The Dawn of Everything – Have A-holes Always Been in Charge?

The dominant narrative of human social evolution tells how our ancestors advanced from hunter gatherer clans to larger settlements, made possible by agriculture, and on to cities and modern nation states. With this growth in scale and complexity, leaders, bureaucracies and standing armies became necessary to maintain order and ensure security. Moreover, this linear path to ‘modern society’ has enabled greater levels of wealth and wellbeing than our ancestors could ever have dreamed of. As a result, we are living today in the best of all possible worlds.

The Dawn of Everything questions this comforting narrative and tells a very different story. It tells of how we lived for most of our time on Earth without presidents, kings, and pharaohs. It tells how our ancestors were acutely aware of the dangers of authoritarianism and were able to design and maintain, for thousands of years, social structures to guard against it. And it asks what went wrong? How did we come to live in this ‘best of all possible worlds’ in which so many a-holes – the Trumps and Putins and Xis – are in charge?

History is largely a history of authoritarianism – but is pre-history?

History refers to the time period after the invention of written records. Written records in Egypt date from as early as 3200 BCE, which means that we can look back on over 5000 years of human history. For almost all of that time it seems, societies have been dominated by kings and emperors and sultans of one form or another. It is a history characterised largely by dominance, violence, conquest, slavery and patriarchy. The last 5000 years, however, are just a tiny fraction of the 200,000 to 300, 000 years that homo sapiens have existed. So is this really the way things have been throughout homo sapiens tenure on Earth?

A first glance into pre-history, before written records began, appears to suggest the answer is yes. After all, what we notice first are the monuments and palaces of long dead rulers and empires. But anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow argue that the most important findings of modern archaeology are not the spectacular ruins left by deceased authoritarians, but the less obvious evidence of large-scale societies based on kinship and community which can be found in all times and across all parts of the world.

The picture of pre-history that Graeber and Wengrow paint, however, is not one of utopian equality everywhere, but rather a diverse mix of social structures that varied by time and place, some of which were dominated by violent rulers and some of which actively guarded against authoritarian personalities. Of particular interest here are those societies which have left evidence of their deliberate defense against authoritarianism. Such evidence is provided by examples of what Graeber and Wengrow term ‘schismogenesis’ – a process in which cultures define themselves in opposition to one another. One striking example they cite is the contrasting native cultures of Northern California and the North West Coast of North America.

Northern California society was comprised of mixed foragers, fishers and hunters. They left no evidence of authoritarian leaders, did not practice slavery, and left no monumental sculptures. They had a passion for individual autonomy. Private property and wealth were allowed, but wealthy individuals were expected to be modest and generous. There were no inherited titles or ranks. Excess was considered vulgar, houses were spartan and decoration simple.

North West Coast society, in stark contrast, was dominated by warrior aristocrats with hereditary ranks. Slaves made up significant part of society, with frequent violent raids between groups. They held lavish ceremonies with excessive displays of wealth and consumption. Their society left a legacy of elaborate monumental wood art which adorns museums today.

The geographical proximity of the two cultures meant that Northern Californians were well aware of their northern neighbour’s culture. Crucially, however, they saw them as war like, indulging in excess on the back of slavery. They actively repudiated this vision of society and adopted practices to defend against it. The list of the defenses they adopted against authoritarianism is extensive. To deter violence, victors in battle had to pay compensation for lives taken. While North West Coast society viewed chopping or carrying wood as a demeaning activity reserved for slaves, Northern Californians elevated this activity to a civic duty, a means of acquiring luck, and a sign of moral standing. Northern Californian festivals included the figure of the Clown who would mimic the antics of sloth, gluttony, and megalomania which were so prized in North West Coast societies. And Northern Californian spirituality was the antithesis of the grand rituals of North West Coast religious ceremonies, focusing instead on the cultivation of the inner self through discipline, training and hard work.

Ecologies of Freedom and the Sacred Ordinary

In defending against authoritarianism, what types of societies were our ancestors seeking to protect? Again, while not depicting pre-history as utopia, The Dawn of Everything gives some insights into what was important to many of our ancestors and how they organised their societies to reflect their priorities. What stands out in many cases is the importance they placed on freedom and social interaction.

