The Dawn of Everything – Part 1

by Miriam Ronzoni on December 14, 2021

I recently finished reading* The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow; I enjoyed it very much indeed. I thought I’d write a two parts review for CT, and here’s the first – I will publish the second in a few days. It is a very long, sprawling (in a good way) book, and there are (at least) two main themes in it, so addressing each separately feels right. This post is mainly about the book’s attempt to dismantle the myth of “agriculture as the source of social inequality.” The next post will be about Graeber’s and Wengrow’s startling claim that European Enlightenment can be seen, to a large extent, as the result of a conversation with indigenous, non-western intellectuals and societies – indeed, as inspired by them.

I think it’s fair to assume that most CT readers will be familiar with David Graber – the impressive, maverick American anthropologist who was known to the general public for his anarchist sympathies; his role in the Occupy movement; Bullshit Jobs, a book deliberately written for a wider audience which resonated with the experience of so many readers; and his earlier work on debt. I guess most readers will also know that he died suddenly last September; hence, The Dawn of Everything was published posthumously, at least as far as one if its two authors is concerned. David Wengrow, on the other hand, is a British comparative archaeologist working at University College London. His profile is closer to that of an old-school academic compared to Graeber’s; his extensive work on Neolithic societies, as well as on early Egypt and Mesopotamia, is essential background for the radical claims of this co-authored monograph.

The book, as its authors state at the beginning, is the result of a decade-long, fairly loose academic exchange, and was initially going to be about the origin of social inequality. The main motivation was to problematise the prevailing narrative, according to which early humans lived in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups for…well, literally ages until agriculture was invented around 9,000 BC. The “agricultural revolution,” so the mainstream argument goes, was a double-edged sword – it triggered the big leap in human civilisation which brought us writing, culture, history, and all things that make humans “special;” but it also led to hierarchy, organised power, bureaucracy, and inequality. Graeber and Wengrow had been suspicious about this narrative for a long time – they did not believe in this evolutionary, progressive, and deterministic parable.

Still, the original plan was to offer an alternative, better-supported account of the very origin of social inequality. What instead became more and more obvious in their exchanges, and in the research they started to dig out and pace together, is that they had ammunitions to do something even more radical – to disrupt this narrative even more deeply. By ploughing through historical, archaeological and anthropological research of the last decade or so (which has so far failed to make into the academic mainstream, let alone beyond it), Graeber and Wengrow claim to have found out that there was never a time when social equality was the default mode, nor one when it was lost. Not because inequality was always there and egalitarianism is only a myth – but rather because, ever since humans have been around, they have always been in the business of inventing and reinventing themselves.  In other words, what started off as a book about equality and its loss ended up being a book about freedom: a book showing how early humans were not blindly following their evolutionary and historical destiny, but rather engaged, since the very beginning, in “a carnival parade of political forms.” The book then takes its readers on a whirlwind of a journey – from Stonehenge to hunter-gatherer mega-sites; to Eastern-European prehistorical cities which appear not to have any hierarchy or bureaucracy; to archaeological sites showing evidence of agriculture being deliberately abandoned after having been tried out; to different Pre-Columbian North American civilisations with consciously, mutually opposed attitudes towards work and slavery; and to many more places. In so doing, Graeber and Wengrow aim to show that all the steps of the dominant narrative have nothing necessary to them. So we have, for instance, evidence about hunter-gatherer civilizations which could build impressive monuments destined to host very high number of peoples coming for different and distance places (Stonehenge being only the top of the iceberg here), thus dispelling the assumption that hunter-gatherer human groups were necessarily small, permanently on the move, and with no rich cultural life. We have evidence of large sedentary cities in Ukraine with no “public quarters” for the dominant and bureaucratic class, thus suggesting that early humans might have managed to live in large numbers without organising themselves in hierarchical systems. We have evidence of unequal hunter-gatherer civilisations and egalitarian agricultural ones; and evidence of human groups which tried out agriculture, but decided it was not for them. Finally, we have evidence of early humans actively rejecting slavery, or rejecting hierarchical systems after having lived under them for centuries – in what must have been the world’s first social and political revolutions. In other words, the palette of possible social organizations was rich and diverse from the beginning: early humans, like us, were constantly in the business of shaping and reshaping their social arrangements, with evidence of conscious embracing and rejection of all sorts of social forms.

