The Dawn of Everything. Quite the ambitious title. If you haven’t read the last and latest book by David Graeber, co-authored with David Wengrow (G&W), you might think that you’re going to learn something pretty remarkable. You’d be wrong though. You might get the feeling, after you start reading, that the narrative is leading somewhere new. Wrong again I’m afraid. As with Graeber’s other books, you’ll get anecdote after anecdote, fact after fact, theory after theory, hypothesis after hypothesis, all linked up into a deceptive narrative — Graeber is very good at making you feel you’re getting somewhere. But you’re not.
The point which G&W promise to deliver is an explanation of how we got in the terrible state we are in today (that, tellingly, is ‘everything’), how the world of misery, futility, coercion and control that covers the earth started, or ‘dawned’. This is framed by G&W as ‘how did we get stuck in one mode of social organisation?’ They find some evidence — not very much, but some — to suggest that in the period just before the horrors of civilisation, around ten thousand years ago, we ‘played’ at seasonal hierarchies, bowing down to a king in winter before gadding off into anarchic tribes during the holidays. Then, G&W say, we got disastrously ‘stuck’ in the monarchical mode.
But how? The reader has to wait right to the very end of the book to find the answer to the often teased question, ‘what went wrong?’. There, in the last itty-bitty section of the last chapter, we find out that this horrendous world came about because ‘people began defining themselves against each other’, because we became confused about the difference between ‘care and domination’ and between ‘external violence’ (i.e. warfare) and ‘internal care’ (our relation to our family and to our possessions).
If you think I’m exaggerating or strawmanning their epochal conclusion in order to dismiss or ridicule it, take a look at the book yourself, at the last chapter. That really is it. That’s how the appalling ‘everything’ of the world began. We defined ourselves in the wrong way and we got confused.
G&W can’t and won’t answer the most important question they themselves ask, so what questions can they answer? Or perhaps the question is not really of much interest to them; so what is? What is the point of ‘The Dawn of Everything’? G&W have two other ambitions; one is trivial and reasonably convincing, the other critically important and completely unconvincing. The first aim, which here I’ll call the ‘fluid history’ theory, is to show that certain beliefs held about the distant past are actually false, or at best misleading. These beliefs include the idea that there were rigidly deterministic causes for repressive societies, that there were sharply demarcated stages or types in sociopolitical development (bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states, civilisations) and that it is impossible for social groupings of a certain size to be anything other than repressive dystopias.
G&W show that these beliefs can sometimes be rather crude. An agricultural society does not have to be one of civilised brutality. In most cases (at least in Eurasia, where states first arose) the earliest agricultural (and ‘proto-agricultural’) societies did eventually lead to the repressive societies we associate with ‘squeezing as many calories as possible from a handful of seed grasses’, they did lead to ill-health, social stratification, hyper-specialisation and the utter misery of agricultural societies everywhere; but some of them also appear to have been reasonably pleasant places to live. And that’s nice to know. Perhaps we modern folk can, like our distant cousins, also have casual groupings of ‘federated’ tribes or communities non-hierarchically cooperating with each other? Perhaps, for us, horticulture is an option?
The authors also show that large and reasonably complex societies of such ‘federated’ groupings, such as existed in North America when Europe first started colonising it, or that, in some sense, seemed to have existed dotted across Eurasia in the distant past, do not have to be repressive. Again, in an important sense these more complex hunter-gatherer societies did eventually terminate in states, but it is, as G&W point out, also important to recognise that they don’t have to, that we can live in a world in which local groups overlap into a greater whole, without any central power dominating the whole thing.1
G&W also show that there was not a brutally rigid progression in history from simple hunter-gatherer societies, to complex societies, to horticulture, to agriculture, to states and then to civilised empires. In reality the transition from what we call pre-history to history was long and messy, with some proto-agricultural societies appearing earlier than we thought and some forms of social simplicity existing well into the civilised era. This is surely as anyone with any intelligence would expect, but it’s always nice to see crude systems ‘fractalised’ somewhat. It doesn’t alter the fact that there were what can be called stages in the collective human story though, just as there are in our individual lives (childhood, adolescence, youth, etc.).2
It is true that rudimentary cities sometimes appeared before intensive agriculture and that agriculture didn’t always lead to horrendous oppression or to urbanisation… but so what? There were simple bands in the far distant past (and there was no agriculture), there were simple forms of agriculture which followed these simpler groupings, then there were more complex forms, then there were civilised states. Those are the facts. Understanding the differences between these stages is important, or at least interesting, and we need rough concepts in order to do this.
