In a reply to recent critics, Nicholas Smaligo examines the link between a revolutionary philosophy of history and the theory of classless societies from Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" to David Graeber and David Wengrow's The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.
Part of our series Worlds Apart, exploring cosmology, ecology, science fiction, and the many ends of capitalist society.
Archaeologist David Wengrow and anthropologist David Graeber completed The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity three weeks before the latter’s untimely death. Synthesizing decades of recent research from across the globe, the work takes aim at a number of widely held assumptions about the grand course of human history, including the idea that social development unfolds in a series of evolutionary stages, the common assumption that the so-called “agricultural revolution” lies at the origin of inequality, and, indeed, the very idea that there ever was an “origin of inequality.” Rejecting these, Graeber and Wengrow survey public housing projects in ancient Mexico, women’s experimental gardening in ancient Mesopotamia, and the influence of debates about freedom and rationality between French colonial forces and the Huron-Wendat people of the Americas on the European Enlightenment, among much more. Yet the authors are not simply trying to tell a different story of human history; at a deeper level, what they are offering is a different way of thinking about history as such. Their aim, as they put it, is to lay the foundations for “a new science of history.”1
In a critical review, archaeologist Carolyn Nakamura accuses Graeber and Wengrow’s work of lacking the “critical, emancipatory gesture of refusal” that characterizes the thought of Walter Benjamin in his famous work “On the Concept of History.”2
Benjamin is rightly considered uniquely important for many thinkers concerned with revolutionary movements. As Marcello Tarì puts it,
It is worth saying that Walter Benjamin cannot be reduced to the wretched characterization of “a great writer of the twentieth century,” but instead represents a messianic force that runs across time in every direction, a revolutionary potential that pulsates violently beneath the crust of history, a blazing standard planted in the darkness of the present. Only in this way might we call ourselves Benjaminian.3
At the same time, Nakamura’s accusation that Graeber and Wengrow’s work lacks Benjamin’s “critical, emancipatory gesture of refusal” is ironic, since The Dawn of Everything places this very capacity at the center of their theory of historical change. My aim here is to persuade you that not only does Graeber and Wengrow’s work live up to Benjamin’s demanding standard of historical materialism, but carries his concept of history even further. By providing new perspectives on the concept of a classless society, and elaborating a “structural principle” that allows for new constellations between present and past, Graeber and Wengrow open up surprising new perspectives for both historical research and — hopefully — political struggle.
The Dawn of Everything opens with an epigraph by Carl Jung: “We are living in a time of kairos, the right time for a metamorphosis of the Gods — i.e., of the fundamental principles and symbols.”4 The concept of kairos or “now-time” (Jetztzeit in German) figures heavily in Benjamin’s concept of history, characterizing both the moment of political action and “the very present in which [the historical materialist] is writing.”5
If one begins from this clue, a striking parallel emerges between Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” and The Dawn of Everything. Benjamin criticizes what has come to be called ‘vulgar Marxism’ as a form of historicism, on account of its tendency to posit communism as an inevitable future resulting from laws of historical motion. This positing of laws of history worked against the worker’s movement, and Benjamin counters by centering the role of memory [Gedächtnis] in informing a revolutionary orientation to the present: revolutionary affects and action are “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the idea of liberated grandchildren.”6 The vulgar Marxist targets of Benjamin’s criticisms have long since disappeared from the field of communist theory. No serious theorist of revolution today believes that communism will be the result of a natural process of development in human society. But however distant their project may seem, Graeber and Wengrow’s critical intervention is strikingly analogous in its aim. While it might have disappeared from the rhetoric of the revolutionary left, the duo identifies contemporary avatars of historicism everywhere. Just think of how often we encounter narratives about the supposedly “sequential” evolutionary stages in human society. For instance, one such narrative consists in the widespread belief that the introduction of agriculture “necessitated” forms of coercive authority to organize increasingly complex social life. Whereas the historicists of Benjamin’s time led the revolutionary movement astray by reading every present event as a signal of the inevitable revolution to come, those of our day strive to erase the possibility of revolution altogether by convincing us that any sober assessment of human history must lead to a reconciliation with institutions of domination.