In a nutshell, then, there was never a time when humans uniformly lived in small, simple egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, and a time when they started to switch to agriculture- thus inevitably switching to a  sedentary, hierarchical, and more complex life style. This is not because the correct trajectory is a different one, but because there was never a linear trajectory to begin with. Instead, people have always been playing God – they have always tried to reinvent themselves and reshape the world around them, doing different things in different places and times. This is why, Graeber and Wengrow argue, the right question to ask is not “How did we end up here (in a world characterised by inequality),” but rather “How did we get stuck.” Why did we end up being absolutely convinced that inequality and hierarchy are the inevitable, necessary price to pay for all the goods that social complexity can deliver?

Admittedly, they never quite fully answer that question. They never answer, I think, another question they also ask, either: OK, maybe the road was longer and more tortuous than the traditional narrative suggests, but didn’t all humans end up embracing agriculture, and a form of social life characterised by hierarchy and inequality with it, eventually? Graeber and Wengrow have some thoughts on both, but I must admit I didn’t really understand what they were trying to do there – indeed, if some CT readers have also read the book, and have a better clue, please share it! In spite of this, however, the book is, as many other reviewers have written, not only refreshing but indeed exhilarating. “Exhilarating” seems the right word because the sense of freedom and possibility gets to your head. This is perhaps, at the end of the day, the way in which they do answer both aforementioned questions after all: yes, maybe we got stuck at some point and we do not quite know why; yes, maybe we all went down the same route eventually. But look for how long we have been trying to the be the authors of our own destiny, and largely succeeding at it! There is, they seem to suggest, no reason to think that we could not achieve the same now, if we set our mind to it. The anarchist inspiration is clearer than ever here: social complexity without “monopoly of legitimate violence” has been possible before, and can be possible again. And this explains, again, why this ended up being a book, not about equality, but about freedom: about how early humans, just like us, were keenly aware of their own freedom and firmly determined to use it. It also explains why the two authors are keen to debunk another myth along the way: that according to which critical reflection on freedom, equality, and human possibility more generally is an exclusively western product. Yet, the way in which they make this point is quite unique, and very different, for instance, from how most post-colonial literature makes it. Watch this space for more on this very issue in a few days. Thanks for reading!

*Actually, I have just finished listening to it; I am really getting into audiobooks, great invention…yes I know, I know, I am ridiculously late to the party…



PatinIowa 12.14.21 at 4:58 pm

I’m working my through The Dawn of Everything with great enjoyment. Much of it resonates.

It strikes me this is wrong-headed in at least a couple of ways, but it’s worth considering:

As for audiobooks, I enjoy them–especially books where the reader is in sync with the prose style. However, as someone whose auditory processing is in the bottom 10% of people assessed, it’s almost purely an aesthetic pleasure.


Phil 12.14.21 at 5:04 pm

I wonder what the timescale for all this fluidity is, and how it compares with (e.g.) the few hundred years since capitalist individualism began to supplant feudalism. In other words, is it possible we aren’t stuck, just a bit short-termist?


RobinM 12.14.21 at 5:20 pm

I’m having a hard time figuring out this passage:

“Graeber and Wengrow claim to have found out that there was never a time when social inequality was the default mode, nor one when it was lost. Not because inequality was always there and egalitarianism is only a myth – but because . . .”

Did you mean “when social equality was the default mode”? Or am I just being obtuse?

Also, a typo here: ” to arcaheological sites showing evidence of agriculture”

Since I’m just about to read the book, I appreciate your review and am looking forward to reading the substantive comments I hope it elicits.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.14.21 at 5:51 pm

Yes, sorry, both typos!


Alan Peakall 12.14.21 at 6:54 pm

Perhaps, to augment Phil’s point, our sense of timescale is being recalibrated by our observation of the technological progress our societies deliver, so that we feel stuck because an approximately static, cultural timescale is contending with the accelerating technological timescale triggered by the increasing intensity of social interaction over the modern era.


Tm 12.14.21 at 7:55 pm

The review seems to confirm the criticism that the book does an awful lot of strawmanning. What am I missing?

Meanwhile, Miriam, what did you think of the exhibition at the Landesmuseum?


Gareth Wilson 12.14.21 at 8:03 pm

Do they claim that Stonehenge was made by hunter-gatherers?


Tm 12.14.21 at 8:09 pm

Just as an example: „Why did we end up being absolutely convinced that inequality and hierarchy are the inevitable and necessary price to pay for all the goods that social and cultural complexity can deliver?“

I take it that nobody before Graeber ever questioned inequality. And also, nobody ever romanticized native Americans before the idea occurred to Graeber… seriously?


