Dire implications

Pub Shrewsbury

A Critique of Graeber and Wengrow's The Dawn of Everything

"Revolutionary" (Sunday Times), ""Irresistible anarchic energy" (The Times), "Iconoclastic" (The Guardian), "Grappling with what it means to be free" (Washington Post)... David Wengrow and David Graeber's The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity is a widely praised best-seller. How can a broad historical survey written by self-professed anarchists be so gladly welcomed by mainstream and "bourgeois" press ?

Debunking the "Standard Narrative"

Conventional wisdom holds that humankind first suffered a constant struggle for survival, living from hand to mouth in infantile simplicity; then peasants toiled from dawn to dusk; later, thanks to reason and technology combined, we have come a long way, but progress has only advanced with inevitable inequality, coercion and war. An interpretation that obviously has "dire political implications". (page 3: all page numbers will refer to The Dawn Of Everything.)

Wengrow and Graeber (henceforth "W. & G.") counter this mindset by a vast array of historical situations: "bureaucracies that work on a community scale; cities governed by neighborhood councils; systems of government where women hold a preponderance of formal positions; or forms of land management based on care-taking rather than ownership and extraction." (p. 523)

From the Americas to Turkey to the Indus civilisation, instances of non-government, self-help and cooperation go back longer than is usually believed, and these "exceptions" are so numerous that they cannot be classified as anomalies.

As the authors acknowledged, they are not the first to debunk a narrative which is neither unanimous nor "standard" any more. It started to be disputed a long time ago. By Peter Kropotkin, for instance. Closer to us, by Pierre Clastres, Marshall Sahlins and James C. Scott  (all three, inspirational writers for W. & G.), to name only a few. (All references at the end of the text.) Now, with the "feminist turn" of evolutionary ecology, "the strategies of females have now become central to models of human origins. Forget 'Man the Hunter' ." (Nancy Lindisfarne)

A number of specialists   - some with a critical or anarchist point of view similar to that of W. & G. - disagree with minor or major aspects of the book, or even reproach the authors with selecting data that support their view. Like most readers, we cannot pretend to be experts, and we assume that many of the facts collected in this book are accurate. Our concern is with the method, the political underpinning and the conclusions.

W. & G. offer us a compelling wealth of data. But any understanding of the past is a reconstruction with a premise, and it usually implies a political agenda. W. & G. are no exception. What is their analysis based on ?

"Seasonality" & "play"

W. & G.'s last page (p. 610) sums up their main thesis: in "[m]any of the societies we've focused on in this book [..] power was dispersed or distributed in flexible ways across different elements of society, or at different scales of integration, or indeed across the times of the year within the same society".

This red thread runs throughout the book, and the authors find it confirmed so many times in such diverse places that The Dawn of Everything feels justified to dismiss the "Why ?" (rather "How ?") question: Why were these numerous non-governed people marginalised ? "How did we get stuck ? How did we end up in one single mode ?" (p.115): "[I]f stateless societies regularly organized themselves in such a way that chiefs have no coercive power, then how did top-down forms of organization ever come into the world to begin with ?" (p. 520)

The best answer suggested by W. & G. is a hypothesis proposed by Franz Steiner (1902-1952): care, refuge and charity happened to give power - and then coercive power - to those who were in charge. Protectors turned dominators. Possibly. But this begs the question: why did care and protection cease to be collectively organised and controlled and become the monopoly of a minority ?

In fact, W. & G. only ask the "Why ?" question to dispose of it as irrelevant: "The State has no origin" (an assertion important enough to serve as the title of a chapter).

Not only, for W. & G., has the State no origin, but its authority is constantly challenged: it co-exists with a degree of popular force that counterbalances its power. W. & G. describe at length "temporary" or "seasonal" lords and kings. They recall how, as late as "the 1940s, the [Brazilian] Nambikwara lived in what were effectively two very different societies" (p. 99), depending on the time of the year (rainy season vs. the rest of the year). The Meso-American Olmec mixed political competition and sport: in their "theater states [..] organized power was realized only periodically; in grand but fleeting spectacles" (p. 386). In some North American societies, what could be called a police force only operated three months of the year, "sometimes recruited from the ranks of ritual clowns" (p. 503), so it was "in a certain sense a play police force". It was even possible to have "an 'empire' built on images" in Peru 1000 to 200 B.C., where no archeological evidence of military fortifications or administrative quarters can be found.

