Primordial Freedoms: An Interview with David Wengrow

Clinton Williamson

In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow set out to look at our social past, with the aim of loosening our understanding of history from the stranglehold of myth. The dominant narratives with which we are so familiar have an ideological function: they tend to naturalize the present state of things, to make it appear that capitalist arrangements are merely the teleological result of a unilinear development, millennia in the making.

Such narratives suggest that hierarchy has been necessitated by increasing societal complexity, that we have come to be dominated by the marketplace because we are naturally inclined to competition and combativeness, and that our ancient forebears were incapable of thinking critically about their social arrangements.

Graeber and Wengrow suggest that part of the problem is our insistence on searching for origins: of the state, markets, agriculture, and so on. We are keen to identify breaks in the historical record, when everything everywhere suddenly lurched towards progress and civilization. They argue that for too long, our orientation towards the past has been inflected by our interest in determining when it all went wrong. (Or, depending on your political persuasion, when it all went right.)

Graeber and Wengrow believe that we must seek to ask better questions. Rather than asking after “the origin of social inequality,” they attempt to determine the conditions that produced such a question in the first place—an investigative route that requires a decoupling from dominant Eurocentric thought. What they find is not a static past moving inevitably towards the state and capitalism, but rather a highly dynamic record of an almost inexhaustible capacity for self-conscious social and political experimentation, for continual reinvention. Their work substantiates a profound belief that we are capable of undoing the violently hierarchical social order within which we find ourselves—on the basis of the evidence that humans have so frequently remade our social arrangements across the historical record.

The Dawn of Everything is a sprawling work, moving across vast spans of time and space. Graeber and Wengrow employ this sweeping approach to cut across the rigid boundaries of scholarly specializations, to widen the conceptual aperture. What kinds of harmonious combinations might we find in the past? What societal alternatives have escaped our notice? To even raise these possibilities is a provocation. There are, of course, innumerable pitfalls to writing a work of this kind. The Dawn of Everything does not provide many answers for precisely how our social forms ended up quite so stagnant, or for how we might set in motion the process of their overturning.

Yet, as Wengrow notes in the foreword, this book was intended to be the first work in a tetralogy—only a table setting for a much longer investigation. This aspiration, however, was tragically cut short when David Graeber suddenly passed away at 59 in September 2020. Protean recently spoke to co-author David Wengrow about The Dawn of Everything, and about how asking better questions of our past can help us envision a better future.

[Ed. note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]


Clinton B. Williamson: One of the primary desires driving this work seems to rest upon defamiliarizing ourselves with some of the dominant narratives of historical unfolding, these stories which have taken on the garb of myth. Instead of getting caught up in search for origins (like those of the origin of agriculture, the origin of the state, the origin of the city, the origin of inequality, etc.), you both do away this rather ingrained myopia in order to begin to sketch other connections and patterns emerging in the archive of the ancient past. What are some of the more pernicious of these origin narratives, and how do their residues delimit our historical and political understanding of our collective past?

David Wengrow: You’ve touched on something there that’s kind of close to my heart, because I remember a colleague of mine pointing out years ago that I’ve got this thing about origins. My previous book was called The Origins of Monsters. So I realized at one point that a lot of my own research was probing for the origins of things. This project, you’re right, started in exactly that way, with me and David Graeber trying to make a contribution to the literature on the origins of social inequality, and realizing fairly early on in the project that we were asking the wrong kind of question. And that was a really kind of make or break moment in our research, because it led to two things simultaneously, really. It led to trying to understand how the origins question became important in the first place, once you accept that it’s not a natural question.

And it’s particularly unnatural in the context of when it was first asked, which is right in the middle of the 18th century, in the setting of one of the most hierarchical and highly ranked absolutist monarchies in France, under Louis XIV. It’s a highly unnatural question in some ways. So in the first instance, it was that realization that there’s something that needs to be teased out about the question itself. And then simultaneously, I think this was about two or three years into the project, we were already quite deep into our research about hunter-gatherers and realizing that actually, if you scrape away at the literature on hunter-gatherers, something strange happened after the middle of the 20th century.

The catalyst seems to have been the famous Chicago symposium called Man the Hunter, which resulted in the famous volume. With that symposium, it’s almost as if specialists in the study of hunter-gatherers wiped the slate clean and started again with much more rigorous, data-driven approaches. Which is what we tend now to teach our students and ourselves, to be taught in anthropology that that’s when hunter-gatherer studies really got serious, and then everything since then counts. But actually there was a huge amount of scholarship before that. It seems to be a bit of the case of the baby and the bathwater. (There’s actually a very sad little epilogue to Man the Hunter symposium book by Claude Lévi-Strauss, which I think possibly even uses that phrase; he says, “Please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater because we’ve got these rich bodies of historical and ethnographic information that throw into question this whole concept of origins.”)