Shirley0401 12.14.21 at 10:11 pm

Thank you for this. It just makes me look forward to reading the book more. I got it a couple weeks ago and have been saving it for my holiday reading.
Also: I’ve joined the audiobook party recently and enjoy listening to books I’ve already read with my eyes. For me, at least,I think it can result in focusing on different elements. And there are some (Secondhand Time, for instance, memoir in general) I find I actually prefer to listen to than read.


reason 12.14.21 at 10:26 pm

As someone who is rather sceptical of anarchism, not because I don’t think it might be a good idea, but because I think it is damned to fail because of what I like to call the Genghis Khan threat – it can only survive if it is not threatened by external organised violence.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.14.21 at 10:53 pm

Tm: I think both Graeber and Wengrow would very much say that I not romanticising them. And I think they are right.


RichardM 12.14.21 at 11:02 pm

social complexity without “monopoly of legitimate violence” has been possible before

Is the archaeological evidence really sufficient to distinguish between that and a society which did believe in such a monopoly, but used it to prevent warlords and bandits gaining rule over them?


Miriam Ronzoni 12.14.21 at 11:02 pm

They claim that recent evidence suggests how the people who built Stonehenge had abandoned the cultivation of many important crops, and reverted back to gathering for significant aspects of their diet (I think they put a lot of emphasis on hazelnuts if I remember correctly – so they were not 100% hunter-gatherers, no; but they had decided to revert back to more hunting and gathering and to scale down their commitment to agriculture. But they also claim that many scholars staunchly ignore this research/evidence. Why, are they wrong?
The mega-sites built by hunter-gatherers which they mainly focus on are others, though.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.14.21 at 11:16 pm

They often say that we can never know for certain. But they take issue with certain stubborn interpretive assumptions: eg something just cannot be a city if there is no sign of agriculture, or of a hierarchical order.


J-D 12.15.21 at 12:14 am

But they also claim that many scholars staunchly ignore this research/evidence. Why, are they wrong?

I have no idea. How many of these scholars do they name?


Gareth Wilson 12.15.21 at 1:58 am

I hadn’t heard that about the Stonehenge builders, I’ll have to read up on it.


conchis 12.15.21 at 5:07 am

Possible nitpick:

“Graeber and Wengrow had been suspicious about this narrative for a long time – they did not believe in this evolutionary, progressive, and deterministic parable.”

The existence of significant experimentation in forms of social organisation seems like a hallmark of an evolutionary process, rather than being atypical of one.

From an evolutionary perspective, the most interesting question doesn’t seem to be whether other forms of social organisation are possible, but whether (and under what conditions) they could be stable. I’d have hoped that the sort of analysis Graeber and Wengrow have undertaken could provide insight into the latter question too (e.g. why did the experiments that failed fail? If any succeeded, what contributed to this?) But it sounds from the start of your final paragraph that this isn’t addressed very clearly in the book.


tm 12.15.21 at 9:10 am

Ok let’s say they are not romanticizing. But they start by attacking a “prevailing narrative” according to which preagrarian societies were more egalitarian than agrarian ones, and then they come up with the example of North American native societies having been freer and more egalitarian than Europeans. Now those were not nomadic hunter-gathereres, they were horticulturalists, partly semi-nomadic, with hunting and gathering playing an important role. And they were not totally egalitarian. So this is entirely consistent with the alleged “prevailing narrative” they are attacking, the less agrarian society being more egalitarian, and entirely consistent with a long tradition of anthropological thought.

At the same time, the “prevailing narrative” is anything but. There is a long history of controversy around these questions, let’s just name Hobbes, Rousseau, Engels (even Pinker if you want), and modern anthropological thinking is surely far more nuanced than any “prevailing narrative”, with increasing appreciation of the dazzling diversity of human social conditions.

Who are the strawmen believing in a “deterministic parable” of human development? And what baout that guy observing that humans “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”?


