Hello fellow kids, and welcome back to What is Politics, and to our critique of Graeber & Wengrow’s new book The Dawn of Everything.
Today in this 3rd instalment of our critique we’ll be circuitously covering Chapter 1 from the book which is called Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood: Or Why This is Not A Book About the Origins of Inequality.
As always before I dig in, I want to lay out a bit of background theory and history in order to give some context to my critique.
And because a lot of people who aren’t regular listers to the show have been checking out these Dawn of Everything episodes, I want to outline where I’m coming from and why I’m spending so much time and energy criticizing this book.
WHY CRITICIZE THIS BOOK?
I don’t destroy my income and spend insane amounts of time making podcasts about political theory because I like blathering on about abstractions and not having any money. I do it because in politics, like in any field, bad political theory leads to bad political instincts which means doomed political action.
If you’re a doctor and you don’t understand how germs work or how the body works, you will treat illness with leeches and mercury and hysterectomies and you will harm your patients instead of helping them. If you’re an architect and you don’t understand math or physics you will build buildings that fall apart. And if you’re a human being engaging in political action, and you don’t understand how human beings work, you’re going to build social movements that hamper your objectives instead of advancing them. You’re going to write laws that can’t be enforced, or that produce the opposite effect to what you want to achieve. You’re going to be easily seduced by bad ideas, and by people who don’t share your interests or by charismatic idiots and charlatans.
And if your goal is to change the world in major ways, you’re going to end up making revolutions that fail, or else that succeed and then end up replicating similar hierarchies to the ones that you’re trying to overcome in the first place.
Now, in a society with a hierarchical power structure, where some people have power and freedom at the expense of other peoples’ power and freedom – be it capitalism, the soviet union, medieval europe or ancient babylonia, one would always expect that the political theories and concepts coming out of the main institutions in that society will be confused and convoluted, particularly when it comes to it understanding the most basic features of that society. And that’s because no one with power wants the general public to understand that they’re being exploited by the people in power, much less how they’re being exploited and much much less what they can do about it. And the people in power often don’t want to believe that they’re exploiting anyone in the first place. They’re always there for a good reason.
For example, young people today love reading about Marx and his ideas – but if you took a course on Marxism in the soviet union at a top elite university in the 1970s, you were going to be taking one of the most boring mind numbing classes imaginable. And that’s because if Marx’ work had been taught in a straightforward and easy to understand manner, students would immediate recognize that the ruling party needed to be overthrown and the workers should take power directly.
Today, in the rich capitalist countries, we have a political culture where none of the basic terms of our political vocabulary have any consensus definitions. Terms like left and right, or the market, or socialism or capitalism mean something different to each person who uses them – we just kind of “feel” what they mean. People with Poli Sci PhD write entire books about all of these topics without defining them or even knowing what they’re really talking about. And instead of our academic journals and our book reviewers laughing at them for it, they get celebrated.
Terms like politics and government are routinely used in ways that obscure power by hiding the fact that politics and government exist in the private sphere not just the public state sphere. So people think they love democracy and hate top down government but they don’t notice that when we go to work we’re spending most of our waking hours subjected to a top down government where the owner is the dictator, with only your bargaining power and the state as a check on their power.
And then we have all of these stupefying ideologies and myths that obscure the nature of power – take contracts for example – contracts are supposed to be the foundation of our economic system – and the ideology of contracts is all based on this total falsehood that you will learn in every single law school: that contracts represent the will of the parties signing the contract. Therefore, every contract is a win win situation, where both sides get something they want more that the thing they’re giving away for it.
But in the real world, contracts actually reflect and consolidate the relative bargaining power of the parties, not their will. Your will is expressed in the contract, only to the extent that you have bargaining power. Like if you’ve ever paid way more rent than you can afford, because the market is a nightmare and you have no choice, you know that your lease contract reflects 95% of your landlord’s wishes and 5% your wishes. And much of that 5% is actually only there because of the law – for example your landlord’s obligation to keep the place in livable order is only there because of the law makes it implicit in every contract, though getting that enforced is another thing.
All of this bad theory doesn’t just confuse us or pacify people who accept dominant ideologies and ideas, it also clogs up the minds of those of us who reject them, with disastrous consequences.
One of the most spectacular examples of this is the English peasants’ revolt of 1381 which I talked about in Episode 8.
After the black plague killed off half the population of england, the peasant class suddenly had much more bargaining power than they had ever had before. And over the course of the next 40 years, the peasants and local priests who understood that their position had changed, proselytized and organized and clashed with the nobility and state authorities, leading up to the astonishing events of 1381 when an army of 100,000 organized peasants basically overthrew the nobility.
And then the peasants marched up to the castle of King Richard the II. But instead of chucking him into the river, and declaring the republic of libertarian socialist christian communes that they had been dreaming of for the previous 40 years – which they could easily have done because his troops were away fighting war in France – instead, they shook his greasy 14 year old hand and cheered him when he signed charters agreeing to abolish the nobility and all of their other demands.
And then they went home with big smiles on their faces, only to get slaughtered in their beds by the King’s troops when they came back from France, which anyone who understood feudalism could have predicted.
The peasants, as intelligent and well organized as they were, did not understand the structure of their political system. They did not understand that the King’s material interests were such that he would almost certainly side with the nobility against the peasants. Despite having rejected much of the ideology of their day, and having built up their own egalitarian vision of Christianity, they still believed in one of the most pernicious political mythologies of the middle ages – that they King was a divinely appointed monarch who cared about his people. So they thought it was just those mean local lords and officials who were the bad guys, messing everything up unbeknownst to pure hearted noble Richard. It was kind of like Qanon people who believe that donald trump was in government fighting corruption and pedophiles instead of just being just a particular a loudmouth manifestation of it.
Another, more recent example of a situation where you had mass organization bolstered by favourable conditions all wasted by bad theory is Occupy Wall Street which just had it’s 10th anniversary.
And of course I’m bringing up Occupy because one of the big intellectual lights behind Occupy’s spectacular success, and its mindless failure was none other than David Graeber himself, co-author of The Dawn of Everything. Like I said before, Graeber is kind of like the Ernie of politics from Ernie and Bert. Lots of great ideas, lots of charisma, a good heart, loves cookies – but a total chaotic mess who needs Bert to clean up after him, which is the role that I will be playing in this series.
So on one hand Occupy was an incredible success. It mobilized an unheard of number of people for weeks on end camping out in over 2200 parks in over 1300 cites and towns across the world. It’s slogan “We are the 99%” which was Graeber’s idea – reintroduced class conflict into mainstream political discourse for the first time in 70 years. In it’s aftermath it inspired a reinvigorated socialist movement that had become moribund even before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.
Occupy articulated an explicit rebuke to finance capitalism, and an explicit rejection of corrupt representative democracy and authoritarian “socialism”. And instead it espoused and adopted deep democratic decision making forms inspired by the historical libertarian socialist / anarchist movement.
Polls showed that Occupy had the support of the overwhelming majority of the people in most of the countries where they mobilized – something unheard of for a movement with such a radical message and ideology. And authorities were secretly afraid of them. It received no media attention at the time, but the Obama administration shelved some pro wall street lizard reforms that they were going to implement for fear of incurring the wrath of the occupyers and their admirers.
And just the fact that they were able to illegally occupy so many parks for so long, in violation of the law, shows that in the right circumstances, organized people can be stronger than the state despite all of it’s police and nukes and tanks.
All of this success and was a huge surprise to even the organizers!
