Nancy Fraser’s Cannibal Capitalism: An Extended Discussion

Cannibal Capitalism

By Irina Herb, Dana Abdel-Fatah, Deborshi Chakraborty, and George Edwards

Nancy Fraser begins her most recent book, Cannibal Capitalism, by noting that the ‘current boom in capitalism talk remains largely rhetorical’.[1] Against this backdrop, the book seeks to equip a wider audience with an accessible framework to analyse ‘all these horribles’.[2] To do so, she upcycles and synthesises some of her earlier works, weaving them together through the metaphor of cannibalism which serves to symbolise capital’s undermining of its necessary background conditions.[3]

Closely following her earlier work,[4] Fraser starts the book with an accessible short introduction to the basics of an ‘orthodox’ account of Marx: studying the sphere of production, Marx finds that capital does not expand through the process of exchanging equivalents in markets. Rather, it expands in the process of production, when workers sell their labour-power to capitalists and do not get compensated for all of it(‘exploitation’). As she recounts, for Marx the preconditions for the capitalist mode of production were the violent processes of dispossessing/expropriating people of their means of subsistence and production during the ‘enclosures’ and formal colonialism (‘primitive’ or ‘original accumulation’). This created private ownership of the means of production, ‘doubly-free’ workers, ‘self-expanding value’ and the distinctive role of markets. Quoting Piero Sraffa, she characterises capitalism as a system for the ‘production of commodities by means of commodities’. However, she adds as a starting point for her discussion, ‘one that also relies, as we shall see, on a background of non-commodities’.[5]

From this point onwards, Fraser takes her readers beyond Marx and his scrutiny of ‘the hidden abode’ of production. She takes them to ‘abodes that are even more hidden still’ and ‘still in need of conceptualisation’. In this sense, her work may be seen as the ambitious attempt to fill ‘new volumes of Capital[6] with a systematic account of the background conditions of possibility for exploitation. These conditions occur not only ‘outside the economy’, but function via logics different to those of the economy. The economy, with its front-story of exploitation and back-story of expropriation follows, as Marx himself had laid out, the logic of capital accumulation: power and resources are invested to produce commodities to be sold for surplus-value on markets. In the realm of unpaid social reproduction, in contrast, gendered ‘angels of the home’[7] in families and communities reproduce the worker without remuneration but driven by ideals of ‘care’, ‘mutual responsibility’, and ‘solidarity’.[8] The realm of politics provides the ‘public powers to guarantee property rights, enforce contracts, adjudicate disputes, quell anti-capitalist rebellions, maintain the money supply’.[9] The realm of non-human ecology provides resources necessary for production and a sink for its waste. Crucially, the functional differences and constructed boundaries between the economy and other ‘zones of non-commodification’, which run according to ‘distinctive ontologies of social practice and normative ideals’,[10] are no pre-capitalist relic but, in fact, fundamental to capitalism.

Based on such an ‘expanded notion of capitalism’, Fraser sheds a clarifying light on crises and processes of (de-)commodification: Rather than focussing on contradictions within the economic realm, she explains domination, destruction, and crises through the construction of boundariesbetween the economy and the non-commodified zones, which are specific to capitalist societies. Each of the realms, as well as racialised expropriation, is understood to stand in a contradictory but interdependent relationship with the economy. These ‘four “contradictions” of capitalism’ each ‘correspond to a genre of cannibalisation and embodies a “crisis tendency”’:[11] Capitalists depend on the non-commodified zones but are structurally pushed to deplete them. For example, capitalists are incentivised to keep the costs of social reproduction as low as possible – providing low standards of work protection, and legal means of tax avoidance – while equally depending on workers to be healthy (enough) to do the work. This contradiction, Fraser notes by drawing on Wallerstein, means that ‘capitalism is not characterised by pervasive commodification and monetisation, rather, commodification is far from universal and where it is present, it depends on zones of non-commodification’.[12]

After outlining her expanded notion of capitalism that conceptualises capitalism as consisting not only of the economy but also its background conditions, Fraser dedicates one chapter to each of them: expropriation, unpaid social reproduction, nature and the polity.

To Fraser, expropriation is ‘integral to capitalist society’[13] rather than an initial stockpiling of capital at the system’s beginnings (so-called ‘primitive accumulation’).[14] She argues that the concept of expropriation shines light on two phenomena: First, the fact that unlike as with exploitation, where ‘doubly free’ workers are paid only part of the value they produce, the concept of expropriation captures how land and labour-power continue to be stolen. The subjects of this theft are not random: According to her, the line between the ‘exes’ runs along the colour line. It is ‘their assignment to two different populations, that underpins racial oppression’:[15]white workers are exploited, whereas value is expropriated from racialised ‘dependent’ subjects.[16] Secondly, political orders enable such theft from racialised groups by legitimising and enforcing constructs like ‘chattels slaves, indentured servants, colonised subjects, “native” members of “domestic dependent nations”, debt peons, “illegals” and felons’.[17] In this sense, ‘the distinction between the two “exes” is a function not only of accumulation but also of domination’.[18]

With her conceptualisation of expropriation as mediated through racism, Fraser picks up on what she calls ‘a profound but underappreciated stream of critical theorising, known as Black Marxism’[19] that flourished between the 1930s and 1980s around figures like C.L.R. James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Stuart Hall, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Manning Marable, Barbara Fields and Michael Dawson, and has been reinvigorated by scholars such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Cedric Johnson, Barbara Ransby and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Rather than positing racism as either necessary orcontingent to capitalism, Fraser claims that capitalism providesstructurally enabling conditions for racism and racial oppression.

After presenting the modality in which expropriation relates to exploitation in different historical regimes of racialised accumulation, Fraser concludes that in the present regime of financialised capitalism, in which private debt plays a pivotal role, the line between the two exes has become muddied. We now witness a new hybrid modality of the ‘expropriated-and-exploited citizen-worker. No longer restricted to peripheral populations and racial minorities, this new figure is becoming the norm.’[20]

In her chapter on unpaid reproduction as a background condition for the economy, Fraser notes a deep-seated contradiction or crisis tendency between capital accumulation and social reproduction.[21] Analogous to the periodic crises in the economy, we witness periodical ‘major cris[e]s – not simply of care, but of social reproduction in the broadest sense’.[22] In this context, the ‘division between social reproduction and commodity production is central to capitalism’:[23] parallel to the formation of the split between workers and capitalists, productive and reproductive work were split apart, the latter relegated to a separate, private, domestic sphere, obscuring its social importance and depriving it of remuneration in cash form. Through their association with it, women and feminised groups became structurally subordinated.

This contradiction has been tackled differently in different phases of capitalism: during the era of mercantile capitalism, reproduction in the core mainly continued to take place within households and churches, while in the ‘periphery’, social bonds were violently upended through looting, enslavement, and the dispossession of Indigenous people. In the liberal-colonial phase, women (and children) flocking into factories brought about a crisis of social reproduction and gender roles – a phenomenon famously and controversially commented on by Marx and Engels. This was managed by creating ‘the family’ in its modern restricted form. Drawing on Maria Mies, Fraser mentions the concept of ‘housewifization’ while also noting that poor, racialised and working-class women could never live up to the ideals of housewifery. As Fraser notes, this ‘struggle to ensure the integrity of social reproduction became entangled with the defence of male domination’.[24] In state-managed capitalism, the core dealt with the contradiction by enlisting state power in the form of welfare and the family wage, whereas social reproduction remained mainly beyond the purview of government in the periphery. In today’s financialised capitalism, new developments include divestment from social welfare, recruitment of women into the paid workforce and, resulting from that, a dual organisation of social reproduction: commodified for those who can afford it and privatised for those who cannot, with household debt and global care chains playing an increasing role.[25]

Fraser understands the natural world as a further noneconomic background condition for capitalist economies. ‘More than a relation to labour, capital is a relation to nature’,[26] Fraser insists. A capitalist economy depends on nature’s biophysical wealth to pile up value, but any responsibility for the ecological harms wrought – carbon dioxide flooding the atmosphere, islands of plastic rising from the seas, deforestation driving lethal pandemics – is routinely denied: ‘the damages are the flip side of profits’.[27] From the perspective of capital, nature is the ontological other of humanity, an infinite ‘realm of stuff, devoid of value’, but, in reality, the natural world is unable to self-replenish without limit. This predatory and extractive relation to nature thus leads to the eventual exhaustion of resources and destabilisation of ecosystems, a dynamic that in turn undermines capitalist society’s own ecological conditions of possibility. This, for Fraser, is ‘capitalism’s ecological contradiction’ – programmed as an iron law within the very structure of the economy.

Back in 1988, James O’Connor outlined this general schema as the ‘second contradiction of capital’, while in the spring of 2020, Andreas Malm[28] identified this theory as manifesting in crisis: with workers forced to shield themselves away from deadly pathogens, large parts of the economy ground to a halt. Yet the originality of Fraser’s contribution lies in the insistence that capitalism’s ecological contradiction cannot be isolated from the ‘system’s other constitutive irrationalities and injustices’.[29] The system denies social reproduction when it destroys life-sustaining ecosystems. It creates racially marked populations for expropriation when political powers enable resources to be extracted. Notwithstanding the divisions capitalist society enforces between the domains of economy, state, care and nature, Fraser maintains that all spheres are intimately connected, any one contradiction inescapably interacting with contradictions elsewhere. The central point being that we cannot fully anatomise capitalism’s ecological crisis without grasping the mutually interacting contradictions that constitute capitalist society.

Building on the concept of boundary shifts and struggles, Fraser aims to provide for the above abstractions a concrete form. From ox-turned mills to coal-fired industrialisation, through oil-fuelled automobility to carbon-traded ‘green capitalism’, she demonstrates the distinct ways in which each stage of capitalist development organised its relation to nature and managed its contradictions. Fraser endeavours to show not only how each ‘socio-ecological regime’ generated their energy and extracted their resources but also the concrete meanings that each regime ascribed to nature. To elaborate this latter point, Fraser wades into debates animating certain lines of ecological Marxism, as she tries to get a firmer grip on the ‘slippery’ term that is ‘nature’. She presents the reader with three natures: Nature I – a scientific-realist conception of nature as an objective force; Nature II – a structural analysis of the capital–nature relation – and Nature III – the object studied by historical materialism, concrete and changing over time. With ecosystems services, carbon-trading schemes and environmental derivatives now littering the capitalist imaginary, there is a green veneer to the inter-subjective beliefs that motivate the capitalist class (Nature II). But, whilst their actions may bring forth lithium mines or enclose lands for carbon credits (Nature III), very little will be done to tame the biophysical realities of global warming (Nature I). Whilst this tripartite schema of nature reminds us to remain vigilant against green illusions and technological fixes, it may be noted at this point that it is not clear what advances this somewhat clunky terminology offers to understanding beliefs about nature that a concept like ideology does not.

In her chapter on the polity as a background condition, Fraser outlines how, in capitalist societies, the economy crucially relies on public powers to guarantee property rights, enforce contracts, adjudicate disputes, quell anti-capitalist rebellions, and maintain the money supply.[30] In this context, she engages with the question of what causes the crisis of democracy and what its solution could be. She bluntly opposes what she calls ‘politicism’[31] – the liberal idea that the crisis is a consequence of the decline in the political ethos and the power of constitutional regimes. In this narrative, the solution is seen to lie within the political realm, an approach Fraser criticises for overlooking ‘extra-political society’.[32] While eschewing such liberal interpretations of the political crisis, Fraser also claims to avoid the ‘economism’ of past Marxists. In this line, Fraser’s fundamental contribution is her effort to connect the political crisis with the social, ecological, and economic crises.

Similar to Lenin’s attempt to understand the metamorphosis of capitalism from one avatar to another, Fraser outlines different stages of capitalism to understand the origin of today’s crisis. The current stage of capitalism is analysed through the prism of financialised capitalism where central banks and global financial institutions have become leading players[33] while simultaneously relying and freeriding on ‘public powers to establish and enforce its constitutive norms’.[34] These newly empowered global institutions have become sovereign in their function without being answerable to the public or the state, while their functioning is tremendously consequential to the public. To her, this conglomeration manifests itself in economic crises (e.g. Greece in 2015), political crises (e.g. Brazil in 2017–18), and the current refugee crisis.[35] Furthermore, Fraser argues that populism and populist regimes need to be understood as having come into power as a reaction to the onslaught of financialised capitalism. In this context, she criticises popular social movements for operating in the shadow of liberal hegemony, functioning as ‘junior partners of the progressive-neoliberal bloc’.[36] Precisely because of their previous and ongoing deep entanglement with neoliberalism, creating mistrust on the part of common working people, these movement failed to put up substantial opposition to the populist regimes.

Fraser ends the book by announcing the hope that ‘socialism is back!’, and goes on to advertise for it. Her vocal support for a socialist future certainly facilitates the mainstreaming and destigmatising of the discussions on socialism in academia. Apart from this zeal, however, Fraser’s book represents a theorem concerning today’s capitalist crisis rather than a manifesto for the future: her primary contribution is geared towards understanding capitalism and its crises. Therefore, when the reader turns to the chapter that promises to speak about ‘what we can do’, they should expect a short and limited intervention on socialism which side-lines some of the questions truly at stake. For example, the failure of twentieth-century socialism is often attributed to the lack of democracy and the hegemonic presence of the party in society and state functioning. Therefore, Fraser’s emphasis on the importance of inclusivity in decision-making is well-placed.[37] Yet, past socialist experiments have never disagreed in principle on the importance of inclusivity in the decision-making process, but nevertheless often failed on that score in practice. Therefore, at this point, a discussion of ‘what we can do’ will have to go beyond simply repeating calls for inclusivity. Here, thorny and nitty-gritty questions around the transformation to socialism (and the role of violence within it) and multiparty democracy in a post-revolutionary society remain to be discussed. Secondly, Fraser reiterates the classical socialist approach that a ‘socialist society must democratise control over social surplus’.[38] Yet, again, such attempts have failed in the past – for example in ‘Leninism’, where the state became the custodian of the surplus, which led to state capitalism rather than to the socialist redistribution of surplus – thus the debate on the ownership of surplus must go deeper, asking critical questions about the relationship between state and capital, including the state’s role in accumulating surplus and its redistribution.

Concluding Remarks

Fraser is not the first to claim that in capitalist societies the economy relies on ‘noncommodified zones’ such as unpaid ‘housework’, nature, the polity, and racism (as a mechanism to justify expropriation). Yet, surely, she may be credited for her attempt to bring disparate insights from older Marxist figures, including Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, and newer voices from the realms of Marxist Feminism (Eli Zaretsky, Lise Vogel, Nancy Flobre, Barara Laslett, Johanna Brenner, Susan Ferguson, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya) as well as figures from the ranks of eco-Marxism (James O’Connor, Jason Moore) together into one expanded notion of capitalism. Not only does her framework allow for connections between these different thinkers, it also helps elucidate political and strategic implications. This may be illustrated by way of an example: In Capital, Marx already drew on the example of a teacher to show that the same type of work (teaching) can occur both productively (in a private school) and unproductively (in a public school). Fraser now helpfully adds to the distinction between the productive and unproductive: her framework of different non-commodified zones is not only potentially easier to understand but also allows for more complexity than Marx’s binary distinction. In particular, it creates more space to theorise unproductive work commissioned by the state (care homes, childcare, etc.) – an important point of debates amongst Marxist Feminists. Furthermore, her framework helps us discern and politicise an important question: ‘In which realm should which work occur?’ ‘Moving’ activities from one realm to another shifts the boundary between these realms and therefore their size and power. To Fraser, these ‘boundary struggles’ are the ‘very stuff of social struggle in capitalist societies – as fundamental as the class struggles over control of commodity production and distribution of surplus value that Marx privileged.’ To her, they ‘decisively shape the structure of capitalist societies’.[39]

Two issues arise from Fraser’s framework that deserve further discussion.

Firstly, Fraser’s conceptualisation of different forms of oppression leaves room for debate. At a general level, the fact that she ascribes the particular types of domination respectively to each one of the (re-)productive spheres (plus expropriation) might be seen as a tempting proposition, since it appears to afford simple, clean answers – gendered oppression occurs in the realm of unpaid social reproduction, racism through the process of expropriation, ecological destruction within the realm of nature, and ‘political domination’[40] within the realm of politics. In doing so, she claims that her framework ‘brings together in a single frame all the oppressions, contradictions, and conflicts of the present conjuncture’.[41] Yet, unfortunately, the story of oppression is more complex – both with regard to questions of intersecting oppressions and with regard to forms of marginalisation that inevitably fall outside of her narrow framework. For example, readers may be surprised to find that queerness and queer-hatred hardly play a role, while ableism is not mentioned. These omissions are crucial – in particular, the case of queer-hatred would likely bring into question the idea that each form of discrimination fits neatly within a single box.

More specifically, Fraser’s emphasis on expropriation to conceptualise racism has certainly added to the debate in important ways. Yet, it should be discussed whether her use of the concept may be doing both too much and too little at the same time. Too much in the sense that it is dubious whether the ‘two exes’ are really fit to do as much of the analytical lifting to explain racism as she seems to suggest: Expropriation does not seem sufficient to explain racism in all its different historical and global formations, not to mention its relationship with other categories like religion, ethnicity, or caste. It is also worth remembering that the US American case, which Fraser appears to prioritise, does not translate easily to other contexts. Furthermore, Fraser’s heavy reliance on the concept of expropriation to capture the theft of land and labour from racialised groups and to motivate political orders, comes at the cost of neglecting important superstructural factors, including the ideological dimension of racism.[42] In addition, it seems unclear to what extent her explanation of racism holds today: After discussing the blurring line between the two exes in the current regime of financialised capitalism, Fraser rightly asks, ‘why does racism outlive the disappearance of the sharp separation of the two exes?’[43] Yet, this question remains largely unanswered, left as an exercise for future discussions: How can we conceptualise racialising dynamics in financialised capitalism? What are the political and social implications of the conflation of the ‘two exes’? Does Fraser’s model appropriately capture the past but fall short in explaining racialisation processes in the present? Or is there a deeper underlying issue that renders her model questionable more generally?

Fraser’s application of expropriation may do too little in the sense that it is empirically and conceptually unclear why she restricts the reach of expropriation to explaining racism, rather than domination and oppression more generally. For example, women have been, and at points continue to be, legally excluded from voting, certain forms of work or holding their own bank accounts.[44] Fraser herself discusses how patriarchal legislation (accompanied by norms) has rendered women vulnerable to conducting unpaid ‘housework’. Here, she not only seems to court a logical contradiction when she refrains from using the concept of expropriation in the context of patriarchy. She also curiously omits Federici’s and other feminists’ argument that before there was the expropriation of the land, there was the expropriation of the female body.[45]

Taking into account that, in a later chapter, Fraser turns to expropriation to make sense of ecological destruction,[46] it seems apt to ask: could there be a larger conceptual issue concerning expropriation in Fraser’s overall framework? It is at least noteworthy that Fraser seems to conceptualise expropriation on a par with the realms of nature, social reproduction and polity as ‘non-economic normativities’[47] which serve as background conditions to the economy. Yet, nature, social reproduction, polity, and economy are realms within which (re-)production occurs, whereas exploitation and expropriation describe the mode of non- or under-compensation. In this sense, rather than conceptualising expropriation as occurring adjacent to the non-commodified zones, we should discuss whether expropriation ought to be conceptualised as occurring within the economic realm,between the economy and its background conditions andwithin the realms of the background conditions.