Graeber and Wengrow use political philosopher Murray Bookchin’s idea of ecologies of freedom to describe the fluid social arrangements that were once typical of human societies in many parts of the world, and which continued for thousands of years. People in pre-history typically lived from a mix of hunting, gathering, and (later) the partial use of farming, often traveling vast distances, to prevent over reliance on a single source of food or on rigidly fixed communities. They adopted a philosophy of ownership which supported such freedom. In many ancient societies there was an intimate relationship between ownership and care. The true ‘owners’ of land or other natural resources were taken to be Gods or spirits, with humans seen variously as squatters, poachers, or at best caretakers. Ownership for our ancestors allowed freedom to live and travel and was equated with responsibility to look after.

From pre-history, homo sapiens also seem to have sought to live simultaneously at two different levels, one small and intimate, the other spanning vast territories, even continents. The freedom accorded by a hunter gatherer lifestyle allowed people to live both within a small community of maybe one hundred or so people they knew personally, and within imaginary structures that encompassed much larger numbers. In one North America example, clans were named after their own species of animal – the Bear clan, the Elk clan, or the Eagle clan. Members of that clan could not hunt, kill or eat that animal and instead were expected to take part in rituals that protected it. Since clans could span vast distances, this system of kinship was also an institution of belonging that encompassed the continent and included large populations of strangers. It also facilitated travel, as members of a clan could count on hospitality from fellow clan members wherever they went. Our ancestors, Graeber and Wengrow write, may have lived in small groups, but they never lived in small-scale societies.

In addition to prioritising such ecologies of freedom, humans in pre-history also typically prioritised the sacred everyday over dreams of material wealth or colonial conquest. In a mixed hunter gatherer and part time farming lifestyle there are flock to be pastured, cereal crops to be sown, harvested and threshed, flax to be woven, along with art making such as pottery, bead making, and stone carving. There were children to raise, old people to care for, homes to build and maintain, marriages and funerals to arrange. The archaeological and anthropological records also show that humans have always had songs to sing, dances to dance, walks to take, journeys to go on, and the beauty of nature to appreciate.

And so it has always been – a deep appreciation of the Sacred Ordinary, based on an ecology of Gift Exchange, enabled our ancestors to live a life of meaning without concentrating wealth or power in the hands of kings, palaces and standing armies.

Elsewhere, Douglas Fry adds to Graeber and Wengrow’s analysis by pointing out that fixed social identities – which provide the basis for ‘us’ versus ‘them’ thinking and can be a source of conflict – are also a recent development. Enduring and clearly delineated group membership is a necessary condition for strong in-group loyalties, For most of our history, however, homo sapiens has lived in a social world built upon individually oriented idiosyncratic relations – being simultaneously part of both a relatively small group and a wider ideational community that could span vast distances. Only in the last 12,500 years or so has humanity made a shift towards centralised leadership and authority, while the modern nation state (to be discussed below) – with its closed membership and strong national identities – is only a few hundred years old.

What Went Wrong Part 1 – Enlightenment, ‘Discovery’ of the Americas, and Modernisation Theory

The Dawn of Everything answers the question of what went wrong in two ways. First, it describes how European conquest of the Americas brought to an end the diverse societies that then existed on the continent.

Graeber and Wengrow recount how the Jesuits were scandalised to find that native American women were considered to have full control over their bodies, that unmarried women had sexual liberty, and that married women could divorce at will. Such licence was simply one reflection of the indigenous people’s wider insistence on freedom from submission to authority – ‘the wicked liberty of the savage’ – which was seen by their Christian conquerors as the single greatest impediment to their “submitting to the yoke of the law of God”.

So too with their freedom from materialism. A leading advocate for the ‘Americanisation’ of native Americans, writing in 1896, described the seriousness of the task of ‘civilisation’ at hand: “To bring him out of savagery into citizenship… we need to awaken in him wants. In his dull savagery he must be touched by the wings of the divine angel of discontent…  Discontent with the tepee and the starving rations of the Indian camp in winter is needed to get the Indian out of the blanket and into trousers – and trousers with a pocket in them, and with a pocket that aches to be filled with dollars” (Ghosh, 2021:174).

Europeans were understandably outraged by the freedoms they encountered in native American societies. After all, such freedoms were alien in medieval Europe, which had long laboured under the absolute rule of church and monarchy. In the encounter between Europeans and indigenous Americans, Europe had potentially much to learn. But the predominant response to such alternative views on equality, freedom, and materialism was to label them as ‘primitive’. That response – which quickly became ‘modernisation theory’ – has shaped rich Western country’s responses to the ‘developing’ world ever since. The foundation of modernisation theory is to prioritise material economic progress as the defining measure of a society’s standing, and to turn the journey to material progress into a grand theory of history.  Indigenous American societies were primitive because they lacked the material surpluses of Europe – and the structures of inequality and submission that accompany them. According to modernisation theory, the path of history dictates that such primitive societies need to ‘modernise’ by prioritising economic surplus over all other considerations. The apex of development is ‘commercial society’ in which a complex division of labour demands the sacrifice of liberties in return for increases in overall wealth and prosperity.