And once it got going, many occupy participants with roots in working class organizing, wanted to take advantage of what they understood was going to be a short window of leverage that they would have before the whole thing would end up getting shut down, in order to put forth one overwhelmingly popular demand.
This was seen as a win win situation. If the government would actually buckle and make concessions, this would embolden the movement and set a precedent – like imagine that every time the government did something that an overwhelming number of people or opposed, or didn’t do something an overwhelming majority wanted, that people would rush out to occupy everything until the government buckled and people got what they demanded or at least some version of it. A bit like the early soviets in Russia in 1917.
And if the demands got rejected, well then the whole world would see that our political systems are so corrupt and undemocratic that even when 99% of the population wants something, our supposed representatives do nothing except send the police come in and beat us up, which would lead to more radicalism and a higher level of general consciousness.
And some of demands that they were considering were things like ending corporate personhood, implementing a universal jobs program and getting money out of politics which I think would have been a winner as it had and still has upwards of 90% support even among self described conservatives in the US.
But the people who initially organized occupy wall street were largely upper middle class kids coming out of expensive universities. And coming from comfortable backgrounds on the whole, they were more interested in their theories and identities than in actually achieving anything. And they had some pretty narcissistic ideas – like they thought that making demands of the government would somehow taint the their movement, and legitimize the authority of the state – which is like – imagine if someone is invading your house and instead of demanding that they drop your things and get the hell out of the house or else you’ll go club them with a bat, you just pretend they’re not there and have a jerk off festival with your roomates so as not to sully yourselves with foul criminals. Making demands is not legitimizing anything, it’s exercising your power!
But to the initial occupy organizers it was seen as quite the opposite, they saw making demands as somehow giving up their power! To quote Graeber at the time, who was one of the big proponents of the no demands ideology:
I think that the problem of asking for demands is that, who are you demanding them of? You’re in a sense saying to the people in power, “We would like you to do things differently. Do something for us. Save the whales. Who’s going to save the whales? I’m not going to save the whales, I guess they’re going to go out and save the whales.”… But ultimately the idea of protest is you’re saying, “You people in power are doing this wrong and we want you to do something.” And even if that something is “step aside,” you are addressing them directly.
Ooh no – addressing them directly! That causes anarcho-cooties!
Now the issue of course wasn’t saving the whales, it was bailing out home owners instead of banks, it was re-regulating the finance industry so they can’t rob the country, it was enforcing the actual existing laws so that they wouldn’t be incentivized to do it all over again – it was running the economy in the interests of the population not the lizard class – and if Graeber had listed those actual issues in that interview instead of saving the whales, then we would see right away how absurd this proposition was.
Put down that cookie jar ernie, you’re making a mess!
If you’re not in a position to do the types of things that the state is currently does – like if you’re not in a position to start regulating finance, and redistributing money from banks to humans – then the only way you’re going to make the things that you want happen happen, is by putting pressure on the people who do have the power to make those things happen and forcing them to obey you instead of their big moneyed circus trainers. And this is true whether you think the state is a legitimate institution or whether you think the state should be abolished.
Using a hammer to hammer in a nail, isn’t giving away your power to the hammer, it’s wielding the hammer as a tool to make your will a reality – you are the one with the power. Yes the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house, because tools don’t just do things on their own, they do what you make them do.
Erased from the recent celebratory retrospectives on Occupy is the fact that the pro demands organizers sometimes had huge majorities in the occupy assemblies. So in order to keep their control over the movement, the anti demands people pulled all kinds of anti democratic shenanigans. First they jacked up the required majority to pass resolutions from 75% to 90%. And then they engaged in smear tactics against the pro demands organizers, and they shut down their internet presence, and they even tried to physically disrupt their efforts. You’d think these people were corporate democrats trying to sabotage bernie sanders in 2016 and 2020, or else labour centrists in the UK to make Jeremy Corbyn lose the election on purpose in 2017.
Ironically the organizers were so wrapped up in their identities as anarchists – that they ended up betraying the actual values of anarchism – democracy and horizontalism. And instead they acted like a “vanguard party” in the words of one of the pro demands occupiers.
And you can read all about this stuff in an essay by sociologist and occupy participant Susan Kang called Demands for the 99% which I’ll link to in the show notes.
And so, no demands were made, and as a result, when the protests were eventually crushed, which anyone could have predicted – especially given that the movement was bound to lose energy without any accomplishments to keep it going – the movement had absolutely nothing to show for it.
Not just nothing, they actually set back their own ideals and goals in several important ways.
Interest in socialism had revived because of occupy, which is one of Occupy’s big successes – but the anarchist and libertarian socialist varieties favoured by the organizers lost an enormous amount of prestige and have faded in importance and relevance. To young people today who are facing increasingly grim futures and want results and real change, Lenin and increasingly Stalin are seen as heroes who know how to take power as people look for mighty superheroes and vanguard ninja parties to rescue them.
And the most damaging consequence of Occupy’s no demands whimpering belly flop is that it taught hundreds of millions and maybe billions of sympathizers around the world that organizing and mass mobilization are a waste of time – a juvenile exercise in blowing steam for college kids – you organize a zillion people, get the world on your side to agree about a whole bunch of issues … but who cares – because nothing happens, nothing changes, like nothing ever changes! There’s no point in ever trying.
BACK TO THE BOOK
So, the reason that I’m covering the Dawn of Everything, not just because David Graeber was a great anthropologist, but more importantly because he was also an important activist who has many admirers and followers who hopefully are or will be engaging in political actions of various sorts now and in the future, and because this book will have a tremendous influence on these people and on our movements and our political imagination going forward.
And much like Occupy Wall Street, The Dawn of Everything is a savant-idiot mix of dazzling success and ridiculous failure. It’s a great success in that it puts some of the most important questions and issues of our age into public discourse for the first time. How did we get stuck in these awful dominance hierarchies that are destroying our planet and our souls, and what can we do about it? And it directs us to look for those answers in anthropology, which is something political theorists rarely think about or know about – which is another testament to the poverty of our political culture – because you simply cannot understand politics without knowing anthropology. So this is a huge achievement.
But also like Occupy Wall Street, and like the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, the book self destructs because some really foolish theoretical confusion and nonsense that render the authors completely incapable of answering their own questions, even though the answers are staring them directly in the faces in the form all of the amazing anthropological and archaeological and historical facts and anecdotes that comprise the book. And like Occupy or the 1381 revolt, this gaping theoretical blind spot will set up readers for profound political failure and wasted opportunities if the incoherent message of this book is taken at face value.
So what is the message of this book, and why is it such a poison pill?
The authors make all sorts of claims – but ultimately, everything they discuss in the 700+ book is geared towards one half baked message: human beings consciously “choose” our own social structures.
Whether we live in a hierarchy with kings and patriarchy and serfs and slaves or an egalitarian hunter gatherer band with no authority figures and gender equality, the form of our society and social institutions is and always has been ultimately a matter of conscious experimentation and choice. And because it’s a matter of choice, we can today choose a different path than the one we’re on now if we set our minds to it. The main obstacle is simply that somewhere along the way, we got confused, and we’ve forgotten that we have a choice.
I say half baked because what does it even mean to “choose” our social structure?
What does it mean for a society to “choose” things, when different people have different ideas and conflicting interests. Do women in traditional patriarchal societies “choose” to be second class humans and to subject themselves to abuse and rape and servitude? Why do some people get their way and others don’t? What is it that gives men the advantage that they need in order to impose second class status onto women in a patriarchal society? Did you get to choose how your society is structured? I know I didn’t, did I miss the meeting?