In other words, what I mean by that is that the picture of hunting and gathering as a mode of livelihood that came out of the Man the Hunter symposium was a highly selective one, by its own criteria. It focused very much on assertively egalitarian groups, which strongly reject any notion of private property. And it pushed hunter-gatherer studies towards that kind of almost aggressive egalitarianism, where you have to eliminate all trace of inequality or even of individual difference and creativity, talent, all these things. Which had a strange effect, I think, among researchers who were not specialists. When they came to use that literature and incorporate it into a broader synthesis of human history, the result has really been almost to push the whole thing back to where it was in the 18th century, where you end up with this picture of hunting and gathering as a mode of livelihood that’s kind of devoid of all the trappings of civilization. And therefore it’s possible to ask origins questions again. So what are the origins, then, of private property? What are the origins of the state? 

And what David and I realized, at least to our own satisfaction within the first few years of the project, is that when you do go back to that earlier literature, it really pulls the rug out from those kinds of questions. Because you have accounts of societies which are clearly not agricultural societies, but which have all of these things—but don’t have them all the time. So some of our first work together was kind of rehabilitating this whole concept of seasonality. Many societies, not only hunter-gatherers, would actually flip their social structures once or even twice a year.

With the circumpolar Inuit, for example, there were times of year (basically the shorter summer months) when otherwise large groups would split off into these little hunting and fishing and foraging bands. And in those little bands, fathers really became patriarchs. They had enormous authority over their sons and daughters and their wives. And property actually became very important. People would actually mark individual tools and weapons. But come the long Arctic winter, when people would completely reconfigure their demographic and social arrangements and come together in these great collective winter houses, those property rules would just evaporate, and all the moral stringencies around them would evaporate. And actually people were sharing everything, including sexual partners.

So, here you have an example of a society which is familiar with these concepts but is not caged by them. The concept is caged. The society is not caged by the concept. And similarly you had literature, including the essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss that nobody reads anymore, on the Nambikwara of Mata Grosso in Brazil, where he makes this beautiful argument that really Nambikwara chiefs have to be at least two people at once, depending on the time of year. So these are groups that actually move between foraging and farming. Again, it’s actually in the smaller groups that they tend to be more hierarchical; there’s more capacity for people to coerce each other, and it’s actually in the larger groups in the season, when they engage in cultivation and they settle down temporarily in these villages, that that element of coercion seems to evaporate. And as a result, the chief (as Lévi-Strauss says) is just like a modern politician. He has to alternate between operating some of the time in what’s effectively a kind of miniature welfare state, where his main function is to give stuff away and keep everybody happy and be the ultimate diplomat. And then when they do split off into these little nomadic foraging bands, he has to do quite the opposite. He has to be the decision maker.

So again, if we’re thinking about the origins of the state, how can you even ask that question when you have cases like the Plains Nations, which would alternate between societies around the bison hunt? For a few months, when the bison were coming in, they would appoint a police force with full-blown coercive powers. What Max Weber called the gewaltmonopol. These people could whip you. They could take your possessions as punishment. They could lock you up. They could even kill you if you did anything to endanger the hunt, which was not just the source of food but the source of hides and all of these resources that people would depend on for the rest of the year. So for a short period of the year, you have something that by a classic sociological definition would resemble a state. But for the rest of this year, it’s just not there. So it was those two points really coming together that moved us entirely away from those questions about origins to a whole set of other, less familiar questions.

CBW: The title of this work alone implies an almost impossibly hefty scale to take on, and its temporal scope necessarily relies on stretching the methodology of the longue durée to its upper limits—an exercise born of both necessity and experimentation. The geographic scope of the text is also similarly large. What are the benefits of this mode of inquiry—this large-scale comparative analysis across time and space—and how have you tried to avoid the pitfalls of working at such a remove? How do you ensure any analogies are not stretched too thin?