Secondly, what is an anti-capitalist struggle? Against the backdrop of her contention that the economy depends on non-commodified zones, Fraser states that ‘what counts as an anti-capitalist struggle is thus much broader than Marxists have traditionally supposed’.[48] While this is certainly a valid (albeit not a new) point, a problem arises: She eschews the truly tricky question of which struggles are anti-capitalist and which prolong its life. At points, the reader might get the impression that any struggle is anti-capitalist, given that it may undermine the background conditions of the economic sphere. More prominently though, Fraser offers a scathing critique of those movements which have failed to be anti-capitalist in their struggles. She understands them to serve as ‘front men […] by casting a veneer over the predatory political economy of neoliberalism’. This ‘unholy alliance ravaged the life conditions of the vast majority and thereby created the soil that nourished the Right’.[49] She furthermore criticises ‘that romantic view [which] is held today by a fair number of anti-capitalist thinkers and left-wing activists’ who ‘too often […] treat “care,” “nature,” “direct action,” “commoning,” or (neo) “communalism” as intrinsically anti-capitalist’.[50] From our perspective, the point here is not to dismiss her critique of romanticised (and oftentimes depoliticised) ideas of anti-capitalism. Rather, the point is of an analytical and pragmatic nature: how far will activists get when they learn that some forms of activism are ‘too romantic’ or too ‘neo-liberal’ and yet are unable to learn what actually constitutes anti-capitalist struggles? Here, Fraser unhelpfully downplays a question which has been and still is hotly debated: how do struggles get co-opted? And when is care-work in non-commodified zones, which is at times associated with anti-capitalist resistance, accidentally propping up and perpetuating the system by keeping its background conditions running? When could non-commodified zones serve as pockets for resistance and foster the formation of alternatives?

To conclude, Cannibal Capitalism should not be missed by anyone who is interested in making sense of current crises. It is also a must-read for those involved in analytical debates on overarching Marxist frameworks which synthesise work on social reproduction, racism, the state, and ecology.


Bhattacharya, Tithi 2017, ‘Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory’, in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, edited by Tithi Bhattacharya, pp. 1–20, London: Pluto Press.

Cooper, Melinda 2017, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, New York: Zone Books.

Federici, Silvia 1975, Wages against Housework, Bristol: Falling Wall Press/The Power of Women Collective.

Federici, Silvia 2004, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, New York: Autonomedia.

Ferguson, Susan 2020, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction, London: Pluto Press.

Fraser, Nancy 2014, ‘Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism’, New Left Review, II, 86: 55–72.

Fraser, Nancy 2022, Cannibal Capitalism: How our System is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet – and What We Can Do About It, London: Verso.

Fraser, Nancy and Rahel Jaeggi 2018, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Luxemburg, Rosa 1975 [1913], Die Akkumulation des Kapitals. Ein Beitrag zur ökonomischen Erklärung des Imperialism, inGessamelte Werke, Bd. 5., Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Malm, Andreas 2021, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, London: Verso.

Marx, Karl 1974 [1857/1858], Grundrisse der Kritik Der Politischen Ökonomie, Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

Morgenstern, Christine 2002, Rassismus – Konturen einer Ideologie.Einwanderung im politischen Diskurs der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Hamburg: Argument Verlag.

Müller, Jost 2002, ‘An den Grenzen kritischer Rassismustheorie. Einige Anmerkungen zu Diskurs, Alltag und Ideologie’, in Konjunkturen des Rassismus, edited by A. Demirovic and M. Bojadzijev, pp. 226–45, Münster: Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot.

[1] Fraser 2022, p. 1.

[2]Fraser 2022, p. xii.

[3]Fraser 2022, pp. xiii–xiv.

[4]Fraser 2014; Fraser and Jaeggi 2018.

[5]Fraser 2022, p. 5.

[6]Fraser 2022, p. 8.

[7]Fraser 2022, p. 61.

[8]Fraser 2022, p. 18.

[9]Fraser 2022, p. 12.

[10]Fraser 2022, p. 20.

[11]Fraser 2022, p. 24.

[12]Fraser 2022, p. 18.

[13] Fraser 2022, p. 33.

[14] Fraser 2022, p. 36.

[15] Fraser 2022, p. 29.

[16] Fraser 2022, p. 36.

[17] Fraser 2022, p. 33.

[18] Fraser 2022, p. 37.

[19] Fraser 2022, p. 27.

[20] Fraser 2022, p. 47.

[21]Fraser 2022, p. 54.

[22]Fraser 2022, p. 53.

[23]Fraser 2022, p. 9.

[24] Fraser 2022, p. 60.

[25] Fraser 2022, p. 68.

[26] Fraser 2022, p. 83.

[27] Fraser 2022, p. 83.

[28] Malm 2021.

[29] Fraser 2022, p. 90.

[30] Fraser 2022, p. 12.

[31]Fraser 2022, p. 115.

[32]Fraser 2022, p. 115.

[33]Fraser 2022, pp. 127–8.

[34]Fraser 2022, p. 119.

[35]Fraser 2022, p. 131.

[36]Fraser 2022, p. 136.

[37]Fraser 2022, p. 153.

[38]Fraser 2022, p. 154.

[39]Fraser 2022, p. 21.

[40]Fraser 2022, p. 25.

[41]Fraser 2022, p. xv.

[42] See for example: Morgenstern 2002; Müller 2002.

[43] Fraser 2022, p. 49.

[44] For example, West German married women required their husband’s written consent to join the workforce until 1977 and to hold a bank account until 1958. In some countries similar arrangements remain in place until today.

[45] Federici 2004.

[46] Fraser 2022, p. 89.

[47] Fraser 2022, p. 18.

[48]Fraser 2022, p. 25.

[49]Fraser 2022, p. 136.

[50]Fraser 2022, p. 22.

Histories of ‘Everything’. A Review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind by Jan Lucassen

DoEThe Story of Work

By Marcus Bajema

Marx was once described as having discovered the continent of history for science, previously occupied by philosophy.[1] However, the continent is even now far from fully explored and remains partly hidden from us by dense fogs generated by ideological discourse. What struck me most in The History of Work by Lucassen (hereafter abbreviated asWork) andThe Dawn of Everything by Graeber and Wengrow (hereafter abbreviated asDawn) is the power and centrality of discourse relative to scientific evidence. Hence, before turning to the books themselves, it is important to take note of their intellectual context. Since the 1990s, a new genre has emerged in Western Europe and North America that seeks to address the ‘big questions’ of human nature and history, indeed even within the context of the history of the universe itself.[2] One thinks here of authors such as Francis Fukuyama, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Yuval Harari, and many other lesser stars of this new constellation on the intellectual firmament.

Although the political and other persuasions of these authors obviously vary considerably, common factors exist that allow for recognising them as belonging to a single genre. First of all, there is an overall drive, to an almost manic extent, to claim that the new work overturns established wisdom and dogma. These claims are often paralleled by a studied eclecticism in method, relying instead on the power of argument and (generally overstated) wit.[3] Both characteristics are radically distinct from earlier treatments of grand historical synthesis or philosophical anthropology, which relied on rigorous scholarly discipline and positioning within complex philosophical systems. To some extent, it is also possible to see a certain commodification of ideas for mass publics and elites alike, especially in the form of the lucrative speaker booking-fees that the more famous authors are able to claim.[4]

Secondly, the genre is characterised by a very specific subjectivity, attuned to the sensibilities and concerns of a fairly circumscribed group of people. This statement may sound strange, given that millions of books are being sold, until it is remembered that the claim of these books is to provide an account of ‘one and all’. Yet this coverage of ‘everything’ in practice seems to revisit either the tired obsession with the rise of ‘the West’ in relation to the ‘rest’, or, more neutrally, revolve around a generic modernity and its genesis in the deep past. This path has been well trodden before, so one wonders if it is not time to enlarge the scope of ‘everything’ a bit. By that, I mean not just to include the great civilisations of the ‘non-West’ but also what Eric Wolf termed the ‘people without history’ – for do they not belong to ‘everything’, too? The authors are generally more focused on their present audience, even providing in some cases a set of lessons.[5]

In effect, the ruminations on long-term history and ‘deeply rooted’ human characteristics allow for grappling with the social, political, and environmental issues of the day under the calming effect of the aeons. Call it a form of collective psychoanalysis... The charm of both Dawn andWork is that the authors seem to follow the genre while, at the same time, radically subverting it. Lucassen highlights his unease with the way in which ‘conventional working people’ are misconstrued by a dominant entrepreneurial and consumerist global culture.[6] Graeber and Wengrow, both having written important books going against the dominant strains of thought, give the distinct impression of mischievously wanting to throw everything up into the air.

At the same time, however, both books seem to share both the innovative drive and methodological eclecticism of the broader genre, although Dawn does so to a much greater degree thanWork. What holdsDawn together, other than force of argument, are several first principles, notably of freedom, but also of play, the sacred, the bases of social power, and, if hardly invoked, communism.[7] Yet it should be emphasised that these principles are used to explore the diversity of social life and never to reduce it to a common template. Indeed, the authors offer powerful critiques of teleological reasoning, in which the play-principle plays an important role. Briefly, this principle refers to behaviour not able to be captured in a functionalist sense, but unconstrained from such ends and pursued for its own sake. Elsewhere Graeber had speculated on it as constituting freedom at a sub-atomic level.[8] In Dawn its use is more understated but deployed to devastating effect against conventional ideas of the emergence of agriculture.

Even so, Dawn deconstructs and rebels against theories rather than explicitly building a grand synthesis of its own. In this the book notably differs fromWork, which does tag more closely to methodological strictures. Lucassen uses a taxonomy of different forms of labour developed as part of a research project at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.[9] Lucassen is also more rigorous in his chronological approach, which gives his exposition a more systematic structure than that of Dawn, which wanders the earth without much regard for coherence in space and time. The work is focused on concrete historical cases and eschews theorising, citing approvingly Robert McC. Netting’s description of an ‘empirical social science of practical reason’.[10] This position is fair in itself but also reveals itself, as we shall see, in the acceptance of notions that the more critical Dawn would rightly deconstruct.

All of this is crucial for understanding the actual treatments of different historical eras in both works, which I would like to subdivide into four parts. We start with early humankind in the Palaeolithic, before moving on to the emergence of agriculture, the question of the subsequent development of cities and states, and the transition from antiquity to what we may term the modern world. Alas, with regard to the first part, both books start out on the wrong foot. For I would argue that the treatment of early humankind in Dawn andWork is quite inadequate. The reader will look in vain here for an engagement with the concerns of Palaeolithic archaeology in its broadest sense. Granted, this is a notably difficult field for social theory, as it is more closely attuned to the biological and physical sciences. The modes of explanation and timescales are far removed from those of social theorists, who traditionally have used the ethnographies of contemporary or recent hunter-gatherers to make analogies with the deep past.

Still, archaeologists are making advances to grasp the interconnections of human biology, ecology, (stone) technology, social relations, as well as artistic expressions.[11] Strangely, both Lucassen and Graeber and Wengrow largely bypass these studies and opt (mostly) for ethnographical analogy and the limited available evidence on Palaeolithic social relations. What is completely missing is a consideration of what Marx called the metabolism between humans and nature, including the human capacity for abstract labour, a notion that as we shall see below sits well with recent work in Palaeolithic archaeology. At least, in Work, we can discern some misgivings regarding the use of ethnographical analogy, and an insightful discussion, based on the work of Sarah Hrdy, of how the development of alloparenting in early humans led to reciprocal labour relations. At the same time, for Lucassen, the entire era from 700,000 to 10,000 BCE is characterised by the development of reciprocity, with technology, climate, cognition, and so on, only appearing as extraneous factors.

Graeber and Wengrow place a much greater emphasis on diversity, yet they, too, do not really address the main debates of Palaeolithic archaeology. Partly, this is because their primary aim seems to be to counter modern ideological notions of a state of egalitarian simplicity at the origin of humankind, which they trace back to Rousseau’s Second discourse. Their take on Rousseau is bound to be controversial, as is their peculiar take on the Enlightenment. For Marxists, it is notable that the authors view the initial state of egalitarianism in ideal terms, as shared beliefs that are implemented to varying degrees in practice.[12] They argue that this inferred ideal state is a figment of the imagination, one that has pernicious consequences by reducing the ‘noble savages’ to a condition where they lack imagination and agency.[13]

However, the Second Discourse can be understood quite differently. Like a number of Greco-Roman thinkers before him, Rousseau described the early life of humankind in terms of a progressive negation of the present.[14] His ‘pure state of nature’ is a life without everything we now have in our lives, from family, technology, property to social ranks and the political state. Even so, in Rousseau the solitary humans of this early state have emotions that will later enable them to live together in a society. From the initial pure state of nature humans are brought to civilisation by a series of accidents, with that condition itself also inherently carrying the seeds of its own demise.[15] In that sense the pure state of nature does not just negate present-day civilisation, it also expresses its potentiality. In the same way, civilisation also carries within itself the potentiality for its own collapse, not directly to the pure state of nature but more likely to the state of war that lies at the origin of the social contract.[16]

This interpretation of Rousseau is quite distinct from the idealist view that Dawn seeks to disprove. Graeber and Wengrow aim to do so by bringing up a vast number of cases of hunter-gatherers known through ethnography. These cases show a great diversity of social life, with many of them greatly diverging from the inferred egalitarian ideal. Many of these cases can be connected with the archaeology of the periods preceding them, showing that the patterns are not the result of the inter-cultural exchange (often in an imperialist or colonialist form) within which ethnography was performed and in fact helped to constitute. The key question is whether the insights from ethnography and recent archaeology can be related to the findings of Palaeolithic archaeologists. This is not easy, and Graeber and Wengrow acknowledge that there is little to go by in terms of evidence for the social relations of early humankind.[17]

They assemble the ethnographical evidence not so much to interpret specific Palaeolithic sites or to argue that it represents an ancestral condition of humankind, but rather to argue for possibilities.[18] In some cases, this works really well, for example in their argument that Palaeolithic societies may have spanned very large distances indeed, challenging our idea of a society as something occupying only a small area of land. The main focus of the authors, however, is to disprove the egalitarianism attributed to Rousseau. To this end, they assemble the evidence from certain burials and monumental structures from the very last phases of the Palaeolithic, which show great efforts of labour, careful craft, and the use of rare and especially valued materials. In essence this evidence is simply deposited next to the insights gained from ethnography, and the reader is nudged toward accepting a loose identity between them.

For the implications, consider the following argument made by the authors on the relation between property and the sacred.[19] Based on a number of ethnographical examples, Graeber and Wengrow argue for a close similarity between property rights and the sacred. This connection can be seen, for example, in the notion that the gods are the true owners of the land and in the limited access to religious knowledge and ceremonies that constituted a form of social power. Their argument is that the private property that emerged in Europe is similar, in the sense that this property is set apart and only to be touched by the owner, being ‘sacred’ to him or her.[20] In a further move of argumentative acrobatics, they then argue that the burials and structures of the last part of the Palaeolithic imply a presence of the ‘exclusive rights to claims over property’,[21] in the sacred sense. Hence, the basic principles behind private property were present in the Palaeolithic, QED.

Even if one accepts this claim, and what it implies for the notion of an original ideal of egalitarianism, it actually proves very little, if we consider Rousseau’s argument from negation. For, if all of these principles were present during the last phases of the Palaeolithic, the question of what came before remains. For these principles are negated by an absence in previous eras, even if considering the scarcity of the archaeological evidence. Graeber and Wengrow never consider the principles of human social life that they derive from ethnography in relation to what Palaeolithic archaeologists have discovered about what makes us human. Yet there is much there that is significant for grasping what is specific to human social life, and the capacity for technology and symbolic thought. To juxtapose the ethnography of recent hunter-gatherers and a selective set of evidence from the end of the Palaeolithic achieves little to that end. The implication that this period is to be seen as a kind of demonstration of the principles of human social life should be resisted, for any such ‘foundation’ would be negated by what preceded it, as Rousseau showed in the Second discourse.

Marx’s Capital, in fact, proves a better guide to the deep human past than eitherWork orDawn, if we consider its basic ideas and approach rather than the accumulated scientific evidence. For, in the chapter on the labour process and valorisation, Marx posits not just the metabolism with nature as the basis for any labour process, he also briefly traces its deep prehistory. He notes how the earth itself provided humans with their original set of tools, both instruments of labour and those serving to hold the materials of labour.[22] Of course, there is also an important cognitive aspect to this, as humans produce in the mind before they proceed to actually materially produce something.[23] All of this dovetails well with the kind of approaches that can be seen in recent Palaeolithic archaeology, which focus on the distinction between instruments and containers in early technology, and the broader interrelations with environmental factors, cognition, and forms of social life.[24]

No doubt, Marx does not fill well with the ‘big questions’ genre as described here. Yet, surely, his emphasis on the broader context of early humankind is more satisfying in an age dominated by the impact of climate change than a focus on social relations to the exclusion of everything else. And, in fact, a bit more use can be made of Marx’s Capital for grasping the theoretical background of the accounts of the origin of agriculture and settled life inDawn andWork. In the chapter on absolute and relative surplus-value, Marx makes an important argument that draws upon the ‘ethnography’ of islands in the East Indies.[25] There, humans can comfortably subsist on the wild sago tree, comfortably meeting their needs with just twelve hours of work per week. Thereby, he notes, nature provides the inhabitants of these islands with much leisure time, even if they remain dependent on nature.

Marx uses this example as a contrast to the modern extraction of surplus-value, which depends upon maximising the number of hours that workers labour. There is, for him, no natural drive to accumulate surplus; rather, it depends on something that is lacking in the East Indies at that time: compulsion. Drawing upon a richer set of evidence, essentially the same argument was made by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in his classic article on ‘original affluent society’. In this article, Sahlins argued for more leisure time among hunter-gatherers compared to modern workers and the absence of an innate drive for accumulation. [26] Notably, in both Dawn andWork, the authors’ take on Sahlins’ argument allows for making sense of their account of the transition from hunting, gathering, and fishing to cultivation and pastoralism.

