doe – digging for utopia
via david’s tweet (via simona‘s fb share):
Much to debate in this review of #TheDawnOfEverything by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Just like philosophers, archaeologists often disagree, but that shouldn’t make us pusillanimous or deter us from asking big questions based on the evidence of the human past.
Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/davidwengrow/status/1463773318960623617
paywall (for now).. so can just read top part but do like this: ‘must we find our future in the past?’ @KAnthonyAppiah
history ness is blinding/distracting us.. sucking our energy
later via david in replies:
Yes, good read. Don’t think it’s generally a great idea to respond to book reviews, but this could be productive. Not so much the archaeology bits (simple to answer), but the rest. I’d have loved to hear more of his thoughts on slavery/freedom. Rejoinder wouldn’t fit in a tweet!
also in replies: link to unpaywalled article – that didn’t take long
In The Dawn of Everything David Graeber and David Wengrow search for historical examples of nonhierarchical societies to justify their anarchist vision of human freedom. But must we find our future in the past?
And cities—this is a critical point for Graeber and Wengrow—could function perfectly well without bosses and administrators.
Both Hobbes and Rousseau, The Dawn of Everything argues, have led us badly astray.
Graeber and Wengrow reject such paralytic pessimism. They believe that social evolutionism is a con, aimed at making us think that we had no choice but to forfeit our freedom for food and that the states we find everywhere are the inexorable result of developments ten or twelve thousand years ago. The Hobbesian spin leads to pigheaded triumphalism; the Rousseauian spin leads to plaintive defeatism. In their view we should give up both and reject the inevitability of states. Maybe history doesn’t supply any edifying counterexamples—lasting, large-scale, self-governing, nondominating communities sustained by mutual aid and social equality. But, Graeber and Wengrow argue, our prehistory does. To imagine a future where we are truly free, they suggest, we need to grasp the reality of our Neolithic past—to see what nearly was ours.
If the dialogue presents no conceptually novel arguments, that’s to be expected; after all, Graeber and Wengrow say, “there are only so many logical arguments one can make, and intelligent people in similar circumstances will come up with similar rhetorical approaches.” Maybe so. Still, our understanding of the indigenous critique would have been strengthened had they tried to determine what, for its time, was and was not distinctive in this dialogue.
In the mid-twentieth century, when social evolutionism fell from favor among anthropologists, its most vigorous advocate in the discipline was Leslie A. White. And White—who trained Sahlins, who trained Graeber—was a socialist leery of statism. Perhaps the most notable recent rendering of the cereals-to-states story appears, with novel elaborations, in Against the Grain by James C. Scott, who’s also the author of Two Cheers for Anarchism. If this metanarrative was purpose-built to reconcile us to an impoverished status quo, it’s curious that its greatest exponents advocated political transformation.
Graeber and Wengrow could be all wrong in their intellectual history, of course, and completely right about our Neolithic past.
A reader who does the armchair archaeology of digging through the endnotes will repeatedly encounter this sort of discordance between what the book says and what its sources say. Was Mohenjo Daro—a settlement, dating to around 2600 BC, on one side of the Indus River in Pakistan’s Sindh province—free of hierarchy and administration?
The article says that Mashkan-shapir’s commercial and administrative centers were separate; when Graeber and Wengrow present this as the claim that it may have lacked any commercial or political center, it’s as if a hairbrush has been tugged through tangled evidence to make it align with their thesis.
The Dawn of Everything can be read, generously, as an effort to build out the “as long as humanity” thesis. We should readily accept that human beings routinely resist being dominated, even if they routinely seek to dominate; that self-organization, voluntary association, and mutual aid are vital forces in our social history. It’s just that Graeber and Wengrow aren’t content to make those points: they want to establish the existence of large, dense, city-like settlements free of rulers or rules; and, when the fumes of conjecture drift away, we are left without a single unambiguous example.
we can profitably approach this book with Rousseau’s disclaimer in mind: “One must not take the kind of research which we enter into as the pursuit of truths of history, but solely as hypothetical and conditional reasonings, better fitted to clarify the nature of things than to expose their actual origin.”
Yes, plenty of arguments can be made against Graeber and Wengrow’s anarchist vision; some double as arguments against libertarian ones. (Note, for instance, the paradoxical nature of the “freedom to disobey”: we cannot be commanded—and therefore we cannot disobey commands—without institutions that authorize command.) But these are, precisely, arguments; *they could be wrong, in part or whole. They should be weighed, assessed, tested, and perhaps modified in the face of counterarguments. And the **worst argument to make against anarchism—against a polity without politics—is that we haven’t quite seen it up and running yet. “If anarchist theory and practice cannot keep pace with—let alone go beyond—historic changes that have ***altered the entire social, cultural, and moral landscape,” the eminent anarchist Murray Bookchin wrote three decades ago, “the entire movement will indeed become what Theodor Adorno called it—a ‘ghost.’” We live in an era of the World Wide Web, same-sex marriage, artificial intelligence, a climate crisis. We don’t need to peer into our prehistoric past to decide what to think about these things.
*or perhaps.. should be let go of
***what has altered the entire landscape? i’d say nothing yet
Like Graeber and Wengrow, she had a deep antipathy toward domination; like them, she cherished a vision of freedom and mutual care; like them, she thought she glimpsed it in Minoan Crete.
But the moral argument here doesn’t depend on whether we believe that gylany was once widespread: an ancient pedigree doesn’t make patriarchy right. Social prophets, including those in the anarchist tradition—from Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman to Paul Goodman and David Graeber—make the vital contribution of stretching our social and political imagination. Facing forward, we can conduct our own experiments in living. We can devise the stages we’d like to see.
if only we all could.. that’s what we’re missing.. we keep trying to dance w only part of the dancers..
we need a means to set all of us free.. in sync
That’s what Rousseau came to think. By the time he published The Social Contract (1762), he had given up the notion that political argument needed to be buttressed by some primordial utopia. “Far from thinking that neither virtue nor happiness is available to us,” he argued, “let’s work to draw from evil the very remedy that would cure it”—let’s reorganize society, that is, through a better social compact. Never mind the dawn, he was urging: we will not find our future in our past
ie: a nother way