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 publication of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity has proved a significant intellectual event. The book proposes to synthesise many decades of archaeological findings in a new ‘grand narrative’ of human development, drawing new political lessons and complicating existing narratives. This is a welcome development in the wake of Jean-François Lyotard’s postmodern ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’, which skewed distrust of ‘grand narratives’ too far in a politically disabling manner. Stories move people and are deployed by both the right and the left to mobilise collective action. Science, data, and empirical evidence are also weighty factors, but debate over them tends to be an elite social class discussion: for these to play a role among a broader base, the ‘facts’ need to be storied and a set of narratives crafted around them. At this level, the very widespread positive response to Graeber and Wengrow is itself a marker of the continuing hunger for grand historical narratives, perhaps especially those dealing in human origins. The overall purpose of the book, then, is admirable: it wants to present information that will return readers to thinking about the ‘big’ questions. The fact that the writing is accessible no doubt contributes to the reception: grand narratives breathlessly presenting relatively new specialised information in an engaging style is a formula not to be trifled with. Finally, the authors lean towards a critical perspective – left anarchism – which means that a lot of their values overlap with those of historical materialists. Two of the contributions of this work, then, are that it forcefully returns thought and debate to questions of early human history and does so with an eye towards newer ‘tranches’ of evidence drawn from a wide variety of global sites.
That said, the book has evidentiary problems, misrepresenting some facts and ignoring others (problems of evidence); in rejecting aspects of previous grand narratives the work potentially disempowers one very critical political population (contemporary gatherers and hunters, or ‘bush people’: problems of politics); and the book dismisses key theoretical approaches (mode of production; the structure and agency dialectic) without really offering a coherent alternative (problems of theory). These problems leech into one another: empirical issues feed weak theoretical thinking and in turn vitiate political agency, for example. This essay will examine each of these failings in turn. The implication of the work is that human agency is unconstrained: any kind of polity can be constructed at any time. While historical materialism is always keen to place a stress on collective agency in the face of generalised docility, it does so always with an eye to the changing structural conditions that foreclose or open distinct possibilities. The Dawn of Everything is pervaded by a dangerous naïveté in this respect that fails to serve activists and theorists alike. A last introductory point: my own political and scholarly work is with northern gatherers and hunters, and I have come to use the phrase ‘bush people’ and sometimes ‘bush mode of production’ (following the Indigenous theorist Glen Coulthard) to describe them.
Graeber and Wengrow discuss the overall project and make their approach clear near to the outset:
This book 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. Partly, this is a matter of bringing together evidence that has accumulated in archaeology, anthropology and kindred disciplines; evidence that points to a completely new account of how human societies developed over roughly the last 30,000 years.
It comes as something of a shock subsequently to discover that the first substantive chapter, ‘Wicked Liberty: The Indigenous Critique and the Myth of Progress’ is a speculative essay on how one Indigenous man – ‘the unusually brilliant Wendat statesman named Kandiaronk’ – was recorded by a French aristocrat ‘Lahontan (as he came to be known)’ and the work that resulted was the spark that underwrote the Enlightenment. While I might lean towards supporting this story, given my own work in Indigenous Studies and accompanying desire to emphasise Indigenous intellectual agency, the argument rests on the notion that Lahontan’s writings were an honest and accurate reflection of Kandiaronk’s views, and that the reception of those views was a foundation for a dramatic change in the intellectual trajectory of Europe. This is not an argument based on archaeological, anthropological or any other source of empirical evidence. It is a claim based on a reading of and argument for the impact of a set of texts. It is an argument of interpretation, not fact; of law and philosophy, not science. It can also be noted that the argument also relies on the somewhat naïve notion that a ‘genius’ comes up with an ‘idea’ to change the world. They do not look at what structural preconditions lead to so many individuals turning their attention to raising the status of empirical research and arguments around personal liberty, and so on. Finally, on this point, it is clear that the Graeber and Wengrow have no truck with the idea that the Enlightenment itself might be a strong contributor to domination: that ‘the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant’.
Unfortunately, Kandiaronk’s turn on their stage is not limited to the second chapter: having made their interpretive point they continue to refer to him as a basis of their argument, noting much later that
critics like Kandiaronk, caught up in the rhetorical moment, would frequently overstate their case, even playing along with the idea that they were blissful, innocent, children of nature. They did this in order to expose what they considered the bizarre perversions of European lifestyle.
