The Dawn of Everything: A New History of So-Called Civilization

The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber ...

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

By David Graeber and David Wengrow

Penguin Randomhouse UK (2021)

Book Review

One of the most amazing books I’ve ever read, The Dawn of Everything was completed just three weeks before Graeber’s untimely death in September 2020. According to Wengrow’s introduction, its primary goal is to dispel the prevailing mythology that rigid hierarchical, patriarchal and bureaucratic government is inevitable in a society consisting of large technologically advanced cities.

Presenting massive amounts of archeological and historical evidence, Graeber (an anthropologist) and Wengrow (an archeologist) contend that up to 500 years ago, egalitarian, self-governing societies were the default form of governance for most of the last 40,000 years.

For me the most interesting evidence comes from early accounts of French missionaries interacting with indigenous societies belonging to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy in northeast North America, as well as indigenous commentators themselves.* I am left with absolutely no doubt that these commentaries were the main influence behind the new ideals of “freedom” and “equality” presently attributed to the 17th century (European) Enlightenment.

As Graeber and Wengrow make clear, most pre-Columbian American cultures had a far more developed political self-consciousness than than their European counterparts. This related in large part to their near daily participation in egalitarian governance councils. It also related in part to their direct or or indirect experience with towns or cities governed by tyrannical chiefs or kings. Those with ancestors who had overthrown or walked away from these hierarchical settlements** were exquisitely conscious of the deliberate precautions needed to prevent a recurrence of this of hierarchical form of dominance.

The authors cite numerous other prehistoric cities that were allowed to collapse when their residents rejected dictatorial rule. In fact, they estimate human beings have spent the last 40,000 years building up hierarchical forms of government and subsequently dismantling them. The book includes evidence from Japan, China, pre-Pharaonic Egypt, Sumer, Assyria and medieval Europe (with its incessant peasant revolts),

I was also fascinating by the section on the origin of patriarchy. The Dawn of Everything offers a new interpretation for the naked female figurines (commonly believe to be religious fertility symbols) found across Eurasia from around 7000-3500 BC.

'The Venus of Willendorf, Side View of Female Figurine ...

The authors believe the figurines were crafted to honor senior women as co-creators of a distinct form of egalitarian society. Archeological evidence from  Çatalhöyük (in modern day Turkey) indicates that long before grains were used for food, women were harvesting  wild grasses to mix with clay to build homes and ovens, as well as for baskets and clothing.Their intimate knowledge of wild grains would lead women to first cultivate and then domesticate them as wheat and barley, as they went on to develop a range of food technologies, including the use of yeast to produce bread and beer.

Graeber and Wengrow hypothesize the figurines were a self-conscious effort to honor female wisdom, in contrast to the nearby upland society of Göbekli Tepe. The latter was a heroic warrior society, emphasizing male domination and conquest of weaker egalitarian societies for resources and slaves.***

Beginning around 5000 BC, egalitarian communities throughout Eurasia began to be overrun by “heroic” cattle keeping warriors who established themselves as a ruling elite and radically subordinated women.

Matriarchal societies (in which women controlled key stockpiles of food, clothing and tools) persisted in Wendat societies, in the pueblo Hopi and Zuni nations, the Minoan civilization of Crete and the Minangkabau (Muslim people of Sumatra).

*The most famous indigenous commentator was the Wendat (Huron) chief Kandiaronk, who visited Europe and had major influence on the Enlightenment philosophers Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Locke, among others. Kandiaronk viewed indigenous societies as far wealthier and more advanced than French society because they were “free of the expectation of constant toil in pursuit of land and wealth.” In his view although the Wendat possessed fewer material goods, they possessed the more valuable assets of “ease, comfort and time (people typically worked 2-4 hours a day in foraging and horticultural societies – even medieval serfs rarely worked more than 6 hours a day).” He viewed French commoners as little more than slaves in constant fear of their superiors. It was also his view that the European-style punitive legal system encouraged selfish and acquisitive behavior. Moreover it was unthinkable to allow any member of Wendat society to starve or become destitute.

**Examples of hierarchical settlements in the New World that were overthrown or allowed to collapse (by residents simply walking away) included Cahokia and other Mississippian kingdoms, Teotihacan, the Great Plains nations (who abandoned farming for hunting after domesticating escaped Spanish horses) and various settlements of the Inuit, the Crow and a number Amazonian tribes.

***Using the slave-owing Nambikwara culture (on northwest coast of North America) as an example, the authors hypothesize that the elites of hierarchical societies sought to capture “foreign” slaves when they couldn’t compel commoners in their own societies to undertake labor intensive work.

The Inherent Right to Rebel

The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf

J A Scott

MW Books (1988)

Book Review

Babeuf’s speech available free on line at: Defense Speech

Babeuf was a whistleblower under Louis XVI, who in 1782 exposed corruption in the tax system imposed by the French aristocracy. He spent the years immediately preceding the French revolution (1789) either in hiding or in jail. On learning the Bastille had fallen, he joined the revolutionary struggle. In addition to launching a newspaper, he circulated numerous pamphlets and petitions calling for the abolition of private property and an end to the private expropriation of the commons and the division of society into exploited and exploiting classes.

In September 1792, he was elected to the revolutionary government, only to be arrested in 1795 by the counter-revolutionary forces that overthrew Robespierre. He was charged and found guilty of advocating for the re-establishment of the Constitution of 1793.

The book is the verbatim defense Babeuf presented to the court that sentenced him to death. He cites the writings of Plato, Sir Thomas Moore, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau, Diderot and other Enlightenment thinkers to argue that human beings have a natural right to rebel against political and economic injustice and that violence, poverty and war all have their roots in the concept of private property.

He further argues that the natural function of society and social institutions is to protect the weak against the tyranny of the strong (whereas in reality they do the opposite). He contends that the 1789 revolution wasn’t complete because it allowed the wealth to continue to control all social power and government. He also (correctly) claimed that the election adopting the 1795 constitution was rigged and thus failed to represent the true will of the people.

For me the significance of Babeuf’s courtroom oration (which predated Marx by more than 60 years) was the surprising realization that Marx wasn’t the first to argue against the argue against the damage wealth inequality wreaks on society. It’s easy to forget that Karl Marx was but one of a long line of thinkers (which includes Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith) who advocated against class exploitation.