Everything Is Just Dandy!

David Graeber and David Wengrow – Ancient History Shows How We Can Create a More Equal World

The Anarchist Library

Author: David Graeber and David Wengrow
Title: Ancient History Shows How We Can Create a More Equal World
Date: November 4, 2021
Notes: Adapted from The Dawn of Everything.
Source: Retrieved on October 7, 2022 from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/04/opinion/graeber-wengrow-dawn-of-everything-history.html.

Most of human history is irreparably lost to us. Our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for at least 200,000 years, but we have next to no idea what was happening for the majority of that time. In northern Spain, for instance, at the cave of Altamira, paintings and engravings were created over a period of at least 10,000 years, between around 25,000 and 15,000 B.C. Presumably, a lot of dramatic events occurred during that period. We have no way of knowing what most of them were. This is of little consequence to most people, since most people rarely think about the broad sweep of human history anyway. They don’t have much reason to. Insofar as the question comes up at all, it’s usually when reflecting on why the world seems to be in such a mess and why human beings so often treat each other badly — the reasons for war, greed, exploitation and indifference to others’ suffering. Were we always like that, or did something, at some point, go terribly wrong?

One of the first people to ask this question in the modern era was the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in an essay on the origins of social inequality that he submitted to a competition in 1754. Once upon a time, he wrote, we were hunter-gatherers, living in a state of childlike innocence, as equals. These bands of foragers could be egalitarian because they were isolated from one another, and their material needs were simple. According to Rousseau, it was only after the agricultural revolution and the rise of cities that this happy condition came to an end. Urban living meant the appearance of written literature, science and philosophy, but at the same time, almost everything bad in human life: patriarchy, standing armies, mass executions and annoying bureaucrats demanding that we spend much of our lives filling out forms.

Rousseau lost the essay competition, but the story he told went on to become a dominant narrative of human history, laying the foundations upon which contemporary “big history” writers — such as Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama and Yuval Noah Harari — built their accounts of how our societies evolved. These writers often talk about inequality as the natural result of living in larger groups with a surplus of resources. For example, Mr. Harari writes in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” that, after the advent of agriculture, rulers and elites sprang up “everywhere … living off the peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.”

For a long time, the archaeological evidence — from Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica and elsewhere — did appear to confirm this. If you put enough people in one place, the evidence seemed to show, they would start dividing themselves into social classes. You could see inequality emerge in the archaeological record with the appearance of temples and palaces, presided over by rulers and their elite kinsmen, and storehouses and workshops, run by administrators and overseers. Civilization seemed to come as a package: It meant misery and suffering for those who would inevitably be reduced to serfs, slaves or debtors, but it also allowed for the possibility of art, technology, and science.

That makes wistful pessimism about the human condition seem like common sense: Yes, living in a truly egalitarian society might be possible if you’re a Pygmy or a Kalahari Bushman. But if you want to live in a city like New York, London or Shanghai — if you want all the good things that come with concentrations of people and resources — then you have to accept the bad things, too. For generations, such assumptions have formed part of our origin story. The history we learn in school has made us more willing to tolerate a world in which some can turn their wealth into power over others, while others are told their needs are not important and their lives have no intrinsic worth. As a result, we are more likely to believe that inequality is just an inescapable consequence of living in large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated societies.

We want to offer an entirely different account of human history. We believe that much of what has been discovered in the last few decades, by archaeologists and others in kindred disciplines, cuts against the conventional wisdom propounded by modern “big history” writers. ​​What this new evidence shows is that a surprising number of the world’s earliest cities were organized along robustly egalitarian lines. In some regions, we now know, urban populations governed themselves for centuries without any indication of the temples and palaces that would later emerge; in others, temples and palaces never emerged at all, and there is simply no evidence of a class of administrators or any other sort of ruling stratum. It would seem that the mere fact of urban life does not, necessarily, imply any particular form of political organization, and never did. Far from resigning us to inequality, the new picture that is now emerging of humanity’s deep past may open our eyes to egalitarian possibilities we otherwise would have never considered.