Is the Doom of Humanity Really Inevitable? Maybe Not.

Yves here. I hate to be my usual downer realist self, but if something like the Jackpot does come, the most likely trajectory is that the decline in what passes for civilization will be steep. So much of what passes for knowledge is now stored electronically. Those media are not long lived (save I believe for optical storage) and what happens when the supply of new chips (and related know-how) becomes scarce or non-existent?

By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

David Graeber, the electrifying social thinker who helped spark the Occupy Movement and challenged our acceptance of crippling debt and bullshit jobs, died at the age of fifty-nine in 2020. Lucky for us, he left a parting gift completed just three weeks before his death — something as expansive, fresh, and invigorating as his mind.

Thought-provoking and even thrilling, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, co-authored with archaeologist David Wengrow, weaves a tale of human history unlike anything you’ve read before. Erudite, witty, and rigorous, the book complicates, if not outright smashes, what we thought we knew about homo sapiens’ 200,000-year journey on Earth so far. This is a book that playfully spins us around with new insights until we are dizzy with possibilities.

As we hunger for something — anything — to lift us from the grim suspicion that humanity is destined to burn, crash, or fade away in lonely desolation, Graeber has laid out a sumptuous feast for thought. Let’s dive in.

Past, Revisited

First consideration: We don’t see others as they are, but load them up with our own assumptions, fantasies, and biases. We do it to our neighbors, and we do it to our remote human ancestors who aren’t around to argue with us – those funny-looking people in western civ textbooks who supposedly march through orderly stages of development, finally arriving at what we call “civilization.” During the Enlightenment, this history-in-stages approach grew popular with intellectuals like Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose fanciful armchair speculations about how we got to where we are soon became taken as facts.

You were meant to pick a team – either Team Hobbes (all was brutish and nasty until kings and cops beat us into submission) or Team Rousseau (we were happy innocents until the Agricultural Revolution saddled us with sad but inevitable property and inequality). Thence you could assemble the kind of social science narrative that has dominated our thinking in one form or another ever since, most recently in Noah Harari’s smash-hit “Sapiens” (Team Rousseau).

Like all origin stories, these tales lodged in our collective psyches explain us to ourselves. And like all origin stories, they conceal as much as they reveal.

Napoleon Bonaparte asked, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Graeber and Wengrow come in to shake off the spell of prevailing fables — not as armchair theorists snatching ideas from thin air but as reviewers and synthesizers of a plethora of tantalizing recent discoveries, along with the work of neglected thinkers who (hello, feminist scholars) who drew ire for their attention to glaring inconsistencies in the established narratives. In doing so, they recover frameworks for the way ancient peoples experienced their world that help us to see that we could be organizing ourselves – socially, economically, politically — on principles much different from those that seem inevitable today. This is heartening.

Among the propositions of Graeber and Wengrow are these:

The authors begin by pointing out that eighteenth-century theories of human history were partly a reaction to critiques of European society offered by indigenous observers. Consider Kandiaronk, a Wendat chief so skilled in debate he could easily shut down a Jesuit, who blew the minds of listeners with penetrating insights on authority, decency, social responsibility, and above all, freedom. Kandiaronk’s critiques, presented in a dialogue form by the Baron de Lahontan in 1703, sparked a whole genre of books voicing criticisms from a “primitive” outsider. Graeber and Wengrow illuminate how profoundly these products influenced Enlightenment thought and helped give rise to social and political experiments (including the U.S. Constitution), as well as defensive strategies to discount such perspectives (also including the U.S. Constitution).

Madame de Graffigny’s epistolary novel of 1747, “Letters from a Peruvian Woman” (1747) tells the story of an Incan princess who rails against the inequality she observes in French society – particularly the ill-treatment of women. This volume, in turn, helped shape the thinking of the economist A.R.J. Turgot, who responded by insisting that inequality was inevitable. He outlined a theory of social evolution posited as progress from hunters to pastoralism to farming to urban commercial civilization that placed anybody not at the final stage as a vestigial life form that had better get with the program. Turgot’s scheme of social evolution started popping up in lectures of his buddy Adam Smith over in Glasgow, and eventually worked its way into general theories of human history proposed by several of Smith’s influential colleagues such as Adam Ferguson.

The new default paradigm formed the lens through which Europeans viewed indigenous peoples the world over; namely as childish innocents or brutal savages living in deplorable static conditions. Everybody was to be sorted according to how they acquired food, with egalitarian foraging societies banished to the bottom of the ladder. The Kandiaronks causing anxiety by pointing out the grotesque conditions of so-called civilization — from the large numbers of starving people to the need for two hours for a Frenchman to dress himself — could now be dismissed. This mindset became prevalent in the emerging field of archaeology, where practitioners churned out biased interpretations of ancient societies that rendered them non-threatening to the modern, capitalist way of life.

Teleological history was the name of the game, and scholars played it endlessly.

Archaeologists fixated on what looked “civilized” to them — mainly large, stratified societies like Pharaonic Egypt, Imperial Rome, Aztec Mexico, Han China, or ancient Greece – the kinds of places where you get big monuments (archaeologists can easily study these), authoritarian rulers, and plenty of violence, usually accompanied by the subordination of women. This construct of civilization rests on the idea of sacrifice: we must give up basic freedoms, like the freedom to object to nonsensical orders, if we want the touted benefits. Maybe we should even give up life itself if the gods or the rulers say it must be so. We can see this today in our own society, with low-wage workers expected to sacrifice themselves for the gods of the market. (Females are deemed especially suitable offerings).

There is definitely something wrong with this picture. Whether you’re a young girl snatched up to serve an Aztec emperor or a woman used as a breeding machine by Texan politicians, “civilization” is not really working for you.

Graeber and Wengrow try to shed the bad habits of their colleagues by presenting multi-dimensional portraits of ancient peoples, going all the way back to the Stone Age, that make them appear less exotic and truer to life. We see them playing, preening, working, and arguing with one another. They build and blunder. They try new things, then toss them aside. Some create societies that are fair-minded and generous, others that are domineering and violent. All are trying to figure out how to live better, and often screwing up. The new narrative that emerges shows that flexibility, experimentation, and a drive to live with dignity and joy are a bigger part of our human heritage than we ever realized.

Graeber and Wengrow posit that certain basic freedoms, like the freedom to move away from a society that doesn’t suit you, or to disobey orders, were seen as precious in many ancient societies—particularly the ones that archaeologists haven’t known quite how to categorize. And these values didn’t disappear the first time somebody planted a crop. The authors provide copious evidence that just because a society feeds itself one way doesn’t mean that a particular social organization or orientation automatically follows.

The familiar story of human social evolution holds that foraging societies were little more than the prelude to the Agricultural Revolution, which purportedly changed everything. The picture was supposed to look like this: Foragers were mobile; farmers were sedentary. Foragers collected food; farmers produced it. Foragers didn’t have private property; farmers did. Foragers were innately egalitarian; farmers stratified. If social scientists found evidence of people who didn’t live by agriculture behaving differently from this formula, they were described as “emergent” or “deviant.”

But Graeber and Wengrow make a strong case that none of this is actually supported by the evidence. They highlight how in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, for example, there was never any “switch” from Paleolithic forager to Neolithic farmer. The transition from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production actually took place over 3,000 years – hardly a revolutionary timeframe. And while the authors acknowledge that agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after farming got going. In the centuries before, people were effectively trying farming out, switching between modes of production, hunting a bit here, growing a bit there. Changing things up as new conditions emerged. Concentrations of wealth sometimes occurred, but other times they didn’t.

What looked like a static picture of the past starts to shift into a colorful kaleidoscope.

