The Three Fundamental Human Freedoms That Modern Society Lacks
David Wengrow and David Graeber’s Dawn of Everything is a dense book. I got it the day it came out in October of 2021, and I’ve been working my way through it ever since. I only just finished. Usually, I could only take the book one single-digit percentage at a time, my mind reeling with the implications of every fact about pre-statehood Indigenous life that I absorbed along the way.
Normally I would hold such a plodding, effortful readerly experience against a book, viewing it as either bogged down by the authors’ own fixations or woefully ‘inaccessible’ to the average busy, distracted person. But here I think Wengrow & Graeber did exactly what they needed to do, to afford the subject sufficient depth. The fields of history and anthropology are simply too complex to talk about on a superficial level — and everything that we have been taught about early human societies is glaringly, ruinously wrong.
The Dawn of Everything is a book about the history of human inequality, and of the concept of states — that is, governments that reign over an entire body of land and the people upon it, using information, violence, and propagandistic charm in order to do so. Though today state governments touch basically every corner of the planet, laws dictate how we must behave, and a sharp divide separates the wealthy and powerful from the poor and humble, there is no reason to believe humans were always going to wind up living this way, or that we should continue to.
It turns out that most gatherings of humans that have existed in history were not ruled by states. States are a recent invention, really, dating back only a couple hundred years at most — and before the entire world became covered in seemingly all-powerful state governments, leaders didn’t possess ultimate control over their subjects. In fact, subjects had a degree of choice over whether to remain subjects at all.
Henry VIII certainly wouldn’t have thought of himself as leading a state called England, for example, though we might talk about him as if he were a state leader now. Even with whatever military might, wealth, and charm he might have possessed, he could never…