It is remarkable that they should know when Kandiaronk is deliberately ‘playing along’ with an idea and when he asserts something as an ‘authentic’ reflection of his views. Here, even their humanities-oriented interpretive approach exceeds its ethical limits. Certainly, anything that emerges around the writings that purport to express his views is not ‘evidence that has accumulated in archaeology, anthropology and kindred disciplines’. Their quite extensive use of The Jesuit Relations with no comment on the propaganda purposes the Relations served, as an explicit attempt to justify the mission effort, is also a fairly wilful reading of a text that has long had its accuracy questioned while simultaneously being a rich source of information. Such a reading does not contribute ‘evidence’ to their analysis. There are serious ethnocentric lapses: about the only thing readers will learn about Inuit for example is that they practised ‘midwinter orgies’, which does a deep disservice to the complexities within and differences among Inuit and to their complex sexual/spiritual relationships and practices.
The Kandiaronk example is one of many, though perhaps the most consequential evidentiary problem emerges from their overall framing. Note the description of their work in terms of it representing a ‘new account of how human societies developed over roughly the last 30,000 years’. Since homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years, 30,000 may be considered more like late afternoon or twilight than dawn. What gets missed by the decision to start their history so comparatively ‘recently’ is the very exciting archaeological and primatological material associated with, for example, Sarah Hrdy, who has used actual evidence to show that the extent of biological childhood among humans was a key factor in promoting human communities or sociability. These communities were formed by the specific needs of women as mothers. How this particular gender dynamic inflects the egalitarianism thesis is a complete blank spot: the dawn of everything becomes more like the twilight of everything goes. It seems clear that what they do not tell us may be as consequential to our understanding as what they do, and what they do involves a deliberate cherry-picking of sources that can be turned to the demands of their overall argument.
The political problem in The Dawn of Everything has a particular inflection against the politics of Indigenous bush people (gatherers and hunters) that my own work is oriented around, as well as posing problems for a broader political opposition to capitalism. Regarding the former issues, they write that ‘surely the time has come to stop the swinging pendulum that has fixated generations of philosophers, historians and social scientists, leading their gaze from Hobbes to Rousseau, from Rousseau to Hobbes and back again’. This surprisingly ‘liberal’ attitude (both the Left and Right are wrong! Hurray!) leads them to reject the whole notion of egalitarianism on the part of bush peoples and to reject the idea of a neolithic break for those equality-based social forms into regimes of social hierarchy, including patriarchy, associated with agricultural-based production. Marginal, small populations of hunting communities in the contemporary world are capable of inspiring support for their land-based struggles, and to inspire those involved in the broader struggle for justice, by making arguments associated with their way of life: in particular the argument that gender and wealth egalitarianism prevailed for much of the 200,000-year sweep of human history, and continues to influence autonomous zones created by the deployment of Indigenous rights to self-government.
In relation to this, Graeber and Wengrow express genuine confusion about egalitarianism as a concept: ‘“inequality” is a slippery term, so slippery, in fact, that it’s not entirely clear what the term “egalitarian society” should even mean. Usually, it’s defined negatively: as the absence of hierarchies.’ Their discussion of egalitarianism argues for the difficulty of attempts to ‘define egalitarianism in positive terms’ before suggesting the following: ‘if all societies are organized around certain key values (wealth, piety, beauty, freedom, knowledge, warrior prowess), then “egalitarian” societies are those where everyone (or almost everyone) agrees that the paramount values should be, and generally speaking are, distributed equally’. They do not seem to have studied the voluminous cultural anthropology devoted to notions of the ‘respect for the personal autonomy of the other’, though they do associate the phrase with Eleanor Leacock. It is from this respect for personal autonomy in a close collective community that meaningful egalitarianism arises and can be found among gatherers and hunters, a value that the material circumstances of early bush people consistently give rise to or promote. If we subtract the notion of egalitarianism from bush people, and, accordingly, strike away the notion of a neolithic break, we succeed only in demoralising a critical social group (Indigenous bush people) in the struggle to make a better world.
Egalitarianism means rough equality in decision-making and rough equality in material well-being. Such equality does not imply homogenisation or sameness: in the context of respect for the personal autonomy of the other it means diversity in the midst of community. The world of growing social hierarchy marching apace with growing inequality needs, more than ever, examples of meaningful sites in the present and in history where a different order prevails/-ed. Rejecting Rousseau will only serve to encourage a new Hobbesianism (there is no parallel critique of Hobbes, and, in some ways, the book reflects aspects of the Leviathan). Politically, The Dawn of Everything is a dead letter that will demoralise many of the readers it hoped to inspire.