These criticisms of historicism reflect a common commitment to a view that sees the practice of history as inseparable from present political questions. For all of the above authors, the arrival of modernity does not consign the hopes and aspirations of past struggles, even those in very different times and places, to the dustbin of history. Struggles of the past are still potentially alive, their defeats still capable of redemption, their intelligence and perspective still accessible to us through political action in the present. The historian’s task, as Benjamin first theorized it — and as Graeber and Wengrow enact it — is to explode the continuum of history and rescue the memory of these past struggles, as a condition for political action that could redeem the defeated. As we shall see, such a view also requires that we also recognize the presence of a freedom in history that exceeds any reduction to teleological laws.
Benjamin’s ninth thesis of “On the Concept of History” introduces us to the image of “the angel of history,” a theological figuration of this redemptive revolutionary orientation toward the past. Unlike the historicist view, history is seen not as a progressive course of events but one single catastrophe piled high toward the sky,
But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.7
This catastrophic image is not, contra Michael Löwy, a summation of “the whole of the document”8 however, because it is missing something essential that is introduced only in subsequent sections of the text: the splinters of messianic potential in the present, the structural principle of now-time. While Benjamin opposes the optimistic fictions of historicist teleology, he nevertheless draws from theology a “weak messianic power” that can still engage in the work of redemption if only it can “organize pessimism.”9
The image of the angel of history also makes explicit Marxism’s hidden theological structure, what has been called the “triadic messianic structure”: Paradise — Fall — Redemption. For the historical materialist, this theological structure has its secular correlate in three epochs of human existence: primitive classless society — class society — communism, the latter being understood as the recreation of classless society in a new context. As Benjamin puts it, “in the idea of classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And that was a good thing”10 — the principle difference from Marx being that there cannot be any teleological relation between the second and third moments of this triad.11
We have to bear in mind that Benjamin’s unique theological materialism required a commitment to both secular historical research and theology. As a materialist, Benjamin’s conception of history was influenced by and engaged with the anthropological and archaeological research of his day. In reflecting on this triadic messianic structure, Benjamin drew not only upon Marx and Engels, but also from Jakob Bachofen, the influential interpreter of archaeology and anthropology. For Benjamin, Bachofen “swept aside everything that nineteenth-century common sense had imagined about the origins of society and religion.”12 Yet, as a theological materialist, he believed that the myth of the Fall from the Garden of Eden expressed a truth that the findings of secular research could not. In his view, revolutionary experience is in solidarity with all struggles against class society since its origins. Such struggle must remain receptive to the hidden transmissions of memory from earlier classless social formations, which serve as the ultimate source of utopian imagining:
In the dream in which each epoch entertains images of its successor, the latter appears wedded to elements of primal history, that is, to elements of a classless society. And the experiences of such a society — as stored in the unconscious of the collective — engender, through interpenetration with what is new, the utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions.13
In other words, the original classless society was a secular fact with an enduring unconscious legacy, central to the messianic task of redemption. “Origin is the goal,” Benjamin writes, quoting Karl Kraus. The aim is not a return to the “primal history” of original classless society, but to connect with its legacy through a “tiger’s leap into the past.”14
The common feature of triadic messianic structures is that the primal stage is considered “outside of all properly historical categories.”15 For Benjamin as for Marx, history is the history of class society, which is only possible after the Fall. It is this exceptional status of the origin that makes it possible to argue, contra historicism, that history is not a series of necessary stages leading toward reconciliation through immanent laws of development but one long catastrophe pointing toward more of the same — unless, that is, our solidarity with past struggles allows us to “activate the emergency break” on the train of progress and explode its continuum from within.16
Reading “On the Concept of History” after The Dawn of Everything opens up a new perspective on the triadic messianic structure and the angel of history. What if the way to calm the storm is to close the gates to Paradise? In secular terms: what happens to our concept of history when the “original classless society” is displaced from the point of origin? A central argument in The Dawn of Everything maintains that the triadic messianic structure of Paradise—Fall—Redemption obfuscates our understanding of human historical experience, and therefore should be rejected full stop.17 “Sweeping aside” key aspects of Bachofen’s work, contemporary archaeology no longer supports the idea that early human societies shared any single original form of human organization.18 What Bachofen meant for Marx, Engels, and Benjamin, Graeber and Wengrow’s work should mean for us. Rather than a stage of original equality before the introduction of agriculture and private property (a lá Rousseau), or a state of original warfare of all against all (per Hobbes), there was a “carnival parade of political forms” extending as far back as the archaeological evidence stretches.19 Against an “original egalitarian society” as the secular correlate of Paradise, the record suggests many variations of human organization, frequently shifting seasonally — some hierarchical, some more egalitarian, some switching regularly between many different combinations of social values.
