The Dawn of Everything

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Dawn of Everything” is a brainy and braggadocious book, styling itself—without a hint of modesty—as “a new history of humanity.” A combative work that pushes a revisionist view of prehistory, it takes its fight to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, whose ideas on early man as a creature mired in a State of Nature it dismisses as pure fantasy. This is the anthropological equivalent of a tearing down of statues. Its authors are (the late) David Graeber and David Wengrow, professors, respectively, at the London School of Economics and University College London. Their book is a manifesto for early man, a bid to restore him to his “full humanity.”

Prehistoric man, say Messrs. Graeber and Wengrow, was no simpleton or dolt. Far from being akin to the modern-day apes to which he is glibly likened by popularizers of anthropology—such as Yuval Noah Harari in “Sapiens” (2014)—he was complex, creative and “full of playful possibilities.”

“The Dawn of Everything” is the latest—and most provocative—in a line of Big History: bold, panoptic works that offer to explain the whole sweep of man’s story. The genre kicked off with “Maps of Time” (2004), by David Christian, and includes such practitioners as Mr. Harari, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama. The book was 10 years in the writing and is every bit as dense and passionate as you’d expect from a decade-long labor of love—conceived by two learned and mischievous men.

Mr. Graeber, the more ungovernable of the two authors, died in September of last year, three weeks after the book was finished. An American anthropologist and anarchist, he had migrated to Britain in 2008 after failing to get tenure at Yale (and, subsequently, not getting a job at any of the more than 20 U.S. universities to which he applied). His views were simply too radical, which is astonishing in light of the present-day obsessions of American campuses. Mr. Graeber also helped to organize the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011, the year in which his anti-capitalist book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” was published.

Mr. Wengrow, his British partner-in-writing, is a soft-spoken professor of archaeology with a lower public profile. In a dedication to Mr. Graeber, he describes the latter as someone who “tried to live his ideas about social justice and liberation.” It’s not surprising that a man like that would, with his co-author, attempt to liberate prehistoric humans from the straitjacket in which they have been confined since Rousseau wrote his “Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind” in 1754.

Until the early years of the 19th century, the authors tell us, “there was as yet no ‘prehistory.’ There was only history, even if some of that history was wildly wrong.” The term “prehistory” only entered the common language after a dig in Brixham Cave in Devon, in 1858, uncovered stone axes in a sealed rock casing, alongside the remains of extinct animals. After this, archaeology and geology began to play a major part in our understanding of man and earth.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

For the record, PG is firmly in the capitalist camp of economics. He suggests the greatest examples of charitable giving which benefits others were some of the greatest capitalists. For a classic example, he’ll point to Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie emigrated to the United States from Scotland at the age of twelve. He had been born in a weaver’s cottage with only one main room which served as living room, dining room and bedroom. After his family arrived in the US, his first job was in a cotton factory where he worked as a bobbin boy, changing spools of thread in a cotton mill 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. He earned $1.20 per week, equivalent to $36 in today’s dollars.

Eventually, Carnegie became one of the richest men in United States history. He gave away 90% of his fortune for charitable purposes. One of Carnegie’s best-known charitable activities was to build and equip over 3,000 public libraries in the United States, Canada and England. The first Carnegie library was built in Dunfermline, Scotland, where he was born.

When PG was young, he and his family were patrons of a couple of different Carnegie libraries in places which would have been unlikely to have libraries absent Carnegie’s gifts.

10 thoughts on “The Dawn of Everything”

  1. For an alternative take on the book see here from The Boston Review with, it seems, a rather different ideological viewpoint.

    Given the authors’ history I strongly suspect that this is a case of current day politics driving a historical narrative but, for me anyway, the WSJ review is too committed to the opposite ideology to be convincing. Less ire and more analysis would have made a better argument.

