My fifth commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Graeber and Wengrow wrote: “The first thing to emphasize is that the ‘the origin of social inequality’ is not a problem which would have made sense to anyone in the Middle Ages.” p. 14

I find this to be a self-serving claim. If it were true, then the claim that contact with American indigenous people was an eye opener — as the authors claim — becomes credible.

But is it true?

Before the discovery of the New World, there were various peasant disturbances. [See: Popular revolts in late-medieval Europe] What were peasants grumbling about? Since most peasants were illiterate, we have to go by what they did and by reports of what they said they did. But we can do better by following the sequence of events following the Black Death (1346-1353), in which about a third of the European population died.

From an economic perspective of supply and demand, the demand for peasants increased while the supply of peasants decreased. The result was a wage inflation for peasants.

Consequently in England King Edward III in 1349 passed the Ordinance of Labourers, and Parliament in 1351 passed the Statue of Labourers. These laws made work compulsory, and set controls on wages and the price of goods.

In 1381, the discontent with the prevailing state of affairs burst forth as the English Peasants’ Revolt.

We may take the sermon of the priest John Ball (preaching at Blackheath in 1381) as expressing the sentiments of the peasants.

“When Adam delved and Eve span,[a] Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty[b] men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, He would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.” [a. Delved meaning dug the fields, and span meaning spun fabric (or flax). b. “Naughty” then having a stronger sense of “evil, malicious”.]

And here we have an expression of a grievance against inequality, which contradicts the claim of Graeber and Wengrow that no one in the Middle Ages would or could make sense of the problem of inequality.

My fourth commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

In my second commentary I had faulted the book for ignoring the work of Herman Nieboer’s Slavery as an Industrial System (2d ed. 1910). Graeber and Wengrow tell us where they find the existence of slavery, but they do not bother to explain why it exists. Here I would like to mention the conclusions of Nieboer.

Nieboer starts out by defining slavery, and then through a systematic examination of the available ethnographic reports of the life of indigenous people he looked for any correlations between the holding of slaves and ways of securing subsistence.

I am not going to exposit or explain his conclusions, except to provide you with the following chart which he made of his conclusions.

General recapitulation.

Furthering the growth of slavery.Hindering the growth of slavery.
I. Internal causes.
A. General: 1. Open resources and subsistence easy to acquire.1. Closed resources.
2. Subsistence difficult to acquire.
B. Secondary, economic:1. A high position of women.
2. Commerce.
3. Preserving of food.
1. Female labour serving as a substitute for slave labour.
2. Subjection of tribes as such.
C. Secondary, non-economic:1. Militarism (where slaves are employed in warfare).
2. Slaves kept as a luxury.
1. Militarism (especially where foreigners are adopted).
II. External causes:
1. Fixed habitations.
2. Living in large groups.
3. Preserving of food.
4. The slave-trade.
5. The neighbourhood of inferior races.

“The most important result of our investigation seems to us the division, not only of all savage tribes, but of all peoples of the earth, into peoples with open, and with closed resources.” [p. 418] [Comment: I keep talking about this in terms of a free access to subsistence land.]

In the following paragraphs, he provides some support for Oppenheimer’s theory of State formation.

“In North-East Africa, however, there is one more cause at work, making slavery superfluous. This is the existence of a kind of substitute for slavery, viz. subjection of tribes as such. Pastoral tribes often levy tributes on agricultural tribes, to which they are superior in military strength; the latter cannot easily leave the lands they cultivate and seek a new country; if not too heavily oppressed, they will prefer paying a tribute. And to pastoral nomads the levying of a tax on agricultural tribes brings far more profit than the enslaving of individuals belonging to such tribes, whom they would have to employ either in pastoral labour, which they do not want, or in tilling the soil, which work the nomads would be unable to supervise. There are also pastoral tribes subjected by other pastoral nomads, the latter forming the nobility and the military part of society. Finally we find subjected tribes of hunters, smiths, [277] etc.; here we have sometimes rather to deal with a voluntary division of labour.”

