Possible Worlds: The Broad Thinking Of David Graeber & David Wengrow

Zach Lewis reviews the final work of activist and theorist David Graeber (written in collaboration with David Wengrow), *The Dawn of Everything*, not so much a general history as a call to think more broadly

Graeber and Wengrow, credit: Kalpesh Lathigra

To speculate on human nature is an admittedly stupid thing we love to do. Of course every human is different, of course every simplification of human nature will be an ugly map for its territory, of course “human nature” may not refer to anything at all. Yet, outside our most reflective moments, we rely on this theological concept for nearly every argument about politics, justice, and power. There’s a Karl Kraus aphorism that goes: when someone behaves like an animal, they admit that they’re only human; but, when they are treated like an animal, they retort “I’m human, too!” Humanity can be equated with beastliness and violence thanks to St. Augustine’s emphasis on our fallen selves burdened with original sin, but humanity can equally be the lone factor that gives one dignity and rights as evinced in the civil rights movement slogan “I Am a Man.”

Though the average person may not have a dogmatic or even consistent view of human nature, a famous historical dichotomy about this nature pervades our thinking and underpins nearly every political position. A few centuries after Thomas Aquinas first emphasised natural law – that humans can use their reason and their senses to understand and align themselves with God’s good cosmological order, even if they are not Christian – Thomas Hobbes called for a strong state with an unimpeachable ruler. He used his reason and his senses to portray human nature as a circular firing squad that led to nasty, brutish, and short lives. For Hobbes, the state, immanently residing in the almighty sovereign, protects life through its ordered inequality. A century later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that we humans are a genial bunch and that state-sponsored inequality ruins our blessed childhood innocence and freedom, completed the dichotomy.

This is an oversimplification, of course. It’s easy to find “Hobbesian” passages in Rousseau and vice-versa, but the oversimplification itself matters, given that this particular oversimplification guides the sociopolitical assumptions and language we have continued to use, even (and especially) in the highest towers of academe. Correcting this is central to the project of The Dawn of Everything.

The title implies something that the book is not. The Dawn of Everything is certainly not about everything, and the word “dawn,” as well as the subtitle “A New History of Humanity,” recall more general histories like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Instead, it’s closer to a history of inequality, though the authors even admit discomfort with that idea just a few chapters in. It’s really a historiography of the idea of inequality and a survey of the major voices who have asked us to think more and more narrowly about how states and non-state peoples behave. David Graeber and David Wengrow begin most chapters with our “common sense” ideas about early states, then reveal just how these ideas were manufactured (and by whom), what evidence was left out (or is just coming to light), and how all of this is entirely predicated by facile ideas about human nature. The product, ten years in the making and the final work of the late Graeber, may disappoint those looking for an anarchist cure-all to our political maladies. It may also disappoint non-anarchists who are looking for general theses about the nature of power and inequality such as Jared Diamond’s bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel or Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. But, like the best academic works, it rewards those who seek complication, nuance, the ifs and buts of history, and the chance to have one’s entire intellectual framework flipped.

Here’s an example from early in the book. The very first Enlightenment-era discussions about liberty and equality are usually considered great intellectual leaps in political thinking and radical rejections to the divine right of kings. These radical ideas are first spoken thanks to the new salons which fostered unconventional political arguments fuelled by the newly-acquired caffeine and tobacco from the New World. Yet a strange thing happens when we look at these Enlightenment writers’ influences: nearly all of them, especially Rousseau, credit Native Americans. Graeber and Wengrow note that most scholarship has either chauvinistically denied this. Or, on the opposite political spectrum, scholars accuse these writers of merely using these “noble savages” (this book also reveals the origin of this term to be more interesting than you would think) as props to make their works seem wiser. Recent indigenous scholars have countered these critics with a simple question: what if it’s just literally true? This answer is a complete inversion of the typical history of liberalism. A particularly well-circulated series of discussions between French aristocrat Baron de la Hontan and Wendat philosopher-statesman Kandiaronk reveals our now-familiar defences of equality and liberty, as well as major critiques of Christianity, to first come from the Wendat tribe’s reasoned dissension from the encroaching European influence. This exciting back-and-forth would be adapted as a hit play; this hit play was later adapted by Montesquieu as The Persian Letters, ensuring that no self-respecting Enlightenment thinker could possibly ignore Kandiaronk’s words. Of course, these ideas would not have been accepted by Europeans if their intellectual background wasn’t poised to accept it, so most of the original narrative is necessarily still true. But, that admittance doesn’t take away the force of what this story reveals: that liberty and equality really are true American values.

Most of the other studies in the book follow this format by revealing that our entire view of history changes if we abandon certain intellectual frameworks. By doing so, we see how limiting such frameworks can be and how willingly we can ignore what’s right in front of us. The authors align most of their intellectual efforts to dispute the archaeological and anthropological “common sense” statements that have osmotically reached the bully pulpits of popular Human Naturites such as Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari. That is, that hunter-gatherers lived lives of complete freedom, that farming itself is responsible for the creation of states, and that states are inherently hierarchical. These stories bolster both the Hobbes and Rousseauian myths by painting prehistorical humans as nice anarcho-communist hippies but simultaneously admitting that a straightforward return to this natural state is too radical an idea (after all, right now, without Googling, would you know what local plants are poisonous?). Thus, say Pinker and Harari, even those who think Rousseau was correct must live with the Hobbesian hierarchical state anyway. Pinker’s recent Enlightenment Now makes this argument with comforting statistics about quality of life, mortality, and happiness. Yet again, but without a hint of irony, someone proposes a mathematical system that proves we live in the Best of All Possible Worlds.

