There are those moments in life when all strands seem to come together; those moments we hope will flash before our eyes before we go (if we are lucky; it could be that, rather than a montage of images of glorious import, we will be stuck with the insignificant memory of a particularly bad meal eaten in early childhood. Who knows how these things go?)

My moment was in 2016, in a new classroom, in a new university, outside New Delhi, teaching our first batch of students concepts in economic anthropology from one of David Graeber’s early books, Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value. David was my teacher. I had been his student at Yale, a university founded on the ill-gotten gains made by colonial administrator Elihu Yale during his time at Fort St George in present-day Tamil Nadu. Now here I was, teaching David’s work at an Indian university, founded from the capital generated after India’s post-liberalisation boom.

The moment was filled with possibility and portent. Our students were filled with the kind of enthusiasm for open discussion that can only come after twelve years of mostly-rote memorisation. India’s GDP was still on the upswing; demonetisation was still a full ten months away; and I was teaching students in India about the lives of other Indians a world away.

We had entered deeply and respectfully into the worlds of the Iroquois, or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of North America, and we were studying the relationship between the generation of surplus – in this case of wampum beads – and social creativity. What emerged from this engagement was the insight: societies can do with their surplus as they wish. There is no pre-determined singular outcome, no “there is no alternative” pathway that must be adhered to, as certain strands of neoliberal logic would have it.

In colonial North America, as interactions between European traders and the Iroquois intensified, by 1650 some three million wampum beads were in circulation. And, Graeber argues, as part of the “remarkable bursts of cultural creativity that so often occur during the first generation or two after many traditional societies are suddenly integrated into a larger world economy,” the Haudensoaunee used this surplus – which could have been used for either violent or peaceful ends – to “cultivate a landscape of peace,” through the unprecedented coming together that the confederation implied. Indeed, the Haudensoaunee Confederacy is believed to be a founding inspiration for American democracy.

A new history of humanity

This story, told in typical looping, humorous David fashion, where the detours – in this case involving dreams, sorcerers, and creation myths – are often more fascinating than the main story itself, made perfect sense to my students, sitting as they were in this paint-smell new classroom, the resources for which, they were well aware, could have gone into any manner of other things – mansions, malls, apartment complexes, space travel, statues, real estate speculation. Even 9,00,000 oil lamps and firecrackers, for we studied when and why societies have created ritualised occasions to burn money, sometimes literally. No singular outcome to the uses of surplus indeed.

Even in those early days in his scholarship, David had insisted upon the deeply anthropological insight that humans have built their own worlds in a dazzlingly profuse array of ways, and they will continue to do so. The creativity and diversity of human experience in the past is not merely some unsupported romantic notion beloved by anthropologists and other dreamers.

In The Dawn of Everything, David Wengrow and David Graeber back this argument up with a vast body of new evidence, drawn from anthropology, archeology, and history, among other disciplines. While they make no claims to absolute truth, they engage both rigour and imagination – as all social theorists have done before them – to present us with nothing less than a new history of humanity. The main strands of this new history are as follows:

“It is clear now that human societies before the advent of farming were not confined to small, egalitarian bands. On the contrary, the world of hunter-gatherers as it existed before the coming of agriculture was one of bold social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forms, far more than it does the drab abstractions of evolutionary theory. Agriculture, in turn, did not mean the inception of private property, nor did it mark an irreversible step towards inequality. In fact, many of the first farming communities were relatively free of ranks and hierarchies. And far from setting class differences in stone, a surprising number of the world’s earliest cities were organised on robustly egalitarian lines, with no need for authoritative rulers, ambitious warrior-politicians, or even bossy administrators.

Information bearing on such issues has been pouring in from every quarter of the globe. As a result, researchers around the world have also been examining ethnographic and historical material in a new light. The pieces now exist to create an entirely different world history — but so far they remind hidden to all but a few privileged experts…Our aim in this book is to start putting some of the pieces of the puzzle together, in full awareness that nobody yet has anything like a complete set.”

