I’m reading The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber and blogging as I go.
I know nothing of David Wengrow but I’ve read several (most?) of David Graeber’s books: Debt: The First 500 Years, Bullsh*t Jobs, The Utopia of Rules, and The Democracy Project. Debt was a best-seller. He was an anthropologist (recently dead) who first worked with peasant farmers in Madagascar. Outside of his academic job he was an anarchist involved in organizing the Occupy protest in NYC.
Chapter 1: Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood
“Most of human history is irreparably lost to us.” So begins page 1 of TDOE. The word history has come usually to mean the past, but the word originally meant writing about the past with the research and organization incumbent on that writing. Before writing there was no history, only prehistory. We already have the word past, so not much advantage in making history mean the same thing. Most of the human past is lost to us.
“Our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for at least 200,000 years…” For the radicals they portray themselves as being I’m disappointed the flagpole this dates. One could write instead, “Our genus, Homo, has existed for at least 2 million years…” I doubt Homo sapiens are really different from earlier members of our genus.
“Essentially the question is: are humans innately good or innately evil?” Here the 2 Davids get into the irritating habit of most academics writing even when it strives to reach the general public (and there were shades of this in most of Graeber’s books). We the reader are subjected to a critique of what some sort of general ‘we’ think followed by the reveal of why it’s wrong. If what ‘we’ think is wrong, why spend time on it? Inevitably the ‘What We Think’ turns out to be the proof of ‘Who Am Us Anyway’ which in turn rests on the assumption that we think what we think because of the legacy of being pioneers or Christians or some subsect of Christians or because of some particular heinous European philosopher.
“Today the popular version of this story is typically some updated variation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind…” By popular version and typically and updated variation D+D mean the people they’re speaking of haven’t read this book, and D+D haven’t read this book either, yet they’re going to subject us to a long discourse on it!
Again, why do books like this always seem to start with spending time on material they don’t like and the reader could read if they wanted to?
So you really want to know what makes grass green and you bought this book to tell you? It’s a fascinating story. For many centuries people had wrong ideas about this that we’ll start by telling you about, even though these ideas are wrong.
“Hobbes’s Leviathon, published in 1651, is in many ways the founding text of modern political theory…” In many ways here means actually isn’t but is a good symbol for our rhetorical purposes. I know Hobbes a lot better than Rousseau, well enough to know that (a) the next few paragraphs are going to be garbage, because (b) D+D have probably not read much Hobbes. And why should they?
Again, let’s get to the stuff you care about and actually believe in! Why does the reader need another straw man account of centuries-old philosophers?
“As the reader can probably detect from our tone, we don’t much like the choice between these two alternatives.” A choice entirely of your invention.
“This book is an attempt to being to tell another, more hopeful and more interesting story…” Hallelujah! The book is actually about to begin!
“Information bearing on such issues has been pouring in from every quarter of the globe.” Yes, please!
“To make that [conceptual] shift means retracing some of the initial steps that led to our modern notion of social evolution…” Ugh. Here we go again. “Our” modern notion. This would work if D or D (or both) would share how their own personal opinions changed, but I’m not convinced they think the ‘we’ even includes them. How dare you Davids assume we all think the same?
“Indigenous critique.” This is an interesting that I’m looking forward to hearing about.
WHY BOTH THE HOBBESIAN AND ROUSSEAUIAN VERSIONS
Ugh. Maybe because there’s really no such thing as a Hobbesian or Rousseauian version of anything? But give points for the SIX vowels side by side in the tail end of ‘Rousseauian’. That has to be a record in English.
