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Anarchooptimism and the history of mankind

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Julia Shtutina – on the book “Dawn of Everything” by David Greber and David Wengrou rawpixel.com

The latest book by David Graeber, co-written with archaeologist David Wengrow, was published in Europe and the United States a year after the death of the famous anarchist anthropologist. Its authors not only propose to abandon a number of outdated concepts of historical science and update popular ideas about it with the help of recently discovered material, but also invite the reader to the future, to reorganize the existing socio-economic structures in favor of freer and more just communities. “Dawn of Everything: A New History of Mankind” has not yet been translated into Russian, but you can read about it in the material by Yulia Shtutina.

David Graeber, David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. N.Y .: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

 The Spanish journalist and writer Arturo Perez-Reverte has a collection of notes called “Con ánimo de ofender”, in Russian translation – “With the intent to offend.” This laudable desire to outrage and shake up the reading public from time to time visits not only journalists, but also scientists, especially if these scientists are anarchists. The most popular anarchist anthropologist in the English-language book world, David Graeber, and his co-author, archaeologist David Wengrow, published their big work The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity in October (in the UK and Canada) and in November (in the USA). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Mankind “). Its heavy-voiced title alone is capable of evoking a sharp and hardly affectionate reaction from many historians. In fact, this is not as dangerous and offensive book as its title might seem, and it is addressed to a lesser extent to the professional community: the authors sought to convey their thoughts mainly to a wide audience.

Peru David Graeber, who died in 2020, owns several sensational books: “Debt: the first 5000 years of history” (published in Russian in 2021), “Delusional work: a treatise on the prevalence of meaningless labor” (in Russian – in 2020- m), “Utopia of the rules: about technology, stupidity and the secret charm of the bureaucracy” (in Russian – in 2016). Greber was cramped in the academic world, he needed a large audience, and he successfully appealed to it. In the essay “Can We Still Write Books on Big Problems?” (original here) Greber reasoned that he wrote “Duty” “without sacrificing scientific rigor” as “a big book of big questions that will be read by many and will cause widespread discussion.” Between the Scylla of easy-to-read non-fiction, which fuels truisms, and the Charybdis of blatantly dark non-fiction, which (perhaps) subverts intellectual clichés, he sought a third path: “An accessible work written in plain English that still seeks to systematically challenge conventional wisdom “. The Dawn of Everything, written by him and Wengrou for about ten years, is just such a book. Parts of this work have appeared as separate publications. So, in 2018, the electronic magazine Eurozine published an article “How to change the course of human history (at least, that part of it that has already happened)” It was translated into Russian by the Doxa magazine staff in 2019. In expanded form, the article became the first chapter of “The Dawn of Everything”. Chapter 5, “Many Seasons Ago,” grew out of an article by Greber and Wengrow in American Anthropologist.

Greber and Wengrow set themselves two tasks: firstly, to show how the concepts such as “primitive societies,” which had been firmly rooted since the 18th century, fettered historical science, and secondly, to demonstrate that the existing schemes do not fit in many phenomena that have been thoroughly studied recently, but have not yet leaked from academic texts into the public domain.

The authors of “The Dawn of Everything” are perhaps most irritated by the predetermination in historical literature: any society either evolves into a state – a formation that is repressive by definition, or dies out. Greber and Wengrow point out that complex societies of different sizes can exist for centuries without the need for a state. A striking example of this: the culture of Tripoli-Cucuteni, located on the territory of modern Ukraine and Moldova. Trypillian mega-settlements, the largest of which occupy an area of ​​300-400 hectares (for example, Talyanki in the Cherkasy region), were active for about 800 years, they were home to up to ten thousand people involved in complex economic activities. At the same time, there was neither an administrative center, nor monumental architecture, nor religious buildings in Talyanki. Scientists have not found in the mega-settlements any pronounced signs of social stratification, or traces of large-scale conflicts. Greberu and Vengrow Trypillian settlements seem to be practically ideal societies, at least in the form in which they are now studied. More precisely, if the book was written only by Wengrou, he would probably have limited himself only to the achievements of archaeologists. But the anthropologist Greber seeks and finds modern ethnographic parallels: for example, the economic and social structure of some Basque villages, including the well-studied commune of Saint-Agras in the French department of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques. The residents of Saint-Agras have developed a complex and finely tuned system of mutual obligations and mutual assistance, allowing them to live for decades in a state of equilibrium, requiring neither centralized leadership nor social stratification. Isn’t it an anarchist’s dream?