To start with Work, Lucassen notes the qualifications that have been put forward by later research to Sahlins' argument, but, importantly, adds the time spent on care and alloparenting, as well as social obligations. What really distinguishes humans from non-human primates, for him, lies in the amount of time spent in social activities, enabled by more efficient methods of acquiring and preparing food.[27] He argues that social activities can be seen in a functionalist way, as a means to increase the chance of survival. Lucassen explores the interconnections between these specifically human social relations and technology and the environment, in a way he did not really do for the emergence of humankind itself. For example, he notes the shift from ‘immediate return’ (especially the hunting of large animals) to ‘delayed return’ forms of hunting and gathering (including collecting) during the later Palaeolithic.[28]

The ‘delayed return’ strategy allowed for the storage of foodstuffs, as well as more sedentary ways of life, something that became more pronounced with the shift to agriculture. Yet, as Lucassen rightly emphasises, the process of domestication of plants and animals was a drawn-out one that took place over thousands of years, in different parts of the globe. In social terms, labour relations were still characterised by reciprocity, but within a very different setting. Rather than being organised in bands, as in the Palaeolithic, Lucassen sees an interaction between households and tribes in the Neolithic. That is a rather generic picture, but he provides more detail on the impact of agriculture on the dynamics of these households, especially with regard to alloparenting and the burdens of both agricultural labour and an increased tempo of childbirth on women.

Lucassen cites Jared Diamond’s claim that increased population density and community size beyond a few hundred people created a need for central authority and use of force to control conflicts.[29] Yet, at the same time, he notes the presence of a persistent egalitarianism, which could endure for thousands of years. In effect, early farming communities were ‘trans-egalitarian’, in the sense that there was the potential for inequality and hierarchy to emerge but, at the same time, equality persisted over very long periods of time. Lucassen sees more evidence for the emergence of inequality among the societies of pastoral nomads that emerged in inner Eurasia and among the margins of the Fertile Crescent. As already noted by Engels, livestock was more suitable as a form of property than crops, and Lucassen adds the greater propensity of warrior cultures among pastoral nomads.[30]

In Work, then, the coming of agriculture creates a tendency for surplus, property, and inequality to emerge and develop, but in the face of a counter-tendency of persistent egalitarian social relations. The account inDawn, however, is much more radical. As noted earlier, apart from their focus on disproving a primordial egalitarianism, Graeber and Wengrow also put forward a different way of conceiving of hunting-gathering societies as encompassing enormous territories. According to them, people were free to abandon their community, travel for up to thousands of kilometres, and join another community. Apart from this freedom of movement, they also had the freedom to disobey authority and to (collectively) change the rules of social life, often on a seasonal basis that saw large gatherings of people. These constitute the three original freedoms.[31]

The increased sedentism of hunter-gatherers, and especially of farmers, put an end to the first freedom, that of habitual long-distance migration. But the conceptualisation of this process in Dawn differs from that ofWork, as well as most accounts of the development of agriculture, in moving away from seeing it as a tendency. Rather, in perhaps the strongest part of the book, Graeber and Wengrow deconstruct teleological and functionalist views of domestication, emphasising instead contingency and the importance of the play principle. Early farming, in their eyes, constitutes more an experiment, a play with cultigens without directly fulfilling a deep-rooted need. As proof of this they point to the slowness of the process, compared to the minimum amount of time required biologically.[32] Over a long period of time, there were moves into and out of agriculture and hunter-gatherer lifeways.

Graeber and Wengrow also point to the importance of the interactions between different communities that came with sedentary societies, in particular hunter-gatherers and early farmers. They see here a process of ‘schismogenesis’ at work, by which different societies define themselves relative to each other as opposites.[33] They discuss a number of examples, for example the case of temperate Europe, where an initial adoption of agriculture failed to take hold and was suppressed. Furthermore, the argument in Dawn against teleological reasoning does not stop with denying the functionalist account of the emergence of agriculture as satisfying a societal need, it also denies it in its result. For they deny that the result of agriculture, in the form of higher population densities and the possibility of surpluses, would in turn lead to socio-economic inequality and socio-political hierarchies.

Specifically, they argue against the view of Jared Diamond and others, which as we saw was accepted by Lucassen in Work, that increased group size automatically demands some form of central authority. This idea is, in part, thought to derive from the limits of the human brain to process social information, which limits close social groups to about 150 people.[34] Graeber and Wengrow point out the complexities of this matter, noting that larger gatherings among hunter-gatherers regularly transcended this number, while showing clear alternative forms of social interaction to socio-political hierarchy. More importantly, the first cities also show how larger groups could interact over a long period of time in a small space, without the hierarchical arrangements that would conventionally be expected for them. Graeber and Wengrow here build upon recent work by archaeologists that has yielded convincing demonstrations of this, in particular for the early cities of Mesoamerica such as Teotihuacan and Tlaxcallan.[35]

At the same time as denying an iron causal connection between scale and hierarchy, they deny, too, that there is such a thing as a single template of the state that emerges concurrently with the first cities. Instead, there exist, echoing Max Weber, three sources of social power: charismatic, through control over violence, and through control of information.[36] These can be combined in different ways to generate different socio-political configurations, some resembling more closely European views of the state and others radically distinct from it. There also exist what might be termed ‘post-revolutionary’ forms, where existing hierarchically-oriented and autocratic states were overturned and followed by more egalitarian forms. They point to the transition from the Classic to Postclassic Maya as an example of such a reversal away from autocracy.[37]

Overall, then, an interesting picture emerges. Just as there exists no primordial egalitarianism for Graeber and Wengrow, so there is no inevitable turn to the modernity of the state. Instead, we can see a host of possible alternatives, based on the freedom of human beings to create their own social arrangements. In this, they sometimes put forward audacious hypotheses. Highlighting the central role of women in what is the true backbone of civilisation, the techniques of everyday life, they propose, if somewhat in the margins of their overall argument, that social life of Minoan Crete was, in the main, controlled by women.[38] Owing, in part, to its intellectual history, this idea is likely to find many detractors.[39] However, if one shifts away from the reliance on art in Dawn to substantiate their hypothesis, to include household archaeology, then the hypothesis gains strength in a (strongly) modified form, as recent work shows.[40]

Lucassen is more conventional in Work regarding the development of hierarchy and the state, but the recent findings of greater egalitarianism in certain early cities and states have influenced him as well. First, he notes how, in Mesopotamia, the development of cities was at first characterised by tributary-redistributive labour relations, which existed for thousands of years before the first state institutions developed there.[41] At the same time, there was quite some variation between Mesopotamia and other cases of early cities and states, most importantly China, Egypt, and India.[42] Lucassen then traces the emergence of the state, with its mass capture of slaves and deployment of military and corvée labour. Again, Mesopotamia is of special interest because of what followed the massive state concentration of economic life during the short-lived Ur III dynasty of the late third millennium BCE.

The collapse of the dynasty led to the decentralisation (or ‘privatisation’) of Mesopotamian economic life, with the newly configured state being just one powerful actor among a plurality.[43] Most notably, the marketplace now emerged as an important institution, including evidence for the first millennium BCE for contracting wage-labour, both of the self-employed and slaves, by institutional employers such as temples. Of course, the presence of markets, commercial exchange, and forms of wage-labour leads to the question as to the capitalist character of economic life in these societies, a thorny debate that Lucassen can sidestep by having done away with the term altogether. As we shall see below, however, this move will come to haunt his analysis for the most recent era.

The first millennium BCE also saw an even more prolific spread of ‘capitalism’ in Eurasia due to what Lucassen terms ‘deep monetisation’. He sees coinage primarily in relation to the need to pay a wage, with the introduction of small denominations allowing for payment of as little as a day’s work or even less.[44] In one of the best parts of the book, Lucassen does an admirable job of tracing the different trajectories of monetisation in the Mediterranean, India, and China. He points out the complexities of the intertwined ‘labour market’ and slavery, and how coinage gradually changed the enduring tributary-redistributive regime of Egypt. Notably, the development of coinage was carried along quite different lines in China, where it is most closely connected to work performed for the state, with either a free labour market or mass slavery being largely absent. As such, Lucassen stresses variation, also bringing up developments in the pre-Columbian Americas.

Differences can also be noted in the trajectories of deep monetisation, with de-monetisation taking place in both Europe and India during the later first millennium CE, while China continued along its earlier path. Eventually, coinage returned to both Europe and India, which once again show the presence of commercialised economies. These developments set the scene for another strong and insightful chapter in Work, on the globalisation of labour relations between 1500 CE and 1800 CE. Lucassen distinguishes between a number of different ‘islands’, which followed different pathways of development. In East Asia there is a labour-intensive regime, which, for a long time, retained parity with the capital-intensive regime in western Europe, the latter also drawing upon slavery and colonial-tributary relations in overseas regions. Finally, there is the labour-extensive, (second) serfdom-based regime of eastern Europe.

At this point, something strange happens in Work. Lucassen abandons his comparative analysis of different labour regimes between different world regions, and instead treats post-1800 labour relations thematically. Although his analysis is still interesting, I felt this to be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, in that the patterns of the previous chapters are not clearly connected to the current era. For example, he treats the industrial revolution briefly, but does not really explore how it is to be related to the capital-intensive regime of western Europe discussed in the previous chapter. Similarly, Lucassen discusses unfree labour and the shortcomings of the welfare state in post-revolutionary China and the Soviet Union, but is that really all that can be said about these regimes? Is it not more interesting to relate these developments to what came before, to the labour-intensive and extensive regimes that preceded them? This lack of an explicit connection between past and present seems a missed opportunity.

On reflection, it seems to me that this move may be, at least in part, attributable to the power of contemporary discourse. Of particular note in this is the debate between primitivism and modernism in what used to be known as economic anthropology. The denial of market exchange in the ancient world by Polanyi and others, and the emphasis on redistributive alternatives, has crumbled in the face of the evidence accumulated over the previous decades.[45] Lucassen’s discussion of the Mesopotamian economic trajectory in Work is a case in point of this progress. Consequently, there is a sense that the tenets of modernism have won out, and, as such, it has become something of a trend to disparage the ideas of Polanyi and his ilk as a rear-guard resistance to the inexorability of modern economic logic. Unfortunately, owing to a combination of less than rigorous methodology and the prevalence of contemporary ideology, the humanities and social sciences sometimes follow such fashionable trends even where their intellectual strength would not be so apparent to outsiders.

Lucassen is no devotee of this trend, for he recognises tributary-redistributive relations in many cases. However, he also remains within the boundaries of the primitivism/modernism debate, in the sense that market exchange and wage-labour seem to function as indicators of modernity. He emphasises in his discussion of pre-coinage Mesopotamia that there all the basic categories of labour relations were present, and that from then on ‘the history of work may be conceived as an endless shift between these basic forms’.[46] For, during the second and first millennia BCE in this area, independent labour for the market and parties employing labour were added to the previously introduced reciprocal, tributary-redistributive, slave, and wage-labour. From such a perspective, it is less surprising to see a gradualism in his account of the long-term domination of market economies, even if taking into account the shifts, alternatives, and reversals along this route. Markets followed a template established early on.

Furthermore, and here the Dutch scholarly context of Lucassen’s work is significant, it builds upon studies that emphasise the long-term dynamics of market exchange.[47] What vanishes here, of course, is either viewing the emergence of capitalism in early modern England as a relatively minor variation on a theme, or somehow equating capitalism itself with a labour market and hence extending it back to Mesopotamia. Lucassen, as noted earlier, simply drops capitalism as a concept of relevance. From a strictly empirical perspective, it might, indeed, be less relevant to his taxonomy of labour relations. For one could indeed earn a wage from a market long before capitalism emerged. Yet does the accumulation of capitals hold no relevance for the history of work? This is unimaginable, but the question of capital and the conditions for its accumulation is obscured by the debate on markets in the primitivism/modernism debate. And, aside from that, it is also an intrinsically uncomfortable one as it reintroduces the rawness of class and domination into the bloodless discourse of systems of distribution and exchange.

It matters quite a bit, in fact, if the wage-labour exchanged on the marketplace is that of slaves and self-employed farmers or artisans or of a mass of proletarians who are dispossessed of the means of production. Although, in each, labour is exchanged for a (monetary) reward, the conditions for capital accumulation are vastly different. Indeed, in the briefest of asides on market exchange in ancient Mesoamerica, Marx implies that, despite the vastness of markets there, the medium of cacao beans used in exchange made it simply impossible to accumulate capital in a lasting way.[48] What distinguished capitalism, of course, is the process of primitive accumulation that led to a decisive shift in the conditions for capital accumulation. It would be highly instructive to trace the ‘prehistory’ of primitive accumulation, especially in relation to the early forms of capital accumulation, things already hinted at by Marx. Doing so may also shed new light on the significance of the ‘great divergence’ between western Europe and East Asia.

For, if, in China, Japan, and to some degree also India, it is possible to see a labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive pathways, the question may be asked whether the latter path was the only one to a ‘modern economy’. That is, could not the different civilisations of East Asia have achieved the same ‘level’, in terms of quantitative indicators, as the economies of western Europe, but with qualitatively quite distinct relations of production? That this should appear a radical question is only because it is customary to reason from the result, from the violent interventions and opening up of China, India, and Japan and the socio-economic changes these events brought. Imperialism, of course, depended upon the geopolitical situation in Europe and North America, which could easily have been different in ways that would have allowed a more independent trajectory for East Asia.

The question of alternatives can be thought through more comprehensively. For might there not be some connection between the distinct patterns traced by Lucassen before 1800 for different world regions and what came after? Might, in other words, there not be lurking considerable divergence within the convergence of labour relations he emphasises so strongly in the last two chapters of Work? In particular, one thinks of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet system that it brought about, and its conceptualisation within the context of the Russian imperialist state and its peculiar form of capitalism. Such questions were hotly debated among Soviet historians, and the ideas of the ‘New Direction’ in Soviet historiography are, in some ways, still relevant for grasping the durability of alternative Russian pathways of economic development.[49] Conversely, might the different, labour-intensive trajectories in East Asia and their enduring effects have some relevance for understanding the different fates of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions?

All of these questions are subsumed under Lucassen’s emphasis on the global convergence of labour relations. One wonders what Graeber and Wengrow would have written about such questions in the sequels they had planned for Dawn, but sadly prevented by the untimely death of David Graeber.[50] Even so, Dawn andWork cover enough of the same terrain to draw some general conclusions as to their methods and findings, especially in relation to the genre of ‘big questions’ identified at the beginning of this review. As noted earlier, the eclecticism marking this genre can be seen most clearly inDawn, with its relentless overthrowing of accepted ideas and positing alternatives that, at times, are more like advance hypotheses than arguments fully thought through. Their daring ideas about the Bronze Age civilisations of Crete and the Indus valley are a case in point. These ideas could be indulged more easily, however, if they were the result of a systematic, methodological approach.

Here, however, Dawn is found wanting. Graeber and Wengrow formulate a number of principles that structure the discussion, but lacking is an exploration of the causes behind the different patterns that they so enjoyably present to the reader. For example, why did societies in Mesoamerica develop along such different lines that Graeber and Wengrow can hold them up as examples disproving accepted wisdom? Surely, some reasons can be found to explain this difference? Marx, as we saw, gave a clue, and more recent scholarship has explored the issue from similar angles.[51] To seek causes does not imply subjecting societies to a straitjacket of theoretical discourse. Rather more radically, the contrary cases presented in Dawn could actually help to induce a rethinking of historical causation still further away from unilineal models of development. To achieve this end, a stronger methodological framework will be needed.

As noted, Lucassen in Work is more focused methodologically given his use of the taxonomy of labour relations developed at the IISH. He also admirably explores historical causation in a comparative sense. Certainly, the eclecticism of the genre is absent in the book, making it a breath of fresh air in the rather stale mixing bowl of opinionated argumentation that characterises the genre. At the same time, the critical aspect of comparison is snowed under, at times, by the focus on the overall, global historical trajectory. This focus can be seen in that several alternatives, notably Mesoamerica again, are not thought through as alternatives, but, rather, are merely situated in their historical place within the overall scheme of things. Lucassen’s reluctance to theorise also prevents him from taking a more critical stance at times, as we saw with the acceptance of Jared Diamond’s ideas on scale and authority, even in the face of the recognition of durable egalitarianism.

Of course, if either Dawn orWork had emphasised a critical methodological discussion, this would have lessened their coverage of ‘everything’, or, at least, have placed the discussion at a level of abstraction less appealing to many readers. Here, we come to the question of the other major aspect of the ‘big questions’ genre, that of subjectivity and audience. As noted earlier, Lucassen is deeply uneasy with the dominant narrative of globalist capitalism. With the convergence of labour relations, it is not clear that much can be done about this, it seems. In his ‘outlook’, he notes the continuing appeal of reciprocity and egalitarianism, based on our long evolutionary past.[52] He argues that there are two ways to achieve this. The first is by the levelling of incomes through a welfare state, in which some inequality and aggrandisers are tolerated. The second way is through what he terms a ‘redistributive theocracy’, which encompasses both ancient cases like Egypt and the various civilisations of the pre-Columbian Americas, and, in the modern era, the Soviet Union.

Lucassen does not express a preference between the two options, but one can safely assume that few among his readership fancy living in a redistributive theocracy with all kinds of unfree labour. As such, one can infer a broadly social-democratic subjectivity for Work, if not necessarily a left perspective that is worker-centred. It accepts the convergence of labour relations through globalisation and cannot imagine either regional or future alternatives to this development. There appears to be no place for a future form of free and associated labour in the taxonomy of labour relations. By contrast, inDawn, the authors positively crave something radically different, which they frame as part of recovering the ancient freedom to shape the society in which one lives at will. They effectively mobilise an enormous amount of evidence for alternative forms of social life to present this freedom as more or less common sense. As such, its subjectivity is both radical and voluntaristic, and this argument will appeal greatly to those activists and strategists that favour direct action.[53]

Yet this argument of Graeber and Wengrow only really holds if one accepts their view of the ‘dawn’, where they emphasise freedom rather than egalitarianism as the defining principle. As noted in this review, this is a partial view of the Palaeolithic, and, moreover, ignores the radical critique of origins found in Rousseau. Search all you will, it is quite impossible to discover a set of principles on which social life is based and which neatly allows us to make sense of ‘everything’. Behind the freedom of Dawn and the reciprocity ofWork lies an abyss that negates their attempts to make sense of it all, and which includes a complex interaction between biology, ecology, technology, language, and symbolism, as well as forms of social interaction. For starters, decentring the metabolism of humans within nature makes it hard to make any sense of the human condition. In addition, the human will itself may not be so free, when considered from the perspective of deep prehistory.[54]

For Marxists, then, Dawn andWork are of twofold interest. First, they represent a left-wing expansion of the ‘big questions’ genre that is of some ideological significance. For both question, in radically different ways, the standard view of a transition to a communist society. InWork, this is simply beyond the pale, being somehow lumped in with the category of redistributive theocracies. The critique ofDawn is more subtle, in that it changes the terms of future possibilities rather than denying them. It eschews the mode of production, the basis for thinking a transition in ‘traditional’ terms, instead positing principles that remain present in any kind of society, such as the ‘private property’ rooted in the sacred. Thus, any society is, in effect, a mixture of the same things that have been around since the last phase of the Palaeolithic, albeit in radically different proportions. Gone, then, is the possibility of arranging society in a qualitatively different way, in making a decisive break with past principles and proceeding from new ones.[55]

Additionally, the voluntaristic view of social change is rather incredible, in that the material conditions are pushed far to the back in favour of the notional freedom to change social arrangements based on late Palaeolithic pedigrees. This ties in with the rejection of the mode of production in Dawn, and, indeed, the absence of any comparative evaluation of the causal factors driving different forms of societies. However, provided that a historical-materialist reader holds on to their concepts and methodology, there is in fact much to learn from and enjoy inDawn andWork, just as, for example, much can be learned from the work of Thomas Piketty. The examples and analysis of a great variety of cases that diverge from previous ideas about historical development provide a challenge that calls for a response, one that harnesses both the weightier conceptual framework of historical materialism and new ways of creating and interpreting large historical datasets. In this way the fresh findings from the historical sciences will not spoil from the theoretical indigestion that results from the discourse of the ‘big questions’ genre.