The Dawn of Everything challenges the view that the European Enlightenment was a moment of unique creation where the ideals of democracy, equality and tolerance first emerged, and that such ideals are products of the ‘Western tradition’. Instead, the evidence strongly suggests that the Enlightenment should be reframed as part of a cyclical return of ideas and practices that have been part of human politics and societies all over the world and far back into pre-history.

What Went Wrong Part 2 – Authoritarianism and the ‘modern’ form of State.

Graeber and Wengrow also answer the question of what went wrong in a second, deeper way. If human beings through most of our history have moved between different social arrangements, regularly assembling and dismantling hierarchies, they write, the real question is ‘How did we get stuck?’ How did Homo Sapiens – supposedly the wisest of the species – allow permanent and intractable systems of inequality to take root?

The markers of societies dominated by authoritarian leaders are unmistakable, and they are evident in the archaeological record in many ancient sites. These include evidence of women’s inequality; of acts of mass violence to silence dissent; the rise of narcissism reflected in massive vanity projects that attest to the ruler’s eminence; and the presence of bureaucracies that enable violent dominance hierarchies. While the evidence from pre-history suggests an ongoing struggle to ward off authoritarianism that sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, there seems to have come a point in time when authoritarianism won. Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome, Ancient Greece – all were deeply stratified societies held together mostly by authoritarian government, slavery, acts of violence and the subordination of women.

Elsewhere I have written about the idea of pathocracy whereby a violence minority, characterised by excessive narcissism, greed, and absence of conscience, can come to hold sway over a society. Such a situation, however, requires social structures that enable and support such a minority to hold power over the dominated majority. The Dawn of Everything argues that such conditions came about at a point in pre-history when three elementary forms of power – control of violence, control of knowledge, and individual charisma – came together to reinforce one another. Once this configuration coalesced, they argue, it has been exceedingly difficult to reverse it. And such reversal has become ever more difficult over time as societies have grown in scale, bureaucracy, and technology.

Graeber and Wengrow point to Ancient Egypt as the architype of what we mean by the State, simply because it was one of the first societies we know of that resemble the modern state – it has a ruler (the Pharaoh), and an administration capable of enforcing the ruler’s will. Up to this point in history, this was not at all typical of what had been happening. As the Dawn of Everything illustrates, ancient kings were rarely able to enforce their sovereign power of violence systematically upon the populace. For most of pre-history, the Isolated God King was the real dynamic of sovereignty. In the absence of an effective administration, rulers tried to establish the arbitrary nature of their power through violence. Their subjects, in turn, would either avoid contact with them or try to surround their god-like sovereign with such an endless maze of ritual restrictions that they became effectively isolated in their palaces. Under such circumstances, it is not clear how effective such elites were in restricting the basic freedoms of the populace. In stark contrast, in modern states the same power is magnified exponentially to reach potentially every individual because it is combined with the second principle, bureaucracy. The combination of sovereign power (violence) with advanced methods of collecting and analysing information (bureaucracy) has made possible the path from Ancient Egypt’s mighty Pharaohs to today’s surveillance states and totalitarian regimes.

The evolution of the state since the time of Tutankhamun has seen a third source of power – charismatic individuals – coalesce with sovereign power of violence and far-reaching bureaucracy to define the modern democratic state. This combination dd not exist in anything like its present form either in pre-history or in ancient history, although each of the individual elements did.

The current modern state then is not a constant in history, or an inevitable result of an evolutionary process, but rather the confluence of three forms of domination with separate histories and origins. When these elements came together at some point in pre-history, the resulting structure was suited to the empowerment of authoritarian personalities. These personalities then cemented their power by imposing a layer of dominance and extraction upon the underlying foundation of every society homo sapiens has ever created – the flexible social arrangements that enable enriching human relations and lives of meaning.

The Dawn of Everything, as well as offering an explanation for our current predicament, also urges us to reflect on the fact that our species’ future now depends on imagining a different social reality. The inequalities and hierarchies that empower dangerous individuals are now an existential issue. Authoritarian leaders threaten not only to undermine democracy but also to derail pathways to sustainability and greater human flourishing. Under our present circumstance, Graeber and Wengrow urge, we must not only imagine alternatives, we must also rapidly create them.


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