The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself.

Drawing on pathbreaking research in archaeology and anthropology, the authors show how history becomes a far more interesting place once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. If humans did not spend 95 percent of their evolutionary past in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, what were they doing all that time? If agriculture, and cities, did not mean a plunge into hierarchy and domination, then what kinds of social and economic organization did they lead to? The answers are often unexpected, and suggest that the course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful, hopeful possibilities, than we tend to assume.

The Dawn of Everything fundamentally transforms our understanding of the human past and offers a path toward imagining new forms of freedom, new ways of organizing society. This is a monumental book of formidable intellectual range, animated by curiosity, moral vision, and a faith in the power of direct action.

Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Compulsory ujamaa villages in Tanzania, collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier’s urban planning theory realized in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, agricultural “modernization” in the Tropics—the twentieth century has been racked by grand utopian schemes that have inadvertently brought death and disruption to millions. Why do well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry?

In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not—and cannot—be fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge. The author builds a persuasive case against “development theory” and imperialistic state planning that disregards the values, desires, and objections of its subjects. He identifies and discusses four conditions common to all planning disasters: administrative ordering of nature and society by the state; a “high-modernist ideology” that places confidence in the ability of science to improve every aspect of human life; a willingness to use authoritarian state power to effect large- scale interventions; and a prostrate civil society that cannot effectively resist such plans.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States is a 2017 book by James C. Scott that sets out to undermine what he calls the “standard civilizational narrative” that suggests humans chose to live settled lives based on intensive agriculture because this made people safer and more prosperous. Instead, he argues, people had to be forced to live in the early states, which were hierarchical, beset by malnutrition and disease, and often based on slavery. The book has been praised for re-opening some of the biggest questions in human history. A review in Science concludes that the book’s thesis “is fascinating and represents an alternative, nuanced, if somewhat speculative, scenario on how civilized society came into being.”