The authors argue that instead of an Agricultural Revolution, our ancestors engaged in a lengthy and complex process that didn’t lead to neat categories of social and political structures. They point out that in the Fertile Crescent, some people who were not dependent on agriculture could be quite stratified and violent, while others in neighboring farming areas look much more egalitarian, with women enjoying pronounced social and economic visibility.

There’s no reason, say the authors, to assume that agriculture in remote periods meant private land ownership, territoriality, or a no-return passage from hierarchical arrangements.

They point to Amazonia during the Holocene period, where a “playful tradition” of farming meant that people spent the rainy season in villages growing stuff in a rather haphazard way and living communally, and then abandoned their homes during the dry season to hunt and fish under an autocratic structure, only to start it all over somewhere else the next year. There was no clear line between domestic and non-domestic animals, but something more like traveling zoos of tamed forest creatures that went along with humans for the ride. Instead of a refuge of solitary peoples, Amazonia emerges as home to people with wide, intricate networks over vast distances and flexible arrangements that are difficult to study because they didn’t leave behind tax records and monuments. Amazonians didn’t do agriculture the way the standard narrative says they should for a simple reason: they didn’t have to. Food was abundant enough, and strategies to access it smart enough, that there wasn’t any reason to pick up a hoe or confine yourself to one place.

“Farming,” argue Graeber and Wengrow, “often started out as an economy of deprivation; which is why it tended to happen first in areas where wild resources were thinnest on the ground.” In other words, agriculture was the odd-person-out strategy for survival for much of human history. Its practitioners seem much more prevalent in the past because they built mud houses and stayed in place, thus leaving behind more visible signs.

Graeber and Wengrow point out that it has taken a long time for scholars – let’s face it, mostly white, male, western scholars — to understand evidence under their noses because they couldn’t help projecting themselves backward in time. They looked at a Mayan wall mural and saw a jumble of fantastic creatures rather than a storytelling device that provided detailed information in lieu of writing. They gazed on curvy female figurines and imagined that such bodies could only be valuable for their fertility, rather than understanding that those curves were sagging breasts and rolls of fat representing the bodies of elder women in high political positions. Because “writing” in fantastic painted beasts and valuing older women with authority were alien concepts, scholars just made stuff up.

Blindness to the contributions of women has been a particular blight on our ability to see human history clearly. As the authors note (and many a feminist scholar could have told you), social scientists analyzing early cities and “mega-sites” have tended to concentrate particular types of cultural development, like the easily-visible knowledge of building pyramids or collecting taxes. But the knowledge of cooking and healing, far less visible, (though much more critical to survival), associated with the activities of women, got demoted far beneath the knowledge of things like how to wage war on somebody. More peaceful societies that emphasized the former were misunderstood and ignored.

Graeber and Wengrow show that if we look with fresh eyes, we can see an abundance of ancient cities where even the most autocratic rulers are answerable to town councils and assemblies, many of them affording women equal status. Democracy, in their narrative, isn’t something that sprung up out of ancient Greece fully formed like Athena, but part of a heritage of ideas of governance along egalitarian lines that appeared over and over among ancient peoples. Some ancient cities developed an aristocratic ethos and favored charismatic authority figures, but others didn’t, even quite large ones. Interestingly, the “heroic” type of settlements appear to come after, and in reaction to, the more egalitarian cities. The authors discuss a theory of how settlements with entirely different social and political structures often arise in close proximity, suggesting the influence of “schismogenesis” – a sort of competitive relationship between groups of people that drive them to identify as opposite of each other (think Sparta and Athens).

Graeber and Wengrow suggest that it was by this process of schismogenesis that we got cities ruled by kings instead of councils: “Aristocracies, perhaps monarchy itself, first emerged in opposition to the egalitarian cities of the Mesopotamian plans,” they write.

The case Teotihuacan is one of the most vivid examples in the book of how different things look when scholars put biases aside. The largest urban center of Mesoamerica before the Aztecs, which peaked at about 100,000 people, Teotihuacan had autocratic overlords — but then got rid of them. What looked first to scholars like a static city dominated by monumental buildings and human sacrifice (an indication of powerful rulers and stratification) turns out to have abandoned this structure to focus on shared governance and top-quality public housing, possibly after some kind of revolution. At first, archaeologists took the fancy apartments of Teotihuacan to be palaces, but now it’s clear that most of the city’s residents lived in digs with drainage facilities, beautifully plastered floors and walls, and attractive communal spaces decorated with murals. Evidence of diets indicates that most everyone was eating well. But since the Teotihuacans didn’t leave written evidence, it has taken a long time for scholars to imagine a city likely organized by local assemblies answerable to a governing council where everybody expected to live well.

OK, So What?

If we’re really honest, what passes for civilization today is frequently a system of dominance and deprivation for most people, and one that would have repelled many of our ancestors. Far from living in conditions that maximize our freedom and wellbeing, we struggle with inequality, distrust, powerlessness, and disillusionment. In the world’s richest country, a lot of us can’t even afford a doctor when we’re sick.

Graeber and Wengrow define the modern state, which most of us live in, as a political structure that combines at least two common forms of domination: control of violence, control of information, and dominance via personal charisma (see: American elections). They are societies where power is not widely shared, and where the values of caring and cooperation are emphasized far less than those of competition and possessing more than your neighbor.

The many forms of freedom and enjoyment that early humans obviously deemed essential to life are not accessible to the vast majority. Who can travel about freely with minimal vacation time and insufficient funds? Who can freely reject conditions that don’t suit them? Who can refuse the arbitrary commands that bombard us daily (pay for this crappy service, take this shitty job, do what this racist cop tells you to do)? No one but the very affluent.

It’s really hard to imagine it can be any other way because for the last couple thousand years, most of us have lived under kings or emperors, or, where those didn’t exist, patriarchy or other forms of violent domination. Graeber and Wengrow acknowledge that once established, these structures are hard to get rid of – especially in our mental habits.

But a close look at the diversity and richness of our human history ought to help us to gather the courage to reimagine how life can be better and to put these visions into action. Hints of social possibilities dropped in from the remote past can inspire us with the knowledge that we do not have to accept being bullied by tyrants or plutocrats. By bringing the there and then into the here and now, we can consider that unequal, warlike, patriarchal societies are not the human norm, and are far from normal. Just like our forebearers, we can make choices.

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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    There was light, but now there is darkness.

    The Enlightenment revealed far too much.
    We have been running away from reality ever since, and we’ve come a long way.
    We can’t find our way back.

    Any serious attempt to study the capitalist system always reveals the same inconvenient truth.
    Many at the top don’t create any wealth.
    That’s the problem.
    Confusing making money and creating wealth is the solution.
    Some pseudo economics was developed to perform this task, neoclassical economics.

    Rentiers make money, they don’t create wealth.
    Rentier activity in the economy has been hidden by confusing making money with creating wealth.

    Our knowledge of banking has been going backwards since 1856.
    Credit creation theory -> fractional reserve theory -> financial intermediation theory
    “A lost century in economics: Three theories of banking and the conclusive evidence” Richard A. Werner

    The upward flow of Adam Smith has become today’s trickle down.
    “The labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money. But every savage has the full fruits of his own labours; there are no landlords, no usurers and no tax gatherers.”

    Losing touch with economic reality never does you any favours.
    We now have economists who don’t know what wealth creation is, and central bankers who don’t know how the monetary system works.
    An exercise in self harm that is being felt around the world.