But anyway, that’s G&W’s ‘fluid history’ theory. Moving on to the second and principle point which G&W wish to make with this book, which is not at all trivial; quite the reverse. I’ll call this the ‘perpetual present’ theory, which is that, essentially, there was ‘no such thing as a garden of Eden’, that we were not once in a kind of innocent paradise or, conversely, that what we call prehistory — our precivilised ancient past — wasn’t really any different to the agricultural and urban societies which followed. There was, say G&W, a massive amount of variation in how people lived (much more than fusty old anthropologists believe) but we’ve always kind of lived in cities and had states, we’ve always kind of had inequality, we’ve always kind of had hierarchies, we’ve always kind of had agriculture and we’ve always kind of had bureaucracy. We have always been, in sum, kind of civilised.
How do G&W try to persuade us of these things, and, by implication, that domestication, stratification, urbanisation, agriculture, specialisation and technology are natural, right, good for us? Firstly, they redefine ‘city’, ‘state’, ‘equality’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘agriculture’, ‘bureacracy’ and ‘civilisation’ so that pre-civilised societies can be described as civilised, hierarchical, bureaucratic, etc. The idea of ‘property’ is expanded to mean possession, the idea of ‘bureaucracy’ is expanded to casual systems of abstract management, the idea of ‘city’ is expanded to ‘large gathering places,’ the idea of ‘agriculture’ is expanded to gardening and horticulture, and the idea of ‘hierarchy’ is expanded to include seasonal, playful or sacred leadership. With their own blasted definitions in place G&W can then declare that we’ve kind of always had ‘property’, ‘bureaucracy’, ‘cities’, ‘agriculture’ and ‘hierarchies’. This is like saying that we’ve always had cars because when you think about it boats are cars, or hunter gatherers had access to the internet because mushrooms exchange information too, or cigarettes are harmless because the Apache smoked tobacco, or lockdowns were justified because quarantines work, or any other ludicrous example you care to think of where the meaning of a word is stretched beyond all recognition so that an outlandish claim can be made about it.
Secondly, to blend the prehistorical with the historical, the authors focus on certain kinds of early Neolithic societies — those of the past 10,000 years.3 The 250,000 years of history before that don’t interest them quite so much, because there is no evidence for the cities, states and kings they want to show have ‘always’ been with us. The societies that G&W are most interested in are those which are relatively recent and between simple hunter-gatherer societies and agricultural states, although of course they are forced to ignore the ‘relatively’ and argue that the ‘between’ is really an illusion. They wish to obfuscate the fact that there was a relatively recent stage between the simple bands we lived in for hundreds of thousands of years and states. They can then argue, or just assume, that we’ve probably always lived like these more complex, recent societies, which were really ‘kind of like civilised states’.4
The third way G&W can do away with the ‘myth’ of the good life we once lived and smear history together into one semi-civilised mush, is to focus on social forms (which are amenable to the conceptual analysis of academics like G&W) and on what they call ‘self-conscious’ decision making (meaning rational planning). Innocence, soft consciousness, joy, simplicity of life, non-alienating experience and other qualities widely attested in simple hunter-gatherers are absent from their analysis, at least in any meaningful sense. At one point, early on in the book, G&W tell us that they will evoke the spirit of prehistorian V. Gordon Childe’s book ‘Man Makes Himself’5 — although they say nothing of interest about what man is.