That is the big picture, but in this book, the delight is in the details, and in the writing. Details such as:

“Our term ‘the state’ only came into common usage in the late sixteenth century, when it was coined by a French lawyer named Jean Bodin, who also wrote, among many other things, an influential treatise on witchcraft, werewolves, and the history of sorcerers. (He is further remembered for his profound hatred of women).”

Writing such as – one of the most powerful phrases in the entire book – “commoner graves burst in on the elite cemetery.” In this book, which insists on human creativity in all things, even sepulchres are agentive.

I believe that this new, non-teleological world history is important for a wide readership from India to engage with, for a variety of reasons that I will elucidate below. I should say first, however, that thisis not an objective review of the book. These are the remembrances of a student in conversation with her teacher from beyond the grave, for David Graeber died suddenly in 2020, and that loss still feels profound.

I should also say that, as an anarchist and an anthropologist, David was always proud of, and open about, his interconnected work in both arenas. And finally I should say that, long before I reconnected with David via email in 2019, after many years of being out of touch, his work kept coming back to me.

Many of my students in India brought up for discussion his book Bullshit Jobs, finding in it many resonances, sadly, with their current situation and employment prospects. It was because of this deep student interest that I wrote to David, and we discussed his coming to India, which he was interested in doing, but sadly never got to do. Instead, I write this review, so that his, and his collaborator David Wengrow’s, words may continue to travel here among wide audiences, because they have much to contribute, to multiple readerships, in our subcontinent.

The source of ideas

Reading The Dawn of Everything from India expands our worlds and allows us to step outside of a particular postcolonial predicament. If we believe, as did Ambedkar, that the “ideal would be a society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity,” there is a particular sting to the possibility that these very ideals come to us from enlightenment Europe, from colonial encounters, and our experiences of subjugation.

Instead we have looked for, and found, rich sources for these ideals in Indic thought and experience, but how wonderful still to look across, to look outward, and discover the extremely credible possibility that Europe itself developed these ideas not from within, but through the encounter with Native American thought and critique. That is, these ideas emerged not from the belly of the coloniser, but through the critique of the colonised.

In The Dawn of Everything, much time is given to arguing that the ideas, particularly democratic ideas, that enlightenment thinkers explicitly attributed to American Indian thinkers actually came from them, rather than being some imaginary projection of classical Greek thought onto Native American figures. This line of argumentation is less interesting to us in India; we likely do not need so much persuasion, after all, to believe that non-Western people are capable of reason, critique and complex thought. The pleasure instead comes from reading the words of the brilliant Wendat intellectual Kandiaronk, as recreated (or imagined, depending on where you stand) by French writer and aristocrat Louis-Armand de Los d’Arce, also known as Lahontan:

“For my own part, I find it hard to see how you could be much more miserable than you already are. What kind of human, what species of creature, must Europeans be, that they have to be forced to good, and only refrain from evil because of fear of punishment…Over and over I have set forth the qualities that we Wendat believe ought to define humanity – wisdom, reason, equity etc – and demonstrated that the existence of separate material interests knock all these on the head. A man motivated by interest cannot be a man of reason.”

The pleasure builds from reading about how the magnificent ruins of Teotihuacan, outside of modern-day-Mexico City, may contain evidence of one of the world’s oldest forms of social housing. The Dawn of Everything ideally should be read as text in conjunction with image. (You can even add in your own soundtrack). In fact it is surprising that the book’s publishers have not yet created an interactive online space where we can see the cities, vases, murals, citadels, temples, goods, goddesses, and graveyards described so richly in the book.

In the absence of such a coherent and curated visual space, there is always Google image search. In this case, reading and seeing together, in a slow manner, creates the experience of one of the most marvellous travels through space and time and imagination that one could ever undertake. Particularly in these pandemic times.