What is meant by the term “classless society” in the first place? The term has long been laden with ambiguity. In one sense, classless could mean “egalitarian,” i.e., a situation in which there are no disparities in wealth, property is held in common, and everyone is perceived in some sense to be fundamentally the same kind of being. Yet there are no societies in the anthropological record that apply an egalitarian ethos to everything. Summarizing James Woodburn, Graeber and Wengrow write,
Even among those forager groups, famous for their assertive egalitarianism…there was one striking exception to the rule that no adult should ever presume to give direct orders to another, and that individuals should not lay private claim to property. This exception came in the sphere of ritual, of the sacred.20
There are always, for example, sacred contexts in which some are excluded, even violently. But does this mean that these societies too are already “fallen,” and therefore yet another example of class society?
Graeber and Wengrow here articulate another sense of the meaning of “classless society”: the absence of any institutionalized power that can turn inequalities — be they in wealth, in our relation to the gods, our athletic abilities, etc. — into the deprivation of another’s freedom or a dismissal of their value. For example, there have been many societies in which differences of wealth are found that also prohibit relations of command between adults outside of ritual contexts limited in space and time.21 What this means is that, although some economic inequality exists, there is nevertheless a shared ethic of “baseline communism,” as evidenced by the repulsion at allowing one’s neighbors to fall into such poverty that they would need to accept another’s commands.22 Such societies would not qualify as ‘egalitarian’ in terms of property distribution, and may not even be egalitarian in the sense that they see everyone as the same kind of being — there can be social and religious hierarchies of all sorts. But they may still be, in another perhaps more important sense, “classless.”23
Against a generic and propertarian concept of a “classless society” Graeber and Wengrow propose a theory of “free peoples,” all of which, whatever their inequities, manage to institutionalize three basic forms of political freedom: the freedom to leave and expect you will be welcomed with hospitality elsewhere; the freedom to disobey the commands of others; and the freedom to participate in reshuffling social arrangements, seasonally or permanently.24 These freedoms, they argue, were taken for granted for much of human history, and are always, to some degree, present in all human civilizations. But “free peoples” make these into fundamental principles of their social organization.
Ironically, this means that free peoples are characterized by the ability to unmake themselves.25 But even moreso, they tend to be marked by an “emancipatory refusal” to be like other peoples they interact with, a willingness to disobey or separate from their own people, and in so doing, to become a different people altogether. What is in question here is nothing less than the conditions for the possibility of the diversity of human cultures, in which, according to Graeber and Wengrow, collective refusal plays an important role. Where we find cultural spheres of interaction, we also tend to find value struggles in which certain groups define themselves in opposition to others and pursue their own form of life.26
Alongside these three fundamental freedoms, Graeber and Wengrow also identify what they regard as the three basic forms of social domination: control over violence, control over information, and charismatic control. These too are present to some extent in all human societies. When they become institutionalized as a dominant social principle, they are transformed into sovereign power, bureaucracy, and competitive politics — social principles that block the exercise of those freedoms that allow us to radically alter or unmake society.
