David Graeber Is Gone, But He's Still Changing How We See History
In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber delivers parting wisdom.
Anthropologist and committed anarchist David Graeber may be best known as a founder of Occupy Wall Street (a reputation he worked hard to disavow, always instead deferring to the collective decision-making process), but his true legacy is likely his academic work.
A star in the field of anthropology, Graeber was abruptly dismissed by Yale in 2005 after teaching for 17 years (likely, Graeber suspected, because of his politics). Graeber wrote paradigm-upending works like 2011’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, which took fundamental issue with Adam Smith. In recounting how cultures have cycled through credit, money and gift economies, the book calls into question the inevitability — and iron grip — of today’s capitalism. Indeed, in a May 2018 interview with In These Times associate editor Dayton Martindale about Graeber’s 2018 book, Bullshit Jobs, Graeber said the inanity of much of today’s work suggests capitalism was “rapidly transforming into something that might not even be capitalism… though it might be just as bad.”
That book tour would be Graeber’s last. He died unexpectedly, in September 2020, of pancreatitis. He was 59. Just three weeks prior, Graeber had announced to archaeologist David Wengrow that their book, which they’d been cowriting for a decade, was complete. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity released fall 2021 and quickly hit the New York Times bestseller list. Its thesis — that freedom and democracy are not, in fact, the new and exclusive invention of European settler-colonialists — inspired such grand headlines as, “What If Everything You Learned About Human History Is Wrong?”
In These Times spoke with Wengrow, a professor at the University College of London’s Institute of Archaeology, about how one backs up such claims, why it would have been “rather nice” to live in fourth-century Mexico and what he wants people to remember about his collaborator and friend, David Graeber.
Jessica Stites: The Dawn of Everything offers a new, rich, varied history of “progressive” ideas popping up in all sorts of societies. You talk about social housing, for example, which In These Times tends to depict as an early 20th-century innovation. How can you say, ‘Yes, what we’re seeing in the year 300 in Mesoamerica is social housing?’
David Wengrow: One might assume the idea of social housing — a little bit like the abolition of slavery — is an idea that took an enormous amount of time before anybody could conceive of doing it and arose from moral and ethical concerns in very recent European cultural media. But neither is true. We have examples in the book not just of social housing but of non-agricultural groups adopting and then abolishing slavery.
If you pick up a standard book about the Maya and the Aztec, you’re going to see pyramids and carvings of kings doing nasty things to their enemies and their subjects. But a consensus is now forming that this very important early city of 100,000, Teotihuacán, goes another way around the years 250 – 300. They effectively close down what is called the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and stop erecting grand monuments. This is a complex, multi-ethnic, polyglot settlement with communities coming into the city and founding neighborhoods, from Chiapas or the Gulf Coast or even as far as the Maya lowlands. Around that time, all of the resources and labor of the citizens gets redirected outward into the construction of these apartment blocks laid out in a very highly planned grid across the city. When archaeologists started investigating these buildings, they called them palaces because they are just beautiful.
JS: As I read that part I remember thinking, ‘I wouldn’t mind living in one.’
DW: It was rather nice. There’s always a central courtyard. And then there are homes for a small number of nuclear families. So you might end up with 150 people living privately but around this shared space, with very nice drainage facilities, plastered walls, often beautifully decorated with murals (which today end up in art galleries), and so on. And they’re just single story. Something that to our eyes looks like a rather nice villa. And the whole city gets covered in these. The apartments seem to have a fairly standard plan, but each one is also a bit quirky. So we’re not talking about some kind of top-down standard. It’s something much more humane, in a way.
Clearly there were differences of wealth within the city — some are considerably larger and nice. But none of them match the criteria for anything like a palace or an elite dwelling. The whole thing is very, very different from that standard picture of an ancient Mesoamerican town.
And so the archaeologists either had to conclude that everyone lived in a palace or nobody lived in a palace. Either everybody was a king, or nobody was a king.
The answer must be along the lines that this community very self-consciously channeled resources to provide what today would be regarded as a really excellent standard of living on urban scale.
It is sometimes suggested that this is a wild anomaly and that the longer-term history of the region follows the more typical pattern of hierarchy, inequality, monarchy. But there’s actually a very wide variety of political systems in these Mesoamerican cities: Some have a whole bunch of kings on location; some are more pyramid-like; nearly all seem to have these powerful neighborhood councils with a fair degree of autonomy, which actually continue into the Spanish colonial era, as barrios.
And then there’s this fascinating case of a city-state called Tlaxcala.
JS: That was my favorite section of the book! With the ritually abused politicians.
DW: Yes. Tlaxcala is the city where Cortés found 20,000 warrior allies to go to Tenochtitlan to overthrow Montezuma and the Aztec Triple Alliance. He couldn’t possibly have succeeded without their help.
The standard history tends to tell the story of ‘guns, germs and steel,’ that the Europeans show up and all the natives are supposedly dazzled by the gunpowder, the metal weapons, the strange animals that they called ‘deer’ because they had never seen a horse. And they go, ‘Will you please tell us what to do?’
