Reality is stranger than any ideology or agenda. Reality may be the only story we can’t imagine. Though we must respond accordingly to this narrative limit, it does not mean we do not need stories to survive. In fact, stories remain the single most potent survival tool we know.
It is for this reason that so much of David Graeber's work is included in Kernel. While he does much to redress the narrative imbalances caused by past ideological paradigms, he does not only react, nor is his agenda to create a new paradigm. He seeks to revive the imagination and reawaken us to the possibilities within and between each one of us.
So, let us turn to The Dawn of Everything and remember again what it means to imagine together all our possible futures. A piece of music, meant to be played as you read and reflect, is provided with each section as one of many voices here to help guide our shared journey.The Score Evolved¶
Nowadays, most of us find it increasingly difficult even to picture what an alternative economic or social order would be like. Our distant ancestors seem, by contrast, to have moved regularly back and forth between them.
A conceptual shift is required [...] what ultimately matters is whether we can rediscover the freedoms that make us human in the first place.
Is not the capacity to experiment with different forms of social organization a quintessential part of what makes us human? [...] The ultimate question of human history is not our equal access to material resources [...] but our equal capacity to contribute to decisions about how to live together.
We are projects of collective self-creation. What if we approached human history that way? What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures who deserve to be understood as such?
In this book we will not only be presenting a new history of humankind, but inviting the reader into a new science of history, one that restores our ancestors to their full humanity [...] At the same time, this book is also something else: a quest to discover better questions.
There is no single pattern of social organization. The only consistent phenomenon is the very fact of alteration, and the consequent awareness of different social possibilities. The question is not 'what are the origins of social inequality', but 'how did we get stuck?'
The point is that this notion of dialogue and common consciousness suggests that there is some way out of our collective difficulties.
Graeber and Wengrow pick up where the previous David left off, illustrating both the process through which their own book came into existence, and the historical roots and understanding behind this; roots which will direct the rest of our shared investigation:
When we are capable of self-awareness, it's usually for very brief periods of time: the 'window of consciousness', during which we can hold a thought or work out a problem, tends to be open on average for roughly seven seconds. However, the great exception to this is when we're talking to someone else. In conversation, we can hold thoughts and reflect on problems sometimes for hours on end [...] Human thought is inherently dialogic.
In our conversations, the real breakthrough moment came when we decided to move away from European thinkers like Rousseau entirely, and instead consider perspectives that derive from those indigenous thinkers who ultimately inspired them.
One of the three central pillars that the book revolves around is the insight that:
The indigenous critique - and the deep questions it raised about money, faith, hereditary power, women's rights and personal freedoms - had an enormous influence on leading figures of the French Enlightenment, but also resulted in a backlash among European thinkers which produced an evolutionary framework for human history that remains broadly intact today.
Much though later European authors liked to imagine them as innocent children of nature, the indigenous populations of North America were in fact heirs to their own, long intellectual and political history - one that had taken them in a very different direction to Eurasian philosophers and which, arguably, ended up having a profound influence on conceptions of freedom and equality, not just in Europe but everywhere else as well.
That indigenous Americans lived in generally free societies, and that Europeans did not, was never really a matter of debate in these exchanges. Both sides agreed this was the case.
What is even more interesting in the many dialogues which took place between French missionaries and government officials and the various Native Americans thinkers and representatives they encountered is how the French lack of generosity to one another repeatedly offended groups like the Wendat. Here were a people who did not understand reciprocity; who were rich only in one material dimension, while being poor in time, relationships and purpose.
The reason why [European] ways of thinking remain in place, no matter how many times people point out their incoherence, is precisely because we find it so difficult to imagine history that isn't teleological - that is, to organize history in a way which does not imply that current arrangements were somehow inevitable.
