graeber readings

readings of david graeber via david wengrowdawn of everything ness

(david on dawn of everything)

Sunday at 1pm GMT: Дэвид Венгроу (that’s me) will be talking + taking questions about #TheDawnOfEverything at this online event devoted to the intellectual legacy of 
@davidgraeber, hosted by Free University Moscow and the Sakharov Center. Please join us.

Original Tweet:

David Wengrow (@davidwengrow) tweeted at 10:43 AM on Sun, Oct 25, 2020:
Strange and difficult as it is, I will have to get used to talking about #TheDawnOfEverything without @davidgraeber, so I made a start today – somewhere between my living room and downtown Moscow, and turns out it’s recorded, thanks to @SergeySteblyov: (

7am sun – notes/quotes (didn’t know there’d be a video.. so tweaking notes/quotes from zoom as i listen again to video):

(on book turning upside down theories of ineq and state)

2 min – collab w david started w him posing questions to me about human history.. and being slightly astonished by the answers.. he as an academic.. most widely read.. genuinely intellectually curious.. even he had no idea what people in my field had been up to for the last 30-40 yrs.. so i would just casually say these things well known to specialists..

4 min – and david would say.. what is wrong w you guys.. why haven’t you told anyone..

so he’d ask.. is there any evidence of egalitarian city.. then he’d say.. why haven’t we ever heard of these things..

5 min – so then we began to produce what we’d refer to as .. the archive.. a series of exchanges between us – the book (dawn of everything) is really a distillation of that archive.. it’s quite a long book.. but only a small proportion of what we did

6 min – i don’t want to give anything like a lecture .. it’s great to commemorate .. but he himself often noted his objections to the ‘great man’ view of history.. of intellectual history.. he would often be quite critical of various strands of marxian thoughts which are very much centered around a whole series of great ancestors in anthropology.. he was a real believer in the power of collective thinking.. socially grounded thinking and dialogue.. so i’d like in that spirit today.. to have something more of a dialogue.. also strange talking about a book that hasn’t been published yet

8 min – it’s a book of 12 ch’s.. starts/finishes in e woodlands of n america.. starts w a new interpretation of origins of what’s come to be referred to as the western enlightenment

i noticed in your description of what i might talk about you mentions: western societies not the world’s first inventors of revolution and democracy.. actually we go even further than that.. if take enlightenment as series of episodes of first intellectual awakening.. one of things we try and show is that many aspects of what we tend to think of as enlightenment reasoning/thought .. particularly around liberty and equality.. actually are more to indigenous thinkers/intellectuals particularly in native america .. we tend to think.. and the encounters between them .. and the european thinkers who were influenced by them.. both positively/negatively.. so we try and take those critiques going right back to the sources of what we tend to think of as enlightenment thought and the whole notion of social revolution

9 min – and then the rest of book is really an attempt to use the evidence.. the modern scientific evidence of archeology and anthropology and ancient history.. to look at some of the crucial thresholds in human history .. thru that alt lens

10 min – a section from ch 8 – ch called: imaginary cities – actually about real cities.. not sure why we ended up calling it imaginary cities.. the subtitle is: eurasia’s first urbanists.. mesopotamia, the indus valley, ukraine and china.. and how they built cities w/o kings

11 min – one of the things we do in later parts of book we try to reduce whole concept of the state to what we consider to be something more like its more realistic historical scope/proportions.. because one of the things i think modern archeology has taught us.. particularly if you’re looking at the societies conventionally described as ‘early states’ or ‘archaic states’ or sometimes rather misleadingly ‘early civilizations’.. so i’m thinking here.. everything from the aztec empire inca chan china.. early dynastic meso.. ancient dynastic egypt.. you know.. the conventional sort of list/roster of those.. is that really that attempts to see in those developments an evolutionary process what is commonly referred to as the origins of the state.. are really both theoretically a bit confused.. possibly even misguided.. and very much out of touch with the actual evidence from those societies..