A thought-provoking retelling, but as the words ritual and seasonal pop up again and again, W. & G. extend this "seasonality" of socio-political power to the point where it supposedly explains a lot or most of our past - and present : State rule is real, but it comes with a counterpart that owes its existence much less to how people make their livelihoods than to rite and game. (We'll go back to W. & G.'s deliberately non-materialist approach.) Graeber believes in "the play principle in nature": essentially, we are playful, and the most basic level of being is play rather than economics (Guardian interview, 2015). Therefore, whatever confrontation there may be between groups opposed by divergent interests, confrontation comes second in the course of history compared to a coexistence of roles: everyone plays one part now and then another, law-abiding citizen today, rebel tomorrow, and it's up to them to swap roles. W. & G. make no real distinction between resisting a system and fighting (or overthrowing) it. (Consequently, as we will see, between reform and revolution).

"The very grounds of human sociability"

What's at stake here is not the existence (or importance) of a continuous history of resistance, but its nature. 

What do W. & G. mean when they write that "[..] if human beings really have spent most of the last 40,000 years or so moving back and forth between different forms of social organization, building up hierarchies then dismantling them, the implications are profound" ? (p. 112)  What implications ?

W. & G. argue that human decency and a search for freedom do not belong to bygone times: they have always existed and they persist today: "a certain minimal, 'baseline' communism which applies in all societies" is "the very grounds of human sociability". As experienced, for example, when we do the best possible to save somebody from drowning. "What varies is how far it is felt such baseline communism should properly extend". Native American Iroquois would not "refuse a request for food". In contrast, 17th century Frenchmen living in North America would have refused, because "their range of baseline communism appeared to have been restricted and did not extend to food and shelter." (pp. 47-48) For W. & G., this is precisely  the bedrock of any society - and this is what we can build upon to create a radically better world.  In their opinion, the course of history does not depend upon relations between social groups (in most societies, opposed social groups), but on how we can manage to have our natural human tendency grow and win over constraints.

"[F]rom Paleolithic times onwards [..] many - perhaps even most - people did not merely imagine or enact different social orders at different times of year, but actually lived in them for extended periods of time. [..] Our distant ancestors seem [..] to have moved regularly back and forth between" their existing conditions and life and "an alternate economic or social order". But it all went wrong "when people started losing their freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence". (p. 502)

If words have meaning, to enact is to put into practice, to perform, to actually do. For W. & G., this ability to achieve an alternative form of existence has been active all along, and it can prevail today on a much wider scale. All it takes is for the latent communist undercurrent to manifest itself by appearing in broad daylight. There always are two possibilities within the same society, and overall change will come when the non-oppressive side takes over for good.

"The political argument Graeber and Wengrow make is that people - from the beginning of time - have always been able to choose between  domination and freedom. The payoff of this position is that it allows them to argue that with political will, we can have a revolution and a society run by popular assemblies working through consensus." (Nancy  Lindisfarne & Jonathan Neale)

Nancy and Jonathan are right, except for one word. If all we need is to act out our underlying propensity, and dare to exercise our ingrained freedom, and if the liberating potential is universal and omnipresent, radical transformation might well result from a multitudinous addition of gradual partial actions. Simply put, W. & G. have done away with the difference between "reform" and "revolution" as a decisive historical break.

This explains why they have no use for historical explanations: being provided with a large display of non-coercive forms of life should be enough to prove that we can be free when we put our minds to it. "What matters", Wengrow said in an interview, "is the diminishing political imagination, the freedom to rethink the social order". We have "to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history." (Graeber, Flying Cars...)

Targeting production

W. & G. have read everything, as proved by 146 pages of notes and bibliography out of a 692-page volume. Impressive. But they only take a cursory look at what they wish to ignore.

Marx, in particular, is rejected as another flawed grand narrative.

