Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Book Reviews

There Are Thousands of Other Ways

Graeber was always trying to prove that no society is inevitable.

Jackson Arn

Mural at Teotihuacán, near Mexico City, third century; Ivan Vdovin/Alamy Stock Photo.

I miss David Graeber’s voice. I miss the drawl, the erudite squawk, the excited quaver as he chopped conventional wisdom into tiny pieces. It was the voice of a man who spoke authoritatively but distrusted authority. In 2006, shortly after the Yale anthropology department denied him tenure, he appeared on Charlie Rose, looking cheerfully puzzled. Why, Rose asked him, would the university pass on someone so talented? “I was never disrespectful to people,” Graeber replied, “but I didn’t cower. This is one reason I’m an anarchist.” For the rest of the interview, Rose tried to find some flaw in his guest’s politics. Graeber parried his questions almost without trying, giggling at the absurdity of explaining anarchism to a multimillionaire. “Obviously,” Rose concluded, “you can see that I have no future in philosophy or anthropology.”

In September 2020, Graeber died of pancreatitis. It’s customary, when a major thinker dies too soon, to mourn both the thinker and the big ideas left unthought. Graeber was fifty-nine years old and seemed not to think big ideas so much as exude them. A natural talker whose frank love of education is apparent in the hours of lectures and interviews he left on YouTube, he was also a gifted labor activist. The loss is incalculable. But I take some comfort in rewatching Graeber’s Charlie Rose appearance and reminding myself that he was the one-in-a-million intellectual who always seemed to be enjoying himself.

He believed in enjoying himself the way other intellectuals believe in liberty or truth. As he argued in “What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun?,” one of the several inspired essays he contributed to The Baffler, contemporary economics assumes that the purpose of life is to maximize utility (although what, precisely, “utility” means, nobody agrees on). Fun is the exception that makes nonsense of this dreary rule. Fun doesn’t need to be converted back into utility to make sense. It exists for its own sake. Everyone seems to understand this, except the economists who think they run the world. So “why,” Graeber wondered, “does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious?”

Graeber’s books proceed in much the same manner. A seemingly obvious idea (human beings are fundamentally self-interested; everybody must pay their debts; most work is useful) is first poked at and then gleefully pulled apart. Graeber wrote the way he talked, and even his longest book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, mostly written between Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, has a breezy, conversational air. Common sense—a.k.a., the glob of middle-class taboos and white-collar cant—is always a target. Solutions are offered but rarely leaned on. In an era when even radical leftists felt the need to admit the supremacy of capitalism, Graeber was always trying to prove that no society is inevitable. “I’m interested in anthropology,” he said, “because I’m interested in human possibilities.”

Graeber’s final book, The Dawn of Everything, completed a few weeks before his death and coauthored with the archaeologist David Wengrow, is a hodgepodge of possibilities. The target, this time around, is a sinister strain of common sense that has been fouling Homo sapiens’s view of itself for at least the last few centuries. It goes something like this: The bigger and more technologically advanced a group gets, the less egalitarian and the more rigidly hierarchical it becomes. Human history is a series of stages that begins with small, primitive bands of hunter-gatherers, continues with the invention of agriculture and the emergence of cities, and concludes, millennia later, with the entrenchment of social hierarchies. Each stage follows from the previous one with sleek mathematical certainty, and once a stage begins, you can no more return to an earlier one than recover a cup of coffee after pouring it in the ocean.

All the leading scribblers of pop prehistory, from Jared Diamond to Yuval Noah Harari, are convinced of the veracity of this linear interpretation. Even the boldest opponents of capitalist inequality are likely to admit that some hierarchy is to be expected in a society as complex as ours. But any political truism that inspires such consensus should be treated with suspicion; the most extraordinary thing about this particular truism is that there’s no proof that it’s actually true, and plenty of evidence—526 pages’ worth, to be exact—that it’s false.

The idea that our status quo is a product of inevitable historical forces is, Graeber and Wengrow demonstrate, a product of historical forces itself—although not inevitable ones. The first several chapters of The Dawn of Everything are largely about these forces and how they arose from the intellectual friction between Europeans and Native Americans in the early modern era. It was a lively time for the exchange of ideas about politics, religion, and philosophy, and Europeans were receivers at least as often as givers. Jesuits recoiled from Native American societies—egalitarianism! gender equality! democracy!—with a disgust that barely disguised their fascination.

