"prehistory: everything you know is wrong"

(Dennis Lanigan) #1

Super interesting article by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Please read!

(Andrew) #2

I’ve found Graeber’s move to justify his urbanarchist leanings pretty uncompelling for the last few years. It probably dates back father, as @primalwar has no doubt observed, but there’s a YouTube talk from around 2013/4 where I started to see him start trying to lay out this case. But this is really the only move he can make, because all of the things he wants in the world require his “new” narrative to be true.

(Dennis Lanigan) #3

I’m not sure I follow how Graeber’s admittedly obnoxious “where are the flying cars, basic income, and robots to do my laundry?” stuff negates the evidence they are presenting. Being an urbanist/sci-fi dork doesn’t negate the archaeological record. James C Scott is presenting a similar argument in Against the Grain (the myth of the agricultural revolution) based on new evidence.

(Andrew) #4

It doesn’t negate it a priori. However, having a commitment to a worldview with ideological underpinnings is the #1 path to confirmation bias which is the #1 cause of bad science and bad argumentation. He’s fitting everything to the narrative he’s locked into.

Here’s my thing, I think the gee whiz tech stuff is interesting and exciting. I want/ed that to be the path. I find myself seduced by those things daily. However, I don’t believe it works with peaks in human flourishing or human nature. What I have myself fetishized in the past are the same things Graeber still fetishizes. I tried to confirmation bias myself to the place he’s in right now. It didn’t work for me because I didn’t find any if it compelling. As the article states (while pretending otherwise), none of the arguments they’re offering are really new.

It’s worse than that, to me. Graeber seems to be suffering from the delusion that [an oversimplified strawman view of] anarcho-primitivism is the default narrative of mass society. Dude, (speaking to Graeber) having Marshall Sahlins as your college advisor doesnt mean everyone else in the world had Marshall Sahlins as an advisor. Nobody (statistically) in this culture believes that hunter-gatherers were happy affluent egalitarians. He’s literally pretending that consensus anthropology represents the beliefs of popular culture? How deep do you have to be in academic anthropology to believe that? Do you know how many times people have dropped Pinkerlogic and “caveman died at 30” and “tribal people are violent” shit on otherwise useful conversations I’ve been party to? Graeber is trying to pull off the same argument as shitposting alt-righters with the gloss of what he calls science.

(Kevin Tucker) #5

Graeber is a sack of shit. If he’s got an interesting point, it’s because he stole it from someone else. There was a very short lived “anarchist anthropologist” group that existed around 03-04 and disintegrated, as it should have, very quickly largely because of arguments between Graeber and I.
During that time, Graeber posted up his very short Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Which is horrendously awful for being a 100 page pocketbook. He argues that of the three primary objectives of anarchism; one is ending NAFTA, another is ending north-south inequality. It’s just super-short-sighted like that and absolutely devoid of any historical sensibilities. But for only being 100 pages, he straight up lifted 3-4 pages worth of material from Brian Morris’ ‘Anarchism and Anthropology’ essay without giving him an ounce of credit. That, I suspect, is the real reason he got ousted from Yale.
But he’s a petty little fucker, wanting to take the spotlight for anything, which is all the more hilarious because this is an actual quote from one of my arguments from Graeber:

The reason why Zerzan has become so famous in the corporate media, which has nothing but contempt for anarchists and mostly does feel we would be better off jailed or dead, is because he was the only anarchist they could find who was actually saying the sort of things they assumed anarchists should say (ie, let’s just blow everything up). Zerzan, who is an utterly shameless, aggressive media whore, has taken advantage of this to become the most famous anarchist in America.