Miriam Ronzoni 12.15.21 at 1:34 pm

Not sure whom you mean by “North American native societies”? If you mean the pre-historical ones they tell us about, they definitely don’t claim that they were freer and more egalitarians than Europeans – they claim that all sorts of things were happening on the North-American Continent. If You are referring to the 16th, 17th and 18th century exchanges which they describe in the earlier chapters, those are not early humans plus again I don’t think they are making that point – they are arguing that intellectuals from these societies had visions of the as freer, that they engaged with Europeans on these topic on an equal footing and with a high degree of eloquence, and that some these debates informed the development of Enlightenment thinking. More on this in Part 2.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.15.21 at 1:43 pm

No it isn’t you are right, the point is that some of these “odd” cases lasted centuries or millennia, though, so calling them exceptional and unstable is quite rich, they say. They are not in the business of establishing a different grand narrative, but rather keen to show how we often just seem to refuse evidence that seems to counter the prevailing narrative (the book is full of examples of how some of the cases they discussed are explained away, repackaged as something else, etc.). I am in no position to judge how accurate this is.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.15.21 at 1:44 pm

Quite a few :)


Miriam Ronzoni 12.15.21 at 1:48 pm

I think their point is that archaeological evidence is sufficient to question some dominant assumptions, yet this doesn’t happen as much as they would expect. They point at cases where the most obvious explanation of a site would be, say, “this is a large city, but with no king or dominant bureaucracy”; “this was a hunter-gatherer society, yet sedentary” etc. but the “most obvious” explanation is just ruled out in principle.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.15.21 at 1:49 pm

No, must check it out. And no, I didn’t read it that way, but fair enough.


Alison Page 12.15.21 at 1:51 pm

I think we are often assured that hierarchical organisation is a requirement of complex societies. Or in similar terms that inequality is a price we must pay for living in complex urban societies. Or that individualism, liberal freedom, the idea of human rights, religious scepticism, are western or modern or ‘arose during the enlightenment ‘, or ‘had their birth in ancient Greece’. I am not saying anyone here shares his views but Jordan P speaks like this constantly and he’s terrifically popular.

Anyway, these are the kinds of ideas that Dawn of Everything challenges, with an alternative narrative that human societies are extremely diverse, that human at all past times have reflected self-consciously on their social and political structures in the ways that we do now, and reached a range of solutions often in deliberate reaction to neighbouring or historical examples.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.15.21 at 1:53 pm

Possibly, but just to be clear with “the time where we got stuck” they don’t only mean capitalism. Admittedly they are not always 100% clear about what they mean (stuck where?) but I think they mean stuck in hierarchical systems of power and in societies that need powerful bureaucracies to sustain them.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.15.21 at 2:01 pm

Yes Alison this was my takeaway, too.


Brett 12.15.21 at 5:13 pm

I’ve read some quibbling over details from historians on Twitter vis a vis the book, but the broader picture – that there was no singular “hunter-gatherer society”, that they were capable of living in large groups and doing large-scale projects even with only temporary organization, that “agriculture” is a broad spectrum and not some sudden transition for humanity – seems very accurate. I’ve been enjoying it so far, far more than with Debt.

Admittedly, they never quite fully answer that question. They never answer, I think, another question they also ask, either: OK, maybe the road was longer and more tortuous than the traditional narrative suggests, but didn’t all humans end up embracing agriculture, and a form of social life characterised by hierarchy and inequality with it, eventually?

I suppose the cynical take is that such societies are pretty good at producing large sedentary populations that can support specialists in violence and warfare, and when those folks were able to combine that with favorable terrain and animal pastoralism (especially horses) they could sweep out and eventually dominate most of humanity.

We see it in the ancient DNA research on Europe and North India, indicating that between 4000-5000 years ago Europe and India had a major change-up in population with people coming from the steppe (particularly on the Y-chromosome side and in Britain – the people of Britain today are mostly not descended from the people who built Stonehenge) around the time that they were domesticating horses and utilizing the wheel. The historian Walter Scheidel has also pointed out the way that empires were constantly forming on the steppe periphery, with Rome being the rare exception to it.

Same kind of highly stratified societies formed in the Americas as well, but they lacked the mobility and other technology to sweep across the continent the way it happened in Afro-Eurasia – and thus a lot more of the original societal diversity was preserved.


Scott P. 12.15.21 at 6:06 pm

There is some interesting meat here, but I fear that the authors too often go beyond the evidence, or read it as tendentiously, if not more so, than those they criticize.

The ‘We have evidence of large sedentary cities in Ukraine with no “public quarters” for the dominant and bureaucratic class, thus suggesting that early humans might have managed to live in large numbers without organising themselves in hierarchical systems. ‘ for example. Those don’t appear to be large-scale population centers, and even the archaeologists who excavated them now agree they shouldn’t be called cities.