    “Our economy is booming, that must be good. We haven’t got the faintest idea what is really going on” Chinese policymakers after 2008.
    “Our economy is booming, that must be good. We haven’t got the faintest idea what is really going on” US, UK and Euro-zone policymakers before 2008
    “Our economy is booming, that must be good. We haven’t got the faintest idea what is really going on” Japanese policymakers in the 1980s
    “Our economy is roaring away, that must be good. We haven’t got the faintest idea what is really going on” US policymakers in the 1920s

    No one really knows what they are doing.
    The truth was unpalatable, but hiding it leaves us where we are today.
    The chances of anyone sorting this out are pretty slim.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      How bad is it?
      Let’s have a look.

      Hiding rentier activity in the economy does have some surprising consequences.
      We got Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage.
      What went missing?

      Ricardo was part of the new capitalist class, and the old landowning class were a huge problem with their rents that had to be paid both directly and through wages.
      The interest of the landlords is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community” Ricardo 1815 / Classical Economist
      What does our man on free trade, Ricardo, mean?

      Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)
      Employees get their money from wages and the employers pay the cost of living through wages, reducing profit.
      Employees get less disposable income after the landlords rent has gone.
      Employers have to cover the landlord’s rents in wages reducing profit.
      Ricardo is just talking about housing costs, employees all rented in those days.
      Low housing costs work best for employers and employees.

      Who pays?
      It’s the right question, but we keep getting the wrong answer with neoclassical economics.
      Employees get their money from wages and it is employers that are paying, via wages, reducing profit.

  2. vlade

    Re information storage – well, some of it will go down the rabbit hole, but much is still available in paper books around the place. You’d most likely lose last 10-20 years of development, but IMO mostly not because of the knowledge loss as such, but the experience using it (i.e you could know how to do a chip foundry, but knowing it in theory, and doing it are two vastly different things).

    But as long as some fundamental knowledge is kept, you’d come back relatively quickly – most of our knowledge has been accumulated in the last 250 years or so.

    1. The Rev Kev

      The knowledge may still survive but it will all depend on the amount of resources left that can make use of such fields of knowledge. So for a start, you could probably forget trying to run a high-grade microchip foundry as those take a massive amount of resources using ultra, high-precision standards. And the implication would be that microchips would be reserved to either vital machinery or for machinery that is vital to keep running until it can be replaced with a less high-tech dependent type. So having a car with a hundred microchips in it will no longer be possible but a WW2-era style jeep would be eminently usable as it is low-tech. I think that we will find that the situation will get chaotic as we have to decide which technology to keep on using and which to maybe abandon – with different industries trying to claim that their own use of high-tech is ‘vital’ and has to be kept going. If we have to go back to a 1920s-stye lifestyle, I think that we can count ourselves lucky.

      1. vlade

        The answer for this is that it all depends.

        Say, for a die-off scenario.

        It’s a vastly different scenario if majority of the population loss is Africa and Asia (via famine/wars) than if it would be relatively evenly distributed, never mind if it was concentrated in the US/Europe (although even then China can do things both simple and complicated).

        1. PlutoniumKun

          There is a theory that the reason Europe became so dominant from the medieval period onwards compared to China or other advanced regions is that the physical geography of Europe has meant that no matter what upheaval occurred, there were always some ‘islands’ where knowledge would be protected, either in physical form (books), or just as a refuge for intellectual refugees. Many a genius in Europes past had to move to another part of the continent to avoid getting beheaded or burnt at the stake for one reason or another. Hence whenever Europe was hit with a political or natural calamity, there was a fairly rapid spring back.

          While in more homogenous regions, such as China, Arabia or Central Asia, when an empire collapsed, there was generally a mass dispersion and loss of institutional and technical knowledge, meaning the ‘spring back’ period was a lot longer and harder. Unlike your equivalent in, say Rome, or Madrid or Paris, if you were an out of favour artist/thinker/politician/philosopher/engineer in Beijing, there was really nowhere to run.

          1. JBird4049

            While true loss of knowledge still can be great. Look at the Antikythera Mechanism, which not only showed how much more advanced Western Classical Civilization was then we realized, but also indicated that there must have been other advanced industries that we had no idea existed; think of any computer from the last 150 years from the earliest mechanical calculators to the iPhone. All requires many different technologies to be used for their creation, but it was all lost. Worse, their very existence was forgotten and not just the knowledge of the technology.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      I think a key problem though is not that knowledge is ‘forgotten’, but that its overlain with something not as good. We need only look at the history of viral aerosol transmission to see how this can happen. Vitamin C and scurvy is another thing which was discovered, forgotten, and had to be discovered again. Its surprisingly common. China in particular went through several periods of invention, uninvention, and then either having to invent the same things again or import the knowledge of things they actually invented in the first place.

      I would like to take issue though with the implication in the article that archaeologists have only been interested in hierarchies and developed centralised states and that this comes about from male archaeologists fixation with these things. It just isn’t true – you can go back well to 19th century writers and see there were many people studying these things through archaeology, linguistic analysis, ancient literature and anthropology. I don’t think very many academics ever believed that simple models of progress were an accurate portrayal of how societies develop. Its just the reality that it was very hard to gain any insight into the granularity of life in the distant past until modern techniques – in particular DNA and isotope analysis – allowed speculation to be replaced with real data.

      It some cases this data has pointed in the opposite direction to what was expected. For example, the most recent studies on early neolithic peoples on the fringes of Europe has shown that contrary to past assumptions that they were a very egalitarian and largely peaceful society, they were highly stratified with what seems to have been a priestly elite in charge, and may well have been actively genocidal towards hunter gatherers.

      1. vlade

        The replaced-with is a real problem, but that really goes to the what scenario we’re talking. I can, for example, see a scenario where the survivors would be not just forgetting, but actively avoiding past information, blaming it for the end-state.

        There’s just too many possible outcomes IMO.

        Re your second part – I started to write a post on that, and gave up. It’s just too much for a comment, it’d almost be a new post, and writing “the author is wrong” is too short. Let’s just say that history is complicated, and simplified views, in either way, are almost certainly wrong in major ways.

        1. The Rev Kev

          ‘Let’s just say that history is complicated’

          You can say that again. And sometimes that history is full of holes. Lots of people know about the Roman disaster at Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD where they lost three Legions forcing the Romans back behind the Rhine. History is clear on that. But back in 2008, a coupla amateur archaeologists using metal detectors discovered a Roman horse shoe which led to the discovery of a Roman-Germanic battlefield. The problem? It was way, way beyond where the Romans should have been and was two centuries after the Teutoburg Forest battle. And there is no trace in the Roman records of this battle at all much less the entire campaign-

          1. vlade

            Arendt separated objective truths (which is something real) from factual truth, which is societal.

            In your case, the Harzhorn battle is an objective truth, and always was.

            But it was not a factual truth until 2008, because even though clearly there were witnesses to it, it was removed from the society until it was rediscovered. The fact of the battle was lost.

            As she writes, societies build themselves on a set of factual truths, selecting for some, actively discarding others, forgetting yet more.Which of course colours our view of things.

          2. PlutoniumKun

            Thats fascinating, I hadn’t heard of the Battle at the Harzhorn. Sounds like it would have the makings of a good movie.

            There have been vague hints in the archaeology (and in ancient stories) that the Romans may have sent a legion or two to Ireland at some stage. I’m sure punitive raids well beyond the boundaries of Rome were probably not that uncommon given the need to keep soldiers sharp and for remote provincial officials to impress the boss back in Rome.

    3. boots

      Catastrophic knowledge loss doesn’t have to wait for an imagined apocalyptic near-future at all!

      Loss: In health care, 3% of the workforce has been quitting each year, since before the pandemic. Try finding a senior practitioner (of anything: nursing, medicine, etc; generalist, specialist…) with a lifetime of bedside or clinical experience in your community. You can’t. It’s the blind leading the blind.

      Over a century of skill has largely vanished in most clinical and hospital settings in the last ~15 years, without being adequately transmitted. Try recovering it from textbooks or journal publications. (Hint: you can’t.)