Of course Graeber took every single chance he could get to be on TV since. He was just jealous and too lazy to really do the work himself. Instead, he just had these insane fits, I mean full blown tantrums. Jensen-inner-circle-worthy shit. I tore that fucker apart.
The thing is that he wears Sahlins like a badge. I have no allegiance to Sahlins, his best work is decades behind him and even he is so caught up that anthropologists studying hunter-gatherers have had to spend the last ten years or more salvaging Stone Age Economics from his relatively present self.
And just power-skimming this crapola, it’s all the same post-modernist, pop science bullshit, except, as Andrew points out, he presents Pinker’s ideas as though they were his own. I mean, his argument is with Jared Diamond’s worst book? C’mon. Lazy as shit!
But he’s anti-materialist. He’s consistently tried baiting materialist arguments only when it suits him and then using a PM backlash to soothe over the heaping amounts of bullshit about times of seasonal inequality amongst “hunter-gatherers” (in all fairness, he’s too lazy to have read an ounce of Woodburn or Binford I’m sure). He uses history as a weapon only when it’s convenient, such as:

The problem is that they are nothing of the kind. The Hadza or Nambikwara are not living fossils. They have been in contact with agrarian states and empires, raiders and traders, for millennia, and their social institutions were decisively shaped through attempts to engage with, or avoid them.

Yet he starts out saying that the early cities were “egalitarian” (even Bookchin might scoff a bit at that turd). But in this PM shit, he’s going to say that the shaping of institutions (to the degree to which they were) was always negative. Again, he mentions Hadza, Pygmies and Bushmen; all of which have been fairly well chronicled in terms of their resilience and the violence among the Bushmen largely over-stated and to criminal ends (via Pinker, he uses the death of Bushmen by neighbors and colonizers in their “murder rate”). Yet despite everything, they remained egalitarian, they didn’t become so because of all of that.
And again, he’s expecting that we’ll default on the touted murder rate among the Bushmen as the norm. Amongst the Hadza and Pygmies, almost none. Amongst groups like the Lanoh, their adherence to non-violence just pushed them further into the jungle and remains a vast impediment (fortunately) by state-backed efforts to convert them to Islam.
Anyways, I could go off. He’s not worth it. Just a lazy sack of shit who presents nothing as though it was everything. A media leaching opportunist and blatant plagiarist.


I don’t see Graeber “presenting Pinker’s ideas” at all. While I have different goals from him, I don’t see it as all or nothing. It is worthwhile to look at the variations in societies. All h/g societies were/are not the same.
Kevin, all your examples are warm/tropical zone groups. But even in the tropics hierarchical societies have been documented among h/g groups in northern Australia.
Why wouldn’t there be examples of inequality and hierarchy in other areas? There certainly was inequality among the late 18th-early 20th Plains tribes. It was limited by the difficulty hauling possessions around, but nonetheless existed. This is discussed in ‘The Journey of Crazy Horse’, among other places.
Basically, I see value in acknowledging that people can create a wide variety of societies, even in similar areas and that we aren’t trapped by circumstance. We are limited, but there is space for choice.

(Alexander Meander) #7

i just want to poke my head in and say that i have yet to read this article/essay in its entirety, yet have had it open in a tab for some time, and have managed to graze the opening portions. we have had some recent challenges here at home and time to spend in this sorts of online discussions is becoming an incredible luxury that i cannot seem to attain much of. but i want to be here and talking about these important topics more than i have been. perhaps this post is meant to share that more than anything.

i plan to throw my thoughts here once i have read the essay and also familiarized myself more with the authors. :slight_smile:

(Andrew) #8

Let’s be clear, calling Pinker’s ideas “Pinker’s ideas” is probably overstating the case to begin with. I referred to “Pinkerlogic” to invoke the package of Hobbesian beliefs he regurgitates in [at least] his books including and subsequent to Beter Angels. What I intended to imply is that Graeber, like Pinker, has a stake in demonstrating the violence, hierarchy, et cetera in hunter-gatherer populations. They are in it for slightly different reasons, but it is necessary for both of them to negate human origins supporting views other than their narratives in order to build the cases for their pet projects.

Pinker is in it to sell us the State as the cure for the bad things of HG life. Graeber is in it to sell us industrial Marxist anarchism as the cure for the bad things of HG life. It’s not about just acknowledging data here and there. It’s about selling a narrative.