Althusser, Louis 2017, How to Be a Marxist in Philosophy, translated by G.M. Goshgarian, London: Bloomsbury.

Althusser, Louis 2019, Lessons on Rousseau, translated by G.M. Goshgarian, London: Verso.

Campbell, Gordon 2003, Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De rerum natura, Book 5, Lines 772–1104, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Christian, David 2018, Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, London: Penguin.

Driessen, Jan 2012, ‘A Matrilocal House Society in Pre- and Protopalatial Crete’, in Back to the Beginning: Reassessing Social and Political Complexity on Crete during the Early and Middle Bronze Age, edited by Ilse Schoep, Peter Tomkins and Jan Driessen, Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Engels, Friedrich 1990, ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan’, in Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 26, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Fargher, Lane, Richard Blanton and Verenice Heredia Espinoza 2010, ‘Egalitarian Ideology and Political Power in Prehispanic Central Mexico: The Case of Tlaxcallan’, Latin American Antiquity, 21, 3: 227–51.

Gamble, Clive 2007, Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gamble, Clive 2013, Settling the Earth: The Archaeology of Deep Human History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gamble, Clive, John Gowlett and Robin Dunbar 2014, Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind, London: Thames & Hudson.

Gere, Cathy 2009, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Graeber, David 2006, ‘Turning Modes of Production Inside Out: Or, Why Capitalism Is a Transformation of Slavery (short version)’, Critique of Anthropology, 26, 1: 61–81.

Graeber, David 2008, Direct Action: An Ethnography, Chico, CA: AK Press.

Graeber, David 2011, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, New York, NY: Melville House.

Graeber, David 2014, ‘What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?’, The Baffler, 24, available at: <>.

Graeber, David and David Wengrow 2021, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, London: Penguin.

Harari, Yuval Noah 2018, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, London: Jonathan Cape.

Hirth, Kenneth 2020, The Organization of Ancient Economies: A Global Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holmes, Brooke 2013, ‘The Poetic Logic of Negative Exceptionalism: From a State of Nature to Social Life in Lucretius, Book Five’, in Lucretius: Poetry, Philosophy, Science, edited by Daryn Lehoux, Andrew Morrison and Alison Sharrock, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kohler, Timothy, Michael Smith, Amy Bogaard, Christian Peterson, Alleen Betzenhauser, Gary Feinman, Rahul Oka, Matthew Pailes, Anna Marie Prentiss, Elizabeth Stone, Timothy Dennehy and Laura Ellyson 2018, ‘Deep Inequality: Summary and Conclusions’, in Ten Thousand Years of Inequality: The Archaeology of Wealth Differences, edited by Timothy Kohler and Michael Smith, Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Kowalewski, Stephen 2012, ‘A Theory of the Mesoamerican Economy’, Research in Economic Anthropology, 32: 187–224.

Lucassen, Jan 2021, The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Markwick, Roger 2001, Rewriting History in Soviet Russia: The Politics of Revisionist Historiography, 1956–1974, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marx, Karl 1973, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, translated by Martin Nicolaus, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marx, Karl 1976, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One, translated by Ben Fowkes, London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl 1986, ‘Drafts of The Civil War in France’, inMarx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 22, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Morris, Ian 2015, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 1997, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, edited by Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall 1972, Stone Age Economics, Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company.

Scott, James 2017, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Van Bavel, Bas 2016, The Invisible Hand? How Market Economies Have Emerged and Declined since AD 500, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] Althusser 2017, p. 24.

[2] The ‘cosmic connection’ is made most evident in Christian 2018. See also the Big History project sponsored by Bill Gates for an attempt to disseminate this approach to classrooms worldwide.

[3] The chapter entitled ‘My correct views on everything’ in Morris 2015 is a case in point.

[4] Both Yuval Harari and Niall Ferguson, top-end exemplars of the genre, are listed for fees of over 100,000 dollars for in-person speaking events, as listed on the website of the Aurum Speakers Bureau (<>).

[5] Harari 2018.

[6] Lucassen 2021, p. ix.

[7] The controversial and provocative statement on communism as a habitual, everyday practice is hardly referred to in Dawn, however, in contrast to Graeber’s earlier ‘big question’ book on debt: Graeber 2011, pp. 94–102. Why this should be so is hard to fathom, and the principles of neither exchange nor hierarchy in that book are invoked inDawn.

[8] Graeber 2014.

[9] The taxonomy and the justification for the definitions used can be found on the website of the project, Global Collaboratory of Labour Relations 1500–2000 (<>).

[10] Lucassen 2021, p. xvii.

[11] See especially Gamble 2013, a book that cannot be recommended enough given that it places all these interactions within a clear spatio-temporal perspective, highlighting the role of different migratory episodes in deep human history.

[12] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 147–8.

[13] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 94–5.

[14] Campbell 2003, Appendix B. See also Holmes 2013 for a broader exposition of description-by-negation in the case of Lucretius, an author crucial for the later reception of Greco-Roman ideas on early humankind.

[15] See, on this, Althusser 2019, especially the figure on p. 75.

[16] Rousseau 1997, pp. 185–6.

[17] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 100.

[18] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 143.

[19] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 177–84.

[20] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 180–1.

[21] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 184.

[22] Marx 1976, p. 286.

[23]Marx 1976, p. 284.

[24]Gamble 2007 develops his account of the development of technology, and much else, in early humankind precisely on the basis of the material forms of containers and instruments.

[25] Marx 1976, pp. 650–1.

[26]This essay was collected in Sahlins 1972.

[27] Lucassen 2021, p. 41.

[28] Lucassen 2021, p. 31.

[29] Lucassen 2021, pp. 89–90.

[30]Lucassen 2021, pp. 84–8. Cf. Engels 1990, pp. 162–3. This perspective seems altogether more plausible than the exaltation of nomadic warriors in Scott 2017, Chapter 7, especially pp. 231–4.

[31] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 456.

[32] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 255–7.

[33] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 79–80.

[34]The implications of this number were more fully explored by Dunbar and his colleagues during the Lucy to Language project, discussed at length in Gamble, Gowlett and Dunbar 2014. Just as significant, and perhaps more so, than the inferred need for charismatic leadership to ‘control’ large groups of people, is the exploration of the links between increased community size and various communication technologies.

[35]Although not referred to in Dawn, much insight can be gained from attempts to calculate Gini coefficients of unequal access to goods, which show Teotihuacan with remarkable low scores that indicate high degrees of equality: Kohler, Smith, Bogaard, Peterson, Betzenhauser, Feinman, Oka, Pailes, Prentiss, Stone, Dennehy and Ellyson 2018, pp. 293–5, Table 11.1. The case of Tlaxcallan is well-documented both via ethnohistory and archaeology: see Fargher, Blanton and Espinoza 2010.

[36] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 396.

[37] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 407–9.

[38] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 463–8.

[39]Much has been written on Minoan archaeology and its connection to modern intellectual trends, and even mythmaking, most notably in Gere 2009. As a result, it is now rather hard to disentangle interpretations of Minoan society, for example as having women in positions of power, from the intellectual context within which they were formulated.

[40] For example, Driessen 2012.

[41] Lucassen 2021, pp. pp. 91–3.

[42] As summarised insightfully in Lucassen 2021, p. 78, figure 3.

[43] Lucassen 2021, pp. 100–2.

[44] Lucassen 2021, p. 118.

[45]A good overview of the state of the field can be found in Hirth 2020.

[46] Lucassen 2021, p. 100.

[47]In particular, but certainly not limited to, the work of Bas van Bavel on the cyclical development of market economies, starting with medieval Mesopotamia: Van Bavel 2016.

[48]Marx 1973, p. 833.

[49]Markwick 2001, pp. 89–97.

[50]Important clues can be found in an early article of Graeber’s on the mode of production, where he counters moves to read capitalism into the world of Greco-Roman antiquity by turning the tables, arguing, instead, that modern capitalism can be seen as an extension of ancient slavery: Graeber 2006. See, on this question also his insightful discussion of Roman law in Debt: Graeber 2011, pp. 198–207.

[51]Kowalewski 2012.

[52] Lucassen 2021, pp. 435–7.

[53]Inspired by Kropotkin, Graeber argued for a close connection between ethnography and direct action, e.g. Graeber 2008, even as he disavowed attempts to demarcate his status as that of an anarchist anthropologist.

[54] Ironically, it is through ethnography that the limits of individualist conceptions of personhood had been first recognised, and which is now also explored for early humans: see Gamble 2007, Chapter 5.

[55] Marx 1986, p. 491.

Jon Elster on French Absolutism and its Collapse in 1789. A Review of France Before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime

France Before 1789

By Stephen J. Miller

Marxists have long debated how to conceptualise the absolutist states of early modern Europe. Absolutism calls to mind royal sovereignty, whereas feudalism indicates decentralised seigneurial authority. Absolutism thus gives the impression of opposing feudal authority. If absolutism militated against feudalism, did it therefore represent progress? Did it emerge along with, or on account of, capitalism? Friedrich Engels argued in 1884, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, that absolute monarchies developed in a period of equilibrium in the class struggle between the old feudal nobility and the new urban bourgeoisie. The state power, mediating between the two social classes, acquired a degree of independence from both of them. Absolute monarchy took power from the nobles but left them with indirect influence in the royal court, army, and the higher administration, and allowed them to plunder the peasantry and state treasury. The monarchy, at the same time, protected the bourgeoisie through tariffs, monopolies and a relatively orderly administration of public affairs and justice.[1]

These reflections shaped Marxist and non-Marxist interpretations of the absolutist state for about a century. Georges Lefebvre’s The Origins of the French Revolution, long the standard work on the subject, presented the nobility as a privileged class enjoying the benefits of feudal rights. The nobility fought to take power back from royal absolutism in the eighteenth century. During this same period, the bourgeoisie grew in wealth and numbers, thanks to the expansion of industry and commerce, elaborated an enlightened ideology, and took power from the nobility in 1789.[2]

Since the 1970s, a growing number of historians, guided by Marxists, challenged this view of the monarchy. They showed that French kings constructed absolutism by consolidating the feudal authority of nobles, integrating them into the state, and managing their divergent interests. The nobles used the various branches of the state coercively to take the surplus from peasant production, like they had under feudalism, rather than through capitalist free contract. In so far as the bourgeoisie developed, it did so in accordance with this feudal logic, parlaying gains from trade into positions within the absolutist state.

Jon Elster does not take up these debates directly, but the evidence and insight, elaborated in France Before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime, place this book within the succession of histories of absolutism written since the 1970s. A Norwegian scholar, Elster earned his PhD from the Université Paris 5 René Descartes in 1972 with a dissertation on Karl Marx written under the direction of Raymond Aron. He has written dozens of books, including titles on ancient Hebrew and Greek thought, Leibniz, the social sciences, and the sociology of rationality and irrationality. Elster achieved renown as a theorist of analytical Marxism, an intellectual movement of the 1980s, which applied techniques of the social sciences, such as rational choice theory, to elucidate Marxist concepts.

Elster finds that one of the enduring features of the entire period, from the personal reign of Louis XIV in 1661 until the Revolution of 1789, was the possession of power as hereditary property. Patrimonial governance precluded bureaucratic rationality. The king, as the ancestral holder of the state, had the right to evoke cases from the tribunals and have them judged by his agents, making the royal administration judge in the cases brought against it. Such patrimonialism was replicated on the local level in the form of seigneurial justice, owned by lords, whose judges decided cases regarding feudal domains. The number of gallows on the lords’ domains reflected their rank in ancien régime society. Elster argues that seigneurial justice, like venal offices and other forms of hereditary power, distinguished elites from common subjects much more than did tax exemptions.

It was Marxist scholars of the 1980s and 1990s who drew attention to the patrimonial features of absolutism. Indeed, it is strange, given Elster’s dissertation and books on Marx, that he has ignored this literature in France Before 1789. William Beik, for instance, argued that venality tied absolutism to its feudal past by consecrating a new form of private ownership of public authority, allowing rich and influential subjects to share in the profits and prestige of the state. Louis XIV could not take government power from the holders of venal and seigneurial rights, because he did not have a bureaucracy at his disposal or an alternative means of maintaining order. Kings therefore relied on provincial elites, who used the king’s name to wield government authority to their advantage. ‘Landlords combined the power to command and judge with the right to collect dues and dominate the local economy, each power supported the other.’[3]

Though Elster has ignored Beik, he refers to Herbert Lüthy’s similar argument that rent extraction permeated the monarchy. Wealth expanded in the eighteenth century, Lüthy maintained, as upper-class consumption of luxury goods stimulated artisanal production. The century saw industrial and technical progress without much capitalist concentration nor changes to the social structure. Peasant smallholders did not suffer expropriation and did not benefit from the prosperity. The dominant class appropriated the peasants’ and artisans’ surpluses thanks to official positions embedded in the monarchy. The crown had eliminated the feudal competitors for power, transforming them into clients, by the second half of the seventeenth century. Henceforth, feudalism consisted of a hierarchy of rights and properties within the state (entitling their possessors to revenue) rather than a hierarchy of fiefs as it had in centuries past. This ancien régime feudalism limited the king’s power, because the state offices diverted revenue from royal coffers to the private fortunes of elites.[4]

Rafe Blaufarb has shown that patrimonial authorities extended beyond state offices to the landholding system of the ancien régime. Feudalism, as understood in the eighteenth century, denoted a constitutional form based on privately-owned public power and hierarchical landholding. Every time a lord took possession of a fief, the tenants had to drop to their knees publicly and ceremonially acknowledge that they held their properties from their new master. This tenurial system, which remained until the revolutionary era, injected notions of lordly superiority and personal servitude into property ownership.[5]

One of the merits of France Before 1789 is to show that when venal officers, especially the high justices orparlementaires, referred to the monarchical constitution, they meant both the rentier offices in the state described by Lüthy as well as the feudal property described by Blaufarb.Indeed, Elster drew on his years of study of political psychology to explain how the persistence of feudal rights fuelled the violent upheavals of the revolutionary era. Face-to-face contempt, which the peasants routinely experienced in their dealings with the lords and their stewards, left deeper marks than did envy at a distance. The nobles’ power over their tenants in the form of seigneurial justice stirred more resentment than did their tax exemptions. Seigneurial exactions heightened the peasants’ sensitivity to conjunctural events and bred interpretations of malignity. Subsistence crises, for instance, led the populace to seek culprits. People believed that the nobles intentionally starved the people.

Elster offers a more informative overview of ruling-class exactions than have previous historians. Few societies have an inequality extraction ratio of 100 percent. This ratio would mean that a small upper class receives the whole national product minus what is needed for working people to survive. ‘In contemporary France … [the inequality extraction ratio] is about 32 percent. In England and Wales in 1759, it was 55 percent. In France in 1788, it was 76 percent, comparable to the Roman Empire in 14 A.D.’[6]

Elster, in a word, offers an inciteful analysis of the power relations of French absolutism and the political attitudes these relations elicited. Since Elster’s focus, clearly conveyed in the title, is ancien régime France, it may seem unfair to criticise the absence of a temporal and spatial analysis of how this regime came into being or how it differed from other early modern states. Yet this absence results from Elster’s intellectual formation. Ellen Meiksins Wood argued – in a 1989 essay on ‘Rational Choice Marxists’, including Jon Elster – that this school of thought describes social forms as already-given, static property relations peopled with rational individuals in possession of endowments and relational attributes. Rational Choice Marxism specifies the context in which rational choices are made. But how this context came into being – and how the conflicts, characteristic of it, shape the evolution of history – is beyond the remit of Rational Choice Marxism.[7] Thus, although Elster’s evidence and argumentation show that the elites of all three estates pursued positions of prestige and power and that they used the positions to appropriate the economic surplus of the realm, he does not show how these social relations related to the feudal past or capitalist future, how they emerged or changed over time. The index does not even contain entries for feudalism, capitalism, or the bourgeoisie.

Henry Heller, by contrast, contends that capitalist exploitation of labour-power became more prevalent, at the expense of feudal rent extraction, over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Heller thus reaffirms Lefebvre’s depiction of a rising bourgeoisie anxious to break open the stifling structures of the ancien régime. Other scholars, such as William Sewell, argue that, although the expansion of manufacturing and commerce did not give rise to a bourgeoisie conscious of itself as a revolutionary class, the growth of commodity production did enlarge the ranks of the wealthy educated classes, lay the basis for a public sphere of intellectual debate, and alter conceptions of social difference from the qualitative to quantitative, from birth to wealth. People’s participation in the logic of the market – in which a person’s value depended on their capital rather than their hereditary rank – nurtured notions of civic equality inimical to privilege and arbitrary government.[8] One finds no trace of these arguments in France Before 1789.