      Recovery: Low Tech Magazine has long been digging up low-tech technologies for lower-carbon living from abandoned or neglected history: fruit walls, compressed-air power storage and distribution, human-powered cranes, woven-stick levee stabilization, Chinese wheelbarrows, asynchronous intermittent data networks, trolleybuses, etc.

      Data storage: I’m listening to a 70-year old LP I bought at Goodwill for a dollar. The computers and sensors on Voyager 1 and 2 have run continually in deep space (currently 12 and 14 Bn miles out) for 44 years. CollapseOS is a forth operating system designed to facilitate developing applications on scavenged old consumer chips and capable of being used to replicate itself, allowing for data recovery and basic industrial applications in the absence of manufacturing.

    4. lordkoos

      I read somewhere that after one disastrous historical era (perhaps the year 536 or the dark ages, I can’t recall) the knowledge of how to construct large buildings was lost for over 200 years. This implies a loss of practical mathematics.

  3. marcel

    Almost 20 years ago, having read too much SF, I was thinking about the Jackpot (well, not that name), and creating some kind of “vault” so that people could start over faster than the ~1000 years it took us.
    It would be books, because books only need eyes. Optical disks don’t live beyond ~10 years, and require a lot of technology to exploit them.
    One (well two) of the books I wanted to store in there, are the two volumes of Maxwell’s Treatise on electricity and electromagnetism, because it says all there is to say in that domain. But these volumes also show the limits of what’s possible. One, he uses Gothic script that I can’t read withut help, and secondly, he often cites French or German scientists, restating their french or german texts. So if you want to store books, in what language or font should they be stored ?
    I still think it would be useful to have some kind of a fondational library, with text on biology, chemistry, sociology, philosophy … but who would be able to define what is ‘fondational’ to humanity ?

    1. Skunk

      There’s a book called “The Knowledge: How to Rebuild” by Lewis Dartnell. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard it praised elsewhere.

  4. DJG, Reality Czar

    Parramore overstates the case: Archeology in the West (those nasty guys) has gone through revolutions in the last hundred years. This means less digging up of major monuments and more concern for daily life as lived by our ancestors.

    This has meant:
    –Continuing very careful digs at Pompeii and Herculanum that have turned up household shrines, taverns, and a prepared-food shop.
    –Continuing reassessment of Minoan civilization and why the many wonderful cities don’t seem to have been fortified. But had good sewage systems and flush toilets.
    –Continuing reassessment of how the average Egyptian lived, with much evidence about food and clothing.
    –In Italy, finds related to the “average” Etruscan, Roman, or Greek in Magna Grecia keep turning up, and the museums have plenty of drinking cups, glassware, spindles, loom weights, coins of small value, funerary inscriptions of regular people, statues of popular gods, and what would have been affordable jewelry.

    And I’d ask: Are we truly talking about the Doom of Humanity when what we may be seeing is the end of the Anglo-American hegemony with its many managerial fantasies, its unpleasant religious practices, and its avarice?

    1. Andrew

      And I’d ask: Are we truly talking about the Doom of Humanity when what we may be seeing is the end of the Anglo-American hegemony with its many managerial fantasies, its unpleasant religious practices, and its avarice?

      Life after the collapse may well stabilize into a more harmonious existence for those who survive, but it’s hard to get too excited when we’re all still on the wide end of the funnel.

  5. Henry Moon Pie

    Octavia Butler’s scenario in the Parable series seems the most likely to me. Central government becomes less and less relevant (Joe Biden: It’s the states’ problem. Let businesses enforce vax mandate.). In its place, regional movements, organized around religion/worldview, compete for following and power, primarily by caring for people with food and housing. This competition takes place with the backdrop of Mad Max mayhem and destruction.

    And just like Butler’s world, we can already see one of these competitors: fundamentalist Christianity. What alternatives arise is in the process of being sorted out among all the people for whom Gilead is not an attractive option.

    It sounds a lot like the world Graeber saw in the past where human beings have some latitude in deciding how they want to live together, now without the burden of some nitwit crying, “TINA!”

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      I’d like to add a link to a series of podcast interviews done by Charles Eisenstein whose work has appeared in Links on NC. My interest in Eisenstein was further sparked by this Youtube conversation with Paul Kingsnorth about the demonization of the unvaxxed that evolved into a discussion about myth, worldview, etc. wherein Eisenstein’s views strongly resonated with mine.

      Eisenstein has followed his interest in myth, ritual and worldview and interviewed a collection of people engaged in addressing our many problems, especially climate change.

      Link to Eisenstein podcasts

  6. Roland

    It seems to me that Parramore is as prone to project herself and the thinking of her own times upon the distant past as any of the scholars she derides. Having described the problem, she can’t help repeating it. She doesn’t seem conscious that she herself has simply embraced an agreeable narrative.

    I find it agreeable, too. But I know that the stones don’t tell their own story; we tell them their story. The prosecution’s theory of the case.

    As for our species’ prospects, I take extinction as a given. What species is forever? The question is whether we can last long enough to get a decent rock stratum. “Anthropocene” is still a vanity on our part. So far, from a paleontological perspective, the only lasting artefact of our existence will not be any remains of our own, but rather the abrupt disappearance of many other life forms from the fossil record.

    My own pet theory is that all mass extinctions are the result of sapient outbreaks. A sapient species can waste a whole biosphere within a period of time that is geologically insignificant. The sapient destroyers may not even leave detectible traces of themselves, leaving the future to ponder the cause of the sudden wipeout. They’ll be prone to blame some errant meteor.

    As for this Western Civilization, the signs of “breakdown,” using the word in Toynbee’s sense, are too plain to deny. But remember that most civilizations spend most of their history “in the rhythym of disintegration” (again in Toynbee’s sense). The typical lived experience of a civilization is one spent during what historians would call its stagnation and decline. But, subjectively, is that necessarily a bad life?

    1. JBird4049

      What can be labeled as at least human adjacent appeared three million years ago with the oldest humans? Homo erectus showing up two million years ago and disappearing around 100,000. Homo sapiens, that’s us, appears around 200,000 with various flavors of species and subspecies of humanity coming, going, merging, and separating all that time. We could easily last a few hundred thousand more years just by using any of the related human species.

      No, I have to push back more on the doom talk. IIRC Arnold Toynbee said that civilizations follow a pattern, but when one fell or recovered and came back was the choice of that civilization. People in that civilization are the ones deciding its faith and not some predetermined path. So, it’s a road in which the civilization’s wheels are in the muddy ruts, but one can always get off and dig a new path, which takes deliberate, hard, and exhausting work. Or they could just stay in those ruts to the cliff.

      With apologies, I’m quoting here part of President Abraham’s Inaugural Speech:

      We can succeed by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

      1. Roland

        The “breakdown” of a civilization, in Toynbee’s sense, is not “doom talk.” According to him, one typically sees the highest material accomplishments of a civilization after it breaks down. I also mentioned the “rhythym of disintegration,” which according to Toynbee proceeds in an alternation of routs and rallies.

        Besides, subjectively, what does it matter? The typical life of a civilized human being is spent during a period which later scholars would probably regard as one of stagnation and decline. One’s life is not answerable for the history of a civilization. The people of a disintegrating society, even the “dominant minority,” are not personally to blame. History is usually about people caught up in things a lot bigger than they are. I am not being a fatalist here; I’m just saying that the phase-transition between the individual and the social has not been satisfactorily formularized.

        Moreover, the disintegration of a civilization isn’t “doom talk” in any case. Some parts get reintegrated in later civilizations. New conceptions form of what life and the world are about, and how we ought to relate to them, and to each other. Toynbee calls those conceptions “higher religions,” which was a deliberately tendentious choice of words on his part, but call it what you will.