“We see that the difference between the slave-keeping and the other pastoral tribes consists in external circumstances. Pastoral tribes have no strong motives for making slaves, for the use of slave labour is small. On the other hand, there are no causes absolutely preventing them from keeping slaves. These tribes are, so to speak, in a state of equilibrium; a small additional cause on either side turns the balance. One such additional cause is the slave-trade; another is the neighbourhood of inferior races. There may be other small additional causes, peculiar to single tribes. We shall not inquire whether there are, but content ourselves with the foregoing conclusions, of which the principal are these, that the taming of animals does not naturally lead to the taming of men, and that the relation between capital and labour among pastoral tribes renders the economic use of slavery very small. [ 290]

Recapitulating, we may remark that our general theory, that there is no great use for slave labour where subsistence depends on capital, is fully verified by our investigation of economic life among pastoral tribes.

Two secondary internal causes found in the second chapter have been also met with among pastoral tribes: slaves are sometimes employed in warfare, and sometimes for domestic labour to relieve the women of their task. Two new secondary factors have been found in this chapter: slaves are kept as a luxury; and sometimes the subjection of tribes as such, serving as a substitute for slavery, makes slavery proper superfluous.

With regard to the external causes it has been shown that the coercive power of pastoral tribes is not very strong, as they are nomadic and live in rather small groups; but this want is sometimes compensated for by the slave-trade and the neighbourhood of inferior races. The two latter circumstances may therefore rank as new external causes, the slave-trade taking the place of the existence of a homogeneous group. On the Pacific Coast of N. America it is the trade between tribes of the same culture, among pastoral nomads it is the trade with Arabia, etc. ; but in either case it is the slave-trade that furthers the growth of slavery.”

My third commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Here I would like to answer their question: Why are we stuck?

This is an elliptical question which when expanded is: Why are we stuck with capitalism and a representative democracy?

It is analogous to asking a slave: Why are you stuck in slavery?

My answer is that this state of affairs is the result of conquest, a position which was expounded by two sociologists: Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909) and Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943).

According to Franz Oppenheimer in his book, The State (1914), nomadic pastoralists can, and do, form hierarchies of dependence because animals can be lost to predators or disease, or some natural disaster. This causes those in distress to depend on the more fortunate and industrious. Herders, in addition, having to maneuver and protect their animals develop athletic skills so that they are indistiguishable from warriors. And as soon as there is any property which can be acquired — either of another herder or a sedentary farmer, this is an incentive to take it by force. And then he lists 6 stages of forcible appropriation. Using the analogy of obtaining honey, he divides these into the method of the bear — whereby the honey is obtained through the destruction of the hive, and the other 5 methods are those of the bee-keeper: taking only the surplus.

“The six stages Oppenheimer describes may be conveniently epitomized as follows: (1) extermination; (2) appropriation of surplus; (3) tribute-giving; (4) occupation; (5) regulation; and (6) amalgamation.” [Chapter XIX: Struggle over “The Struggle for Existence”: Social Darwinism, Pros and Cons, in Howard Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes, Social Thought from Lore to Science, Vol. 2 (1938), p. 726.]

Analogous to land nomads there are also sea nomads, such as pirates and the Vikings.

Oppenheimer stipulates that obtaining the necessities of life by work or free exchange is to be called “the economic means”; whereas anything taken by force is to be called “the political means.”

But really, the anthropological or sociological question of how States originated in prehistory is superfluous, since in historical times it is war, conquest, colonization, and extermination which have propelled us to our present worldwide condition.

I am aware that there are other theories of state formation. These can be classified as coercive and voluntaristic theories. Whatever happened in pre-history, it is clear to me that the historical record is of a coercive type of state formation.

