Live After Quit

Knowledge in the Service of a Political Agenda is Biased

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
By David Graeber and David Wengrow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021
Xii + 692 pages

The Dawn of Everything, which has already attracted much scholarly attention and is a best seller as well, should be a warning to all academics: do not write about economics or the history of modern Europe if you are ignorant of these subjects. David Graeber, who died shortly after this book was finished, was an anthropologist, and David Wengrow is an archaeologist. Both have written extensively in their areas of specialty, and, so far as I can determine, they are well regarded by some of their fellow specialists. Much of this overly long book is an often tedious description of various archaeological sites around the world, based on extensive citation of fieldwork, but it nevertheless contains valuable suggestions and merits careful study. Even here, though, one ought to be cautious. It does not encourage confidence when they tell us “Teotihuacan’s growth to urban dimensions began around the year 0.” You might have expected that even children in elementary school would know that there is no year zero in our calendar.

Unfortunately, they put their knowledge in the service of a political agenda for the modern world, which they defend with poor arguments disfigured further by gross errors. They are left anarchists and regard capitalism as an evil, “hierarchical” system that ought to be replaced, though by what we are never clearly told. In their account, contact with Indian tribes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries posed a challenge to European intellectuals. Society, they thought, necessarily rested on hierarchy. The lot of a poor peasant was far worse than that of a nobleman, and this might be regrettable, but a society of near equals in power could not exist. Contact with the Indians suggested, on the contrary, that it could and did exist, and this led intellectuals to question the legitimacy of hierarchy in their own societies. “Just about every major French Enlightenment figure tried their hand at a … critique of their own society, from the perspective of some imagined outsider.”

Given this criticism, the defenders of hierarchy tried to strike back. Graeber and Wengrow take the great French economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot to be among these defenders, and they direct much of the argument in the book against a model he developed. According to them, Turgot believed that societies advance through a series of inevitable stages, from savagery to barbarism to civilization. Equality is suitable only for very small societies, and we cannot go back to it. “Turgot would elaborate these same ideas in a series of lectures on world history. He had already been arguing—for some years—for the primacy of technological progress as a driver for overall social improvement. In these lectures, he developed this argument into an explicit theory of stages of economic development; social evolution, he reasoned, always begins with hunters, then moves on to a stage of pastoralism, then farming, and only then finally passes to the contemporary stage of urban commercial civilization. Those who still remain hunters, shepherds or simple farmers are best understood as vestiges of our own previous stages of social development. … In this way, theories of social evolution … first came to be articulated in Europe: as a direct response to the power of indigenous critique.”1

The authors give two main arguments against this model. First, the stages aren’t inevitable: rather, societies at the “lower” levels sometimes consciously choose the sort of economic, social, and political system they wish, and their choices often fail to follow the order Turgot set forward. Second, Turgot is wrong to view our own stage of civilization as better than its noncivilized predecessors. I’ll discuss the latter criticism first, as dealing with it is easier.

Graeber and Wengrow say that the higher value ascribed to civilization rests on the false assumption that economic productivity is the highest social good. “By framing the stages of human development largely around the ways people went about acquiring food, men like Adam Smith and Turgot inevitably put work—previously considered a somewhat plebeian concern—centre stage. There was a simple reason for this. It allowed them to claim that their own societies were self-evidently superior, a claim that—at the time—would have been much harder to defend had they used any criterion other than productive labour.”

In putting things this way, they have wrongly framed what is at stake. The issue is not whether one society is “superior” to another judged from some external standpoint. Rather it is that if a society has a very large population, only a market economy will enable most people to survive and prosper. Further, even if Graeber and Wengrow think they shouldn’t, most people nowadays want a high standard of material goods, and it is of little consequence if there have been past societies in which they didn’t. As Ludwig von Mises points out in Human Action: “The immense majority strives after a greater and better supply of food, clothes, homes, and other material amenities. In calling a rise in the masses’ standard of living progress and improvement, economists do not espouse a mean materialism. They simply establish the fact that people are motivated by the urge to improve the material conditions of their existence. They judge policies from the point of view of the aims men want to attain. He who disdains the fall in infant mortality and the gradual disappearance of famines and plagues may cast the first stone upon the materialism of the economists. There is but one yardstick for the appraisal of human action; whether or not it is fit to attain the ends aimed at by acting men.”

We can now address the first criticism given of Turgot’s theory of stages, and I hope it will soon become clear why I started with their second criticism. Once you realize that if Graeber and Wengrow wish to end capitalism as it now exists, they need to consider whether present conditions make this possible, you can see that their first point against Turgot is irrelevant to their political concerns. That said, their first point is a good one. Unless their presentation of the archaeological data is a total misreading, they do successfully show that it isn’t fixed that foragers who have been exposed to an agricultural society will forthwith abandon their former ways for the new dispensation. To the contrary, they often consciously reject agriculture or adopt it only in part. Further, in a process Graeber and Wengrow, following Gregory Bateson, call “schismogenesis,” societies sometimes adopt practices in conscious opposition to neighboring societies. They write: “Schismogenesis … describes how societies in contact with each other end up joined within a common system of differences, even as they attempt to distinguish themselves from one another…. Each society performs a mirror image of the other. In doing so, it becomes an indispensable alter ego, the necessary and ever-present example of what one should never wish to be.” But if what is at issue is whether a market economy can now be successfully changed to something else, all of this is irrelevant.

Perhaps, though, it is better that Graeber and Wengrow devoted the bulk of their efforts in this book to prehistory, as their forays into the modern leave much to be desired. We learn from them that, “it was only … in the late nineteenth century, when men like Tom Paine came up with the concept of ‘representative democracy’ that the right to weigh in on spectacular competitions among the political elite came to be seen as the essence of political freedom, rather than its antithesis.” Paine died in 1809, and the term “representative democracy” was in use in England in the 1790s. Contrary to what they say, Louis XIV was not one of “the ‘absolutist’ monarchs of the Renaissance”; he reigned after it. Nor are their mistakes confined to chronology. In his On the Demonmania of Witches (1581), Jean Bodin says that women are fifty times more likely to be witches than men, but it is news to me that “he is further remembered today for his profound hatred of women.” The primary reason that Christian Wolff was expelled from Prussia was not his lectures on Chinese customs, although this was a factor, but Pietist opposition to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophy, of which Wolff was considered an exponent. It is also misleading to say that “a warrant was issued for his arrest and he was forced to flee for his life.” He was given two days to leave Prussia, on penalty of hanging, but he did not try to run from an arrest warrant, and King Friedrich Wilhelm I a number of years later tried to get Wolff to return to his university position.

Graeber and Wengrow are right to question stage theories of history, but they pass by in silence the laws of economics that show the necessity of the free market for a complex modern society.

1. I discuss other aspects of Graeber and Wengrow’s criticism of Turgot in my article
“In Defense of Turgot,” Mises Wire, December 10, 2021,