These are the three means by which G&W defend civilisation. Let’s take a more detailed look, returning first to the semantic shenanigans. In order to argue that we’ve always kind of lived in civilised societies G&W assure us that meeting places, where large numbers of neolithic peoples met, were ‘really’ cities. They provide a handful of examples, such as ‘Poverty Point’ in North America, or Aguada Fénix in pre-Mayan central America as evidence; without dwelling on the fact that, firstly, these were Neolithic societies and, secondly, that they were almost certainly meeting places. Poverty Point’s status as a dwelling or meeting place has long been debated and will probably never be resolved, although it was certainly not a ‘hunter-gatherer metropolis’ — they practiced horticulture and there is no decisive evidence of dwellings. The authors of the paper that G&W rely on in the latter case6 tell us;
‘The scarcity of residential platforms… suggests a subtantial portion of the inhabitants… maintained a degree of residential mobility’
So this was not a city either, not in anything but G&W’s loose sense, and even if it were, it would be one of a handful of recent examples.7
Another example of G&W blasting the walls away from a word is ‘egalitarianism’, which they want us to believe has never really been with us. In order to defend this extraordinary claim they tell us, first of all, that it makes no sense to discuss equality when the people in question didn’t. This is like saying we can’t talk about the psychology of children because children don’t read Freud, or the beauty of butterflies because butterflies don’t have a word for beauty. Children ‘understand’ psychology and butterflies ‘understand’ beauty, just as primal folk understood equality — they just called it ‘freedom’. In order to deflect the reader’s attention away from this foundational meaning, they throw sand in his eyes;
Today there are whole disciplines – sub-branches of philosophy and political science and legal studies – which take ‘equality’ as their principal subject matter. Everyone agrees that equality is a value; no one seems to agree on what the term actually refers to. Equality of opportunity? Equality of condition? Formal equality before the law? Similarly, societies like the seventeenth-century Mi’kmaq, Algonkians or Wendat are regularly referred to as ‘egalitarian societies’; or, if not, then as ‘band’ or ‘tribal’ societies, which is usually presumed to mean the same thing. It’s never entirely clear exactly what the term is supposed to refer to. Are we talking about an ideology, the belief that everyone in society should be the same – obviously not in all ways, but in certain respects that are considered particularly important? Or should it be one in which people actually are the same? What might either of these actually mean in practice?
This is like saying that ‘rape’ doesn’t really exist because nobody can agree what ‘consent’ really means, or that there is no such thing as a good omelette because everyone has their own ideas of what constitutes a well-cooked egg. The egalitarianism that really matters, here and elsewhere, is freedom to do as one pleases without being told what to do, as G&W themselves point out. They tell us that freedom in American societies is founded on the powerlessness of leaders and that aboriginal Americans continually mocked the submissive obedience of Europeans. The authors know that this mockery was not based on ‘an ideology, the belief that everyone in society should be the same’, but they glide past this so they can claim that egalitarianism never really existed, that ‘they are societies of equals only in the sense that all the most obvious tokens of inequality are missing’ when they are actually egalitarian in the most obvious and basic sense, of nobody having power over anyone else (except the soft-power of age, experience and persuasive intelligence).
This, once again, the authors recognise elsewhere. They say that;
…there was usually a degree of equality by default; an assumption that humans are all equally powerless in the face of the gods; or a strong feeling that no one’s will should be permanently subordinated to another’s.
But for some reason this isn’t real equality, or it is just one equality among others which are all somehow equally valid or equally applicable.
G&W know — and tell us — that people can be honoured for all kinds of reasons, given lavish burials and even be put into positions of responsibility without having the power to coerce or to enforce any rules. They know this, they tell us this, yet they present the discovery of well-provisioned graves before the year 10,000 as evidence that we have always been somehow unequal, or that the well-known and widely attested egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers is something of an illusion.
It’s strange though, say G&W, that the number of such graves is vanishingly few;
We still have to ask why the evidence is so patchy in the first place.
What a mystery. It can’t be for the transparently obvious reason, that everyone recognises, that inequality was, for hundreds of thousands of years, non-existent, can it?
Their obfuscation also applies to gender;
Many societies referred to as ‘egalitarian’ are only really egalitarian between adult men. Sometimes relations between men and women in such societies are anything but equal. At other times things are more ambiguous.
Yes, ‘more ambiguous’. Again, G&W know that in most pre-civilised societies (‘at other times’) men cannot order women around, that there is a separation of domain which rules this out, that in their own words ‘their respective roles are so different, it makes no sense to compare them’. They know that men and women usually have, ultimately, equal power in prehistoric and preconquest societies,8 but they don’t want the reader to know that, or at least to dwell on it.