The theoretical problems, having already discussed the issue with their rejection of the neolithic-break narrative, can be seen to underlie the evidentiary and political problems. They explicitly reject the materialist concept of ‘mode of production’ (and their discussion cited above of ‘key values’ suggests they reject materialism entirely), and they tend towards a fairly vapid voluntarism that would unhinge agency from any structural or other material constraints.
In a chapter called ‘Many Seasons Ago: Why Canadian Foragers Kept Slaves and Their Californian Neighbours Didn’t; or, the Problem with “Modes of Production”’, they devote a total of two paragraphs to a summary dismissal of the concept. It is worth following their brief argument:
Classifying these groups according to how much they farmed, fished or hunted tells us little of their actual histories. What really mattered, in terms of the ebb and flow of power and resources, was their use of organized violence to ‘feed off’ other populations. Sometimes the foraging peoples … had the upper hand militarily over their agricultural neighbors…. [T]he idea of classifying human societies by ‘modes of subsistence’ looks decidedly naïve. How, for instance, would we propose to classify foragers who consume domestic crops, exacted as tribute from nearby farming populations? Marxists, who refer to ‘modes of production’, do sometimes allow for a Tributary Mode, but this has always been linked to the growth of agrarian states and empires…. What really needs to be theorized here is not just the mode of production practiced by the victims of predation, but also that of the non-producers who prey on them. Now wait. A non-productive mode of production? This sounds like a contradiction in terms. But it’s only so if we limit the meaning of production strictly to the creation of food or goods. And maybe we shouldn’t.
As frequently happens in the book, though, they remain entirely inconsistent in the application of their own view. They never step aside from describing the societies they examine as ‘gatherers’ or ‘agriculturalists’ (terms associated with the core subsistence activities, otherwise known as production). The classificatory value of the terms is never in practice dismissed by them and retains centrality in the way they describe different social forms in the periods they examine: the terms farming, agriculture, hunting and gathering, and forager societies are among the most prominent in their index and are always used at some point as a descriptor of every particular social collective they discuss at any particular point in the text. And they even use the expression ‘mode of subsistence’, which does sound a great deal like the concept they want to dispense with.
It is difficult to pass in silence over the sentence ‘Marxists, who refer to “modes of production”, do sometimes allow for a Tributary Mode.’ The concept of a tributary or tithe mode of production, which draws together the variety of agricultural-based societies, is still debated within Marxism (I follow here Eric Wolfe’s Europe and the People Without History, which advocates for the concept) but is also far more widely used than is insinuated in this sentence. To have any rigour, it is applied to ‘agrarian states and empires’ as a part of the state/patriarchy/agriculture/institutional religion/social hierarchy features that follow the neolithic break, providing the foundation for nascent capitalist ventures and, in northern Europe, the eventual development of fully-fledged capitalism. Groups of random thugs, mafia dons, and others who may still extort ‘tribute’ in specific local circumstances do not constitute a mode of production but rather live on the fringes within one. The idea of extracting surplus from peasants through tribute as a defining feature of some pre-capitalist modes of production is not some small ‘allowance’ on the part of Marxists but a key defining feature that distinguishes various feudal and ancient societies from capitalist modernity.
Indigenous politics are premised upon the recognition and affirmation of distinct ways of life in the face of the totalising threats posed by capital. There are Indigenous gatherers and hunters (bush people) and Indigenous farmers: something that the word ‘traditional’ glosses over as much as the word ‘Indigenous’ itself. The concept ‘mode of production’ opens the intellectual space to more rigorously understand what elements of the way of life are truly critical to its maintenance: it, in effect, broaches a materialist approach to culture. And it allows agents and analysts of Indigenous struggles a means for assessing particular emancipatory claims associated with particular peoples. As those struggles grow in prominence, such assessments become more vital. But Graeber and Wengrow offer an approach that sinks so far into particularity that no analytical space emerges: any social form that exists, has existed, or can be projected as possibly existing, can be drawn from by social agents unencumbered by the thought that certain productive practices and arrangements might compel certain social forms.
Without a concept like mode of production, their text slides into the notion that, in any historical period, humans are capable of creating whatever kind of social relations they want to. Hence, gatherers and hunters or agriculturalists, in their view, are both equally as capable of making either hierarchical or egalitarian societies (though, apparently, that they are foragers or agriculturalists retains its importance in actual discussions). At one point, they suggest that Indigenous people in the lower Great Lakes area saw ‘their own social orders as self-conscious creations’. This puts them in the same company as the citizens of most social orders, who always make their choices in a context that enables some forms and forecloses others, while fully feeling – sometimes in illusory or depoliticised ways – their own agency.