Graeber and Wengrow candidly object to this way of thinking through counterexamples. The papers and books of figures like Pierre Clastres (an anthropologist and one of Graeber’s biggest influences) are celebrated as he, unlike his teacher Claude Lévi-Strauss, highlighted peoples who have purposefully organised themselves against state-formation. My favourite example of these anecdotes is Franz Boas’s study of the Kwakiutl Inuits. According to Boas, they organise themselves into sometimes brutal hierarchies during the cold winters, but dissipate this entire structure during the warm months. The shift in societal roles and structures is so dramatic that each member of the Kwakiutl has a winter name and a summer name, hinting that they see themselves as two completely distinct people occupying two distinct worlds. The leaders of the winter months live as the poorest of the Kwakiutl during the summer as they have no guarantee that they will lead the following year. They must foster good will among the people; thus, there is no lasting nepotism, no abuse of power, no accumulation of wealth. So, what other incentive would there be to lead except for the good of the Kwakiutl? Graeber and Wengrow mostly discuss the peoples of the Americas, but Greece and Mesopotamia make appearances as counterexamples to the myth of the Agricultural Revolution (farming was rampant before states, but farms looked more like private gardens for religious rites, despite these peoples’ knowledge of larger subsistence farms). Left-liberal Rousseauian assumptions are also challenged, as plenty of North American societies, such as the Yurok, are shown to operate under what we would now call the Protestant work ethic, though without the influence of capitalism, Christianity, or urbanisation. The real detail to notice is that they did so right next to societies that didn’t. The diversity of the world’s older political ecosystems shows that there is no state of nature.

Though the authors spend most of the book cautioning against intellectual frameworks, they do make at least one positive, systematic claim. After showing that bureaucracy does not naturally appear as information management after a certain level of societal “complexity,” nor does it always naturally result from hierarchy (as Andean allyu shows a bureaucratic system that effectively prohibits it), it does always tend toward inhumanity whenever justified by sovereign power for bureaucracy’s own sake. This mentality of “the rules are the rules, don’t ask me” gets to the heart of what we fear about state power; after all, even an all-powerful king is preferable here as their sovereignty outranks the rules. It’s also easy to equate this to Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, where the system becomes more important than what’s best for us or, in a non-utilitarian sense, what is truly Good. There, in the religious rituals of bureaucratic nihilism, we find the modern state. The authors finally define the state as the “desire effectively to make the ritual [of creating the universe] last forever.” Even the worst ancient states had a meaningful universe the ritual evoked; we’re left with trains, running on time, for no one.

By the way, there is another state of nature argument that comes shortly after Rousseau. Unlike Hobbes and Rousseau’s false dichotomy of brutishness or innocence, Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) gives an account of nature that reconciles being and becoming, our two modes of existence. When the drives toward being (usually the “form drive”) and becoming (usually the “sense drive”) are balanced, we are aware of the possibilities of what we can become, and we are finally attuned to a true human nature. This state is the play drive, the power to choose between being and becoming, which represents true freedom. Schiller gives a paradoxical definition of play by saying, “man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.” In 1938, historian Johan Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens, which takes Schiller’s idea and applies it to topics outside metaphysics, concluding that “[Civilization] does not come from play like a baby detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.”

If there is any moral compass guiding all of David Graeber’s work, it is this concept of play. Debt is not just a history of currency and debtors’ prisons, it is also a call for us to imagine a world in which being indebted is not seen as a bad thing, that it is perhaps even necessary, and that in some cases (such as our lifelong debts to our parents) it can serve as a moral good. The Utopia of Rules is not just a history of the logic of bureaucracy, it is a call to reinvent a world in which the systems exist for something beyond their own sake. Bullshit Jobs is, rather explicitly, a call to reimagine the world without bullshit jobs. What made Graeber great was not that he was the correct sort of anarchist or that he wrote well on interesting subjects; plenty of people fit into both of those categories. David Graeber’s legacy is one of fully articulating the contra-status-quo position: our imaginations have been limited and our holy play has turned to rigid games. By creating a better world on the page, we see just how easy it might be to play with our world and fully become human. The difficulty comes from our modern incurious Panglosses keeping us in safe castles, reminding us that we live in the Best of All Possible Worlds.

I do not envy David Wengrow who must carry his own decade-long work as a constant reminder of the other David’s death. His short introduction reads as a eulogy, and how could it be anything else? It’s our own ritual for ourselves – even in less secular times, the words of a eulogy were not for gods but for us. But, after that brief, grim reminder comes several hundred pages of David (and David), there on the page, talking with us in the same way we talk to Voltaire, Schiller, Huizinga, Castres, Kandiaronk: through their words and a little imagination. The Dawn of Everything reins in history’s rules and replaces them with a radical, uncompromising play, not such that we are overwhelmed with an infinity of nihilistic political choices, but so we may finally articulate and follow the values that lead to our better possible world.

The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow is published by Allen Lane

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