Graeber and Wengrow argue that they are disrupting the narrative that agriculture brought hierarchy , monarchy, and inequality, yet I have J. N. Postgate’s treatment of Early Mesopotamia, and he talks about the consituent assemblies of Sumer, the lack of early evidence for kingship or even an all-encompassing temple bureaucracy. That was written in 1992. However, there is also evidence for hierarchy in the form of specialist professions with a hierarchy of rank dating back to the late Uruk period. Is this evidence for or against inequality? Both, I’d say. As usual, there is a push-pull. So I think there hasn’t been a ‘dominant narrative’, or if there has it has been ably undermined within the scholarly community for many decades.


John Ford 12.15.21 at 7:01 pm

I was about halfway through the book when I found myself bogging down, finding evidence scanty and stretched awfully thin. I’m neither a scholar nor an economist, so I can’t speak to the book’s rigor, academic or theoretical, but I found myself wondering at bits that seemed to be cherry-picked or conjectural—and with the nagging question “so what?”—even before I read the review in the NYRB.

I was amused but then uneasy when the authors disposed of Marx and Freud in a single sentence. I guess I just find it dangerous to think of people as often or always rational, self-conscious actors. As to Marx, the enlightenment was set among the bourgeoisie and served that class’s purposes. To understand it as a rational movement among rational actors is like speaking of the characters in a book as though they’re real—and doing so now still serves the interests of the bourgeoisie—this book’s likely readers. It’s a comforting read for lefties, until its descriptions of political self-awareness come to seem not just idle and utopian, but so old-fashioned and unchallenging as to be paradoxically… conservative. There’s no real radicalism here, no hint of action. I’ll bet David Brooks finds the book bracing and thought-provoking.

Modern conservatism continues to serve the selfish interests of a class, but those within that class likely don’t see it in such stark terms. When a lawyer–sorry for generalizing and genderising–puts on a business suit he doesn’t understand it as a uniform. It’s what everyone else is wearing—he has to wear it–but would he call it a uniform? I don’t think so. He’s conscious of his class perhaps, but self-aware? Hardly—no more so than Boho moms shopping in gym clothes or pre-torn jeans—that is unless he’s venal. In either event, his political choices are about as conscious and voluntary as his choice of clothes. We shouldn’t forget how class operates. Throwing out Marx serves just those interests that Marxism threatens.

And tossing out Freud is also a little careless and facile. A cult of personality is not rational. A mob by definition cannot be self-aware. And those within it are moved individually by unconscious forces into which they have no real insight. Donald Trump is all id. He goes to bed a thug and wakes up a thug—he’s a thug all night, too. He doesn’t make rational decisions any more than a Doberman does and he has the moral compass of a predator with a need to feed and to dominate. He’s sociopathic, borderline psychotic, lucky for the world he’s also stupid and lazy–but nearly half of our voters elected him president and may do so again. So as to history’s occasional enlightened exceptions, I say, so what? Best keep an eye on libido and id.

The descriptions of hunter gatherers put me on a train of thought that I, and perhaps quite a few of us in this forum, even though “stuck”, function in a way as hunter gatherers. I have tried never to be in a position where anyone could tell me what to do. I think about money as little as possible. Some would see these as a moral failures—I think they may be moral victories, but were my choices in any case conscious and self-aware? Not always, no more so than the wishes that motivated them. And I was a child of white privilege, heir to a whole lot of social capitol. Do I give the luck of my birth as much thought or as much moral weight as I should?

It’s pleasant to think there might be some creative self-aware history in waiting—isn’t it pretty to think so? but more rational to think the world is headed for mass migrations, critical resource shortages—individual and organized violence—class order threatened, id and libido unleashed.


J-D 12.15.21 at 11:04 pm

I know there are and have been tremendous variations in the nature and degree of social inequality, but to me it seems overwhelmingly unlikely there has ever been an absence of it–and, if the topic is changed to freedom, I doubt there has ever been the same social freedom for all. Even if there were ever a society in which all other forms of structural inequality were absence, I would still expect structural inequality between adults and children, and it seems overwhelmingly unlikely that there has ever been a society where adults and children have had the same forms of social freedom.


PatinIowa 12.16.21 at 2:38 am

“How many of these scholars do they name?”

One of the things I’m enjoying about the book is that the 84 pages of notes and the 62 page bibliography list a whole slew of names and texts that I’m going to spend some time following up on. You could, if you wanted, count up the writers they disagree with, the ones they agree with, and the ones that serve other purposes.