12 min – so part of what we’re doing in the book is reducing the state to a much more narrow and in a way.. fragile.. position in history.. which is also of contemporary significance.. because we can see states coming apart before our eyes at the moment in various ways.. but of course that also has implications for cities and the org of early cities

13 min – so this section is called: on megasites (which is a bit of a jargon).. and how archeological findings in ukraine are overturning conventional wisdom on the origins of cities

(starts reading).. ‘the remote histories of the countries around the black sea is awash w gold.. at least any casual visitors to the major museums (of.. kiev.. ) could be forgiven for leaving w that impression.. ever since the days of herodotus .. outsiders to the region have liked to come home full of lurid tales about the lavish funerals of warrior kings and the mass slaughter of horses and retainers that accompanied them.. over a thousand yrs later in the 10th cent ad.. the traveler idan ferdland (?) was telling almost identical to the ones that herodotus was reciting to impress/titilate his arab readers

14 min – ‘as a result.. in these lands.. the term pre history or sometimes proto history.. has always evoked the legacy of aristocratic triumphs and lavish tombs crammed w treasure.. such tombs are certainly there to be found.. which do indeed mark the resting places of warrior princes of one sort or another.. ‘

15 min – ‘but it turns out this wasn’t the whole story.. in fact magnificent warrior tombs might not even be the most interesting aspects of the region’s pre history.. there were also cities.. archeologists in ukraine and maldova got their first inkling of it in the 1970s when they began to detect the existence of human settlements older and much larger than anything they had previously encountered..’

further research showed that these settlements.. often referred to as megasites.. date to the early/middle centuries of the 4th millennium bc.. so about 6 000 years old.. and this means that some of them existed even before the earliest known cities in mesopotamia.. and they were also larger.. ‘

16 min – ‘but even now in scholarly discussions about the origins of urbanism.. the ukrainian sites almost never come up.. indeed the very use of the term ‘megasite’.. is kind of a euphemism designed to signal to a wide audience that these should not be thought of as proper cities but as something more like villages.. that for some reason expanded in ordinately in size.. some archeologists have even referred to them as over grown villages

so how do we account for this reluctance to welcome the ukrainian megasites into the charmed circle of urban origins.. all of those early civilizations that i was just referring to .. ‘(why heard of some and not others)

17 min – ‘the answer we’d suggest is largely political.. actually it’s kind of political in a double sense.. 1\ some of it is just modern geopolitics.. initial work of discover carried out by eastern block scholars during the cold war.. which not only slowed down the receptions of these findings in western academic circles.. but tended to tinge any news of surprising discoveries with at least a tiny bit of skepticism..’

even more perhaps.. it had to do w the 2\ internal political life of of these prehistoric settlements themselves.. that is.. according to conventional views of politics.. there didn’t seem to be any.. there was no evidence of centralized govts or admin.. or indeed any form of ruling class.. in other words.. these enormous settlements had all the hallmarks of what evolutionists would call a ‘simple’ not a ‘complex’ society

18 min – ‘and here we were very much reminded of a short story of ursula le guin about the imaginary city – which she called *omelas .. a city which also made due w/o kings/wars/slaves/secret-police.. le quin: ‘we have a tendency to write anyone like that off as simple folk.. but in fact these citizens of omelas were not simple folk.. not dulcet shepherds.. noble savages.. or bland utopians.. they were not less complex than us.. the trouble is that we have a bad habit encouraged by **pedants and sophisticates.. of considering happiness to be something rather stupid’.. that’s le quin..’

*omelas – “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a 1973 work of short philosophical fiction by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin. With deliberately both vague and vivid descriptions, the narrator depicts a summer festival in the utopian city of Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the perpetual misery of a single child. 

**pedants: a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning.

helena norberg-hodge on ladah’s joy

19 min – ‘she has a point.. obviously we have no idea how relatively happy the inhabitants of ukrainian megasites really were.. compared to the lords who constructed curgun (?) tombs or the retainers richly sacrificed at their funerals or for that matter the bonded laborers who provided wheat/barley to the inhabitants of those later greek colonies along the black sea cost.. though we can probably make a fairly reasonable guess..and as anyone who’s read that leguin story will know.. omelas had some problems too..

but the point remains.. why do we assume that people who have figured out a way for a large pop to govern self and support itself w/o temples, palaces, military fortification.. that is.. w/o overt displays of arrogance, self abasement and cruelty are somehow less complicated than those who have not.. t.. why would we hesitate to dignify such a place with the name city

20 min – i think i’ll finish there

on 30 or more cites.. so really well documented in archaeology.. but my impression is is that it has hardly actually broken out into any of the wider discussions about human settlement history.. possibilities of urban life

21 min – q&a

a1: all of these settlements existed for a number of centuries and the whole phenom.. this particular way of organizing human settlements.. lasted something like 8 centuries in total.. earliest ie’s date back to about 4 000 bc.. so about 6 000 yrs ago.. and the whole phenom comes to an end around 800 yrs later.. so around 3200 bc.. nobody’s quite sure why it comes to an end..