DW: Well I think, it’s interesting. I’ve never really thought about this much, but since you used the term longue durée—I guess if you had to try and compare or frame what we’ve done in the language of the Annales School, I’d like to think that we approximate all three elements of Braudel’s longue durée. So we’ve got lots of examples of what he calls conjunctures: moments of intense historical coming-together of structures in ways that are often unique but have durable consequences. As an example, at some point we go into this interesting coincidence. (Is it a coincidence?) In many independent cases across the world, from China to Mesoamerica, there is a historical conjuncture. On the one hand, it seems to be closely linked to the appearance of monarchy or permanent dynastic monarchical systems and this kind of explosion of ritual violence. There’s a part of the book, in the chapter “Why the State Has No Origin,” where we go into how these often highly elaborate royal rituals suddenly become incredibly violent. So you end up with archaeological evidence for the ritual killing of, sometimes, hundreds of individuals. And this is a pattern that one sees independently in different cases: in Africa, in East Asia, in Mesopotamia. It’s a conjuncture which seems to have a durable effect in Braudel’s sense.

But we also have events in Braudel’s sense. And we have individuals. We often found ourselves going off on little detours. The largest example would be the story of the coming-together of this French nobleman, the Baron of Lahontan, with the Wendat statesman Kandiaronk. So I would push back slightly at the characterization of the book as purely a longue durée study. I think that, at least, we tried to alternate between those different resolutions, precisely in order to avoid the problem that you’ve pointed to there. If you do stay all the time on these very coarse levels of abstraction, the arguments themselves could become a bit abstract.

CBW: I found one of the most intriguing aspects of the book to be this outlining of what you’ve termed the “Indigenous Critique,” which is capable of really unsettling how we think about the legacies of the Enlightenment. This “Indigenous Critique of Europe” provides us with an alternative way of historically contextualizing Enlightenment thought by positioning the real, material, political organization and thought of Indigenous peoples in the Americas as a central catalyst to its development. This also gives us a way of understanding some of the reactionary tendencies embedded within it.

DW: It’s very odd, isn’t it? Because this shouldn’t be a revelation at all. I mean, if you read the Enlightenment, the works of Voltaire and Diderot and Montesquieu, this is what they say: “We’re getting these ideas about freedom and equality from there, from Indigenous peoples.” So really, it’s not so much that we’ve discovered anything. What we have done here is try to figure out why it is that modern historians of ideas have almost uniformly come to reject what European writers themselves were saying. And that seems to have a lot to do with this concept of the noble savage as a kind of blanket, positive evaluation of Indigenous peoples.

Which is actually nowhere to be found in these 17th-century traveler’s accounts and missionary relations, which are much more ambiguous. They’re often very negative, actually. If they refer to nobility at all, it’s usually with reference to local men going off hunting, which was regarded a rather aristocratic—and therefore noble—thing to do. It’s not even there in Rousseau. There is no noble savage in his Second Discourse, actually. Really, this idea of the noble savage seems to have been invented and popularized by people who were not appreciative of Indigenous lifeways. It doesn’t really belong in that early 18th-century Enlightenment. It was really propagated by people who hated everything they stood for, all-out biological racists and eugenicists in the 19th century and Victorian Era.

The key work was really done by Ter Ellingson. It was really a clique within the British Ethnological Society who came up with this accusation that, “Oh, you’re romanticizing savages.” Really as a way of just dismissing and writing off anybody who tried to suggest that there was anything that modern European society could learn from Indigenous peoples. Today, I think these points about the “noble savage,” as applied to what are often presented as dialogues between the European and a so-called “savage” interlocutor, are actually coming from historians who are trying to precisely counteract the racism of over-romanticizing the Other. They’re making the case that, actually, the Indigenous voice is nothing of the kind: that it’s a fabrication of the European writer using a fictitious Indigenous figure as a conduit for views that are socially and politically subversive and could otherwise get them into trouble. So it’s a very paradoxical situation we’ve got here, where a strategy that’s meant to combat racism and stereotyping actually ends up completely excluding any possibility of cross-cultural exchange of ideas. And ends up actually, in our opinion, reinforcing this idea of Western or European philosophy as this completely sealed thing, just impermeable to the outside.

What we refer to in the book as the Indigenous Critique is nothing we’ve discovered. It’s been there all along. It’s there in the literature. It’s there in the writings of modern scholars, often themselves of Indigenous descent, like the Huron-Wendat historian Georges Sioui. And these observations about the impact of that Indigenous critique on European thought have been around in the literature for decades. If our book brings them to a wider audience, then we’re very glad. But I think we’d be much more glad if people had actually paid some attention back when Sioui published For an Amerindian Autohistory, where he makes all these observations about Kandiaronk and Lahontan. And he’s not the only one. So I think we see ourselves very much as really just trying to shine a light on an existing body of research, which has been rather marginalized.

