If you feel disillusioned with the political and social status quo, you are not alone. The list of global and more localized existential threats is daunting, including pandemics, inflation, political polarization, mass shootings, offensive warfare, and climate change. We seem unable to course-correct. Doing so would require collective action. But institutions such as nation states, and international entities such as the United Nations, World Health Organization, and International Monetary Fund, have not successfully dealt with recent urgent crises that have a huge impact on our lives. Any illusion that the free market would lead to private initiatives that benefit us all have also been shattered. Gargantuan companies such as Amazon, Shell, and Unilever call the tune with little, if any, public oversight or right of appeal, while evading environmental and worker regulations, and taxation.
To this dreary status quo, anarchists present an alternative that sounds, on the face of it, attractive: governments should be consensus-based, egalitarian, and rooted in mutual aid rather than institutionalized greed. However, history appears to tell us we cannot maintain such a utopia while also enjoying the fruits of a complex society. These include advanced technology, effective medicine, and military defense. For these we need nation states and larger international organizations, or so it seems. Technologically advanced anarchist societies, such as depicted in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), belong to the realm of science fiction. As recent bestsellers such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and Yuval Harari’s Sapiens (2011) argue, societal progress requires us to accept rigid political structures and institutions rooted in hierarchy and inequality. The more complex a society becomes, the more centralized and hierarchical it will inevitably be.
The core argument of anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) is that the way we organize political and social life is neither desirable nor inevitable. The book incorporates insights that have already been stirring up academia, notably archaeology, to argue that human beings are creative in the social forms they choose. We’re not bound on a linear path of increasing hierarchy, because we have lived in large and complex but non-hierarchical collectives before, and so it is possible to do so again. As a survey conducted among archaeologists in 2012 shows, members of the field no longer take for granted that increased social inequality is inevitable and better. Graeber and Wengrow agree, and take the point a step further, to weave an intriguing story of how humans fell into their current malaise.
Graeber, who passed away in 2020, was an anthropologist and left-wing anarchist who played a role in fomenting the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. He was the author of bestsellers such as Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018), which present trenchant critiques of capitalist society. Wengrow is an archaeologist who has written, among other books, What Makes Civilization (2010) and Origin of Monsters (2014). In the present book the authors promise a “new science of history, one that restores our ancestors to their full humanity” (p. 24). Do they deliver?
The book does many good things. It offers a valuable exercise in philosophical genealogy by digging up the origins of our political and social dysfunction. It brings to the broader public insights that have been stirring in archaeology on how social complexity does not require states. It provides a new hypothesis on the role of Indigenous critique in Enlightenment political philosophy. However, the work is spotty on the details and ultimately leaves unanswered the critical question of how we “got stuck” in our current predicament. Graeber and Wengrow succeed in showing us that different ways of life are possible, but we don’t get a clear picture of what an alternative would look like for us today.
A Genealogical Investigation
The central question Graeber and Wengrow aim to answer is how we “got stuck” with our current suboptimal structures of government and social relations, in which we have lost many of our practical freedoms, notably our freedom from domination by others. The authors focus on three human freedoms they consider primordial, “the freedom to move; the freedom to disobey orders; the freedom to reorganize social relations” (p. 362). For the largest part of human history, we took these freedoms for granted, but along the way we lost them. Humans nowadays grow up in social structures that are predetermined and rigid. For most of us it is not easy to move to a place or society where we want to live. Numerous institutions, including police, the judiciary, prisons, schools, and places of employment, keep our behavior within a very narrow bandwidth. Think about how you spend your day. It’s likely that your employer or school has a huge influence on how your day unfolds, almost from the moment you get up to when you go to bed. How did we come to give up our freedoms and live our lives without even realizing what we have lost?