Somehow, for G&W, recognising that coercive power was all but impossible in the remote past, and in those societies that managed to keep alive some connection to our roots, is ‘treating our distant ancestors as some sort of primordial human soup.’ As if, firstly, this is not precisely what G&W are doing, and secondly, as if a cultural premium placed on freedom somehow decreases uniqueness! Presumably what we all need to do, in order to keep our individuality and uniqueness alive, is order each other around more?9
Going back to orders, G&W argue that because building monuments indicates complex stratification, the existence of commemorative structures in the distant past shows that we’ve always lived in complex stratified societies. The monuments they are referring to are the so-called ‘mammoth-huts’ of late paleolithic Northern Europe, which probably took a couple of people a couple of days to make. Apparently these are not really any different to the large monuments of Göbekli Tepe or the vast pyramids of ancient Egypt, despite the fact that they are orders of magnitude simpler. As Peter Turchin points out, ‘momumentality’ expands roughly and simply in line with tech and population. Equating mammoth huts with Göbekli Tepe and the pyramids is like saying… well, it’s like saying all the other things G&W say in order to argue that simple hunter-gatherer bands 24,000 years ago, large interconnected Amerindian neolithic societies and and centralised civilisations (such as grim hierarchical, warlike city-states, Tikal or Mohenjo-daro10) were all kind of the same really. It is to G&Ws credit that they dispel the myth that simpler people were simpler minded and unable to perform remarkable technical feats or to display intelligence which would put our university professors to shame. The issue is the ridiculous and unfounded leap the authors make into equating the capacity for rational thought with the dominating structures of civilisation — based on, here, a bundle of bones.
This brings us onto technology, something else which G&W are keen to justify, at least by omission. They tell us, again correctly, that the presence of some tech does not automatically and deterministically lead to its repressive use, but they ignore the role of technology in subordinating men and women. This is because David Graeber doesn’t have a critical word to say about technology, he had no interest in engaging with our greatest critics of technology (such as Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich and Ted Kaczynski) and he yearned for force fields, teleportation, antigravity fields, tractor beams, jet packs and immortality drugs. The idea that technology beyond a limit automatically subordinates men and women to its needs, infects their consciousness with its utilitarian priorities, degrades man’s apprehension of the ineffable, trivialises nature, numbs awareness, forces dependency, supplants free choice11 and tends towards the colonisation of every sphere of human activity; none of this was of interest to David Graeber (as it is not to most socialists, including those who call themselves anarchists). It’s no surprise technology plays at best a walk-on part in ‘The Dawn of Everything’ — or its evils dismissed, once again, with a wave of the indeterministic hand.
Let’s take another look at determinism, or at what causes or leads to repressive societies. Towards the end of the book G&W present to us three kinds of control, three ways in which freedom can be limited, which they exemplify with a neat little story about Kim Kardashian’s diamonds. To stop people from stealing her jewels, they say, she needs certain powers — I call these dominants — to stop would-be thieves. These are; control of violence (she can call on the state and its police if someone tries to steal them), control of information (she can hide them, or employ people to hide them) or individual charisma (she can persuade everyone she is special enough to deserve the diamonds).
It’s an interesting and admirably clear illustrative example, but there are other ways Kim can protect her diamonds. Firstly she could, if she were some kind of high priestess or super-influential professional, convince people that diamonds are worthless. This is similar to ‘controlling information’ but she does nothing to alter the flow of communication or conceal the facts that comprise it. Instead she redefines the relationship of individuals to diamonds.12
Secondly, she could also create a society which so stupefies and confuses people, they become too weak to take them from her, or too stupid to recognise their value, or simply unable, from the way society is structured, to get close to her. Of course she couldn’t do this on her own. She would require almost unimaginable power — almost unimaginable, because of course such power is available; through technology. Indeed the value of the diamonds is partly dependent on technology — the technology of money — in the first place.
