In his 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the anthropologist David Graeber marshaled historical, ethnographic, and archaeological evidence in an effort to dismantle some of the basic assumptions of modern economics. The capitalist market economy, he argued, was neither natural nor inevitable. In the course of history, human societies had found other, often more equitable ways to exchange goods and share prosperity, and might do so again. This argument found a receptive audience in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which had shaken the foundations of the global economic order and unleashed a broad backlash.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
By David Graeber and David Wengrow ; MacMillan ; 704 pp., $35

The occupation of Zuccotti Park began just a few months after Debt appeared. Graeber, a committed anarchist, was involved with Occupy Wall Street from the beginning and bequeathed the movement its framing of wealth distribution as the 1% ruling the 99%. The connection between his scholarship and his activism was his conviction that a world of increasing inequality, one in which money and power are inextricable, is not the only possible one.

Graeber died suddenly at age 59 in 2020, but not before completing the manuscript of The Dawn of Everything, a new and even more ambitious tome than Debt, co-written with the archaeologist David Wengrow. Just as Debt took on the myths surrounding the economy, the new book endeavors to debunk certain underlying assumptions about the basis of our political system. Graeber and Wengrow’s key target is the mythical belief in humanity’s inexorable historical evolution away from small-scale, egalitarian subsistence societies and toward more complex agricultural and industrial ones. This process, the story goes, delivered the benefits of civilization but necessitated the emergence of hierarchy and inequality.

For example, the shift from foraging to agriculture has often been presented as a “luxury trap”: The ability to generate food surpluses enables population growth, but sustaining the larger population requires ever more grueling work, which left early agriculturalists worse off than foragers. The authors argue this was in no sense inevitable or irreversible, citing a variety of evidence of societies that dabbled in agriculture but never fell into the “trap.” Some experimented with agriculture, then returned to foraging, while others alternated periodically between the two. Moreover, while it’s often assumed that agriculture and cities are inseparable, the authors explore various instances of permanent settlements of foragers and of small-scale societies of skilled agriculturalists, two types of societies that would be impossible to maintain in perpetuity under the “trap” thesis.

For Graeber and Wengrow, delinking specific modes of subsistence with specific social arrangements carries powerful political implications. It is typically assumed that complex urban societies whose rise was enabled by agricultural surpluses simply couldn’t avoid hierarchy and bureaucracy for practical reasons. Egalitarianism may work on a small scale, according to this (popular) view, but not once there are tens of thousands of laborers to be organized. To refute this belief, Graeber and Wengrow cite early urban sites around the Black Sea, the neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, and the pre-Aztec metropolis of Teotihuacan as instances of large settlements that seem to have lacked any hierarchical power structure. Their claims on this front, however, are speculative: As they acknowledge, they are treating the lack of evidence of a ruling elite as evidence for generalized equality.

Graeber and Wengrow are on firmer ground when making the opposite point: Hunter-gatherers are not the natural egalitarians idealized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rather, they existed within a wider array of social structures than are on view in modern societies. The authors illustrate this range of possibilities by contrasting two neighboring indigenous cultural groupings in North America: the aristocratic, slave-holding warrior societies of the Pacific Northwest, well-known for their extravagant potlatch feasts and complex ritual performances, and the industrious foragers of what is now Northern California, who abjured slavery and most other forms of hierarchy and prized hard work and self-restraint. Since these two groups inhabited similar ecosystems in the same general region, environmental factors alone cannot account for the differences.

To make sense of such contrasts, Graeber and Wengrow advance two arguments that may not be entirely compatible. One is the concept of schismogenesis, which proposes that cultural groups evolve in dramatic contrast to neighboring groups by “picking out certain points of contrast and exaggerating or idealizing them.” Staple foods are one example: Northwestern societies subsisted primarily on salmon, while their neighbors to the South avoided fish and preferred acorns, even though both foodstuffs were abundantly available. Their contrasting attitudes to slavery, Graeber and Wengrow argue, also had a schismogenetic origin.

Their other, broader argument is that hunter-gatherers, like neolithic farmers and other pre-modern peoples, were “self-conscious political actors” who were “capable of embracing a wide range of social arrangements.” Too often, according to Graeber and Wengrow, we view them as “little more than automata,” living out schemas predetermined by their stage of development or their environment. The authors reject this view, claiming that from the beginning of humanity, people have created and recreated social arrangements through precisely the sort of deliberation and experimentation we tend to regard as a modern phenomenon.

The authors of The Dawn of Everything go further than this. “Human beings, through most of our history,” they write, “have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements, assembling and dismantling hierarchies on a regular basis,” and it is the denizens of the modern West who are “stuck” in an imposed order and unable to imagine our way out of it. To illustrate this idea, they emphasize the seasonally shifting social order on display among Inuit and other societies, who alternated between more hierarchical and more egalitarian regimes depending on the time of year. This kind of “adaptability and flexibility,” they argue, was taken for granted by pre-modern peoples but is difficult to conceive of today.

Graeber and Wengrow are convincing in their critique of the oversimplified determinism that has shaped the standard view of archaic societies. Their desire to counteract the prejudice that holds that indigenous peoples were incapable of rational deliberation about their political and social systems is also understandable. However, they overcorrect, tending to portray bands of foragers as something like the Occupy movement’s idealized self-image: experimental collectives spontaneously and self-consciously organizing themselves on a horizontal basis.

Indeed, they are so intent on portraying pre-modern peoples as rational political actors that they end up reaffirming the Enlightenment-derived belief that aesthetic preferences, mythical narratives, and religious sensibilities are inferior bases for organizing society. It’s hard not to conclude that they underrate the significance of these other factors. Did the groups who engaged in seasonal alternation and schismogenetic differentiation conceive themselves, as Graeber and Wengrow imply, as choosing freely from a smorgasbord of political options? Or did the transcendental values expressed in myth and ritual significantly shape and constrain their thinking? Probably some of both, but The Dawn of Everything mostly ignores the latter factor.

Graeber and Wengrow's argument hinges on the idea that there are “three primordial freedoms” that “for most of human history were simply assumed,” which we have now lost: “the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to create or transform social relationships." Ten years ago, the propositions of Graeber’s Debt found a practical counterpart in the Occupy movement. Today, there is no influential movement on the Left that is seeking the recovery of these freedoms. Indeed, much of the Western Left has embraced a regime of expanding public health restrictions over the past two years, overtly advocating the state’s right to constrain movement, punish disobedience of decrees and mandates, and limit human interaction.

With the Occupy movement 10 years in the past and the murderous farce that was the 2020 Capitol Hill Occupied Protest in Seattle disavowed and forgotten, the types of Left-anarchist movements favored by Graeber are largely nonexistent today. Surprisingly or not, those seeking to reassert his “primordial freedoms” are now found on the weird fringes of the Right. “The freedom to move” closely resembles the notion of “exit,” derived from the political scientist Albert O. Hirschman and prized by neo-reactionaries under the influence of the blogger Curtis Yarvin. The demand for “the freedom to disobey” is most obviously present today among those rejecting COVID mandates, who are generally viewed askance in Graeber’s academic milieu.

Moreover, the clearest examples of those currently pursuing “the freedom to create or transform social relationships” are found among crypto-anarchists, bitcoin enthusiasts, and libertarian proponents of charter cities and seasteading. There are good reasons to be skeptical of all these enterprises. However, if we accept Graeber and Wengrow’s argument that the capacity to imagine radically different social orders is necessary for the recovery of freedom, the mere fact that they are being proposed suggests we may be becoming ever so slightly less “stuck.”

Geoff Shullenberger is a writer and academic. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @daily_barbarian.