Graeber and Wengrow offer a sprawling revisionist history that shows that early agricultural sites, grand monuments such as Göbleki Tepe in Turkey, and ancient cities such as Teotihuacan in Mexico and Harappa in Pakistan, are not merely signposts in a linear march toward our current states and institutions. Rather, these show us how diverse were social organizations and ways of life throughout the course of human history. Our current nation states are neither inevitable nor the best way to organize human social life. Humanity throughout its history was more inventive, more experimental, and freer than it is today. Graeber and Wengrow’s underlying approach to human flourishing is akin to the capability approach developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum: humans, in order to thrive, need to have actual freedoms, not just freedoms in name only. For example, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had more genuine freedom to move from one place to another. By contrast, in our current societies, freedom of movement is curtailed by passport restrictions, visa rules, and immigration bureaucracy for all except a tiny wealthy minority. If we feel “stuck” in our current lack of freedom and constrained way of life, the past shows us that we can choose a different path.
Though not written by academic philosophers, The Dawn of Everything is at heart a philosophical project. It revives the philosophical genre of genealogy. In his 1977 essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Michel Foucault argued that genealogical investigation of the concepts and institutions that govern us are vital to help us understand them. Take the gendered division of labor, the nation state, and the prison system. These are institutions we take for granted in our daily lives. They are part of the fabric of our reality. We don’t question them, any more than we question why we are subject to the earth’s gravitational pull. Many of us think it’s obvious that criminals ought to be incarcerated, and the state should be able to tell people what to do, including sending them to war and collecting taxes. However, if we examine these human institutions, we find that they have a history that can be described. For example, as Foucault argued in works such as Discipline and Punish (1975), incarceration was, for the longest part of history, and across cultures, not the main way to deal with criminal offenders. This is where genealogies come in. Genealogies are non-linear histories of institutions and concepts, where coincidence, struggle, and power play important roles. They help us realize that our institutions are not inevitable after all. This understanding doesn’t necessarily mean we can just get rid of them. But genealogy provides a starting point to begin to envisage alternatives to our way of life. This is why, as philosopher José Medina and others have recognized, genealogy is a crucial part of the project of social change.
Foucault’s 1977 essay cautions that genealogy is not easy. It requires patience; it is “grey, meticulous, and patiently documentary” (p. 139) and requires a nuanced examination of historical evidence. Graeber and Wengrow’s sprawling new history of humanity is an exercise in Foucauldian genealogy. Using evidence from archeology, cultural anthropology, and history, they aim to demonstrate two things. First, the central elements of the nation state steering social and economic complexity—namely, three forms of social control: violence, information, and charisma—aren’t a package deal. Second, complex human societies are possible in the absence of states and strict hierarchies. Contrary to received wisdom, such societies were common in the past. If these two claims are correct, then perhaps nation states aren’t inevitable after all.
The Indigenous Critique
Graeber and Wengrow begin and end their new history of humanity with the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Heartened by early science’s many successes, Enlightenment philosophers expressed optimism about the power of human reason. At the same time, they worried about the limits of our reason, not only in the domain of science, but also in our ability to organize our communal life. During this period, many intellectuals began to question the status quo of social, political, and economic inequality. Like today, a small portion of society enjoyed vastly more freedom, power, and wealth than the majority. During the ancien régime, authorities claimed that God had ordained that the nobility had a natural right to their property and rule. But Enlightenment authors were dissatisfied with this explanation.
What spurred this change of attitude? In the first part of their book, Graeber and Wengrow argue that “American [Indigenous] intellectuals … actually played a role in this conceptual revolution” (p. 35). Their point of focus is Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan’s Curious Dialogues Between the Author and a Savage of Good Sense (1703). The book presents a series of dialogues between the author, who served in the French military in Canada, and Adario, whom Graeber and Wengrow identify as Kondiaronk, a Wendat chief. (The Wendat are a confederacy of Iroquois-speaking bands of the Huron Nation situated in Quebec.) Adario criticizes European governments and culture, contrasting them with the lack of coercion, personal wealth, and physical punishment in his own society. Lahontan’s work was immensely influential. He helped to shape a genre of purported discourses of intellectual Indigenous people (for example Telliamed (1748), a proto-evolutionary work in which a purported Indian intellectual discusses the origin of species with a French missionary). These dialogues became part of popular culture in Western Europe, as can be seen in the Baroque opera Les Indes Galantes (1736) by Jean-Philippe Rameau, in which one of the Native American characters, who is also named Adario, sings the praises of his “peaceable forests” and his simple life, free from property. Such dialogues became a genre for critiquing the established order.