23 min – a2: the first implication is that it makes us look differently of the much better known.. much more familiar concepts of early cities.. so for ie there have been debates about meso for more than a cent.. about the existence of what the danish (?) call ‘primitive democracy’ in meso.. and the idea that meso had its own local forms of democracy going back to the origins of urban life.. and this concept .. which has never really been explicitly disproven.. people just sort of stopped talking about it.. and in fact.. armed w our understanding of what was possible.. what was going on n of the black sea.. we then go and take a fresh look at meso.. at the early cities of the indus valley.. which have always also been a source of great debate.. because there’s really no evidence of things like monarchy.. or even any clear evidence os social stratification at sites like herapo or penjudara (?).. another place in mexico.. where archeologists have been frantically searching evidence of monarchy and hierarchy for generations.. but at least for the later phases of that city.. they simply don’t come up with it

24 min – so it leads us.. it’s kind of our way into a reconsideration of some of the much more famous cases of org.. and the large point that we make about it is basically about the way that scale and the whole issue of scale is addressed in the social sciences .. so we talk a bit about theories which have become so popular that you’ll often encounter them.. people will talk to me about these sort of things over dinner.. somebody’s read a book by juval harari and or something or robin dunbar.. which explains why.. from a cognitive pov.. the minute human societies get larger than about 150 people we have to invent govts and systems of central admin.. and before you know also have to have organized military to police .. and a lot of this kind of thinking found its way from academic writing into popular discourse.. but it’s actually out of step with the evidence of human history in our opinion.. and i personally don’t think it’s got very strong foundations in human psychology either.. so it’s part of a much wider effort we make in the book to at least question some of these truisms.. these sort of widely accepted assumptions about when human beings have to give up on basic freedoms..t.. basic forms of freedom.. and scale seems to be a very big issue there.. so actually showing that early cities could function in a whole myriad of diff ways and could actually be very politically experimental places.. is kind of important in terms of the wider story we want to tell

yuval noah harari.. dunbar\ish ness

and free\dom ness

freeman structure law (?) et al

thinking.. from our findings.. that we could org for 8b.. via 2 convers as infra

26 min – same guy w follow up question so q2b: what is freedom archeologically speaking

a2b: what an interesting question

(from moderator): what is freedom and what is the ling (?) of coercion and hierarchy.. archeologically speaking.. how do we know

a2b: yeah.. it’s very interesting how that question is never asked the other way around.. in other words.. whenever you show somebody evidence of some very large complex system in early human history.. there’s just a kind of tacit assumption .. there must be some kind of central org.. something like a state organizing it.. and the burden of proof is never really place on those people who make those assumptions.. they basically get away with it because although very few scholars these days will say.. ‘yes i am a social evolutionist and i believe that human societies definitely developed thru a series of stages like simple to complex.. small to large.. ‘ .. that kind of thinking is treated rather uncritically.. where as if make an assertion about human freedoms or even human equalities.. you’re often held to a completely diff standard.. they’ll say ‘you must provide us with absolutely clear and explicit evidence.. even in the absence of written sources.. which of course is very often impossible.. what is possible and i think sergey (moderator) was indicating in his comment just now.. is to show that many of these large settlements or even larger regional systems.. what archeologists sometimes call ‘culture areas in pre history’.. operated w no clear evidence of coercion or central military power or central admin apparatus .. t

now think of the implications of that.. they were still doing all this stuff.. so they must have been able to innovate.. to *make decisions in other ways.. which were not at the edge of a sword/gun..

*or not really at all.. ie: decision making is unmooring us law

in other words.. once we start thinking about the generation forms of social org from the bottom up.. the evidence is actually incredibly rich.. and we also talk a lot about ethnographic and ethnohistorical cases of what.. under any other circumstances could be called democracies.. but they never are.. because of the peculiar way that we use that term

29 min – so yeah.. finding evidence of freedom is partly about finding evidence of social creativity in the absence of explicit hierarchy and coercion..t

a means to undo our hierarchical listening.. get away from people telling other people what to do

q3: on evidence of state ness

30 min – a3: it’s actually pretty easy to tell when kingdoms and dynasties exists because one thing all kings, aristocrats and dynasts seem to have in common all over the world is that they love to make a great big spectacle of themselves.. so if you look at a classic maya city or chan china or nero (?) syrian empire.. you’re not left w any doubt as to what’s going on because they love erecting bloody great monuments that tell you what’s going on and presumably told all of their subjects as well.. who was in charge.. so there was some pretty obvious signs when things like monarchies and hereditary hierarchies make an appearance.. we begin to get all the stuff the archeologists love to put in museums.. royal tombs, palaces, pyramids.. that sort of thing..