None of these questions or concepts ever arise in this book.
The authors correctly point out that mode of subsistence categories like hunting and gathering and farming, don’t in and of themselves determine social structure – but then why do we see the same patterns over and over all over the world across time? Why are the exceptions that the authors spend almost 100% of the book focusing on, exceptional?
Again, nothing. Everything you know is wrong, but there’s nothing to replace it with, and nothing happens for any reasons, besides magical choice, which doesn’t mean anything.
CRACK PIPE IDEOLOGY
Now review after review of the book talks about how liberating it is to be free of the shackles of conventional narratives about how social structure is a function of the practical conditions that we find ourselves in!
But there are two problems with this:
For one thing, as we’ll see shortly, Graeber & Wengrow don’t actually debunk the conventional narrative about social structure, because they never even articulate it. Instead, as we’ll see, they debunk a 2 dimensional elevator pitch caricature version of the conventional narrative that you read in popular books by people who no anthropology expertise like Francis Fukuyama or Steven Pinker.
And more importantly, believing nonsense that isn’t true is not liberating, it’s delusional and potentially fatal. It’s liberating in the same way that smoking crack is liberating. It’s a mindless rush that you’ll come crashing down from because it doesn’t actually give you any tools except for false confidence.
Like if I tell you – stop limiting yourself to the conventional narrative about how we’re confined by gravity to be stuck on the ground! Flying is a choice! And I actually had a friend who literally tried to argue this with me once – Smokey D I’m talking to you. That might sound liberating – if you’re high – and my friend is called Smokey because he smokes Pineapple Express amounts of weed – but if you take that idea seriously and you act on it, you will jump out the window and fall to your death.
This is barely an exaggeration of what this book is telling us to do. After a roller coaster of 700 pages of fascinating facts and anecdotes from a dizzying array of fields, the authors have no answers for us as to their main thesis question of how we got stuck in these awful hierarchies for the past several thousand years, besides the notion that it’s all in our minds. Revolution is possible though! How? Why? I dunno, don’t think about it, just do it! The window’s right there!
It’s all written with such charisma and optimism and breadth of scope that it’s easy to miss how incoherent so much of it is, unless you have some expertise in the subjects that they’re talking about in which case you see how so much of it is so incoherent that it isn’t even wrong, it’s just nonsense.
It reminds me of the movie Billy Madison featuring Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts alumnus, Adam Sandler. Billy Madison is a 28 year old man who needs to redo elementary school and high school over the course of a few months in order to prove to his dad that he deserves his inheritance. And in one scene that reminds me of Dawn of Everything, he has to do a Jeopardy-style quiz show contest to test everything he’s learned. When he gets a difficult question about literature and the industrial revolution it seems like all hope is lost – but then he brilliantly synthesizes everything he learned during the course of the film, from his kindergarten class where he read the Little Puppy that Could through grade 12 biology into a wonderful, funny, inspiring triumphant narrative. And then the whole audience jumps up and gives him a roaring standing ovation. And when the applause dies down, the the principal gives his evaluation:
“What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
Now, what I want to do with this book review is to turn nonsense into sense by filling in the gaps of this book with all of the things that Graeber and Wengrow neglected to mention that we need to know about how social structure works, and how it can be changed.
Instead of telling you, “yes we can fly – it’s our choice to defy gravity, here’s a sweet window, go for it!” I’m going to say yes we can fly, but, first you need to build an airplane.
So, where Graeber and Wengrow are telling us we can just change our social structure, but they don’t know how – what I’m going to do via my critique of their book, is tell you, yes we can change our social structure, but here are the principles and ingredients of hierarchy or equality – here are the constraints and limits that incentivize one or the other. Here is why some societies have male dominance and others don’t. Here’s why some societies have authority figures and some don’t. Here is why authority figures in some societies have very little power, and why they have godlike power in others. Here is why some societies shift back and forth from more hierarchy to more equality in different seasons. Here is how social change happens, and here’s what we can learn from all this to apply to our current situation.
And I’ve already talked about some of this stuff in epsides 6, 7, 7.1 and 8, so you can check those out while you’re waiting for the next episodes which takes weeks to put together.
OK, so let’s get into the actual text of chapter 1:
The authors begin by by telling us that most people don’t think about the “broad sweep of human history” very much, but when we do,
“it’s usually when reflecting on why the world seems to be in such a mess and why human beings so often treat each other badly – the reasons for war, greed, exploitation, systematic indifference to others’ suffering. Were we always like that, or did something, at some point, go terribly wrong?”
And according to the authors, there are two standard answers to this, which have been with us since the enlightenment if not since biblical times.
One famously articulated by Thomas Hobbes basically says that people are inherently selfish and operate mostly based on self interest. And this is why we need authority figures and police and coercion to keep us from killing and destroying eachother. And the other answer, articulated by Jean Jacques Rousseau, tells us that people are innately altruistic and cooperative but it’s the coercive institutions of civilization like authority and private property that corrupt us and pit us against eachother, turning us into selfish brutes.
These stories have been with us since the enlightenment, and they have roots in biblical times – the idea of original sin, or the fall from eden – but they have modern equivalents.
So you have people like Steven Pinker who is a quintessential modern hobbesian according to the authors, arguing in his book the Better Angels of Our Nature that human history and pre-history was just a giant murder starvation festival until the structures and institutions of modern liberal representative democratic civilization finally allowed us to have order and prosperity.
And then you have the modern versions of Rousseau – and they cite Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama as examples – who in their recent books both state that human beings started out as egalitarian hunter gatherers and then ended up in different forms of hierarchy after the advent of farming and private property.
And surprisingly, the authors argue that both these modern Hobbes and Rousseau versions are extremely depressing and pessimistic.
The Hobbes version is pessimistic for obvious reasons because it assumes that we are selfish to the core, but the authors also see the Rousseau version where humans have an egalitarian altruistic nature best suited to freedom, direct democracy and cooperation as fatalistic because according to them, it’s mostly deployed to tell us that equality and freedom are nice and all, but that’s only possible for people who live in tiny hunter gatherer bands, such that “while the system we live under might be unjust, the most we can realistically aim for is a bit of modest tinkering.”
And they go on to tell us that the term ‘inequality’ is kind of like a conspiracy to erase class power, and to make us focus on abstractions, which is basically the opposite of the truth, which I talked about at length in my critique of the conclusion of chapter 2.
Thankfully, they tell us, both these stories are wrong, and instead they’re going to tell us a hopeful story that gives us back our agency and makes the type of society we live in ultimately a matter of choice.
Now there are a few things we need to understand here in order to put these assertions into context:
First, as regards human nature – no one with any expertise in the relevant subjects believes in either of the Rousseau or Hobbes good vs evil versions of human nature anymore probably since the 90s.
These debates were happening until into the 90s, but by now the general picture that comes from decades of psychology experiments and anthropology and archaeology, is that … surprise surprise, people are both innately selfish and altruistic – though there are still interesting debates on the nature of altruism – is it selfish gene kin selection altruism à la Richard Dawkins, which is the majority view, or is it genuine, multilevel selection altruism as described by David Sloan-Wilson, which I subscribe to but which is still a minority view, and which is a debate for another episode. .