In the 1840s, communists wished to ground their argument not on wishes, growing misery, or even a succession of social struggles, but on a historical material basis. To establish that current insurrections were portent of revolution, they drew a direct line between industrial growth and emancipation: only modern proletarians had the historical universality that enabled them to do what the exploited and downtrodden in the past had been unable to achieve. This does not mean that early communists were all dazzled by the wonders of steam power and the factory system. Some were. Even Marx and Engels at times. (Let's beware of quotes, though: anyone can prove anything with a couple of lines). A number of 19th and 20th century anarchists also shared this fascination with technology. In his 1858 Humanisphere, Joseph Déjacques (1822-1865 : he reputedly coined the word "libertaire") sang an ode to its liberating powers. 

Later, to explain away a series of proletarian failures, communist theory was tempted to turn determinations into determinism, in a sort of from-Stone-Age-to-communism one-way history.

W. & G. have no time for the predicaments of revolutionary thought. Their basic premise is anti-"materialist" - full stop.

Tellingly, when they take aim at the concepts of production and class, they do not bother to refute Marx: they simply deflect him.

Graeber's earlier famous book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), started its analysis with money, and from the debt angle, because for Graeber, debt came before money, and above all because he over-emphasises circulation over production - an irrelevant concept, according to him:   

"Production is a male fantasy of birth: to produce means to push out. [T]he labor theory of value [..] was based on the notion of production which has a patriarchal bias. A Marxist would say: 'There is a glass. How much labor time and how many resources does it take to produce it ?' But the real question is: if you only produce a glass once, how many times do you wash it ? Marxism overlooks the fact that most labor vanishes when we only talk about production, and of course, the fact that this labor is typically done by women, sometimes not paid at all." (David Graeber on Capitalism Best Kept Secret, 2019 interview. To the best of our knowledge, this sums up Graeber's refutation of Marx's  theory of value.) 

Marx and Engels thought in terms of stages, interpreting history as a succession of modes of production, typifying societies by modes of material existence and using class analysis to understand modern times. For W. & G., this was already far too crude in the 19th century, and since then it has definitively been proved wrong.

Their disqualification of the "mode of production" concept (pp. 186-191) is mainly based on what they see as its irrelevance to slavery. In their view, talking about a "slavery mode of production" is an abusive extension of what existed in classical Rome and Greece. "Ancient Mesopotamia" was not a place of "slave societies" (n.50, p. 575). Besides, the slave system differed immensely among South American peoples who had similar ways of producing their livelihood. So: "Classifying these groups according to how much they farmed, fished or hunted tells us little of their actual histories. What really mattered in terms of the ebb and flow of power and resources, was the use of organized violence to 'feed off' other populations." (p. 188) Therefore, "the idea of classifying human societies by 'modes of subsistence' looks decidedly naive" (pp. 188-189), because some foragers consume quantities of domestic crops, exacted as tribute from nearby farming populations". (p. 189) W. & G. analyse the hugely contrasted ways slaves were enslaved and treated, a wide range of conditions from outright exploitation to adoption, "from care to pet to family" (191). "Slavery [..] became common on the [American] North-West coast because an ambitious aristocracy found itself unable to reduce its free subjects to a dependable workforce." (207)

This raises an essential question.  Why were there two different and utterly opposed social groups in the first place ?

W. & G. are adamant that societies are not determined by production relations (i.e. by how people reproduce their conditions of existence): "cultural differentiation" matters more. "Hierarchy and property may derive from notions of the sacred, but the most brutal forms of exploitation have their origins in the most intimate of social relations: as perversion of nature, love and caring." (p.208) We have already seen how W. & G. magnify the importance of imagination. Engels may have been simplistic, but who's being  "decidedly naive" now ?

Targeting class

The average reader (we included) knows very little about Sumerian Uruk or the Aztecs. He or she may be better informed about 19th century English politics, when the Whigs represented the commercial and industrial classes, and the Tories the landowners. Not so fast, W. & G. warn us page 363: "landed" or any form of property is more than material, it is also legal, based on a monopoly of violence. A digression follows, from State power via historical examples (far from 19th century England) to contemporary planetary bureaucracies, until six pages later any understanding of the class interests of the commercial classes vs. the landed classes has been lost, dissolved in accumulated data.

