Everything? Really? Everything?
So, where do you start to unpack everything?
"By David Graeber & David Wengrow." That's as good a place as any. So David Graeber, intellectual iconoclast and erstwhile thought-leader of the by-definition leaderless "Occupy" movement left us a thick orange brick of an epitaph. (He died last year, still intellectually very active and too young.) It's conclusions are ambiguous and motivated by pure heart. It's faith in humanity and and simple ability to say "no" to stupid rules is gorgeously, entrancingly naive. But there's so much good here that that's going to be end of my critique and I'm going to start unpacking the 692 pages of goodness here.
Before I do that, here's a link to Graeber's NYTimes obit. (Bonus points if you find the typo. Hint; it's a double use of the word "in.")
David Graeber has written books such as Debt, the first 5000 years, Bullshit Jobs and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology - so this is social science with an agenda.
David Wengrow is an archaeologist who has written books like The Archaeology of Early Egypt, Social Transformations in North-East Africa, c. 10,000 to 2,650 BC; What Makes Civilization, the Ancient Near East and the Future; and The Origins of Civic Life, a Global Perspective.
The Dawn of Everything is fascinating. first of all, as a broad survey of the latest archaeological pre-historical findings, and the conclusions that can be drawn through cross-referencing. Secondly, for its redefining of the conceptual framework arounds the whys, whats and hows of political control and personal freedom. And finally, for the impassioned ways in which in pokes holes in our current historical/sociological "just-so" story.
"The Dawn of Everything, a new history of humanity." As a generalist whose mind gravitates naturally toward pattern recognition and grand pronouncements, the sheer ambition of the title is irresistible. The promise is that I'm going to learn, get a fresh take; this a both substantial and informative. The book started as a sort of lark with the two of them. The question on the table was, and has been since the age of Rousseau - "When did inequality begin?" The first chapter of the book is a exploration of the exploration of this question throughout socio-philosophical history. There's the Rouseauean take - People were basically good, then came the rise of agriculture, someone had to own the land, thus was born social hierarchy like kings and serfs, as well as a bureaucrats to count the bushels. Now that there was and underclass we gathered, inevitably, in cities so that the elite could keep an eye on us and make us work every harder. The opposing view, the Hobbesian view, is that before civilization, life was "nasty, brutish and short" and that sure, modern society has it's problems, and a lot of people suffer so that the aristocracy can have foie gras and go fox hunting, but thems the breaks and it's better than the alternative. Maybe find some succor in Christ, ye meek. This material world isn't worth a damn anyway. And what David & David, henceforth, D&D do with the rest of the book, is look at the latest findings in archaeology - a lot of which is specialized and silo'ed - and start poking holes in the dominant and seemingly common sense narrative.
Aside from the grander narrative and the point they're trying to make, the book is fascinating. We meet neolithic peoples, we meet the societies of pre-columbian Americas, we take a fresh look at Mesopotamia. And while we literally uncover Mohenjo Daro, Teotihuacan, Kortik Tepe and the Mound and Mississippian cultures of North America. This leads to a lot of intriguing speculation on the part of D&D, which at times leads one to be dismissive of their conclusions and agenda, but then I ask why? What narrative am I living within? And if you're going to look at things objectively, why can't they be different.
Take, for instance, the Agricultural Revolution. Our current framework breaks up human history into epochs of technological progress. The Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age. The Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, Prince and the Revolution, etc.
Basically, what D&D show is that the "Agricultural Revolution" took place over 5,000 years. It wasn't something that happened over night. It wasn't like Stoopo the Neolith discovered a seed of wheat and said, "This enables me to engage in back breaking labor working for the man, as well as mess up my diet with simple carbs, gluten and tooth decay as an added bonus - let us now leave our happy hunter-forager lives." It was a gradual process, over many millennia, with stops and starts. People would garden a little and then settle down - or even live seasonally. Same with the first monumental buildings and the first cities. The first monuments weren't always constructed by slave labor to facilitate a dead emperor's transition to the next life, nor were the first cities always hierarchical. Some early cities, such as Teotihuacan - were governed by a council. In fact, after battling Cortez and his crew and on the eve of victory, they held a council and debated whether or not join with the Spaniards and overthrow the neighboring kingdom of Tenochtitlan and the tyrant Moctezuma. We know how that turned out.
There are neolithic monuments - such as at Poverty point in Louisiana - that seem to have been collectively as seasonal ceremonial centers.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the intriguing sites they explore and the questions raised about societies and poeples that left no written record.
So the book is worth reading, simply for the interest of the archeological particulars. I find pre-literature cultures so intriguing.
Secondly, there are some definitions of power and freedom that they use, which help us see the world around us more clearly. Looking at the way hierarchical governments rose and fell through history, they are based on three methods of coercion. 1) Violence. Within a stated boundary I (I being a "Big Man" Tyrant or Hereditary King or Aristocracy) have the power to injure or kill because of rules I made up and/or with impunity. 2) Control based on secrets and privileged information, ie bureaucracy. 3) Charismatic politics based on competitions. So, all repressive states have some measure of these three elements - or maybe, like today's regimes, are a combination of the three.