The legacy of Europe’s fascination and disgust with the New World was twofold: first, the rise of what are often misleadingly called Enlightenment values, in many cases overtly cribbed from Native American society (to give a single example, the Sons of Liberty dressed as Mohawks during the Boston Tea Party in homage to what they considered the most democratic American tribe); second, the notion that societal progress requires the sacrifice of some of those very values.

Graeber and Wengrow have fun demolishing these ideas. And they deserve to be demolished. But the fun fades fast when you realize that Western superstitions about societal advancement have not significantly advanced over the last three centuries. If anything, they’ve gotten more pervasive. For Jared Diamond in the twenty-first century, no less than for Rousseau in the eighteenth, agriculture marks the key difference between primitive people who can afford to be egalitarian and civilized people who can’t. Once you start pushing a plow, the myth goes, you’ve begun a downward spiral that won’t be complete until CEOs can buy elections and wage slaves spend their lives filling out forms. Traces of this myth can be found everywhere, even in sober-sounding phrases like “the Agricultural Revolution,” “the spread of agriculture,” and “the dawn of agriculture.”

Agriculture had no dawn. It wasn’t an overnight game-changer, like the light bulb or the telephone. The earliest evidence of agriculture is about 12,000 years old; for the following millennia, Neolithic societies flirted with farming without committing to it. Others tried it out for several centuries before returning to hunting and gathering. Others embraced it, but only for a few months of the year. Agriculture was no revolution—it was one human possibility among many.

Even when societies embraced year-round agriculture, they didn’t immediately open the Pandora’s box of miseries that Rousseau & Co. have taught us to expect. Much of the time, miseries indeed ensued—but not always, and for Graeber and Wengrow, that’s good enough. The bulk of The Dawn of Everything is devoted to the exceptions: the cases in which egalitarianism thrived in large, technologically advanced societies. Beginning around 300 AD, the Mexican city of Teotihuacan had a population of more than 100,000, no central temple, and little to no apparent class stratification, just endless sprawling villas. “Surprisingly few” early cities, Graeber and Wengrow suggest—whether in the Western or Eastern Hemisphere—“contain signs of authoritarian rule.”

The question, as always with Graeber, is not “How could this be the case?” but rather, “Why does this strike us as mysterious?” His final book is fascinating, if still difficult to keep straight, although I suspect that the difficulty is somewhat intentional. Nothing unites the dozens of dazzling case studies other than the fact that they’re exceptions—which makes The Dawn of Everything a welcome alternative to the pompous oversimplifications one finds in most histories of our species. Whether they intended to or not, however, Graeber and Wengrow have demonstrated why myths about history prove so resilient. Oversimplifications are simple. Oversimplifications are comforting. It’s easier to accept the inevitability of capitalism (or, with equal facility, a global Marxist uprising) than it is to suggest that some alternative might be possible.

I have yet to read a review of The Dawn of Everything that doesn’t praise the authors for the casual brilliance of their analysis or complain about their lack of definite conclusions. In a way, the complaints are a mirror image of the praise: If it’s all so very clear and easy, if our myths are so self-evidently wrong and the alternatives so abundant, then why are we still stuck with them? It is telling how many times the word “tinker” appears in these pages, usually with negative connotations, but sometimes positive. Tinkering can be the kind of shallow, pointless work so assiduously performed by technocrats because they’re powerless to bring about structural change. Yet tinkering can also be a way for curious people to experiment with a range of possibilities and discover something new. In this sense, it’s a form of fun, indifferent to bottom-line utility, which means it’s also a form of freedom. As you make your way through this book, the structural solutions to society’s ills are always just around the corner, a few vivid examples or potshots at Jared Diamond away. Graeber and Wengrow are tinkerers of a sort, but which sort of tinkering they’re up to isn’t always clear.

Their one undeniable achievement, it seems to me, is to show what a dangerous tool common sense can be. As more than a few people have pointed out lately, no government in the history of the world—not even Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany—has ever had anywhere near the force needed to repress all of its people at once. States have always depended on their people to repress themselves. When most people—most anthropologists, even—deny that we can have iPhones and equal freedom at the same time, the chances of revolutionary change dwindle to zero, and glib cynicism becomes the new wisdom. “The moral basis of a society,” John Lanchester has written, “its sense of its own ethical identity, can’t just be: ‘This is the way the world is, deal with it.’” The Dawn of Everything says, in essence, “This isn’t the way the world has to be. There are literally thousands of other ways.” It’s high time we give some a try.