Now when it comes to theories about the origins of inequality and hierarchy, the picture is different. The Steven Pinker / Hobbesian idea of prehistory consisting of constantly warring people being so innately selfish that we’ve always needed alpha male authority figures dominating us since the dawn of time is an idea that a majority of ordinary people living in this capitalist realist hellscape might believe – but almost zero people with any expertise in anthropology or archaeology believe or have believed since the 1970s. The fact that an author with so much prestige and access to resources as Steven Pinker can be repeating debunked ideas from the 1950s should be extremely embarrassing to him and to his publishers. But hey, loot is loot.
Meanwhile, the Rousseauianish narrative about humans originating as egalitarian hunter gatherers for 95% of our existence and then shifting towards more and more hierarchy after the advent of agriculture has been and still is the majority / almost consensus view among anthropologists, and has been since the late 1960s after the man the hunter conference I talked about when I covered the conclusion of chapter 2 of the book.
Graeber & Wengrow tell us that:
When it comes to cherry-picking anthropological case studies, and putting them forward as representative of our ‘contemporary ancestors’ – that is, as models for what humans might have been like in a State of Nature – those working in the tradition of Rousseau tend to prefer African foragers like the Hadza, Pygmies or !Kung. Those who follow Hobbes prefer the Yanomami.
But what they don’t tell us is that most anthropologists think that most of us probably resembled something like the egalitarian Hadza or Pygmies or !Kung, while none of them think we were like the patriarchal endlessly feuding Yanomami. Why is that? We’ll see in a few minutes.
Now the next thing to understand when you’re reading this book is that the narrative that Graeber & Wengrow spend the early chapters in the book pretending to debunk, isn’t actually a narrative that anyone with any expertise really believes. It’s a deliberate convenient oversimplification of a much more complicated picture that has all sorts of interesting exceptions and reversals and timelines that are too complicated to explain in a short article or even a book that isn’t specifically about the palaeolithic, or about the origins of inequality. And the people they keep referring to, Jared Diamond, Noah Hararri, Francis Fukuyama – these aren’t even experts in subjects relevant to human origins, they’re popular writers with expertise in other fields who use the elevator pitch version of the conventional narrative of human origins in order to make points about other things.
It’s like if I wrote a book about how the conventional narrative about the 4 seasons is wrong – and I say things like,
“experts like Big Bird and Elmo and Dora the Explorer, will have us believe that there are only FOUR seasons – first you have the summer which is warm and sunny goes the conventional story, and then you have fall, which is cold and rainy, and then winter which is even colder and snowy, and then comes spring where it warms up and rains so that march showers bring may flowers, and the cycle starts anew!
But it really realistic that these same four seasons happen like this every year for millions of years? The evidence shows the opposite – the actual wealther is a bold parade of conscious experiments! Summer is supposed to be sunny – but last summer it rained 20 times! And in Arizona, there’s never even any snow at all! Winter? yeah right! It’s sunny all year round in the arabian desert! Yet muppets still cling to this fantasy of snowy winters with rudolph and prancer and santa! And in india they only have two seasons! And in Australia it’s summer in december! Maybe it’s about time we do away with this whole mythology about “seasons” entirely. The weather is a choice!
In Graeber and Wengrow’s own words:
Now, we should be clear here: social theory always, necessarily, involves a bit of simplification…
Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on: essentially, we reduce everything to a cartoon so as to be able to detect patterns that would be otherwise invisible. As a result, all real progress in social science has been rooted in the courage to say things that are, in the final analysis, slightly ridiculous: the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud or Claude Lévi-Strauss being only particularly salient cases in point. One must simplify the world to discover something new about it. The problem comes when, long after the discovery has been made, people continue to simplify.
But anthropologists only simplify when writing for popular audiences, just like any scientist or astronomer or doctor or mechanic will simplify things written for popular audiences. So Graeber & Wengrow go around pretending that they’re “debunking” the cartoon version of the standard narrative, but they never actually tell you what the non cartoon version is, or why most anthropologists think that the cartoon version is still a pretty good elevator pitch despite all the supposedly contradictory facts that comprise the Dawn of Everything. And in a few minutes I’ll explain to you what the standard narrative actually is so that you can evaluate it for yourself against their supposed debunking of it. And given that this is a podcast, not a master’s thesis, I myself will be simplifying to some degree as well!
To be fair to Graeber and Wengrow, while there are tons of articles discussing all of the exceptions the summary narrative that they focus on, there aren’t many expert writers integrating all these facts into a nice grand narrative. So writing a new revised one is fair game. And there is room given the facts to postulate that there was more hierarchy in the past than we currently think there was – but not for the reasons that Graeber and Wengrow give us – because they don’t actually give any reasons! Their whole book is based on throwing out even the idea of having reasons for things. It’s all just magical choices and “theatre” – their words not mine.
Compare Dawn of Everything to a recent article by anthropologists Manvir Singh and Luke Gloawacki published in 2021, which tries to argue many of the same things that Graeber and Wengrow argue in their book – mostly that there was a lot more diversity of social organization in the palaeolithic than the largely egalitarian portrait painted by the standard narrative. But in order to get to that hypothesis, Singh and Glowacki use the basic analytical tools that the standard narrative is based on – i.e. they work from the same assumptions about how environment shapes social structure that everyone else does.
Now I still disagree with Singh and Glowaki’s interpretation of the facts, but reading it will not make you stupid in the way that Dawn of Everything will, because Singh and Glowaki have a basic understanding of how social organization works, while Graeber and Wenrgow want to obscure that understanding in order to make it look like everything is a random choice.
The 3rd thing to think about when reading this, is that when they tell us that
“nowadays [the consensus narrative is] mostly deployed to convince us that while the system we live under might be unjust, the most we can realistically aim for is a bit of modest tinkering”
that this is extremely misleading. They quote Jared Diamond to the effect that you can’t have a stateless society or direct democracy once you go above 10 000 people
As Diamond patiently explains to us:
Large populations can’t function without leaders who make the decisions, executives who carry out the decisions, and bureaucrats who administer the decisions and laws. Alas for all of you readers who are anarchists and dream of living without any state government, those are the reasons why your dream is unrealistic: you’ll have to find some tiny band or tribe willing to accept you, where no one is a stranger, and where kings, presidents, and bureaucrats are unnecessary.5
but the authors don’t mention all of the expert anthropologists who think the exact opposite – that our egalitarian origins prove that we can and should organize in ways that maximize freedom and equality. And they don’t mention that the people who argue this the most ardently tend to be the ones who specialize in egalitarian hunter gatherer bands and who know them the best.
Whether you think it’s correct or not, the story of humans as egalitarian hunter gatherers who eventually got derailed into hierarchy and oppression by the advent of agriculture has been *the* narrative favoured by basically every revolutionary minded person with any interest in anthropology since Rousseau himself – from the anthropologost Lewis Henry Morgan in the 19thC century who influnced Marx and Engels, to hunter gatherer experts Leslie White, Eleanor Leacock, and Richard Lee who wrote extensively in the 1970s to the 1990s, and Lee still writes today – down to the hunter gatherer experts in the Radical Anthropology Group who are very active today like Jerome Lewis, Camilla Power, Chris Knight and Morna Finnegan – these are all people who thought and think that the proper form for industrial civilization is an adaptation of the same egalitarianism which we were born into as a species.
It’s what Marx called the “riddle of history” – the idea that humans evolved in, and are thus best suited to, a life of freedom and equality, and all of human history since we lost our freedom and equality has been a mess of people trying to regain their freedom at the expense of other people – which is a hopeless and self-defeating endeavour which can never bring peace or happiness. And that therefore the only solution is to go back to a life of freedom equality, which the fruits of advanced civilization finally make possible for us to achieve once again. This version of the standard narrative is glaringly absent from the pages of Dawn of Everything.