Thirdly, as society ‘progresses’ under the influence of dominants, the source of domination, the selfish self, acquires more and more power. When we say that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ what we mean is that it fuels selfishness, turning people with power into grotesque, cancerous caricatures of themselves. The powerful self, through groupthink,13 fashions society in its image, until the world outside and the world within become one, at which point it simply becomes normal that hollow, artificial ‘media-personalities’ like Kim Kardashian possess the ludicrous power they do. This may appear to be a very modern problem, but in fact primal societies put self-overcoming — conceived as acting in accordance with the will of the cosmos or of the gods — at the heart of their activities.
The power of the professional class, the power of technology and the power of the ego, along with the three dominants that G&W mention, have now subordinated individuals, and their communities, completely to the system, so much so that we are at the point where it is practically meaningless even to speak of power. Where is it? Who wields it? We hardly need the threat of overt violence, the manipulation of information and the hypnotic influence of charismatic leaders to control people. Even professionals and their institutions are becoming obsolete. Human beings are automatically disciplined by their estrangement from reality.
Again there is not, as G&W continually point out, a rigidly deterministic path that has led us here, a strict causal-literal relationship between dominants and the societies they frame or control, which can take all manner of forms and take some surprising routes to them. Nevertheless, generally speaking, the less freedom we have, the more power dominants have over our lives, the more ‘stuck’ we become, until we can’t even imagine freedom, let alone desire it. This is how civilisations became the nightmarish death-factories we recognise in history — indeed which almost entirely comprise history — which began with the Bronze age horror show that erupted in Mesopotamia, and which appeared again and again in more and more advanced and represessive forms. As technologies progressed and developed (starting with organised agriculture, iron-smelting, money, literacy and so on), as neighbouring or successive states were forced to adopt technologies to defend themselves against more powerful neighbours, as — again, thanks to technology — populations increased, as bureaucracy proliferated and as states, professionals and egos became more and more powerful, so civilisation got worse and worse and worse and worse.
G&W are mystified by how this all happened. They can’t explain how we ‘got stuck’ because they have a partial and ambiguous view of dominants, because they don’t really understand human nature, because they refuse to accept how, beyond a critical mass, the power and presence of dominants subordinates society (a recognition of limits informs all intelligent attitudes to society and nature, including those of the indigenous cultures G&W respect) and because they are not interested in how, as the system becomes more powerful, it creates more and more misery. This is what gives ‘The Dawn of Everything’, like all of Graeber’s books, its curiously ‘weightless’ feel. Nothing in it is rooted in the real world.14
Technology isn’t the biggest or most serious of G&W’s blindspots. Their gravest omission — and, actually, the source of Graeber’s enthusiasm for high-tech, socialist democracies — is also the subtlest and most disastrous. G&W tell us, again and again, that they want to show how early people self-consciously chose what kinds of societies they wanted to live in. They self-consciously chose monarchism, they self-consciously chose to build monuments, they self-consciously chose horticulture and they self-consciously chose to congregate in cities before self-consciously dispersing into smaller groups. G&W emphasise self-consciousness and choice because these are rational, quantitative attributes — precisely the attributes which lead to dominating, domesticating states. G&W want us to believe that early people were essentially technicians, rationally organising their societies. While telling us that we must ‘demythologise’ the past, G&W overlay it with their own materialist myth. Where, in ‘The Dawn of Everything’ is the sense of the transcendent, the immersion in the non-human and the love of the mysterious wild? These weren’t just secondary frills for primal people, they were the motivating core of their entire lives.