31 min – when those things are absent and nevertheless you have evidence for large scale complex forms of social org.. that’s when i think the whole matter of interpretation gets a lot more interesting.. and because of the ways that these questions have usually been asked.. often we find that there is no vocab.. this was something that really struck us across a whole range of topics as we were working our way thru the material in the book.. is that very often we don’t even have a language to describe theses things.. i mean what does it mean to call something an egalitarian city.. if we were historians we might talk about publics or democracies.. democratic city-states.. but because those terms are so completely rooted in one tradition.. basically the classical mediterranean tradition.. there’s an understandable reluctance to do that.. so very often we found ourselves having to come up w own terminology

language as control/enclosure

begs need for means/mech to undo our hierarchical listening

idiosyncratic jargon et al

32 min – and we do in the book .. actually intro some new terms of our own.. it’s not primarily a work of .. most of deconstruction.. most of it is actually trying to ask new questions w a new sort of language of anlystis (?).. which we’ll see how people take to that

as an ie.. we id 3 basic forms of human freedom and 3 basic forms of domination

33 min – i can tell you about the freedom.. so the 3 basic forms of human freedom.. actually there was a point that david wanted to call the book – the 3rd freedom.. but we decided not to in the end.. and these are not abstract freedoms.. not like freedom of speech or something like that .. these are not freedoms in the sense of liberty/equality/fraternity.. they’re not symbolic freedoms we’re interested here in actual forms of freedom that one could actually perform in practice.. things you could actually do.. very basic things.. :

1\ freedom to move away – freedom to go away.. fallen out w someone.. feud/dispute.. the freedom to move away.. and this seems to be terribly important in human history generally because one of the things that we know now about a lot of human history certainly after the last ice age.. is that communities.. even when they were demographically quite small.. they were almost never isolated.. they formed these great sort of .. culture areas or hospitality zones.. and archeological science now is very sophisticated now in actually tracking the movements of people/animals/plants.. and everything we learn is showing us that the world was a much more connected place.. which implies a scale of mobility .. and of course a freedom to move also implies that the place you move to.. whatever.. a few 100 km away.. is somewhere where you’re going to be received and cared for.. given food/shelter.. so it implies a kind of hospitality at other end as well.. otherwise you’re not really going anywhere.. and of course there are historical analogies for this with the totemic systems of aboriginal australia or clan systems of native n america.. where you could move away from your home settlement and bio kin.. often over huge distances .. spanning half continent.. and there would be a clan member there.. who was obliged to receive you give you shelter.. so on.. so the freedom to move away.. basic human freedom

freedom to move away from a project (the it is me ness) – ie: gray play law (freedom to quit)

35 min

2\ freedom to say no – to refuse orders .. this is something if you read the jesuit account from 17th cent of their impressions of the indigenous societies in what is now roughly the region that is part of canada.. basically quebec down to the area around the great lakes.. something that local observers of european.. mainly french but also british and dutch society would often point out that they found strange about europeans is the extent to which they are always bossing each other around.. taking orders from each other.. which really just wasn’t acceptable to them.. which again this comes back to the question – how does one id freedom.. largely for many of these iroquios speaking societies.. *freedom was a matter of not being told what to do.. and having to follow orders.. and actually.. they weren’t terrible concerned with wealth/equality as such.. it didn’t particularly bother them that somebody has more stuff/land/property.. however.. the idea that having more material wealth could then be translated into power.. into the right to command people.. that they found entirely alien and objectionable .. and this is a very common feature of those critiques of european society in the 17th cent.. which were gradually absorbed into the writings of european authors like the frenchman.. baron la tan (?).. who’s writings became extremely influential in europe.. and we argue in the book.. actually the conservative counter reaction to those kind of ideas is what led to many of our basic schemes of progress and social evolution.. that’s another story.. so freedom two.. freedom to say now.. disobey orders

we have to let go of any form of *people telling people what to do

37 min –

and freedom number 3.. the third freedom.. which in a way is the most important one for the book .. is the

