This fascinating article by David Graeber and David Wengrow challenges a strongly established historical account — one, they say, having its origins primarily in the work of Rousseau — that posits, in the early human era, egalitarian hunter-gatherer cultures displaced by farming cultures that brought technological progress but also social inequality. That narrative is, shall we say, problematic:

That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way. 

Graeber and Wenbow think the existing evidence — which necessarily is rather spotty — tells a different tale:

Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. To the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. 

You can read the essay for their argument, which I think is strong, if not utterly compelling. (It will be interesting to see the responses it gets from paleohistorians and archaeologists.) For now, I just want to call attention to the concluding paragraph:

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place. 

What I find noteworthy here is the pre-cooking of the evidence. The “historical verdict” isn’t in yet, but Graeber and Wenbow, miraculously, already know what it will say: that when we peer into the distant past we see that the great impediment to human freedom is not the technological and capitalist order created by farming, but rather, yes, the family. The family is the monster in the closet of human prehistory. It is the family that must be destroyed. [UPDATE: Graeber and Wengrow do not say this, and I was wrong to claim that they do. See Graeber’s comment below. I’ve also struck through some of my extravagantly premature conclusions below, while leaving them visible in order to accept the shame I deserve.]

To which my first thought is, more or less, this. And my second thought is that I’m tempted to blog my way through Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization.

But beyond that, I’ll just note that it’s pretty sad that this from-the-ground-up reconsideration of history, this utter dismantling of conventional narratives, this opening of the door to radical new possibilities, is all in the service of … reaffirming and reinscribing the decontextualized, autonomous subject of the liberal order. Graeber and Wenbow throw out the historical narrative pioneered by Rousseau in order to provide a slightly different justification and celebration of Rousseau’s picture of the human being. “I love to tell the story, … to tell the old, old story …” It seems yet another illustration (as if any were needed) of Patrick Deneen’s thesis that liberalism fails through succeeding, and when confronted by that failure, always replies with the demand for mo’ better liberalism. Graeber and Wenbow lack the imagination to think their way beyond what in our time is the most conventional of all anthropologies. It turns out that a thoroughgoing revision of our understanding of early human history just happens to confirm everything Graeber and Wenbow already believe. What were the chances? 

I have more to say in another post about hunters, gatherers, and Adam Roberts. Stay tuned.


  1. I just taught Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality in my intro course. It is such great fun to lead students through the argument, watch them get excited because the whole point of the discourse is that what they think of as the limits of Lockean liberalism are just so much "frauds" perpetrated by "the man"–and what 19-year old doesn't think that's cool? And then we make our way back to the introduction where Rousseau admits that he's not at all interested in "facts" but just "hypothetical reasonings" that are useful for his emancipatory project. Now they're a bit bothered because they care about facts, they think we should believe in things that are true. Then I remind them that I suggested that the discourse could be read as an alternative account of the Fall and it begins to dawn on them that the emancipatory project Rousseau is offering might not end up being quite as attractive as they had first thought. And then when we read the Social Contract next week, and they see the connection between Rousseau's emancipated individual and the all-encompassing state, well, I will have done my part in helping them to think a bit more clearly about the world around them. Or so I hope.

    It is striking here that they so blithely accept the notion that egalitarian societies are obviously workable and plausible. Certainly we can see societies more egalitarian than in the US but even the most egalitarian modern societies (e.g. Scandinavia) still have significant inequalities in wealth, education, etc.

  2. Few philosophers are more attractive at first blush (especially to young people) than Rousseau … and less attractive on further investigation. I'm trying these days to get past my revulsion and see him in a more positive light — I keep reminding myself that Allan Bloom, who probably was more instinctively repelled by Rousseau than even I am, nevertheless thought him a great genius.

  3. It's fascinating watching people, who have not actually seen our evidence (since in a brief popular essay we can't actually present the evidence, just summarise what it tells us and throw out some examples) speaking with such surety about 1. what we do and don't have evidence for, and 2. what our political project is. Apparently we want to destroy the family in the name of the autonomous liberal individual??? We do??

    I would suggest that if you are capable of extrapolating entire non-existent theories and political projects from 8-page essays, you have no business accusing anyone of over-extrapolating anything. All we said is pretty much what Marx said in the German Ideology: that the first forms of exploitation are found in the household – though we even qualified that to "likely to be found". But I guess if you think "capitalism" necessarily follows from farming, you probably think Marx is a liberal individualist as well.

    (Oh and no we're not Marxists either…)

  4. DG, three points. First and most important, thanks for an important correction: you are absolutely right that you didn't at all say that the family must be destroyed. My apologies. I have added a correction above. I will wait to see what you have to say about the family before commenting further.

    Second, I don't at all think capitalism necessarily follows from farming; as I said in the post, I think your argument against that position is strong.

    Third, in your article you say that "the historical verdict" is not yet in, but in this comment you say you have the evidence but "can't actually present" it in a short essay. I don't think these statements are compatible with each other, are they?

  5. Okay, thanks for the gracious response and sorry if I was overly harsh. It's true we might be going too far to write our suspicions about how it will turn out, but we have sifted through an awful lot of evidence, and it seems significant, for instance, that institutions like chattel slavery appear to exist on a household level in places where there's nothing like a state, and increasing evidence they long predated states. This is hardly the place to go into evidence for the emergence of patriarchy in various times and places, predatory raiding and slave-taking, and so forth, but we're not making things up when we say things like that appear to have existed long before anything that could be called a kingdom or a state, and there are plenty of ethnographic parallels for how that might have worked. We're not just making this stuff up. It's really more a report on what we're turning up and an appropriate bow to feminist theory which has been on this topic the longest. The evidence isn't in on how all the pieces interacted, but I think it actually is in on the broad question of where most of the pieces actually were.

  6. David, you weren't overly harsh — I appreciate the correction of what was clearly (it is so obvious now!) a wild over-reading. And I appreciate also the additional context.

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