The scholarly consensus, as Graeber and Wengrow readily admit, holds that Lahontan’s Dialogues are fictional. Martine Thiébaut, for example, concludes that even if the dialogues contain some genuine ethnographical and historical details, the American backdrop merely serves to paint a utopia that contrasts with the European social reality. Under the conventional view, works that appeal to Indigenous critiques of European society are mere sock puppetry: the arguments of European authors are put in the mouths of Indigenous intellectuals. Other interpretations find greater merit in the veracity of the dialogues. As David Allen Harvey, a scholar of the French Enlightenment, notes, Lahontan presents a complex case of proto-ethnography: throughout his works (he published two other volumes about his American voyages as well as a rudimentary dictionary), he has a more detailed eye for local culture than many other early travelers. So, while the Dialogues do not constitute a faithful record of conversations, they might contain some elements of genuine ethnography. By contrast, Graeber and Wengrow argue that Adario (Kondiaronk) was a genuine Indigenous critic and that the Dialogues are at least in part a record of what he said. He was a flesh-and-blood intellectual whose views had as profound an influence on the Enlightenment as its other celebrated thinkers.
The idea that Indigenous authors could have contributed to a Western discussion on inequality is refreshing, and I think this should not be dismissed out of hand. For too long, Western scholars have simply assumed without argument that the globalization of knowledge from the early modern period onward was a one-way street from Western countries to the countries they colonized or traded with. However, as James Poskett argues in Horizons: A Global History of Science (2022), Indigenous contributions to Western thought are numerous, from astronomy, cartography, and biology to many other fields. Moreover, as Peter Park details in Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy (2014), authors of histories of Western philosophy have rewritten these past centuries to deliberately excise non-Western influences from the canon. In light of these omissions, we need to examine claims such as Graeber and Wengrow’s with openness, on a case-by-case basis. I think that their analysis of Kondiarok as a genuine philosophical voice has merit, but they overstate the importance of this work. It is a stretch to assume that among the many different factors that influenced Enlightenment critiques of government, Lahontan’s Dialogues would have had the huge influence Graeber and Wengrow attribute to it.
Contemporary Models of Egalitarianism
Given the importance they place on Indigenous 18th-century critiques, one might wonder whether Graeber and Wengrow think contemporary Indigenous authors, from Africa, Oceania, and other parts of the world could help us gain insight into how to get unstuck. A significant body of work in political philosophy is available to draw on. For example, Ghanaian philosophers such as the late Kwasi Wiredu and Emmanuel Ifeanyi Ani held a long-standing debate on African democratic deliberation by consensus as an alternative to the Western system of political parties. These authors have examined the conditions under which one can reach a consensus that does not require a minority to resign themselves to a decision they find unacceptable. As Wiredu and Ani note, traditional African forms of deliberation could serve as inspiration for alternative modes of democratic governing in Africa and elsewhere today.
However, Graeber and Wengrow do not engage with this literature. Their main discussion of egalitarianism in a recent non-Western context is a classic anthropological study written by anthropologist James Woodburn, “Egalitarian Societies” (1982). Could contemporary egalitarian societies in hunter-gatherer groups such as the Hadza of northern Tanzania and Ju/’hoansi in Namibia provide an alternative to the political organization of nation states? Woodburn examined the social and economic life of the Hadza, who are hunter-gatherers. He overturned conventional wisdom by arguing that egalitarianism is not a simple byproduct of hunting and gathering. Woodburn observed that “Many hunter-gatherers have social systems in which there is very marked inequality of one sort or another” (p. 432). Yet some groups (such as the Hadza) do not seem to have political leaders but tolerate leaders only on an ad hoc basis, such as leading a hunting expedition.