If we wish to figure out what happened thousands of years ago, we have a preference for authors who also consider history from an anarchist point of view, but with an approach different from W. & G.'s:

"[T]he invention of agriculture did not automatically lead to class inequality or the state. But it made those changes possible. [..] The change in technology and environment set the stage for a class struggle. And the result of that class struggle determined whether equality and inequality triumphed. Graeber and Wengrow ignore this crucial point. Instead, they constantly take issue with the crude form of stages theory that makes such changes immediate and inevitable." (N. Lindisfarne)

A mode of production, W. & G. insist, does not come with predetermined politics. We could not agree more: in the 1930s, in three big industrial countries, the same mode of production coincided with Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia and Roosevelt's New Deal. Today's Chinese consumer  society is compatible with one-party rule, and capitalist Switzerland  differs amazingly from capitalist Saudi Arabia. Does that prove the unreality of capitalism as a worldwide production system ? And if we define the bourgeois class as those who own the means of production and have the power to hire labour to work for them, should we regard the concept as invalid because it lumps together Elon Musk and the restaurant owner who employs a cook and two waitresses ? 

How to deal with an inconvenient concept in political and/or academic discourse: 1) compile enough exceptions to suggest the concept is inappropriate; 2) argue on behalf of complexity; 3) cut the complex down to size until it fits in with your own explanation of things.

"Capitalism's best kept secret"...

...is that it's gone. The present system is "not capitalist" (Graeber, Bullshit Jobs).

Capitalism, Graeber declared, was grounded in value accumulation by mass production: what we now have is a self-supporting parasitic financial structure.

"[W]hen the extraction of the surplus happens through direct political means, it's not called capitalism, but feudalism. That's what we have today: a fusion of public and private bureaucracies whose purpose is to create more and more debt that will then be the object of various forms of speculation. [..] In classic Marxist theory, the role of the state is to guarantee the property relations which then enable extraction to happen through wage labor. But now, the state apparatus plays a more active role in this process. [..] We are living in the era of predatory capitalism." (ouishare interview, 2016)

"When we think of capitalist enterprises, we assume that we're talking about small or medium sized firms who are competing with each other in a market environment. [..] If these corporations do not follow the efficiency rules of capitalism, which system are we living in then ? It could be construed as a kind of feudalism. [..] In capitalism, you get your profits from hiring people to make stuff and then sell it, whereas feudalism is direct appropriation. (Capitalism's Best Kept Secret, 2019)

"Appropriation" there is, but you only appropriate what has been produced before: taking depends on the object taken. It bears repeating that we live in a world where companies (Big Business as well as small firms) get profits "from hiring people to make stuff and then sell it", each company trying to "follow the efficiency rules of capitalism" by achieving the lowest cost of production to compete with its rivals on the market. This reality is as structural now as it was in Marx's days, and it explains the on-going accelerating thrust of the system, its ability to periodically manufacture and market new industrial products, to re-adapt, to overcome its crises and expand.

"Communism already here"

For Graeber, contemporary capitalism equals predation - another word for theft on a grand scale. In this feudal capitalism or capitalist feudalism, if we are dominated by thieves, the solution for us, the people, is to reclaim what is ours. And regaining collective control will be all the easier since we are already on the road to overall change:

" It's only when work becomes standardized and boring - as on production lines - that it becomes possible to impose more authoritarian, even fascistic forms of communism. But the fact is that even private companies are, internally, organized communistically.

Communism then is already here. The question is how to further democratize it. Capitalism, in turn, is just one possible way of managing communism - and, it has become increasingly clear, rather a disastrous one." (Graeber, Hope in Common, 2008)

Graeber was certainly aware that his computer was manufactured on production lines, and that most work remains standardised and boring in the 21st century... For him Ford's assembly line went with fascism. Fortunately, when the knowledge economy and the immaterial information age take precedence over manufacturing, horizontal "communistic" organisation in the working world becomes at long last possible - rational, necessary.

As seen before, The Dawn of Everything's main tenet is that there always is a duality present in every society, a combination of top-down pressure and bottom-up autonomy, consequently fighting for freedom consists in having the latter take over the former. As defined by W. & G., like in past societies, "capitalism" (if the word still applies) is a combination of various forms: let the positive ones prevail, and we will have the equivalent of "revolutionary" change without the unpleasant (yet fortunately obsolete) violent breakthrough called revolution.