For example, travel to Teotihuacan around AD 300, once splendidly adorned by murals, some of whose traces still remain. Here we find apartment blocks where:

“Strict uniformity was avoided in the arrangement of rooms and courtyards, so that in the last resort each compound was unique. Even the more modest apartments show signs of a comfortable lifestyle, with access to imported goods, and a staple diet of corn tortillas, eggs, turkey and rabbit meat, and the milk-hued drink known as pulque (an alcoholic beverage fermented from the spiky agave plant). In other words, few were deprived. More than that, many citizens enjoyed a standard of living that is rarely achieved across such a wide sector of urban society in any period of urban history, including our own.”

How can it not be enlightening to learn that almost two thousand years ago, there may well have been a society which had succeeded in providing to the many the proverbial roti (or tortilla), kapda, aur makaan? Or learning that, rather than being mostly governed by centralised authorities, or kings, or classes of warrior-aristocrats, cities around the world, throughout space and time, may have made multiple experiments with forms of participatory governance? Or learning that:

“In all parts of the world small communities formed civilisations in the true sense of extended moral communities. Without permanent kings, bureaucrats or standing armies they fostered the growth of mathematical and calendrical knowledge. In some regions they pioneered metallurgy, the cultivation of olives, wines and date palms, or the invention of leavened bread and wheat beer; in others they domesticated maize and learned to extract potions, medicines and mind-altering substances from plants. Civilisations, in this true sense, developed the major textile technologies applied to fabrics and basketry, the potter’s wheel, stone industries and beadwork, the sail and maritime navigation and so on…A moment’s reflection shows that women, their work, their concerns and innovations are at the core of this more accurate understanding of civilisation…tracing the place of women in societies without writing often means using clues left, quite literally, in the fabric of material culture such as painted ceramics that mimic both textile designs and female bodies in their forms and elaborate decorative structures.”

What forms of power leave tangible traces for later generations, and how? A fascinating insight – particularly for architects, city planners, and those who work with space – from The Dawn of Everything is the way in which, in terms of archeological record, autocratic forms of governance may rely more on built expressions, such as the frenzied building of large structures within cities, a furious race to leave an imprint, a palace, a ziggurat, a central vista. More inclusive forms – based on governance by councils and assemblies at multiple urban scales – may leave voids and rely more on open or unbuilt spaces. These forms may leave fewer traces, but they can be inferred, credibly, from combinations of new archeological evidence, and written and other records. For example, of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Urkesh in 1761 BC, we learn:

“Written correspondence of this period offers direct evidence of antipathy between arriviste monarchy of this kind and the established power of urban assemblies. Letters to Zimri-Lim from Terru – lord of the ancient Hurrian capital of Urkesh… onvey his impotence in the face of the city’s councils and assemblies. On one occasion, Terru tells Zimri-Lim: ‘Because I am submitted to my lord’s pleasure, the inhabitants of my town despise me, and two and three times I have snatched my head back from death by their hand.’ To which the Mari king responds: ‘I did not realise that the inhabitants of your town despised you on account of me. You belong to me even if the town of Urkesh belongs to someone else.’ All this came to a head when Terru confessed he had to flee from public opinion…taking refuge in a nearby town.”

Not without its limitations

While despised rulers may not seem so unfamiliar, to read The Dawn of Everything from India is to experience a joyful journey of discovery and possibility around the world. And joy as an end in itself was particularly important to Graeber. This journey is poignant because for many students in India, learning about the ancient world outside of India is limited to brief, but fascinating, moments in Class Six and Seven. This book provides an out-of-syllabus opportunity to round that initial encounter with ancient difference out.

But this panoramic journey is not without its limitations. In fact, it is when reading the more-familiar sections of the book that its elisions, slippages, and too-exaggerated leaps become apparent. For example, in the sections on Mohenjodaro, the authors describe the Great Bath of the Upper Citadel as being a “public facility for purifying the body.” While most scholars agree that the bath may have been associated with bathing rituals, there is no consensus that these rituals are related to caste. But Wengrow and Graeber then jump to saying that, “All this is redolent of the inequality of the caste system, with its hierarchical division of social functions, organised on an ascending scale of purity.”