Now as regards the fatalistic views of people like Diamond and Harari and Fukuyama – like I talk about in my ongoing culture wars / cancel culture series, every idea that is a threat to power – socialism, anarchism, feminism, antiracism, christianity, you name it – will always end up filtered through elite institutions and elite people into watered down, defanged versions that support the existing power structure. For example the care bears version of Martin Luther King that we get on TV and high school history classes vs the real life socialist one. But by only pointing to the people who use that narrative to resign us to hierarchy, while ignoring the history of that narrative as a force for equality, Graeber and Wengrow are misleading us while weakening their own arguments.
THE CONSENSUS NARRATIVE
So back to the consensus narrative. What is it, and do Graeber & Wengrow disprove it at all? Do they even really disagree with it?
According to the authors:
To give just a sense of how different the emerging picture is [from the standard narrative]: it’s now clear that human societies before the advent of farming were not confined to small, egalitarian bands. On the contrary, the world of hunter-gatherers as it existed before the coming of agriculture was one of bold social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forms, far more than it does the drab abstractions of evolutionary theory.
Agriculture … did not mean the inception of private property, nor did it mark an irreversible step towards inequality. In fact, many of the first farming communities were relatively free of ranks and hierarchies. And far from setting class differences in stone, a surprising number of the world’s earliest cities were organized on robustly egalitarian lines, with no need for authoritarian rulers, ambitious warrior-politicians, or even bossy administrators…
Nothing they’re telling us here is new or controversial besides the stuff about egalitarian cities.
When you read anthropology articles about social organization in the palaeolithic or the transition to agriculture, scholars routinely discuss all of this stuff – that there were sedentary and semi sedentary hunter gatherers in the palaeolithic, particularly in europe in the upper palaeolithic, that the shift to hierarchy after agriculture didn’t happen overnight, that there were relatively egalitarian farming settlements at first that often lasted hundreds or even thousands of years.
The progression from equality to hierarchy was slow and patchy, and although everyone agrees that agriculture led to increased hierarchy, different authors propose different theories and reasons for the extended timeline of that progression, none of which are articulated in this book, despite lots and lots of pages and the relevance of those theories to the authors’ thesis.
Later on in the book, Graeber and Wengrow actually admit that ok yeah, after agriculture became dominant, societies eventually did become more and more hierarchical, but they treat it it must be like a coincidence or something – it didn’t happen overnight, so obviously agriculture doesn’t lead to hierarchy!
What is the relationship then between agriculture and hierarchy, or population density and hierarchy, or mode of subsistence and social structure? They don’t even look into it nevermind trying to come up with an answer.
The story is different when it comes to the idea of egalitarian cities, which genuinely does seem to go against the standard narrative in archaeology – and if it’s true that there were egalitarian cities – and I hope it’s true – well then that has really exciting implications – *if* it’s true – I’ve already seen at least one reviewer pointing out a bunch of holes in Graeber & Wengrow’s presentation of that issue, but I don’t have much to say about it because I just don’t have enough knowledge to argue about it one way or the other. As much as I *want* to believe their stories about egalitarian cities, I am skeptical of whatever they say because of how badly they mangle those things that I do know about.
THE BASIS OF THE DOMINANT NARRATIVE
Now, why has the dominant narrative for the past 60 years been that human beings started out as egalitarian hunter gatherers and that the main impetus away from egalitarianism was agriculture? And what about all the examples Graeber and Wengrow cite which seem to contradict this progression?
First, we know that human beings started out as hunter gatherers – because almost all animals are basically hunter gatherers, which is generally defined as anyone who doesn’t practice agriculture. Homo Sapiens start showing up in the record at about 500-300kya, and evidence for farming as a means of subsistence only starts after we get into the holocene geological era which starts 12000ya, though we do have evidence of failed experiments with subsistence farming going back to 35,000 ya.
There used to be a lot of debate about why farming only shows up after the Holocene begins, but it turns out that it’s probably because there just wasn’t enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere [i erroneously said nitrogen in the soil in the video!] to support sustained agriculture until the holocene era. And then once there was, when hunter gatherers in different places and times found themselves in conditions where hunting and gathering was no longer sustainable and there weren’t unoccupied places left to migrate to, they now had the option to switch to agriculture instead of the previous options of going to war or dying of starvation.
Now why do we think that humans started out as specifically egalitarian hunter gatherers?
Most hunter gatherers that we know about are more egalitarian than we are, but many still have various forms of inequality like gender inequality or gerontocracy, and some positions of limited authority, while some historical hunter gatherers even have had much more elaborate hierarchies with chiefs, nobility and slaves.
Meanwhile one subset of hunter gatherer societies that we know of are extremely egalitarian and deliberately so. They have all sorts of institutions and practices to make sure to make sure that no one ever accumulates much more property or authority than anyone else. Men and women form gendered organizations to defend their interests and to make sure that the other gender never gets an upper hand, they have no chiefs or authority figures and even adults don’t have much authority over older children.
As anthropologist Camilla Power articulated it recently, they’re not just communists, but anarcho communists. They have a strong sense of individuality and autonomy coexisting with an equality strong social pressure to cooperate and share all their property.
Now these are a minority of the hunter gatherers that we know of. There are only about 6 groups of cultures who fall into that category historically and comprising maybe a couple of dozen ethnic groups in total. The Hadza in the savannah in eastern Tanzania, various Kalahari desert hunter gatherer cultures, various Central African Rainforest Pygmy groups like the Mbuti, the Aka and the Mbendjele, various South Indian Mountain Forest groups like the Nayaka, Paliyan and Hill Pandaram various Malaysian rainforest groups like the Batek and Penan and the historical Montagnais-Naskapi people in the coniferous forests of quebec and Labrador who were hunter gatherers at the time of the Jesuit Relations writings in the 1600s.
So why do we think that most of our early ancestors were like this specific subset of hunter gatherers rather than all like all of the other less egalitarian hunter gatherers that we know of?
We think this, because despite the fact that these egalitarian foragers live in all sorts of geographic areas on different continents, every single one of these cultures practices or practice-d the same type of hunting and gathering economy, which happens to be the type of economy that we believe that most – but not all – of our ancestors practiced until the holocene era, and which maybe all of our earliest ancestors practiced.
And that type of economy is what anthropologist james woodburn called an “immediate return” economy where you hunt and gather and then consume what you collected within a few days without processing it in any elaborate way.
Why do we think our ancestors were mostly immediate return foragers? Again, most animals are basically immediate return foragers, and our closest relatives, bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas certainly are, so it’s pretty safe to assume that the first homo sapiens were also immediate return foragers as well. And the further back in time we go, the less evidence we have, but most of the evidence that we do have shows that people in the middle palaeolithic, which is where we become humans – seem to have been mostly doing nomadic big game hunting, much like those recent egalitarian hunter-gatherers do. We do have occasional sites that look like some people in particular pockets may have been doing other kinds of hunting and gathering as well here and there. So we would assume that those exceptional societies might look like some of the other kinds of hunter gatherer societies that we know about from recent times, who aren’t always so egalitarian, and some of whom are decidedly hierarchical.
To be fair, the record is sparse – there is definitely room for alternative scenarios – the problem is that graber and wengrow aren’t just throwing out the standard scenario, they’re also throwing out the analytical tools that people – like Singh and Glowacki for example – need in order explain any kind scenario at all. It’s like when doctors disagree about what causes this or that illness, they still agree on the basics of biology and science – well what graeber and wengrow are doing is like if a doctor decides to reject medicine and science altogether because he believes the current standard explanation for the cause of a particular illness is wrong.