This diversity in social organization among hunter-gatherers requires an explanation. According to Woodburn, hunting and gathering is a mode of subsistence that allows for egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is the deliberate collective choice not to be dominated by fellow human beings. Woodburn used the term “egalitarianism” rather than “equality” to emphasize the deliberate political choice that some groups make. He drew a distinction (now standard in anthropology) between two kinds of hunter-gatherer subsistence systems: immediate-return systems where fruits of any labor (e.g., hunting and gathering, childcare, tool repair) are immediate, and delayed-return systems, where food can be stored and accumulated to some extent. Egalitarianism occurs only in immediate-return systems. Achieving egalitarianism requires deterrence against self-aggrandizers, bullies, and coercers. For example, the Ju/’hoansi frown upon hunters who boast. They are expected to be especially generous and humble.
Woodburn emphasized that hunter-gatherer groups can exert agency and choice. Egalitarianism represents their determination not to be coerced and dominated by a small class of elites. However, Graeber and Wengrow are less sanguine:
What [Woodburn’s view] suggests is … that any equality worth the name is essentially impossible for all but the very simplest foragers. What kind of future might we then have in store? At best, we could perhaps imagine … that it might be possible, at some point in the distant future, to create something like a society of equals once more. But in the meantime, we are definitively stuck. (p. 129)
Graeber and Wengrow do not think immediate-return systems can provide a model to help us get unstuck because the members of these cultures have so few material possessions. However, we have to be careful in identifying cause and effect here. Perhaps social egalitarianism allows the Hadza (and other immediate-return groups) to be free of the accumulation of goods. Everything gets distributed because successful hunters are expected to share, and wealth is not stored. This means members of such groups have to worry less when they fall on harsh times. Consider: if you have to pay for your college education or to provide for yourself in your old age, it makes sense to have a college fund or a pension fund. However, in societies where college education is a public good and the welfare of older people is a public responsibility, you don’t need a college fund or pension fund. Similarly, immediate-return hunter gatherers can pool risks and resources through networks of gift exchange, such as the hxaro among the Ju/’hoansi. Moreover, their lack of wealth accumulation certainly does not preclude cultural complexity—as, for example, imaginative story-telling and elaborate oral culture around Ju/’hoansi campfires suggest.
Graeber and Wengrow focus on Lahontan’s Dialogues and its purported role in Enlightenment critiques of Western government. But to help us get unstuck today it is equally important to look at more recent work, or to examine contemporary Indigenous societies where welfare is a shared public responsibility, and where egalitarianism is prized. Later work that takes up Graeber and Wengrow’s project would need to cast a wider net, drawing on rich sources of Indigenous political theory from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
Opening Up Archeological Interpretation
Archeologists are acutely aware that their personal experiences and cultural preconceptions influence their interpretations. The archeological record is patchy, incomplete, ambiguous, and underdetermined. It’s easy to fill the gaps by projecting our own social structures onto people who lived thousands of years ago. Thus, it’s laudable to be cautiously open to reinterpretations of archaeological evidence.
We moderns tend to think that the complexity of states requires centralized social control. Graeber and Wengrow, however, devote many pages of The Dawn of Everything to detailed archeological case studies that show human history is littered with exceptions. You can have large cities without having states. Early large settlements were organically growing entities in the absence of a centralized “civilizing” government.
Graeber and Wengrow’s argument here is not as revolutionary as they assert. Several other archaeologists, such as Justin Jennings in his book Killing Civilization (2016), have made similar arguments, albeit for a more exclusively scholarly audience. Graeber and Wengrow challenge the linear picture in which a march to increasing complexity and coercion is inevitable. They do so by reinterpreting early cities such as Harappa and Çatalhöyük (in Turkey), arguing that these were ruled by consensus of their citizens rather than a central, hereditary elite.