"Seems to have captured the prevailing mood"

If media usually averse to anarchist leanings are keen to review - and recommend - David Graeber's books, it's because, when they support anarchy (and even "communism"), they present it as a viable option not antagonistic to this society, but already active within it. A number of "Liberated" or "Freedom-Form" companies pride themselves on being collaborative, horizontal, bottom-up, empowering, with work teams being granted a certain degree of autonomy: their bosses certainly won't mind reading  that they are "internally organised communistically", so why not "further democratize" an existing - and profitable - tendency ?

Besides, with the souring of the progressive dream and the looming ecological crisis, liberals or conservatives are ready to admit that bygone or faraway societies experienced (or still enjoy in remote corners of the planet) leaderless freedom and self-government, but that does not put into question the present wielders of economic and political power. The same world that sends rockets to explore Mars loves to romanticise pre-history, "primitive" societies, or today's indigenous peoples, as long as that affects nothing today. It does not hurt to have a harmless counter-hegemonic history.

On the other side of the political spectrum, The Dawn of Everything has been fairly well received in some radical circles for the exact opposite reason: they read the book as a worthy contribution to anti-capitalist theory and action.

Let's face it: W. & G. have the merit of simplicity: true change might come soon because it has already begun. In fact freedom is always there: it's up to us to be aware of it.

"[H]istorically speaking, hierarchy and equality tend to emerge together, as complements to one another". (p. 208) Between the two, there occurs a permanent balancing act, in which  one side manages regularly to tip the scales. Our  problem is to have  the emancipatory tendency prevail over the coercive, the positive over the negative, the good over the bad.  For W. & G. our task is to turn the age-old "primitive democracy" into a contemporary all-encompassing one. Since there is always a potential for freedom, for a self-organising community, a degree of "self-conscious social experimentation" (p. 326), we must look for spaces of freedom, enlarge them, and transform today's social cracks into tomorrow's foundations.

W. & G. explain that not material factors, but people's freedom of choice is the ultimate cause of history. They insist on evolution (crucial innovations such as staple crops, ceramics, mining...) being gradual, often not caused by material interests, but by ritual, play or religion. Logically, if evolution is gradual, it follows that most likely radical change will be as well. Here again, the easy road to emancipation needs no violent revolution. The myriad of elementary solidarities and communities composing "fundamental communism", hitherto marginal and underground, could thus emerge and assert themselves. Providing, of course, we grow aware of what we truly are deep down inside, and allow the freedom flow to come out on top.

Which "we" are W. & G. talking about ? If, as stated in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, capitalism has now become "a giant debt machine", the decisive divide opposes creditors and debtors, and aren't we all debtors in one way or another ? Quite a few US middle class homeowners experience foreclosure. Even many rich people live on credit. Loan sharks and bankers can't be more than 1% of the population. "We are the 99%", so victory is bound to be on our side.

Sadly, and unsurprisingly, some radicals, especially if they have given up on class (notably on the supposedly outmoded working class), readily lend a listening ear to such discourse. W. & G.'s undoubtedly informative and enthralling master narrative resonates with what might be the largest lowest common denominator between the various fragments of radical milieus: a belief that overall "social change could come from collective usage and extension of what [is presented] as potentially common: for instance, the open field system in still-existing traditional societies, or free software access in the most modern ones. [..] 'Creative commons' are supposed to allow a gradual and peaceful passage to a human community [..] Common wealth is here, all we have to do is reclaim it together." (From Crisis to Communisation) When reformism from the top (implemented by unions and socialist parties) is in acute decline, "baseline" reformism at the bottom comes to try and replace it - with far fewer results, one must add.

* * *

The Dawn of Everything counters the still dominant Hobbesian vision of humans condemned to a "war of all against all" unless they submit to benevolent dictators. W. & G.'s broad historical sweep informs us about a large range of cooperation and self-rule situations over space and time. But this invigorating effect comes with its minus side: a point of view that disregards the reality of class and capitalism, and ignores the issue of revolution.

