It is revolutionary, intellectually-speaking, to point out that the European Enlightenment – especially the suite of political ideals (liberty, equality, democracy)) that are still aspirational for most societies – was inspired by early European encounters with indigenous/native American thinkers. This is the argument that David Wengrow and the late David Graeber make in the first chapters of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity; tracing Enlightenment ideas about liberty to the interactions of French colonial military commanders with the great Wendat (Huron) leader and thinker Kandiaronk. It is the earth-shaking first chess move in the argument that Graeber and Wengrow build throughout the rest of the book, an argument that aims to show that the conventional Western theories of the “general course of human history”:
1. Simply arenʻt true;
2. Have dire political implications;
3. Make the past needlessly dull.
At last! A history of humans that does not reproduce the mythology of the Ascent of (European) Man, in which we have inexorably progressed from brutish and miserable hunter-gatherers to our current apex of comfortable complexity on an arc that can be graphed using the coordinates of military might and economic sophistication. The Apologistʻs Arc, one could call it: “This is the way it has to be. The March of Progress, bringing us all the benefits of jobs, prosperity, opportunity, technological innovation, and compounding interest, must not be questioned!” Indigenous peoples, local cultures & nature itself have been and continue to be crushed under the wheels of this supposed Progress. To protest is futile.
But maybe it isnʻt futile? Maybe there are other possibilities? Other possibilities than the concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands as the health and stability of the our natural environment is compromised (such that the zone of human habitability on the planet is already shrinking rapidly?). Maybe there are social models in the past that were successful for hundreds or even thousands of years, and those models of stability are of immense value in this moment where we are coming to grips with the need for radically different ways of living.
Yes, I love hot showers and antibiotics as much as the next person. The achievements of Western civilization have unquestionably vaulted our species to an unprecedented era of success by that most basic of measures, sheer numbers. Yes, our rightly prized scientific and cultural achievements have been subsidized by social complexity and the division of labor that such complexity makes possible. But scientific inquiry and the structural dysfunction that is currently wrecking our human habitat are not the same thing.
What The Dawn of Everything argues is that it is possible to have the social goods of liberty, equality, and the provisioning of basic needs via a range of social structures – some of which are more stable than others. The archeological record holds clues to what social structures are spectacular but short-lived success stories and what social structures have staying power. But in order to look at the past we have to de-center that old story of The March of Progress and ask other questions of the past. Rather than asking “how good were they at conquering their neighbors,” we could ask “how good were they at living within the ecological balance of their local environment?” Rather than fawning over how much gold their leaders managed to accumulate we could admire their social mechanisms for maintaining social equality and individual liberty. And in looking at the past differently perhaps we can change how we see the present and how we envision the future.
Also: hey y’all! 🙂