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3 November 2021updated 04 Nov 2021 5:48pm

How fear makes us human

The late David Graeber’s history of early human societies presents civilisation as a descent from anarchy into servility. But was man ever free?

By John Gray

How did we get stuck? According to the late David Graeber and his co-author David Wengrow, this is the most important question that can be asked about human history. For “the vast majority of human social experience”, we enjoyed “three primordial freedoms”: “the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey and the freedom to create or transform social relationships”. Early human societies were not without what we today would describe as inequalities, but they lacked the structures of domination that go with hierarchical government. Humankind lived in a peaceful anarchy.

Then something went “terribly wrong”:

It’s clear that something about human societies has really changed here, and quite profoundly. The three basic freedoms have gradually receded, to the point where a majority of people living today can barely comprehend what it would be like to live in a social order based on them. How did it happen? How did we get stuck? And just how stuck are we really?

The authors’ questions come not only from their scholarly endeavours – Graeber’s as a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE), Wengrow’s as professor of comparative archaeology at University College London – but also from Graeber’s personal history as an activist.

An anarchist since his teens, Graeber was a prominent figure in Occupy Wall Street in 2011. His academic work and political activism were closely linked, which may explain some of the problems he encountered in his career. Born into a working-class family in New York City in 1961, educated at Phillips Academy Andover and pursuing his doctoral work at the University of Chicago, he taught at Yale between 1998 and 2005. Despite strong support from students and leading figures in his field, he was denied the opportunity to apply for tenure and was unable to find another academic position in the US. Fortunately, British universities were not so petty-minded. In 2008 he joined Goldsmiths College in London, and in 2013 became a professor at LSE.

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Graeber’s works show him challenging both the intellectual consensus in his profession and the political consequences he believed followed from it. In 2004 he published a short book, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, a prelude to the new, more systematic Dawn of Everything, which he co-authored with Wengrow over a period of ten years. Other books included Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009), the widely acclaimed Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018). Graeber died suddenly of necrotic pancreatitis in September 2020. His untimely passing robbed us of a gifted and original thinker.

The authors tell us that much of the Dawn of Everything can be read as a response to the 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind they believe has misled social theorists ever since it was written in 1754. A parallel thinker haunting them is Thomas Hobbes, whose celebrated declaration in Leviathan (1651) that life in a “state of nature” was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” they find particularly offensive. Hobbes and Rousseau go together in that the repressive institutions against which the latter rebelled were for Hobbes the preconditions of civilised life. For Graeber and Wengrow, both Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s theories of the origins of civil society and the state should be rejected because the accounts they give of early human history “simply aren’t true”, “have dire political implications” and “make the past needlessly dull”.

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It is worth noting the strangeness of the authors’ condemnation of Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s theories on the grounds that the theories are “dire” and “dull”. If they can be shown to be false, that should be the end of the matter. The truth about human history doesn’t have to be inspirational, or exciting. It is what it is. What follows from it is another question altogether.

Ironically, in one crucial respect, the authors’ new history of humanity sounds similar to Rousseau’s story of the origins of social inequality, which has been accepted by many who have never read a word of his writings. In Rousseau’s account, humans lived for most of their history in small egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then they became farmers, private property emerged, human numbers grew, cities were founded and civilisation developed, along with inequality and political domination.

Graeber and Wengrow contest Rousseau’s story at several points. Humans did not spend most of their history in small bands; agriculture was not an irreversible phase in social evolution; and the first cities were at times strongly egalitarian. Early human beings experimented with many different patterns of social organisation. Contrary to Rousseau, there was no “original form” of society.

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The 18th-century philosopher believed that as human beings became more civilised they lost contact with their own nature, and began to emulate each other. For Rousseau, this was the original human sin –the flaw from which all the defects of society followed. In this view, as in that of Hobbes, humans first lived in a pre-social condition, then fell into the conflicts that make up so much of history. Graeber and Wengrow, on the other hand, believe there never was such a pre-social state of nature. Humans are quintessentially social beings. But in that case, why did they give up what the authors view as their primordial freedoms?

As Graeber and Wengrow show in a survey ranging from ancient Egypt to the near East, India and China, but focusing particularly on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, there was an enormous variety of social experiments. Some communities had different forms of governance depending on the time of the year – more tightly organised during the hunting season, otherwise highly decentralised. Some kept slaves, others did not. Foragers might not be small bands but far-flung networks. There were many kinds of archaic society, changing along with human needs and circumstances, but all of them lacked the enduring hierarchies of states.

At this point the irony of Graeber and Wengrow’s “new history” becomes evident. Though the authors argue convincingly that Rousseau’s sequential account of early societies is mistaken, they retain – and even accentuate – his story of civilisation as a fall from a condition of primordial grace. Having rejected Rousseau’s account, they need an explanation of their own for what they regard as humanity’s descent into servility, but it never appears. A few pages before the end of this bold and thought-stirring book, they are still asking: “If stateless societies do regularly organise themselves in such a way that chiefs have no coercive power, then how did top-down forms of organisation ever come into the world to begin with?”

Summing up their view of history, it seems to them “even more tragic” than Rousseau’s:

It means we could have been living under radically different conceptions of what human society is actually about. It means that mass enslavement, genocide, prison camps, even patriarchy or regimes of wage labour never had to happen. But on the other hand it also suggests that, even now, the possibilities of human intervention are far greater than we’re inclined to think.

In other words, history – the short part of it that has been chronicled by conventional historians, at any rate – was a gigantic mistake. Human beings are natural anarchists, but for the last few thousand years most have lived in servitude. In 21st-century social movements, humankind is on the brink of rediscovering the most fundamental freedom: “The freedom to create new and different forms of social reality.” This, the authors seem convinced, is the inescapable implication of their revisionist history of our species.