(Andrew) #9

Yeah, Boehm goes pretty far in extending relative egalitarianism to “Big Man” and “tribal” cultures, but I don’t think even he would extend that to cities.

This is still one of the more thorough examinations of egalitarianism across specific hunter-gatherer, horticultural, pastoral, and agricultural societies: Current Anthropology: The Origins of Inequality.

Of course, Graeber makes the move to disqualify all anthropology (other than his, apparently) regarding cultures we actually know about, as if they can tell us nothing, then asserts stories crafted by archaeologists studying 25 kya (or whatever) burial sites is somehow epistemologically superior. It’s a weird move. Scott makes a similar move in talking about Jared Diamond, but there’s more nuance (and less motive) there than Graeber.


I think it may be just that I read most things with a more generous eye than you or Kevin. Or Aragorn, come to that. Heh.
What I get from Graeber isn’t a Hobbesian narrative, but a claim that societies in each of the known subsistence types show a range of egalitarianism/hierarchy and sometimes it varies over fairly short times in the society.
That doesn’t convince me that cities are a good idea, but it does give me some ideas about moving away from the present way of things.

(Andrew) #11

After Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber had my attention. I thought that was great and still recommend it highly. Because of that book alone, I gave his work a very favorable reading for a while. Based on subsequent readings, I can no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to keep liking Graeber, but I see sloppy claims in there which lead me to believe my original assessment: confirmation bias.

(Kevin Tucker) #12

By all means, try to hold a constructive conversation with the guy. Also know that this isn’t a one sided thing, Graeber is adamantly against everything we would be discussing/leaning towards here.

In relation to HG variation, that was my point, but I don’t have time to rehash it all here. The distinctions between immediate return and delayed return HGs have been around long enough and the idea that we’re just talking about a couple of egalitarian societies in some idealized circumstance is far from true.
But history matters and Graeber wants to flatten when it goes against him while using it when it’s opportunistic. I could say a lot more on this, but have to leave it there for now.


I also don’t see Graeber as a threat to my own goals. To the degree that reality will accommodate his goals it moves away from the current way of things. But ultimately his apparent goals will fail. In the mean time his work pulls some people out of the conventional “there is no alternative” thinking. If he directly attacks my own goals I’ll take note of it at that time and choose how to react.

(Andrew) #14

The narratives Pinker and Graeber are peddling impact your life every day. Mass culture is little more than a collection of stories.

What I find curious is why Graeber sees anti-civ narratives enough of a threat to his goals that he magically elevates them to the core operating system of the dominant culture. It’s Orwellian level crazy to make the claims he made about Daniel Quinn’s interpretation of Genesis being the commonly understood view. Why?

(Mandy Szostek) #15

This is only slightly relevant to the discussion…as i am unfamilair with a lot of what you are speaking about. But, yesterday…both my roomate and her dad went to go hear a talk by Pinker , here in St. Louis. They invited me to come…I was like, no thank you…Then, when i saw her later, i was like, “so> how was it??” and here she was glowing just as any person freshly back from attendence in their fervent cult meeting. She was like, “It was great; he was telling us how everything we are doing in society is right, and the hugest mistake would be to give up on it now…” I asked her specifically, what he said was so redeeming and winderful She said_ " We are so clean now…cleaner than we ever have been…and, the violence! the school shootings are just a drop in the pan------we really are so much more peaceful, tahn ever before." I’m thinking of “how clean” the local rivers and land is…we by the way…have an enormous nuclear waste underground storage dump with a fire…going um…not very far from where we live in St. louis. Then i said…“well, did anyone question him???” and she glowed again, renewing the ebuliience: “Yes, and he instantly was able to refute everything they had to say!” and after a silent pause:::::: “he is all about Optimism!” +WHEW+

(Mandy Szostek) #16

Yeah***** NARRATIVES…{cough,…cough} you aren’t kidding.