Newsletter #7: The Immense Possibilities at the Heart of Our Past and Present, with David Wengrow

by William Harris

At a time when academia was becoming more and more hyper-specialized, the late David Graeber was a rare generalist. He was a committed activist and scholar who believed we could understand the kind of better society humans are capable of building by telling vast stories and asking daring questions about our lives together in the past, present, and future.

This is what led him to become an anthropologist. He wanted to study existing social forms in all their diversity, from his doctoral fieldwork in rural Madagascar to his polemic against the braindead hellscape of twenty-first-century “bullshit jobs,” while also writing expansive histories that show us how the world wasn’t always the way it is now — and therefore might be different in the future.

After completing the monumental Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber spent much of the last decade of his life researching an even more ambitious project alongside his friend and intellectual inspiration, the archaeologist David Wengrow. The fruit of that research is a new co-authored 700-page epic by Wengrow and Graeber, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity— and also the subject of a mind-expanding new episode ofThe Dig guest-hosted by Astra Taylor.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with David Wengrow here.

At its most sweeping, the mainstream view of human history goes something like this: we once lived in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands. With the rise of agriculture, these bands gave way to complex forms of hierarchy, class structure, and bureaucracy. This is a myth, Wengrow argues. Exploring an incredible range of sources, from French Enlightenment texts to Native American folklore and understudied archaeological sites in Mexico and Ukraine, Wengrow and Graeber uncover a history of revolutionary contingency, in which slave-holding hunter-gatherer societies develop next to egalitarian ones, diverse regional social networks are replaced by the narrower social worlds of cities and nation-states, settlements full of palaces and temples are felled in favor of the large-scale construction of spacious social housing, and the seeds of the Enlightenment lie not in Europe but in the rich cultures of debate and persuasion found among Indigenous societies in the Americas.

The real human story, Wengrow argues, is one of immense variation in social organization — and therefore one of immense possibility.


Further Reading and Listening

There have been numerous tributes to David Graeber written in the year since his death, all testifying to his brilliance, warmth, and importance to left thought. AtSalvage, James Meadway wrote one of the most wide-ranging of these tributes, which along with Benjamin Kunkel’s reviewofDebtin theLondon Review of Booksserves as a great introduction to Graeber’s work. To explore further this week’s look into indigenous history in the Americas, check out guest host Astra Taylor’s Dig interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.