CBW: Since we’ve now made a couple of allusions to him, the Wendat philosopher-statesman Kandiaronk is a major figure in the book. Why is he such an important thinker for the construction and transmission of this Indigenous Critique?

DW: Well, this is really serendipity. It so happens that we have a number of independent, corroborating accounts of the life of this one individual. Some of them are by Jesuits, and some of them are by members of the then-French colonial government in that area of what’s now the Great Lakes Region of Canada, or what Europeans then called New France. It’s clear that he was a major figure in the Wendat Nation. He was one of the signatories of the so-called Great Peace of Montreal in 1701. (If you go to Wikipedia, you can see his mark on it.) He was a famous individual. But, the one key bit of good fortune—through which we know so much more about him than we do about any number of contemporaneous political figures in Iroquoian- and Algonquian-speaking nations—was his relationship with this one peculiar individual, the Baron Lahontan.

The Baron seems to have had a very colorful and checkered military career. He was one of these disenfranchised and disenchanted minor French noblemen who didn’t like the bureaucratic direction the government of France was then taking things, and went off to the so-called New World to make his fortune and be a nobleman again, to go on adventures. And he did! And he also clearly made some of them up. This guy was a great lover of his own stories. But in the case of Kandiaronk, there were many other people and many other things in play. In particular, the actual governor general at the time seems to have been a rather unsavory character called Frontenac. Frontenac fancied himself a bit of a debater and would invite Kandiaronk as the guest of honor to what seem to have effectively been little debating schools—proto-Enlightenment salons going on around Fort Mackinac in the final decades of the 17th century. And we have corroborating accounts that Kandiaronk was just the smartest person he’d ever met. The guy was not just a great warrior and strategist and diplomat, but just a brilliant intellect.

After Lahontan went back initially to Amsterdam (where he was a sort of penniless vagrant), he then published his Curious Dialogues with Kandiaronk, under the name of Adario. This made him famous. And he managed to ingratiate himself with the courtly circles of Hanover and became friends with Leibniz. There’s actually a letter from Leibniz to somebody else where he just drops in this little detail (because they’re both obsessed with Lahontan’s book). He says, “Oh by the way, you know this Adario, he’s a real person!” So there’s every reason to believe that it’s actually Frontenac and Lahontan together who seemed to have written down and codified these debates and discussions. There’s every reason to think that they collaborated here and there and gave it their own literary flourishes, but there’s also every reason to believe that a Wendat statesman of the standing and reputation of Kandiaronk would have mounted precisely those kinds of arguments. And in fact, they are very consistent.

It was mainly David Graeber who did most of the primary research for this by scouring through all 71 volumes of the Jesuit Relations. Kandiaronk’s critique of the way that French men behaved towards each other (it was mostly men at that time in the colonies) resonates very closely with other things in the Jesuit Relations, other observations of the way that groups in the Eastern woodlands would be horrified at the competitiveness of French society. They were horrified by the obsession with money, but also by the willingness to let one’s own countrymen fall through the cracks. They were often scandalized by the amount of homeless people in European colonial towns. Of course, some Native American representatives went to Europe, and they did see the state of things in Paris and other cities at that time. And also their slight amazement at the way that, while being incredibly competitive, Europeans would also be deferring to each other all the time on the basis of rank, following orders.

So these are not isolated to Lahontan’s account. These are critiques and observations that crop up again and again. And I think actually, the kind of research that would be really beneficial now would be (and it’s not something we could do in the book) to go much deeper into this. What we refer to as the Indigenous Critique, I think, is really just scratching the surface. There are so many of these submerged intellectual traditions, often hanging on the thread of fortuitously preserved documents, very fragile sets of sources. So we’re just trying, in this particular case, to isolate what exactly was going on in that key juncture in European thought that we now refer to as the Enlightenment. But there’s much a larger story there, and it’s bound to have equivalents in sub-Saharan Africa, in Oceania, and so on.

CBW: One of the threads running through this book is a consideration of how a wide variety of peoples attempt to cultivate and maintain freedom. You detail what you’ve called “the three primordial freedoms:” the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to create or transform social relationships. How did you arrive at an articulation of this particular set of freedoms, and how are they bound up with your description of communism in the book?

