“The Dawn of Everything” is Hopeful
Smart, Research-Based and Hopeful, Wow!
It always feels good to finish a long and demanding book, especially if it helps you feel better about the human race.
Positive feelings are fewer and farther between than ever in the 2020s. It’s In to be Bearish on our species. The challenge is to take it all in, everything that is — and still imagine a future with less suffering, not more.
The authors, Graeber and Wengrow, are not prognosticators. They are, respectively, an anthropologist and an archeologist. They use evidence to make claims about what is possible for us, not to predict what will actually occur.
‘What is possible’ is precisely our predicament.
It’s almost impossible to imagine an alternative to where we’re at, to conjure up any other realistic options. Our current system of social relations, including governance, feels inevitable: There’s so many people who disagree packed into increasingly dysfunctional places, of course we are headed toward authoritarianism.
How else could we cope with our inevitable tendencies toward conflict and eventually violence other than the State abridging our freedom? Even smart think-tank people say we’ve come to the end of history. From here on it’s just a matter of how much the bosses tighten the screws.
I’ve never believed that and I never will. This does not make me hopeful, because hope is about anticipating certain future outcomes, which is not the problem. The problem is even being able to imagine any outcomes at all other than a worse-version of now.
“The Dawn of Everything” says we can imagine other ways of organizing ourselves as humans. It says our current system of state sovereignty, bureaucracy and politics is not what history was always headed toward and it is not the only way we can be together in large numbers.
It says we have bought into a Story about a time when things were small and simple and egalitarian, until we discovered a series of technologies over millennia that promised freedom and ended up enslaving us.
As scientists drawing on massive amounts of accumulated knowledge, the authors completely destroy that Story. Looking at detailed evidence from all over the world, from before what we usually call the Neolithic Revolution to remote societies still in existence today — they don’t see anything like that Story.
What they do see is a crazy quilt of different stories, different ways of small, medium and large numbers of people living together. The version where a central authority grabs as much revenue and power as possible from citizens has happened lots of times. So have other scenarios, including governance by discussion and matrilineal inheritance.
People have been stuck under shitty rulers before, like we are now. Sometimes rulers get overthrown, but not too often. More often people just stop paying attention or go somewhere else, or generations pass on and new styles emerge. The long game rules.
That’s the hopeful part: Human history since the dawn of everything does not prove that we’re screwed. We still might be screwed, but not because it just has to be that way.
If we do turn out to be screwed, it will be because of a failure of imagination — because enough people don’t think of other ways we can be, and then do something about it.
I am not writing a book review. I’m writing about how I feel now that I’ve finished reading, “The Dawn of Everything.”
Part of how I feel has to do with how I feel about indigenous people in North America, today and five hundred years ago. I became aware of ‘Injustice’ at some superficial level during the ‘60s but I was largely oblivious about who was already in North and South America before Europeans came.
The people here were not ‘savages,’ and it is awful to feel that I ever thought that way. I began to learn about the civilizations people here developed in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ award-winning, “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.”
“The Dawn of Everything” builds on her ‘ReVisioning’ of history in ways I never would have imagined — and I’m a history buff with an active imagination.
You ready for this? The book makes a serious case for the whole damn Enlightenment being super strongly influenced by smart Huron-Wendats from North America. Yup.
It’s all documented, no flights of fantasy needed. Highly educated French Jesuits made the long hard journey to the Great Lakes region in the early 1600s to convert the Heathen. They used all their best arguments but nothing worked against the top indigenous (verbal)adversaries.
What’s worse was the best Jesuit debaters were defeated thoroughly and consistently by Huron debaters, especially a guy named Kandiaronk. It was all documented and published and became the 1640s version of a best-seller in France.
Kandiaronk even went to Paris and beat all comers with his argumentation on their home turf. He was a sensation.
So what were they arguing about?
The short answer is they were debating the meaning of human freedom and how to establish and sustain it. The Huron-Wendats believed personal freedom was about
- not having to knuckle under to an authority (Freedom to disobey);
- being able to travel safely and even move somewhere else (Freedom to change location); and
- imagining and creating a new life (Freedom to new create social rules and relations).
The Jesuits were locked into a system in which freedom meant not being treated like property by the King.
It was also the exact time that a new set of secular thinkers and mercantile actors were switching from booze to coffee in a new environment featuring clear thinking and endless talking we now call the Enlightenment.
Maybe the Indigenous people of North America deeply influenced the thinking of an emerging intelligentsia in an emerging hot bed of druggy (caffeine) ideas. Cool if they did. There must have been some influence and not in the direction generally assumed. Great story.
We need to create viable alternatives, now, and maybe if they are sufficiently compelling people will join.
Creating alternatives is the Third Freedom in the informal Indigenous Bill of Rights, argued by Kandiaronk and others. The first two, the ability to disobey or relocate safely, are what scaffold or ensure the Third Freedom. Disobedience and relocation are primarily exercised digitally now. Maybe governance alternatives will be too.
Neal Stephenson, the visionary writer who envisioned the metaverse and coined the term, has launched a digital place that sometime we might consider relocating to.
It is not founded on attacking or displacing the current state-corporate nightmare that is killing the planet. His metaverse will gradually offer another way of being with each other — doing business, educating people, providing health care. That’s the idea anyway. Stay tuned.
“The Dawn of Everything” teaches us that size does not necessarily lead to an abridgement of freedom. The tendency toward power-grabbing is always present, at every scale. Smart places will build in checks and then a second level of safeguards for when the first level of checks stops working as it always does.
The checks in place now are too flimsy. The Emperor is just a pretend-Emperor but the Edicts aren’t. Many people are waiting anxiously to see what happens instead of imagining what could happen.
Everyone who reads “The Dawn of Everything” or gets its message should not beat the drum for resistance but for building something new.
I write about VR and other topics I have no standing to write about on Medium and Substack.
I have a black belt in learning and I’ve been meditating for so long you’d think I’d be enlightened but I’m not.