequality ultimately forces us to search for a time prior to inequality. This, in turn, leads to a historical model of social evolution that the authors see little evidence for. Instead, they ask why European thinkers began to consider human history in terms of the rise of inequality to begin with.
The surprising answer is that debates about equality (as well as liberty, the nature of government, and other cornerstone ideas of the Enlightenment) were in fact the result of an encounter between colonists and indigenous critics of European society. Indigenous critics pointed out the stark lack of freedom among the colonists. Through reasoned debate, indigenous thinkers like Wendat philosopher Kandiaronk argued for the superiority of indigenous society where individual freedom and the communist ethos of “to each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” prevailed.
Given the radicalism of this critique, much of what became the standard story of human civilization was in fact a way of censoring this critique. Non-European peoples were relegated to lower rungs of an evolutionary ladder that culminated in Europe itself. According to this scheme, indigenous societies are in fact inferior because their freedom is one of poverty, while European civilization promotes the prosperity of society as a whole through technological development and its inevitable profusion of class distinction and administrative hierarchy. Yet as the authors argue, such narratives are ultimately myths that exist to garner legitimacy for the depravity of European modernity.
If the evolutionary picture is wrong, then what is correct?
Graeber and Wengrow argue that the human world, historically and ethnographically, is characterized by a diversity of forms of social organization. At times, human societies exhibited seasonal variations – moving fluidly between different social arrangements during different parts of the year. From this perspective, foraging societies were not stuck in a previous stage of human development, but instead pursued different modes of organization based on their own self-conscious reflections. From this perspective, the Enlightenment was not a singular achievement in political thinking that allowed a new self-conscious reflection on social organization. Rather, human societies have always engaged in this type of thinking.
The real question, the authors suggest, is not the origin of inequality, but rather the question that after millennia of flexible arrangements, how did we get stuck in a permanent and intractable system of inequality?
The authors proceed negatively arguing that the current entrenchment of power and despotism is not the result of any of the common stories of human civilization. Human origins lay neither in property, nor agriculture, nor cities, nor the state. Property, for example, while undoubtedly contributing to social inequality in societies, is not best understood in terms of its origin. Rather, the property is, according to the authors, likely the outcome of ritual contexts and the idea of the sacred. Property’s origin is as old as humanity itself.
The adoption of agriculture features prominently in the dominant narratives of human history. According to this perspective, once humans begin farming and producing a surplus of food then hierarchical and coercive mechanisms were ultimately put into place by elites to manage surpluses and coordinate distribution. Yet, Graeber and Wengrow show that for long periods of human history various societies farmed without adopting it as a primary subsistence strategy. In fact, farming was originally practiced in conjunction with other food modes of production largely to bolster foraging.
As with agriculture, the development of cities also did not necessarily imply bureaucracy, the state, and the division of social classes (or the police, for that matter). Citing examples from Mesopotamia, Central Europe, and Mesoamerica, the authors describe large urban areas of antiquity that functioned largely without hierarchies. It is instead of our own acceptance of the evolutionary narrative that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine these societies operating at large scales without authoritarian structures of command.
Finally, Graeber and Wengrow take aim at the concept of the state itself. They ask if the hierarchical rule could exist without a state and if complex irrigation systems could exist without a state. In short, why do we assume that “states” are necessary? Moreover, why do we need the concept at all? Instead, the authors propose that the elementary forms of social power lay in the control of violence, the control of information, and the machinations of individual charisma. Rather than utilizing a crude evolutionary schema—where humanity progresses from non-states to states— we should instead analyze how these forms of social control come together and drift apart. In doing so, we can better understand the diversity of hierarchical entities which we are in the habit of lumping within the category of the state.
Ultimately, if we want to understand how we lost our freedoms, we must turn to that most horrific of institutions: slavery. Drawing on Orlando Patterson, Graeber and Wengrow argue that slavery is a condition of social death characterized by the severing of previous relationships and the inability, in legal terms, of the slave to make promises or create ongoing social connections. The slave is characterized by “caring-relations” where the slave, who is denied personhood, exists to care for others so that the master can become a fully realized human being. In the process, we have inherited a whole set of relations that confuse caring relations with domination itself. Such is the nature of kings and their modern counterparts – the rich, the politicians, the White Man – to mobilize caring labor toward the realization of some at the expense of an Other.
Graeber and Wengrow’s work suggests that when people were faced with violence and domination, they would escape their situations and create something new somewhere else. Today, however, the racist world-system fully encapsulates everything, thus spatial escape is increasingly impossible. To deal with this impasse, perhaps we should follow Yannick Marshall’s suggestion to foreground the Maroon as the archetypical figure of Black Liberation – riffing on George Jackson, to escape from Empire while grabbing a weapon and articulating other liberatory ways of life along the way. Indeed, this form of alterity is what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “blackness” itself – that internal difference within society that brings law and the police online. There is thus an irrefutable and direct confrontation between this empire – bolstered by its founding myth which elevates white men to its overrepresentation as Man – and blackness itself, which will not be won through appeals to reform the system, but which will only be achieved by a revolutionary process. Black experience provides the raw material for constructing this other world, and the Black proletariat can alone play the part of a revolutionary vanguard simultaneously creating while burning it down. Whether in terms of the practical world-building and emancipation being articulated within some strands of abolitionist organizing, or the reappropriation and police demolitionism of the George Floyd Uprising – the Black Liberation consistently pushes beyond the aporias and willful omissions of the European history of humanity. As has always been the case, Black Liberation alone has the capacity to tear down this – the largest monument of all – and set the world free.permission.