One of the most intriguing case studies in the book is purported evidence for inequality in Late Pleistocene Eurasian burials, in the form of grave gifts. Archaeologists commonly see grave gifts as evidence of social inequality: only wealthy elites would be deemed worthy to be buried with (and so, effectively, to throw away) precious objects such as weapons or beads. But do grave gifts mean inequality? Consider the presence of perforated shell beads in a grave in Qafzeh (Israel), dated to about 92,000 years ago. The site now lies at a distance of about 50 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea. Given the absence of other marine resources (such as fish bones) at this location, it is reasonable to assume that these shells were obtained through exchange with groups who lived closer to the coast. Another example are red deer teeth in a burial in Saint-Germain-la-Rivière (France) from around 15,500 years ago. The scarcity of red deer in archaeological layers of the site as well as the similarity of the teeth, which look like they were selected for size, suggest that they were precious imports. Most spectacular among these early findings is the triple burial at the Russian site of Sunghir, dated to about 34,000 years ago. The bodies were buried alongside spears and bracelets. They were covered in ochre and dressed in parkas that were decorated with thousands of mammoth ivory beads. Given the time it takes to carve one such bead (current attempts to copy them take at least 30 minutes per bead), the common interpretation of these findings holds that social inequality began early in prehistory. Archeologists who propose such interpretations (such as Marian Vanhaeren and Francesco d’Errico) speculate that people in prehistory may have had hereditary elites who were deemed worthy enough to “waste” exotic, rare, or precious objects on when they were buried.
However, as Graeber and Wengrow point out (correctly, I think), to infer from such evidence that social inequality and social complexity are a package deal would be too hasty. They propose alternative explanations. For example, grave gifts could be honors bestowed on people who might have appeared physically exceptional (for example, disabled or exceptionally tall). Alternatively, these burials might reflect seasonal patterns of organization rather than static hierarchical social structures. Ethnographic parallels among historical Inuit and Great Plains Native Americans indicate that seasonal patterns of social organization are common. Prehistoric Europeans might have buried their dead more lavishly if they happened to die in times of complex social organization. This may have happened during periods when large groups gathered. Archaeological evidence exists for the aggregation of large groups, which is typically accompanied by big festivals and rituals, with associated lavish display. For example, archaeologist Margaret Conkey argued that Altamira and other cave art sites hosted large assemblies of people. Graeber and Wengrow point to patterns of seasonality in social organizations in Medieval Europe. Such evidence suggests that, across much of human prehistory and history, our social organizations were influenced by seasonal patterns. The rigid social structures of industrialized cultures may be an anomaly.
Graeber and Wengrow are right to maintain that we shouldn’t tie ourselves to views of history that conceptualize social progress in a linear, narrow fashion, from bands, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states. Like other archaeologists and historians, they push back against narratives that place agriculture at the center of increasing social complexity. Agriculture is not necessary for social complexity (as the intricacies of many hunter-gatherers and horticulturalist groups indicate) and does not necessarily improve the lives of farmers. Societies with a steady reliance on agriculture tend to have more work hours, and in many cases their members have poorer health (due to, among other things, monotony in diet and infectious diseases that cross over from livestock). Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, Graeber’s doctoral supervisor at the University of Chicago, famously called hunting and gathering the “Zen road to affluence.” He suggested that hunter-gatherer societies are communities where “human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty—with a low standard of living” (Stone Age Economics, 1972, pp. 1-2).
However, as Graeber and Wengrow demonstrate in their discussion of Woodburn, they are not content with egalitarianism if that is coupled with material simplicity. Their aim is to argue that freedom from centralized political power is also possible in technologically complex societies such as ours. To this end, they reinterpret the archaeology of early cities to present exemplars of sophisticated but egalitarian societies. In some cases, it is hard to make a decisive call either way. Perhaps the Çatalhöyük settlement was egalitarian, perhaps it was not. It is certainly useful to be open-minded about how we interpret archeological findings. But because of the ambiguities in the evidence, Graeber and Wengrow need access to a wide range of tools to strengthen and support their story. This is especially needed because the standard progressivist story still holds a lot of sway.
