11.12.2021 – No Thanks to a Brave New World

Until recently, I did not know there is such a thing as an anarchist anthropologist. David Graeber, who died a little over a year ago, was perhaps the best known of those in the fellowship of anarchist anthropologists. Now posthumously, Graeber with co-author David Wengrow, an archaeologist, have just published a book that has attracted the attention of reviewers and columnists. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a 700-page tome, is apparently as ambitious as its title suggests.

Drawing from research and insights gathered by archaeologists and anthropologists anarchist and otherwise, the authors argue that things did not have to turn out the way they have. We could have been much happier than we are.

The New York Times recently published an essay adapted from the book. The headline tells the story: “Ancient History Shows How We Can Create a More Equal World.” In the essay Graeber and Wengrow argue that the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was mistaken when he contended that humans are born inherently noble and good only to be corrupted by inherently unjust and inequitable social systems and institutions. Oh, they agree with Rousseau about our inherent goodness, they just don’t think systems and institutions have to be unjust and inequitable. Noble savages can be noble city dwellers. They insist that we have created just and equitable systems and institutions suited to our just and egalitarian natures before and that we can do it again.

Graeber and Wengrow point to the example of pre-historic cities – for instance, the 6,000 year-old ruins of what they call mega-cities unearthed on the steppes of the Ukraine and Moldova – to suggest it is humanly possible to build a social order free of the greed and love of power and money at the root of all evil. Utopias existed in the past and it is time we get to work on building them again.

Apparently, the ancient cities on the steppes were composed of thousands of houses roughly equal in size. So far as the archaeologists can tell, there were no palaces or temples in the cities, hence no oppressive state bureaucrats or abusive clergy – just happy egalitarians in their one-size-fits-all houses. Have we heard this before? Little Boxes…  But I digress.

Graeber and Wengrow also offer the beautiful pottery created in the Ukrainian and Moldovan cities as proof of the contentment and the equity their citizens enjoyed.

My skepticism is already showing, but I am not alone. Northwestern University history professor Daniel Immerwahr in an otherwise friendly review in The Nation, writes,

“In The Dawn of Everything, this interpretative brashness feeds off our lack of firm knowledge about the distant past. When only potsherds remain, conjecture can run wild. Graeber and Wengrow dutifully acknowledge the need for caution, but this doesn’t stop them from dismissing rival theories with assurance. It’s hard not to wonder whether this book, which zips merrily across time and space and hypothesizes confidently in the face of scant or confusing evidence, can be trusted.”

It is not for me to assess the trustworthiness of the archeological and anthropological evidence presented by the anarchist and his co-writer, though I suspect Professor Immerwahr is correct – it is scant or confusing. I do, however, contest the confident hypothesis of a noble place of egalitarian contentment.

G.K. Chesteron once said that original sin is the only part of Christian theology which can be really proved. Of the progressive theologians of his time, he wrote, “They essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument.”

Like a thousand utopians of various political and communitarian stripes before them, David Graeber and David Wengrow seem not to have spent much time in the streets. Neither strong saints nor strong sceptics, they are weak optimists whose dreams are fashioned of wishful thinking built on scant and confusing evidence.

Christian saints have always been skeptical of utopian schemes, but insistent on working for and giving witness to the abundant signs and clear reality of God’s coming Kingdom. So insistent, we work tirelessly to make the systems and institutions of our world more just and equitable.

Maybe it is the anarchist’s odd sense of irony that brings Graeber’s and Wengrow’s New York Times essay to a close. They write, “All we are lacking now is the political imagination to make it happen. But as history teaches us, the brave new world we seek to create has existed before, and could exist again.”

Huxley’s brave new world was not a utopia of egalitarian contentment. Rather, it was a joyless dystopian nightmare.

We really don’t know much about the cities of the steppes of the Ukraine and Moldova, but it might be best if we not imagine them as a model to be used to create a world where houses and people all look just the same.