Dawning on You…

A review of David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

This might have been the most disappointing read of my life.

Okay, let’s backtrack a little. When The Dawn of Everything was released a couple of months ago, it seemed to be embraced – indeed, loved – by everyone. “Instant” was the name of the game. The publisher proudly advertised the book as an “instant New York Times bestseller”, and Jacobin, the mouthpiece of modern-day democratic socialism, hailed it as an “instant classic”. This sets the bar high for everyone picking up the volume, to the point of feeling there has to be something seriously wrong with you if you don’t love it (or at least not as much). Now, with certain personalities (immature? difficult? obnoxious?), there’s also an instinct kicking in that will mainly look for the flaws, as you’ve already heard enough about the perks. I’m afraid I fall into this category. It has to be kept in mind when reading the following comments – and I might as well add, just for the record, that the admirers of The Dawn of Everything have their points: yes, it is an engaging read, it is very informative, and that it stands on the right side of history. Let’s add, too, that I myself am an admirer of David Graeber, whose work I translated into German before anyone knew who he was. (I do not know David Wengrow but have no reason to believe that he’s anything but a great chap.) With all that being said, what are the problems I have with the book? I’ll try to summarize them in five points.

1. The claims are, quite frankly, ridiculous. The first chapter announces no less than “a completely new account of how human societies developed over roughly the last 30,000 years”, “a new world history”, even “a new science of history”. Come on. This sounds more like someone’s peddling their work on the market of ideas than trying to engage in earnest intellectual debate, of which the ability to put your own work into perspective is a key ingredient.

2. I cannot relate to the very premise of the book. The authors suggest that the key question that people interested in human history are asking is whether humans are “innately good or innately evil”. I do recall having such conversations with high school peers back in the day, but if this has been a major public debate over the past 30 years, I must have missed it (possible, of course). And when the authors complain that, in this context, the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (humans are innately good) and Thomas Hobbes (humans are innately evil) have become “tired common sense”, I’m wondering whether that wouldn’t apply at least as much to presenting indigenous societies as “neither devils nor angels (but) human, like the rest of us”. Go figure.

3. The book reveals a curious understanding of historiography. The authors say that the “aim in this book is to start putting some of the pieces of the puzzle together, in full awareness that nobody yet has anything like a complete set”. “Yet” seems to be the key word here, as the 700 pages that follow seem to leave little doubt that the authors are very close to completing the set. The very last sentence of the book says, in reference to common ideas about human history, that “we are in the presence of myths”, which suggests that the study presented by the authors has got us closer to … yes, what exactly? The “truth”? At times, Graeber and Wengrow don’t hesitate to cite “scientific evidence” and “the facts” to bolster their claims, but there is not even the remotest of discussions of what “historical truth” actually is, of how it can be distilled from the information we have, or of whether it exists at all. The truth is (pun intended) that – especially when dealing with events that happened thousands of years ago and across the entire world – the puzzle you are working on will never be complete and the pieces will be reshuffled over and over again. Some images (myths) will be more reasonable, realistic, and convincing than others, but there can’t be a final winner. When we write history – especially of this scope – myth will never be clearly distinguished from truth, and all we have are different levels of approximation and plausibility.

4. In his preface, David Wengrow says that writing The Dawn of Everything began “as a diversion from … more ‘serious’ academic duties: an experiment, a game almost”. Fair enough, and it sounds like fun. But it’s also how the book reads – which is not a problem as such, as scholars should be allowed their streams of consciousness, too. The problem this entails, however, is that the point of it all sometimes seems to get lost. What, indeed, is the point? To prove that “hardly anyone in our fields seemed to be doing this work of synthesis”? To remind us that history isn’t “dull”? To remind us how “diverse” history is? I’m curious about whether The Dawn of Everything will have the longterm success enjoyed by another “instant” scholarly classic, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Empire, which appeared in the year 2000. Whatever you might think of it, it had a clearly identifiable thesis, namely, that the age of the nation state was over. In The Dawn of Everything, I can find no equivalent.

5. In some of the rave reviews of The Dawn of Everything I have read that the book “offers encouraging new directions for social change” and “opens possibilities for different, maybe more creative and liberating, arrangements for contemporary and future society”. I have not read why or how. It seems that people believe that The Dawn of Everything must be a politically progressive – perhaps even anarchist – book because David Graeber is involved. But it isn’t. Anarchism doesn’t feature at all, neither does any theory about revolutionary change. Graeber and Wengrow do point out that our ancestors have moved “back and forth between different forms of social organization”, implying that this should be possible even in the future, but a) that’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation, and b) it doesn’t say anything about the directions this back and forth will take. Things could get better, but they could also get worse. Now, I don’t think it was the authors’ intention to write anything about how to secure emancipatory social change (otherwise, I assume, you could at least see an attempt), so you can’t blame them for not doing so. But readers, no matter how enthralled by it, should not turn it into something it is not. That would be – a myth! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Needless to say, you could do much worse than spend 30 bucks on an entertaining 700-page book (that will teach you more than just a thing or two), put the cell aside for a few days, and go on a reading binge of old. It will also allow you to join the debate, and, most importantly, form your own opinion.

Gabriel Kuhn

(January 23, 2022)