If we cease thinking about human history in terms of progressive stages of development or modes of production, does this mean that we are left without any framework for understanding relevant differences between social forms? How can we have a “scientific” approach to history without such a classificatory schema? In The Dawn of Everything, we are introduced to a schema for distinguishing between different types of societies, relative not to factors which erase or operate behind human agency, but relative to their very capacity for history-making, that is, for transforming or abolishing their own structure. This is a “science of history” that aims not at identifying laws of social development that would erase or reduce human agency or desire, but at identifying the basic structures by which historical action is made or suppressed.27 This allows us to contrast free peoples not simply with ‘the state’ or ‘class society,’ but with different kinds of regimes of domination:
First order regimes of domination, which institutionalize one form of domination. For example, the Natchez of so-called Louisiana, whose Sun-King could exercise complete sovereign power over the lives and deaths of his subjects — for about as far as he and his family could reach. In response, people could (and frequently did) move to another village out of his path.28
Second order regimes of domination, which combine two basic forms: for example, Early Dynastic Mesopotamia seemed to have a charismatic warrior politics combined with an administrative apparatus, but no strong principle of sovereign power, in the sense of the ability for a king to step outside and remake the moral order.29
Third order regimes of domination, like modern states, which institutionalize all three basic forms: sovereign power, as embodied in institutions like the Supreme Court and the always-possible Presidentially declared “state of exception,” is bureaucratically extended across a territory in lethal microcosm with every cop, and these are combined with a competitive political arena in which charismatic psychopaths compete for our support to pilot the whole shitshow.
This theory of three independent forms of domination, each with distinct origins, allows Graeber and Wengrow to ditch the question of the “origins of the state” and of class society. Since there was no single Fall into hierarchical domination, the transitions between modes and orders of domination appear rather as a drifting together of different forms which have also existed distinctly or in tandem with another — and which have been destroyed at different times through a combination of factors, including revolutionary political movements. Perhaps the most striking example comes toward the end of the book, in which they argue that the “indigenous critique” of European society leveled by free peoples of the Eastern Woodlands of Turtle Island and articulated with great consequence by figures like Kondiarank, was itself a hard-won historical political-ecological perspective, developed in response to the experience and perhaps revolutionary undoing of the regime of domination centered at Cahokia in present day southern Illinois.30 This, they suggest, is hardly unique: from the perspective they have developed, revolutions against institutionalized forms of domination are likely extraordinarily common in human history, as is the institutionalization of such revolutionary forms of life, which preserve the sense of collective life as an experiment that people are free to leave, disobey others within, and actively participate in reshaping.
These three basic political freedoms are not intended to exhaust the idea of freedom.31 Yet neither are they a variation of the liberal freedoms associated with modern European states, or a post-hoc projection of Graeber and Wengrow’s anarchist politics. Rather, having criticized deterministic assumptions about how human societies develop, Graeber and Wengrow’s theory of basic political freedoms aims to supply a non-deterministic, non-teleological, and non-reductive factor in ethnogenesis: freedom as a necessary condition for the possibility of the diversity of human social forms, cultural practices, even languages encountered by the ethnographic and archaeological record. The basic freedoms articulate the “capacity to make history” as a fundamental human power, available to everyone for as long as the human species has existed. Once freedom becomes a basic factor in the transformation and development of all social forms, political forms prior to modernity now appear as in some measure self-conscious creations of social movements within a vast field of experimentation in how to be human.
Classless societies, recast as free peoples, are those social forms that institutionalize their own contingency, holding open the possibility of fundamentally remaking social life — or at least the freedom of people to leave and do so elsewhere. Contra the triadic messianic structure, history is better understood not as a determinate period of time or linear course of development, but a fundamental human capacity to experiment with how to live, which has allowed humans to create an enormous variety of social forms far outside of the narrow historiography of “the West.”32 None of these was an original state of innocence or equality; all were rather historical achievements of people engaged in struggles over the values they wanted to shape their lives. The question facing revolutionaries — including revolutionary historians — is not “what is the origin of inequality?” — so that it may be uprooted from the world for good — but “how have we become stuck?” How have we, as a species with a legacy of wild experimentation in different ways of living, who have created fascinating and enduring free societies in the past, become stuck in a narrow range of political forms that have spanned the globe? What is in question is not a catastrophic Fall situated in some distant past, but a relatively recent and never total closure within a much broader field of actually realized classless societies.