Greber and Wengrow are most interested in those flexible societies that do not fit into the rigid evolutionary schemes familiar to us from school textbooks – for example, moving from hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. In addition to the same Trypillians who practiced gardening, hunting, fishing, and agriculture, the authors dwell in detail on other groups with a complex multifactorial economy and an egalitarian structure: from the carriers of the Eneolithic Ubeid culture (Iraq) and the Neolithic settlement of Chatal-Huyuk (Turkey) to the almost modern-day Yurok Indians (California). All these groups are united by resistance to economic, climatic and social shocks.

Critics reproach Greber and Wengrow for being too selective in the choice of subjects for discussion, but this is unfair: firstly, the search and analysis of historical precedents is the task of the authors of Dawn of Everything, and secondly, they (the authors, not critics) also meticulously analyze a number of interesting examples where, all other things being equal, an egalitarian world could have formed, but did not. When asked why this happened, Greber and Vengrow answer very carefully. Their preliminary hypothesis is that, for some reason, group identity acquires special value in society, and one of the ways to formulate it is to oppose it to another group. The result is cultural schismogenesis, a term coined in the 1930s by anthropologist Gregory Bateson to explain “the process of creating a split” (this is how Ilya Utekhin deciphers this concept here, on p. 469).

One of the most unexpected chapters of “The Dawn of Everything” is devoted to the theoretical postulates of the authors. They introduce the concept of fundamental human freedoms: freedom of movement, freedom to disobey orders, and freedom to rebuild social relations, and then formulate three basic forms of domination: control over violence, control over access to information, and personal charisma. If we translate this into the terms of the science of the state, then we get sovereignty, bureaucracy and competitive politics. From historical and anthropological studies, formations are known, which Greber and Wengrou call regimes of the first order: they are based mainly on one elementary form of domination. Thus, the Olmecs were ruled by charismatic leaders, and the pre-Inca Chavin cultural community was ruled by priests who controlled access to knowledge. As an example of a first-order regime where control over violence (or sovereignty) would be the primary form, they cite the example of the North American Natchez people who lived in what is now Louisiana. If the regimes of the first order are relatively rare, then the regimes of the second order are more common and familiar to us better: Ancient Egypt combined sovereignty and administrative control, Ancient Mesopotamia – charisma and bureaucracy. Modern societies are often third-order regimes.

Why do Greber and Wengrow need a classification similar to the Venn diagram with its intersecting circles? In order to avoid traditional pyramidal models, where the subject of power is inevitably at the top, and objects deprived of power are at the bottom. According to the authors, in the most rigid construction, a goal, an end result, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as well as a ready-made scheme, into which the researcher puts the facts found, is assumed. But “this book is mainly about freedom,” write its authors; in particular, about freedom from old schemes, from being doomed to them. It is no coincidence that they are referring to the old story of Ursula Le Guin “Leaving Omelas”. In this parable, the city’s happiness depends on the suffering of one child, and only a few are ready to abandon utopia and go into the unknown. Despite their chronic teleological irritation, Greber and Wengrou set their book on a goal: to persuade readers to reconsider the established order of things and to start building a better society.

In the aforementioned essay by Greber, “Can We Still Write Books on Big Problems?” there is a remark: “the wide audience is not worried about the delusions of other scientists.” In other words, the author of a popular book is not obliged to wash academic dirty linen in public: for this case, there are monographs, special journals and, at worst, footnotes. This explains a lot in the book “Dawn of Everything”: the authors mention some things on the fly without going into details. So, in one of the last chapters, they paint an idyllic picture of Minoan Crete, and refer to the wonderful, but pretty outdated work of the Dutch researcher Henrietta Grunevegen “Stopping and Movement: Reflections on Space and Time in the Fine Arts of the Ancient Near East” (1951), ignoring this is almost thirty years of discussion about human sacrifice on the island in the era of interest to them. And there are many such problems in the book – enough for one of the reviewers, Daniel Immerwar, to write in The Nation magazine that Greber, with his scale, is enough to be interesting and not necessarily to be right. This is a very accurate observation.

Generally speaking, history is such a pessimistic area of ​​knowledge, in which everything has already ended, and the researcher puts the puzzle together in pieces, preparing in advance that the complete picture cannot be put together. Russian historians, those one and a half centuries grow up with the same quote from Klyuchevsky: “History teaches nothing, but only punishes for ignorance of the lessons.” It is either a matter of anthropologists who observe life in development: here they are practically invariably optimists. Greber and Wengrow wrote a book full of optimism: there is a way out, the fate of humanity is not only not straightforward, it is generally nonlinear.

There are precedents for good outcomes, and why not seriously try to do something in this direction.

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