This is the second of the three central pillars of Graeber and Wengrow’s work. History is not inevitable. When we look at evidence of ages past and the events which unfolded therein, we ought not to read it as part of a narrative whose goal is our own age and the societal structures within which we live. In addition to the three essential freedoms they will outline below, we might note this as the meta-freedom implied by the nature of their work: the ability to create and rearrange narratives in order to reinforce the primordial freedoms to move, disobey and rearrange. Seen as such, we can again note that this is not a new idea:
The world of hunter-gatherers as it existed before the coming of agriculture was one of bold social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forms [...] many of the first farming communities were relatively free of ranks or hierarchies [...] a surprising number of the world's earliest cities were organized on robustly egalitarian lines.
For European audiences, the indigenous critique would come as a shock to the system revealing possibilities for human emancipation that, once disclosed, could hardly be ignored [...] our standard historical meta-narrative about the ambivalent progress of human civilization, where freedoms are lost as societies grow bigger and more complex was invented largely for the purpose of neutralizing the threat of the indigenous critique.
While that neutralization has been devastatingly effective in many ways, there is still a chance to turn back and listen more closely to the lessons of those who have gone before us:
What if the people we like to imagine as simple and innocent are free of rulers, governments, bureaucracies, ruling classes and the like, not because they are lacking in imagination, but because they are more imaginative than we are?
Graeber and Wengrow argue that political imagination depends largely upon three primordial freedoms which, for most of human history, were simply assumed: the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey and the freedom to create or transform social relationships. In turn, these may be suppressed by sovereignty, bureaucracy, and competition (that is: control of violence, control of information, and charismatic politics).
When we reflect on the many courses of history, none of which were inevitable, we can see clearly that these freedoms have indeed been largely lost. In gradually eroding our own substantive freedom to move, and giving up our freedom to disobey, we have lost the sense of a possible society not organized around private property. This loss is, more than anything, reflected in our language. Despite illustrating clearly how different conceptions of law and property result in radically different social organization and beliefs about what it actually means to be a human in the world, Graeber and Wengrow still write:
The question has proved difficult to answer in all but the most superficial terms, partly because our own intellectual traditions oblige us to use what is, in effect, imperial language to do so, and the language already implies an explanation, even a justification, for much of what we are really trying to account for here.
What they are trying to account for is the third central pillar of their new science: a clear-eyed investigation into how the failure of our collective political imagination has resulted in violence being enacted in our most intimate, human spaces.
Our very word 'family' shares a root with the Latin famulus, meaning 'house slave', via familia, which originally referred to everyone under the domestic authority of a single paterfamilias or male head of household. Domus, the Latin word for 'household', in turn gives us not only 'domestic' and 'domesticated' but dominium, which was the technical term for the emperor's sovereignty as well as a citizen's power over private property. Through that we arrive at (literally 'familiar') notions of what it means to be dominant, to possess 'dominion' and to dominate [...] Household and kingdom shared a common model of subordination. Each was made in the other's image, with the patriarchal family serving as a template for the absolute power of kings, and vice versa [...] In each case the superior party was expected to inflict stern chastisement when he considered it appropriate: that is, to exercise violence with impunity. All this, moreover, was assumed to be bound up with feelings of love and affection.
It seems to us that this connection - or better perhaps, confusion - between care and domination is utterly critical to the larger question of how we lost the ability freely to recreate ourselves by recreating our relations with one another. It is critical, that is, to understanding how we got stuck, and why these days we can hardly envisage our own past or future as anything other than a transition from smaller to larger cages.
Does this newly established nexus between external violence and internal care - between the most impersonal and most intimate of human relations - mark the point where everything begins to get confused? [...] If there is a big question we should be asking about human history (instead of the 'origins of social inequality') it is precisely this: how did we find ourselves stuck in just one form of social reality, and how did relations based ultimately on violence and domination come to be normalized within it?
In other words:
Is there a relationship between external warfare and the internal loss of freedoms that open the way, first to systems of ranking and then to large-scale systems of domination?