Tools for a New History
When Friedrich Nietzsche wrote On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), he was telling an ingenious story of how Western, Christian-inspired morality came about. Just imagine, Nietzsche asked us, if it was the result of a Roman slave revolt. Suppose we are compassionate with the poor because disgruntled slaves and the priests they recruited for their purposes convinced us to be! This genealogy was perhaps meant as story more than fact (though Nietzsche, being a linguist, did make effective use of evidence from linguistics and history). Should scholars who currently engage in genealogy be satisfied with telling merely what-if stories?
I don’t think they should. Genealogy is a philosophical project, but it has a wide range of tools at its disposal to study historical phenomena for which our evidence is ambiguous and incomplete, and interpretation is prone to bias. The American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) held that we can find truth, not just a good story, if we use multiple lines of evidence and multiple approaches. Sociology aims to understand human behavior, which is messy and stochastic. Each form of evidence that sociologists rely on has limits. However, Du Bois recognized that they are not all subject to the same limits. So if we rely on diverse methods, we can paint a more truthful picture.
Curiously, Graeber and Wengrow neglect a number of important scientific tools that have become standard in their own disciplines of anthropology and archaeology. These include behavioral ecology, behavioral economics, cognitive archeology, cognitive psychology, and various mathematical approaches to human behavior, ranging from game theory to signaling theory. Although some of these sources (such as work by political economist Elinor Ostrom, environmental scientist Peter J. Richerson, and anthropologist Robert Boyd) appear in their endnotes and references, Graeber and Wengrow do not actively engage with this work. Their earlier publications show they are familiar with them; Wengrow’s Origin of Monsters, for example, uses Dan Sperber’s epidemiology of representations. So perhaps they did not think these newer, multidisciplinary approaches were useful in their argument. But this omission represents a missed opportunity.
Consider, for example, one of the central case studies of the book: the stark cultural differences among Indigenous populations of the north American western littoral. These peoples are roughly grouped together into two cultural zones: “California” and the “Northwest Coast.” Although the two groups lived close to each other and had extensive contact and trade, they maintained widely divergent cultures. Northwest Coast societies, such as the Tlingit and Kwakiutl, relied extensively on fishery. They had decorated architecture, spectacular masks, and lavish potlatch festivals. These cultures can be described as aristocratic court cultures. By contrast, the Californians (whom Graeber and Wengrow compare to Protestants) foraged for nuts as an important staple food and lived in sparse, unadorned houses, without elaborate decoration and festivals.
What explains the differences between these cultures? Graeber and Wengrow argue (pp. 195-204) that we cannot explain these differences by appeal to (a narrowly conceived version of) optimal foraging theory or ecological determinism. However, recent models of how humans and their environment interact are much more sophisticated than such narrow early models. They look at the interplay of ecology, past human choices, and cultural values (for example, Richerson and Boyd’s 2005 work Not by Genes Alone). Unfortunately, Graeber and Wengrow present the intriguing beginnings of an analysis of cultural differences, but their effort falls well short of what is needed.
Instead of these tried and tested contemporary tools, Graeber and Wengrow rely on older sources and are thus subject to the interpretative limitations of scholars of previous generations. For example, they draw on the examination of “cultural areas” by the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872–1950). Mauss was struck by the fact that some societies in close proximity of each other do not adopt each other’s inventions. Chopsticks are not used in Thailand (though they are used in many other nearby countries). Athabascans in Alaska did not adopt Inuit kayaks, and the Inuit did not wear Athabascan snowshoes. Why not adopt such sensible technologies? This observation led Mauss to argue that cultural spheres are formed by an intentional refusal to adopt technologies of other cultures—a phenomenon that Gregory Bateson in 1935 termed “schismogenesis.”
While Mauss’s nearly 100-year-old framework is interesting, it would have been useful to look also at recent work on cultural transmission and how ecology, culture, and social organization relate, as detailed in the work of contemporary authors such as psychologist Alex Mesoudi, cognitive scientist Dan Sperber, and archaeologist Stephen Shennan. (The last two are mentioned in endnotes, but their interpretative frameworks are not meaningfully engaged with.) Graeber and Wengrow might have used this more recent work to try answer two of the book’s central questions: Under what conditions do societies reject hierarchy, and under what conditions do they embrace it? Answering these questions will help us solve the central riddle of the book, the one that made it a bestseller because it is one that burns with ever-increasing urgency in the backs of our minds: “How did we get stuck?”, and by implication, “How do we get out of this mess?” To substantiate a genealogy of why we are in our current predicament of increasingly ineffective, if not oppressive, nation states and inept international organizations, we need a clearer picture of how social inequality arises and under what conditions people can resist it. For this task, we need tools from multiple disciplines, including from the biological and mathematical sciences.
