What the cool kids are reading

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A review of Lea Ypi, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, and David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Each of these books is trying to help us imagine a future without war, environmental degradation and racism – without capitalism, in other words. Each is trying to get there via some reckoning with the fall of the Communist states in 1989-91.

Lea Ypi’s memoir makes that project explicit in her book’s Epilogue, where she locates herself today as a professor teaching Marxism as part of the politics degree at LSE. She uses his work to illuminate social relations. “Behind the capitalist and the landlord there were my great-grandfathers; behind the workers there were the Roma who worked at the port; behind the peasants, the people with whom my grandmother was sent to work in the fields when my grandfather went to prison…” (308).

Born in 1979, Ypi lived for her first twelve years in Communist Albania. Her experiences there put her at odds with her Western Marxist friends, for whom, she observes, the Eastern bloc play no part in the story of the left: “They were seen as the deserving losers of a historical battle that the real authentic bearers of that title had yet to join.” (307). Conversely her Marxism separates Ypi from her own family. “Only once did she draw attention to a cousin’s remarks that my grandfather did not spend fifteen years locked up in prison so that I would leave Albania to defend socialism” (308).

Ypi’s book addresses these two problems – the blitheness of her comrades, and the incomprehensibility of her views to her family – by telling the story of her life, bringing out first what it was like to live in a society which had abandoned the “revisionism” of each of Stalin and Mao. And then, how helplessly the reformers of 1989-91 gave way in the face of Western-imposed privatisations which bankrupted and disillusioned millions.

Ypi’s book brings a child’s clear vision to such characters as her teacher Nora (“Do you see this hand? This hand will always be strong … It has shaken Comrade Enver’s hand”) (14), contemporaries boasting of their partisan grandparents (23), and neighbours accused by her parents of having stolen a prized (empty) Coca Cola can (62).

The Albanian Communism she describes was characterised by equality, neighbourliness, community and hope. There is suffering, but not in Ypi’s immediate family.

On the collapse of Communism, Ypi’s mother became a “liberal hopeful” (265): a leading member of the new Democratic Party, and a champion of democracy, civil society, and structural reform. Her father swapped over from being an admirer of a previous generation of red terrorists in Italy to the general director of the port at Tirana. Privatisation meant redundancies (“The hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” he complained) (249). “He would neither endorse structural reforms nor obstruct them” (247).

Her book’s message at the end is that Socialism is a theory of human freedom, in her words “of how we adopt to circumstances, but also try to rise above them” (305).

If we want to understand the counter-revolution of our times, then part of what we need to grasp is the disappearance of any authentic eastern European socialist tradition – and against whose rebirth Ypi’s parents’ generation continue to guard with all their strength.

David Graeber was, like Lea Ypi, a Professor at the LSE. His book, a collaboration with archaeology professor David Wengrow and now published posthumously, retells the familiar story of the transition from hunter-gathering to agricultural societies, insisting that there was no such thing as a “transition”, or not in the sense that we imagine it, as a story happening in a single region, taking up just two or three generations of human time – a counterpart in distant time to the epochal events described by Ypi.

There is a second sense in which Graeber and Wengrow’s book is a natural twin to Ypi’s in that The Dawn of Everything criticises Marxism as one, perhaps the most coherent of a series of approaches all of which err in treating hunter-gatherer societies as a mere stage of human development requiring to be transcended by the birth of agriculture.

The Dawn of Everything is a long book, rich in historical detail. At times, it seemed to me that the account emphasised the state at the expense of class, in a way that it is at odds with Graeber’s other work, which treats the two as a unity. I’m not an anthropologist or an archaeologist and if you want to read a Marxist rejection of the core argument of their book, informed by a rich knowledge of those fields, then look to Jonathan Neale and Nancy Lindisfarne who have produced their own critiques.