But there are letters from Cortés to the king of Spain where he describes Tlaxcala. And he’s very explicit, because he’s been running around the Americas finding kings everywhere and trying to get them on his side. This is someone who knows a king when he meets one. And he explains that he can’t find one in this place. And every time he tries to get them to make a decision, they kick him out for weeks at a time while they deliberate. He says it’s more like one of these Mediterranean republics, like Venice or Pisa.
Then David Graeber and I stumbled upon a really remarkable source, written in the 16th century by a Spanish scholar, Francisco Cervantes de Salazar. He was funded by the colonial government in Mexico, shortly after the conquest, to interview what would have been the children or the grandchildren of the leading figures in Tlaxcala. It contains actual records of the debates in the council about whether to get into cahoots with the Spaniards. Some of it’s very funny — observations about Europeans being dirty and unhygienic, obsessed with gold. ‘They’ve got these dreadful animals that are going to eat everything if we let them in.’ These people were way ahead of anyone in Spain at the time in terms of things we regard as progressive politics today. They had a fully functional, developed system of political representation.
And they had ways of ensuring politicians did not vaunt their own egos. Another source, Friar Toribio of Benavente, describes the process of joining the Tlaxcala council. You go through this really quite horrific period of self-starvation and bloodletting and torture, all these very trying rituals. It begins with being abused in the town square. Everyone comes out and abuses you. The whole thing is designed to flatten the ego, so that you become a civil servant in the true sense of somebody in service of the population. It’s exactly the opposite of what we expect politicians to be now.
JS: That part gave me fantasies of putting Donald Trump in the square.
DW: It’s like a government where everybody was Tony Benn. Can you imagine?
JS: Another big theme of the book is how much Indigenous North America influenced the European Enlightenment — another fact written out of history.
DW: There was a very developed tradition of participatory democracy and debate that is widely remarked upon by European observers. The Jesuit missionaries, for example, were horrified by the Iroquois and Algonquian peoples they encountered. These are people who don’t give or take orders, and that was a deep problem for the Jesuits. Because if you’re trying to Christianize people, you traditionally begin with the Ten Commandments. Now, how do you explain the Ten Commandments to people who don’t take orders?
Europeans described these societies as ‘free’— which wasn’t a compliment, but was meant as rather awful, almost animalistic. Another thing that scandalized the Jesuits is that they had no courts of law, no prisons. But the Europeans admitted their crime rates were significantly lower.
JS: The book is a big sweeping history of the type that people love to try to poke holes in. What reception is it getting in the field?
DW: The book will be scrutinized. And we’re often way outside our comfort zones. But interestingly, at David’s insistence, we published some of the core arguments in very well-respected, international, peer-reviewed journals. We’ve been out there giving talks, getting feedback, getting criticism, responding to criticism. Some of it’s very gratifying.
A piece came out in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2019 subtitled, ‘Foragers do not live in small-scale societies.’ And it references our first piece.
I’m seeing a receptivity to not only our work, but a whole body of research. I think that is going to produce something of a paradigm shift in the next few decades. There is going to be more attentiveness to the sophistication of Indigenous political systems, which will also mean going back to literature that’s been sidelined over the past 20 or 30 years, including by researchers who are themselves of Indigenous descent, which we draw attention to in the book.
At the very least I hope the book can make it a bit harder for people to keep repeating bad history, this idea that freedom and democracy only come as part of a package with colonialism and genocide.
JS: What do you think of the popular reception so far? Do you think David would have been pleased?
DW: I think he would have been quite gratified that the reception is, on the whole, very positive. I sense some reviewers might have been expecting a more political or politicized tract, something we deliberately stepped away from — and actually David was the one pulling back. Reviewers want to talk about Occupy and about David’s politics, and you can find those things in the book, but that’s not the kind of book it is. It’s a book for everybody. It’s not a book for a particular constituency.
JS: You have a beautiful introduction about how your voice and David’s voice sort of melded in the course of this 10-year collaboration. Is there anything you want to share about him?
DW: I was out for a coffee with Astra Taylor this morning, talking about David, and one thing came to my mind that was very unusual about him. I’m not an activist, but if I feel strongly, I’ll join a march occasionally. I think David was exceptional in the sense that, in all the years that I knew him, he was involved in so many different causes and movements — Extinction Rebellion, global justice, the Labour Party at some stage— and never once do I recall him even trying to hold me to his standards or being critical that I wasn’t joining some action. I think that’s an exceptional character trait, which is lacking in many people who are politically active. There’s a moral judgment, ‘you must, you should.’ David wasn’t really like that.
And I think that’s one of the reasons why he was able to talk to such a broad constituency of people. And it was part of this underlying commitment to social freedoms.
Jessica Stites is Editorial Director of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and edits stories on labor, neoliberalism, Wall Street, immigration, mass incarceration and racial justice, among other topics. Before joining ITT, she worked at Ms. magazine and George Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advocate and AlterNet. She is board secretary of the Chicago Reader and a former Chicago Sun-Times board member.