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Review: Digging For Utopia

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 692 pp., $35.00

That the history of our species came in stages was an idea that came in stages. Aristotle saw the formation of political entities as a tripartite process: first we had families; next we had the villages into which they banded; and finally, in the coalescence of those villages, we got a governed society, the polis. Natural law theorists later offered fable-like notions of how politics arose from the state of nature, culminating in Thomas Hobbes’s mid-seventeenth-century account of how the sovereign rescued prepolitical man from a ceaseless war of all against all.

But it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a hundred years later, who popularized the idea that we could peer at our prehistory and discern developmental stages marked by shifts in technology and social arrangements. In his Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality (1755), humans went from being solitary brutes to companionable, egalitarian hunter-gatherers; but with the rise of metallurgy and agriculture, things had taken a dire turn: people were civilized, and humanity was ruined. Once you found yourself cultivating a piece of land, ownership emerged: the field you toiled over was yours. Private property led to capital accumulation, disparities of wealth, violence, subjugation, slavery. In short order, political societies “multiplied and spread over the face of the earth,” Rousseau wrote, “till hardly a corner of the world was left in which a man could escape the yoke.”

Even people who rejected his politics were captivated by his origin story. In the nineteenth century, greater empirical rigor was brought to the conjectural history that Rousseau had unfolded. A Danish archaeologist partitioned prehistory into the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages; a British one split the Stone Age into the Paleolithic and the Neolithic. For the emerging discipline of anthropology, the crucial stages were set out in Ancient Society (1877) by the American ethnologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Human beings, he concluded, had emerged from a hunter-gatherer phase of “savagery” to a sedentary “barbarian” era of agriculture, marked by the domestication of cereal grains and livestock. Technologies of agriculture advanced, writing arose, governed towns and cities coalesced, and civilization established itself. Morgan’s model of social evolution, presaged by Rousseau, became the common understanding of how political society came about.

Then came another important stage in the story of stages. In the 1930s, the Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe synthesized the anthropological and archaeological findings of his predecessors: after a Paleolithic era of hunting and gathering in small bands, a Neolithic revolution saw the rise of agriculture (again, mainly harvesting cereals and herding ruminants), a soaring population, sedentism, and finally what he called the “urban revolution,” distinguished by large, dense settlements, administrative complexity, public works, hierarchy, systems of writing, and states. This basic story of social evolution has been refined and revised by later scholarship. (One recent point of emphasis is that grain, being storable and hard to hide, lent itself to taxation.) But it’s mainly taken to be—as we like to say these days—directionally correct. There was a stepwise connection, we think, between sowing cereals in our primeval past and waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by the anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow, assails the proposition that there’s some cereals-to-states arrow of history. A mode of production, they insist, doesn’t come with a predetermined politics. Societies of hunter-gatherers could be miserably hierarchical; some indigenous American groups, fattened on foraging and fishing, had vainglorious aristocrats, patronage relationships, and slavery. Agriculturalist communities could be marvelously democratic. Societies could have big public works without farming. And cities—this is a critical point for Graeber and Wengrow—could function perfectly well without bosses and administrators.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books