Review by Felix Stalder
So, I finished reading The Dawn of Everything, the new book by David Graeber and David Wengrow. In many ways, it’s the perfect book for our dark historical moment. It’s all about historical possibilities, yet not in the future, but in the past. Thus, an escape and an inspiration. It’s an amazing read, so full of detail that’s impossible to summarize. You really should read it yourself.
I’ll just focus on the structure here. The book aims to deconstruct the dominant linear narratives of human culture, in which the “agricultural revolution” (which wasn’t revolution) and the emergence of cities (which were frequently used only for seasonal gatherings) inexorably lead to inequality, domination, and “the state”. There are two conventional versions of this story: the loss of freedom/equality (Rousseau, Hariri, etc) or the gain of civilization (Hobbes, Diamond, etc). Graeber and Wengrow argue, in dizzying archeological and anthropological detail, that both are wrong and severely curtail our imagination of social potential. Their baseline assumption is that humans since the neolithic are our cognitive equals. No more, but also no less intelligent than we are, hence also no less capable of making decisions their own lives, individually and collectively. So, no more treatment of foragers as semi-apes living in small bands, unable to overcome by supposed constants like Dunbar’s 150 people threshold (after which social stratification sets in).
And decisions they made. The historical record reveals a “carnival parade” of social forms, most of which do not fit the linear accounts. Thus, non-modern societies have something to teach us, because they have solved many of the problems we are grappling with. And, indeed, historically they have. E.g. they make a strong case that the enlightenment notion of personal freedom was first formulated by the indigenous critique of European culture, by people like the Wendat leader Kandiaronk. To structure the historical diversity of social forms, they develop the notion of three sources of freedom: the capacity to move away (and be received somewhere else), the capacity to refuse to obey commands, and the capacity to collectively remake social relations. At the same time, there are three sources of domination: violence (sovereignty), knowledge (bureaucracy), and charisma (competitive politics). It’s easy to be reminded of Max Weber’s definition of forms of legitimate power (traditional, charismatic, rational) here, but Graeber/Wengrow’s notion is much more flexible because these sources are not mutually exclusive, but rather they can be layered in top of own another.
While the three freedoms are related (take away one and the others will start to crumble), the sources of domination are not. Often, only one of them played an important role, while others were absent. Sometimes two were co-present and only in the modern state, all three come together. And, this is their political point, they don’t need to stay together in the future.
While the book is great, it has a glaring hole in it. What is almost entirely missing is the discussion of how this “carnival parade” of social forms structured the relation to the environment, or, more generally, how they were embedded in, and impacted on, the metabolic system. While for much of the historical period they cover, this might not have been too much of a concern, it is clearly one for us now and if we are to remake our social relations, then this will be a key dimension to transform. But it would probably be too much to ask from one single book, already long enough, to cover everything, even with this title.