“The term ‘inequality’ is itself very telling…” Good stuff. D+D go into why inequality is a poor way to look at modern economic problems. When one is so used to hearing socialist critiques of the economy, anarchist critiques can be very refreshing. So the problem with the economy is rich people have been using their power since the 1980s in various nefarious, damaging ways through various bureaucratic instruments. During this time the rich have increased their share of the wealth–which means on paper the inequality has increased. Taxing the hell out of them would decrease the power that they are misusing–and decrease inequality. But it isn’t the abstract inequality itself that’s destroying everything, it’s the policies of the powerful and their bureaucratic minions. Talking of inequality and fixing inequality actually could reinforce the bureaucratic instruments that keep the rich rich. This sort of idea is why Graeber is worth reading despite his laziness and hacktitude. All his books have interesting ideas about how the world works.
“The ultimate effect of all these stories about an original state of innocence and equality… is to make wistful pessimism about the human condition seem like common sense.” Anarchists are quite right in that even the rest of us who believe in equality do believe that it’s harder as you get larger political units. We’ll see if D+D can come through with their counterclaims.
SOME BRIEF EXAMPLES OF WHY RECEIVED UNDERSTANDINGS… ARE MOSTLY WRONG
UGH. Please D+D, spend more time explaining to me why ‘we’ shouldn’t believe what neither you nor I believed anyway.
There’s some scorn of a Jared Diamond claim that large groups end up with hierarchies. Not scientific apparently. But we the reader must wait for the claim to be disproved. Hey, it’s only chapter 1.
ON THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
“As we say, it’s all just an endless repetition of a story first told by Rousseau…” Which could describe much of this chapter. I begin to see why this book is 600+ pages long.
More Hobbes. “He wasn’t saying there had actually been a time when everyone lived…” Nice of Dx2 to admit this.
I wonder where Locke is.
Steven Pinker! Pinker wrote a good book, The Language Instinct, the success of which encouraged him to write lots of mediocre books.
Pinker DD identify as Hobbesian (which would shock Pinker although when it comes to strawman tactics Pinker takes the cake with his SSSM which is short for ‘Standard Social Science Model’, Pinker’s strawman version of all the social science the conclusions of which he disagrees).
Pinker claims the prehistoric folks were especially violent. D2 spend a couple of paragraphs showing why this is doubtful.
Yanomami! I read a monograph on the Yanomamo written by Napoleon Chagnon in my freshman introductory anthro course. Fascinating stuff. They are often used as an example of stone-age hunter-gatherers even though they are village-dwelling horticulturalists who use lots of trade-goods and live in rainforests. (Humans began in grasslands and only ventured into the raintforest with the invention of the bow and arrow.)
Professional gossip about Chagnon. Why D+D, why?
“The important point here is that, as a ‘non-state’ people, the Yanomami are supposed to exemplify what Pinker calls the ‘Hobbesian trap’…” Important point to whom? Supposed to exemplify to whom? Are we still talking about Pinker?
Oh yes we are. For pages.
Pinker’s Choice. A great point on page 18. D+D describe who over the last several centuries when individuals have found themselves in a position to choose between living in ‘primitive’ societies and ‘civilized’ societies’ they almost always end up choosing the primitive. D+D provide several examples of this from different times and places. It’s a rich subject and one I’d love to read more on. I recall some examples that mostly confirm their point. This is why we read anarchists!
HOW THE CONVENTIONAL NARRATIVE BLAH BLAH BLAH IS DULL
Again to spend so much time on material you consider dull in the first chapter of your book is a bad choice. But here’s more of it!
Adam Smith. D+D go into what deconstructing Smith’s (or Smithlike moderns?) ‘primitive trade.’
Bronislaw Malinowski. Finally pretty far into the first chapter they cite an author whose work they seem to approve of. Malinowski describes trade in shells and decorative goods in islands off of Papua New Guinea. This reminds me that I’d love to read more about the valley in New Guinea explored in mid-century and the various people living there. But the point of the trade was it was about creating mutual networks more than profit. This is true, and discussed in Debt and by other authors elsewhere.
That’s where I’ll stop today. Have to get ready to go pick up my daughter from camp. I’ll edit this and finish the first chapter next.
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