Benjamin’s historical materialism, while it stands opposed to any teleological conception of history as a law-bound progression toward inevitable revolution, is not opposed to all possible “universal history.” Such a history requires a “structural principle” allowing the whole of history to be represented in its parts:
Universal histories are not inevitably reactionary. But a universal history without a structural [konstruktiv] principle is reactionary. The structural principle of universal history allows it to be represented in partial histories. It is, in other words, a monadological principle. It exists within salvation history.33
Consider the historicist approach: any past moment is interpreted in terms of what comes next, the higher stage of complexity it is becoming. Within this reactionary universal history, the meaning of the past lies in its status as a step along the path of development. Similarly, the present obtains its meaning from the future it conditions. Any historical moment, as a part, only finds its meaning in the whole. Benjamin is here pointing to the possibility of a universal history that inverts this relationship: the whole of what is at stake in human history is present within each historical moment, “in a constellation saturated with tensions.”34 This is what he means by a “monadological principle,” a principle that allows us to see the whole as present in each part. This structural principle serves as a “theoretical armature” that prevents a universal history from merely being a narrative succession of events in homogenous, empty time.35
Benjamin’s structural principle is now-time (Jetztzeit), the time of present action and possible redemption, which has been there all along, outside of the ruler’s historical representations of events like the ultraviolet light is to the visible spectrum.36 This principle allows the historical materialist to encounter a moment in history as a monad, sensing the presence of past struggles in the present situation and the reverberation of current struggles in the past. Through engagement with the political situation in the mode of now-time, new chambers to the past are opened,37 revealing secret affinities across time now conceived of as the “tradition of the oppressed,” which teaches that “the ‘state of emergency’ which we live is not the exception but the rule.”38 History, as the history of class society, is not the unfolding of laws of development, but the continuous catastrophe of class rule, which, with its reactionary universal history of “progress” lays claim to the dead as necessary sacrifices. “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”39
From this point of view, a present struggle is only as deep as its memory, i.e., its capacity to draw upon and fight in solidarity with the dead and defeated who have come before us in the struggle for a classless society. When those in struggle enter into a relation with the original classless society through political struggle — which includes the work of the historian — the present becomes a door to a weak messianic redemption or tikkun. This is the secret source of utopian images, the origin that is also the goal, and its aim is to redeem those buried by the catastrophe of class society. In sum, we are presented with an image of revolutionary history as an attack on the history of the rulers, pulling out discontinuous moments of tension and possibility that have attempted to break away from the catastrophe, but without success. We are caught in a storm blowing from Paradise that has not ceased since the Fall.
It should by now be clear that Graeber and Wengrow are not only meeting the standard set by Benjamin for “universal history,” but have taken this structural principle even further. Writing from the kairos of the present, Graeber and Wengrow provide concepts that allow us to analyze the structure of historical formations as they relate to historical action. The Dawn of Everything should be interpreted as developing a partisan grammar for sensing constellations of struggle for freedom across time: a three dimensional framework for perceiving people, in every time and place, as struggling for the realization of forms of freedom against forms of domination – or for the imposition of regimes of domination against those basic freedoms. The practice of these freedoms to refuse the existing social order by leaving, by disobeying, and ultimately by rearranging social life describes the substance of revolutionary historical change itself, while the institutionalization of these freedoms as organizing principles of life is synonymous with the creation of a classless society, in the sense of free peoples. What is in question is a framework for a universal history that centers the emancipatory gesture of refusal as the very condition for historical change, revealing a history full of revolutionary social movements that went on to birth new cultures. The concept of liberation at play here spans the full breadth of the human experience, and is as relevant for understanding the struggles of people ensnared in the Inca Empire’s regime of domination as it is for comprehending what is at stake in struggles against the American Empire.40
Graeber and Wengrow’s three freedoms ought to be understood not as abstract formal freedoms or rights codified in a constitution, but as real possibilities that are either present in a concrete way in the now of action, or they are not. It is within now-time that one escapes a king, a plantation, or a husband; it is within now-time that one disobeys a boss, a cop, a priest, or some other clown; it is within now-time that one makes a promise to remake collective life. The moment one enters this present of action, one grasps that it has been there all along, that people have been escaping and disobeying and remaking from the beginning. In this way, our experience of history broadens to include an intuitive sense of all that has been left out of the official narrative, what traces to look for, how to sense the forces beyond the visible spectrum of written history.