DW: The three freedoms are really our attempt to pull together the kind of empirical observations that we’d been making throughout the book, because we realized at some point we have to at least try to propose some new concepts. Otherwise, things just seem to drift back with this incredible tenacity to bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. So we wanted to put concepts in place without being dogmatic or saying we’ve exhausted all the possibilities. I’m sure there’s a fourth freedom and a fifth freedom out there to be discovered. But what we tried to encapsulate with those three concepts is all of the things that somebody like Kandiaronk seems to have taken for granted. Somebody brought up in a society where not everybody is trained into obedience in the way that we all basically are today. All of the things that someone like Rousseau, who was purely speculating about what a free society might be, would only have been able to guess at, but would have no concrete experience of.

The three things that really seemed to recur or emerge as patterns throughout the book were, first of all, the importance of being able to move away, to escape one’s surroundings, in the knowledge that you will be received at your point of destination. Now, this is crucial, because if you misunderstand what we mean by freedoms (which is back to your question about communism, for what David Graeber referred to as baseline communism, which is really mutual aid), if you present these freedoms only with the first half, the freedom without the corresponding act of care, you actually end up with something that looks more like micro-fascism. “Great, disobey orders, go where you like, do what you like.” These are actually forms of domination, or micro-domination. These are the freedoms with any regard or responsibility for other people removed. They’re exactly the sorts of freedoms that thinkers like Rousseau lumber us with. Because remember, humanity in its so-called state of nature is not a society at all; it’s people living as isolates, with no social responsibilities other than to themselves. So they’re free, but they’re completely isolated. There’s no actual notion of what a social freedom is.

In the book, we try to draw attention to cases where you have concrete evidence for how social freedoms—in other words, freedoms that do not remove the responsibility to others—actually work in practice. So to take the first freedom as an example: we have examples throughout history and in archaeology of often demographically quite small and fragmented groups following these extraordinary regional coalitions. This was certainly the case in North America for many centuries. It’s how you end up with clan systems, or what anthropologists call totemic systems (which points to another example in Australia). And these systems are basically systems of hospitality, which allow people to leave their natal groups, or even their language groups, and move—often across really impressive distances—knowing very well that somebody of the same clan will be obliged to take them and feed them and incorporate them somewhere else. And of course, this is a very important thing, because if you’re facing ostracism or domination at home, moving away is the most natural thing to do. But it doesn’t work unless there’s somebody to receive you on the other end.

So the first freedom really underpins these very important historical phenomena, for which we lack a very good name. One could call them hospitality zones. Archaeologists have all sorts of strange, jargon-ridden names for them, like interaction spheres. But the important thing is that they’re very large-scale, and they’re voluntaristic. They’re not held together by coercion or violence. They’re not empires or anything like that. They are examples of people forming coalitions. So the first freedom, the freedom to move away, is underpinned by hospitality.

The second freedom, to disobey, is exactly the basis of the kind of participatory democracy for which Kandiaronk’s people were famous among many European observers. Those observers became familiar with the languages of the Eastern Woodlands region and commented on the amount of time people would spend sitting around in village plazas debating this and debating that—precisely because chiefs could give orders, but nobody was actually obliged to follow them. In which case, to engage anybody in any kind of collective project was a matter of persuading them, which is a terrific stimulus to a very sophisticated culture of argumentation, which is a matter of historical record. That’s the cultural milieu out of which Kandiaronk comes. So yes, this is the freedom to disobey, again underpinned by the awareness that you will not then be ostracized, but actually debated and listened to.

And the third freedom really rests on the other two, which is precisely this freedom to actually tear a little hole in the fabric of your social reality and try something else. The seasonal switching is an obvious example of that, but it’s just one example. There are obviously many, many ways in which a process like that could develop. But we tried to show how that third freedom is really underpinned by the first two in practice. And it’s also, if you like, the thing that we seem to have lost. If there’s something we seem to be struggling with, it’s this. You just have to look at the kind of angst-ridden language of the climate summit right now, the near-paralysis when it comes to any notion of structural change, as opposed to just tweaking fiscal policies or rates of carbon emissions.

If we’ve lost something, it’s not what Rousseau thought. It’s not equality, because this seems to be a rather vague and dubious concept. It seems to be precisely this ability to just play around and try out other social arrangements. So a lot of the book is actually trying to recreate the process by which we work towards these new questions. The answers are often preliminary, and as I say, they’re not dogmatic. We always intended to keep writing. This wasn’t the end of anything. It’s really laying foundations and trying to ask better questions, which requires an awful amount of brush clearing and getting cobwebs out of the way, until you say “Okay, maybe this is a more useful kind of thing to ask.”

