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Just Before Dawn

Is not having to think about how your sewage gets disposed of worth submitting to the rule of the state?
Published onNov 05, 2021
Just Before Dawn

The new David(s) Graeber and Wengrow book, The Dawn of Everything, isn’t out until next week, but the reviews have started coming in, and boy does it seem like it’ll scratch a lot of my particular itches. Here’s Gideon Lewis-Kraus describing the book’s key argument in The New Yorker:

Still, it’s by contending at length with the prejudices of scale—the expectation that there is some natural upper bound on the number of people who can live and work together without significant coördination from above—that the book signals its broader ambitions. “In the standard, textbook version of human history, scale is crucial,” the authors write. “The tiny bands of foragers in which humans were thought to have spent most of their evolutionary history could be relatively democratic and egalitarian precisely because they were small.” We therefore persuade ourselves that, given the problem of strangers, we need “such things as urban planners, social workers, tax auditors and police.”

Referring to a wealth of new archeological and anthropological evidence, Graeber and Wengrow apparently argue that the dichotomy between egalitarianism and modernity is a false one. Freedom does not have to be the price of scale, as a growing list of prehistoric cities and cultures, now undergoing reexamination, seems to show.

It’s a tough lesson to internalize, because, well, our entire society is arranged to reinforce the idea that not having to think about how your sewage gets disposed of is worth submitting to the rule of a state. That’s, of course, a rather severe example of the tradeoff involved. But even for such an extreme and disgusting question, I’m not sure it has an obvious answer, particularly given the technology we have been able to build under states, technology that wasn’t at our disposal (haha?) when the cultures Graeber and Wengrow analyze were self-organizing. Put another way, it seems like it might be less agonizing to worry about where my shit ends up, in a world that’s mastered plumbing, than whether a man from West Virginia I’ve never met and never will decides to open a book about democracy.

That might be a false choice. But it’s why I continue to be attracted to the Solarpunk movement which asks, among other things, how geographic communities can become meaningfully resilient at scale, even if statist infrastructure begins to collapse around them. That movement, and scholarship like this book, give me hope that it might be possible. Perhaps the message of this book and others like it, combined with the infrastructure and technology we already have, and the emerging climate crisis, will coalesce in the coming years into an ideology that will help us reimagine and reinstate the worlds we gave up where, as Graeber and Wengrow put it, we could “simply laugh [would-be rulers] out of court.”

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