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Humans aren’t naturally egalitarian. We’re better than that

Unthinkable: David Graeber and David Wengrow bring fresh thinking to human history

If you listened to certain politicians you’d think public housing was a relatively new concept. As Fintan O’Toole has frequently highlighted in these pages, the State used to build homes for its citizens on a relatively large scale in the 1930s and 1940s.

But did you know that you can find an example of social housing 1,700 years ago?

The people of Teotihuacan in what's now called Mexico built "impressive apartments, laid out in regular plots" for the 100,000 or so residents of their city. Details of how this population – who predated the Aztecs by a millennium – "turned their backs on monument-building and human sacrifice, and instead embarked on a remarkable project of social housing" are contained in The Dawn of Everything. It's a powerhouse of a book (and a doorstopper too at 600-plus pages) that took David Graeber and David Wengrow more than a decade to complete.

Graeber, the anthropologist credited with coining the phrases, “We are the 99 per cent” and “bulls**t jobs”, died unexpectedly on September 2nd, 2020, after falling ill, leaving his friend, archaeologist Wengrow to carry on the work.


While they didn’t agree on everything, the pair had a shared purpose – to give people hope, specifically to convince those of us who are jaded by politics or feeling disempowered by economic forces that “other forms of social arrangements” are possible.

Why are we so often stuck in TINA (there is no alternative) mode? Because of our origin stories, Graeber and Wengrow concluded. We are in thrall to “a genre of grand narrative” in which humans are inherently good, or bad, or stupid, or self-destructive.

In the process, the pair take down a notch or two some prominent peddlers of meta-theories, from celebrity historian Yuval Noah Harari to the “not particularly successful 18th-century French musician” Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Particular scorn is reserved for the “just so” story – highly fashionable among pop-science writers today – proclaiming that humans once lived in small egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers that were dismantled as economies developed.

“Let’s look around the world at all the hunter-gatherers that existed,” Wengrow tells me. “A small minority were assertively egalitarian. We also see hunter-gatherers with long histories of unequal societies, even societies that kept slaves. So who are we to pick the ones we fancy – and say that was our original condition?”

Wengrow explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest:

Rousseau comes in for some criticism in the book, or more precisely his idea that people are inherently good but corrupted by society. Why is that idea problematic?

“We are full of admiration for Rousseau; he wasn’t a fatalist like Hobbes . . . We just can’t understand why this story he made up in the 1750s is still commanding the interest of scientists so much later on.”

But, even if Rousseau's story can't be proven, is it a useful myth to counter what is arguably the dominant idea today: that humans are cruel and competitive?

“It’s exactly the debate David Graeber and I had with some of our colleagues in the writing process very early on. We got that reaction from some anthropologists and other people who are not academics who said: ‘If you take away the idea of our innately egalitarian nature, surely that’s a damaging thing for people who are trying to find more egalitarian routes into the future’.

“I have to admit, neither of us ever followed the logic of that position, which seems to be that, a long time ago, before we had technology in large populations, egalitarianism was possible and then we lost it. In what way is that a hopeful position?

“Unless you’re seriously considering mass industrial collapse and 99 per cent of people on the planet suddenly vanishing, it’s hard to see how one could ever recreate that original condition – which we don’t think existed in the first place.

“To our mind, it’s actually a more hopeful position to say: one of the things that makes us human is that we can make moral choices; we can make ethical choices – between good and evil, between competitive and altruistic kinds of society. And as far back as we can trace the evidence for how humans have behaved in groups that is roughly what we see: people trying things out for size, experimenting with different social forms, often in much more playful and imaginative ways than we do today.”

One democratic innovation you highlight in ancient societies is that of rotating office-holders – the way in which political roles would transfer from one person to another over time.

“Yes, there is a great example from the indigenous societies of the great plains – the Cheyenne and Lakota – where they had a police force that only existed for part of the year, and apart from being temporary it was also on rotation. So if you were a copper one year you’d be on the receiving end the next year. One might imagine this might change your attitude to policing.”

Is there scope for that kind of innovation today to give citizens a greater stake in how society is run?

“I think these things take time and generations to change. If you think about the way we educate our children: they are told they are growing up in a democracy but the way we do things in schools, in sports, in general, is all kind of the opposite; it’s very top-down.

“How do we expect them to weave miracles – and suddenly become consensus finding, considerate, caring citizens – if we never actually give them practice of that; of debating things and making decisions in groups, or taking other people’s opinions into consideration?”

How necessary is the state in creating an egalitarian society?

“It has been a habit of scholars for a long time to talk about the origins of the state as something going all the way back to ancient Egypt, thousands of years, and it’s all very intimidating – you think: oh, it has evolved as the result of long-term historical processes that we really can’t reverse.

“We try to demystify this a bit and think about what a modern state actually comprises. We break it down into three main things: modern states claim sovereignty; they claim the right to defend their territory and their borders and to use force within those borders. They also claim control over the circulation of knowledge . . . Thirdly, states claim control via politics: in other words, the kind of charismatic competitions that our democracy largely consists of in the form of elections.

“That conjuncture of things is quite particular. Historically. . . [it is] a very recent thing, which doesn’t suggest to me it is something we are necessarily going to be doing 500 years down the line, if we are still around.”

There is a popular meta-narrative today that says technology is taking over and making humanity irrelevant. How do you respond to those who feel a sense of hopelessness?

“I think we show in the book there is no particular reason to believe that’s the case. Actually, if you look at the long term – at the main technological discoveries of humanity, the origins of farming, urban planning, navigation – what we often see is humans not submitting to these things as if they were forces of nature but actually making conscious decisions in groups about whether to adopt them or not, or if we do adopt them to confine them to a particular area of life.

“In other words, there is a social sophistication – agriculture is a good example . . . What we can see in archaeology and pre-history is that is that people didn’t just rush into it the way that Rousseau imagined.

“For thousands of years in different parts of the world, people played around with agriculture. They were still combining it with hunting, and fishing and foraging; sometimes they rejected it altogether. There are examples of this in the British Isles.

“So [from looking at early history] one recaptures a sense of our species being more in control of these processes, and also being more conscious of their social consequences. I mean, the way people write about the impact of AI [artificial intelligence] on the future of humanity is quite funny in some ways. They say, ‘this is going to transform everything’ and then you look at what their view of ‘everything’ is.

“I’m generalising a bit now but they tend to give you a cardboard cut-out version of human history, a kind of big narrative where humans were supposedly behaving like robots anyway . . . If you start with the idea that we are all basically automatons then the rest of your story is going to be a bit odd.”

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow is published by Allen Lane (£30).