        As for the species going extinct, that’s usually what happens. It is normal in the process of ecological succession that the flourishing of some species alters the environment such that the species can no longer flourish. Now if that species’ environment were to comprise an entire biosphere…But we could be talking about some millions of years, esp. if one widens the taxonomy.

        But my point was that human history and planetary history take place on different scales. Depending on your metaphysics, that may or may not be an issue. YMMV: your metaphysics may vary!

    2. Christopher Horne

      OMG, Toynbee! The March of Civilization marches on. The question, of
      course, is what tune are we marching to.

  7. Liu Zeyuan

    Would it be uncharitable of me to say that I have difficulty seeing what is so fantastically novel about Graeber and Wengrow’s analysis?

    We already knew that the history of humanity is a tale of greed and exploitation, of kings, priests, warriors and other privileged minorities seeking to control the great mass of mankind through attempts to monopolise resources and hegemonic knowledge, but also of resistance and solidarity on the part of human beings who refuse to be controlled and attempt to put into place mechanisms to resist exploitation and govern themselves. In other words, that all human history is the history of class struggle.

    If I had to pick out something novel about G+W’s thesis, it would probably be the framing? And to be honest I find it a bit questionable. They seem to be undertaking to highlight the progressive possibilities in human history, the ‘solidarity and resistance’ parts, at the expense of de-emphasising the structuring constraints within which these ‘possibilities’ took place.

    “Humans aren’t just pawns on the chessboard of material conditions!” Okay, but A) you’ll be hard pressed to find someone defending such a straightforwardly deterministic, ‘vulgar materialist’ version of this argument these days, and in that sense it is a bit of strawman/over-simplification, and B) humans make history, but they do not make it just as they please. That is to say, yes human agency is important in history, but this agency is constrained by structures and path dependencies inherited from past generations. To really understand history and to have a chance in hell in putting together a viable strategy for progressive politics in the present conjuncture, you must fully appreciate this. We can’t pollyanna like pick out the bits we like from history and say ‘look at this wonderful experiment! Let’s just do that!’ You must have a hard-headed understanding that what’s possible in the now is over-determined by the economic, social, and ideological dynamics of our present social system, and of the wider macro-historical dynamics that have shaped the wider course of human history.

    And if we wanted to sum up in the simplest possible way what those macro-historical trends consist of? Class struggle, the struggle of privileged minorities to monopolise the resources of society, whether natural (food, land), social (the deployment of labour), or ideological (privileged knowledge, spiritual or scientific) to their benefit, and the counter-movement of the majority of society to push back against this minority, to organise the deployment of land and labour to its benefit and to democratise privileged knowledge or produce its own ways of knowing (for example, the medical techniques of witches and ‘crafty women’ as against the domineering efforts of early modern male doctors and witchhunters to control and silence them).

    While the nuance that D+W add to this narrative is welcome, e.g. that the shift to agriculture was a lot more protracted and wasn’t as married to exploitative social arrangements as is conventionally assumed are certainly welcome, I think that the overall framing does more to confuse than enlighten.

    “Look, how wonderful! Between the years 1410-1423 Tenochitlan was run as a horizontal council!” Okay but then what happened? “Wow, look at the horizontal democracy in this polis, so inspiring!” Okay, but what about the slave labour and exclusion of metics upon which this instance of democracy is founded? “Aristocracies, perhaps monarchy itself, first emerged in opposition to the egalitarian cities of the Mesopotamian plans- Neat, right?” Okay but what about the fact that this egalitarian arrangement did in fact give way to oligarchy? “No, don’t think about that! Think about the possibilities!”

    In many ways, the complex tapestry of our species’ history resembles the ocean of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris: from its impossible depths, it posseses the abiility to summon up to us visions of what we want to see. If one chooses one can ignore the tyranny of structure and produce a vision of open-ended, structureless ‘possibilities’, an endless parade of missed chances.

    For the convinced progressive, this can be seen as a ‘gift’: “As we hunger for something — anything — to lift us from the grim suspicion that humanity is destined to burn, crash, or fade away in lonely desolation, Graeber has laid out a sumptuous feast for thought.”

    But is it really? No I would argue, ignoring the constraints and structures that overdetermine human history and the possibilities for strategy in the present in favour of a vision of ‘possibilities’ creates stagnation and inertia in our thinking and in our practical efforts to resist injustice and push for something better. Because it leads us to cling on to utopian objectives and methods rather than a hard-headed appraisal of what is open to us.

    So what kind of history would I recommend to my fellow progressives? The kind that punctures our cherished illusions rather than coddles them.

    For instance, the open-ended possibilist view of history tells us that non-violence, the non-violence of Thoreau, Ghandi, MLK is a wonderful thing. We must cling to it even as it continues to fail to deliver, because the narratives that we cherry-pick from history tell us that it is possible (albeit infitisimally possible) that a complete dedication to non-violent methods of civil disobedience could deliver social transformation. But if we were to turn to Domenico Losurdo’s ‘Non-Violence: A History Beyond the Myth’ we would see that our cherished possibilist history of non-violence is a series of lies by omission that ignore the fact that actual social change can only be delivered by a diversity of methods- not just MLK, but also the Black Panthers for instance.

    1. BillS

      Non-violence works when it is backed up with the threat of violence. I think it was Orwell who (sort of) said, paradoxically, that pacifism is possibly only if it is backed up by people willing to use violence to protect it. Passive resistance in the face of a Hitler or Genghis Khan is absolutely futile, because these people and their followers are not moved by the symbolic nature of most passive resistance. They only see the physical disruption caused by it and move to crush it ferociously as an example to other would-be dissidents. The only options are acquiescence (e.g. by most occupied populations in WWII) or opposition with large scale armed violence (e.g. the Red Army steamroller on the Eastern Front).

      Only in societies with large middle class populations (1960s USA vis-a-vis the Civil Rights demos) or ones motivated by religious belief (like Gandhi’s India) will exhibitions of non-violence elicit the desired response (e.g. British middle-class Liberals repulsed by massacres of peaceful Indians by British or Raj forces).

      I do like Graeber’s writing, but I do think his view of humanity can a bit too rosy, given that even the most cursory glance at human history reveals oceans of blood spilled and atrocity on scales that we can barely conceive of today. So-called “primitive” societies were not immune from the human drive to kill and subjugate. The most stable societies are those that hew strictly to the “retaliator” model – peace with your neighbors, but when attacked (or suspect an attack is imminent), act forcefully against the threat. Hierarchical societies, with their superior military organization, always had the edge over more “anarchic” groups in these conflicts (like Franco’s Nationalists vs. the Spanish Republicans in 1936-39).

      1. FluffytheObeseCat

        Or like the Allies versus the Axis powers in WWII? The greatest conflict of the mid-20th century was not won by the Axis alliance, dominated as it was by proudly rigid hierarchical societies. It was won by the less hierarchical, less “organized” group. The group that had access to greater amounts of quality natural resources like petroleum, and the innovative capacity to use and transport it.

        Your rationalizations above for the primacy and inevitability of Ordnung do not hold up very well in context with recent history. Relying on the example of the Iberian sideshow, rather than the defining conflict of the 20th century, sort of makes that point in itself.

        Even now, with authoritarian China doing so much better than the dissolute and disorganized West in the face of disease and inequality, the relationship between rigid hierarchy, militarism and greater societal success is not so clear cut.