It does seem to be received wisdom that structures of domination are the inevitable result of populations scaling up by orders of magnitude; that is, that a necessary correspondence exists between social and spatial hierarchies [...] none of these assumptions are theoretically essential, and history tends not to bear them out.
Graeber and Wengrow illustrate that much of the ‘common sense’ when it comes to questions of scale and the ‘necessary’ political apparatus to support it is nonsensical, since
living in unbounded, eternal, largely imaginary groups is effectively what humans have been doing all along [...] We all have the capacity to feel bound to people we will probably never meet; to take part in a macro-society which exists most of the time as 'virtual reality', a world of possible relationships with its own rules, roles and structures that are held in the mind and recalled through the cognitive work of image-making and ritual.
Such imaginative structures are not bound by Dunbar's number and are really about the possibility of amicable relations with people we have not met. We need only look to nature to realize that complex systems need not be organized in a top down manner. Carol Crumley introduced this idea to archeologists in 1995 by borrowing a term from cognitive neuroscience, which has also been used by Kei Kreutler in her new work on DAOs: heterarchy.
This word is critical to understanding how we might reimagine our own social possibilities online, as it describes societies where power is dispersed or distributed in flexible ways across different elements of society, or at different scales of integration, or across different times of year within the same society. Turning once more to historical precedent, we can use Graeber and Wengrow’s work to understand how
The mere fact of urban life does not, necessarily, imply any particular form of political organization, and never did [...] Surprisingly few of these early cities contain signs of authoritarian rule [...] It's becoming increasingly obvious that history's first city-dwellers did not always leave a harsh footprint on the environment, or on each other.
Between households, responsibilities came down to a principle of reciprocity: records were kept and at the end of each year all outstanding credits and debits were to be canceled out. This is where the 'village bureaucracy' comes in [...] Of course, the danger of such accounting procedures is that they can be turned to other purposes: the precise system of equivalence that underlies them has the potential to give almost any social arrangement, even those founded on arbitrary violence, an air of even-handedness and equity.
Passages like this, which demonstrate that bureaucracy often happens at small rather than large scales, also illustrate the nuanced thinking which is a hallmark of the book. Simply putting reciprocity first will not solve all our problems (though it will help). We have to be deeply aware of our intentions and the purpose to which we turn any of our tools (physical or conceptual) and temper every action with what Vaclav Havel calls a ‘new humility’. This is again revealed when we consider how
Promises are the most basic element of the third freedom, yet they can become the basis of peonage, serfdom and slavery when they become impersonal and transferable. Equality can be used to make people interchangeable which, in turn, allows rulers to make impersonal demands with no consideration for specific circumstances.
As money is to promises, state bureaucracy is to the principle of care: in each case we find one of the most fundamental building blocks of social life corrupted by a confluence of value and violence.
This corrupting confluence reveals, finally, the great opportunity web3 presents to us. We now have a form of money which is not premised on violence. Money which is given value by consensus, not by an outdated Roman notion of possession based on slavery which brings the most impersonal kinds of violence directly into the most intimate zone of human relationship: the home itself. By untangling this barbaric part of our history we can once more begin to imagine what sacred economics - meaning home management that transcends my personal needs without suppressing them - might look like in substance and practice.Freeing Civilization¶
Rather than the uninteresting question of ‘what are the origins of social inequality’, Graeber and Wengrow illustrate how much of the self-conscious and highly imaginative political debate that must have happened in various different societies across the globe, at various different times, centers largely on the question of freedom. To reiterate the point, it seems that many indigenous thinkers spent more time investigating how it might be enacted, rather than what it ‘meant’:
'Egalitarian' people are more concerned with substantive freedoms than formal ones. They are less interested in the right to travel than in the possibility of actually doing so (hence, the matter is typically framed as an obligation to provide hospitality to strangers.) Mutual aid was seen as the necessary condition for individual autonomy.
In all parts of the world, small communities formed civilizations in that true sense of extended moral communities [...] A moment's reflection shows that women, their work, their concerns and innovations are at the heart of this more accurate understanding of civilization.