Two points:

The first is about genre: This is a very large book that makes a very large argument about the whole of human history and before. (After forty years of reading student essays, I find a book title like [Since] “The Dawn of Everything,” hilarious.) The effect for someone who (occasionally) reads specialist literature in anthropology, history, and some other fields is to constantly remind myself that if I were talking to a specialist in Sumerian cities, they’d surely say, “Well, yeah, they’ve got a point about my research, but the specifics are quite a bit more complicated than that.” They’d say the same things about other people who have written very large books with similar ambitions, for example, Pinker, Diamond, and Harari. There’s a scholarly apparatus, but they’re functioning as public intellectuals and writing a different kind of book. That doesn’t exempt them from the usual requirements of argumentation, primarily accuracy and fairness, but their target is a set of facile narratives that make it difficult to imagine any other way to do politics than in a hierarchical society in which the most primary right is property. I don’t know how many specialists in Sumerian urban organization subscribe to those narratives, but I do know that they inhibit creative solutions to anti-democratic myths, everywhere I look. (It’s worth reading Graeber writing explicitly on anarchism as such to work this out.)

Second, there’s a tendency to misunderstand history (and also evolution) that gets in the way of understanding the book on its (to my mind considerable) merits. First, “stable” is a highly politicized and malleable concept. Pretty much every way humans have organized themselves has come into existence and then ceased to exist, just as every species has and will go extinct. The dinosaurs and the Holy Roman Empire were around for a very long time. But guess what? They’re gone. Second, “success” and “failure,” are terms we import onto history (and, alas evolution) for ideological reasons. Imagine, for a moment, that Bhutan really is the place on earth where the local human beings are the happiest. Imagine also that globalization, tourism, climate change and capitalism will end that. It seems to me that one effect of the book is to suggest that we shouldn’t call Bhutanese society a “failure,” as easily as we generally do. Further, we shouldn’t regard our current regime as inevitable and inescapable.

It seems to me that the goal is less to replace one master narrative with another than to to suggest a particular master narrative that constrains us is neither a good nor a plausible story, and we’re better off without it.

Just to be clear: I’m having a hell of a good time. I’m reading this after recording my grades. It’s fun to think with, and that’s enough.


Colin Danby 12.16.21 at 6:55 am

Isn’t it long understood, especially by people who work on this, that “there was no singular ‘hunter-gatherer society'”? I get antsy when people start talking about “dominant narratives” without naming anyone.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.16.21 at 9:25 am

They name a lot of people indeed – I don’t but I don’t think it’s my job :)


Miriam Ronzoni 12.16.21 at 9:29 am

Patinlowa yup, my reaction to the book exactly.


Tm 12.16.21 at 10:45 am

Further conchis 17: ” they did not believe in this evolutionary, progressive, and deterministic parable”

Evolution is almost by definition (insofar as it involves chance, trial and error) not determisistic. As to the “progressive” part, Stephen J. Gould ahs made the point for decades that evolution does not have a telos, progressive narratives of evolution are nothing but human inventions.

back to the claim that the “dominant narrative” of history is a parable of deterministic progress: I don’t dispute that such interpretations of history exist and are influential but there are others that are also influential. Just think of the old debate between Hobbesian and Rousseauvian interpretations, and of course there are others that reject both or take some other position. As I said before, there simply is a wide range of views about these questions, and that is obvious to a layperson like me. So I think the strawmanning charge sticks. I don’t know why scholars like Graeber and Wengrow (and of course they aren’t the only ones) think they have to use this annoying rhetoric to highlight their own contribution.


Tm 12.16.21 at 10:59 am

Pat 31: “It seems to me that one effect of the book is to suggest that we shouldn’t call Bhutanese society a “failure,” as easily as we generally do.”

Do “we” generally call Bhutanese society a failure? I don’t. Do you? If so, why do you think that everybody thinks like that?

Miriam 19: Yes I was referring to Native American societies before and shortly after European contact. Specifically, here’s from an essay by Graeber and Wengrow (

“That indigenous Americans lived in generally free societies, and that Europeans did not, was never really a matter of debate in these exchanges: both sides agreed this was the case.”

And an interesting claim in the next paragraph:
“Most of us simply take it for granted that ‘Western’ observers, even 17th-century ones, are simply an earlier version of ourselves; unlike indigenous Americans, who represent an essentially alien, perhaps even unknowable Other.”