CBW: You address in the conclusion that arriving at synthesis in a work like this can be difficult, because we often lack the language to even articulate these connections and overlaps that are being found. How did you try to resolve this kind of terminological difficulty?

DW: I don’t think we have resolved it, but these concepts that we’re proposing are our attempt to begin that process. So the three freedoms—we also point to three basic forms of domination—these are intended to replace terms like “the state.” One of the stranger (to my mind) and more critical reviews of the book framed the whole thing in terms of an opposition between states and stateless societies. Which seems slightly bizarre in a book where the longest chapter is called “Why the State Has No Origin.”

It’s really an attempt to ask better questions and replace some of these terms, which get you trapped in teleological ways of thinking. I think ultimately, the way we were going with this (and maybe where we would have ended up going, or maybe where I’ll still end up, or maybe other people will do it better than us) is that if you’re looking for alternative terms for things like “really big regional hospitality zones”—then why not just find out what the people who actually did that called them, and use those terms? There’s a great history of this in anthropology, where words like taboo or mana became part of the anthropological vernacular. But they’re Indigenous terms that have made their way into our own language from societies who actually knew what they meant in practice.

So, for example, one of the concepts we were going to include was actually an Australian term: wunan. (There are many ways of writing it, but this seems to be the most common.) It seems to precisely describe civilization, but not in our evolutionary sense of civilization as a stage of development. It’s civilization as basic norms of hospitality and asylum, which bind together groups across very large areas. So maybe that’s the way to go: actually replacing some of our imperial language, which often has its roots (via lots of medieval intermediaries) in Latin and Greco-Roman concepts. Even words like our word “family” go back—historically, etymologically—to societies that took domestic servitude and chattel slavery entirely for granted. This was a great love of David Graeber’s, and he did it brilliantly in his book Debt as well. It’s almost like going back to Fustel de Coulanges, these kinds of archaeology before archaeology, where it’s all about terms and language and etymologies. Now, you put that together with actual archaeology, and I think you get something really interesting.

CBW: Your work concludes by thinking about “the Greek notion kairos as one of those occasional moments in a society’s history when its frames of reference undergo a shift—a metamorphosis of the fundamental principles and symbols, when the lines between myth and history, science and magic become blurred—and, therefore, real change is possible.” With the omnipresent threat of climate disaster facing us, the need to come unstuck from the entrenched modes of power in order to reorganize our collective lives is an absolute necessity. Similarly, this crisis presents us with the need to think at scale about how else we can live together. In a moment such as this, how might looking to the past expand our revolutionary imaginary and open up new routes of struggle for how we can make our future?

DW: I think the short answer to that question is that you have to look at the metanarrative in order not just to critique it, but to remove some of the inevitables—or things we’ve been told are the inevitables—of social evolution. You mentioned scale. It’s very, very important to address this question of the effects of scale on human social possibilities. And once you begin to use the modern evidence of my field in particular, of archaeology, to question what have often been presented as irreversible thresholds of human history—the impact of agriculture, the impact of urban life—and you actually see that an evidence-based account doesn’t really bear this out, and that a lot of these key moments in history, which are supposed to have forced us onto a one-way street that leads ultimately to the particular forms of capitalism and resource exploitation that we’re in now, were not that at all. They were actually often very extended periods of experimentation, and often playfulness, in human history.

So once you deal with that broad sweep of history and show that the inevitables are not inevitable, what are you left with? You’re left with people making decisions. And the decisions are not pointless decisions, because they’re not bound by these so-called laws of history. They become amplified. They become important decisions, moral decisions, ethical decisions, free decisions and choices that are based on the realization that actually we make this particular system, every single one of us, every day.

We’ve internalized it. We’ve brought it into our homes, brought it into our families. So I hope the book manages to at least set off a little bit of that process of removing the great imponderables, these great abstract forces that are supposed to be crashing around above our heads, and amplifies the micro-scale of human relationships and how important they are actually in underpinning that sense of being stuck—and, therefore, the potential to get unstuck. I would say that is why the large scale is so important, because if you leave those assumptions in place, it diminishes everything else. And you end up with so-called Big History (which is a term I hate) that makes you feel small. We’re trying to do the opposite. It’s a big history, in scope and everything, but I hope that it doesn’t make the reader feel small. If we’ve managed to do that, then I think that’s roughly what we were hoping to accomplish in this first book.♦







Clinton Williamson is a Ph.D candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in 19th and 20th century American literature.

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