Kondiaronk was, in his own way, a man of the Enlightenment. Born in 1649, the same year, an attack by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) forced his people to move to the place now known as Mackinac Island, he spent his adult life working to keep the French at war against the Haudenosaunee, then, after leading them, to pursue a broader settlement. These efforts bore fruit in 1701 with the Great Peace of Montreal which, in somewhat clear historical symmetry, was also the year of his death. Two years later, Baron de Lahontan, a French soldier and diplomat, used Kondiaronk as the basis of a character in a book of dialogues, an indigenous intellectual who questions the political ideas of his French interlocutor. Until recently, scholars tended to view this character as a mere spokesperson for the Enlightenment philosopher Lahontan, but Graeber and Wengrow come up with something much more interesting: what if the Enlightenment philosophers were themselves, in part , the creation of Native American intellectuals? The eighteenth-century preoccupation with the origins of inequality, the process by which we were divided into castes and ruled by kings, does not seem to emerge naturally from the political thought of the period immediately preceding it. (The giants of the Renaissance and Reformation were generally in agreement with social stratification, although they contested particular cases of it.) At the beginning of the 17th century, under the influence of the theory of natural law. And the theory of natural law, in turn, arose in large part during debates about the moral and legal implications of European discoveries in the New World. During the European ravage of America, the subordinate spoke, and what he said was that the European social arrangements were stupid. He said it in front of the French and the Spaniards who continued to write books. Wengrow and Graeber quote Lahontan, speaking through his purported spokesperson Huron:
I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still cannot find a single way to act that is not inhuman, and I sincerely believe that this can only be the case for so long. that you stick to your distinctions of “mine” and “yours”. I claim that what you call money is the devil of the devils; the tyrant of the French, source of all evil; the scourge of souls and the slaughterhouse of the living. Imagining that you can live in the land of money and preserve your soul is like imagining that you can preserve your life at the bottom of a lake.
It is, indeed, a funny thing for a French baron to argue without at least a little help from the outside. It is giving Lahontan too much credit to think that this passage speaks strictly for him, and not for Kondiaronk. The Amerindians thus “opened a conceptual door” through which European thinkers passed, according to Graeber and Wengrow. Lahontan’s fictionalization of Kondiaronk is only one example of this process, but it is an example that has been read by Montesquieu, Voltaire and Diderot. It indirectly inspired the argument of the conservative Turgot according to which egalitarianism was a stage which belonged to the first phases of the development of humanity. When Rousseau wrote his Discourse on inequalities, which Graeber and Wengrow call “the founding document of the left as an intellectual project,” he combined ideas of egalitarianism that originate from indigenous intellectuals like Kondiaronk with the conservative idea of a series of ‘inevitable civilizational stages.
Are you still dizzy? I hope not, because I have summarized here only the first chapters of the book, ignoring several important parts as we go. The authors respond to Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, Francis Fukuyama; they wonder if it is really worth discussing the “origins of inequality” (the term “inequality” means too many things); they unleash a number of fun and stimulating aphorisms. (“All real advancements in social science have been rooted in the courage to say things that are, in the final analysis, a little silly.”) They give you a brief history of the concept of ‘good savage’, which doesn’t mean everything. quite what you think it means. The pace and scope of The dawn of everything will be familiar to those who have read, for example, Graeber’s work Debt: the first 5,000 years (2011), a book that served as a sort of intellectual charter for Occupy Wall Street. The main argument may seem like it wears off in the middle of the side quests, but ultimately every idea counts. You’ll want to keep good grades, but since the book is difficult, it is difficulty that goes hand in hand with wealth. Sentence by sentence, it is clear, punchy and funny, memorable like a lecture given by the kind of teacher whose students know they are lucky. From one end to the other, The dawn of everything entertains even more than it challenges. Writers know more than ever about everything, but they speak to the reader as Kondiaronk might have spoken to Lahontan: from one rational creature to another, asking him Why do things have to be this way?
Such relationships of equals may have been a much more important feature of the deep human past than a person raised on fantasies of club-wielding cavemen and Conan-type warriors might assume. So far, Graeber and Wengrow agree with the now-familiar idea of hunter-gatherers as “the original abundance society,” to quote an influential essay by former Graeber thesis supervisor Marshall Sahlins. But archaeological finds in the two generations since Sahlins complicate his view of Spartan simplicity giving way to Athenian complexity. The authors’ main claim, anyway, is not that early human beings were simply “more equal” or, as in the opposite myth, “more stupid and violent”. Is that they were more all. For starters, our species wasn’t even the only “human” species to move around for most of our history – we crossed paths with Neanderthals and Denisovans, traversing “a world inhabited by hobbits, giants and of the elves ”, a world that has been reduced to Homo sapiens over tens of thousands of years. We have no real reason to believe that this decrease was inevitable. And anthropological, historical, and archaeological evidence suggests the possibility that many other seemingly unavoidable parts of human history are also due to chance: like play, like ritual, like simple human dipping. (Ancient Mesoamericans figured out how the wheels worked, then gave them to their children as toys, rather than using them to take over the world.) As ancient people experimented with a variety of social arrangements, we can only begin to begin. to guess, often varying their lifestyles. with the season they were spurred in various directions by “schismogenesis”, a term used by the anthropologist to denote the tendency of human groups to define themselves against each other. (This concept, of which Graeber and Wengrow give many examples, was useful to come across at a time when many adults in this country suddenly decided that getting vaccinated is a practice best left to the decadent city dwellers.) It is not a story of civilization created by the surplus of grain resulting from the expansion of newly settled small groups. It is a story in which seasonal hobby farming has led to sedentary agriculture and “game kingdoms” – ritual experiences of hierarchy, as you can see at seasonal festivals (“the queen of May”, etc.) – led to real kingdoms.