The late David Graeber, an anthropologist previously perhaps best known for his role in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and his co-author, archeologist David Wengrow, provide food for thought for those concerned with the past and future of humanity in The Dawn of Everything (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), completed just before Graeber’s untimely death in 2020.
The authors’ methodological tools deliberately diverge from the usual terminology of either anthropology or political science, a feature at times frustrating in the absence of any attempt at theoretical justification. My sole example will be their tripartite categorizing of human freedom as (1) freedom to move away, to leave one’s present circumstances; (2) freedom to disobey orders—a paradoxical definition symptomatic of the authors’ countercultural bent; (3) freedom to reorganize social relations—a freedom that unlike the others cannot be exercised by a single person (p. 362). This lack of clarity is a symptom of a 1960ish New Leftism that lends this otherwise carefully researched volume a certain youthful charm. The sort of person who can fit comfortably into both (2) and (3) is the adolescent who feels free to disobey (parents’, professors’…) orders, yet is at ease in “reorganizing social relations” with his peers, as things were indeed in the 1960s—which Graeber and Wengrow could not have known, being born in 1961 and 1972 respectively.
But quibbling with definitions does injustice to the real interest of this book, which is to open up vistas concerning la longue durée. Composed, as Wengrow’s preface tells us, over a ten-year period in a “dialogue” between the two authors, The Dawn of Everything provides in accessible form a great deal of information about the several millennia, roughly from 10000 to 4000 BC, between Mesolithic bands of hunters and the vast Bronze Age empires worked by slave labor.
Dawn’s major achievement is to liberate us from the quasi-Hegelian dialectic in which ancient empire, its “medieval” decline, the Renaissance, and modernity appear as a series of inevitable consequences of the invention of sedentary agriculture. It enlarges our understanding of the life of both hunter-gatherers and those for whom agriculture first emerged as a mostly part-time lifestyle. One of Dawn’s most striking revelations is that for many societies during this period, the seasons of the year involved considerable changes in governance, from hierarchical to broadly democratic and/or from man-centered to woman-centered, depending on the season’s central activity.
No doubt the authors’ overall perspective may strike us as perplexing. Their declared purpose in radically reconceiving the history of these millennia is above all to suggest an alternative to the unfreedom that they take as the “stuck” reality of modern life, in the West perhaps more than elsewhere. Nor is the notion of modernity theorized in any way, although given the authors’ focus on archaic economies, one might expect them to reflect on how the game has been changed by the vast acceleration since the Industrial Revolution of economic progress on all fronts, with its resulting transformation of technology, medicine, and general welfare.
The powerful example of Kandiaronk, a late 17th-century member of the Wendat Confederacy (roughly, the Hurons) in the area of Lake Ontario, who had been sent as an ambassador to the court of Louis XIV (!), provides the authors with an insight into the input of Native Americans to what would become the emerging anthropologies of the 18th century, notably that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For the first reaction of these semi-nomadic peoples to Western civilization was negative: rather than marvel at their advanced stage of development, Kandiaronk saw Europeans as unfree.
Whence the importance of stuck, a word that appears in the book fifteen times to describe what the authors judge to be our still intolerable state of servitude to our political and economic masters. (Let’s not forget Occupy Wall Street!) The most sympathetic way to read this work is as a parable that asks us to draw back from our stifling present to situate ourselves in the open air of l’histoire au long cours. The few hundred years of European history that have defined the world’s current economic and technological reality, during which sovereignty cum bureaucracy, accompanied by contests among “charismatic” political leaders, have become the world-wide norm, should not allow us to forget that in the distant past, as great empires rose and fell, despotisms alternated over long periods with far more egalitarian forms of social organization.
No doubt being stuck can be a crucial problem only if we put aside that of being annihilated. But the fact that we now possess, as never in the past, the means to effectively destroy our species cannot enter into the authors’ perspective. Although both are Jewish, and the Holocaust only a single lifetime away, this extraordinarily long time of near-total peace that has allowed Westerners of my own and more recent generations to live their entire lives with no real experience of violence has allowed them to bracket the very possibility of a worldwide cataclysm.
The authors’ key point, meant to give us hope for the future, is that although today’s political world is wholly divided into “states” understood as uniformly coercive, top-down oligarchies, given the contrast between our traditional view of the archaic period as one wholly dominated by despotisms and the reality the authors reveal to us of greatly varied and evolving forms of government, many far more democratic (and less oppressive of women) than we had imagined, we should realize that, taking the long view, the “human condition” as established over the past few centuries should by no means be understood as permanent. The book concludes with an exhortation not to lose hope in the New Left ideal:
. . . We can see more clearly now what is going on when, for example, a study that is rigorous in every other respect begins from the unexamined assumption that there was some ‘original’ form of human society; that its nature was fundamentally good or evil; that a time before inequality and political awareness existed; that ‘civilization’ and ‘complexity’ always come at the price of human freedoms; that participatory democracy is natural in small groups but cannot possibly scale up to anything like a city or a nation state.