        1. BillS

          8I think it is a mistake to say that the Allied forces in WWII were less hierarchical than the Axis forces. All Allied military forces were no less hierarchical than those of the Germans for example. The chain of command for the British was very rigid whereas the Wehrmacht exhibited much flexibility in tactical command by giving low level field officers freedom to make tactical decisions without micromanagement from above. Moreover, the German economy was not even placed on a total war footing until 1943, if i remember correctly. The UK and the US put rigid economic rules in place nearly immediately, with the required corresponding enormous bureaucracy.

          In short, Nazi Germany was not the epitome of order that people think, but a big, dumb, cruel machine that clanked on chaotically to a bitter demise only by being squashed by the superior numbers and industrial capacity of a highly ordered and hierarchical military machine.

        2. Liu Zeyuan

          Your rationalizations above for the primacy and inevitability of Ordnung do not hold up very well in context with recent history. Relying on the example of the Iberian sideshow, rather than the defining conflict of the 20th century, sort of makes that point in itself.

          No offense but I don’t think you are really one to talk since your analysis of world war 2 is back-of-a-crumpled envelope levels of historically illiterate:

          Or like the Allies versus the Axis powers in WWII? The greatest conflict of the mid-20th century was not won by the Axis alliance, dominated as it was by proudly rigid hierarchical societies. It was won by the less hierarchical, less “organized” group.

          Except the Soviet Union, which did most of the fighting for the allies, was highly organised to put it lightly. On top of this even the ‘non-rigid’ allies, Britain and the US, won the war through engaging in total mobilisation: highly coordinated economies, the militarisation of wider society, and the flow of information controlled by propaganda departments etc.

    2. Christopher Horne

      I would just say that the ‘form factor’- not the random details that make up
      the received narrative- of History is largely determined by its chief source
      of energy. The Roman had slaves to do the heavy lifting and building.
      Starting with James Watt/Robert Fulton steam supplied the motif
      (Freud, anyone?). Then electricity, nuclear, and now solar (wind has been
      with us forever). We could postulate fusion for the fourth quarter of this
      century, if we were futuristic about it, but that’s as maybe.
      This approach to History at least provides a thematic method of thinking.

  8. paul

    The post apocalyptic fiction rarely discusses its genesis.

    “the time is 2xxx, civilisation has collapsed,what will a person do to survive!?!?”.

    Personalise the weapons of the way we were,obviously. (Bitcoin etc)

    Unrelenting atomisation and psychic taylorism would be my candidates.

    Thank god for the metaverse which will be not far from this: smash robots

  9. David

    I enjoyed Graeber’s book on debt, but here, judging by what I have seen, including this article, he’s attacking straw men, and cherry-picking cases to support his thesis. As an anarchist, he naturally looks for evidence of early anarchic societies: since there is evidence for just about every kind of society, he accordingly finds it. Neither the idea that in early societies people could move away if they didn’t like theirs, nor the idea that agriculture arrived slowly and was mixed with hunting and gathering is new: indeed, as an interested amateur of such issues I thought both were well-established.

    The real point, though, is that a complex society (one with an aristocracy, a priestly caste, warriors, administrators etc.) could not be a subsistence one. An agricultural surplus was needed, and that meant organisation. As James C Scott showed in “Against the Grain”, published probably while Graeber was writing, early towns and, cities had to coerce people into settling down and cultivating crops. Indeed, that may well have been the origin of slavery.

    Incidentally, I hope that it’s the author of the article, rather than Graeber, who believes that Hobbes thought that “all was brutish and nasty until kings and cops beat us into submission.” Hobbes thought nothing of the kind.

    1. The Historian

      Isn’t all of history ‘cherry-picked’? I don’t think we can hold Graeber to a standard that doesn’t exist. But you are right in stating that we all interpret history in terms of our own beliefs. I don’t know how to get away from that, except by looking closely at other theories. One good thing that has been happening is that archeology has gotten away from looting and has gotten to looking at how the average person lived. Too much of what we believe about the past has come from archeologists only looking at palaces – that has certainly skewed our beliefs.

      I have just started reading Graeber and Wengrow’s book but I certainly don’t think it has to be accepted ‘ver batem’ – it is just one more theory to be analyzed and perhaps incorporated into our view of the past – and for that reason, no matter what it says (and the reviews here have been intriguing to me and are encouraging me to get through the book faster), it is useful.

      Subsistence agriculture can and often does produce surpluses. If a farmer is having a good year, chances are that his neighbors are too – farming isn’t always hand to mouth – there are good years. And what to do with that surplus to protect it? Perhaps that is where the first granaries started because it would have been easier to protect that surplus communally rather than individually.

      As for slavery, we have to disassociate our thinking about the slavery we are most aware of from what kind of slavery actually existed in the past. I tend to think of it as the kind of slavery Thomas More wrote about in Utopia: slavery was more of a punishment for opposing the powers that be rather than something to get more workers. Hence, slavery was more common in militaristic societies.

      As far as priests, humans are spiritual – and we can’t get away from that. I am willing to accept that spirituality was probably a biologic response to the destructive effects of stress hormones, but we can’t ignore it. Even hunter gatherers had their ‘gods’ and spiritual beliefs. I have no clue how that turned into organized religion but probably there were charismatic shamans back in the past. And we have to remember that these early people were just as intelligent and capable of solving their problems as we are – and perhaps better than we are. We cannot think of them as simpletons just existing until we got smarter.

      1. vlade

        I believe only few people with some reasonable interest in history now believe that early people were imbeciles compared to us.

        But that doesn’t justify sweeping statements on how much better than we they were in just about any societal development. It’s just replacing one extreme with the other (to be clear, I don’t say you do, but I see today’s noble savage equivalent way too much…)

        1. Michaelmas

          I believe only few people with some reasonable interest in history now believe that early people were imbeciles compared to us.

          To be clear, there’s little doubt that Cro-Magnon humans had on average physically larger brains and higher IQs than today’s homo sap.

          Human brains started shrinking about 30,000 years, perhaps not coincidentally at the same time as the rise of larger societies and of language, which may have started functioning as extended central nervous systems that relieved individual humans of some of their cognitive load.

          Larger societies might also have enabled the intellectually less fit to survive among their numbers and then to breed.

          1. Soredemos

            Brain size has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. If it did, blue and sperm whales would run the planet.

      2. lyman alpha blob

        Agree about the standards. I’m about half way through the book and the authors make it clear they are just presenting another theory and highlighting new developments or ones that have been overlooked by previous scholars. And I do think they present the material in order to make current readers realize another world is possible. Pretty clear to anyone familiar with Graeber that he had an agenda which he didn’t really try to hide. Also, the authors do note that Rousseau explicitly stated that his theories were just that – it was just a thought experiment that he had no evidence for.

        I also think you’re right about the subsistence farming having good years and bad. The authors talk about “play farming” where people would grow crops for a while and then stop. As far as I’ve read at least, they don’t specifically hypothesize that the stoppage may be due to an annual surplus that rendered farming in subsequent years unnecessary, but the first thing that came to mind for me was my father telling me about maple syrup production (sugaring) over his lifetime. I’ve mentioned this before in a different context, but a few years ago my family didn’t make any syrup due to the poor weather. My father said the only time he ever remembers not sugaring was one year that they made so much they didn’t even bother tapping trees the next year because they still had plenty on hand to sell.

      3. Christopher Horne

        Seems to me that spirituality is a many engendered thing. Yes,
        we know that Cro Magnon man had it, so we can conclude that
        it is an integral part of the Human Condition. However, the organization of religion is another thing altogether. That, starting with
        the ziggurats was part of a grand bargain to control the means of
        production in agrarian society in concert with the political realm
        of pharoahs, kings, emperors, etc., the basic ‘glue’ of Civilization.
        Jung’s archetypes were famously king, warrior, shaman, and trickster.
        (When I visited the Fulani in Northern Nigeria back in the day,
        the fourth archetype was ‘entertainer’, a very relevant archetype
        for America today). Similarly, the four suits of cards when they were
        invented were diamonds, hearts, clubs, and spades, a close analogue to wealth, religion, warriors, and workers. The notes change, but the song remains the same.