3\ freedom to create – the freedom to create entirely new forms of society.. to create new social orders.. and one of the things we suggest in the book is that if someone wants to say that human society sort of lost something .. people often talk about the broad sweep of human history.. and almost biblical sense as the fall from grace: we started out equal..and we desired to be like gods and in the process we basically screwed ourselves and ended up locking selves in cage so tight we can’t figure out.. basically a rehash version of the book of genesis if you like.. so partly what we ask is if something’s been lost and it wasn’t this imaginary/idealic state of equality.. then what was it..? what is it that we’ve lost.. and partly the conclusion that we come to is that it’s precisely that ability to create/generate.. to play around w alt forms of society.. is one of the things we’ve genuinely lost.. and was actually much more widely experimented with and much more boldly in other societies and in other periods of human history

black science of people/whales law

39 min – so those are the 3 basic freedoms – move away, say no, and create alt social orders

graeber and wengrow freedom law

q4: to what length do we move beyond our stereo types of simple and complex

40 min – a4: great question.. and i didn’t know that raymond williams made that observation.. but your question reminds me of another great mid 20th cent critic.. the writer jane jacobs who wrote widely on the phenom of urbanization.. one of her arguments was that what we tend to think of as ‘village/rural society’ is not in fact some kind of primordial/simple human form.. but actually a kind of consequence or a spin off from the formation of cities.. so she writes this kind of .. really subversive book in the 1960s called the economy of cities.. where she goes right back to the neolithic.. and argues that precisely as your question implies the logic of a dichotomy between city and village is really a very specific and modern idea.. and if we try and see human history thru that lens.. basically we fail to understand a lot of it

jane jacobs

41 min – so you’re quite right.. there really is a false dichotomy there.. but i don’t think it’s our dichotomy.. i mean i don’t particularly care where somebody places the threshold of village/city.. but what i would object to is the idea that settlements of roughly the same scale and population as what everybody intuitively refers to as cities .. all the ones that show up in the cambridge encyclopedias.. all the cities that ever existed everywhere .. to not include.. i mean to consciously exclude cities just because they lack evidence of stratification/hierarchy/etc.. that .. it seems to me.. is making a fundamentally ideological point.. and that’s the point that i care about here and would object to.. really on empirical grounds

43 min – q5: can you tell of ie where 3rd freedom was significantly profound

i think the most interesting ie of this is precisely the case of (tier a t wacan?).. which is a really enormous settlement quite close to what’s now mexico city.. there’s huge literature and debate about it.. but broadly speaking the pattern of development .. the evolution of the city.. starts off much as you might expect for a ancient meso-american center of population.. so we get the pyramids.. of the sun and moon and the way of the dead.. the way that connects them.. w/in the first few hundred years of the city’s creation.. it seems to be going in a very typical direction for what we know from classic maya civilization.. or other surrounding urban societies of the region.. there are even things like human ritual killings.. bodies places under foundations of these pyramids/temple complexes.. so that all happens w/in the first 2-300 yrs..

44 min – but then something changes and it changes very radically.. and here’s where the 3rd freedom comes in in an urban context.. and it’s really very striking.. basically all monumental construction stops at the site.. there’s a famous complex there called the temple of the feathered serpent.. later what the aztec called it when they encountered the site already as an abandoned ruin.. and it’s still what people today .. tourists.. would refer to as the temple of the feathered serpent.. which is actually closed down.. looted.. burnt.. and they even built a kind of platform in front of it that disguises the facade of the building

45 min – and then what seems to happen is quite extraordinary.. because all of those resources/labor that went into the creation of pyramids and other grand monuments.. presumably to some emerging fledgling aristocracy/monarchy/military whatever.. *all of those resources seemed to go in completely different direction and instead they embark on this extraordinary project of social housing.. so they start building these things that look like half way between a council of states and a very nice villa.. to house more or less the whole population .. and we’re talking about you know something in the order of 100 000 people.. all get to live in these really rather plush communal .. sort of estates..

*iwan baan ness

46 min – so what we have here is a really striking ie of a social order in an urban context re inventing itself and turning away from an extremely hierarchical pattern.. to create something much more like public housing and social welfare on an urban scale.. so there’s the 3rd freedom for you in a really spectacular way.. it’s not the only ie.. there’s another interesting ie in china about 2000 bc a site called tow sur (?) but i won’t try and tell you about that now