Friday, May 20, 2022

How did we get stuck? (2022)

Book Review from the May 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity. By David Graeber and David Wengrow. Penguin. 2022. 720 pages.

This is the last book written by the anthropologist David Graeber, in conjunction with the archaeologist David Wengrow. It aims to set out a new theory for the pre-history of humanity, and in particular, takes aim at theories of the ‘origin of inequality’. The authors claim to be bringing together facts and ideas that have been coming out of their respective disciplines, and bringing them together to see what the new picture is.

They take aim at unidirectional ideas of social evolution: such as band to tribe to kingdom to empire. They also claim to rebut any notion that scale and social complexity inevitably lead to domination. The central strand of their narrative is that the idea of a lapsarian fall from original equality itself stems from attempts to rebut critiques of European civilisation made by North Americans, for example, the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, who are reported as saying of the French in 1608: ‘you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peacefully. You are envious and all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.’ The authors argue it was through debates with American interlocutors that Europeans began to grapple with the notion of inequality in the first place.

Their argument runs that these critiques stung, to the extent that, by the mid 18th century, European writers had to recuperate them, and the strategy was to invent the idea of the noble savage: that free and equal societies were a sign of inferiority, where everyone is equally poor. The evolution of society and social complexity brings forth the differentiation and inequality, inevitably.

This book argues that, in fact, there is no basis for such an assumption. The authors cite the emerging archaeology from Ukraine and its environs to show how millennia before the first cities known to history, regular mega sites can be identified where thousands of humans would gather, and build together. They conjecture that these may have been seasonal gatherings (such as the evidence suggests happened at Stonehenge), bringing together people from vast areas.

The argument runs that people could cycle through different political structures, depending on the time of year, gathering in winter, in conditions where some would hold authority, to scatter in the summer to looser organisations. The authors present evidence within recorded history of some groups doing something like this, up to the point where people took up different names and identities within each season. They suggest that these ‘hospitality zones’ would have been the probable pre-condition for the emergence of the first cities

They note the absence of indicators of status and authority in Neolithic city formations (and the fact that it seems that the neighbouring tribes, in fact, developed aristocratic traits before the cities). They examine the notion of schismogenesis (something which people on the left would be quite familiar with) wherein groups of people define themselves in opposition to other groups. They note, for example, in North West America, some groups of foragers value wasteful and spectacular consumption, whereas their neighbours consciously espouse frugality.

They argue, that despite a similar mode of production, their cultures are different, because they oppose each other, although it is arguable that if one of those groups is using slaves, then that constitutes a different mode of production: but then, their central point stands that in that case it is still a conscious choice of the other tribe to not adopt slave taking as a way of living.

Likewise, they note that the invention agriculture, which in some people’s arguments leads to social stratification does not in fact seem to have in fact done so. They note that the agricultural revolution itself took thousands of years, with societies ‘play farming’: cultivating crops as part of a broader strategy of hunting and foraging, without becoming entirely dependent on their crops for survival. Agriculture remained a choice, and the relative social arrangements around it likewise for millennia. Agriculturalists and non-agriculturalists lived side by side in that time.

The authors discuss the operation of a ”baseline communism’ which applies in all societies; a feeling that if another person’s needs are great enough […] and the cost of meeting them is modest enough […] then of course any decent person would comply’. This baseline is moveable, and they note, for example, the rights and hospitality of the ‘baseline communism’ of North American tribes, compared to that of French colonists which formed part of the debates mentioned above. Human societies for millennia have thus oscillated around those freedoms and baseline levels of communism, producing many and varied social forms, not ‘in conditions of their own choosing’, without being stuck with them.

The question for Graeber and Wengrow is, then, how did we end up stuck in one of them? They analyse three forms of domination: control of information, violence and charisma. They present evidence from ancient cultures which demonstrates that early domination was usually a combination of two of these three factors, and it was only later that elites could combine all three. They note evidence of some tribes, for instance, where the king was known to be highly dangerous, and could order anyone put to death, but pretty much only if they were in the same room as him, and a few miles away he could be safely ignored.

They note that there have been many discoveries of palaeolithic burials with highly valuable grave goods inside, with the bodies posed. They note, however, many of those bodies exhibited unusual physical characteristics (being unusually tall, or short, or deformed). These individuals were in the first place seen as unusual within the tribe. They describe how in known societies, such as that of the Nuer, highly eccentric characters were tolerated and respected within the tribe, “when calamities or unprecedented events occurred […] it was among this penumbra [of unusual people] that everyone looked for a charismatic leader appropriate to the occasion’. Prominent people could emerge without becoming a permanent part of the social logic of those early cultures.

They look for the process of getting stuck in the notion of care surrounding these unique individuals. They note that chiefs had a duty of care for the sick, the orphaned, the widowed or anyone else who had no-one to look after them. They could ‘take refuge in the chief’s residence’, this would form the nucleus of a paternalistic relationship, also providing the chief with henchmen and people outside the normal social structures to do their will. They note the culmination, which seems to be ubiquitous in societies with monumental kingship, of a point at which all of those expected to care for a king are entombed with him: slaughtered at his death.

They have an entire chapter dedicated to claiming ‘the state has no origins’, in which they argue that many different forms of human society can exist, with differing degrees and modes of domination, and it is just as futile to look for an origin of the state as for the origin of inequality. They expressly argue that humans have the political skills and wisdom to imagine their own societies, and not simply react to their circumstances. They suggest a sort of ‘play kingship’ might well have prefigured the emergence of the real thing.

They note that signs of bureaucracy actually predate the existence of cities, and record keeping (in the form of clay tablets and seals) may in fact have been part of an active attempt to prevent new emerging technologies from creating social hierarchies. As with the principle of care, above, this system was ripe for subverting, and the abstraction and equalisation involved became a powerful tool for later rulers to subvert the village organisation and subsume it into an empire.

The overall thrust of this book is hopeful, it allows us to think about how vast cities of humans could have been run without a state or a ruling bureaucracy. They note that human communities in America, during the Hopewell civilization, were able to live without any signs of warfare: ‘for a period of about five centuries or more, human remains across the whole of Eastern North America display remarkably little evidence of traumatic injuries, scalping or other forms of interpersonal violence’. That such evidence exists both before and after this period shows how humans at that time were capable of abolishing war.

Likewise, as they note: ‘slavery was most likely abolished multiple times in history in multiple places’. The whole thrust of the book is that the unexplored myth that there was some fall from grace, that size complexity leads to domination are simply ideological presuppositions that rob ancient humanity of agency, and create a straightjacket around trying to think of new ways of running our world today.
Pik Smeet

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