If there is a monadological principle in The Dawn of Everything, it depends upon our ability to sense the presence in each moment of what is at stake in the whole of history: the struggle to preserve and exercise the universal human capacity to make history, to reject and transform the existing rules. In every era, there have been struggles against the manifold forms of domination that work to stifle this capacity to seize the present. These forms of domination are present as much at the level of large scale social organization as they are within interpersonal relationships and households. Although our present political situation belongs to a constellation that includes a range of human struggles reaching across the entire history of the West and beyond, the stakes are largely consistent across time. Our victory, like that of generations that fought and were defeated before us, lies not in the restoration of Paradise but the retrieval of the freedoms required to hold open the space to remake our social existence.
What Benjamin calls the “tradition of the oppressed” now appears as the presence, within a specific regime of domination, of a much wider “tradition of the free.” By removing Paradise from our origins, we are invited to appreciate the forms of classless societies and spaces of freedom that have in fact existed and continue to exist in the cracks and at the margins of the dominant society. The existence of free peoples has nothing to do with any prehistoric innocence; it is the direct result of political decisions to marginalize forms of domination, and of successful exoduses or revolutions against domination, sometimes in institutionalized form. Such revolutions did not purge evil from the Earth, but they did destroy institutionalized forms of domination and build social forms protecting the basic freedoms. Free peoples were not the blind products of tradition, nor inhabiting a mystical and incommensurable world, but self-conscious and conflictual political achievements, revolutionary successes made by real human beings.
To return to Benjamin’s angel, I’m suggesting that, for our understanding of history, Graeber and Wengrow have calmed the storm blowing from Paradise by closing its gates, removing from materialist historiography the myth of original innocence and the triadic messianic structure it implies. It was from Paradise that the storm called progress was blowing. In closing these gates, the angel of history may fold their wings to see the catastrophe — in which we still reside — within its wider context: not as the whole of history, but as one of many islands of domination within a sea of free experimentation in what it means to be human.
Benjaminian pessimism reverses the ideology of progress into catastrophe while retaining a weak messianic potential. Graeber and Wengrow do not reverse progress so much as turn the ruling concept of history inside out. Seen from within regimes of domination, the moments of refusal, the now-time of political action against class domination connect us with the tradition of the oppressed; when seen from the perspective of The Dawn of Everything, these same moments become frontlines in a tradition of the free that historically surrounds the regime of domination. Our concept of history after The Dawn of Everything shows that the ruling classes have, contra Benjamin, indeed ceased to be victorious — over and over again.