Certainly, our distant ancestors were far more rational than we give them credit for, achieving almost miraculous feats of coordinated conceptualisation, but it was their irrational quality that distinguished them from the automatons which followed. G&W, rationalists in the enlightenment tradition, have no interest in this quality. None. This makes it impossible for them to understand how we fell from our original nature, what has happened to people as the power of their kings, professionals, tools, egos, states and systems have increased,15 what we can do about our confinement or how it is ever likely to end. There is also no recognition of the relationship between people and place and how this is disrupted by technology. The wild has no place in ‘The Dawn of Everything’, nor do the lessons it can teach us and has taught us. The reader will search in vain for an understanding of the existential insecurity and attachment to idols (gods, politics, technology, money, groputhink, etc.) that separation from the wild engenders in man. Innocence, sensitivity, presence, cheer, genius and love play no role in G&W’s ‘Dawn of Everything’ and the idea that people once exhibited these irrational qualities to any great extent, or that they are central to our understanding of what is wrong with the world, or how to overcome it; all this is ignored or brushed away as ‘Edenic myth-making’.16
G&W want us to believe that, basically, before we ‘got stuck’, through our pesky definitions and confusion, with kings and presidents and popes, we were all once rational technicians, rationally planning what kind of world we want to live in, rationally deciding to ‘play’ for half the year as kings before rationally ‘playing’ at living in smaller mobile bands. G&W want us to believe that, basically, we lived in hierarchical, bureaucratically managed cities with rationally planned trading routes and monuments. G&W want us to believe that the socialist, democratic, feminist, leftist, professionally managed technocratic world they wish to inhabit is somehow right and natural, even eternal.17 This is a shameful misrepresentation of humanity, one has led, and can only lead, to misery.
Coda: An Anarchist Society
David Graeber was a rationalist, democratic, technophilic socialist. He uncritically supported democracy, and was unable or unwilling to accept that it subordinates individuals, he was uncritical of leftist causes (such as feminism) and continually focused his ‘activism’ through statist party politics, he was uncritical of professionalism (firing shots at every job conceivable in his book Bullshit Jobs, yet curiously coy about attacking doctors, teachers, lawyers and so on), he was uncritical of technology — even lamenting that we’re not technologically advanced enough — and, tellingly, he was uncritical of state-imposed lockdowns (he died suddenly in September 2020 but uttered not a syllable of doubt about or during the tyranny of the prior six months). He couldn’t outline an anarchist society because he was not an anarchist.18
So what would a functioning anarchist society look like? It would probably look something like the the early Neolithic societies that G&W focus on in ‘The Dawn of Everything’ (although G&W focus on them to justify industrial society). It would be comprised of small groups freely federated into a larger but powerless society, each self-sufficiently provisioning itself with a mixture of casual horticulture and hunting and gathering. It would make use of some forms of simple technology — simple in the sense that it does not require specialist power to manage or hyper-specailised work to build — and it would be founded on an absolute refusal to ever take orders from anyone or anything — including (and here we completely depart from G&W’s modern world) from democratic majorities, priestly or professional experts, egoic compulsion, technical necessity and high-density urban life. A functioning anarchist society would probably look loosely medieval, with a kind of prehistoric ‘base’ — in that the wild would be part of everyone’s lives — but with some carefully adopted techniques to help society run more smoothly; ‘carefully’ because technology would be widely considered to be something which can very easily obliterate the qualities that an anarchist society must be founded on.
These qualities — freedom, beauty, morality, love, truth, life and God — cannot be literally expressed.19 They can only come to us through myth, metaphor, ritual, love, pain and direct lived experience (particularly in the wild). A functioning anarchist society would therefore be founded on truthful myth, ego-softening ritual, unconditional love, instructive pain (and an acceptance of death), meaningful natural activity and conscious being. Such a society is not a ‘utopian dream’ to struggle towards, it is available to anyone, even here, in the midst of the Zone of Evil. Indeed we will not see collective paradise in the world until you, dear reader, have manifested it in your life.
Off you go.
- They make a rather peculiar critique of ‘Dunbar groups’ — the optimum sized social grouping, posited by anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, in support of this. They say, essentially, that just because we can imagine a society larger than the 120 or so we feel more comfortable in, that 120 is therefore an illusion. They also say that we all probably want to live in societies bigger than Dunbar’s estimate because none of us like our families!
- Or consider the year. Winter is followed by spring, which is followed by summer and autumn, then winter again. Determinists might come along and say ‘well you see spring is a distinct and definable stage which causes the equally distinct and definable stage of summer which in turn causes autumn…’. This, as people like G&W point out, is foolish. There clearly aren’t distinct and definable stages, nor are they causally related. But this doesn’t mean our notions of the seasons are useless or untrue or even particularly misleading.
- Particularly those between the fifth to the tenth millennium BC in Eurasia and those of pre-conquest millennia in Amerindia.
