The Twilight of Mainstream Historical Narratives: a review of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn Of Everything
The Dawn of Everything. David Graeber & David Wengrow. Farrar, Straus and Giraux, October 2021.
It is a sad and touching irony that David Graeber’s last book should have “Dawn” in the title. Graeber passed away in the fall of 2020, before the launching of his final opus, a hefty 700-page volume, co-written with his friend, the archeologist David Wengrow.
Graeber is a well-known American anthropologist and anarchist, who wrote two best-sellers focused on capitalism and its neo-liberal avatar: Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018). He also was a founding member of the “Occupy” movement in 2011. Wengrow is a British archeologist and academic, who has published a very stimulating book on the question of “civilization” ( What Makes Civilization?, 2011) and another one on the origin of our concept of “monsters” (The Origin of Monsters, 2014). Like Graeber, he presents himself as an anarchist.
The Dawn Of Everything can seem, at first, a misleading title, as it focuses not on “everything” but mainly on the questions of inequality, agriculture, and manifestations of political power. Graeber and Wengrow give us a vivid account of and a reflection upon the early stages of humanity, trying to re-think and re-frame what is commonly accepted in the dominant historical story-telling of our civilization.
It is generally considered a “fact” that agriculture is the mother of large cities, and therefore of centralized powers, which in turn made crucial technology discoveries possible and eventually lead to the modern states we know today. This is, among many others, the view of Steven Pinker, the pop philosopher, who takes a thorough and satisfying thrashing in one of the first chapters of the book.
Graeber and Wengrow set a critical eye on the modern capitalistic narrative of “progress” by calling upon recent (and less-recent) archaeological and anthropological discoveries. By choosing to open their book with the Enlightenment question of inequality as formulated, albeit in contradictory ways, by both the Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, they majestically turn one of our major assumptions on its head: that the concept of inequality, which famously led to many revolutions, came from Europe. Graeber and Wengrow find inequality’s theoretical origins, instead, in the dialogues between colonists, Jesuits, and First-Nations political figures from the Americas between the late 16th and 18th century. According to Graeber and Wengrow, the question of inequality is first formulated by Indigenous speakers, pointing out to their European interlocutors how socially skewed European society is. The authors convincingly assert that these dialogues, widely read and spread on the European continent, triggered the questions and reflections that led to the concepts we know today.
In the same line of deconstructing the dominant narratives, the authors also explain that the “agricultural revolution” never actually took place. It was, in their telling, a very slow, gradual process which entailed a large variety of political experiments – from communist-like societies to local monarchies, and sometimes even (if not often) a mix of the two. Large cities, according to recent archaeological findings, were not always the seat of centralized power: Teotihuacan in Mexico and Göbleki Tepe in Turkey, for instance, do not seem to have hosted either kings or an aristocracy, but might have known a governing entity of local councils instead. These cities were not unique, Graeber and Wengrow insist, and co-existed with other forms of governments, such as the kingdoms and empires we are more familiar with.
Written in a very reader-friendly style which makes the 700 pages surprisingly enjoyable, The Dawn Of Everything is an important work, both as a summary of recent discoveries in the fields of archaeology and anthropology and as an eye-opener on the structures of dominant narratives. It will be very interesting to see the reception of this book by the mainstream audience, both academic and outside of the field. Will it be respected, but basically ignored, like the excellent Against The Grain (2017) by James C. Scott, which intersects with The Dawn Of Everything in its critical stance on the “agricultural revolution”, or Jean-Paul Demoule’s Mais où sont passés les Indo-Européens? (2014), in which the French archaeologist savages the “Indo-European” myth? Or will it trigger, as one can hope, a larger discussion not only about the development of our societies, but also about what dominant historical narratives imply ideologically in our everyday life by pre-shaping the world we live in? In many ways, one could say that The Dawn Of Everything is stating the obvious (at least for anyone following the latest developments in archaeology), but the obvious needs to be stated sometimes, in order to rectify a distorted and often toxic reality, which is, indeed, truly “everything”.
Graeber and Wengrow are at pains to point out, clearly and carefully, that history is far more complex than the traditional evolutionary narratives. Societies have never moved in a sole direction – and most importantly, perhaps, still don’t. Contradicting the famous capitalistic slogan “There is no alternative”, archaeology proves that yes, indeed there were—and there are. We could almost say, after reading this book, that there are at least a thousand of them, right here, right now.
Sébastien (Seb) Doubinsky is a bilingual French writer and academic. He is the author, among others, of The Babylonian Trilogy, The Song Of Synth, Missing Signal, The Invisible, and Paperclip. He lives in Denmark with his family and teaches literature, history and culture in the French department of Aarhus University. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch in September 2021; the review author was acquainted with the editors through previous ARB work. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. A review copy from FSG was arranged by ARB.