Updated: Oct 11, 2022
I love obscure histories. I love largely unknown social science dissertations. I love philosophy. I love psychology. And I love sociological crossovers, especially when it's because the authors have set out to disprove their academic or thought "opponents," or everyone in their field. So, obviously, I love the Dawn of Everything. I'm only a few chapters in, so this one may be a multi-post book.
I have long understood that our social order is merely a fiction that we all agree upon (for the most part). But, like many, I do not like our current story. And so I have been thinking for years about what a new social order should look like - and how to get there. In The Dawn of Everything, the Davids point out that what makes humans different from animals is our ability to think politically, and that what makes so many past and present "tribal" peoples studied by archeologists and sociologists interesting is their ability to be flexible in their social organizing. To create a social order, and then change it. Sometimes in the same year, every year. Often 1/2 the year the people were led by coercive authority and the other half not; not ruled at all, or lead only in a social welfare way. "Many Central African forager societies are egalitarian all year round, but appear to alternate monthly between a ritual order dominated by men and another dominated by women." Brilliant!
In our modern western society much of the caregiving and social welfare falls to women, who are undervalued, over worked, victims of violence, and (once again) under political attack. It's written about all the time. So I wonder what are we fighting for. If we save our democracy as it is, are we also preserving our patriarchy? Our social organization in America says that only some of us are political thinkers, and so they should gain and maintain power. That freedom comes only from working hard to gain more resources than our neighbors, friends, and family. This is the fiction we've all agreed to. But its not true, or even what many of us want.
Imagine an America where we're all political thinkers - what could we come up with? How would we define our similarities and differences? Would we define ourselves as innovators & inventors, adventurers, providers, thinkers, and caregivers, rather than by race, sex, sexuality, and religion? Could we have a world like Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined, where everyone is fed and housed, where everyone is free to choose their roll in society, and there is enough to take care of the eccentrics, weirdos, profits, and ill. And where no one works more than a couple hours a day, or at least more than they want to. I imagine in a world where we take turns leading even our daily/monthly lives, women would be less exhausted. There would be less mental-illness, stress, and burn out. We would have less social ills to contend with, so our energy could be spent creating, innovating, and being free.
It's a fun thought experiment, and we are not devoid of ideas. There are plethora novels, tv shows, movies, games, etc. that explore who we can be, how we can choose to get along and organize and spend our lives. it just turns out our ancestors actually implemented these ideas, changed them when they didn't work or circumstances changed or someone came along with a different idea. I think we can too.
The Davids point out that while we've been taught that genius is a one in a million thinker, an outlier, who gets to change the world in his image and get all the money (last part mine), this is complete BS. The great writers, philosophers, thinkers, creators, etc. all live(d) in the context of their worlds. Rousseau, who is credited with the "Nobel Savage" myth so many love to believe is our origins, wrote his essays as part of a wider conversation everyone was having. We might have lost the contest to history, but it doesn't mean he was a man "out of time." Likewise, before WWII everyone knew of cultures that changed their leadership and/or form of governing seasonally. This "common knowledge" would have influenced Jefferson when he wrote "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed.. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive; if they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13 states, independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. the remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure." Or more eloquently, "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..." He goes one about how it takes us a long time, but as he said earlier it really only took the States 11 years to reorganize their political life. The congressional work schedule and term limits are built on the idea of seasonal leadership. And Charlotte Perkins Gilman's fantastic utopian stories Moving the Mountain and Her Land come not from a void filled only by her imagination, but from the common knowledge of other cultures. She took that knowledge and used it to tell a story of how we could be - not going backward , as social evolutionist would have us believe, but by going forwards. She also, like Rousseau uses the discourse of the times, the common knowledge of other peoples, to critique society as she knew it.
Perkins Gilman's criticism still holds true -we're way past over due for a revolution - the question is can we change our social order peacefully or is Jefferson right and we need to water the tree of liberty with blood. Marching for women's rights, lobbying to defund the police and use that money for social welfare, discussing how to change our resource consumption, changing our work "habits" and defining for ourselves how we want to spend our time and live our lives are part of peaceful reorganization. Can our democracy withstand the push and pull of that reorganizing? Can it stand in a new economic structure? Or do we need to start over? Are the calls for a new constitution what it's really going to take?
I'm a bit of a blow-it-up kind of gal, so I'd love to see a new modern constitution written by people who identify as innovators & inventors, adventurers, providers, thinkers, and caregivers, rather than by race, sex, sexuality, and religion. I'd love an economic organization based on caring for everyone and sustainable stewardship of our shared resources. Let's call it communityism. I want rest and creativity to be a regular part of everyone's lives, which means shared social responsibility. There are so many implications to this kind of social organizing, that love thinking and writing about - and watching my fellow community members enact.
Back of the Book:
A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.
For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself.
Drawing on pathbreaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume.
The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom, new ways of organizing society. This is a monumental book of formidable intellectual range, animated by curiosity, moral vision, and a faith in the power of direct action.(less)