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Is Civilization Worth It?


One of the more dour or dire aspects of getting old is the realization that the list of things that you’ve been meaning to read has gotten far longer than biological limits suggest you will ever get around to reading.

I was reminded of this forcefully by William Deresiewicz’s essay on David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s new book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Deresiewiciz is the author of Excellent Sheep, which I’ve been meaning to read for years, while Graeber (who died last September at the age of 59 three weeks after completing his last book) wrote the brilliant and hilarious essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, which made me commit mentally to reading his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, which I also haven’t done yet.

Deresiweiciz is one of a host of reviewers who are arguing that The Dawn of Everything is a work of genius, that is going to revolutionize the way people think about human history:

The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau; elaborated by subsequent thinkers; popularized today by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Steven Pinker; and accepted more or less universally. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men.

Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).

It is also, according to Graeber and Wengrow, completely wrong. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries that span the globe, as well as deep reading in often neglected historical sources (their bibliography runs to 63 pages), the two dismantle not only every element of the received account but also the assumptions that it rests on. Yes, we’ve had bands, tribes, cities, and states; agriculture, inequality, and bureaucracy, but what each of these were, how they developed, and how we got from one to the next—all this and more, the authors comprehensively rewrite. More important, they demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring.

Graeber was a committed anarchist, who played a key role in the Occupy movement. Deresiewicz describes meeting him:

Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.

Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.

That person was David Graeber. In the 20 years after our lunch, he published two books; was let go by Yale despite a stellar record (a move universally attributed to his radical politics); published two more books; got a job at Goldsmiths, University of London; published four more books, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a magisterial revisionary history of human society from Sumer to the present; got a job at the London School of Economics; published two more books and co-wrote a third; and established himself not only as among the foremost social thinkers of our time—blazingly original, stunningly wide-ranging, impossibly well read—but also as an organizer and intellectual leader of the activist left on both sides of the Atlantic, credited, among other things, with helping launch the Occupy movement and coin its slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”

His last book is apparently a fundamental reimagining of the trajectory and teleology of human history, that asks the most basic kinds of political and historical questions, at a moment when those questions seem particularly urgent:

The Dawn of Everything is framed by an account of what the authors call the “indigenous critique.” In a remarkable chapter, they describe the encounter between early French arrivals in North America, primarily Jesuit missionaries, and a series of Native intellectuals—individuals who had inherited a long tradition of political conflict and debate and who had thought deeply and spoke incisively on such matters as “generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment and liberty.”

The Indigenous critique, as articulated by these figures in conversation with their French interlocutors, amounted to a wholesale condemnation of French—and, by extension, European—society: its incessant competition, its paucity of kindness and mutual care, its religious dogmatism and irrationalism, and most of all, its horrific inequality and lack of freedom. The authors persuasively argue that Indigenous ideas, carried back and publicized in Europe, went on to inspire the Enlightenment (the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy, they note, had theretofore been all but absent from the Western philosophical tradition). They go further, making the case that the conventional account of human history as a saga of material progress was developed in reaction to the Indigenous critique in order to salvage the honor of the West. We’re richer, went the logic, so we’re better. The authors ask us to rethink what better might actually mean.

This sounds like a book that needs to go to the top of the to be read list, especially before it’s banned by the second Trump administration.

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