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 as Work) and The Dawn of Everything by Graeber and Wengrow (hereafter abbreviated as Dawn) 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 and Work 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 than Work. What holds Dawn 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 from Work, 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 and Work 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 either Work or Dawn, 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 in Dawn and Work. 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 and Work, 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 in Dawn, 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 of Work, 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 and Work 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 in Dawn, 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 or Work 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, in Dawn, 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 of Work 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 and Work 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. In Work, this is simply beyond the pale, being somehow lumped in with the category of redistributive theocracies. The critique of Dawn 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 in Dawn and Work, 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’, in Marx/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 in Dawn.

[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.