Elster, we have seen, instead focuses on the structure of lordships and offices offering access to prestige, power, and wealth. Yet, because he does not distinguish these structures from what preceded them, he leaves the reader with no way of understanding why elites came to rely on heritable forms of authority. For this historical dimension, one need only consult the Annales School. Guy Fourquin, synthesising this research, showed that serfdom declined, as the pressure and resistance of peasant communities led the lords of Mâconnais, Normandy, Picardy, and all the regions of the West, as well as the Île-de-France, to grant liberty to their dependents in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These enfranchisements consisted of legal documents which detailed fixed annual payments owed by the peasants in lieu of the arbitrary levies previously imposed by the lords. Serfs in other parts of France were tempted to flee to these places of liberty. Villagers across the realm, seeing the proliferation of emancipations, no longer tolerated servile bonds.[9]

Robert Brenner elaborates that, from the twelfth century onward, the lords sought to stem the erosion of their income – as the value of the fixed payments diminished due to inflation – by attracting peasants to schemes of colonisation. The lords enticed peasants to clear and farm new lands with offers of freedom from arbitrary levies and the right to inherit their plots. Other lords in northern France and neighbouring areas had to offer similar advantages to dissuade their dependents from fleeing and joining these colonisation projects.[10]

The feudal regime continued to erode in this way until the emergence of royal authority toward the end of the crisis of the fourteenth century. Royal tribunals asserted their authority relative to the lords’ jurisdictions, but based their judgements on local customs, and thereby enshrined seigneurial law in the jurisprudence. The courts recognised the heritability of peasant tenures yet perpetuated the seigneurial burdens on them. As the peasants reoccupied abandoned lands in the period of reconstruction after the Hundred Years’ War, the lords made periodic surveys to keep a record of rights and verify which parcels belonged to their domains. They carried out these surveys at shorter intervals and with greater precision in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The lords enjoyed the right, acknowledged over a large part of the realm, to claim from their peasants, every twenty or thirty years, the costs incurred in revising the volumes detailing the exactions to which the peasants were liable. The tribunals of emergent absolutism thus authorised innumerable petty encroachments, which accumulated a seigneurial burden on the peasants. The intendants, primarily fiscal agents, kept this feudal reaction in check by protecting rural communities, as sources of royal taxation, from excessive exploitation but, as servants of the crown, respected the seigneurial regime as a mainstay of the state and social order.[11]

By the eighteenth century, France’s resources consisted of fertile and diverse lands, and a large laborious population. The peasants had to make a living as well as pay taxes, seigneurial dues and tithes. They could hope to enlarge their holdings and improve the status of their families. Although they rarely achieved all these goals, their efforts to do so explain France’s wealth and power relative to other monarchies of Europe. Peasants engaged in many varied activities to meet the needs of their families and generate the necessary surplus for taxation. Specialisation was the dangerous exception since cornfields were particularly liable to crop failure. The typical peasant was therefore an amalgam of market gardener, mixed farmer, vine-grower, day labourer, spinner or weaver, blacksmith, or nail-smith, occasionally an innkeeper, and usually a poacher and sometimes a smuggler.[12]

The labouring population, in this way, retained control over the means of subsistence and production. France did not go through a process of primitive accumulation in which unfree peasants and independent producers became free wage workers left with nothing but labour to sell. Since the peasants continued to produce their own food and most of the other goods they needed to survive, money and commodities could not be transformed, through the purchase of labour-power, into capital.[13] To the contrary, the exploitation of the peasants remained within the feudal mode of previous centuries. The emergence of the absolutist state did not entail a struggle for power against the autonomous authority of feudal lords. Over the course of the early modern period, the monarchy expanded its authority, and multiplied the number of venal tribunals, by enforcing the legal customs negotiated during the class conflicts of the feudal era. Although these customs confirmed the heritability of the peasants’ plots of land and fixed their payments to the lords, the customs also confirmed seigneurial jurisdictions and privileges.

Elster analyses the peasants’ resistance to the demands of the state and lords. He draws on his knowledge of political psychology and rational choice theory to show that, although people felt indignation when they observed an injustice targeting another person, this emotion proved weaker than the one triggered by being the actual victim. Observing injustice at a distance could still incite collective action when large groups of observers felt indignation together. Alternatively, when many people suffered together as victims, their responses depended on perceptions of what others would do. People turned out in numbers when they felt sure that they would not be acting alone. Such collective action typically consisted of resistance to the demands of the authorities, or of attacks on property, records, or persons. Insurrections rarely consisted of indiscriminate looting.

Meiksins Wood argued, in her essay on Rational Choice Marxism, that, however illuminating the foregoing mode of analysis may be, it abstracts its subjects from historically specific relations and endows them with choices characteristic of autonomous individuals in a capitalist society. In the case of eighteenth-century France, these relations encompassed the peasant community, the original characteristic of French rural history, which formed the basis of the peasants’ livelihood and conception of justice.[14] The peasants held plots of land in different parts of villages to avoid seeing adverse weather or crop disease wipe out their entire harvest and subsistence. It would have been irrational to expend the time and money required to fence off the strips of land and exclude one another’s farm animals from them. Villagers therefore had common crop rotations and gathered their cattle in a herd with rights to pasture over all the land after the harvest. Common rights formed an even stronger bond than these traditions of collective farming. Households depended on common grazing areas in waste or woodlands even when they had access to meadows and fallow fields. Woodlands also provided timber. Marshes provided peat and rushes. Peasants used the brush on heaths for bedding, and the turves, broom, and bracken for mulches. These terrains also served as a reserve of arable land when the population expanded. The collective resources and grazing rights made smallholders and manual labourers less dependent on hiring themselves out to noble and bourgeois landowners. The intendants, moreover, helped keep the rural community together for the purpose of policing, raising militia men, and collecting taxes.[15]

Elster never acknowledges the existence of the peasant community, even though it had formed the framework of political calculations since at least the year 1000. During the crisis of the feudal economy in the early decades of the fourteenth century, the lords’ encroachments on collective rights to moors and forests, used by the peasants for pasture and additional farmland, sparked bitter, violent uprisings. Unrest hardly abated over the following centuries. Peasants and artisans took part in at least 8,500 rebellions against restrictions on use rights, seigneurial exactions, and above all fiscal officers from 1660 to 1789. The passing of time did not change the violent character of these episodes. The solidarity of the common people remained everywhere the norm.[16]

These rebellions, pitting the peasant community against the authorities, arose out of what Robert Brenner has termed the social-property relations of early modern France. Members of communities perceived that the tax officials and powerholders were the sources of their misery. The monarchy financed a massive structure of offices by increasing taxes on the peasant communities, whose members had established essentially full property rights in the land. Seigneurs maintained relatively restricted access to demesne land and feudal levies on the peasantry, and thus had less ability or interest in resisting the expansion of the absolutist state. The monarchy effectively reorganised much of the aristocratic class within itself by assembling a patrimonial group. Many nobles no doubt asserted particular privileges, such as tax exemptions and the liberties of local estates, against the centralising monarchy. Yet they also saw the absolutist state as a critical source of offices and other forms of privilege supported ultimately by arbitrary taxation.[17]

Pierre Goubert estimated that, under Louis XIV, a tenth of the population, comprising nearly all the nobility, most of the clergy and the whole of the bourgeoisie – the privileged classes, in a word – lived off the revenue scraped from the land by the inhabitants of the countryside and swelled and transformed by their labour and the labour of town workers. The privileged classes received a third of the common people’s surplus by dint of their land managers and sharecroppers, and another third by dint of seigneurial rights: quitrents, as well as the innumerable fees, minor exactions, levies on property sales and so forth. Another means of receiving revenue from the land consisted of pensions, benefices, offices, and governorships bestowed by the king on his favourites and loyal servants.[18]

The bourgeoisie – comprising officials on the road to ennoblement, state pensioners (especially in Paris), elites with a private income, and even some members of trades and manufacturers – took nearly as much revenue from the country as did the nobles. Members of the bourgeoisie owned land, only less than did nobles. They received revenue from loans to the peasants and from positions as the nobles’ land managers. They also gained revenue by belonging to the companies of tax farmers, which granted the king the estimated revenue of his dues and taxes, and then collected an even greater sum from the peasantry. The bourgeoisie thus obtained wealth in the same way as the nobility did. The middle classes aimed to join the second estate.[19]

Of course, the bourgeoisie, despite sharing the same forms of wealth and status as the nobles, led a revolution against them in 1789. Elster offers intriguing insights into how it was possible for the bourgeoisie, as exploiters, to lead a revolution against nobles belonging to the same dominant class. Offices and privileges, Elster explains, formed a cascade of ranks, each one publicly displaying to the ones below that they were beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving of scorn. Since the nobles enjoyed hereditary rights to the top ranks in the monarchy, it was only natural for them to believe in the quality of their biological endowment. New nobles could prove this quality over the course of at least two or three generations. Nobles created a cult of ancestry and old aristocratic names. During the 1500s, the Estates General proved incapable of uniting and imposing regular meetings on the crown because of interminable conflicts over préséance. In 1614, for instance, the nobles reacted furiously to the Third Estate’s claim to be the nobles’ ‘younger brothers’ and thus of the same blood. Meetings of the Estates General degenerated into internecine strife when such issues of vanity andamour-propre were at stake. Contempt for subordinates did not stop at the Third Estate. Town judges looked down on merchants, who did the same to the labouring population. The only way to avoid enduring public displays of contempt was to acknowledge one’s inferiority.

Elster argues that, in relations between the bourgeoisie and nobility, the resentment of contempt had a more powerful impact than did the envy of the nobles’ privileges. The obverse of contempt is shame. When the pain of shame seemed to come from intentional expressions of contempt, the pain turned into anger. ‘The French Revolution became inevitable when the reaction of the members of the third estate to the contempt of the nobles changed from shame to anger’.[20]

However, because Elster ascribes the context for such psychological responses solely to the status relations, rather than the origins and evolution of this context, he offers no explanation as to why it took until 1789 for contempt to cause anger and thereby provoke revolution. Nobles had shown contempt to the Third Estate for centuries. What changed at the end of the 1780s? Perry Anderson offers clues as to why the revolution came about when it did. He pioneered the historiography of absolutism as the consolidation of the feudal order, dislocated by the class struggles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, rather than as a power independent of the bourgeois and noble classes. The paradox of French absolutism, Anderson argued, is that at the moment of its triumph – when the augmented army and authority of the Sun King provided the model for monarchs across Europe – Louis XIV failed to impose himself on the Continent. The reason is that the parliamentary monarchy of England had grown stronger thanks to the country’s capitalist economy and the rationalised state apparatus in the wake of the century of revolution. The War of the Spanish Succession ushered in Britain’s imperial dominance over much of the globe at the beginning of the eighteenth century.[21]

Elster presents the contrary logic by which the French state operated. He reasons that absolute rulers could not make credible promises, because they had the patrimonial authority to undo their promises. They thus did not enjoy good credit. Lenders preferred a system which would allow them to withdraw funds at any time. Such a system required that the crown always have a certain amount of cash on hand. But after 1680, the crown’s coffers were always empty. The monarchy repeatedly used various forms of bankruptcy such as the debasement of the currency, the suspension of reimbursements, cuts to interest rates, and the use of the ‘flight forward’ of future revenues to pay for current expenses. Investors had little confidence in royal finances, and the crown had to pay high rates of interest, leaving less revenue for ordinary expenses. The ‘escalation of debts was due in large part to the fact that the kings were unable to make themselves unable to break their promises’.[22]

Again, however, without an explanation of why France developed patrimonial structures of government, and how these structures differed from England’s – where an elected parliament of capitalist landowners underwrote state finances – one has no way of understanding why these weaknesses precipitated a collapse into revolution in 1789. Because of England’s capitalist economy and streamlined state, it sustained the financial strains of warfare better than France did. England not only defeated France in the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763) but also drove Louis XV’s government into precarious financial straits. The American War of Independence (1775 to 1783) hastened the budgetary crisis, which obliged Louis XVI to call the Estates General in 1789. The stage was thus set for the contempt, perennially shown to the largest stratum of the dominant classes – the jurists, office holders, rent and dues collectors of the Third Estate – to cause shame and anger when it became clear that the high clergy and nobility intended to preserve their monopoly over the most lucrative, honorific, and powerful posts in the state. The upper social strata of the Third Estate then put themselves at the head of popular revolts and made a revolution in favour of legal equality and careers open to talent.[23]

To sum up, Elster has drawn on his erudition in political psychology, rational choice theory and Marxism to make France Before 1789 a rich book, which depicts a patrimonial monarchy in vivid detail. Elster shows not only that the king’s possession of sovereign power allowed him to punish recalcitrant elites, but also that these elites’ possession of offices and seigneurial domains allowed them to impose themselves on common subjects. Indeed, the possession of seigneurial justice demonstrated the lords’ place in the governmental hierarchy and distinguished them from the rest of the population. The lords, clergy, and monarchy, Elster maintains, imposed an extraordinarily high rate of exploitation, leaving the peasants with only about a quarter of their harvests.

The patrimonial essence of the monarchy, however, made it difficult for the kings to execute edicts. Elites possessed offices and lordships as property and could refuse to enforce policies. The kings’ ownership of supreme power also weakened the financial system. The monarchy did not contend with a chamber representative of the landed classes, which might guarantee government assets and impart confidence in state finances. Kings could plunder treasuries and break monetary contracts. Investors had little confidence in royal finances, and kings had to pay ruinous rates of interest.

France Before 1789 portrays, moreover, the bitterness, which accumulated within and below this hierarchy of powers and ranks. Each possessor of authority, from the king down to rural judges, showed contempt to subordinates. Elster convincingly argues that the resentment of contempt motivated royal subjects more than did the jealousy of privileges. Face-to-face contempt left deeper marks than did envy at a distance. This contempt bred shame and then, in the 1780s, the anger that exploded in the Revolution at the end of the decade.

One does not learn from France Before 1789 how theancien régime came into being. Elster’s mode of analysis posits the hierarchy of offices and seigneuries as a given and then proceeds to describe the social relations and psychological effects of this governmental system. The origins of the social relations and where the conflicts, which the social relations made possible, might lead is absent from the book.

Elster, for instance, entertains the possibility that the peasants could have used their resources to invest in cattle or put new land under cultivation. He argues that they often refrained from doing so because of the possibility of new taxes appropriating the potential gains. Such reasoning, however, assumes individuals who choose rationally between various courses of action, as if within a capitalist society. Their horizontal relations, which shaped the peasants’ economic calculations, are missing. Their resources, to be exact, comprised structural relations making the resources relevant. In particular, the peasant community maintained the subsistence plots and use rights.

The peasant community, moreover, made possible the class struggles anterior to the ancien régime monarchy, struggles that ultimately brought it into being. Thanks to the strength of peasant communities, the rural population forced the lords to offer enfranchisements in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Peasants thus asserted control over the lands from which they saw to their subsistence. This prior history put pressure on the lords, over the following centuries, to build their own political community – the monarchy’s hierarchy of powers, which Elster describes so well – capable of defending the nobles’ lands, seigneurial rights, and state fiscal levies on the peasant community.


Anderson, Perry 1979 [1974], Lineages of the Absolutist State, London: Verso.

Beik, William 1985, Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-century France: State Power and Provincial Aristocracy in Languedoc, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blaufarb, Rafe 2016, The Great Demarcation: The French Revolution and the Invention of Modern Property, New York: Oxford University Press.

Bloch, Marc 1966 [1931], French Rural History: An Essay on its Basic Characteristics, translated by Janet Sondheimer, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Brenner, Robert 1996, ‘The Rises and Declines of Serfdom in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, in Serfdom and Slavery, edited by M.L. Bush, London: Longman.

Brenner, Robert 2003 [1993], Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 15501653, London: Verso.

Comninel, George 1987, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge, London: Verso.

Elster, Jon 2020, France Before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Engels, Friedrich 1990 [1884], The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, in Collected Works, Volume 26, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Fourquin, Guy 1975, ‘Le temps de la croissance’, in Histoire de la France rurale. Tome 1. La formation des campagnes françaises des origines à 1340, edited by Georges Duby and Armand Wallon, Paris: Seuil.

Goubert, Pierre 1970 [1966], Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen, translated by Anne Carter, New York: Vintage Books.

Heller, Henry 2006,The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789–1815, New York: Berghahn Books.

Heller, Henry 2009, ‘The Long Durée of the French Bourgeoisie’, Historical Materialism, 17, 1: 31–59.

Heller, Henry 2015, ‘Introduction’, in Jean Jaurès, A Socialist History of the French Revolution, abridged and translated by Mitchell Abidor, London: Pluto Press.

Jones, Colin 2003 [2002], The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon, London: Penguin.

Jones, Peter 2016, Agricultural Enlightenment: Knowledge, Technology, and Nature, 1750–1840, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lefebvre, Georges 1988 [1939], The Coming of the French Revolution, translated by R.R. Palmer, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lüthy, Herbert 1998 [1959], La Banque protestante en France de la révocation de l’édit de Nantes à la Révolution, three volumes, Third Edition, Paris: Les ré-impressions des Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

Meiksins Wood, Ellen 1989, ‘Rational Choice Marxism: Is the Game Worth the Candle?’, New Left Review, I, 177: 41–88.

Meiksins Wood, Ellen 2016, ‘Britain versus France: How Many Sonderwegs?’,Historical Materialism, 24, 1: 11–29.

Meuvret, Jean 1987, Le Problème des subsistances l’époque Louis XIV: La production des céréales et la société rurale/Texte, Paris: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

Miller, Stephen 2020, Feudalism, Venality and Revolution: Provincial Assemblies in late-Old Regime France, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Nicolas, Jean 2002, La rébellion française: mouvements populaires et conscience sociale, 1661–1789, Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Parker, David 1996, Class and State in Ancien Régime France: The Road to Modernity?, London: Routledge.

Sewell, William 2010, ‘The Empire of Fashion and the Rise of Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France’, Past and Present, 206: 81–120.

Sewell, William 2014, ‘Connecting Capitalism to the French Revolution: The Parisian Promenade and the Origins of Civic Equality in Eighteenth-Century France’, Critical Historical Studies, 1: 5–46.



[1] Engels 1990, p. 271.

[2]Lefebvre 1988, pp. 12, 16, 36, 45, 47, 49, 86, 217.

[3] Beik 1985, p. 29. See also pages 13 and 219.

[4] Lüthy 1998, pp. 12, 15–16, 19–20.

[5] Blaufarb 2016, pp. 4, 89.

[6] Elster 2020, p. 63.

[7] Meiksins Wood 1989, pp. 74–5.

[8] Heller 2015; Heller 2009; Heller 2006; Jones 2003; Sewell 2010; Sewell 2014.

[9] Fourquin 1975, pp. 542–4, 556, 564–5.

[10] Brenner 1996, p. 254.

[11] Bloch 1966, pp. 128–34.

[12] Goubert 1970, p. 34.

[13] Anderson 1979, pp. 17–18; Parker 1996, pp. 14, 27.

[14] Meiksins Wood 1989, p. 48.

[15] Meuvret 1987, pp. 10, 12–13, 29–30, 35, 37; Jones 2016, pp. 92–3; Bloch 1966, pp. 164, 175, 180–1, 220–1, 229.

[16] Fourquin 1975, pp. 626, 628–9; Bloch 1966, pp. 39–41, 44–5, 47, 164, 175, 185–6, 227–9; Nicolas 2002, pp. 29, 56, 76–7, 156, 158, 181.

[17] Brenner 2003, pp. 654, 659, n. 20; Parker 1996, pp. 99–101, 112.

[18] Goubert 1970, pp. 46–7.

[19] Goubert 1970, pp. 46–8.

[20] Elster 2020, p. 232.

[21] Anderson 1979, pp. 105–6.

[22] Elster 2020, p. 230.

[23] Miller 2020; Comninel 1987; Meiksins Wood 2016, p. 12.

