David Graeber (2021)

A book with an amazign ambition: to re-visit and re-interpret the whole of political theory from a basis in modern anthropology and archaeology.

The authors have done a deep dive into not only modern archaeological evidence but also into the nearly-forgotten thinkers of the early Enlightenment. And they make some startling discoveries. Wehn we think of the Enlightenment, we think of something unique to a particular moment in European history when the rights of god and kings were being questioned for the first time. But many of the thinkers didn’t see it that was at all: they were responding to critiques of the European system by Native American observers, who – far from being overawed and impressed by modernity – were disgusted by the poverty and arbitrary violence they saw: so different to their own societies. This re-discovery leads to further re-considerations: of the linear flow of development, the occurrance of an agricultural revolution as a particular turning-point moment (and whether it persisted), the emergence (or not) of hierarchies and kings, all backed up evidentially from recent sources.

Graeber and Wengrow take issue with the narrative of inevitability in the route to modern civilisation. In part this is based on the observation that many “events”, such as the adoption of agriculture, weren’t “events” at all, but happened over a period of centuries, were unevenly adopted and frequently rolled-back. Their central theme is that it’s a mistake to think of early civilisations as blank canvases in which nothing political happened: that’s an assumption, and not one supported in any way by the physical or even the literary evidence.

They frame their ideas of liberty around three freedoms: freedom to move, freedom to disobey the orders of others, and freedom to re-imagine society. (The last is obviously very different and more abstract than the first two.) They contend that modern societies have become “stuck” without these freedoms as a matter of choice, not of historical inevitability.

It’s a persuasive narrative, impeded slightly by the very wealth of detail they marshall in its support. And there are some crious omissions: no consideration of anarchy or Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, and (more surprisingly) no reference to Isiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty, although his ideas are clearly part of their intellectual background. Still, this is an intensely political book that deserves a wide reading, if only to defeat the notion that we’ve somehow arrived at a civilisational peak from which there’s no sense in deviating.

4/5. Finished Sunday 5 February, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)