Okay, I have now completed my reading of Graeber and Wengrow and in this first of several long posts I will try to pull together my thoughts on the book and summarize what I learned from it. Let me begin by making several things very clear. First of all, I am not trying to persuade anybody to read the book. God knows the world is full of good books so if you are not interested, just move along. Second, I assume it is clear that I have absolutely no professional competence to judge the accuracy of anything said in this book. In my long life, which in four weeks will encompass 88 years, I have not spent a single day doing anthropological or archaeological research (except for the time when Susie and I were visiting an ancient site in South Africa that had been excavated and, seeing a very small stone arrowhead – a microlith as I believe it would be called – half sticking out of the wall of the cave, I surreptitiously plucked it and stuck it in my pocket, thereby presumably violating all manner of laws.) So why am I writing about the book? The answer is simple: reading it was fun, just about the most fun I have had reading a book in a very long time, and I want to talk about it.
Like all really good long apparently complicated books, this one is at base fundamentally rather simple. As I see it, the authors have mobilized an enormous amount of anthropological and archaeological research in support of three fundamental claims. The first claim is that the standard story, about the pattern or course of development that led human beings from their earliest origins to a modern world dominated by national states, is wrong. The second claim is that contrary to the explicit or implied supposition in historical, anthropological, and archaeological writings that so-called “primitive” peoples were by and large unreflectively determined in their development by the more or less inevitable consequences of the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, the evidence shows that everywhere we look we find people 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, 5,000 years ago, even more than that, thinking about, reflecting on, making choices with regard to how they lived, how they responded to the possibility of agriculture, whether they chose to develop state institutions or deliberately chose to reject that possibility, and in general exhibiting a degree of intelligent self-awareness about their situation that even sympathetic authors have tended to deny them. The third claim, based on these first two, is that even now, living as we do, we have more choices than we imagine and are not compelled by history, by economics, or by institutional structures simply to go on living as we have been living.
Before I begin talking about each of these ideas, let me just say that I think the authors were wrong to start out talking about Rousseau and then to end up talking about Rousseau and Montesquieu. What they say about these two authors really has nothing at all to do with the rest of their book and since what they say is in some ways clearly wrong, it has given reviewers who only know about Rousseau and such a hook on which to hang negative critiques. I was very favorably impressed both by the liveliness and charm of the exposition and by the authors’ rather winning openness about the scantiness of the archaeological or anthropological record and the necessity therefore to make a series of guesses and leaps. The book is full of qualifying phrases, hedges, and admissions of uncertainty which one does not usually find in academic works. I rather liked that.
The first point is the most important so let me explain what is at stake here. Paleontology reveals that Homo sapiens has been on the planet for 200,000 years plus or minus. Everybody understands that that estimate can be changed any time someone digs up a femur or a skull that can be dated to an earlier time. Everybody also agrees that roughly 10,000 years ago in a variety of places human beings began to engage in systematic agriculture. I think, although I am not certain, that the general view has it that agriculture developed after the last Ice Age at least in part as a consequence of physical and climatic changes that made agriculture possible. The story that has been told – a story I learned and believed and have repeated many times in classes and in my writings – is that the hunting and gathering and foraging existence that human beings engaged in for the first 190,000 years did not produce the sort of physical surplus that would make it possible for some people not to forage or hunt or gather but to engage in other forms of activity. Once the physical surplus provided by agriculture appeared, and wherever it appeared (an important addendum), some people were able to appropriate the surplus and use their control of it both to support the activities of individuals not directly engaged in farming or hunting or gathering and also to establish what we would recognize as political control over an entire community. Combining this with the domestication of animals, we then had the building blocks for cities and then states to appear in which there were kings or princes or rulers, priests or shamans, scribes, artists, and all the rest. In effect, the story went, once this happened there was no turning back, no alternative to armies and law courts and churches and princely residences and all the rest of human history. Eventually, maybe 6000 years ago or so, writing was invented, records were kept, and it became possible for modern researchers not merely to dig up remains and try to infer from them the social structures that had generated them but also to discover the appropriate translations of those ancient writings and to begin producing what we now think of as historical accounts.
As the authors indicate, there are two versions of this story, one optimistic, positive, and celebratory, the other sad, doleful, and depressing, depending on whether one likes or does not like the way the world is now. But both versions of the story are based on the fundamental premise that political structures, kings, emperors, bureaucracies, democratic states, or what have you are an inevitable consequence of the appearance of agriculture.
Drawing on vast quantities of anthropological and archaeological evidence assembled by huge numbers of researchers in the last 30 or 40 years, the authors argue that this story is just plain false. A great deal of the book is devoted to telling the story, derived from this research, of peoples who either considered adopting agriculture as a source of subsistence and rejected it, choosing to persist as hunters, fishers, foragers and gatherers or else chose to alternate agriculture with hunting and gathering, going back and forth from one to the other. The authors, for example, tell the stories of Native American peoples of the West Coast of the United States who were clearly, on the available evidence, in regular contact with agricultural populations but who chose to continue hunting and gathering rather than transitioning to agriculture.
Equally important is the evidence the authors put forward of large numbers of human settlements in which, prior to any evidence of agriculture, huge construction projects were carried out that involved systematic planning, the mobilization and direction of the efforts of large numbers of people, and the use of sophisticated forms of mathematical calculation and astronomical observation (think Stonehenge, for example) all without any of the usual evidences of rulership, systematic differentiations in wealth and power, or the concomitant abilities to compel the labor of large numbers of people.
These evidences, drawn by the authors from research done virtually around the world, fundamentally call into question the standard story about the development of recognizably modern political states. (Remember that the authors are anarchists and, unlike my anarchism which is for the most part conceptual and theoretical, are committed to finding nonstate and antistate ways for people to live.)
There is an enormous amount that I am simply not attempting to summarize, but this is as I see it the central argument of much of the book.
Tomorrow I will move on to talk about the second and third theses.