Flashbacks, Fascism and the New Prehistory. Review of Flashback, Eclipse: The Political Imaginary of Italian Art in the 1960s by Romy Golan and Against the Avant-garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art and Neocapitalism by Ara Merjian

Flashback, EclipseAgainst the Avant Garde

By Jacopo Galimberti

In English-speaking scholarship, the last few years have witnessed a growing interest in the relationship between the visual arts and Italian politics from the onset of the ‘miracolo economico’ (the ‘economic miracle’ starting around 1958) to the oil crisis of the mid-1970s, or, to put it slightly differently, from the publication of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks to ‘the years of lead’ – a moniker that has demonised a decade also marked by resounding victories both in the factories and in the civil-rights sphere. Italian cinema masterpieces, from the films of Federico Fellini to those of Michelangelo Antonioni, were studied in Anglo-American universities early on, and Arte Povera artists have been exhibited in major venues outside Italy since the early 2000s, but what recent years have brought to the fore is a sustained engagement with the way in which art was shaped by the social conflicts that animated the growth and decline of Italian Taylorist ‘society’, and not only in terms of the ‘mode of production’. A new generation of art historians and visual-studies experts have embedded the narratives of postwar Italian art into an ebullient political landscape of great theoretical complexity, as demonstrated by the recent translation of classics of Italian leftist thought into English (e.g., Mario Tronti’sWorkers and Capital (1963), Alberto Asor Rosa’sThe Writer and the People (1965), and Franco Fortini’sA Test of Powers (1965)). Recent books such as Jaleh Mansoor’sMarshall Plan Modernism, Lindsay Caplan’sArte Programmata and Paola Bonifazio’sThe Photoromance must be given credit for their attempts to reconnect political jargons and violent social conflicts to artistic production, complementing the insights of an older generation of ‘Italianists’ including Robert Lumley, John Foot and David Forgacs, to name but a few. The parallel shift from male to female scholars is intentional here.

The Italian Left had a firm grip on large sections of the culture industry in these tumultuous decades; accordingly, any meaningful discussions of the arts and their environment cannot help but examine leftist culture and its contrasts or compromises with a classist, Catholic and sexist right-wing elite, as well as with the long shadow cast by the Fascist dictatorship well after World War II. Such is the framework within which two monographs from the 2020s operate: Romy Golan’s Flashback, Eclipse: The Political Imaginary of Italian Art in the 1960s and Ara Merjian’sAgainst the Avant-garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art and Neocapitalism. These two volumes share a similar timeframe and a pronounced interest in politics, as well as a keen attention (though particularly in the former) to temporality and its structures.

In fact, Golan’s title reads almost like a statement in favour of a history of art that defies a reassuring linear narrative while also avoiding the pitfalls of what François Hartog (a key interlocutor for Golan’s meditations) has dubbed ‘presentism’. If the word ‘flashback’ retains its conventional meaning in the book, and describes the sudden irruption of the past into the narrative flow, what ‘eclipse’ indicates, in temporal terms, is less clear, but the chapters suggest that it is something akin to a momentarily veiled event. It is tempting to understand ‘eclipse’ as part of the semantic field of ‘repression’, but Golan deliberately omits any references to psychoanalysis, opting instead for a terminology derived from photography and film studies. The interrelations between three key notions of the book, flashback, eclipse, and mise en abîme, are unpacked in the Introduction, ‘An eclipse, once it is recognised as such, can mask a flashback. And a flashback can include, nested in, either another flashback or an eclipse. When nested, they produce an effect of amise en abyme’.[1] Despite her commendable attempt to complicate mainstream art-historical approaches to the regimes of temporality – what François Hartog has achieved through notions such as chronos,kairos andkrisis – Golan’s evocative vocabulary might find objections in an audience persuaded that historical studies should adhere to the imperative of documentary evidence, and refrain from using a metaphorical language.[2] Yet Golan asserts the validity of her methodology, contending that a

number of connections I make between artists and events, especially in the longer flashbacks, might appear to be a stretch, the result of associative thinking, and indeed, many of the flashbacks and eclipses in this book are mine, but a degree of speculation is within the logic of the visual thinking on which this study is founded. […] The images know more than we do. The artworks and the images thereof generate both real and imagined narratives about the connection between the present and the past that historians cannot grasp with documents alone.[3]

Everything Goes: Three Problems with The Dawn of Everything A Review of The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow


by Peter Kulchyski


Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.

- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

The Left, Covid, and the Roads not Taken.

By Mike Haynes

Mike Haynes is a former Professor of International Political Economy who has written widely on the social history of death and disease. Accused by some of being a lockdown sceptic (he supported the first UK lockdown), he would describe himself as an evidence-based covid centrist. He blogs as theJobbing Leftie Historian:


By any sensible epidemiological measure, the covid pandemic is over. The disease is now endemic. So, did the organised left and its leading radical thinkers have a good pandemic? I think the answer is no. Insofar as history notices us at all, it will not be kind. Nor should it be. Most of the left suspended critical analysis and, collectively, we became largely irrelevant.

One exception was Panagiotis Sotiris,whose autumn 2020 critique of lockdowns in Historical Materialism I still look back on with enormous admiration.[1] There were things in his article that I do not share. Not being a philosopher, I would not have gone with his big framing of the arguments. I have doubts too about the left’s obsession with neoliberalism. I do not think that the writings of people like Mike Davis or Rob Wallace showed any special insight that cannot be found in the many papers about the threat of pandemic disease produced by the thousands of people who work in the huge global disease surveillance networks.

But Sotiris was right that the apocalyptic scenarios were overblown. The precise numbers who died directly of covid remains unknown, but maybe around 10% of the total number who died globally in 2020-2022. Proportionately, the covid pandemic was larger than the influenza pandemics of 1957-58 and 1968-69, but closer to them than the 1918 pandemic. Indeed, it is not even clear that covid was the top global cause of death in 2020-22. The infection fatality rate (which also varies over time and place and not just due to vaccination) was high for the old with comorbidities but low for the under 60s.[2] The excess mortality rate captures both the effects of covid itself and the impact of the measures to deal with it. It is often considered a better guide, but it varied enormously by country and over time. Most obviously in the case of Sweden, it did not fit with the narrative that state-driven lockdowns were the only rational response. Sotiris was right, too, that we needed to embrace complexity rather than simplicity; that lockdown had more to do with ‘security’ rather than ‘public health’. But, above all, in terms of dealing with the pandemic I agreed then, and I agree now, - the choice was never ‘between simply doing nothing … and coercive and authoritarian restrictions and lockdowns.’ The experience of the pandemic clearly showed that lockdown stringency did not mean lower fatality rates.

Yet it was at almost exactly at the point when Sotiris published his argument for a different left response that many others on the left were going down the rabbit hole of elimination and the fantasy of zero covid. It was typical that an early response to Sotiris should effectively say there are only two positions - good and evil, that of the lockdown strategy associated with the zero covid campaigns or support for the Koch Foundation and the Great Barrington Declaration.[3] It was easy for such left commentators to admit, in the abstract, that lockdowns might be a problem. The trouble was that, in practice, so much of the left then took the view that there was not a state lockdown measure that should not have been started earlier, applied more widely and pursued longer. To doubt this was to be on the wrong side of history. What are you? Saint or a sinner? And there is no virtue like that of the saint faced with a room full of sinners.

Smallpox is the only human disease that has been completely eradicated. But it was never a model for covid. Smallpox is easily identifiable from afar, it does not mutate its form, there are no animal reservoirs, a vaccination gives lifetime protection (albeit with some slight decline).

Covid endemicity was inevitable. Covid is a respiratory disease. It transmits asymptomatically. It has a high reproduction rate. It constantly mutates. These things are intrinsic to the numerous coronaviruses and many other diseases too. This is why Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England and Wales said in April 2020 ‘COVID-19 is a long way from finished and eradication is technically impossible’.[4] It is why Professor Francois Balloux described zero covid as ’epidemiologically idiotic’.[5]

They were right. You say that there is a strategy to supress covid in every country in the world? Then, in 2023, three years later, it is endemic in every country in the world. It is difficult to imagine a more spectacular refutation of an argument. Yet, even now, those on the left who made these arguments are reluctant to think about how they got it so wrong. Nor are they willing to confront the trade-offs that they downplayed or to raise the questions of alternatives which might have allowed a better and more democratic management of the process to endemicity - trying to reduce the costs of covid itself but also dealing with those inevitable trade-offs which the measures used to control covid would involve.

Here, I just want to briefly consider four things – the role of society and politics; the role of science; the transfer of risk and, finally, the need for alternatives. The perspective reflects my position in the UK but most of the points apply more widely.

First, despite a rhetoric of social struggle versus covid, not only was the ‘class struggle’ abandoned but so was so much human interaction. It is difficult to imagine a scale of human estrangement in human history comparable to that of the countries which locked down. ‘People were afraid – of the virus,’ the disaster planner, Lucy Easthope says, ‘but worse - of each other’.[6] While some breezed through lockdown, others were less fortunate. People could not meet beyond their household to sing together. They could not dance, use parks, meet to kiss, to have sex. Children could not play outside together. Mothers had to give birth alone, couples marry alone, people die alone. The abused were locked in with their abusers, the depressed with their depression, the lonely with their loneliness, the vulnerable with their vulnerabilities.

Independent forms of voluntary and collective action all but disappeared in the UK. For two years, strikes were effectively zero. UK strike statistics ceased to be collected. Left demonstrations and street protests were abandoned. The climate change movement also suspended street actions. Instead, the alienation of Zoom meetings and protests were lauded by those working from ‘home’ - wherever that might be. It was as if the left had never had anything to say about how workplace or wider forms of solidarity were forged by people coming together physically. We lived vicariously off a few protests of Black Lives Matter or the women’s movement, in which, organisationally, we played no serious role. We ridiculed anti-lockdown protests from afar and then complained that they were dominated by the right.

Did human rights not matter for us? It seemed not. We even struggled to have an engagement with the inevitably repressive nature of the policing of lockdowns and the way it fell most heavily on the usual suspects. Nor did the left, except at the level of a few individuals, have any real engagement with the very limited networks of social solidarity that survived.[7] It was not the left but more traditional groups that created most of the social support networks that did develop.

And the irony is that, reading the high-level political exchanges that have come out about covid policy in the UK, it would seem that, so far from seeing the left as a threat, the government of the day was happy for people to argue for more rather than less extreme measures.

So, what of science? It is true that politics plays an inescapable role in science. But that does not mean that science can be read off from politics. The left’s understanding of medicine and epidemiology was woeful. Covid suppressors and eliminators claimed, for example, to be vaccine enthusiasts. I am too. But I saw not a single one reflect on the fact that it was impossible to develop vaccines in conditions of suppression and elimination.[8] That is right - you need a significant pool of infection to test your vaccines. Without a minimum number of infections, you cannot do the trials necessary to test effectiveness and safety. You therefore have to shift the risk onto others. How could this elementary point be missed by so many? Who did they expect to do the testing on?

And should not those on the left who demanded vaccine mandates now be ashamed of their inability to make the elementary distinction between a vaccine that reduces the virulence of an infection and one that stops transmission?

More generally, the left showed no understanding of the principles of evidence-based medicine and why all interventions need real world trials of their efficacy. The crassest confounded observational studies were shared. The idea of randomised trials was rarely mentioned and then only perhaps to be rubbished. If any initiative was proposed that might work, then the left too often assumed it would definitely work and any doubts were down to bad politics.

The examples are endless, but I will take test and trace in the UK. Even today, someone like Devi Sridhar can still be found arguing that ‘mass testing was the best early path to avoid lockdown and supress Covid-19…’[9] Since mass testing did not enable any country to suppress Covid, to make this claim in 2023 seems extraordinary. Perhaps it is designed to deflect attention from the way Sridhar also argued for seemingly indefinite external and internal border closures. But let us leave that to one side...

People with infections were told to stay home. All the attempts to finesse a policy beyond this, based on test and trace systems, were failures. The system in the UK was possibly the most expensive failure in the world. It cost some £37 billion and, in some months, made up an astonishing 1% of UK GDP.[10] It was poorly managed, ineffective, and beset by questionable contracts. All this is politically important. But, in terms of the management of the pandemic, a test and trace system could never – even under the best of circumstances – have significantly moderated the pandemic. The reason is that the higher the reproduction rate, the more difficult it is to contain a pandemic by contact tracing. This is why, in the past, test and trace systems were only seen as useful in the very early stages. Once the cases run into a few thousands, test and trace systems quickly become pointless because they necessarily ‘leak’. Let us take the stages.

First, we knew early on that there was likely to be asymptomatic transmission. Second, there was also pre-symptomatic transmission. If a symptomatic person then submitted themselves to a test and trace system, it would not be clear when they had started transmitting and therefore how far back to take their contacts. From the contacts they submitted, a smaller number might then be traced and asked to isolate. But not all the people contacted would choose to isolate and report any symptoms of their own. The left claimed this was because people could not afford to do so. This might be true of some – even many. But what of the others who might not isolate simply because they thought ‘the rules did not apply to them.’ My own left social media links show behaviour which attests to this. The problems that all this created in practice are well explored invarious studies of actual systems.[11] That they could not work was also evident from attempts to model better test and trace systems allowing for different levels of leakage.[12] These studies showed how imperfect a tool contact tracing is in a mass respiratory epidemic (compared, say, with a sexually transmitted disease one). They also showed how the lack of population adherence further undermined the test and trace efforts.

But, as with so much else, the calls for early, better, and more intensive test and trace systems simply played into the politics of distraction preventing the development of more reflective approaches. The critics of the society of the spectacle became the cheerleaders of pandemic policy as spectacle.

So, to risk transfer. One of the most stupid left slogans of the pandemic was that it was it was ‘lives versus the economy’. Insofar as this meant that governments would choose the economy rather than lockdown, what is surely remarkable is that they did not. Lockdowns were extensive in so many countries – even in the poor world where the effects were much more disastrous than in advanced countries. You cannot lock down a slum and trying can only have very bad outcomes.[13]

Beyond this, all our lives are embedded in the economy. Lives versus profits at least makes some sense. But people seemed to prefer the nonsensensical slogan of “lives versus the economy”. Any society will collapse almost immediately if all material production and supply ceases. Ships need unloading, food harvesting, cows milking, power stations operating, machines working, warehouses filling and emptying. The list is endless. The real choice was always some lives versusother lives and perhapssome lives now at the expense ofsome other lives later.

In these terms, lockdown policies can be argued to have involved a huge social transfer of risk. In the advanced world, some had to stay at home because they had been made unemployed or because their jobs had been furloughed. But much of the white-collar workforce (where the left now finds its base) was protected by being encouraged to work from home on full pay. Others, the vast majority across the world and indeed the majority in all countries, save perhaps for a short time in a few rich countries, had to go out to work.

The result was a systematic risk transfer. Some were protected while others were left exposed. Indeed, some others could be argued to have been exposed more. This is evident from the pattern of the covid pandemic itself. To use the technical language of epidemiology, transmission was heterogenous - not homogenous. Transmission was determined by networks rooted in society and work.[14] How ironic that, in the UK (and elsewhere?), one of the groups with the lowest levels of covid-related occupational mortality should be university lecturers! University support staff had a worse time. In schools, too, fewer teachers died on an age standardised basis than support staff. It was those at the bottom, the many essential workers, often with comorbidities and living in poor social conditions, who died most, as they kept the rest of society going.[15]

Now you can, if you want, make an argument that this was necessary, and more lives were saved this way. I doubt this. As Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist and doctor who worked on the frontline with the homeless on Toronto put it, trickle-down epidemiology is just as big a myth as trickle-down economics.[16] But it is an argument. What you cannot do is ignore the risk transfer involved and whose lives were saved and whose lives lost.

But the other inequalities of lockdowns, and those inequalities that are coming after it, go far beyond the disease itself. The evidence for this is everywhere. Where countries and national governments deployed significant programmes of income support income inequalities did diminish. But, onalmost every other measurable indicator, inequality increased – access and treatment of other health conditions, mental health, obesity, education, apprenticeship, employment.[17] The list goes on.

Some aspects of inequality rose because conditions for some worsened. But inequality also rose across other dimensions because those who were protected at home gained absolutely as well as improving their relative position. This is evident in the wealth statistics not just of the billionaires and millionaires but a whole section of the middle class that was protected and able to work from home - including me and most others on the left.[18]

Were there alternatives? Of course there were. There were and are lots of different positions, loads of serious arguments to be had about lockdowns. Why were NO non-pharmaceutical interventions trialled in the rich world, where abundant resources existed to test whether they work. How bizarre is it that the major trial on masks should have been done in Bangladesh? What was its point?

It was perfectly possible to support some lockdowns or aspects of lockdowns and not others. Even if you want to argue that a form of lockdown was the answer, then we need to ask why one form of lockdown rather than other? But who, on the lockdown left, even posed this question?

The most obvious alternative was to explore more or less extensive forms of focused protection of the most vulnerable. Forms of focused protection have been a standard response to infectious disease outbreaks for generations. They were at the core of earlier UK planning. But this planning was marginalised prior to the outbreak. This was partly because the government of the day chose to do this. It was also because new technologies seemed to create new opportunities to try things ‘on the hoof’. What was left of the older plans crumbled in the first days as policies flipped.

It was generalised lockdowns that were the new and untried thing. And what was surely then remarkable is how little they changed. Lockdowns were lifted only to be re-imposed with little evidence of learning between them. Lockdowns became the excuse not to do other things – they were the black box which would mysteriously prove more effective than the better planned and rehearsed measures of the past.

Take care homes. These bring together large numbers of old people for end-of-life care including degenerative conditions like dementia. Privatised care homes are big business, but their underlying economics are weak. But there are other complexities too. The buildings used are often poor for infection control, but maximising infection control at the expense of sociability has serious costs for those isolated and especially people at the end of their lives. The mental toll of isolation is huge for anyone, but especially for those near the end of their lives.

But the bigger issue is staffing and external access of those who came in as part of their daily work. No attempt was made to deal with this. The left seemed to have no sense of the scale of the problem. The adult social care sector in the UK employs over 1.5 million people. But there were many more university students. If you wanted to go down the road of lockdowns, then I often wondered why they were not completely closed. Students and academic staff could have been mobilised as a care army to help out in homes and peoples’ houses. Of course, that was never going to happen because, while some things were thinkable, others, it seems, were not.

The result was that, while families were prevented from entering homes to see their relatives even to the point of death, those in the homes faced a constant turnover of ‘staff’. The bitterness this created for those excluded is well captured in this interview with a daughter - ‘when I Skype my mum … I’ve counted 20 different carers sitting with her and you think well I can do that if 20 carers can sit there but me, who doesn’t go anywhere or doesn’t do anything … I’m not allowed to go in to see my own mother and the same thing, it just doesn’t make any sense’.[19]

This is but one example of things never confronted. Maybe lockdown supporters could have made a plea for a focussed programme additional to general lockdown, but general lockdown was presented as a sufficient solution or the only available solution when it was no solution at all for those in care homes and their relatives outside.

Wherever you look the picture then is not pretty. How many supporters of the left descended into epidemiological Stalinism? Zero covid in one country; lock out the world; with the right politics anything could be achieved! There were, it seemed, no covid fortresses that could not be stormed! But who suffered least? Certainly, the super-rich, but the left academic readers of HM in the rich countries didn’t do badly either. That is why I am writing this and you are reading it.

But there are things that cannot be done by will. We should have understood this. We should have been willing to learn. We should have argued for alternatives built on good foundations. We should have recognised that science and policy is built both on uncertainty and complexity. We should not have been so arrogant as to believe that reading the Communist Manifesto and theGuardian or theFinancial Times gives us a deeper understanding of science than people who spend their lives doing the real science. We should have been prepared to listen more and learn more.