The concept of freedom holds a central place in The Dawn of Everything. The puzzle of how we got stuck in our political and social malaise is in practice a question of how we lost many of our practical freedoms. Graeber and Wengrow argue that freedom was the main issue in Indigenous critiques of Western governance, and that the Enlightenment discussion of the origins of inequality started as a discussion of the loss of freedom (p. 44). If we take their suggestions for non-coercive forms of government seriously, another element relevant to freedom requires attention: mutual aid. Graeber and Wengrow recognize that mutual aid is important (e.g., p. 47), but unlike the concept of freedom, they do not bother to analyze it.
Yet mutual aid is as crucial as freedom to the question of how we got stuck. For one thing, they acknowledge that mutual aid is important for safeguarding many forms of freedom. For example, if foragers move to an ecologically novel place without a local support network, they are doomed, as so many failed early polar and desert expeditions indicate. Very often, the only survivors of such expeditions received extensive aid from local Indigenous people. For example, John King, the only survivor of the ill-fated 1860 expedition of Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills in Australia, was saved by the local Yandruwandha people, with whom he stayed for two months.
Mutual aid is a key element in the work of the anarchist polymath Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921). In Mutual Aid (1902) and Ethics (1922) Kropotkin argued that we have two tendencies that pull us in different directions. We want to help each other and desire other people’s wellbeing, but we also crave individual self-realization and freedom. According to Kropotkin, rather than compromising on one or the other, our political structures should aim to preserve both. Mutual aid allows us to do this. It is a natural, evolved tendency in humans that can also be observed in other animals when they provide help to each other. By providing mutual aid, people can realize individual projects and freedoms without falling into a Malthusian nightmare of endless competition over limited resources. For Kropotkin, mutual aid is a fundamental aspect of human nature. It is just as basic to us as the need for nourishment or self-preservation.
Graeber was an admirer of Kropotkin and co-authored a foreword to a new edition of Mutual Aid. So the lack of substantive discussion he and Wengrow devote to mutual aid is exceedingly puzzling. The authors describe it only sporadically. They mention, for example, how mutual aid sometimes disappears, such as when early Eurasian cereal farmers suffered “periodic raiding from the outside, but also internal labor crunches, soil exhaustion, disease, and harvest failures across a whole string of like-for-like communities, with little scope for mutual aid” (p. 273). They seem to endorse James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, which paints cereal farming as liable to forming unstable and fragile social hierarchies that frequently collapsed under “barbarian” invasion. Is there, then, something about cereal farming that makes it harder to engage in mutual aid? Would it come easier in farming combined with other forms of subsistence? Here they seem to presuppose some form of ecological determinism (which they earlier rejected) in assuming that cereal crop farming makes mutual aid more difficult to achieve.
Unlike Kropotkin, Graeber and Wengrow don’t offer a substantial account of human nature (though they offer more substantive considerations in other works, notably Graeber’s Debt and Wengrow’s Monsters). Rather, they rely on a hazy idea of humans as protean, playful, experimental, and diverse. “Is not the capacity to experiment with different forms of social organization itself a quintessential part of what makes us human?” (p. 8) they ask. However, we need a better account of how freedom and mutual aid can interact, under what conditions they rise or fall, and how they can support each other, if the book is to achieve its central aims. Even the account of humans as diverse and creative requires something about how we can experiment as a group, and not just as individuals. How do humans experiment socially within the constraints of history, ecology, psychology, and relationships to other groups? As it stands, Graeber and Wengrow do not offer such an account.
