The Dawn of Everything

In a recent thread, I asked whether the Agricultural Revolution was a net positive. I had been reading Sapiens and Harari, looking from the viewpoint of wheat, says men were able to get stability and increase population at the expense of backbreaking work, more susceptibility to disaster and poorer nutrition. These claims have been questioned, most recently in the recent book matching the thread title.

[Was the Agricultural Revolution a mistake?]

I’m halfway through “The Dawn of Everything”. It is interesting, but long, dense and challenging. It appears on many annual lists of “top books” and deservedly so, but is often described using a very general synopsis making me wonder how many actually read the thing. But it covers thirty years of recent research in anthropology and goes all over the place. So it is hard to summarize, and in the linked thread a few people did it about as well as one could.

The bit about the Agricultural Revolution taking over six thousand years, farming remaining casual in some places or just along river beds where work is minimal, was taken up and abandoned and taken up again, casually it formally, and differed everywhere is a small fraction of the book.

As a Canadian, the part I found particularly interesting were the dialogues between French Jesuits and “Adario” (with about five other names) an eloquent speaker for the Wyandot Aboriginal tribe which tried to remain independent from the Iroquois League.

Adario was made known in France in a series of books by Baron Lahontan. In a series of dialogues, he provides very interesting and cogent arguments on French religion, law, values and lifestyle and why he thinks Native values are preferable. Most French considered the Aboriginals to be savages, sometimes with added “nobility” if they seemed to be aiding the French or disposed to Christianity.

The dialogues are fascinating and the title book makes the point that the cogent arguments were the ones made by Native Indians and were not, as most assumed, merely a literary device used by Lahontan to avoid persecution for stating his own views criticizing aspects of French society, absolutism and religion as well as French foreign policy.

It is further stated that many of the ideas of the French Enlightenment, such as the views of Rousseau and Voltaire, were heavily influenced by Lahontan’s writing and similar plays “which would have been well known to Paris intellectuals”. Is it true Aboriginal Canadians influenced French intellectual thinking prior to the Revolution? Of course, few school students in Canada are taught this. I’d never heard of Adario before, and have read some Canadian history. His views are amazingly modern and cogent, and I had no real notion of the history of native philosophy.

I took the initiative to read some of the original works in French and the anthropological research quoted in the book. They make a very convincing case that Adario represented the widespread native views and had the eloquence and depth of thought to make these arguments. I think it’s fascinating. It is clear that Adario also went to Paris.

However, the part where his views influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, and that Lahontan’s work would be widely known by French luminaries, seems to rest on possible assumptions. I wonder what the evidence is that Voltaire read Lahontan’s accounts and even based sone of his arguments on them. Even still, it’s a fascinating yarn, could easily be true, and reflects a side of Canadian history I gave never seen emphasized. It should be. The dialogues summarize very clever thinking. The sources also shed interesting light on the French and their relations with the Iroquois, who seemed to behave with great nobility under difficult circumstances.

Highly recommended, but this is also just a small part of the book.

The book is on my “to read” shelf, right beside Graeber’s Debt, which I have read. I heard the other David in a podcast interview (The Dig) and he argued that some Indigenous thinkers had been popularized by French writers and so were more generally known than one might think. It seems it was almost a literary genre. No idea if Voltaire read Adario, though

Atlantic review here, now most definitely on my reading list.

I’m several chapters into it, but I’m doing about a chapter a day to fully digest the arguments. Many things there that surprised me but also a few places where I think they made giant leaps with their conclusions. That’s probably to be expected when condensing seemingly every article ever written in anthropology but it pulls me out of the flow when it happens.

Not a telling criticism. So far it’s massively impressive.

You kind of have to expect that, given that the uiltimate conclusion is “anarchy”!

Is it? Still halfway through, as I wanted to check some of his sources which required ordering additional (and quite obscure) books. I was curious about his claims about Indigenous views. In fairness, Graebar summarizes the arguments well, but somewhat incompletely, as the sources are voluminous and he has other things he wishes to emphasize. Since the author was known for his support of Occupy movements and such perhaps it is not so surprising.

To be clear, I haven’t read it yet. I was joking, referencing the fact that David Graeber was an anarchist. Not that I mean that detrimentally - he was a remarkable man.

To those who do not like links, here is an excerpt from the Atlantic review.

“… [Graeber likes] the idea that people can get along perfectly well without governments—[and asked this] throughout his career. The Dawn of Everything is framed by an account of what the authors call the “indigenous critique.” In a remarkable chapter, they describe the encounter between early French arrivals in North America, primarily Jesuit missionaries, and a series of Native intellectuals—individuals who had inherited a long tradition of political conflict and debate and who had thought deeply and spoke incisively on such matters as “generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment and liberty.”

