In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber.
The penultimate chapter of Dawn of Everything is called “Full Circle: On the Historical Foundations of the Indigenous Critique.” Our two Davids try to reconstruct events in North America before the Wendat diplomat Kandiaronk was born. As you may recall from early chapters they admire Kandiaronk very much. They accept that French pamphlets printing his critiques of France and Europe are accurate reflections of his views, and they believe these critiques birthed the good parts of the Enlightenment. But this critique “also resulted in a backlash among European thinkers which produced an evolutionary framework for human history that remains broadly intact today.” This framework classifies societies by subsistence. So David+David are frustrated that the subsistence classification leads to the assumption that having taken up agriculture we’re stuck with bureaucracy and hierarchy.
The Chapter explores more ideas by James Scott, who saw grains as “durable, portable, easily divisible, and quantifiable by bulk, and therefore an ideal medium to serve as a basis for taxation” I mentioned Scott in blogs on previous chapters (as did the Davids) and Against the Grain is a much clearer and more concise book than DofE. Scott basically says that states encourage grain production, which is not the same as saying grain production creates states, but Scott’s views are more pessimistic than DofE.
But here is an important, and I think true, point in DofE: “One problem with evolutionism is that it takes ways of life that developed in symbiotic relation with each other and reorganizes them into separate stages of human history.” (p 446) This is worth beating into one’s head. Although the default social grouping of the genus Homo is surely the small foraging band (however much the Davids don’t want this admitted) that does not mean complex bands, pastoral groups, horticultural groups, farming villages, and so on–are a series of steps along an evolutionary ladder or even different mutations that happen in isolation. Humans can move in all kinds of different directions and build all sorts of different political, cultural, social, and economic groupings, and these happen in relationship with other groupings of other humans.
That said, the Davids offer no pedagogy. Teaching introductory anthropology with monographs of books about the Mbuti, Nuer, Yanomamo–books that are vividly written by skilled authors–give students the building blocks for knowledge and thought. Let students read Napoleon Chagnon’s accounts of the Yanomamo and then read criticisms of him and his research. That’s how learning happens. The Davids hate this stuff but offer no alternative.
Another true point is in a different vein: “One of the most puzzling aspects of living in history is that it’s almost impossible to predict the course of future events; yet, once events have happened, it’s difficult to know what it would even mean to say something else ‘could’ have happened.” (p449)
As an example of what could have happened in contrast to events in the Near East, Egypt, and China, the Davids try to reconstruct the middle of the North American continent befyore the arrival of Europeans. Starting on page 452 the Davids describe Cahokia, the Hopewell Culture, and supposed descendants such as the Osage. They tell a likely tale of the rise of oppressive political forces in many places throughout North America and how these were seemingly overthrown, and how this may have left (particularly among the Osage) a strong opposition to oppressive political power. The Davids imagine some vestige of these sorts of events forming the basis for Kandiaronk’s wisdom. The chapter ends with interesting stories about the Iroquois, including how a certain woman named Jigonsaseh organized successful resistance to a French army. I won’t try to do it justice by summarizing 30 pages of attempted reconstruction, and Cahokia and Hopewell fascinating, even if they way the Davids present it all left me not quite remembering who was who. But if things didn’t happen as the Davids believe in North America, I’m believe this was the kind of thing that happens again and again all over the world.
To me this raises interesting questions. How do the elites of putative states manage to compel participation at all? After all, at times ceremonial centers in America became densely inhabited towns. Scott in the old world could imagine geography as a restraining force but the lower population density of the Americas made escape from tyranny even easier, so how did this stuff work? The Davids have their ideas of types of power (war, knowledge, competition) but how do these work in practice? What was it like to live in such a place–a cult, a pirate camp, an American high school? This left me more more curious about the glue that holds humans together. But the Davids aren’t less interested in how humans come together than in why we today think what we think. They conclude a triumphalist note of: “Not only did indigenous North Americans manage almost entirely to sidestep the evolutionary trap that we assume must always lead, eventually, from agriculture to the rise of some all-powerful state or empire; but in doing so they developed political sensibilities that were ultimately to have a deep influence on Enlightenment thinkers and, through them, are still with us today.”
But if the Iroquois could independently arrive at the notion that an oppressive government should be overthrown why can’t people everywhere? The tale of Cahokia reminds me of the late Bronze Age cities in Greece when the elites seem to have been eliminated and their palaces destroyed, but the people went right on living afterward as if they’d had enough of the bosses and decided they didn’t need them. It’s odd, this notion that we need Rousseau or Kandiaronk or the Davids to ideologically critique the world when we could instead just govern ourselves and learn as we go. But I’ll hold my tongue for the final chapter!