    Note that I say this despite – like PG – being a strong supporter of capitalism (even though some groups in the USA would no doubt call me a socialist given my concurrent support for universal health care and social support systems). Being somewhat old-fashioned I will admit that I fear that modern capitalism keeps shooting itself in the foot by appointing greedy psychopaths as managers and letting the finance industry run as a bloodsucking parasite rather than a support to the rest of the economy.

    • Leaving the terminology aside for a moment, corporations date back long before nation states. So where in the history of the institution did it acquire a responsibility to “support society”?
      The way a lot of folks see it on this side of the pond is that politicians, seeking an easy way to garner supporters (government largesse instead of ideas and competence) see corporate money flow as a way to acrue power for themselves and use the modern state’s monopoly on legal use of force to extort money from the corporations. It’s a version of the mobs’ security racket. 😉

      It’s all in the presentation, isn’t it? 😀

      What none deny is that taxation is the taking of resources from the productive to serve the needs of the non-productive. Its no different when IdiotPoliticians™ do it than when King John did it. In the end it is always the serfs that pay.

      • Not sure why my comment brought on this response. My guess is that it is the ocean in between and that the US is a very different – and strange – place, at least to European eyes (though there is no ocean on the 49th parallel so how do we explain Canada?).

        Associations that might be called corporations do have a very long history but have always ultimately been under the thumb of whosoever controlled the local monopoly of force (save when that was the corporation, but this really means that they were the local government: EIC anybody?). For a long time corporations/rich men were the play things of the government, particularly financiers who had little comeback when a monarch defaulted on their debts (cf. Philip II of Spain). Other times, other places, they were the government.

        With the rise of the nation state, corporations existed on sufferance and the legal rights they were granted (the biggest of which was limited liability, the rich man’s friend, but there was also the support of the states armed forces) carried with them a host of social responsibilities which can encompass your idea of “supporting society”. What is more, this was often accepted without question as the people running the company realised that its viability depended on the success of the society within which it operated, and the owners/managers were often patriotic members of that society.

        Modern developments – globalisation, automation, securitisation, etc. – have broken these links and the idea that the company has any duty beyond making profits has largely gone by the board. I think this very dangerous as it transforms those running the companies – a senior managerial class who are largely out of control of the nominal owners of the company – into an unrepresentative oligarchy ripe for overthrow, and the legal/financial tools to achieve that overthrow are easily available to democratic politicians. The fact that repeated experiments demonstrate that the socialist alternative is incapable or running a modern economy and typically turns to brutal suppression to disguise failure will have no influence if the anger against the elites rises high enough (at least outside the USA – I’m not sure how an anti-elite reaction would play out there).

        • This was the trigger:
          “Being somewhat old-fashioned I will admit that I fear that modern capitalism keeps shooting itself in the foot by appointing greedy psychopaths as managers and letting the finance industry run as a bloodsucking parasite rather than a support to the rest of the economy.”

          To which I’ll add that 97% of american businesses are small businesses.


          With a strong majority (~75%) being microbusinesses, companies being their own bosses (indie writers among many other industries) and putting their trust in themselves, not the state or “a big business psychopath” to take care of themselves.

          Also this: in the US 56% of the middle quintile own stock personally. Alternately, 37% of all stock is owned by individual and corporate retirement accounts.

          No psychpaths to be found there.

          So yes, there are differences across the pond but they can’t be explained by facile terms such as capitalism or socialism. I would posit that the biggest of many factors is a self-reliance and risk taking. In a word, entrepreneurialism.

          In a tradeoff between ability to “be all you can be” and government largesse the flow of entrepreneurs seeking “open skies” tend to migrate to these shores rather than eastward or even northward.

          Not sure about the UK post EU but in the EU we see things like Italy fining Amazon €3000M for, basically, offering different service levels, letting merchant service customers choose whether to participate in PRIME or not. Such a crime!

          Not much change from when they fined Microsoft for including media support in Windows, which led to the “oh-so-popular” Windows N that costs the same as full feature Windows and requires users stuck with it to install an addon pack with the missing DLL’s, CODECs, and apps needed to run many third party media apps. (This despite the fact that Window and other OSes have shipped with media players from the ’80’s.) Why such stupidity? To enable a certain clueless German outfit with political connections to try to charge €50 for a barebones MP3 player. Which the market rejected in favor of non-MS freeware and no longer exists. Yet Windows N is still required.