The Indigenous critique, as articulated by these figures in conversation with their French interlocutors, amounted to a wholesale condemnation of French—and, by extension, European—society: its incessant competition, its paucity of kindness and mutual care, its religious dogmatism and irrationalism, and most of all, its horrific inequality and lack of freedom. The authors persuasively argue that Indigenous ideas, carried back and publicized in Europe, went on to inspire the Enlightenment (the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy, they note, had theretofore been all but absent from the Western philosophical tradition). They go further, making the case that the conventional account of human history as a saga of material progress was developed in reaction to the Indigenous critique in order to salvage the honor of the West. We’re richer, went the logic, so we’re better. The authors ask us to rethink what better might actually mean.

The Dawn of Everything is not a brief for anarchism, though anarchist values—antiauthoritarianism, participatory democracy, small- c communism—are everywhere implicit in it. Above all, it is a brief for possibility, which was, for Graeber, perhaps the highest value of all. The book is something of a glorious mess, full of fascinating digressions, open questions, and missing pieces.”

Probably need to remind people coming into this thread that both authors are English. I believe that accounts for the constant use of term “communism” for egalitarian societies. That word has unfortunately resulted in knee-jerk condemnation in places like Amazon reviews.

If you’re an American, substitute “communalism” every time you see “communism” and all will go much smoother.

That’s not the ultimate conclusion - I would say there isn’t one, except that the existing anthropological development paradigm is pants. But even if it were, it would be anarchism, not anarchy.

Graeber was American, not English.

Apparently (I haven’t read it, but both it and New Voyages are available online) Voltaire’s L’Ingénu uses vocabulary he would have had to either have gotten from Lahontan or from speaking to actual Natives. Similarly, some arguments raised in New Voyages are apparently replicated in L’Ingénu. Like I said, I haven’t read it, so I can’t say, but if you’re interested, you could do the comparison. Or if you have JSTOR access, you can read this.

Also, New Voyages was a huge bestseller (25 editions in 60 years, and an English translation published the same year as the French.) , it’d be a bit much to suggest Voltaire never read it when he wrote a book partly using the same setting (that he’d never been to).

True. I cannot access your link but there are similar things online at academia (.edu). Graebar states Rousseau’s writings confess his love of travelogues and cite Lebeau and the play L’Arlequin Sauvage, a popular play at the time of Louis XIV. He further states Lebeau basically just summarized Lahontan (unsure on what evidence). He also states that although it is exceedingly likely he read Lahontan, it does not matter if he did not if he was exposed to the same ideas through secondary sources.

Ah, since he’s been listed as a professor in English schools for all his books I read I made an incorrect assumption. However, he was there long enough to incorporate their phraseology. Whatever the origin of the use of the term communism, I still suggest that Americans think communalism instead, to lighten the inadvertent baggage.

Clearly the authors are known for being politically controversial but also relish this role. They define communism in the book (“as we use it here”) as “a certain presumption… that people who are not enemies can be expected to respond to another’s needs”, as in a natural disaster. Clearly many have or would define it differently, well known by the authors. This was a choice; many words describe mutual aid or community interest.

Just @-ing @GreenWyvern here, since he’s the one who encouraged me to read the book in the first place, and he may have missed this thread as it’s in Cafe (I did report it for a move to GD, where I think it belongs)

As for the authors’ use of “communism”, it’s one I’m already quite familiar with from anarchist and environmental circles, especially anarcho-primitivists (not that I am one, and neither was Graeber AFAICT) and the work of the Global Scenario Group. But Graeber himself had already elaborated on his use of communism in Debt: The First 5000 Years, so the usage in Graeber’s overall project wasn’t new, either.

This is the third and last time I’m saying this. I’m not addressing the authors. I’m offering advice to American readers who may not be versed in “anarchist and environmental circles” or in the other uses of the word beside the one flung at anyone farther left than Attila the Hun.

Thanks! I did in fact somehow miss this thread.

That advice may be useful for people who are reading Amazon comments or similar.

In the book itself, the authors rarely use the term communism (only in three or four places), and each time they define clearly what they mean

I found the last few chapters the most interesting, actually. :slightly_smiling_face:

They deal with early cities and their variety of social organizations, and the rise and development of different kinds of ‘states’.

Chill, dude.

I was just contributing a point of view - pointing out that it’s not a uniquely English idiomatic usage of the word, and so not a usage Graeber picked up in England, but rather through anarchist and anthropological circles. Especially since he was using it that way in papers published before his 2005 relocation (for instance, a discussion of it forms a large part of the Marcel Mauss Revisited chapter of 2001’s Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value.)

If you feel you’re better informed on what your fellow Dopers of an American persuasion do or don’t understand by small-c communism, or on what “inadvertent baggage” they’ll be carrying, I’m not going to gainsay you, I’m sure you know their minds better than I. By all means, dispense whatever sage advice you feel they require, I’m sure they’re eager for your well-informed opinion.