This more accurate understanding is arrived at specifically by asking substantive questions, rather than reducing everything to formality or form. As they write elsewhere, an example of such a question might be:
Is there a positive correlation between what is usually called 'gender equality' (which might better be termed, simply, 'women's freedom') and the degree of innovation in a given society?”
The focus on freedom and innovative, self-conscious political organization forms the bedrock of the ‘new science’ Graeber and Wengrow present. The subtle, but critical, point they make about mutual aid being the basis of individual autonomy has been largely veiled in our current social imaginations due to the legacy of both France and Rome. Rather than reciprocity, we find loneliness:
Arguably the things often quoted as quintessential freedoms are based on the very illusion created by Rousseau in his second Discourse: the illusion of a human life that is solitary.
Rather than wealth meaning ‘enough to share’, we find it meaning possession and power:
Native Americans who had the opportunity to observe French society from up close had come to realize one key difference. Whereas in their societies there was no obvious way to convert wealth into power over others, in France [...] power over possessions could be directly translated into power over other human beings.
The Roman Law conception of natural freedom is essentially based on the power of the individual (by implication, a male head of household) to dispose of his property as he sees fit. In Roman Law, property isn't even exactly a right, since rights are negotiated with others and involve mutual obligations; it's simply power - the blunt reality that someone in possession of a thing can do anything he wants with it [...] The reason it is possible to imagine property as a relationship of domination between a person and a thing is because, in Roman Law, the power of the master rendered the slave a thing, not a person with social rights or legal obligations to anyone else [...] What is both striking and revealing is how in Roman jurisprudence the logic of war [...] and the potential for arbitrary violence was inserted into the most intimate sphere of social relations, including the relations of care that made domestic life possible [... This] legacy still shapes our basic concepts of social structure.
In contrast to loneliness and posession as implying power, we might turn to those who have gone before and learn a lesson or two about what consensus really is and how we might employ it in our politics in addition to our protocols.
The Eurasian notion of equality before the law, which is ultimately equality before the sovereign, is equality in common subjugation. Americans, by contrast, were equal insofar as they were equally free to obey or disobey orders as they saw fit [...] if no compulsion was allowed, then obviously such social cohesion as did exist had to be created through reasoned debate, persuasive arguments and the establishment of social consensus.
We began this investigation with the suggestion that Graeber’s work does seek to redress some ideological imbalances perpetrated by those with specific and limited agendas, but not by imposing his own paradigm. The song above speaks to this as only music can; Caledonia being the old Roman name for much of Britain. This dialogue is not about demonizing the Romans, or European Enlightenment thinkers. We are all limited and flawed. It is only when we acknowledge this, and begin again in each new dialogue with each person we encounter that we can start to rediscover the essential freedoms of being human; that we can come to the soul of this matter.
When we are ready to engage in this kind of work, we may just find ourselves in a newly opened field, beyond right and wrong, prepared to explore new evidence whole-heartedly:
Where once we assumed 'civilization' and 'state' to be conjoined entities that came down to us as a historical package, what history now demonstrates is that these terms actually refer to complex amalgams of elements which have entirely different origins and which are currently in the process of drifting apart. Seen this way, to rethink the basic premises of social evolution is to rethink the very idea of politics itself.
Graeber and Wengrow have suggested a number of better, substantive questions we can ask of human history, mostly centred around women's freedom and how we got stuck due to confusing the notions of care and violence. We would like to suggest one more, based on an Ivan Illich essay called The Futility of Schooling, which appears on pages 45-51 in the link provided:
Schools grade and, therefore, they degrade [...] The resulting steep educational pyramid defines a rationale for corresponding levels of social status. Citizens are 'schooled' into their places. This results in politically acceptable forms of discrimination which benefit the relatively few achievers [...] Schools have the effect of tempering the subversive potential of education in an alienated society because, if education is confined to schools, only those who have been schooled into compliance on a lower grade are admitted to its higher reaches [...] Schools are part and parcel of a scoiety in which the minority is on the way to becoming so productive that the majority must be schooled into disciplined consumption [...] The progressive atrophy of social imagination is rationalized as an increase of choice between brands.