Their neglect of mathematical modeling might have hampered them in developing this relationship between mutual aid and freedom. Recent additions to the archaeological and anthropological toolbox include game theory and other mathematical formulations to help us capture recurring patterns in human cooperation. To just give a brief flavor of this work, take the use of game theory to model how people can engage in mutual aid through games that are not zero-sum, which we find in Lee Cronk and Beth L. Leech’s Meeting at Grand Central (2013), Michael Chwe’s Rational Ritual (2013), and Herbert Gintis’s Individuality and Entanglement (2017). As these authors show, many cooperation problems are really coordination problems: mutual help is beneficial for all, but humans need to create structures where they can trust each other. To trust others, it is good to know each other’s intentions and plans. It is possible to achieve trust networks of mutual aid in the absence of power hierarchies, as Cronk and Leech’s exploration of the American civil rights movement shows. Their analysis indicates how groups without an established organization quickly develop trust networks based on the flow of information within these organizations.
This insight is crucial because Graeber and Wengrow acknowledge control of information as one of the tools that nation states use to achieve political power over their population. The idea that keeping information from citizens is vital to central control is also expressed by many thinkers, as early as the Chinese legalist philosopher Han Feizi (mid 3rd century BCE) or, more recently, American journalist Walter Lippman (1911-1971). (Lippman argued that access to more information is not necessarily better for civic participation.) By contrast, information sharing is key to many spontaneous and bottom-up initiatives. It popped up recently with many mutual aid initiatives during the pandemic in the United States, such as sharing information about where vaccine doses could be found when these were still scarce. Perhaps, then, governmental control of flows of information that impede mutualistic flows of information might provide a partial explanation of how we got “stuck”?
Mathematical approaches do not deny the diversity and creativity of human societies. Indeed, game theory centers human agency and holds that humans are (broadly speaking) rational. It can explain why people sometimes resort to apparently irrational actions, such as a spiteful act that hurts both the agent and the recipient. But they can help us to discern broader patterns, and notably can help us to answer the central question “How did we get stuck?” because they can show how a confluence of factors can suppress our altruistic tendencies, render them ineffective, or make it individually rational for people to submit to coercive force.
In their concluding chapter, Graeber and Wengrow write: “The three basic freedoms [of movement, refusal to obey, and social organization] have gradually receded, to the point where a majority of people living today can barely comprehend what it might be like to live in a social order based on them. How did it happen? How did we get stuck? And just how stuck are we really?” (p. 503) Frustratingly, they don’t answer their own questions. They don’t even provide a chronology about when these freedoms were lost. They make some gestures toward a confusion between care and coercion in modern nation states as the decisive factor that made us stuck. They focus on the three forms of power (charisma, information control, and violence) and how these can coalesce in modern nation states. But having rejected the egalitarianism of recent hunter-gatherers as a live option and without sufficient details of what institutions in early cities actually looked like, their book is thin on answers about their central questions. I finished the book feeling as frustrated and stuck as I was before opening it.
Genealogy is a supremely important philosophical project. In pursuing it, we cannot avoid the meticulous work that it requires. This effort will have to be multidisciplinary. As Foucault emphasized, genealogy requires a great deal of patience: it is documentary, and by and large unglamorous. A lot of quiet, collective work by scientists and humanities scholars in diverse disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology, game theory, history, and philosophy, is coming together to give us a better picture of how humans have lived together in the past, and how our collective actions shape our institutions.
This ongoing work can help us to answer the urgent question of how we organize our collective lives today, in ways that preserve both our social cohesion and our individual freedoms. As Ursula K. Le Guin said in her speech accepting the 2014 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.
Le Guin referred to her work in literature, as an author of speculative fiction. But philosophy is also an art of words, and in our philosophical genealogies we too sketch the beginnings of alternative ways of life. In close collaboration with scholars from other disciplines, philosophical genealogy holds the power for deep societal change.
The author thanks Michael E. Smith, Eric Schliesser, Neil Levy, Johan De Smedt, Carl Sachs, Giulio Ongaro, and Alex Betsos for very helpful comments to an earlier draft.