Graeber and Wengrow tell us that
…it’s bizarre to imagine that, say, during the roughly 10,000 (some would say more like 20,000) years in which people painted on the walls of Altamira, no one – not only in Altamira, but anywhere on earth – experimented with alternative forms of social organization. What’s the chance of that? Second of all, is not the capacity to experiment with different forms of social organization itself a quintessential part of what makes us human? That is, beings with the capacity for self-creation, even freedom?
But, no one says that everyone on earth had the exact same form of human social organization for all that time – we all know the exceptions. So congratulations to Graeber & Wengrow for winning an argument against Big Bird and Dora the Explorer. But, if the people who lived around Altamira lived in similar conditions for all that time, then we would actually except them to have had similar forms of social organization, even if they had different languages and identities and genes and other differences – and we’ll see examples of this when we cover chapter 5 of the book.
And this is not because they didn’t have any agency or the ability to make choices, or because that they were living in a state of childlike innocence – but precisely because they *did* have agency and the ability to make choices, and because they were just as savvy and stupid as we are. People in similar situations make similar choices over the long term because that’s what works.
It’s funny how on a daily basis, people in our society will have no problem understanding that politicians change their policies and even their beliefs under the influence of money. And people understand that being a landlord or boss gives you a different world view than being a tenant or a worker, or that growing up rich tends to give you a different ideology than growing up poor – and people say things like “you may be a socialist now, but when you own a house and have to pay taxes – you’ll become more conservative” yet somehow the idea that traditional peoples are influenced by the exact same material and logistical factors that influence urban people is considered to be infantilizing them.
Meanwhile the same people who accuse materialists of infantilizing traditional societies are the ones who portray them as if they’re magical space unicorn ponies who are beyond material influences and who have the superhuman conscious powers of gods that would be necessary in order to create their social structures from scratch instead of as an adaptation to their conditions, which is how every other society organizes itself!
Something that never seems to have entered the minds of the authors is that a hierarchical social structure is rarely some kind of democratic choice. Rather, it’s a matter of relative bargaining power.
People have conflicting interests and desires – but certain conditions give certain people advantages such that some people get more of what they want than others do. If your livelihood depends on a specific territory – like it does for farmers or for fishing based hunter gatherers – then if you and your allies can control the productive territory, then you have power over those people who need the products of that territory to survive – boom hierarchy. That’s how capitalism works. Or how any hierarchical system works. In other words, social structure is usually a reflection of the balance of powers in a given society.
Sometimes, social structure can be more of a democratic choice involving trial and error. But people don’t do those kinds of experiments for kicks or as an BDSM bondage kink game or because they have superhuman agency. We do it to solve problems. And people with similar problems in similar conditions end up coming on similar solutions over time – because reality!
Like people who are stuck together on plots of land for extended periods of time will often choose some kind of person to endow with a little bit of authority so that they can arbitrate disputes, which are much more frequent and hard to resolve when you’re sedentary than if you can just go off to another band when you get annoyed or want a divorce like nomadic hunter gatherers do. And theories around how we got stuck with more serious hierarchies over time all revolve around certain changes of conditions which gave people in those positions of weak authority, leverage to turn it into stronger authority. Conditions!
Another example of people making conscious choices in reaction to conditions is when people come under frequent attack, they’ll usually organize themselves around closely related men who grow up together and stay together forming a tight team, while their sisters will marry outside the group, and unrelated women will marry in to the group from the outside.
And this choice, called patrilocal residence, which we see all the over world among people faced with frequent attacks – for example every single nomadic pastoralist society known to exist or to have ever existed organizes this way because it’s easy to steal animals from herds – when people organize this way for self defense, it means that all the women end up coming from separate families and are socially isolated from eachother while all the men are close allies and form a close coalition.
And so, the unintended consequence of this is that it gives men political advantages that women don’t have, which leads to varying degrees of patriarchy. And this is why every single nomadic pastoralist society ever known to exist from northern scandinavia to the deserts of arabia to the mongolian steppe, have all been male dominated.
This is one of the best known and easiest to explain paths to male domination – but it’s totally absent from The Dawn of Everything, because they don’t want us to think about conditions, it’s all just freedom and choices! They tell us that they think patriarchy might have started in babylonian temples which is the equivalent of saying ancient that aliens did it with the 2001 obelisk. Pure nonsense.
In the short term, people might make different choices, but our range of choices is usually limited. If you make a really bad choice in terms of defence or subsistence activity and you stick with it, you’ll die out over the long term, and then we won’t hear from you anymore. This is what happened to the Greenland Vikings whose farming based economy was a bad fit for the climate of Greenland over the long term, versus the Greenland inuit who actually showed up in Greenland later than the Vikings did, but who survive until today because their subsistence mode works in that environment. The Vikings had a choice – adopt the Inuit way of life or leave or die, and they left and they died.
And if you dont die off, the chances are that over the generations, people with brains and ideas will consciously experiment their way into figuring out the most efficient solutions to various problems – i.e. the same solutions that other people figured out to those same problems around the world – but, with one important caveat, that you also have to take into consideration the inherent balance of power created by any given situation which might result in less efficient “choices” that favour the class with the balance of power. That is why we’re currently barreling towards climate destruction, seemingly unable to stop despite the will of the majority of people in the world.
Now if we look at the paintings in altamira and at many other cave sites, what we see over that enormous time span is depictions of the types of the types of things that immediate return hunter gatherers are concerned with, like large game hunting. So maybe the people who used those caves actually did have similar social structures for all of that time. It would really depend on the conditions in that area.
And never mind a puny pee-wee 10,000 – 20,000 years that separate the various paintings at Altamira – there’s a site called Fulton’s Rock in sourthern africa that has paintings that are 70 000 years old that depict what looks like the very same Eland Bull Dance coming of age ritual that kalahari desert foragers practice TODAY, 70 000 years later. It could be that social structures changed with conditions, but then changed back again with conditions, or it could be that the relevant conditions were similar for all this time – we don’t know, but it is fascinating, and I’ll link to an article about that.
THE TEA TIME OF EVERYTHING
Now, although homo sapiens emerge 500-300 000 years ago, Graeber and Wengrow only start their discussion in the book 40,000 years ago, in the upper palaeolithic, and their focus in that time period is almost entirely limited to europe. Anthropologist Chris Knight jokingly titled his review of Dawn of Everything “the Tea Time of Everything” in reaction to this.
The authors claim that they did this because there just isn’t enough evidence before that period for us to say anything about human social organization – which isn’t true – you can read dozens of archeology and anthropology papers that talk about social organization based on the economic activities in that period – but the authors don’t want us to think about economic activity having anything to do with social organization so they don’t discuss any of it, not even to refute it.
More likely, the real reason that they start at 40 000 years ago is because that’s exactly when you start to see more evidence of diversity in foraging strategies and social organization that Graeber and Wengrow want us to focus on in order to paint their image of a carnival of bold political experiments, even though these were still few and far between especially outside of europe. So in europe we see some clear sedentary and semi sedentary settlement patterns and we also evidence of a few sites with possible potential social hierarchy – vs in the middle palaeolithic whereas you mostly – but not exclusively – see evidence that suggests nomadic big game hunting all around.