          Or, closer to my interests, there is the French government-fundedMaia reusable micro rocket that hopes to offer by 2025 a national champion alternative to SpaceX’s 2015 more powerful Falcon 9 block 5 tech. A market that is already served or targeted by a dozen private companies including three German ones. Best guess is SpaceX will be landing humans on the moon for less before the French mini is flying.

          How any of those and many other similar uses of taxpayer funds serve social needs isn’t documented anywhere I can find.

          Different priorities at work, obviously.

          Note I’m not pretending the US entrepreneurial system would serve euro interests any better. Just that it meets american interests better than alternatives floated elsewhere.

          To each their own.

      • To be clear, socialism vs capitalism debates are hollow and meaningless because they commingle economics with politics and always devolve into tribal preening. “My system is better than your system”.
        Also because what they seek to contrast are nebulous strawmen on bith sides and aleays lack precision.
        What capitalism? Crony capitalism or state capitalism? Dirigisme or Laissez faire? How much of each? Because none are fixed states but rather spectra.

        And how about specifics? Are we talking Russian oligarchical crony capitalism, mexican crony capitalism, or Biden crony capitalism (that subsidizes electic car production but only for cars built in factories collecting dues for the UAW which then funnels them to the blue party election coffers)?

        State capitalism? Is it Norway State capitalism, Chinese PLA capitalism, or Abu Dahbi’s?
        (You have to go pretty low to find Alaska, which is barely above the University of Texas.)

        And socialism? In 2019 the Danish PM took on the orange dude pointing out Denmark is capitalist, not socialist. He would know, right? Maybe.


        The only way to have a meaningful conversation about human economic systems is to go to basics. And the thing everyone must grudgingly agree to: humans are tribal. And all tribal systems are dejure or defacto hierarchical. Whatever updated “noble savage” spin the OP might be interested in promoting, the unavoidable reality is that true individualism is a recent development, a minor blip in the world today and nonexistent before. Something tbat was barely tolerated in “mutants” and invariably stamped out. Just ask Socrates or Galileo. Collectivism vs individualism is a real debate, unlike socialism vs individualism, and one that looks to be at an end, with the end of individual rights on the horizon even in the “west”. Collectivist autocracy is on the ascendant right now and a return to the true hierarchical baseline of human societiesm

        The hierarchical organization automatical creates a divide between rulers and ruled and unavoidably the accumulation of physical power, be it temporary or “permanent” brings an accumulation of economic power (and the perks it brings) which gets expended in the preservation of the physical power that grants it. It has always been about the largesse of rulers. In the caves, ancient realms, or modern democracies. DeToqueville correctly rrad the future of the (failing) American experiment. (“Everybody gets $2000 if we win the election” is the Rubicon that can’t be uncrossed.)

        It is only recently in the history of mankind, with the arrival of sedentary agriculture that anybody but rulers could actually accrue any economic power. Which is where the tension originated that persists to this day between producers and rulets. What are the debates of tbe day? Governments seeking control of big tech, Putin vs the oligarchs, Xi vs the economic giants the CCP fostered, corruption of political systems by the moneyed everywhere. Two power centers fighting for domination. Living standards increase when the producers have the upper hand but stability declines; stability grows when the autocrats are in control but living standards stagnate and decline. No winners.

        Everything else is but smoke screen.
        The real conflict in covilization is always powermongers versus producers, in an infinity of variations. Both sides feature some honest folk, both feature some corrupt and self serving. Ideologues galore. Excuses proliferate but it’s all about who gets to exploit the masses and how. Sometimes economic power dominates (Imperial Rome) sometimes physical force (The mongols) but the only thing that doesn’t change is the ruled are the ones that always get shafted. 😐
        Endless cycles.

