In The Beginning, All The World Was America, And More So Than That Is Now

In The Beginning, All The World Was America, And More So Than That Is Now December 17, 2021

I have been reading the sizable new book The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. This wildly ambitious work basically tries to rewrite the whole history of humanity, and in the process, it inverts what “everybody knows” about the “rise of civilization.” What follows is not, repeat not, a review of the book, but rather an exploration of a few of its critical themes.

To oversimplify a complex argument, Graeber and Wengrow suggest that early human societies were quite capable of making very substantial leaps to everything we characterize as “civilized” organization and development without forfeiting their early egalitarian structures. In order to live fully and happily, human beings did not have to make the Faustian bargains that cursed them with hierarchy, domination, inequality, and property, whether in the secular or the spiritual sphere. What we usually think is that early people progressed to developing new technologies and forms of civilization, and then built on those to advance further. The Dawn of Everything suggests that societies through the ages have made those “advances” (note my quotes) at various points – but then decided they weren’t worth bothering with, and renounced them. Been there, invented that, decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Those early societies consciously preferred what we think of as the primitive, as a more humane and creative way of living. This is overtly an anarchist vision of human development.

I have quite a few problems with the book. In my view, the authors’ interpretation of lots of the archaeological evidence they cite is poorly substantiated and, let’s be kind here, optimistic. More generally, for all the scholarly apparatus, the book has the standard flaws of most soft primitivism, and a large dose of ethnographic credulity that sometimes becomes actively embarrassing. I strongly endorse the painstaking and seriously critical review by Kwame Anthony Appiah in the current New York Review of Books [paywalled].

Just to give a specific example, the authors make really extensive use of the reported words of an early Native American named Kandiaronk, who was deeply unimpressed by the French society he encountered at the end of the seventeenth century. Here, think Graeber and Wengrow, we have the authentic words of primitive and democratic humanity, the determined foe of property and inequality, and the explosive views that he presented had a significant impact on Enlightenment thought. As the authors rightly note, it has always been assumed that Kandiaronk’s opinions as they were expressed were not in fact his, but were projected onto him by the French author who reported his views in 1703: at the very least, that author embellished his words, very substantially. Graeber and Wengrow reject this interpretation, and to think (or affect to think) that we really are hearing the authentic words of the ideal Native Sage, at his most savage and most noble. They are utterly and self-evidently wrong about this, or at least, it is very odd indeed that Kandiaronk spends so much time spouting familiar themes that had clearly originated in early Enlightenment Europe. (More on this below).

Nor are the authors apparently aware of the very common Greek and Roman habit of placing their own social and political critiques in the mouths of barbarians who feature in their narratives, even when there is no conceivable way the writers could have known the actual content of those speeches. (Tacitus was very good at this). Barbarian outsiders were always precious vehicles for channeling radical ideas. Every educated French person around 1703 had been raised on those Classical historians, and knew that rhetorical tactic intimately. In more modern times, historians have had great fun tracing the mythical “speeches” attributed to Chief Seattle, which evolved according to the needs and interests of the non-Native interpreters in any given era.

Having said all that, The Dawn of Everything offers so much to argue with and about that it is eminently worth reading, discussing, teaching, and occasionally, throwing across the room. Quite seriously, what else do you need in an ideal Christmas gift?

Inventing Savages and Barbarians

I want here to expand a bit on what they say about the rise of the ideas that they are struggling against. How did we come to believe that civilization demanded the destruction of that original supposed world of egalitarian freedom? How did primitive or savage automatically come to mean something so horribly bad? I am building here on my recent post about Thomas Hobbes’s book Leviathan, which he published in 1651, and an extremely significant influence on Western political thought during the Enlightenment. Like so many others of his time, Hobbes was deeply interested in the origins of society, and how people came to form the communities they did. To establish their point, Locke, Hobbes, and others used Native Americans as a symbol of the primitive order – sometimes, but not necessarily, as ruthless savages. Those texts make for powerful (I almost said “enlightening”) and troubling reading today. They also offer a new perspective on the history of the very word “American.”

When those English observers were discussing Native peoples, they confined themselves almost exclusively to the Eastern Woodland cultures they knew from accounts of New England and Virginia. From Spanish writers, the English knew vaguely about the great Classical cultures that had existed in Mexico and Peru, but those really did not fit their argument. For their purposes, the more primitive the societies they were sketching, the better.

Some of those comparative accounts were actually quite insightful. Around 1670, the brilliant antiquary John Aubrey assembled what information he could about Britain’s ancient Celtic societies, as they would have existed just before the Roman invasions. Those Celts used iron and practiced agriculture, and (as he wrongly believed) built great monuments like Stonehenge and Avebury. Thus, “they were two or three degrees I suppose less salvage [savage] than the Americans.” Like his contemporaries, he uses “American” to refer to the indigenous peoples, rather than the settlers, a practice than continued well into the eighteenth century. As late as 1729, Jonathan Swift would imagine a cannibalistic “American” – that is, an Indian – in his Modest Proposal.