And another thing that the authors don’t mention is that this supposed carnival of social experiments isn’t just random experiments for no reason. Culture is an adaptation to environment. That’s why we have culture. That’s how a super general jack of all trades species like humans can survive all around the world. These are “experiments” in new subsistence strategies which are adaptations to changing conditions!
When immediate return nomadic big game hunting and gathering – which is one of the most efficient forms of subsistence – is no longer viable, people start focusing on other types of hunting and gathering practices – so-called “intensification” strategies, that are more work – things like focusing on shellfish, smoking and storing meat or fish, living in semi sedentary or sedentary camps, and raiding and stealing from and killing other groups of people. And these changes in economic activities resulted in changes of the circumstances of peoples lives, which either caused new problems that needed new solutions, or that gave some people bargaining power advantages over others, which is where hierarchy comes from.
Europe in the upper palaeolithic, was a particularly difficult place to live as this was the last glacial maximum, a time where ice sheets were extending deep into northern europe down to modern germany. There were only about 70,000 people on the whole continent, because means of subsistence were sparse. And at the same time, climate in the Pleistocene was fluctuating very wildly and rapidly compared to today in the holocene, so at certain times things got warmer and more territories opened up and there were more animals to hunt and plants to live from and populations grew – but then within a generation or two things would quickly freeze up again, and you’d have the same or larger amount of people living in less plentiful environments, meaning that people had to adopt “intensification” strategies to survive.
Now some anthropologists from the beginning have argued that you can’t extrapolate social structure in the palaeolithic based on what hunter gatherers living today are like because the conditions in the palaeolithic were very different from what they are today or what they were even at the time that father LeJeune wrote about the Montagnais Naskapi in 1630s. So for example, today’s foragers are surrounded by non foragers and they’re only limited to territories that farmers and pastoralists and civilizations don’t want – or at least that they didn’t want until recently, which is why most foragers are being wiped off the map and forced into wage labour and agriculture as we speak. Singh and Glowacki make these arguments in 2021, just like other have made since the late 1960s.
But even though the world was a very different place in the palaeolithic, other anthropologists argue that those specific conditions that promote egalitarian social structure, things like nomadism, the ability to leave and go off to another band if someone is bothering you, and universal availability of lethal weapons – that those conditions also existed in the palaeolithic for most societies. Not only that, but middle palaeolithic conditions in particular may have been even more favourable to egalitarianism than today, given that there was less population density and more available uninhabited territories to forage in, more places to immigrate to, less need for conflict or to resign yourself to intensification strategies to survive.
Now, when we get to farming, the conditions that we see in immediate return hunting societies which equalize everyone’s bargaining power, and which make egalitarianism the most stable choice, change, in ways that make hierarchy easier to impose, while making equality harder and harder to maintain. If your economy is based on territory and you manage monopolize access to that territory, then boom you have power over others – hierarchy.
And this is true for anyone not just farmers – which is why we see so much hierarchy among hunter gatherer societies whose economies are based on fishing territories, like the Pacific Northwest Coast people or the Calusa who lived in southern florida.
Once farming has been around long enough and population densities in the surrounding areas increase such that there’s less room to escape from people who dominate productive territories, we see completely different dynamics and social structures arising with more and more hierarchy.
And Graeber and Wengrow talk all about the right to escape over and over, but they talk about it as if it’s a choice that you put in your constitution at some democratic occupy assembly that isn’t being sabotaged by upper middle class rich kids, instead of something that is determined by the facts around you.
With all of this in mind, the reason that it’s so idiotic for Steven Pinker to try to use the Yanomami or Otzi the bog man to illustrate the conditions that we evolved in, is that the Yanomami and Otzi were farmers not foragers.
The ways of life of the Yanomami or Otzi and the material conditions and constraints and incentives associated with them did not exist on planet earth for the first several hundred thousand years of our existence. Like at least talk about warlike hunter gatherer societies like the Haida or the Calusa if you want to make that kind of argument, duh.
Now the Yanomami example might not be useful in terms of understanding our origins, but it can teach us a lot about why some cultures are so violent and get stuck in an endless cycle of wars and feuds with proud martial cultures – which is something you see often among certain pastoralist and horticultural societies – think of the ancient hebrews, or the beduin, or ancient sparta and athens. And it’s useful to contrast these examples with the dynamics of immediate return foragers societies who rarely engage in any extended feuding or warfare at all.
This stuff might be good to know if you want to establish a peaceful world. But instead of doing anything like that, Graeber & Wengrow just try to argue that according to a study, the Yanomami aren’t actually all that violent relative to other amerindian societies – which would probably come off as an insult to many yanomami people – but the study isn’t named or listed anywhere – the footnote for that passage just tells us as story about how Yanomami like to sleep together huddled up in groups, where the authors argue that being snuggly with your friends is incompatible with murdering your enemies.
THE RIGHT WING IMPLICATIONS OF GRAEBER & WENGROW’S ARGUMENTS
Something that’s worth noting about the idea that human social structure is mostly a matter of choice, is that if you take it to it’s logical conclusion it just ends up taking us to some very ugly places. Like if the traditional Haida of the pacific north west coast have chiefs and nobility and commoners and used to have slaves, and the Nuer in Sudan have male dominance, but the Mbendjele are totally egalitarian and gender egalitarian, and if it’s all just a matter of conscious choice, then that must mean that the Haida and the Nuer people are just choosing to bad people and the Hadza are just good people.
Or maybe Lese women are pathetic because they choose extreme subservience instead of “choosing” equality the way awesome Hadza women do. It’s like in our society, when people say that if you’re working the cash at McDonalds it must be because you’re stupid and lazy and it’s your choice, but if you’re CEO of ratheon, it’s because chose to be some kind of brilliant hard working genius, and you chose parents who could afford MBA school.
It’s ultimately right wing thinking – thinking that justifies hierarchy. Obviously that’s the opposite of what Graeber and Wengrow are trying to do, but again, their whole project is an incoherent, ill conceived mess, and one of the reasons it upsets me so much is that on top of making us stupid, it’s inadvertently giving right wingers a bunch of rhetorical gifts, just like occupy not making any demands was giving all the banks and governments of the world a giant gift.
In contrast, if you shift the focus onto the conditions that shape our social structures and our choices, this implies a “there but for the grace of God go I” type of philosophy. Individuals are different, and we all have agency, but in similar conditions, given similar constraints, people will tend to make similar decisions on average, and in the long run which is the scale of social structure formation. We spend less time judging people and more time trying to figure out how we can change the conditions which generate shitty people.
Speaking of taking a right wing turn, the authors are somehow shocked that many anthropologists on the left are pissed off at them for trying to get rid of the idea that humans have egalitarian origins:
The first step towards a more accurate, and hopeful, picture of world history might be to abandon the Garden of Eden once and for all, and simply do away with the notion that for hundreds of thousands of years, everyone on earth shared the same idyllic form of social organization. Strangely enough, though, this is often seen as a reactionary move. ‘So are you saying true equality has never been achieved? That it’s therefore impossible?’ It seems to us that such objections are both counterproductive and frankly unrealistic.
In their minds they think that they’re somehow giving us hope for the future, but I think they’re actually making it harder to have hope by removing one of our most potent rhetorical weapons that we have in our arsenal.
In my experience talking to normal people I’ve almost never met anyone who said anything like “yes we had an egalitarian origins and we’ve best adapted to be free and equal, but alas, we can’t go back to those day because civilization, oh well”.