    2. Liu Zeyuan

      Incidentally, I hope that it’s the author of the article, rather than Graeber, who believes that Hobbes thought that “all was brutish and nasty until kings and cops beat us into submission.” Hobbes thought nothing of the kind.

      I can’t shed any light on who’s responsible for it, but I can say that these kinds of philosophical whoppers are unfortunately all too common in modern academia. It seems like many researchers are just too busy to actually sit down and read Hobbes themselves to double check whether he actually said what they think he said, so they just rely on absurd strawman versions of great thinkers and deploy these micharacterisations at will in arguments to “prove” their point.

      Other hilarious examples I’ve encountered include a very well-respected sociologist in the same article characterising Karl Polanyi as believing capitalist economies to be self-equilibriating (he believed literally the opposite and that’s very clear if you read ‘The Great Transformation’) and Adam Smith as being a deranged free market fundamentalist a la Murray Rothbard or Ludwig Von Mises (Rothbard hated Smith precisely because, while he believed in the power of markets, he was no anarcho-capitalist).

      I also remember once in my undergraduate years having a lecturer rail sententiously against the errors of ‘Rosseau-ean naturalism’- he was quite embarrassed when a student asked him whether he had actually ever read any Rosseau!

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I recall in my undergraduate days someone commenting that the main criteria for joining or supporting the Adam Smith Society (at the time, a prominent libertarian free market pressure group) was to have never actually read any Adam Smith.

    3. Buckeye

      “….all was brutish and nasty until kings and cops beat us into submission. Hobbes thought nothing of the kind.”

      YES, Hobbes DID believe exactly that. It is right there in “Leviathan”. Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short were the words Hobbes used. He believed we needed to submit to a ruling authority (Leviathan) through binding contracts.

      But how does authority enforce contracts (social and political) when people are determined to oppose the Social Contract rule of Leviathan? Through Kingly force meted out by the Blue Brotherhood police/military.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Thank you. I read maybe half of Leviathan years ago but my recollection was that he did say that as well. I’ve been too lazy to get it off the shelf and double check though – too many new books to read.

    4. Soredemos

      Graeber alternated between very good (Debt) and absolutely terrible (Bullshit Jobs). He didn’t even pretend to be objective; his default was ‘bureaucracy bad’, and everything he wrote serviced that predetermined agenda. His Debt writing remains his best work because it’s largely detached from that agenda.

    5. Joe Well

      >>The real point, though, is that a complex society (one with an aristocracy, a priestly caste, warriors, administrators etc.) could not be a subsistence one. An agricultural surplus was needed, and that meant organisation.

      In Chapter 4, they specifically refute that with examples of societies without agriculture that in fact had a great levels of inequality, even kings and slaves. In some places, the land was bountiful enough to generate surpluses without agriculture, especially where fish were abundant.

  10. Steve H.

    > But a close look at the diversity and richness of our human history ought to help us to gather the courage to reimagine how life can be better and to put these visions into action.

    “they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”

    From a neanderthal action-comedy, concerning h. sapiens.

    1. JBird4049

      Yeah, but as I remember, the reavers had all been driven violently crazy and were a creation of a failed experiment in population control.

      1. Steve H.

        The G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression… About a tenth of a percent of the population had the opposite reaction to the Pax, their aggressive response increased beyond madness.

  11. Samuel Conner

    I can see from comments that G & W’s new book is not universally lauded.

    Perhaps it’s a measure of my own ignorance that I’m learning things from the early chapters; am currently about halfway through chapter 2, “Wicked Liberty”, which makes a case, that seems to my uninformed eye to lie somewhere on the spectrum from ‘plausible’ to ‘persuasive’, that the questions that preoccupied the European thinkers who shaped ‘the Enlightenment’ came into view as a consequence of European interaction with native Americans.

    The public decision-making process of some of the North American tribes described in G & W sounds (again, to my uninformed ear) quite a bit like the public debate/consensus-building procedures employed in the Occupy movement. Graeber is said to have been an important influence on this, and it occurs to me to wonder whether his thinking about this was informed by his and Wengrow’s reading in the old literature on native American critiques of pre-Enlightenment European society.

    1. Petter

      I downloaded the book in November, started it, got sick, read some more, got sick again (am in the hospital as I write this), and can’t remember how far into it I got. Maybe chapter 3? Whatever.
      The book’s discussion on the influence of Indigenous philosophers in Enlightenment thinking seems very plausible to me too.
      I made a note of the three freedoms the authors cite (there’s probably a better word than cite):
      1. The freedom to move and know you’ll be welcomed to where you move.
      2. The freedom to say no to authority – and not be punished.
      3. The freedom to develop new social orders.

  12. Carolinian

    Thanks for this. There’s certainly a case that the left belief in “social evolution” mistakes the evolution of technology and material circumstances for evolution of the technology users. This universality that humans have in common is what keeps history rhyming, as Twain said, if not exactly repeating. Whereas tribal notions of a higher achieved state among their own social group are bad science. Hillary’s “deplorables” or many other forms of prejudice are social devolution even while tribalism too is part of our evolution–the Darwinian kind.

    Some of us believe we flawed beasts will accept the truth about ourselves if extinction is the alternative. Certainly that particular science experiment is already underway.

  13. Appleseed

    After reading this illuminating review, I ran across another review that is also worth reading in full: From the dawn of everything to a small farm future: a review of Graeber & Wengrow

    from Smaje’s summation:

    The inertial ship of industrial high technology is a material drag that must be abandoned (I know oil companies are villains, but the energetic-industrial problems we now face don’t arise solely or mainly because of their villainy). We can abandon it if we develop a different politics around food, energy and habitation, which is basically to say a different set of ideas about how we ought to live. Out of this, different material practices can emerge.

    In that sense, I endorse Graeber & Wengrow’s upbeat conclusion that it’s within people’s power to change things and remake their social world – not a power or a social world restricted to particular classes, groups, genders or political ideologies, but one available to everyone. And this, I must stress, is not a ‘liberal’ or still less a conservative position, but a populist republican one, as I shall explore in more detail in another post.

    At the same time, there’s another material drag on republican possibilities in our evolutionary predilection for status aggrandizement as well as status equality. So the dangers of arbitrary sovereign power reasserting itself are ever present, as subjects of regimes inspired by Marxist egalitarianism might perhaps attest. It’s probably unwise to bet against new emperors or new patriarchies emerging. All the same, Graeber & Wengrow give us plenty of inspiration for trying to stop them.

  14. Thistlebreath

    Great post!!
    One of my all time favorite sci fi books is A Canticle for Leibowitz. Post nuclear war tale of human foibles, religious politics, etc. all told in an artful manner.

  15. Tom Doak

    My brother and I used to love those wacky, supposedly non-fiction books about how Ancient Egypt was very technologically advanced 12,000 years ago, but then everything was lost. It just sounded so far-fetched that something like that could just disappear from the face of the Earth in a matter of a few hundred years. But now, I look around and wonder what of our modern technology anyone will be able to dig up in another 10,000 years. Maybe by then even the radioactive waste will be safe . . .

  16. Michaelmas

    Maybe by then even the radioactive waste will be safe . . .

    Nuclear decay chains are quite complex and not the continuously linear downward lessening of radioactive release over X hundreds or Y thousands of years that rookies assume.

    An isotope can be seriously radiactive for, say, 652.7 years and then take the next step down and cease to be radioactive for 50-some years, then take a further step down and start emitting serious gammas again.