The second memorable triple definition is of Freedom. What are the three freedoms? 1) The from to move and go where I want. 2) The freedom to disobey. 3) the freedom to socialize with whom I wish, and to gather in a group. A slave in any age, from Rome to the Sudan to South Carolina, has none of these freedoms. Today, with us all, these freedoms are mitigated.
Another definition or concept that I've found helpful and intriguing is the idea of schismogenesis, which states that neighboring cultures will take contrary positions simply to enhance their differentness. They example they delve into is the Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest - hierarchical, slave owning, based on ostentatious displays of wealthy and sense-gratification, and the cultures to the south of the Siskyous and inland, which were less hierarchical, and based on the values of frugality and self-restraint. Now I see the phenomena of schismogenesis everywhere - in my daughters, (one loud and assertive, the other quiet and withdrawn, both with a stubbornly healthy sense of self) and of course, in the present fucked up state of the 2 Party system, with so much of our political identity being based on "Otherness" or at least "I'm NOT them." So these concepts of power, freedom and how we define ourselves in terms of others are though-provoking and illuminating.
Two other big building blocks in their basic underlying argument that "things doesn't have to be this way."
People treat the current state of affairs as inevitable. Well maybe, and maybe not. With our current state of affairs, we can be excused for thinking there really is no other way, but that is necessarily reductive of the human spirit and our ability to think clearly and work as a group. D&D point out that unfortunately, we have no other planets to compare against ourselves to so we're kind of stuck with thought experiments, and looking at other times. And as we look around the world and back in time, it brings us to America - in particular, the five nations of the Iroquoi. Here was a culture that they theorize from the existing archaeological findings, in particular of the Mississippian Culture and the urban center at Cahokia near modern day East St. Louis in Illinois, that knew about top-down, hierarchical government and had rejected it for a life based on intuition and spirit, connected to the earth and sky, where decisions were made collectively by an informed council. This could take time - (for those LOTR fans, cue the council of the Ents) - but it was a way they had chosen. The Iroquois not only had a different way of doing things, there's evidence that their critique of Western Culture and their celebration in fact jump-started the Enlightenment. All we really needed was tobacco, coffee and a simple observation: "Why do you treat your own people so badly and feel you have to give obeisance to a single human you call king or his cronies?"
So we are this way but maybe we didn't have to be. So again, why? Contrasting Iroquoi Law, the the forms of power and punishmennt with the roots of Roman Law, we find a possible answer. Freedom, as defined by Roman Law, is based on personal property. "I get to do what I want with this thing." D&D argue that this law, and the over 2000 years of the jurisprudence and precedent that follow, are based on the rights of the Citizen, in other words, the Male Head of the Household, Pater, to do whatever he wants with the people and things in his household, ie, his wives, children, slaves and belongings. It was just as much a way to protect freedoms as to take it away - particularly from women and slaves. Even as we are given the right to "own" and rape, punish and kill and otherwise dispose of others, others find that their personal freedoms are abridged. So thus was born this strange and unnecessary connection between domestic care and control, love and providing and ownership.
And on to the questions and the conclusions.
D&D began the project asking "What are the origins of inequality" and the corollary, "What are the origins of the State?"
Regarding the first, perhaps instead of asking, "What are the origins of social inequality?" as if it were inevitable, we should be looking at ourselves through the lens of history and asking: "Why did we get stuck?" Cycles of history have come and gone. We can change. Part of being human is the ability to change our destiny, either by fight or flight. To talk together as a group and decide what's best. Maybe here I can yield the floor to D&D, and quote from their summarizing chapter, brilliantly entitled: Conclusion.
From page 519.
If there is a particular story we should be telling, a big question we should be asking of human history (instead of the 'origins of social inequality'), is it precisely this: how did we find ourselves stuck in just one form of social reality, and how did relations based ultimately on violence and domination come to be normalized within it?
From page 523-4. (long)
Social theorists have a tendency to write about the past as if everything that happened could have been predicted beforehand. This is someone dishonest, since we're all aware that when we actually try to predict the future we almost invariably get it wrong - and this is just as true of social theorists as anybody else. Nonetheless, it's hard to resist the temptation to write and think as if the current state of the world, in the early 21st century, is the inevitable outcome of the last 10,000 years of history, while in reality, of course, we have little or no idea what the world will be like even in 2075, let alone 2150.
Who knows? Perhaps if our species does endure, and we one day look backwards from this as yet unknowable future, aspects of the remote past that now seem like anomalies - say 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 - will seem like the really significant breakthroughs, and great stone pyramids or statues more like historical curiosities. What if we were to look at say, Minoan Crete or Hopewell not as random bumps on the road that leads inexorably to states and empires, but as alternative possibilities: roads not taken?
Last paragraph of the book, page 525-6.
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's its nature was fundamentally good or evil; that a time before inequality and political awareness existed; that something happened to change all this; 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.