Aubrey is applying what we can only call an evolutionary theory of anthropology. The word “savage” does not of itself mean brutal or violent, or even anything undesirable. Rather, he imagines an evolutionary sequence from people living in the woods or forests, the silvae, where they have the appropriate ways of living and finding food, and are thus silvaticus or savage – that is, woodlanders. That connotation still survives in other languages. In my high school French class, a friend earned the teacher’s mockery for translating mouton sauvage as “savage sheep,” rather than merely a wild variety, with no necessary implications about its sadistic or aggressive potential. Italian selvaggio just means wild or uncontrolled: Dante’s Divine Comedy famously opens in a selva selvaggia, a “wild wood.” In Aubrey’s day too, English retained the original L in “salvage,” which still implied wild and woody, in a non-judgmental way. That is exactly the sense in which modern anthropologists speak of Eastern Woodland cultures. Savage originally meant woodland, and vice versa, neither more nor less.

As they develop agriculture, thought Aubrey, those “savages” move to a higher stage of development, which nineteenth century theorists called barbarian, before emerging into the light of full civilization.

Noble Savages

“Savages” could in themselves be perfectly decent and even honorable people. In a famous essay on the New World published in 1580, Michel de Montaigne had spoken admiringly of the “savages” of Brazil, who lived close to Nature, and in a sense represented a perfect human society (“Of Cannibals”). In a founding text of cultural relativism, Montaigne also noted “that everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country” (chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage). To borrow a later phrase, savages could be noble. That essay was widely translated, and Shakespeare probably borrowed from one of those English versions in The Tempest. In 1672, a character in John Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada uttered the famous lines,

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

Noble savages were thoroughly in vogue long before the appearance of Kandiaronk, who supposedly presented exactly the views that his European audience had come to expect. The sentiments attributed to him reflected those European expectations and stereotypes as they existed c.1700. Graeber and Wengrow are quite naughty here, as they badly underplay those older pre-1700 accounts so as to make the supposed words of Kandiaronk into a bombshell revelation, entirely unsuspected by European intellectuals prior to that point. They were nothing of the kind. (Unforgivably, the authors refer to Montaigne’s seminal essay only in a footnote).

If Kandiaronk’s account had not existed c.1700, it would have been necessary to invent it. Oh, wait, somebody did.

Savages At Their Most Savage, And Ignoble

Going back to John Aubrey, in his view, ancient British savages were neither better nor worse than the slightly more advanced barbarians. Of the Anglo-Saxons who followed the Britons, he writes that “They lived sluttishly in poor houses, where they eat a great deal of beef and mutton, and drank good ale in a brown mazard; and their very kings were but a sort of farmers.” If they were superior to mere savages, they were of themselves nothing to write home about. By the by, the phrase “their very kings were but a sort of farmers” cries out to be set as a “Discuss” in an exam question.

Having said that about Aubrey, other scholars used the notion of savagery in pretty much the modern English usage of animalistic or “brutish,” and in so doing, they formulated the hierarchical and state-centered vision that Graeber and Wengrow are challenging. Hobbes famously imagined the State of Nature that would have existed before organized society and states, and despite what Montaigne had said, this was a dreadful thing it was to imagine:

In [the state of nature] there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short …

Perhaps that extreme model did not exist all over the world, but it was assuredly to be found in certain particular localities in his own time: “For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small Families, the concord whereof dependeth on naturall lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before.” No great linguistic distance separated the concept of “brutish” from “brutal,” in our modern sense. Civilized people could themselves fall back easily into that kind of calamitous situation, through wars or civil wars (Hobbes is thinking of the Thirty Years War, or the English Civil War of the 1640s). At such times, civilization failed, and people reverted to the brutality and dreadful situation that characterized ordinary Indian life: they fall back into a Hobbesian State of Nature. So appalling were such conditions that people demanded protection through an absolute sovereign.

Locke on America

The most influential use of the idea of Indian “savagery” was offered by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government, written around 1680, and another prime text of Enlightenment thought: arguably, it was the founding text of the American Revolution. Like Hobbes, Locke uses the Indians to imagine a world that in economic terms is a blank slate, a ground zero from which later progress can occur. Such improvement could only take place once the right of property had been established, which led to a new value being placed on land and its improvement, and to the rise of money and wealth. Property gave the foundation for all later civilization:

For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to Nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniencies of life as ten acres of equally fertile land doe in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?

The nations of the “Americans”

are rich in Land, and poor in all the Comforts of Life; whom Nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of Plenty, i.e. a fruitful Soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the Conveniencies we enjoy: And a King of a large fruitful Territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day Labourer in England.

Locke continues with the much-quoted phrase that I use for my title:

Thus in the beginning all the World was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as Money was any where known. Find out something that hath the Use and Value of Money amongst his Neighbours, you shall see the same Man will begin presently to enlarge his Possessions.

Without those structures of property, and the attendant hierarchy and inequality, humans could know neither safety nor comfort nor “conveniencies.” That was the price you paid. I may be wrong here, but I could not find that wonderful “in the beginning” quote in The Dawn of Everything: how could they have resisted it?

Like Aubrey, Locke was not suggesting any natural flaw or evil in Native Americans, but rather that they had simply failed to reach the stage of social or economic development that they could actually care for their lands, or develop them in any fruitful way. (I am reporting Locke’s  views: do not blame me for the obvious critique of unchecked development and over-exploitation). But religious writers inevitably used that kind of analysis to frame Indian “savages” in a way that was literally diabolical.

I’ll be returning to those religious implications in my next post. As I say, I often disagree with The Dawn of Everything, but it does provoke thinking. Do read it.



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