Personally, I prefer to welcome Graeber and Wengrow’s book. ok. What I liked about it was the wealth of detail, the sense of a wide range of societies being considered one alongside another, the idea that not all human history needs to be traced back to Europe or the territories just next to it. Whether they achieve it or not, I am certain they have created the space for other writers to explain the transition to agriculture in a way which would combine a sense of enormous change with, at the same time, the exceptions and counter-narratives with Graeber and Wengrow insist need to be part of the story. In particular, I took away the following:

They show that when anthropologists talk about hunter-gatherer societies, they have focussed on a small group of societies, treating them as the “ideal” representatives of tens of thousands of years of human history. A key group are the !Kung San, who, Graeber and Wengrow argue, became popular with anthropologists in the 1960s because they were seemingly the only foragers left (137). Based on a reading of these societies, plus a heroic assumption that all other hunter-gatherer societies were identical, some writers have even argued that until 10,000 years ago there had never been wars, violence or rape. (That argument folds together too many people living under too many different environmental conditions to be remotely plausible). As one example of a different kind of hunter-gatherer society, Graeber and Wengrow cite the World Heritage site of Poverty Point in Louisiana. Built from c1700 BC onwards, by gatherers, it covers over 150 acres, providing enough living space for hundreds of people. The vast quantity of artefacts found there – posts, pieces of copper, crystal and soapstone – suggests a commodity culture, trading with neighbours. To the same extent that the !Kung despised possessions, the people of Poverty Point hoarded them. Which group should we see as the most typical? Graeber and Wengrow observe that the people of Poverty Point were able to live under a hunter-gathering affluence because their site was located near abundant sources of fish; whereas the !Kung live in conditions of shortage. They tease other archaeologists who have argued that the !Kung must be more typical of tens of thousands of years of human history or that the foragers generally rejected ecological affluence, naturally preferring to live in locations where food was scarce (153-5).

Graeber and Wengrow observe that the transition to agriculture was, on a global scale, slow and contested. It begins between c10,000 and c8,000BC in the Fertile Crescent (226), and was still incomplete there, let alone everywhere else, three thousand years later (232-3). Usually, when historians talk about revolutions, we mean processes which take place quickly (whether the Russian Revolution of 1917, or the industrial revolution from the 1780s onwards, or the “revolution” in all our lives, associated with the dominance of personal computing). We mean, in effect, that at the same point in human history you can have people living side by side shaped by two different mental universes: one which precedes the revolution and one which postdates it, in the way that a Catholic or Royalist might live in revolutionary France still celebrating the old calendar even while their neighbour lived according to the new world of Brumaires and Fructidors. Graeber and Wengrow note that it is possible to recreate the evolution of large-seeded grasses in 200 years with determined policies of harvesting. In real history, this process took about fifteen times as long. People were not exactly rushing to develop the new wheat strains which enabled agriculture. In the conventional argument, it is the rise of farming which then encouraged the emergence of cities. Graeber and Wengrow argue plausibly that these two processes took place the other way around. That hunting and gathering, in conditions of affluence, produced city populations, and only much later did agriculture become generalised.

The authors make the point that even once major cities had been constructed, and you had all the things we associate with the combination of farming and settle residence (kings, bureaucracies, and taxes), it was possible for many people to live outside the reach of the law, by occupying informal settlements outside the city walls (445-6). This is an important insight for anyone interested in later societies: although, of course, once the cities had subjugated their hinterlands the dynamic of freedom was the opposite. In the countryside, manorial courts and relationships dominated. City air, as the medieval saying went, makes you free.

How might Graeber and Wengrow’s book contribute to our ability to imagine a post-capitalist future? They portray human beings, in that vast long stretch of human history before we had writing, as people living under conditions of affluence – giving a high premium to their personal freedom – disdaining social relationships which would imprison them, and talking, all the time talking and discussing what would work for them. You do not need to believe that mankind lost a utopia to welcome the increase of our imaginative space, and the ability to grasp that distant and incomprehensible as the past now seems to us, so will the way live now seem to future generations, who will struggle to comprehend how we put up so meekly and for so long to the limits of our present society.

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