The time has come to recognize the real burden of the schools in emerging nations, so that we may become free to envisage change in the social structures which now makes school a necessity. I suggest we plunge our imagination into the construction of scenarios which would allow a bold reallocation of educational functions among industry, politics, short scholastic retreats and intensive preparation of parents for providing early childhood education.
Using a different lens through which to look at history and following honestly and whole-heartedly the trails it leads us down gets us to realise the critical element of imaginative choice we have when it comes to how we tell our stories, and therefore who we really are and how we can relate to and with one another. Graeber and Wengrow illustrate that,
Choosing to describe history as a series of abrupt technological revolutions, each followed by long periods when we were prisoners of our own creations [...] means not describing history as a continual series of new ideas and innovations, technical and otherwise, during which different communities made collective decisions about which technologies they saw fit to apply to everyday purposes, and which to keep confined to the domain of experimentation or ritual play.
Play has always been central to Graeber’s work, and is what we in Kernel wish to celebrate most about his life and work. Exactly like the fish and those who philosophize about them, we delight in this simple recognition of reality as it really is. Moreover, collective decision making about what technologies are fit to apply to everyday purposes, and how they might be made to fit the purpose of different communities is still a central concern of native ways of knowing, as embodied especially in work like the Indigenous Protocol:
A central proposition of the Indigenous Protocol and AI Workshops is that we should critically examine our relationship with AI. In particular, we posed the question of whether AI systems should be given a place in our existing circle of relationships, and, if so, how we might go about bringing it into the circle [...] Community-specific values of relationality, kinship, reciprocity and care should be built into the fundamental protocols governing how such practices are implemented.
AI systems will consist of innumerable protocols talking to each other: our goal is to honestly recognize the cultural presuppositions we are encoding, to consciously shape those protocols in directions that will be of benefit to our communities, and to evaluate clearly what kind of relationships we are materializing into the world.
Again, at the heart of these kind of approaches, we find a focus on self-conscious relationship, which is both about hospitality and the freedom to refuse, which really means the freedom to keep certain projects in the realm of play rather than production. Graeber and Wengrow continue:
What is true of technical creativity is, of course, even more true of social creativity. One of the most striking patterns we discovered while researching this book - indeed, one of the patterns that felt most like a genuine breakthrough to us - was how, time and again in human history, that zone of ritual play has also acted as a site of social experimentation - even, in some ways, as an encyclopedia of social possibilities.
Who knows? Perhaps if our species does endure, and we one day look backwards from this as yet unknowable future, aspects of the remote past that now seem like anomalies - say, bureaucracies that work on a community scale; cities governed by neighborhood councils; systems of government where women hold a preponderance of formal positions; or forms of land management based on care-taking rather than ownership and extraction - will seem like the really significant breakthroughs, and great stone pyramids or statues more like historical curiosities.
This framework is based on the image of a circle and its properties of transformation [...] Circular arrangements can form part of self-conscious egalitarian projects, in which 'everyone has neighbors to the left and neighbors to the right. No one is first, and no one is last.' [...] This often involves logistical challenges of striking complexity, resolved on a basis of intricate systems of mutual aid, all without any need of centralized control or administration.
What is the purpose of all this new knowledge, if not to reshape our conceptions of who we are and what we might yet become? If not, in other words, to rediscover the meaning of our third basic freedom: the freedom to create new and different forms of social reality?
The word 'civilization' derives from the Latin civilis, which actually refers to those qualities of political wisdom and mutual aid that permit societies to organize themselves through voluntary coalition [...] If mutual aid, social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality or simply caring for others are the kind of things that really go to making civilizations, then this true history of civilization is just starting to be written.