Images: James Nachtwey
1. David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 24. Hereafter, DE. ↰
2. Nakamura’s review contains many criticisms, some of which I cannot dispute – for example, the objection to Graeber and Wengrow’s interpretation of an archaeological site on which Nakamura worked. Still, other criticisms seem to emerge from a deeply ungenerous reading of the text, for example, the assertion that the theory of the three basic political freedoms (described below) can be identified with “liberal freedoms.” Carolyn Nakamura, “Untenable History,” Offshoot Journal, 2022 (online here). While the book has rightfully received much acclaim, Nakamura’s review is hardly unique. A number of critical reviews seem either to utterly miss the point, or hone in on particular disputes of factual interpretation without really taking in the overall shift in the concept of history that Graeber and Wengrow are proposing, and evaluating their theory on its own terms. A common theme among bad reviews of the book from Left or Progressive corners is to frame it as “an anarchist history,” which appears as an attempt to isolate its potential impact by suggesting it merely elaborates a view of history from the perspective of a marginal ideology. This is unfortunate because, as many anarchist readers (the present author included) will attest, the book poses far more questions than answers for usual formulations of anarchism. For two examples, see Daniel Immerwahr, “Beyond the State: An Anarchist History of Humanity,” The Nation, Sept. 20, 2021 (online here); and George Sciaballa, “Were the Earliest Societies Anarchists?” The New Republic, Nov. 1, 2021 (online here).↰
3. Marcello Tarì, There Is No Unhappy Revolution: The Communism of Destitution, Common Notions, 34.↰
4. DE, 1; the quote is from Jung’s The Undiscovered Self (1956), but the use of this quote should hardly be taken as an endorsement of Jung’s work. In the passage from which this quote is drawn, for example, Jung asserts that individual freedom is a unique legacy of the Christian West, an assumption that is challenged in The Dawn of Everything.↰
6. Benjamin, “Concept of History,” SW 4, 394. ↰
7. Here is the full passage: “There is a painting by Klee called Angelis Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.” Benjamin, “Concept of History,” SW 4, 392.↰
8. Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History,’ Verso, 2005. ↰
10. Benjamin, “Paralipomena,” SW 4, 401.↰
11. On the role of the “triadic messianic structure” Benjamin’s thought, see Irving Wohlfarth, “On the Messianic Structure of Walter Benjamin’s Last Reflections,” Glyph 3: Johns Hopkins Textual Studies, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, 148-212. For a contemporary confirmation of Wohlfarth’s analysis, and insightful extension of it from a Marxist perspective, see Sami Khatib, “The Messianic Without Messianism: Walter Benjamin’s Materialist Theology,” Anthropology & Materialism: A Journal of Social Research, v.1, 5. Online here.↰
12. Bachofen was influential on all sides of 19th and early 20th century German intellectual culture. His work informed Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in particular the claim that the original form of human society was matriarchal. In his essay, Benjamin is attempting to rescue Bachofen’s work from fascist appropriation. Walter Benjamin, “Johan Jakob Bachofen,” Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin, Volume 3, Harvard University Press, 12. Hereafter, SW 3.↰
13. “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” SW 3, 33-34.↰
14. Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” SW 4, 395.↰
15. This point is emphasized by Wohlfarth, drawing the quoted text from Benjamin’s discussion of the distinction between “natural history” and “salvation history,” in his essay “The Storyteller.” See Wohlfarth, “On the Messianic Structure,” 176.↰
16. Benjamin, “Paralipomena,” SW 4, 402.↰
17. The demythologization Graeber and Wengrow pursue should not be taken to be a rejection of myth as such: “Myth is the way in which human societies give structure and meaning to their experience. But the larger mythic structures of history we’ve been deploying for the last several centuries simply don’t work any more; they are impossible to reconcile with the evidence that is now before our eyes, and the structures and meanings they encourage are tawdry, shop-worn and politically disastrous.” DE, 525.↰
18. Interestingly, Graeber and Wengrow’s analysis does reconstruct and defend the concept of “matriarchy,” drawing not from Bachofen, but from Matilda Joslyn Gage and Marija Gimbutas. Matriarchy, conceived as “women’s autonomy,” plays a central role in the argument of The Dawn of Everything. Elaborating it, unfortunately, exceeds the scope of this particular essay. See DE, 213-220, 438-439.↰
19. DE, 4.↰
20. DE, 158.↰