        I see no change on the horizon.
        (As long as we’re stuck on the mudball. Otherwise? TBD.)
        Capitalism vs socialism?
        Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
        Pick your poison if you will but poisoned we will be.

      • Capitalism is a mechanism. Socialism is an objective. They can, and do, coexist; by American definitions, Germany has been “socialist” since the 1960s, but it’s hard to find a nation outside of the aggressively laissez-faire English-speaking major powers with more opportunities and impetus to turn “excess capital above median standard of living” into “long-term capital accretion.”

        As Felix mentions later on, the purported argument that places capitalism and socialism in opposition is illusory. I’d go farther and say that it’s ordinarily an example of forgetting one of the precepts of capitalism — it’s not about pure greed, but enlightened self-interest — on both “sides” of any such argument.

        Part of the problem is that at least in the last couple of centuries, the most-ardent and most-visible exponents of allegedly-pure capitalism have been disproportionately… well… jerks with limited socialization and expansive egos. (That’s not to say that “socialism” has no examples thereof; I’m thinking in particular of a leading late-twentieth-century French politician whose surname began with M and whose worldview always began with himself, which in turn only hid a startlingly virulent bigotry.) But the people are not the philosophy/concepts, and the philosophy/concepts are not the people — despite the anthropomorphism involved in capitalism/capitalist and socialism/socialist. Just consider the arguments over whether Elizabeth I was a “good ruler” or not, and compare them to 20/40-hindsight political theory… and watch the shifts over time, over audiences, over any other change in context.

        Unfortunately — and it’s directly relevant to how one views the OP — one of the worst present-day examples of the “leading capitalists tend to be poorly-socialized jerks with big egos” is the ownership of the OP’s source. And it’s an ownership that just will not stay out of content-influence efforts (that don’t — quite — rise to “editorial interference”). It’s anthropomorphism that sits uncomfortably well with Aesop…

    • I would suggest that “modern capitalism” is such a broad and varied universe that virtually all statements about it are likely to be inaccurate in some manner.

      “Big History” as used in the OP is certain to include summaries and conclusions that are not everywhere true. As I understand it, Big History is a form of generalized history that looks for major themes that can be invisible to those who are spend their time enmeshed in the details, including a great many who were actually participants in the events described.

      I don’t think Big History is intended to be always and everywhere accurate. “A new history of humanity” as the book discussed in the OP is self-described is going to be untrue with respect to some people, times and places. Of necessity, it has to leave out quite a lot.

      For me, these omissions don’t mean that it’s not useful, however.

      I’m reading a detailed history of the American Civil War at the moment. On the whole, it was a horrible and terrifying experience for the large majority of its participants — the Civil War killed more Americans than the American Revolution, the war of 1812, the Mexican War, the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War combined.

      However, there were substantial benefits that resulted from all this death and suffering. The abolition of chattel slavery in the United States is, of course, the first and most prominent of those benefits. Considering any number of alternative histories, I doubt there would have been any neat and tidy ways of ending this practice at that time in the American South.

      One may posit hypothetical alternative means of abolishing slavery, but this was the one chosen by those who were determined to end this practice in that era while still preserving the United States as a single nation.

  2. With the rise of the nation state, corporations existed on sufferance and the legal rights they were granted (the biggest of which was limited liability, the rich man’s friend, but there was also the support of the states armed forces) carried with them a host of social responsibilities which can encompass your idea of “supporting society”.

    Limited liability protects the millions of stockholders who actually own the company. In terms of protecting pension funds which invest in corporations, it can easily be seen as the poor man’s friend.

    • Agreed, E.

      Absent limited liability, only the very rich would have any ownership stake in any large business organization. They would have been able to maintain their stake by being more powerful than any who might make claims against the business. Limited liability is the poor man’s and the middle-class man’s (and woman’s) friend.

      Creditors have developed a wide range of risk-avoidance practices to deal with the dangers of dealing with a limited liability entity, including requiring personal guarantees from very large stakeholders.

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