- In fact the authors go further. They tell us that;
…the adoption of farming actually set humanity, or some small part of it, on a course away from violent domination (my emphasis)…
Apparently we were already somehow fettered or heading towards a prison world but evidence of peaceful proto-agricultural horticulture (what they call ‘botany’ and ‘gardening’) means agriculture is ‘really’ a path to a peaceful (and, incidentally, matriarchal) paradise. To quote G&W ‘almost nothing about this narrative matches the available evidence’, but nevermind.
- At this point the authors make an obligatory nod towards the middle-class totem of feminism, which they do a couple of other times in the book.
- Inomata, 2020
- Another example G&W give is the Calusa people of south-west Florida philosophy, a complex, stratified ‘hunter-gatherer kingdom’ — which subsisted on papaya and maize; so not hunter-gather, and certainly not simple.
- And even to a great extent in feudal societies.
- It’s interesting though, this ‘treating our ancestors as soup’ thing, because it exposes an extremely subtle and profound flaw in the author’s outlook. Consider the opening lines of Anna Karenina;
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
What does this mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that a happy family in nineteenth century Tsarist Russia is the same as a happy family in twenty-first century Slough (If one exists; I suppose there’s one or two.) They couldn’t be more different. What it means is that love between members of a family naturally tends to be identifiable as love no matter where in the world or at what period of history you are in. We even recognise and enjoy certain aspects of familial love in animals. Conversely, in an unhappy family, there is nothing recognisable, always some new perversion or misery. In both cases — happy and unhappy — there is variety, and if anyone were to argue there wasn’t we’d probably appreciate an author coming along and telling them they were ‘treating families like soup’. In the first case though, there is an essential continuity, or to put it another way, in happy families, there is no quantitative variety in their quality. What variety there is cannot be measured. To all measurable intents and purposes, they are the same, although we sense a different ‘vibe’ or ‘aura’ from one to the other). G&W, as we shall see, have no interest in quality — no interest, as it were, in the love that unites happy families.
- which G&W are keen to potray, against all the evidence, as places without centralised storage facilities, palaces or evidence of extreme inequality
- In the sense that there is no human decision that can be made between which of two technologies or techniques to use, for one is objectively superior. See Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society.
- In other words she creates or contributes to what we would call ‘newspeak’, both kinds.
- a.k.a. democracy.
- To take an example of G&Ws confusion, they can’t work out how repressive civilisation never caught on in Aboriginal America, when the answer is almost absurdly clear. Firstly, some horrendous, bloodthirsty civilisations certainly did appear in America (again, relatively recently, in the late neolithic period) but, secondly, Amerindian societies were unable to reach the world-eating extent or degrading depths of Mesopotamia and Rome because they were less technically powerful; they were not literate, did not use bronze, did not have iron, did not have institutionalised chattel slaves (such as Rome had) could not base their economies on grain and did not use wheels. Of course their civilisations were more pleasant, far weaker and crumbled more easily. Once again this doesn’t mean we can’t have egalitarian societies with literacy, iron and grain but putting them in our hands is like giving a gun to an eight year old.
- The assumption that kings, princes, technology, professional power and urbanisation lead to coercion and misery is brushed aside as a weird ‘automatic’ Victorian bias.
- To take ‘genius’ as an example, twice G&W suggest that there is no such thing, that really the genius is just picking up ideas around him. Obviously this is true to a [measurable] extent, but why would the authors emphasise this rather than the mindblowing originality of someone like Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky? It’s for the same reason that everyone without any real originality does — particularly academics — because they want to reduce mankind to a technically measurable social purée. The reason they take Shakespeare down a peg or two is the same reason why they do not focus on the individual prehistoric man or woman, his or her consciousness, because they know, intuitively at least, that to access this consciousness they will have to access their own consciousness, and this the middle-class technician refuses to do.
- This is why their book as been feted by leftists; ‘iconoclastic’ (Guardian), ‘revolutionary’ (The Sunday Times), ‘groundbreaking’ (Rutger Bregman), ‘overturning of everything’ (Robin D. G. Kelley).
- As I explain here.
- For reasons explained in Self and Unself.