  17. farmboy

    David Graeber is certainly a hero for giving us permission to look differently, focus wider, maybe even hallucinate a little.
    It is necessary to consider evolution of language, writing in particular, that changes how our brains work. While the written word is crucial today for the sharing and transfer of knowledge, before its widespread use sapiens, us, were more a first impression, pattern matching being. The written word makes our thinking linear, analytical and denigrating our senses, to hunches. More in The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams.
    In much of pre-agriculture when a sociopath or psychopath wreaked havoc on a group, he (most likely) was expelled, driven off. Maybe he found another group to dominate, killed the leader, imposed his will. Do this enough times over time and Ghengis Khan emerges. Guarding food elevated to group status, capable killers kept for security with as much care to protect the group from them as outsiders.
    Keeping seeds for the next year or growing season and knowing animal habits garnered survival and success. Passing on knowledge by experience and staring at the stars were seen as the same. The ability to abstract did not exist until writing and as a fairly recently acquired technology, the changes to our brains are still sore. The desire to trust our senses in opposition to working our minds on a problem gets suppressed today. Social media, music, art all invite the senses to express. Can we nurture our own critic?

  18. Cetra Ess

    By the way, Graeber’s work can be said to be trying to answer the questions: what is possible to do without money, can society be created without money, and have we ever in the past operated without money. Hence his ‘Debt: The First 5000 Years’.

    This is not a straw dog, it’s safe to say most people think anything but capitalism is impossible. I’ve personally had so many conversations where I’ve been ridiculed for suggesting otherwise. There IS a prevailing lack of imagination here, there IS dogma and bias/prejudice around this question, which I see G+W as helping to overcome. Showing what’s possible, even if a possible albeit inconclusive interpretation of some historical evidence, is nevertheless important work to counter the dominant narrative that is capitalism and to stoke the imagination in terms of rejigging or reconstructing society.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The Indian Nations provide(d) all kinds of examples about running complex stable societies without money.
      One need only do the unthinkable and study them. Or even ask them at times.

      1. Adam Eran

        Well…kinda. They had wampum (magic money) and a sense of obligation…but you’re right in saying gifting and magic obligations were very different than the current economy.

      1. Cetra Ess

        In Graeber’s Debt, we see that money only appears on the scene around 700-800 BCE, proved to be socially and politically problematic almost immediately, was seen to be a major threat to civilization due to the perils of usury (namely, those who have money and charge interest end up owning everything and everyone, which is precisely why debt jubilees were decreed both by early Judaism and various monarchs) and for thousands of years prior to the invention of money there was credit and debt managed differently, and easily, without money or interest.

        Did we read the same book?

        1. skippy

          The Credit part from a social contract proceeds the token form of money later on e.g. verbal contracts which deal with time and space and not barter exchange is what lays the foundations of what we now know as money. Albeit done on a small scale which did not work for City state/proto nation state level of organization, of which, IMO has a lot to do with population numbers and densities.

          Also this examination is largely PIE centric and leaves out vast swath of humanity outside of it, Americas/Africa/Pacific Islanders.

          Put it this way … pre/post WWII all this was done and dusted until the Corporatist/Financial elites got together and decided to push an agenda by creating networks which would facilitate controlling information in shaping a social narrative – its called neoliberalism.

          Money in the form of credit = debt or government controlled commodity priced money drove this outcome as an intrinsic outcome. It was people that did it and it could occur in any monetary system.

          1. skippy

            Oops …

            Money in the form of credit = debt or government controlled commodity priced money – did not – drive this outcome as its not intrinsic to the monetary system.

            E.g. the inanimate object does not force its will on humans i.e. like Smith said, business men will conspire for their self interest above all others. This holds true across time and space. So now were talking about social environments and taboos preceding money forms.

        2. Soredemos

          Credit is money, is the huge point you seem to be missing. Money doesn’t just mean coinage. Coinage is just a debt token.

        3. Adam Eran

          Sorry, I did read Graeber’s book. The precise accounting for credit obligations predates even writing in Mesopotamia. That’s ~3500 B.C.E. True, coins showed up in Anatolia when you say, but all of the problems with credit were in play literally millennia before that. This is why the Jewish exiles brought jubilees (a Babylonian practice) back to their homeland when they were released….among other things.

  19. Susan the other

    Graeber was an iconoclast. I’d agree that flexibility and experimentation R us. It seems like “Schismogenesis” is most likely a mechanism of evolution. A turning-away. After all, you can’t evolve if you are still hanging on to the old ways. I’m all for Schismo! if it creates a new path but not if it leaves everyone sleeping rough, and crapping in front of the mall – combining necessity with a good practical joke – out of desperation. Our government has become intolerable. It’s like Graeber’s final message to us is to have the courage to just walk away from all the dysfunction. I do think it’s a very powerful message. What on earth will the “Democrats” do if everyone turns their back? Such a simple gesture – but it could literally stop this country in its tracks. Tracks, which are now wandering around, stumbling into problems and simply ignoring them. So the question will quickly become, Who needs government? Schismo happens. When old ways stop working. It’s a law of nature.

    1. Buckeye

      “Who needs government? Schismo happens. When old ways stop working. It’s a law of nature.”

      WE need government. See Thomas Hobbes mentioned in this article. Without government it becomes a “war of all against all.”

      “All this dysfunction” is being driven by people and political ideologies and economic policies designed to purposely create the dysfunction and fool people into destroying government.

      AND create the “war of all against all” that conservatives/libertarians/capitalists want, so they can be permanently on top of all of us.

      We need government ( and more importantly, private business) that is bound by a strong Social Contract to actually function for the common good. Strong democratic government is the best way to do this, NOT
      “natural law.”

        1. Buckeye

          And I should say that while I agree with Hobbes’ desire to have a strong government, I am ABSOLUTELY OPPOSED to his desire for a Monarchy to run things. We have Monarchy right now, but it’s a monarchy of businessmen (acting as the medieval Earls, Dukes and Barons) with State Governors and State Legislatures, and Presidents and Congress acting in the role of the King. The Constitution functions as the Magna Carta, allowing business “Dukes” to manhandle the political system ” Monarch.”

          A kind of “diffused” Monarchy, run by modern political theory. Some call it Aristocracy, but I think aristocracy is just monarchy run by many more hands than King, Chamberlain and a few advisors.

          1. skippy

            Currently run by a bio-political meritocracy … how a sarcastic term was Bernays’ed to imbue just the opposite and then utilize it as a cornerstone of neoliberalism is just how far some are prepared to go in achieving – their – utopia.

  20. Dick Swenson

    This comment may be trite. If so, I apologize for taking up space.

    The word “reality” has no object. That is the source of all problems.

    The “future” does not exist. It is only imagined by individuals.

    The past exists only in individual memory. The present moment transforms imagination into memory.

    Where does “reality” fit in?

  21. juno mas

    Quote from the article:

    “They looked at a Mayan wall mural and saw a jumble of fantastic creatures rather than a storytelling device that provided detailed information in lieu of writing.”

    This same storytelling device is explained in the book “One Vast Winter Count” by Colin G. Collingwood.
    The American Plains inhabitants developed a pictorial essay of the year (Winter Count) for subsequent generations. The broader (vast) use of these pictograms in native American culture is explained in the book. It’s a good read.

    1. Joe Well

      This makes it sound like the classical Mayans didn’t have writing when it was a highly literate society for its time, at least as much as Europe.

  22. Joe Well

    I strongly recommend the audiobook. The ideas are fascinating and well supported with evidence and memorable anecdotes. Easy to follow.

    But wow is it wordy. It could be edited down by 40% of the word count easily with no real loss. The audiobook lets me listen while my attention is partly on something else, otherwise I would go crazy.

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