Do “most uf us” take that for granted? I guess some do. There are also some who imagine, often wrongly, that they know a lot about indigenous Americans. And there are many who don’t care either way. Such framing is manipulative and I think the writing would be better without.


Miriam Ronzoni 12.16.21 at 1:51 pm

Yes that is quite close to some of the things they write in the book and which I was going to say something about in Part 2. Yes you are right the phrasing is a lot more “objective” than my impression was in the book, but I guess I still would say it’s not romaniticising. I’l try to say something about this in Part 2, ok?


Glen Tomkins 12.16.21 at 3:26 pm

” “How did we get stuck.” Why did we end up being absolutely convinced that inequality and hierarchy are the inevitable, necessary price to pay for all the goods that social complexity can deliver?”

It’s literacy that did that, get us stuck, prisoners of the dead hand of the past. That and money, but literacy most of all.


Tm 12.16.21 at 3:28 pm

Let’s forget the “romantizicing” bit. I don’t disagree that the native American societies in question were indeed more egalitarian, but then that is consistent with (and in fact often cited as evidence in favor of) the Rousseauvian “narrative” they reject (*). I find that a bit paradoxical.

Meanwhile I read the NYRB review and it makes interesting points, pointing out inconsistencies in Graeber and Wengrow’s framing. It is this framing that I find annoying. Whenever somebedy starts claiming that everybody else is (and has always been) wrong, I’m sensing BS.

(*) It is also important to reject the old imperialist framing of the native societies as “original” and “uncivilized”, they were of course complex civilizations with their own complex histories, but these are outdated racist notions that I would hope no living anthropologist still subscribes to.

Regarding the Native American-French encounter, here’s a book that I find compelling (dating from 1991). It argues that pre contact natives enjoyed relatively high standards of living and it was only the ravages of diseases and war brought by the Europeans (native societies had warfare before but competition for European goods and guns made the death toll much worse) that made Native Americans susceptible to Christianity with its focus on the afterworld. It takes a miserable life to make sense of a religion that promises paradise after death.

Delâge Denys, Le pays renversé. Amérindiens et Européens en Amérique du Nord-Est


Tm 12.16.21 at 4:06 pm

[The last bit in my comment isn’t really related to the present discussion, just came to my mind]


PatinIowa 12.16.21 at 4:06 pm

Tm at 36. I was unclear. Here’s an expanded version.

“… one effect of the book is to suggest that we shouldn’t call societies which have ceased to exist–like the Bhutanese society in the thought experiment I’ve just proposed–“failures” as easily as we do.”

I don’t think Bhutanese society is a failure today. If what I fear happens, and its distinctive virtues are flattened by globalism and capitalism, or “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” I won’t think it’s a failure at that point in the future, either. I think the book claims that the language of “success/failure,” doesn’t fit the historical story they want to tell. I think that’s a useful caution.

I had in mind reason at 10, conchis at 17. I also had in mind any number of people mentioned in the book, for example, Jared Diamond who subtitled a book “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” to rave reviews, wide dissemination, TED talks, documentaries by National Geographic and so on. Nowhere in the book do Graeber/Wengrow claim that “everybody thinks like that,” and I made no such claim. The claim is that too many people think that way, and specifically, too many people who think about politics and how to proceed from where we are think that way.

I take it you disagree. I’d be interested to know 1) if you think there’s any kind of predominant belief about these matters and 2) what you think it is.


Tm 12.17.21 at 1:15 pm

PatinIowa: I would suggest that Bhutanese society is changing, like all societies. I think the framing in terms of success and failure is misplaced. You certainly have a point about Diamond. I found the mostly uncritical rave reviews he got for his books quite off-putting. In my view, an honest review of a non-fiction book done by a competent reviewer cannot ever be only positive, and especially so if it’s one of those books that claim to “revolutionize received wisdom” or “overturn dominant narratives” or whatnot. Of course the media circus loves that kind of discourse.

To your question, I don’t want to venture a speculation about what people “generally” think (it is perhaps easier to answer the question what the experts in the field think, by surveying the literature, and most likely the result will be that there is no single dominant opinion), and I find it off-putting when authors engage in that speculation unless they do have evidence to back it up. My understanding is that Graeber and Wengrow partly agree, partly disagree with a range of authors, who also partly agree and disagree with each other. This doesn’t sound as exciting as the maverick narrative they have strategically crafted for themselves but it seems more realistic.

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