But they simultaneously acknowledge that “The earliest reference to caste in South Asia comes only 1000 years later, in the Rig Veda…Clearly, we can’t just project the social world evoked in Sanskrit literature indiscriminately on to the much earlier Indus civilisation.”

And yet, they disappointingly go on to do just that, with some acknowledgement of the slippage, and several caveats – such as noting the absence of any evidence of warrior castes in Indus civilisation – thereby eliding the debates surrounding the ultimately mysterious nature of the function of the Great Bath in Indus Valley society.

Somehow, then, to support the idea that societies can be at once formally-hierarchical as well as have “practical governance nonetheless take place along egalitarian lines,” we find ourselves in a Buddhist sangha. At this point this section begins to feel a bit like a history word salad loosely united by things – purity, bath, caste, Buddhism, sangha – that might be considered to be “Indian.” It is unclear what connects what to what, or the type of meaning that is being created here, and how.

In this section, because of its very familiarity, we might see, quite strongly, possible limitations of the book in terms of rigour and precision. And reading this section makes one wonder about whether there were similar giant leaps made in other sections of the book, sections which we have no expertise or familiarity to judge. Moments where the desire to read a contemporary political project onto the immeasurably varied past might have lead to selective readings of evidence, or similarly too-wide leaps in time and space.

This realisation is discomfiting, but the reader should hold it close, and be aware that Wengrow and Graeber are at once extremely rigorous and meticulous scholars, as well as storytellers. In this they are like – as we have mentioned earlier – most social theorists who came before them. Social theorists can be thought of as imaginative sutradhaars of the world of fact. And, as Graeber, who had little time for reverence, liked to repeatedly remind us, they were humans too.

Great theorists are humans who have developed the critical faculties of reasoning to extraordinary levels; who have made use of the scholarly evidence available to them at the time with rigour and precision; but who have also used many of the the tricks of the trade of writers – hyperbole, hypotheticals, satire, even farce, symbolism, analogy, imagery, and metaphors that seem downright sci-fi in their over-the-top-ness.

For example Hobbes’s concept of the Leviathan, where “A multitude of men, are made one person, when they are by one man, or one person, represented; so that it be done with the consent of every one of that multitude in particular” (Hobbes, Leviathan, I.16.13).

This imagining of the body of the king (the sovereign) being composed out of the tiny bodies of his consenting peoples in the figure of the Leviathan, was a metaphor so out-there, so fantastic, that Hobbes need to carefully collaborate with the artist Abraham Bosse to crystallise it in the imagination of his readers. It stands to reason that most compelling big-picture theories about the world use narrative and artistic techniques, as well as scholarly ones.

Detail from cover of 'Leviathan' | Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Questioning dominant narratives

Even taking these possibilities of overreach into account, the most important reason for wide audiences to read The Dawn of Everything from India – aside from its ability to shift our understanding of where democratic ideals may have come from; and aside from the sheer pleasure that reading it gives – is that it asks us to question dominant narratives that permeate many of our understandings of the world. I may be broadly off the mark, but I would posit that many of us, on many sides of the political and intellectual spectrum, hold a certain evolutionary teleology in our heads. An idea somewhere along the lines that:

“There was some ‘original’ form of human society; that its nature was fundamentally good or evil; that a time before inequality and political awareness existed; that something [agriculture] happened to change all this; that ‘civilisation’ and ‘complexity’ always come at the price of human freedoms; that participatory democracy is natural in small groups but cannot possibly scale up to anything like a city or a nation state.”

If we think of human history in these broad teleological frames – and I will venture to say here that this teleological lens seems to be a dominant narrative in many spaces in India, from school history syllabi, to theories of settlement in architecture colleges, to popular common sense, to political imaginaries on both left and right – it is important to engage with new evidence that might put these base premises into question.