We know, now, that we are in the presence of myths. (525) [my emphasis]
The data the authors adduce are copious and fascinating, speculative only in minor details. As they freely admit, even with all the recent progress of archaeology, it is impossible to provide a well-rounded understanding of cultural life in preliterate societies from which only a small number of artifacts can be recovered. Whatever one thinks of their political philosophy—their general disdain for the political theories emerging from the early modern era is not altogether without resemblance to the anti-metaphysical bent of post-war Continental thought, while devoid of “French-Theory” obscurantism—one cannot but respect the research and reflection that went into what sadly turned out to be Graeber’s memorial volume.
This should not prevent us from wondering what new insights into originary thinking this book might provide. No doubt it is overly simple to see modern, state-dominated political organization as comparable in “stuckness” to that of the ancient empires or even early-modern European monarchies. But the great difficulty we have experienced since the end of the Cold War in facing up to the evidence that what we have been calling “liberal democracy” is not the end of history, perhaps not even in the sense of putting an end to the pipe-dream of communism, makes it imperative that we reexamine our recent history from a critical perspective. And one very useful point of departure for such examination is provided by the book’s insistence that, before the rise of Western civilization, human social organization took on constantly changing forms.
The most optimistic understanding of the steady intensification of victimary thinking since the 1960s that has led to the current mania of wokeness is that, like Bolshevism and Fascism, the utopian solutions of the first half of the 20th century, the victimary is but one more such temptation, and that this paroxysm is the sign not of its triumph but of its incipient failure—one that looks to be far less catastrophic than that of its predecessors.
We observe a striking lack of charismatic leadership in the woke movement, in contrast with that of the 1960s New Left (the Chicago Eight; Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden; Huey Newton and the Black Panthers). The left once had major thinkers in its corner; compare this to the “theoreticians” of the woke era. Critical Race Theory is a sorry sequel to the Marxism that the BLM leadership absurdly professes to be “trained” in. And one cannot fail to note that while the eloquent Obama was hardly an effective leader on the world stage, his successors reveal the emptiness of his perspective by their ineptitude in defending it. That we are led today by probably the least distinguished human being in every sense among our 46 presidents, with a vice-president if anything even less impressive, is surely not coincidental.
Perhaps the most sinister element of wokeness, against which the general public is now beginning to rebel, is its pseudo-Christian sympathy for “sinners” that allows those little affected by crime to sympathize more with the criminals than with their victims. The equation of incarceration with inhumanity and racism, the reduction and/or elimination of bail or of any penalty at all for “minor” crimes, grant the awokened a specious sanctity at the expense not only of the victims of crime, but of the social order as a whole.
The recent shift of Hispanic voters away from the Democrats’ race-mongering seems to be gradually finding a parallel among the black electorate, hitherto the most loyal supporters of the Democratic “plantation.” For we must accept that, however contemptible the woke exploitation of White Guilt, it evokes the reality of past inequities. Rather than transiting directly via the 1964 Civil Rights Act from persisting segregation to M. L. King’s post-racial world where we will be judged by the “content of [our] character,” our passage through a victimary phase was no doubt inevitable, if only because the politicians who outlawed racial discrimination assumed, no doubt rightly, that to confront any remaining inequities in the system, they would find more profit in creating (as Ibram X Kendi advises) inequities in the opposite direction than in treating everyone equally.
Wokism’s vision of compensatory “equity” is victimary politics’ reductio ad absurdum. Its ultimate resolution will necessitate the emergence of a new generation of black leaders, typified by such as South Carolina’s Tim Scott and Virginia’s Winsome Sears, to bring about the end of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that still dominates the politics, if not, fortunately, the daily experience, of American race relations. We should look forward to this as to the bursting of a blister.
Whether or not this optimistic perspective will have time to unfold before China and its hangers-on are able to mobilize to cripple the West rather than compete peacefully with it for the leadership of the world market is another question, one that the long view suggested by The Dawn… cannot help us to answer. The kairos of our era may be upon us sooner than we think. Nor should we imagine that this current episode will be the final internal challenge to the Western form of modernity. Crises will always be with us; our job as humanists is constantly to generate the ideas that will help us to solve them.
One thing is certain. As both Jews and Christians have always known, and Muslims have never doubted, to love the sinner is not to excuse, but to hate the sin. That this needs once more to be explained only demonstrates that we have reached the pathological endpoint of our caricature of the West’s religious inheritance. We must remind the West that, whatever its religious practices, its survival depends on the acknowledgement of its Abrahamic heritage, whose anthropological insights are at the root of our “new way of thinking.” Which gives us one more reason to hope that the broadening of the Middle-East’s fledgling Israeli-Arab alliance may provide the moral stimulus to reverse our current descent into decadence.