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.

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