21. For an account of how the principle of command was limited in space and time among free peoples, see the discussion of “clown police” in David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins, On Kings, Hau Books, 380-398. Online here. For an insightful analysis of the possible implications of clown police for contemporary struggles for police abolition, see Andrew Johnson, “Bureaucrats with guns: Or, how we can abolish the police if we just stop believing in them,” Anthropological Notebooks, 27 (3), 159-208. Online here.↰
22. In Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber provides a more thorough articulation of “baseline communism”: “the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ will be assumed to apply.” Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, 98.↰
23. In the ambiguity of the concept of “classless,” we can hear resonances of the famous debate between Marx and Bakunin on the pursuit of a classless society: for Marx, one must centralize power in order to build the conditions for material equality; for Bakunin, this very centralization of power is the creation of a new class of political inequality. While Graeber and Wengrow clearly side with Bakunin, they are also changing the terms of the discussion, introducing a more concrete concept of freedom and interrogating the genesis of the assumption of “equality” as a value. ↰
24. DE, 132-133.↰
25. The decision to speak of “free peoples” rather than “free societies” may reflect a desire to designate this more fluid relation among people who are not territorially captive (which the concept of society tends to imply).↰
26. This insight is an extension of Marcel Mauss’s theory of cultures as defined by refusal to be like their neighbors and, in Dawn, is developed through the concept of “schismogenesis.” See DE, 181-185.↰
27. This difference between the search for “structures” versus the search for “laws” within social science shows Graeber’s indebtedness to the philosopher Roy Bhaskar, whose career was devoted to elaborating a philosophy of social science for human liberation. See, for example, Roy Bhaskar, Enlightened Common Sense: The Philosophy of Critical Realism, Routledge, 2016. It should be clarified that Graeber’s concept of “structure” differs from the structuralism of Levi Strauss.↰
28. DE, 391-396.↰
29. DE, 410.↰
30. It is not until the eleventh chapter of Dawn, “Full Circle,” that this argument is spelled out. Readers who encountered “the indigenous critique” in Chapter 2 but did not read to the end may have missed this important argument, which places that critique itself within a longer history of struggle. See DE, 441-492. As Graeber points out elsewhere, this argument is an extension of one made by Peter Lamborn Wilson in his fascinating essay, “The Shamanic Trace.” See Peter Lamborn Wilson, Escape from the Nineteenth Century, Autonomedia,72-142. Online here. For a detailed exposition of this argument and its debt to Lamborn Wilson, see Graeber, “Cultures as Creative Refusal,” Cambridge Anthropology, 31(2) 1-19. Online here.↰
31. Readers of Graeber will know that he considers freedom to be a fundamental principle of the universe, even at the subatomic level. See Graeber, “What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?” The Baffler, January 2014. Online here.↰
32. For Graeber’s original critique of the very idea of “the West,” see Graeber, “There Never Was A West, Or, Democracy Emerges From the Spaces In-Between.”Online here. For his initial argument that the “capacity to make history” is a fundamental human trait, see Graeber, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar, Bloomington University Press, especially 387-389.↰
33. Benjamin, “Paralipomena,” SW 4, 404.↰
34. Benjamin, “Concept of History,” SW 4, 396.↰
35. In thesis XVII of “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin writes that “universal history has no theoretical armature.” This is his conclusion about reactionary universal histories. My reading here is comparing this statement with his notes, in which he argues, as cited above, that universal history is not necessarily reactionary, but possible with a monadological principle. See ‘New Thesis H,’ in “Paralipomena,” SW 4, 404.↰
36. “Just as a physicist determines the presence of ultraviolet light in the solar spectrum, the historical materialist determines the presence of a messianic force in history.” Benjamin, “Paralipomena,” SW 4, 402.↰
37. Benjamin, “Paralipomena,” SW 4, 402.↰
38. Benjamin, “Concept of History,” SW 4, 392.↰
39. Benjamin, “Concept of History,” SW 4, 391.↰
40. The Inca, on Graeber and Wengrow’s account, were a second-order regime of domination that combined sovereign power with a territorial administration. Spanish colonizers “took an obvious interest in Inca strategies of conquest and domination and their local workings.” DE, 423-425. This is, it must be stressed, not to equate the Inca Empire with the American one. It is, however, to say that they should be compared along the axis of their suppression of the three basic political freedoms.↰