Below are some relevant documents — readily available on the Internet:

Franz Oppenheimer, The State, 1914.
William MacLeod, The Origin of the State, 1924.
Robert H. Lowie, The Origin of the State, 1927.
R. L. Carneiro, “A Theory of the Origin of the State”, Science. vol. 169, 1970: pp. 733–738
Elman Service, Origin of the State and Civilization, 1975.
R. L. Carneiro, “The Circumscription Theory: A Clarification, Amplification, and Reformulation”, Social Evolution & History, 11(2), (2012), 5–30.

My second commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

In my first commentary I posted some videos which can be used to accompany some of the archeological sites discussed in their text. And in their book there are many insightful discussions of various topics. The most important, I think, which the authors emphasize, is that Neolithic humans were just as intelligent and resourceful as we are. And I would add that they — as do present hunter-gatherers — had the kind of working knowledge of resources, fabrications skills, and foraging skills which we city-dwellers can only read and dream about in reference materials.

The other thing which caught my attention was their focus on a concept attributed to Gregory Bateson: “schismogenesis.” This is the tendency of groups to differentiate themselves from other groups. This explains the persistence of groups to identify themselves in their cuisine, clothes, music, traditions, history, and such. And this may be done with a sacrifice in efficiency or what we may call progress.

And I could go on finding all sorts of things to praise in the book. But I, first, want to unburden myself of the criticisms which are festering in my mind.

The first criticism has to do with the origin of the State. This is discussed in Chapter 10: Why the State Has No Origin. Although the authors recognize the definition of a State as “the institution that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive force within a given territory . . .” p.359 and they recognize that our planet is divided into States; yet, they are waffling about origins. And they are waffling because they did not come to terms with Franz Oppenheimer’s book, The State (1914) — a book which is absent in their bibliography, as is also the book of ethnographical material on which it is based, The History of Mankind (1898) by Friedrich Ratzel. Oppenheimer has a six-stage scenario for the development of our States; whereas our authors speak at best only about tribal chiefs and kings — though they do acknowledge that Aztec and Inca Empires were States.

See also my blogs:

Origins of the State — by Conquest

Origins of the State, Land and Population

Karl Popper on the Origin of the State

The authors should be talking about forms of coercion, instead they talk about forms of (their word) “dominance.” I would not use this misleading word. I would instead talk about forms of deference because of some talent or trait which some individuals possess; such as leadership in hunting or warfare, esoteric knowledge of the supernatural, or some charismatic trait or wisdom which is honored by consultation and some set of privileges.

The second criticism has to do with slavery which they discuss in Chapter 5: Many Seasons Ago. Again they are waffling about this because they did not come to terms with Herman Nieboer’s Slavery as an Industrial System (1910). They mention him and the book in footnote 54, p. 558, but make no use of his extensive study of slavery among “primitive” people around the world.

The third criticism has to do with Rousseau. They focus on Rousseau’s essay: “A discourse on the origin of inequality,” as if that was Rousseau’s main concern. It was not. The essay was written for a competition for a prize inaugerated by the Academy of Dijon on a topic of inequality — chosen by the society. Rousseau’s own question was formulated by him in the Social Contract as:

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.”
Three comments.

(1) He is expressing a concern with freedom; not equality. Whereas the authors start and end their book with the elliptical issue of equality. It is elliptical because equality has to be followed by a specification of some respect.

(2) In view of “political correctness” which if violated in France was a punishable crime, Rousseau meekly pleaded ignorance about the source of unfreedom. Whereas Hume in England had flatly answered that the State came about by conquest. Are we to believe Rousseau that he did not know this? But even though he tried to tip-toe around censorship, he still had to flee from Geneva and France for having published his restrained work. (Remember Galileo? He too tried to tiptoe around the Inquisition by publishing a supposedly imagined dialogue, but they got him and forced him to recant, gagged him, and put him under — what we would today call — house arrest.)

(3) Rousseau’s answer about legitimacy does not seem to concern the authors because it is of the nature of a theory and proposal.

