I see a lot of reviews that try to read backwards from David Graeber’s anarchist politics to the #dawnofeverything. This is a mistake. (A thread)
First of all, as co-author @davidwengrow says in a reply to Appiah the “expectation that what academics write will necessarily mirror their personal politics” is “surprisingly naive and unfounded.” To which I’d add that this is especially true of this book.
Which is not to say that the book does not serve a political project, it does. It is just that one cannot start by thinking “anarchists” and end up with any or all of the conclusions in this book. Especially since the primary argument of the book is pitched at a different level.
What they are tackling is not Steven Pinker, or Jared Diamond, or orthodox Marxism, but teleology - which just so happens to be an essential methodological flaw shared by all three (and many more besides).
The book’s main project is succinctly stated in the conclusion: “what happens if we accord significance to the 5,000 years in which cereal domestication did not lead to the emergence of pampered aristocracies, standing armies or debt peonage, rather than just the 5,000 in which it did? What happens if we treat the rejection of urban life, or of slavery, in certain times and places as something just as significant as the emergence of those same phenomena in others?”
Does anyone really want to defend teleology? It is bad science. The only reason people have put up with it for so long is that it is so deeply ingrained that we often don’t see it. This book is first and foremost a deep and lasting challenge to such lazy thinking.
Secondly, the book is also fascinating and engaging tour of new findings from archeology over the past thirty years, findings that apart from some exceptions (like Charles Mann’s 1491 and James Scott’s Against the Grain) have gotten little public attention.
That they manage to weave this research together into an engaging narrative without resorting to a teleological narrative is a feat in itself. They do this largely by setting forth some basic principles (three forms of power, three forms of freedom) and questions.
Certainly these principles and questions do emerge out of the author’s shared political project, but to the extent that they remain committed to finding out what the data says, the answers are far from obvious, and certainly can’t be predicted based on their anarchism.
I’m sure there are interesting critiques to be made of the book, and I look forward to reading them, but most of the reviews I’ve read so far make this same basic mistake. It is perhaps easy to do because the introduction and conclusion frame the book in such terms.
But, as I always try to teach my students, what a book says it is doing isn’t always what it actually does. In this case, at least, what the book does is infinitely more surprising and interesting, and rewards patient reading.