Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Books: Well, How Did We Get Here?

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

Provenance: This was a Christmas gift from last year, and it has taken me until now (August) to finish it. It was the Big Book of that year, with a lot of properties of the Big Book - it is the size of a brick, it challenges conventional beliefs with a lot of evidence, and has had a lot of articles about it, which is good, because a lot of people are not going to finish the book (I cannot speak for the print copies, but the Kindle versions tell where the readers bailed, and that would be interesting). 

Review: Let's start with the question - how did we end up with so much inequality - states and rulers and classes and control? Conventional wisdom states with a shrug that this is just the way it is, just a a natural and inevitable progression. It is common to blame the discovery of agriculture as the tipping point, which allowed for large concentrations of people (cities) and created the need for people to be in charge to run things (rulers). Two schools of thought emerged from this basic assumption. One is that once we existed in an Eden-like state of nature (Rouseau) and fell from grace when we started running a surplus of basic supplies. The other (Hobbes) is that we've always been a-holes, red in tooth and claw, and farming (and cities that descended from that) just locked us into the process. Regardless of theory, humans themselves had no agency in all this - it is  like a big game of, well, Civilization.

However, what we've been digging up as far as archaeological evidence has undercut these assumptions, and does not support the idea of inevitable "progress". It shows a lot of going back and forth among various types of organization. Our hunter/gatherers were farming, our farmers only farmed part of the year, and a lot of our early cities were suspiciously lacking in palaces, monuments, and other indications of a ruling class. We apparently had large settled social groups in sort of continuous neighborhood, or celebratory locations akin to Burning Man, long before the first king showed up. Graeber and Wengrow flood the field with examples from both hemispheres and from the full span of human history. While they note that a lot of stuff remains to be discovered, I found myself dealing with parts of history that I had only tangential references before, like Harappa, Poverty Point, Chavin Culture, the Gobekli Tepe temple, or the Mammoth houses in Siberia.

The book keys in on three basic freedoms for early culture that are still applicable. One is the freedom to move (to vote with your feet if you don't like a situation) and to have someplace safe to move to, be it asylum or class ties. The second is the freedom to disobey, and early cultures seemed to have leaders only for so long as they are tolerated by the led. Bad leaders get ignored, and even beneficent chiefs and would-be royalty have extremely localized power. The third is to reorganize yourselves into a different social grouping. And the fluid nature of early civilizations is not so much of a rise and fall as an continual change of opportunities and customs. 

Similarly, they define the state (as it eventually becomes) by three levels of control - violence, knowledge, and charismatic politics. The first creates a permanent military, the second a bureaucracy, and the third a justification for supporting the previous two points. There are those early settlements that have one feature but not the other two, and those that have two, but only when you get all three together are we off to races with effective nation-states. 

As someone who builds fantasy worlds for a living, this approach is interesting. Does the Dalelands in the Forgotten Realms facilitate freedom of movement? Does the presence of adventuring party licenses in Cormyr show a State-control version of Violence? Does the presence of an "Adventuring Class" of people itself negate the perils of a permanent, modern state, or does it provide a basis for a temporary hero-culture that lasts the lifetime of the hero?

Further, fantasy world-building has the sense of "Eternal Kingdoms" which have been in place for centuries, while we know that Europe post-Rome and the New World pre-conquest were extremely fluid in their organizations and groups. 

It is a tough book to pick up - 700 pages with copious bibliography and footnotes. But, conversely, it is an easy book to put down. Its style is accessible, and is divided into major sections under sub-headers. This is good because you need some downtime to digest the onslaught of examples and theories in each section. I took to reading a section (or part of one) each night, and STILL walked away from it for a month at a time just to avoid breaking my brain too hard. 

And there are a huge section of footnotes. Some provide further details or alternate takes on the story (1), while others a just a mysterious reference to one of other tomes in the bibliography (2). The end result is that one is flipping back and forth to see if there is something more to tale.

Add to that the fact that, given all the types of civilization under discussion, it is best to keep the Wikipedia open for further research. The tendency to rabbit-hole here is great - finding one reference which takes me to a second, which leads to a third, and then something related, and suddenly I am looking at ABBA lyrics. All this makes for slow going.

What the book does not do is indicate how the State, with its control of violence, knowledge, and politics, became the dominant form in the post-Enlightenment (actually post-Roman Empire) world, and how we can walk away from it, shy of a major catastrophe (and yeah, we've had a handful of them even in this decade showing the inherent vulnerability of such system, but I don't see things changing). That may be for future volumes. The Dawn of Everything shows numerous examples, where we got to this point, then walked away from it (indeed, where the remains of the former nation (Chahokia is used as an example here) is considered anathema, and its lands similar to the Forbidden Zone from Planet of the Apes).

And yeah, there are places in reading this that I felt like an ape confronting a huge orange monolith. Ultimately, this is an excellent volume in that it inspires some deconstruction of the traditional approach to prehistory and early history, proposed in the late 1700s and reinforced with traditional thought today. It looks at potential for what we may discover in the future, and the realization that the arrow of "progress" flies neither straight nor true. 

It is a long road on this book, but worth the trip. More later, 

1) These longer footnote sections (over 90 pages) may provide anecdotal material, or may also offer counter-arguments and then counter-counter-arguments, resulting is more chunks of text, some of it longer than the original mention in the main text. I ended up using one flap of the dust-cover as a bookmark for the book itself, and the back-flap to keep my place among the footnotes. As originally used, dust-covers were only supposed to be used when selling the book, and then discarded. They soon became vectors for selling the book, and later still kept by consumers for ddisplay in their home libraries. Oh, was that anecdotal material?

2) See Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga and McCormick, Towards a Maddening Use of Footnotes, op. cit., e.g., i.e., in media res, omg, lol, 1930