See also my blogs:

The Social Contract Refurbished

Land and Liberty

One last thing about Rousseau. The authors approach Rousseau indirectly by focusing on the work of the Frenchman Lahontas in whose work there is a dialogue with the Wendat (Huron) chief, Kandiaronk, who criticized European society. It is presumed by the authors that Rousseau knew this work, which he may not have. But there is no need to be so specific. There were all sorts of reports and travelogues about the New World, and Rousseau does mention the work of Francois Coreal (1648-1708) [Voyages de Francois Coreal aux Indes Occidentales contenant ce qu’il y a vû de plus remarquable pendant son séjour depuis 1666 jusqu’en 1697…..avec une relation de la Guiane de Walter Raleigh & le voyage de Narborough a la mer du Sud par le Detroit de Magellan, &c. Paris: Andres Cailieau, 1722. (2 vols.)] .

But aside from these criticisms, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from The Dawn of Everything.

My first commentary on the book: The Dawn of Everything

A few days ago I purchased the new book by David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Everything, 2021. Graeber was an anthropologist while Wengrow is an archeologist. And, for me, the book is a revelation of what foragers (hunter/gatherers) have done as revealed by the archeological findings. It is also a book which denies the prevalent narrative that agricultural activity and even the formation of “cities” required a State. In other words, the book argues that much can be accomplished democratically (anarchistically) without a State.

Below is an interview with David Wengrow on Democracy Now! in which he introduces the book:

I am still in the process of reading the book. I have read most of it so far by jumping all over the place. It is over 600 pages long. But I have read enough so far so that I can discern things which I have learned and appreciate, and the things about which I have criticisms, which I will talk about in the future.

As an amateur in most things, to appreciate this book I had to brush-up on how periods of time are named. The Greek word for “stone” is “lithos,” and since the earliest surviving tools of man were made of stone, that period is knows as the Stone Age, which archeologists divides into Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), and Neolithic (New Stone Age). Based on the kind of material used for tools, the next Age is the Copper Age (Chalcolithic) c. 5000 BC, then the Bronze c. 4000 – 3000 BC, then the Iron Age c. 1200 BC, and the Modern Age, which begins with written records c. 3000 BC. All these periods vary relative to different places.

In this blog I have arranged for you some videos about some of the archeological findings attributed to foragers discussed in the book (in no particular order).

Along the Mississippi Valley there are all sorts of earthen mounds. Among these the outstanding one is at Poverty Point in Louisiana. Below is one video, among many, about Poverty Point.

In Japan, archeologists are studying what they call the “jomon” period from around 1400 to 300 BC. Here is a video of the remarkable find at Sannai Maruyama.

In Ukraine there are “mega-sites” belonging to the “Cucuteni-Tripolye” culture.

The city of Teotihuacan in Mexico is a mystery because it has no evidence of royalty in either buildings or in depictions.

Çatalhöyük: a 9000 year old town in Turkey – Ian Hodder (Stanford University)

Astonishing Revelations at ‘Oldest Temple on Earth’ — Gobekli Tepe

The Mammoth Bone Huts of Mezhirich

In Finnland there are “Giants’ Churches” — Jatinkirkko

Shigir Idol found by a lake in the Ural Mountains

The Calusa of Florida

Introduction to the Indus Valley Civilization

Impotence of Ideas

There is a famous saying: The pen is mightier than the sword. It is a self-serving adage, giving intellectuals greater importance than they really have.

Ideas do have some power, but these are ideas which are promulgated by tradition and propaganda. But even such ideas are no match for the private ideas of a dictator who has at his disposal a sword — money, weapons, police, and soldiers.

A current example of the impotence of ideas is the worldwide protests against the Iraq War on Feb 15, 2003. Here is an article about this:

Paul Blumenthal, “The Largest Protest Ever Was 15 Years Ago. The Iraq War Isn’t Over. What Happened? Can anti-war protesters claim any success?” Huffpost, March 17, 209

And here is a video about the Iraq war protests around the world, Feb 15, 2003:

How a student mob took over Evergreen State College in 2017

Bret Weinstein and his wife Heather Heyting after refusing to leave the campus on the controversial “Day of Absence,” resigned with a settlement with Evergreen State College in 2017. Here is a three-part documentary about the affair:

Part 1:Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying & the Evergreen Equity Council

Part 2: Teaching to Transgress

Part 3: The Hunted Individual

After watching the three videos about what happened at Evergreen State College in 2017, I have made the following judgment. Although the focus is on the dismissal of Heather Heyting and Bret Weinstein from the college, it is more like a study of how a mob is allowed to take control of a college.

