If there is a particular story we should be telling, a big question we should be asking of human history (instead of the ‘origins of social inequality’), is it 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?

What happens if we treat the rejection of urban life, or of slavery, [or of certain technologies] in certain times and places as something just as significant as the emergence of those same phenomena in others.

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?

I imagine I’m already on board with David Graeber’s political project, so while I greatly enjoyed it, I found it too long by about a third.

The overall thrust is that people are much more interesting and creative than we give them credit for, and there’s a lot (too much for me in this book) of historical evidence that this is the case. And that it’s bunk to claim that increasing social complexity and scale requires an authoritarian state or bureacracy. I guess it’s an argument to unstick the “End of History”-framing we’re mired in.

Of various things I learned / was confronted with:

  • Indulging children is Native American practice. Makes sense cause it’s a common theme in Kim Stanley Robinson books of which the Haudenosaunee make frequent appearance too.
  • Roman-style property ownership (of which we inherit), is pretty fucked up when stared directly at, based on a patriarch’s relations with household slaves.
  • It seems like a pretty legit critique of Western society to point out that there are a lot of legitimate ways poeple are free to harm other people during their every day life, and that’s got to be pretty warpy.
  • Spending more time imagining and debating the society and politics you want to live in… probably makes for a better society and politics. One of those, if it’s hard do it a lot sorts of things. And if that sounds annoying in the context of the present, that’s probably because we’ve severely narrowed the scope of debate and possibility.

There’s a lot of history and anthropology to boil down:

…the key point to remember is that we are not talking here about ‘freedom’ as an abstract ideal or formal principle (as in ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity!’). Over the course of these chapters we have instead talked about basic forms of social liberty which one might actually put into practice:

  1. the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings;
  2. the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others; and
  3. the freedom to shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones

….three elementary principles of domination:

  1. control of violence (or sovereignty),
  2. control of knowledge, and
  3. charismatic politics

…and a lot of historical and anthropoligical critique:

Environmental determinists have an unfortunate tendency to treat humans as little more than automata, living out some economist’s fantasy of rational calculation. To be fair, they don’t deny that human beings are quirky and imaginative creatures – they just seem to reason that, in the long run, this fact makes very little difference.

For much of the twentieth century, anthropologists tended to describe the societies they studied in ahistorical terms, as living in a kind of eternal present. Some of this was an effect of the colonial situation under which much ethnographic research was carried out. The British Empire, for instance, maintained a system of indirect rule in various parts of Africa, India and the Middle East where local institutions like royal courts, earth shrines, associations of clan elders, men’s houses and the like were maintained in place, indeed fixed by legislation. Major political change – forming a political party, say, or leading a prophetic movement – was in turn entirely illegal, and anyone who tried to do such things was likely to be put in prison. This obviously made it easier to describe the people anthropologists studied as having a way of life that was timeless and unchanging.


Social science has been largely a study of the ways in which human beings are not free: the way that our actions and understandings might be said to be determined by forces outside our control. Any account which appears to show human beings collectively shaping their own destiny, or even expressing freedom for its own sake, will likely be written off as illusory, awaiting ‘real’ scientific explanation; or if none is forthcoming (why do people dance?), as outside the scope of social theory entirely. This is one reason why most ‘big histories’ place such a strong focus on technology. Dividing up the human past according to the primary material from which tools and weapons were made (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age) or else describing it as a series of revolutionary breakthroughs (Agricultural Revolution, Urban Revolution, Industrial Revolution), they then assume that the technologies themselves largely determine the shape that human societies will take for centuries to come – or at least until the next abrupt and unexpected breakthrough comes along to change everything again.

Choosing to describe history the other way round, as a series of abrupt technological revolutions, each followed by long periods when we were prisoners of our own creations, has consequences. Ultimately it is a way of representing our species as decidedly less thoughtful, less creative, less free than we actually turn out to have been. It means not describing history as a continual series of new ideas and innovations, technical or 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. What is true of technological 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 encyclopaedia of social possibilities.