Most people have never heard of the idea that we had egalitarian origins! Most people think it’s against human nature to have equality and that we’re not even capable of it. What I do get all the time from regular people is “freedom and inequality are impossible. Inequality is the price of freedom. And equality can only come at the expense of losing your freedom.”
And when they tell me those things, and I say “well did you know that human beings started out living in egalitarian and free societies with no chiefs or male domination, and that we’ve lived that way for 95% of our existence?” when i say that they don’t believe me. And then when they look it they’re shocked, and it really makes them think and opens them to a whole world of new ideas about what we’re capable of.
But since 2018 when Graeber and Wengrow published a their popular “How to Change the Course of Human History” article, which is like chapters 1 and 3 of Dawn of Everything – since that time, when people tell me that human beings aren’t capable of living in equality, and when I reply about our egalitarian origins, now half the time they reply with “even left wing anarchists Graeber and Wengrow debunked that idea”.
Gee, thanks guys! Great work! Now I have to waste an extra 45 minutes explaining the long version of the standard narrative and why their thesis is nonsense. I mean it would be one thing if they were right, but their thesis doesn’t even make sense at the end of the day, on top of it just contributing to right wing talking points. It’s one of the reasons I started criticizing them last year in my first anthropology epiosdes.
And speaking of right wing talking points, for some insane reason – or rather as a further testament to the poverty of political theory in our society, even among revolutionary minded leftists, Graeber & Wengrow explicitly de-couple the idea of wealth inequality from power inequality in this book, starting with this little nugget in chapter 1:
The ultimate question of human history, as we’ll see, is not our equal access to material resources (land, calories, means of production), much though these things are obviously important, but our equal capacity to contribute to decisions about how to live together…
Hmm is there any relationship between equal access to resources and equality of decision making power? You won’t find out in this book!
The authors continue:
If … our species’ future now hinges on our capacity to create something different (say, a system in which wealth cannot be freely transformed into power, or where some people are not told their needs are unimportant, or that their lives have no intrinsic worth), then what ultimately matters is whether we can rediscover the freedoms that make us human in the first place.
So the way that we’re going to achieve freedom, is by rediscovering our freedoms. Brilliant!
Why does wealth so often translate into power though? Bah, Bo-ring! They never look into it.
In an interview on Majority Report with Sam Seder, David Wengrow said
“it’s the mystery of capitalism – it’s what Karl Marx was trying to figure out, what is this magical force by which just having more stuff than somebody else gets transformed into power”
Yup, poor Karl, he just could not figure out that control over the means of production is control over people who depend on that production – i.e. Marxism 101 … Newsflash, when you control the resources that other people need to live, then you control those people. If you have more wealth than someone else but you don’t control the resources that they need to live, then you can’t exert the same level of domination over them, but you can still influence them with gifts and bribes. That’s how wealth inequality translates into power. This is not rocket science to anyone but Graeber and Wengrow.
Unsurprisingly the right wing loves this Dawn of Everything argument about wealth and power not being related – and already a regular columnist on the UK Conservative Home website has quoted that same section of the book favourably! Link in shownotes. And i’m sure the right wing will also love the idea that hierarchy has been with us since our earliest days.
Great work guys!
WHY DID THEY DO THIS?
And so, the big question is, why? Why do they choose to make arguments that any right winger would be happy to cite? Why would Graeber and Wengrow choose to stick to such an incoherent view of human social structure and focus entirely on choice to the point of describing hierarchy as theatre a bunch of times? Why do they focus on the fatalistic narratives of Yuval Harari and Francis Fukuyama and ignore the optimistic ones of actual anthropologist experts and revolutionaries? Why are they able to dig up mountains of fascinating facts and anecdotes, but they can’t seem to find one of the best known causes of male dominance? Why do they throw away the analytical tools that they need in order to explain the phenoma that they’re describing and that we need in order to understand how to build egalitarian institutions in this hierarchical world?
I can only guess – or maybe I can ask David Wengrow, though I doubt he’d agree with the premise of the question – but it seems pretty clear, that in Graeber and Wengrow’s minds, if human beings are in fact limited in our choices by practical material conditions – and by material conditions I just mean anything that constrains your choices, that means that we are in fact doomed to live in hierarchy because we live in civilization.
Like deep down inside they’re so afraid that Jared Diamond and Frances Fukuyama and Yuval Harari are right that they don’t want us to think about material conditions at all. It’s kind of like not wanting to get a mole checked out because you’re afraid it might be cancer.
But fear not, as we’ll see in future episodes, we can’t predict the future, but despite obvious reasons to be pessimistic, there is also lots of room for optimism for people who want an egalitarian and libertarian future. Contra to what Frances Fukuyama and ironically Graeber and Wengrow seem to subconsciously think, the material conditions of the advanced industrialized world that we live in today, actually recreates some of the same conditions that make equality possible in immediate return egalitarian hunter gatherer societies in all sorts of interesting and key ways.
And when we do that I think we’ll see that the ingredients for a much more egalitarian and libertarian world are all there, it’s just that our awareness hasn’t yet caught up to it, which historically is often what it takes to set people in motion to make big changes, like we saw in episode 8.
And what I want, is that when that catalyst happens that triggers people into action, that our eyes will be on the prize and our heads will be filled good ideas instead of half baked nonsense so that we’ll take actions that might actually bring us closer to our goals rather then flapping our arms as we fall out the window.
But before then, I want to read a little part of this chapter that I really like.
Towards the end of the chapter they push back against descriptions of the Yanomamo as violent (despite what every single anthropologist who’s ever spent time with them says, and despite what they themselves say about themselves) by telling the story of Helen Valero, a white woman who was kidnapped by Yanomamo when she was 12 or 13 in the 1930s.
Pinker briefly cites the account Valero later gave of her own life, where she describes the brutality of a Yanomami raid.26 What he neglects to mention is that in 1956 she abandoned the Yanomami to seek her natal family and live again in ‘Western civilization,’ only to find herself in a state of occasional hunger and constant dejection and loneliness. After a while, given the ability to make a fully informed decision, Helena Valero decided she preferred life among the Yanomami, and returned to live with them.
Now this is true, but Graeber and Wengrow neglect to mention that her european family rejected her so that she was totally isolated and living in hunger at a local mission, making Yanomamo life with all its dangers a step up in many ways.
BUT then they do accurately point out that for the first few centuries of the european and native american encounter, people who had the choice and the experience with both European society and Amerindian societies, preferred to among native americans. And they pull out this amazing quote from Benjamin frankling written priavately to a friend, which reallly deserves more airtime:
When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them there is no persuading him ever to return, and that this is not natural merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them. One instance I remember to have heard, where the person was to be brought home to possess a good Estate; but finding some care necessary to keep it together, he relinquished it to a younger brother, reserving to himself nothing but a gun and match-Coat, with which he took his way again to the Wilderness.
And this is important, not because we’re interested in finger wagging “europeans so bad, natives so good” posturing, but because it’s a powerful example of how people prefer freedom, relative equality and community to all of the endless frustrations, humiliations, insincerity and alienation of living in a highly stratified hierarchical society which we talk about a bit more when we discuss chapter 2 of the book.
Again, the answer to the riddle of history lies in a return freedom and equality.
OK, so next time we’ll be covering chapter 3, Unfreezing the ice age where the authors try to prove that we didn’t start out as egalitarian hunter gatherers by ignoring the first 200 000 years of our existence, and then they try to tell us that social structure is not determined by material conditions by pointing to cultures that change their social structures every year with the seasons, as if the changes of the seasons were not material conditions…
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