It is worth asking here how we come to our biggest-picture ideas of what the world is like. The answer is an infinitely complex and dynamic knot of lived experience, what we learn in the intimate spheres of home, perhaps the instructions and lived experiences of religion, what we learn at school, what we read, watch, talk about, and hear. All this, and much more, combine to give us our big-picture narratives of the world.

Graeber and Wengrow argue that the most influential of these big-picture narratives are the Hobbesian and the Rousseauian, after the towering philosophers, Hobbes and Rousseau, who originally put these narratives down in enduring systematic form. As a society whose educational system continues to be broadly rooted in enlightenment ideas, in a postcolonial form, we remain quite influenced by these two narratives as well. They permeate both formal learning environments as well as popular common sense.

Or at least variants of them do. For social theory is an elaborate game of whispers, told more inaccurately each time, from what was in the first place a deeply imaginative telling.

It relies on simplifications in order to make meaning out of human complexity. To simplify these simplifications further, the Hobbesian strain of thought involves the belief that without strong, centralised authority to enforce order, humans will constantly be at war with each other. Typically associated with those on the right, people who are well-disposed towards the powers-that-be tend to cluster towards these beliefs.

To my mind a good example of Hobbesian thinking in the Indian context might be what is often called, in popular parlance, “WhatsApp uncle” logic, with its celebration of authority, comfort with equating today’s government to kingly rule – a fairly shocking stance in a hard-fought-for democracy – and discomfort with questioning and dissent.

The Rousseauian strain of thought is a trickier thing entirely. In a complicated narrative initially presented by the philosopher and composer as a submission for an essay competition that he had previously won, in The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau presents humans as initially good, but they then fell from grace due to the emergence of property relations. In this worldview, any “seeming progress leads only to moral decay,” as the Davids put it. The narrative goes something like this:

“We progress from simple societies like those of the Wendat to our own complex ‘commercial civilisation’, in which the poverty and dispossession of some – however lamentable it may be – in nonetheless the necessary condition for the prosperity of society as a whole.”

It is a strangely fatalistic view – seemingly progressive, and indeed shared in some variant by many on the left, but one that locks us in to thinking that any scaling of human society means the necessary giving up of human liberty, at least until a better stage is finally reached through revolution. As Wengrow and Graeber argue, the evidence shows that this is not the case.

It can be difficult to have one’s core premises and assumptions unsettled. The Dawn of Everything can produce in its readers everything from disorientation, to delight, to sheer incredulity. And indeed, everything in the book does not have to be believed, but some things indeed should be.

There’s an interesting trope in narratives about the past that we find in many places these days — in literature, in film, in history – where a person questions the past deeply, and examines it with new eyes. It emerges from this questioning that the past was far darker and more disturbing than initially assumed. A loving-seeming spouse turns out to have been a murderer. A British lord much-admired by his butler turns out to be a Nazi sympathiser. A parent is revealed to never have loved their children at all. And so on.

Perhaps because this trope is so familiar, if we were to have our base premises deeply unsettled, indeed overturned, by a book, we would be more comfortable if this book lead us to far darker places – to the realisation that all the many undeniable horrors of human history were more horrific still. It is sobering to realise that many of us might find far more credible a book that recast human history to say:

What if we were worse?

There doesn’t seem to be a corresponding trope where the past, upon deep reflection, reveals itself to have been a bit better than previously thought. That is, a trope where a murderous-seeming spouse turns out to have been a saint.

So we might not know quite how to think with such a story. What if it turned out that the collective human past in the long view was less violent, less authoritarian, more creative, more varied, more playful, more abundant, more egalitarian, and more humane than previously assumed? As we rethink human history at this difficult juncture, it might be far easier for us to accept that we were far worse than we thought. But Wengrow and Graeber invite us to entertain, in our dark present moment, this truly radical notion about humanity’s collective past, with all its deeply hopeful implications for our collective future:

What if we were better?

Durba Chattaraj teaches Writing and Anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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