Wengrow and Graeber write that Yuval Harari is popular worldwide because he "seems to have captured the prevailing mood" (p. 504). How very true. Unlike Harari, the authors present themselves as anarchists, they certainly do not consort with heads of State, and David Graeber was a dedicated street activist. But however sharp and biting The Dawn of Everything is, its critique is in tune with the limitations of present social movements, which the book expresses without helping to understand and overcome them. It rather consolidates them. Dire political implications, indeed.

G.D. (February 2023)


David Graeber and David Wengrow:

The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity, 2021. We have used the Penguin edition, 2022. PDF on docdrop.org

Wengrow, interview about the book, The Guardian, June 12, 2022.

Graeber :

Hope in Common, 2008: theanarchistlibrary.org

Debt, The First 5,000 Years, Melville House, 2011. PDF on theanarchistlibrary.org

Of Flying Cars & the Declining Rate of Profit, 2014: thebaffler.com

Interview, The Guardian, March 12, 2015.

The Era of Predatory Bureaucratization, article on ouishare.net, 2016.

Bullshit Jobs. A Theory, Allen Lane, 2018.

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, libcom.org

David Graeber on Capitalism's Best Kept Secret, interview on philonomist.net, 2019.

Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid. A Factor of Evolution, 1902. PDF on theanarchistlibrary.org

Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, Aldine-Atherton, 1972. PDF on libcom.org

Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State. Essays in Political Anthropology (first French edition, 1974). PDF on theanarchistlibrary.org

However challenging Clastres' research remains, it has something of a determinism in reverse, summed up in the title. When the Guayaki (Aché now, because they regard the name "Guayaki" as derogatory) managed to do without leadership structures, were they acting "against the State" as we know it, as if they could have been aware of what might have befallen them ? It is only we, modern people now living in State-ruled societies, that can declare with the benefit of hindsight that the Aché did their best to avoid a historical stage reached by most of the rest of the world.  

James C. Scott:

Domination & the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts, Yale U.P., 1990. PDF on libcom.org

Zomia. The Art of Not Being Governed. An Anarchist History of Upland South Asia, Yale U.P., 2009. PDF on libcom.org

Everyday Forms of Resistance, article on libcom.org

Against The Grain. A Deep Vision of the Earliest States, Yale U.P., 2017. PDF on wordpress

"Infrapolitics & Mobilizations", Revue française d'études américaines, 2012/1, n. 131. Readable on cairn.info

As shown by the titles above, Scott writes from an anarchist standpoint. His analyses are much more relevant than Graeber's, because he does his best to assess the scope - and the contradictions - of what he studies, and emphasises the limits as well as the links between resisting a system and overthrowing it. Let's quote the first sentence of Zomia's conclusion: "The world I have sought to describe and understand here is fast disappearing."

Joseph Déjacques, The Humanisphere, Anarchist Utopia, 1858. PDF on theanarchistlibrary.org

Christ Knight, Nancy Lindisfarne, Jonathan Neale, The 'Dawn of Everything' Gets Human History Wrong. First published in Climate & Capitalism, December 17, 2021. Stimulating (non-Marxist) research. Of particular interest is the section "The Advent of Agriculture". Among other things, they reproach The Dawn of Everything with taking little or no account of environmental factors, which is logical : Graeber and Wengrow's viewpoint disregards material causes. Readable on MRonline (Monthly Review site).

Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins. On Nationalism, Ethnicity, & Non-Western Societies, Chicago U.P., 2010. PDF on libcom.org

Kwame Anthony Appiah, "Digging for Utopia", New York Review of Books, December 16, 2021.

Marx, German Ideology, Part I, A, § 5: "Development of the Productive Forces as a Material Premise of Communism".

Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, Edited by Lawrence Krader, International Institute for Social History, 1974. Readable on marxists.org

G. Dauvé, From Crisis to Communisation, PM Press, 2019, chap. 6, § 4: "Abundance vs. Scarcity ?".

Aufheben, 5,000 Years of Debt ?, a critique of Graeber's book. Readable on libcom.org

Only in French: G. Dauvé, a critique of Bullshit Jobs: Quelle critique du travail ? David Graeber & les "jobs à la con", 2019, on ddt21.noblogs.org