It is convenient, therefore, that Graeber and Wengrow do not care to notice that the vast majority of gatherers and hunters are egalitarian, and the evidence for sustained hierarchies among them is actually quite sparse. And the egalitarian cities they describe ultimately disappear or transform into a remarkable set of highly socially stratified, unequal, patriarchal, property-based social forms, which were drawn on to ultimately – or at least in some instances – lay a foundation for capitalism. Alex Callinicos, among many other Marxists, emphasises that ‘to say that a society has a structure is to say that there are limits to the extent to which it may vary without becoming an instance of a different kind of society’. In contrast to this, Graeber and Wengrow naïvely (a word they often use) present an approach in which, ‘hey ho, everything goes’ is the main motif. To the extent that on occasion they characterise gatherers and hunters as ‘free societies’, it may be said that their stated anarchism slides over into toxic libertarianism.
One of the ‘empirical’ factors they lay stress on is the fact that the transition from a world characterised by gathering and hunting took such a long time it can hardly be called a ‘break’: ‘to be clear, that’s 3,000 years of human history, far too long to constitute an “Agricultural Revolution” or even to be considered some kind of transitional state on the road to farming’. However, 3,000 years amounts to about 1.5% of the 200,000 years of gathering and hunting. The transition that led to capitalism was a few hundred years from within a mode of production, the tributary mode, that had been around for less than 10,000 years; also a transition of the order of magnitude of a few percent. Within the space of such transitions or revolutions (my own preferred nomenclature), there were experimental forms from which we can learn today. The fact that all the Teotihuacans – egalitarian cities – disappeared and at the end of the 3,000-year revolution from the gathering and hunting to the agricultural mode of production all the cities were deeply hierarchical is not an accident: it is structural causality at work. Teotihuacan, alongside the Song Revolt or the overthrow of the Tarquin kings, or the Paris Commune, for that matter, offer inspiring examples of movements perhaps ahead of their time in creating social structures that harken back to deeply rooted egalitarian pasts or look forward to the possibility of egalitarian futures.
By deliberately refusing to think about structural parameters established by the modes of production, parameters which themselves condition the range of actions people can take and that clearly tell social agents what actions serve the dominant logic and what actions actually challenge it, this rich, well written, engrossing text in the end offers little help to any of those who are engaged in a serious project of social change. The book presents a great deal of information: I found the chapter on Teotihuacan fascinating and inspiring, for example. But example after example leads to what end? They say, ‘why does it seem so odd, even counter-intuitive, to imagine people of the remote past as making their own history (even if not under conditions of their own choosing)?’ But they remain devoted to the first half of this paraphrase of Marx, which was designed to emphasise the constraints and openings afforded by the ‘conditions’ not of their own choosing. As they put it, ‘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.’ Maintaining a dialectical tension between structure and agency is always a difficult intellectual task; but also a critically necessary one. Instead, Graeber and Wengrow say, in effect: ‘People have always been hierarchical. People have always been egalitarian. It’s your choice.’ Understanding what structural changes in the past were consequential and what changes were not, based on the core productive strategies of a social formation, elucidates more rigorous historical thought and opens a sharper insight into contemporary and historical political dynamics alike. The Dawn of Everything offers an origin story that, having jettisoned the concepts ‘mode of production’ and ‘neolithic break’, and having leaned into a voluntarist emphasis on the structure and agency dialectic (to such an extent that there is no dialectic in their account), does not provide a foundation for thought and action that might lead to the kinds of social change this world desperately needs.
Callinicos, Alex 2004, Making History: Agency, Structure, and Change in Social Theory, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.
Graeber, David and David Wengrow 2021, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno 1972, Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cumming, New York: The Seabury Press.
Hrdy, Sarah 1999, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection, New York: Pantheon.
Lyotard, Jean-François 1984, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Marx, Karl 1974 ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, Surveys from Exile, edited by David Fernbach, New York: Vintage Books.
Wolfe, Eric 1982, Europe and the People Without History, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. xxiv.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 4.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 49.
 Horkheimer and Adorno 1972, p. 3.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 148.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 116.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 118.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 125.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 126.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 130.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 188–9.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 472.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 482.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 38.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 130.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 234.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 328–58.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 498.
 Graeber and Wengrow 2021, p. 206.