What Bret Weinstein did at Evergreen by not participating on the “Day of Absence” was equivalent to striking a match in standing conditions which caused the match to burn.

What were these standing conditions? A college is a business enterprise (corporation). It has a board of trustees, a CEO, managers, and workers. And it has a clientele — the students. Everyone who works at the college is relying on their job for a livelihood (self-preservation).

The culmination of a student mob taking over was initiated by the new President, George Bridges, who was hired in 2015. He introduced a policy statement for the college to recognizing a phenomenon called “Racism,” and a school policy formulated by an Equity Council to fight against this Racism. Part of this policy required a contractual yearly written self-evaluation of racism by each white faculty member. There was also a policy of requiring some kind of “equity” justification for hiring new teachers. This policy was voted on openly by the faculty senate. And the majority — probably out of fear for losing their jobs — voted in favor.

As events progressed, it was evident that the white faculty had to submit to the wishes of student mobs. In fact the students were allowed by the President to take control of speech. The main one was a censorship (by booing, disruption, and silencing) as based on the assumption that to criticallly examine racism is Racism. Students were also allowed by the President to take physical control of buildings to the extant that faculty were in effect hostages.

Evergreen also had a tradition of a “The Day of Absence” on which black students and faculty were encouraged not to attend the college. In 2017, this holiday was switched to asking white teachers to absent themselves from the college. One white teacher, Bret Weinstein, refused, and held a class on this day.

A group of students — both students of color and white — confronted him outside his classroom and clamored for his dismissal. And as time progressed, it became something like a lynching mob. And the security personnel were ordered by the the President to stand down. In consequence Bret Weinstein had to go into hiding. And finally a settlement was reached with Bret Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying for their dismissal.

Comment: A school should be a place for the critical examination of everything, including the nature of what is called “racism.” And a critical discussion is not a free for all shouting. There must be some kind of procedural rules. In the case of Evergreen State College, the President made a fundamental mistake of taking an institutional stance against what he understood as “racism.” He further aggravated the situation by letting students control meetings, and not allowing security to intervene when necessary. This breakdown of institutional control has resulted in a drop of student enrollment and the failure of the college to currently find a successor President.

Beware of Cognitive Shortcuts

I am still sort of stupefied by Bertrand Russell’s claim that Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau. And if one does not critically think about it, and takes Russell as a wise authority, one may be apt to repeat this claim as a dogma.

This has led me to reflect on how ideas become dogmas, i.e., as assumed truths. And if you start thinking about this, there are all sorts of mental cobwebs produced by Abstractions, Chants, Slogans, Maxims, Heuristics, Stereotypes and other Cognitive Biases. And there is enough here to think about to fit a few books. And there are many such books — just do a Google search for “cognitive biases books.”

The main users of these mental manipulation techniques are those with something to sell. We know their products as propaganda and advertisement. The first book that brought this phenomenon to my attention was by Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957. And then there was the book by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 1988.

The most successful books of dogmas are, of course, religious books. For Europeans this is the Bible with its Christian companions like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But in the heyday of the Inquisition and the burnings of heretics, there is no greater book of evil dogmas than the Malleus Maleficarum (1489), which gave instructions how to identify, interrogate, prosecute, and execute witches.

But books like those of Rousseau and Locke (and of most intellectuals) do not have the same function as a procedural manual for a Catholic inquisitor. And I am confident that Russell is totally wrong that “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau; Roosevelt and Churchill of Locke.”

For example, here is a BBC video on Churchill’s policy in India.