And we should have reflected, too, a little more on our own position and how some of us were more protected than others. But, even now, as the pandemic fades, we are not doing that. We have moved on – it seems - to other things. But, if we do not evaluate how the left reacted, we can be sure that we will make as big a hash of the problems today and tomorrow as we did those of 2020-22.

[1]Panagiotis Sotiris, “Thinking Beyond the Lockdown: On the Possibility of a Democratic Biopolitics,” Historical Materialism, vol 28, no.3, pp. 3–38. Available at: See also Alberto Toscano, “Beyond the Plague State”,

[2]Angelo Pezzullo et al. "Age-stratified infection fatality rate of COVID-19 in the non-elderly population." Environmental Research216 (2023): 114655.

[3]Gareth Dale, “Lockdown Politics: A Response to Panagiotis Sotiris,” Historical Materialism Blog,3rd Dec, 2020 and…

[4]Dr. Chris Whitty, “Covid 19”, Gresham College Lecture, 30 April 2020.


[6]Lucy Easthope, When the Dust Settles, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2022.


[8]George S Heriot and Euzebiusz Jamrozik. "Not in my backyard: COVID-19 vaccine development requires someone to be infected somewhere." Medical Journal of Australia 214.4 (2021): 150-152.

[9]Devi Sridar, ‘What do Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages show?’, Guardian 1 March 2023

[10]National Audit Office, The government’s approach to test and trace in England – interim report, December 2020.

[11]E.L.Davis, T.C.D. Lucas, A. Borlase et al. “Contact tracing is an imperfect tool

 for controlling COVID-19 transmission and relies on population

 adherence” Nature Communications, 12, 5412 (2021).

[12]M. Fyles et al., “Using a household-structured branching process to analyse contact tracing in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. May 2021, B3762020026720200267

[13]Alex Broadbent and Pieter Streicher, "Can you lock down in a slum? And

 who would benefit if you tried? Difficult questions about epidemiology's

 commitment to global health inequalities during Covid-19." Global

 Epidemiology4 (2022): 100074.

[14]Muge Cevik and Stefan D. Baral. "Networks of SARS-Cov-2 transmission." Science373.6551 (2021): 162-163.

[15]ONS, Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation, England and Wales, 25 January 2021.


[17]Richard Blundell, et al. "Inequality and the COVID-19 Crisis in the United Kingdom." Annual Review of Economics14 (2022): 607-636.

[18]ONS, ‘Economic modelling of forced saving during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’, 6 June 2022.

[19]Clarissa, Giebel et al. "Guilt, tears and burnout—Impact of UK care home restrictions on the mental wellbeing of staff, families and residents." Journal of Advanced Nursing78.7 (2022): 2191-2202.

An Important Contribution to the History of Trotskyism in Bolivia: The Revolutionary Workers Party – Masas (POR-Masas) and the Revolutionary Tendency of the Armed Forces – Vivo Rojo A Review of ¡Abrir los cuarteles! Una historia de la Tendencia Revolucion

By Daniel Gaido

book cover bolivia


Matías J. Rubio, a historian from the National University of Luján, Argentina, as well as a Trotskyist militant, has recently published a book entitled ¡Abrir los cuarteles! Una historia de la Tendencia Revolucionaria de las Fuerzas Armadas – Vivo Rojo (Bolivia – 1980–2001).[1] This work analyses the history of the Revolutionary Tendency of the Armed Forces of Bolivia, linked to the Partido Obrero Revolucionario – Masas (POR-Masas), a Trotskyist organisation led by Guillermo Lora that edited, between 1980 and 2001, a clandestine bulletin entitledVivo Rojo with the aim of creating an organisation of officers and soldiers with revolutionary tendencies within the Bolivian army.

Rubio’s book is divided into three parts. The first part is a review of the history of Bolivia in the twentieth century based on classic works such as those of Dunkerley[2] and Klein,[3] while also incorporating new contributions such as those of Field[4] and Hernández and Salcito.[5] The second part is a review of the history of the POR-Masas between 1963 and 1991, including an analysis of its programme, its strategy, and its policy towards the Bolivian Armed Forces. This part is based on classic militant works such as the histories of the 1952 revolution written by Justo[6] and Lora,[7] as well as on Lora’s enormous literary production and on more recent academic works, in particular the history of Bolivian Trotskyism written by Steven Sándor John, a historian belonging to one of the splits of the Spartacist League called the Internationalist Group.[8] The third and last part of the book analyses the experience of the Revolutionary Tendency of the Armed Forces led by the POR-Masas from 1980 until the publication of the final issue of Vivo Rojo in December 2001.

The Creation of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR), the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, and the POR Split

Rubio begins by pointing out that the Bolivian POR emerged ‘in 1935, as a result of the confluence of two trends opposed to the Chaco War’.[9] The five issues of the founding magazine of Bolivian Trotskyism, entitled América Libre and published by Bolivian exiles in the city of Córdoba, Argentina, have been scanned and are available online at the Cedinci digital library.[10] Rubio also mentions the weakness of the POR a decade later, specifying that ‘by 1945 it had only seventeen militants in the strict sense of the term throughout the country’.[11]

The Pulacayo Theses adopted on 8 November 1946, by the congress of the Union Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers (Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia, FSTMB), which had approximately 60,000 members, were drafted by the young Trotskyist militant Guillermo Lora. Together with a series of immediate and transitional demands, they laid out a political perspective of permanent revolution for the Bolivian proletariat, arguing that the bourgeois-democratic revolution could only succeed on condition that it became the first phase of a proletarian revolution culminating in a workers’ government.[12]

From this congress, the ‘Miners’ Bloc’ (Bloque Minero) POR-FSTMB was formed, which won three seats in the general elections held in Bolivia on 3 January 1947, including Lora andJuan Lechín Oquendo, the general secretary of the Union Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers from 1944 to 1987 and of the Bolivian Workers’ Central (Central Obrera Boliviana, COB) from 1952 to 1987. Rubio points out that since 1945 Lora ‘established a personal relationship with Lechín’, that both ‘even shared a pension for about six months’, and that in the years before the outbreak of the 1952 revolution Lora ‘wrote his speeches and worked with him in the Mining Federation’.[13]

On 6 May 1951, a presidential election was held in Bolivia that yielded a comfortable victory to the candidate of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, MNR) Víctor Paz Estenssoro, but on 16 May 1951 a coup was carried out to prevent the formation of an MNR government. The following year, on 9 April 1952, a revolution broke out, whose fate was decided two days later when contingents of miners descended on the city of La Paz armed with dynamite, disbanding the army and replacing it with workers’ militias. On 15 April 1952, Paz Estenssoro was appointed president of Bolivia, a position he held until 6 August 1956, with Hernán Siles Zuazo as vice president. On 17 April 1952, the Bolivian Workers’ Central (Central Obrera Boliviana, COB) was created. Juan Lechín was elected general secretary of the union federation, and at the same time, along with other union leaders, he joined the government of Paz Estenssoro as Minister of Mines and Petroleum, starting the MNR-COB coalition government.

Rubio notes that the 1952 revolution ‘surprised the POR, which was strongly disaggregated’, and that, consequently, ‘the POR could not position itself as the leader of the process and, in practice, supported the workers’ wing of the MNR headed by Lechín’.[14] This assessment is confirmed by the statements of Lora himself, who was in Paris at that time. In an interview entitled ‘Declaration of Guillermo Lora, Bolivian deputy, Trotskyist leader: The coup d’état has become a revolutionary insurrection’, published in the French Trotskyist organ La Vérité, Lora stated:

The spinning workers began to deliberate and then to impose their conditions on the right wing of the M.N.R.; that is how they forced it to accept in the new cabinet workers’ elements which constitute its left fraction. […]

Q. – Our party is in the vanguard of this struggle?

A. – Yes, and it supports the left fraction of the new cabinet [i.e., Juan Lechín].[15]

Losing Power: The Workers’ Opposition in the Russian Communist Party. A Review of The Workers’ Opposition in the Russian Communist Party: Documents, 1919–30, edited and translated by Barbara C. Allen

By Daniel Gaido

Book Cover

This monumental collection gathers the main documents of the Workers’ Opposition, a tendency within the Bolshevik Party that emerged in December 1920 against the background of the crisis in War Communism, i.e., the economic collapse resulting from grain requisitions and the prohibition of trade between the city and the countryside, which became unbearable to large strata of the population towards the end of 1920, after the end of the civil war and the armistice in the Polish–Soviet War. The book reproduces numerous documents from the main leader of the tendency, Alexander Shliapnikov (the chairman of the metalworkers’ union), as well as its platform, the interventions of its leaders in trade-union and party conferences and congresses, articles in party journals, diary entries, etc. It does not include, however, the most famous document of the tendency, Alexandra Kollontai’s pamphlet The Workers’ Opposition, because it is already widely available online and also because, according to Allen, ‘other leaders of the Workers’ Opposition refused to take responsibility’ for it, considering its language too inflammatory.[1] But the collection includes Kollontai’s diary entries from 23 March to 1 April 1921, which show her disappointment after having been disavowed by her comrades at the tenth congress of the Russian Communist Party – including Shliapnikov, who was elected to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party.[2]

The book is divided into four sections. The first one deals with the trade-union debate (in which there was a three-way split between the Workers’ Opposition, the supporters of Trotsky’s proposal for the militarisation of the economy and the supporters of Lenin’s middle-of-the-road position) and the formation of the Workers’ Opposition, from March 1919 to the Autumn of 1920. The second section deals with the Workers’ Opposition as a fully-formed legal faction in the Russian Communist Party, from December 1920 to March 1921, when it was condemned as a ‘syndicalist deviation’ by the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party – which coincided with the outbreak of the Kronstadt revolt and adopted the disastrous ban on factions as well as the transition from War Communism to the New Economic Policy (NEP). The third section covers the period from the ban on factions through the eleventh party congress of March–April 1922, which appointed Joseph Stalin as the Russian Communist Party’s first General Secretary (i.e., as the leader of the only legal faction within the Bolshevik Party). The fourth and final section deals with the former Worker Oppositionists in the debates of the NEP era and during the first five-year plan, from 1922 to 1930.

The Formation of the Workers’ Opposition

The main leader of the Workers’ Opposition in the Russian Communist Party, Alexander Shliapnikov raised the slogan ‘unionise the government’ (alternatively ‘unionise the state’) and advocated ‘the necessary purge even of the CC’.[3] The ‘Theses of the Workers’ Opposition’ adopted on 18 January 1921 envisioned this slogan in the following way: ‘Organisation of management of the entire economy will belong to an All-Russian Congress of Producers, who are united in professional production unions, which will elect a central body to manage the entire economy of the republic’.[4] Since this vaguely sounds like the realisation of the Industrial Workers of the World’s ‘One Big Union’ idea, it is not surprising that their opponents accused them of syndicalism, though the Workers’ Opposition rejected this denomination as a slur and argued that its proposal was based on the economic section of the programme of the Russian Communist Party adopted at the Eighth Congress held in March 1919, particularly its point 5, which stated that ‘Trade unions should further concentrate in their hands all management of the economy, as a single economic unit’ and that ‘The participation of trade unions and through them the masses in directing the economy is the chief means for struggle against bureaucratisation of Soviet power’s economic system’.[5]

Most party leaders, of course, saw matters in a completely different light: for them the Workers’ Opposition reduced the role of the party to the seizure of political power (and the eventual conduct of a civil war to secure that power), after which it would hand over the management of the economy to the trade unions. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the tenth congress of the Russian Communist Party the Workers’ Opposition had only a small minority of delegates: 45 out of 694 voting delegates, i.e., 6.5 percent.[6] More perplexing is the fact that they had the support of only a slight majority in the leadership of Shliapnikov’s own union, and that they remained a minority in the All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions and at the Russian Communist Party’s conference in the Moscow gubernia, their stronghold.[7] While this was partly due to the heavy-handed intervention of the party in the internal affairs of the unions, it cannot be explained away so easily. An additional reason for the numerical weakness of the Workers’ Opposition was its programmatic weaknesses.

The Workers’ Opposition’s platform suffered from a series of shortcomings, the most glaring of which was the scant attention it paid to the peasant question in a country where, according to the population census of 1926, the peasantry amounted to 82.1 per cent of the population (the specialist on the peasantry, V.P. Danilov, claimed that the percentage of the peasants was actually higher: 84 per cent).[8] The compulsory requisition of grain not only estranged the peasantry – i.e., the vast majority of the population – from the government, but the peasants began to till only enough land to meet their own direct needs, ‘so that by the end of 1920 the amount of sown acreage in European Russia was only three-fifths of the figure for 1913, the last normal year before the onset of war and revolution’.[9] Any attempt to revive agriculture and husbandry required the abolition of grain requisition and its replacement by a tax, as well as the restauration of private exchange between cities and countryside, which in turn required the stabilisation of the rouble to rein in inflation. In other words: the only way out of the economic collapse in the short term was a transition from War Communism to the NEP, a measure adopted by the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party only under pressure from the Kronstadt uprising. But the Workers’ Opposition never advanced such proposals, and, indeed, their demands envisioned a continuation of payments in kind to the workers through ‘the systematic implementation of naturalisation of wages’ as well as ‘basic and bonus payments in kind’.[10]

Another weakness of the Workers’ Opposition’s platform was that it was by no means obvious what it meant to transfer the management of the economy to the unions in late 1920 and early 1921, when the major cities were virtually depopulated:

Between May 1917 and April 1918, the city of Moscow lost 300,000 of its 2 million inhabitants. From 1918 to 1920, the city lost another 700,000 people. Moscow’s population toward the end of the civil war was thus half of what it had been in the midst of the 1917 revolution. An even more catastrophic fall occurred in Petrograd: its population plummeted from 2.5 million in 1917 to 700,000 in 1920.[11]

Nuclear power, Degrowth and the Working class

By David Schwartzman

The emphasis in Matt Huber’s Climate Change is Class War on the critical role of the working class for achieving climate security and just future, both in the US and globally is very welcome. But I am compelled to respond to what I disagree with in his book, recognizing its valuable contribution to defeating fossil capital.

First I will address Matt’s support for nuclear fission power, which is made clear again in his second polemic responding to Levien.[1] Huber makes this case, pointing to the present role of the organized working class in this industry, indeed utilities in general.[2] Public utilities are now common in the US, and organising to municipalise them is ongoing and the role of this sector of the organised working class is important.

But I submit that the only nuclear power we need is found in the Sun’s core, its fusion reactor, supplying abundant energy to Earth. Building more nuclear fission reactors and the huge investment into on-site nuclear fusion are unwelcome diversions from accelerating the creation of global wind/solar energy supplies.[3] Further, significant expansion of nuclear fission power will add incremental heat to the Earth’s surface which could contribute to exceeding the 1.5 deg C warming target.

The fossil fuel/nuclear industry highlights the obstacle of intermittency/baseload challenge for a wind/solar energy transition, but energy storage technology is already available, with its need greatly reduced in a 100% renewable energy transition driven by the complementarity of wind/photovoltaics/Concentrated Solar Power.[4]

The role of this unionised sector in the big near future challenge in decommissioning a large number of US and global reactors should be considered[5] in a just transition to 100 percent wind/solar. This could be a way to win their support for this transition which is imperative with the rapidly fading chances for keeping warming below 1.5 deg C. Industrial/energy workers will get a lot a work in an unfolding Green New Deal by creating a 100% renewable energy infrastructure, modernising the grid, creating energy storage backup, retrofitting buildings, repairing infrastructure and decommissioning nuclear reactors now past their “safe” lifetime, instead of building new reactors, an unwelcome alternative on many grounds. For example, wind/solar power goes up much faster and cheaper than nuclear reactors for the same power delivery, as climate science tells us the faster the better coupled with rapid termination of fossil fuels. I disagree with Matt’s boosting the Princeton University report on the alleged big land requirement for renewables. Their land area requirements for wind/solar are highly exaggerated, since wind farms on land (they should mainly be offshore) allow coexisting agriculture and photovoltaics can be sited mainly on rooftops and floating platforms. And, rather than simply substituting electric for gasoline cars, I hope Matt would support electrified public transit as the main alternative.

Levien is right to point to the importance of the climate justice struggles of indigenous people. A key potential ally of the global working class are indigenous communities which are disproportionately impacted by extractivism, driven increasingly by green capital generating metals for the renewable energy transition. While Matt recognises “extractive capital’ referring to fossil fuels, the extractivism challenge is not adequately discussed in Matt’s book and must be confronted by ecosocialists, in particular since this challenge is pointed to by degrowthers as a barrier to the renewable energy transition.

In addition to the very relevant deconstruction of the degrowth movement provided in Matt’s book, my long-standing critique from a thermodynamic perspective can add a needed foundation.[6] I speculate that Matt omitted this critique because he is not convinced a global 100 percent renewable energy is possible, given his continued support for nuclear fission power development.

The degrowthers have commonly invoked the misleading spectre of entropy, in particular, Georgescu-Roegen’s thermodynamics as foundational to their discourse. But should Georgescu- Roegen’s thermodynamics be our guide? His interpretation of the entropy law is still widely cited by degrowthers (e.g., Latouche, Bonaiuti, Kallis, and most recently Vansintjan et al.[7]

Georgescu-Roegen claimed to have discovered a fourth law of thermodynamics: "A. Unavailable matter cannot be recycled. B. A closed system (i.e., a system that cannot exchange matter with the environment) cannot perform work indefinitely at a constant rate".[8] Georgescu-Roegen's fallacy is his conflation of isolated and closed systems. The biosphere is essentially closed to transfer of matter, but not isolated with respect to energy flux, particularly solar energy.

The Earth’s surface is open to energy transfer to and from space but is effectively closed to mass transfer. Hence the use of fossil fuels and nuclear fission power to drive the economy can be transcended in our open Earth system by sufficient creation of a high-efficiency collection of the solar flux to Earth. Global solar power will then pay its ‘‘entropic debt’’ to space as non-incremental waste heat, without driving us to tipping points towards catastrophic climate change, while facilitating recycling and industrial ecologies phasing out extractivism.[9]

His fallacious 4th law is at the root of Georgescu-Roegen’s pessimism regarding solar energy replacing fossil fuels:

Georgescu-Roegen viewed the technology of the direct collection of solar radiation as "feasible" but not "viable"- possible to construct and operate, but only by continuing to rely on fossil fuel energy inputs: "All solar recipes known at are of the current and present parasites technologies therefore will cease to be applicable when their host is no longer alive (1981, 70-71)”[10]

Degrowthers’ prescription for global reduction in energy and material throughput is that:

The global material and energy “throughput” has to degrow, starting with those nations that are ecologically indebted to the rest. Energy and material throughput have to degrow because the materials extracted from the earth cause huge damage to ecosystems and to the people that depend on them.[11]

With respect to material throughput, we argue that it should increase globally with the complete phasing out of the military-industrial complex, thereby liberating vast quantities of materials, especially metals, for the creation of a global wind and solar power infrastructure powering a circular economy.[12] Likewise, a global renewable energy supply with greater capacity than now will be needed to confront the threat of dangerous climate change, as well as to eliminate the energy poverty now afflicting most of humanity.