The authors tell us the primordial freedoms “tend to be taken for granted by anyone who has not been specifically trained into obedience (as anyone reading this book, for instance, is likely to have been)”. Here they write with patronising disdain for those they propose to liberate – the downtrodden and wretched of the Earth – that is characteristic of radical theorists. The mass of humankind, however, are not whippets: they understand, better than ideological visionaries, the conflicting needs that shape freedom in the complex and often contradictory world in which they live.

A feature of this new history is that, just like Rousseau’s history of inequality, much of it is highly conjectural. The authors admit this: “Most of human history is irreparably lost to us. Our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for at least 200,000 years, but for most of that time we have next to no idea what was happening.” But if history contains so many blank pages, how can they be so sure that human beings are natural anarchists?

A piece of contrary evidence the authors ignore concerns the cross-cultural emergence of Hobbes-like philosophies. Reading their book, you would infer that Hobbesian thinking was a peculiar deformation of the Western mind. But the Chinese legalist Han Fei articulated similar ideas some 2,000 years earlier, and around the same time Kautilya, the Indian author of the Arthashastra, developed an analogous theory of political realism. These writings suggest that the political issues Hobbes addressed – human nature, freedom, war, security, power and the state – were not confined to early modern Western societies plagued by “possessive individualism”, as the Marxist scholar CB Macpherson claimed in a once influential study in 1962, which Graeber and Wengrow enthusiastically cite.

Hobbes believed that human beings are possessed by “a perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death”. But this desire is not driven by an impulse to accumulate property, as Graeber and Wengrow assert, or principally by egoism, as Hobbes himself sometimes suggested. Whatever impulses they are driven by – the danger of violent death, an attempt to preserve a way of life or a need to control natural resources – humans struggle for power in order to protect themselves from other human beings. Fear, not rapacity, is the true Hobbesian passion.

This Hobbesian imperative helps explain the failure of modern attempts to create societies without states. Many political projects have been more harmful than anarchism. Few are as reliably ineffectual. The deadliest enemies of anarchists have not been the tyrannies against which they revolted. If revolutions so often result in regimes that are more repressive than the ones that have been overthrown, one large reason why is the no-holds-barred struggle for power that has typically ensued between rival revolutionary movements.

Anarchist movements became large-scale political forces only twice in the 20th century, and in both cases they were obliterated. By the early 1920s, the anarchist Black armies in Russia had been liquidated and their commanders executed by the Bolsheviks after they assisted the Red Army in crushing the counter-revolutionary Whites. In the Spanish Civil War, anarchist militias were marginalised and then absorbed by regular military units controlled from Soviet Russia. Attempts at creating stateless societies have been regularly defeated by better organised and more ruthless revolutionary forces acting like states.

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When a stateless zone comes into being, its survival is contingent on the states that surround it. This is the case in the autonomous region of Rojava in Kurdish northern Syria, which Graeber visited in 2014, and which he pronounced a practical experiment in anarchism. (The zone’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan has acknowledged the influence of Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), the American theorist of “post-scarcity anarchism”, so there is some basis for Graeber’s view.) Rojava’s future depends on Turkey, Iraq, Bashar al- Assad’s Syria and the Kurdistan Regional Government, and on the US – still an active presence in the region. Awkwardly, given the ecological demands of Bookchin’s anarchism, fossil fuels are the zone’s chief asset.

It is not difficult to predict how the Rojava experiment will end. In any conflict over the oilfields, Rojava will have to respond by becoming more like a state, forming alliances with others in the region, or else it will disappear. Either way, Rojava is enmeshed in inescapable geopolitical struggles. There is no room for a zone of peaceful anarchy in a world of warring states.

Possibly because the movement had no definite objectives, the autonomous zone created by Occupy Wall Street did not fail but simply faded away. The zones that have emerged more recently in American cities follow a different trajectory. Their immediate goal has been defunding the police, and it has proved to be an objective that is at least partly achievable. In practice, it is an extension of the neoliberal programme of privatising the state. Police forces do not vanish, they become security companies serving those who can afford them. The rest are left to fend for themselves, and make whatever accommodation they can with organised crime and gang rule.

At times Graeber and Wengrow come close to the neoliberal view of recent history. They note with apparent approval that

there are now planetary bureaucracies (public and private, ranging from the IMF and WTO to JP Morgan Chase and various credit-rating agencies)… everything from cryptocurrencies to private security agencies, undermining the sovereignty of states.

But history is running in the opposite direction. Sovereign states are reinstating territorial borders, curbing global trade for the sake of security in supply chains and taking control of cryptocurrencies. These trends may have been accelerated by the pandemic, but an increase in state intervention goes back to 2007-08, when governments propped up the world economy to prevent a global financial collapse.

Graeber and Wengrow share with neoliberals a marked hostility to the welfare state, which they dismiss as undermining working-class self-help. They ignore the benefits welfare states brought ordinary people: freedom from relying on a patchwork of charity and insurance for protection against sickness, for example. Human freedom is complicated. The NHS emerged from a world war, fought by a then strong British state. Many evils have come with states, but also some vitally necessary goods. Oddly enough, this is why human beings are willing to be ruled by them.

The authors deplore the “tawdry, shop-worn and politically disastrous” myths that rule our thinking about the past and future. They are persuasive in arguing that early human societies were much more varied, and at times more experimental, than has been commonly supposed. Yet what Graeber and Wengrow have done is to re-embellish a familiar myth propagated by Rousseau and his many unwitting disciples: the belief that humankind has been “stuck” throughout much of its history. There is no reason to believe an original condition of freedom and grace ever existed. We are where we have always been, making the best of our difficulties and somehow getting by.

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life” (Allen Lane)

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
David Graeber and David Wengrow
Allen Lane, 704pp, £30.00

This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained