Updated: Dec 10, 2021
Morpheus: Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know *exactly* what you mean...
In my first pass at some reflections on The Dawn of Everything (DoE), I'd wanted to draw out some metanarratological background context that I think is important for appreciating both the authors’ perceived project (Progress Myth takedown) and the kind of reception the book itself is now receiving among our “liminal web” community (strong affirmation or pushback, depending on one’s commitments). Here I’d like to both extend that critique a bit further, while also engaging more with the genuine contributions the book has to offer.
IDEOLOGICAL MYTHS AND THEIR HIDDEN AXIOMS
As I noted before, a large reason for the buzz this book has generated in integral and metamodern circles has to do with the perception that it is about stage theories—specifically, that it would offer a critical account of the evidence which discredits and disproves anything like general patterns of cultural development (e.g., hunter-gather to agrarian to agricultural to urban, etc.). In some ways this is true; the book does succeed in problematizing certain assumptions about the relationship of complexity, power, and modes of production (more on that below).
However, this book is only indirectly a critique of stage theories of cultural evolution. First and foremost, it is about inequality.
The authors are actually rather clear about this. Indeed, much of David Graeber’s work was dedicated to that issue. As an anarchist, he was a prominent leader (sic?) in the Occupy Wallstreet movement, and, as Wengrow notes in the Foreword and Dedication, he “was far more than an anthropologist. He was an activist…who tried to live his ideas about social justice and liberation, giving hope to the oppressed and inspiring countless others to follow suit” (pp. ix-x).
DoE is best understood as the authors’ response to the question, “What are the origins of inequality?” Though they themselves are quick to recognize that the question itself is problematic, it’s nevertheless the starting point for their work, the real catalyst for their 600 page reimagination of the origins of human civilization. For, as both Hobbes and Rousseau concluded (either for good or ill, respectively), to seek the origins of “inequality” is to seek the origins of “civilization” itself—even if both prove to be phantasms.
The Big History provided by DoE is, then, from the start, framed by a focus on a particular social issue, and one of great urgency for the present moment. This is where ideology becomes an important consideration for their historical reconstruction. For ideology comes with certain axiomatic prejudices, and historical reconstructions (particularly of ancient prehistory) require a lot of gap-filling. Coming to historical reconstruction through the entry point of ideology is thus an invitation to fill the gaps with presumptions that fit one’s pregiven narrative. When these bear heavily on current events, its not only appropriate but necessary to consider how our understanding of the present and our hopes for the future might be bearing upon our interpretations of the past.
As the authors note, any account of origins will effectively operate mythically. We shape our myths about the past in the present moment as guides and compasses for our futures. At the nexus of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, myth and politics collide.
Anyone familiar with the controversies that swirl around biblical archeological will know what I mean. Consider, for instance, the seemingly straight-forward question, “What were the years of King David’s reign?” While there’s a general academic consensus that it was c. 1000 to 962 BCE, other voices, such as archeologist Israel Finkelstein, would say that the Davidic Monarchy was almost entirely a legendary invention of the 600s BCE. Indeed, the very nature of most of ancient Israel’s history is hotly contested, from Exodus to Conquest to Kingdoms. While there are certain areas of consensus, different scholars can assess the same archeological material and come to radically different narratives about it. As these narratives can and do serve certain political narratives of current interested political factions in the modern state of Israel (mainly about ancient “claims to the land”), it can be impossible to know how much scholars are being driven by evidence or ideology. What you believe about Israeli occupation of the West Bank has a funny way of determining how real the Davidic monarchy was.
Of course, this sort of thing is hardly unavoidable completely. We all bring background frameworks of sensemaking to our endeavors. Certainly, though, ancient prehistory is a particularly vexed terrain for this sort of thing, being, as it is, such a relatively blank canvas. When all you have is some bricks, a bronze amulet, and a few skulls to account for a 2,000 stretch of time, you use what you have—but how you use it will be determined a great deal by what other narratives you believe in. It’s hard enough for regular academics to keep their ideologies from driving their analysis. But when you’re an avowed anarchist activist who explicitly frames your historical reconstruction through the lens of an ideological issue such as inequality, well… You get a book like DoE.
The ideology behind DoE is clear enough. However, specific axioms of that ideology do require some teasing out, for they’re crucial for the way the entire reconstruction unfolds. As I said, this is a book only indirectly about stage theories of cultural evolution. Mainly, it’s about inequality, which is to say asymmetric distributions of power and control. Or, as the authors state explicitly, “This book is mainly about freedom” (p. 206). And, indeed, the authors take great pains to articulate the history of civilization entirely through the lens of volition. To do that means eschewing any notion of organizing logics or structural attractor points. “There are,” they write, “certainly, tendencies in history. Some are powerful; currents so strong that they are very difficult to swim against (though there always seem to be some who manage to do it anyway). But the only ‘laws’ are those we make up ourselves” (p. 5). It makes sense, I guess, that an anarchist anthropologist would be allergic to any sense of ‘laws.’ Nothing can be so powerful as to be ineluctable or inevitable. Barring gravity (presumably?), nothing can keep us down! Anything is possible! That is the axiom.
It’s clear, then, why such a view would see anything like a sequence of necessarily-linked stage developments as anathema. The very idea of one thing following another of necessity is a loss of freedom. In this view, not only dominator hierarchies but even natural ones are seen as oppressive!