To summarise, what should grow and what should degrow?

The history of discussing growth from a socio-ecological point of view goes back at least 30 years. Walter Hollitscher, an Austrian materialist philosopher maintained, in discussions occurring in the late 1970s, that the only thing which should definitely grow is the satisfaction of needs. Basically, from a socio-ecological point of view the question of growth or de-growth is simple: there cannot be a yes or no answer. Some flows, stock, and activities should grow; others should not grow but decrease, for example, the production of weapons. It does not seem useful to use “de-growth” without indicating what should decrease, because the general use of the notion “de-growth” easily can easily also be understood as an undifferentiated attack on the standard of living and livelihood of many groups of people, especially broad low-income sectors of society.[13]

Hence Matt’s critique of degrowth should be taken very seriously by the left given their recent enthusiasm for this brand, with the “Planned Degrowth” July/August issue of Monthly Review and Kohei Saito’s degrowth communism an example.[14]

[1]Huber, Matthew T. 2023, “Climate Politics is Not Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables – a reply to Michael Levien”,….

[2]See as well: Huber, Matt T. and Fred Stafford, 2023, “Socialist Politics and the Electricity Grid”, Catalyst 6 (4): 59-89.

[3]Schwartzman, David. 2019. Monbiot’s Muddle, Capitalism Nature Socialism, DOI: 10.1080/10455752.2019.1670905; Mosko, S. 2021. ‘More Nuclear Is No Solution to Climate Crisis’,E magazine, August 19,; Jaczko, Gregory, Wolfgang Renneberg, Bernard Laponche, Paul Dorfman 2022. Nuclear Consulting Group, Communiqué – Statement – January 6,….

[4]Schwartzman, Peter, and David Schwartzman. 2019. The Earth is Not for Sale: A Path Out of Fossil Capitalism to the Other World That is Still Possible. Singapore: World Scientific.

[5]Marino, G. 2021. ‘The world's nuclear fleet is aging — how do you recycle a nuclear power plant?’Green Biz, May 13,….

[6]Schwartzman, David. 1996. Solar Communism. Science & Society 60 (3): 307–331; Schwartzman, David. 2008. The Limits to Entropy: Continuing Misuse of Thermodynamics in Environmental and Marxist Theory.Science & Society 72 (1): 43–62.

[7]Vansintjan, A., Vetter, A., and M. Schmelzer (2022) The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, London: Verso.

[8]p. 304, Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1989. ‘Afterword’, in Rifkin, J., Entropy. Revised edition Bantam Books, New York, pp. 261–269.

[9]Schwartzman, David. 2022. ‘A critique of degrowth’, Climate & Capitalism, January 5,

[10]p. 320, Schwartzman, David. 1996. Solar Communism. Science & Society 60 (3): 307–331; Schwartzman, David. 2008. The Limits to Entropy: Continuing Misuse of Thermodynamics in Environmental and Marxist Theory.Science & Society 72 (1): 43–62.

[11]p. 192, Kallis, G. 2019. Socialism Without Growth. Capitalism Nature Socialism 30 (2): 188–206.

[12]Schwartzman, David and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro. 2019. A Response to Giorgios Kallis’ Notions of Socialism and Growth. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 30 (3): 40-51.

[13]p.33-34, Baum, Josef. 2011. In Search for a (New) Compass – How to Measure Social Progress, Wealth and Sustainability? In: The Left Between Growth and De-Growth Discussion Papers, Edited and introduced by Teppo Eskelinen, pp. 33-45,transform! European journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue, Hamburg. I developed a critique of degrowth from a similar position: Schwartzman, David. 2012. A Critique of Degrowth and Its Politics,Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23, 1: 119–25.

[14]Saito, Kohei. 2023. Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards a theory of degrowth communism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.See my critique at….

The Species above Constraints: A Review of The Dawn of Everything – A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow

By Markar Melkonian

The Dawn of Everything Cover

It was with high hopes that I opened this big book, despite its too-ambitious title. David Graeber, after all, was the author of the wonderful book, Debt: The First 5000 Years. I am neither an anthropologist nor an archaeologist, and I came toThe Dawn of Everything with many questions. I wondered if there might be new evidence of resistance to class domination during the millennia separating the Upper Palaeolithic from V. Gordon Childe’s Urban Revolution; I wanted to know what had happened during the long centuries between the adoption of domesticated grains and livestock, on the one hand, and the large-scale ‘domestication’ of humans by humans, on the other, and I wanted to be convinced that there had existed, here or there in the distant past or more recently, large ‘complex’ human settlements without ruling classes and the repressive institutions of states. According to the book’s subtitle, after all,The Dawn was supposed to be anew history of humanity.


It got off to a shaky start on page one, with an epigraph from the Woo-Woo Meister himself, C.G. Jung. But I pressed on, and, in the pages that followed, Graeber and Wengrow (henceforth ‘the authors’) would indeed deliver on some of my hopes. The Dawn of Everything is a long rejoinder to the whiggish prehistories inscribed in high-school textbooks and academic journals alike; it is a challenge to the technological determinism that saturates our conversations, and it is an original alternative to the grand narratives that some (but not all) proponents of evolutionary psychology have been telling for decades. Not all the contentions are new, of course – and, in any case, new is not always true – but the range of scholarship is astonishing, and it is a whirlwind of a read.

There are many reviews of The Dawn of Everything accessible online,[1] and there is no need to repeat what has already been said, pro and con. This discussion will focus on two formulations that deserve special scrutiny, because they have to do with the book’s emphasis on collective decision-making as a hallmark of humanity, and they are central to the authors’ stated mission. They are: (i) the authors’ advice to abandon mode of production as an analytical concept, and (ii) their definition of the state in terms of three ‘principles of domination’. These formulations, I will suggest, as well as the prominent role that the authors ascribe to collective decision-making over the long sweep of prehistory, elevateHomo sapiens, in a familiar but dubious way, above all other terrestrial species.

But, first, a note about the scope of the New History of Humanity. As we will see, this has a bearing on the authors’ philosophical anthropology, and thus on much of their subsequent discussion.

I. Off to a Late Start

The authors begin with a commitment to optimism of the intellect: ‘This book’, they write, ‘is an attempt to begin to tell another, more hopeful and more interesting story; one which, at the same time, takes better account of what the last few decades of research have taught us.’ (p. 3.) Later, they write that, ‘Since this book is mainly about freedom, it seems appropriate to set the dial a bit further to the left than usual and to explore the possibility that human beings have more collective say over their own destiny than we ordinarily assume’ (p. 206).

The authors deny that humans have ever permanently lived in small hunter-gatherer bands.[2] Some reviewers have been surprised that self-identified anarchists would hold such a view, and others have reported this claim uncritically, as a new insight.[3] The claim is less surprising, though, in view of the authors’ contention that Upper Palaeolithic humans should be conceived not as isolated nomads, but as groups interacting over large geographical areas, along the lines of aboriginal Australians and North American peoples at the time of contact with Europeans (pp. 122–3). The argument relies on an analogy with what ethnographers have described as ‘culture areas’. In Chapter 4, the authors argue that the shift away from large-scale culture areas to smaller and higher-density societies took place in the Neolithic, when ‘most people live their lives on an ever-smaller scale as populations get larger’ (p. 121).

It is not true, of course, that Homo sapiens have never permanently lived in small hunter-gatherer bands; however, as we will see, our species has not long been ‘human’, in the sense of the word that the authors require.(The authors also play down the suggestion that humans have much in common with non-Homo sapiens hominids – much less with‘simians’, ‘apes’ and ‘monkeys’, as our evolution-averse authors put it, with what looks like deliberate artlessness.) It would be helpful, then, to gain a clearer view of the historical scope of The Dawn, by asking whenroughly, always roughlyHomo sapiens became ‘human’. And that question hinges on what counts as human.


At times, the authors claim that their new history applies to the last 30–40,000 years of the career of our species,[4] and so this is where they take up their history of humanity. In a brief discussion of our Palaeolithic ancestors in Chapter 3, they note that (‘anatomically modern’?) humans coexisted for millennia with other populations of the genus Homo; however,‘only after those other populations became extinct can we really begin talking about a single, human “us” inhabiting the planet’ (p. 82). This, presumably, was when we had become definitively human and ‘started doing human things’ (p. 82).[5]

It is never entirely clear how it came to pass that we started doing human things. One hypothesis, which Yuval Harari highlights in his bestseller Sapiens (2011), is that our ‘modern brain’ is the result of a relatively abrupt change thatoccurred sometime between 70,000 to 30,000 years ago, perhaps as the result of a genetic mutation. This is the Human (or Cognitive) Revolution hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, this transformed brain accounts for the appearance of handier tools, elaborate burials, and complex symbolic behaviour, and it set our ancestors off to tell stories, to talk about things they had never seen before, to imagine lion-men, and the like.

The Human Revolution hypothesis is supposed to resolve what has come to be called the ‘sapient paradox’, by answering the question: ‘why do so many tens of thousands of years stand between the biological origins of humanity and the widespread appearance of typically human forms of behavior; between when we became capable of creating culture and when we finally got round to doing it?’ (p. 84). Graeber and Wengrow explicitly reject the Human Revolution hypothesis, as well as the sapient paradox. But they also reject the suggestion ‘that for countless millennia we had modern brains, but for some reason decided to live like monkeys anyway; or that we had the ability to overcome our simian instincts and organise ourselves in an endless variety of ways, but for some equally obscure reason only ever chose one way to organise ourselves’ (p. 84). The hundreds of centuries that separate the ticking of our genetic clock from the ticking of our cultural clock, they argue, is an illusion born of the skewed and scanty character of our archaeological record so far (pp. 835).

Thus, the authors seem to be saying that we started doing human things – presumably, including the invention and enactment of diverse social arrangements – tens of thousands of years before the advent of the Upper Palaeolithic (say, 50,000 years ago), and before the extinction of non-sapiens populations of the genusHomo. Leaving it to our archaeologist colleagues to judge the plausibility of that scenario, let us only note that the discussion (in Chapter 3) of human societies during the last glaciation period mostly precedes Graeber and Wengrow’s new history of humanity.

For the most part, the authors focus on a broad variety of cases from the last twelve millennia. The earliest human groups the authors discuss at any length, namely Upper Palaeolithic mammoth hunters, appeared 12–10,000 years ago, and most of the cases of seasonal or permanent settlements that the authors discuss existed at most ten millennia ago. The authors, then, have left out at least 188,000 years of the career of our species,[6] but without thereby denying the possibility that humans were collectively debating social arrangements, and deliberately refashioning them even before the Upper Palaeolithic (pp. 83–4). Even if we accept the 40,000 years claim, howeverand even if we take the authors’ examples of neolithic settlements to be the rule and not the exception (as seems unlikely, in view of the still-accumulating evidence to the contrary)[7]then Graeber and Wengrow’s claim would amount to conceding that ‘anatomically modern’ humans spent at least 80% of their career in hunter-gatherer bands. This is a far cry from the claim that ‘humans’ did not, in fact, spend most of their history in tiny bands. Moreover, the fact that this or that Upper Palaeolithic or early Neolithic settlement might have been in place in Çatalhöyük, or the Trippillya megasites north of the Black Sea, or elsewhere, does not controvert the claim that the vast majority of human groups might well have continued living in hunter-gatherer groups for millennia thereafter.

Even if it could be said that we have little archaeological evidence so far in favour of the claim that humans have been organised in hunter-gatherer bands for the vast majority of their career, there is also little evidence against it.[8] Moreover, there are strong evidence-based arguments from ethnology and the study of non-sapiens species in favour of this claim. Graeber and Wengrow’s confident pronouncements notwithstanding, then, the claim that our species, like other hominids, spent most of its existence in hunter-gather groups is not open to much dispute these days.

‘The only thing we can reasonably infer about social organisation among our earliest ancestors’, the authors write, ‘is that it’s likely to have been extraordinarily diverse’ (p. 82). Indeed, further evidence might well indicate that social organisation among the earliest Homo sapiens was even more diverse than we believe at present, and perhaps in more ways than we imagine today. But the diversity of social organisation before the advent of the Holocene is, so far at least, consistent with the consensus among anthropologists that the mode of subsistence of our earliest ancestors was hunting and gathering. Moreover, to anticipate an implication in the next section below, the diversity occurred within the wide range of social relations of the great variety of ‘primitive’ communal societies.

So why have the authors advanced such a sweeping and unsupportable claim? The answer, perhaps, has to do with their philosophical anthropology, their starting assumptions about ‘what makes us human in the first place’.


The authors discuss an assortment of societies, culled from across the continents and the millennia, that they describe as exceptions to ‘the conventional story’ of human prehistory that we are all supposed to have learned in school, and these cases are taken to show that there are no natural laws that impose marching orders on the ways we have arranged our collective lives. Throughout The Dawn, the authors emphasise collective debate and decision-making, as well as theatricality and make-believe, as in such formulations as‘cities begin in the mind’ (p. 276), and ‘to farm or not to farm: it’s all in your head’ (p. 242). ‘Human beings’, they write, ‘may be (indeed, we’ve argued they are) fundamentally imaginative creatures …’ (p. 121). At the same time, the authors ‘set the dial a bit further to the left’ by downplaying ‘given circumstances transmitted from the past’,[9] notably ecological constraints and the non-intentional, impersonal forces at work in the prehistory and early history of our species (p. 118). The impersonal forces include the constraints that the level of productivity of labour imposes on social relations of production, as well as class conflict, and (as we will see in section III below) state power.

What emerges in The Dawn is a story of the prehistory of humanity (or perhaps just the last 50 to 30 millennia, after humans presumably had become ‘really human’) as a consciously debating species with the capacity to imagine –and to enact – new social arrangements. This is a mind-over-matter conception of our prehistory and early history, which begins with certain mental faculties of folk psychology, notably the imagination and volition, and then imbues these faculties with causal efficacy.When it comes to the hoary choice between freedom or solidarity, the authors write that, ‘what really makes us human in the first place […] is our capacity – as moral and social beings – to negotiate between such alternatives’ (p. 118). To exercise this capacity is to practise ‘the freedom that makes us human in the first place’ (p. 8).[10]

This, then, is what counts as human for Graeber and Wengrow, and it is all too redolent of the idea that free will sets humans above nature. It is an idea closer in time to the first chapters of the book of Genesis than to the myths of Hobbes or Rousseau, and, when connected to the authors’ hypothesis of a post-neolithic failure of our original imagination, it is closer in theme to the expulsion from Eden.[11]

II. The Problem with the Problem with Modes of Production

To make room for the freedom that makes us human in the first place, the authors want to haul away the ‘conventional story’ of human history, which they identify with a theory of stages in history. In a theory of stages, as the authors would have us understand it, the sequence of development mounts up in discrete steps, ineluctably and irreversibly, from lower to higher, according to a criterion such as moral or intellectual progress, efficiency, or complexity. Adam Smith is said to have presented such a theory when he divided human history into the Age of Hunters, the Age of Shepherds, the Age of Agriculture, and the Age of Commerce; and, similarly, in the case of the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who identified the three stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation. It is not entirely clear that Morgan (or Smith, for that matter) held that these stages were ineluctable and irreversible; Morgan presented them as empirical generalisations drawn from ethnological observations.

Graeber and Wengrow rally evidence from a wide range of sources, to challenge the idea of an irreversible progression of stages.[12] The authors’ objection, however, is not limited to theories of stages, but extends to all depictions of humans as a species caught in an ‘evolutionary straitjacket, their place in history defined by their mode of subsistence, and their role blindly to enact some abstract law of development which we understand but they do not’ (p. 96). Here, we encounter pernicious ‘evolutionism’ (pp. 446 ff.). The authors include Marx’s concept of mode of production[13] among the versions of evolutionism that ‘were basically unworkable, and eventually had to be thrown out’ (p. 446).

As we know, Marx and Engels posited at least four modes of production – ‘primitive’ communalism, slavery, feudalism, and capitalism – plus one hoped-for possibility, the ‘higher stage’ of communism. The first four modes are presented as empirical generalisations, not as a marching order on history.[14] The ‘higher stage’ of communism, by contrast, is a programmatic goal, an aspiration based on what the authors of the Communist Manifesto argued was achievable, thanks to what capitalism has wrought.

In the authors’ view, mode of production is an unhelpful category because it indiscriminately lumps together very different ‘culture areas’. The point can be illustrated by considering two cases that the authors discuss separately: the culture area comprised of fourth-millennium BCE ‘low-density urban settlements’ north of the Black Sea, like Taljanky and Nebelivka, seems to fall into the same ‘primitive’ communal category as ninth-millennium BCE Mesolithic hunter-foragers of the Fertile Crescent.[15] In view of how different these two culture areas are in time, place, and character, however, it might seem pointless to toss them into the same categorial pot, as instances of the same mode of production.

But pointless for what purpose? The concept of mode of production emphasises close causal connections between social relations and productive forces, and it highlights the constraints on social organisation that these interactions pose. This contravenes the authors’ disposition, in the service of ‘freedom’, to disconnect production, distribution, and exchange of the means of subsistence, on the one hand, from considerations of property, custom, lineage, law, language, the gods, and philosophy, on the other hand.

In Chapter 5, Graeber and Wengrow suggest that one reason why humans have got stuck in certain social arrangements to the exclusion of others has to do with why we expend so much effort trying to demonstrate that we are different from our neighbours (p. 166). They illustrate the point by describing the many ways that the linguistically diverse native gatherers of acorns and pine nuts in California distinguished themselves from their ‘complex forager’ neighbours of the Northwest Coast. The striking differences between these two ‘culture areas’ include, of course, the institution of slavery in the Northwest but hardly at all in California. The areas also differed dramatically when it came to the design of lodging, canoes, masks, baskets, clothing, and other artefacts, and to the respective values placed on work and displays of status (p. 166). ‘Environmental determinists’ have explained the differences between these neighbours by emphasising the greater ecological efficiency, in both California and the Northwest coast, of gathering nuts and fishing, respectively, compared to cultivating maize, which prevailed elsewhere in North America. Graeber and Wengrow, by contrast, suggest that these distinctions are largely the result of conscious collective choices that swing clear, pretty much, from considerations of production of the means of subsistence. Proximity to rich sources of salmon, or the profusion of oak and buckeye groves might have defined social production in the respective regions; nevertheless, decisions taken and enacted collectively fashioned their social life. ‘Framed in this way’, the authors write,

the question of how ‘culture areas’ formed is necessarily a political one. It raises the possibility that decisions such as whether or not to adopt agriculture weren’t just calculations of caloric advantage or matters of random cultural taste, but also reflected questions about values, about what humans really are (and consider themselves to be), and how they should properly relate to one another. (p. 175.)