The Reenchantment of Humanity – by Ashley L. Cohen

In Part 8 of Capital Volume 1, “So-Called Primitive Accumulation of Capital,” Karl Marx takes on capitalism’s origin story. How to explain the existence of haves and have-nots? How is it that some people possess land and the resources to cultivate it, while others have only the skin on their backs and the strength in their hands? Why are some people capitalists and other people workers? How do we explain the origins of capitalist inequality?

We will get nowhere, Marx tells us, by posing these questions to the classical political economists. Their answers are so laughably facile, they are like a child’s “nursery tale.” Once upon a time, “long, long ago,” in a land not so far away, there were “two sorts of people”: the industrious, intelligent sort and “lazy rascals.”[1] The former worked; the latter were more interested in having a good time. Voilà! The birth of capitalists and workers. Today, economics enjoys a popular reputation as a serious, scientific discipline capable of telling us real and important things about our world. Yet, when tasked with explaining the most basic facts of our social existence, the discipline’s not-so-distant ancestors peddled this fairy tale of industry and idleness, a “legend” of “economic original sin” scarcely more realistic or believable than that of Eve’s run-in with a bad apple and a smooth-talking snake.[2] If we follow Louis Althusser in defining ideology as “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,” then the classical political economists’ origin story for capitalism is ideology pure and simple.[3]

If the story of so-called primitive accumulation as told by the classical political economists is sheer fiction, then why does Marx reproduce it at all? The answer is simple: it’s only by demolishing their narrative that he can clear the ground for his own. The true story of primitive accumulation, as told by Marx, is more gruesome than anything found in the Brothers Grimm: it’s “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”[4] Over the course of several chapters, Marx unfurls this real history. He tells readers how England’s peasant proprietors were expropriated from the land and the means of production via a process known as enclosure, and how these dispossessed and pauperized agriculturalists were then compelled into wage labor through the terroristic “police methods” of vagrancy laws and the Bloody Code.[5] This is the true story of how the inequality between capitalists and workers came to be: how the one class of people came to profit from the value generated by the other’s labor.

“So-Called Primitive Accumulation of Capital” illustrates the modus operandi of Capital more generally. Capital is not just a critique of capitalism: it’s an ideology critique of classical political economy.[6] Hence, the book’s subtitle: A Critique of Political Economy. Why dedicate so much time and energy—so many pages—to revealing the errors of this discipline? I can’t speak for Marx, but my sense is he understood the power of stories to keep us stuck. The stickiest stories are those we have ceased to recognize as stories at all: the ones that have come to seem, through their sheer ubiquity, like common sense. These are the collective delusions of ideology. We can’t take a considered stance against capitalism in the present, or unclench its death grip on our future, unless we dissolve the epoxy of ideology that holds it all—and us all—stuck in place.

David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is Marxian in its ambitions and method. It operates on the scale of the grand narrative, a terrain rarely ventured on by professional scholars these days. For many academic readers, this alone may induce a mild allergic reaction of sorts, trained as we are to keep our claims within acceptable limits of boldness. There is something distinctly masculine—and thus, for some readers, inevitably off-putting—about the sheer scale of the book’s claims, which the authors lean into (apparently without a hint of irony) in their almost absurdly grandiose title. And yet, within this “Big Bow-wow strain” (as Sir Walter Scott might put it) of grand-narrative braggadocio, careful readers will recognize a familiar and essential project: ideology critique.[7]

Just as Marx debunked capitalism’s origin story as told by the classical political economists, Graeber and Wengrow debunk humanity’s origin story as told by what we might call the “classical” anthropologists and archaeologists, and the inheritors of their mantle: academic trade-press crossover writers such as Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, and Yuval Noah Harari. The Dawn of Everything could very well be subtitled, A Critique of Anthropology and Archaeology. And just as Marx undertook his critique in the hopes of getting us unstuck from capitalism, Graeber and Wengrow offer theirs in the hopes of getting us unstuck from a certain understanding of “civilization” that has come to seem suffocatingly inevitable. Today, many of us take it for granted that we have no choice but to live in top-down ruled states where we have very little room to move (literally and figuratively), lacking as we do what Graeber and Wengrow call “the three primordial freedoms”: “the freedom to move, the freedom to disobey, and the freedom to create or transform social relations” (426). How did we get here? And, more importantly, how did we get stuck here? Graeber and Wengrow take on these questions. They begin by first debunking the conventional answer that currently passes as true, namely the idea that human progress followed an inevitable, one-way trajectory from an original state of nature wherein small bands subsisted by hunting and gathering, through agriculture, to commerce, cities, complexity, and the state.

What makes The Dawn of Everything of special interest to readers of Journal18 is the fact that Graeber and Wengrow trace this fairy-tale version of the human past back to the eighteenth century. As scholars of that period will no doubt already be well aware, “America,” and the Indigenous peoples native to it, came to occupy an integral role in the thought experiments of Enlightenment theorists across the political spectrum on both sides of the English Channel. “Thus in the beginning all the World was America,” John Locke writes in his Two Treatises of Government (1698), a text that did as much as any other to create the liberal origin myth of property as reward-for-industry that Marx treats with such well-deserved derision in his discussion of primitive accumulation. Such myth-making served a purpose beyond mere intellectual inquiry: Locke’s narrow definition of “industry” as agriculture was a recipe for dispossession, of English commoners and American Indigenous people alike. In the eighteenth century, the mythical state of nature that featured so prominently in the thought experiments of Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes gradually lost its hypothetical flavor, morphing from concept-metaphor and convenient fiction to presumed statement of fact. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith codified this natural-history-museum understanding of “America” as a living relic of the dawn of civilization, hard-baking it into the stadial model of human progress that still passes for truth today.

The Dawn of Everything eviscerates this narrative by pulling back the curtain on its historical fabrication, in a backlash against Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality. In what no doubt is the book’s most provocative argument, Graeber and Wengrow suggest that some of the Enlightenment’s most important ideas about liberty were not homegrown European productions at all. Instead, they argue these concepts originated in an “Indigenous critique” of Europe developed by North American intellectuals such as the Huron-Wendat statesman Kandiaronk. Stadial theory and Whiggish myths of progress that relegate Indigenous peoples to the backwaters of human history then emerged as a way to discredit these imported Indigenous ideals. Graeber and Wengrow carefully develop this interlocking set of arguments in long introductory and concluding chapters that are likely to inspire admiration and exasperation in equal measure, at least for specialist readers. On the one hand, they represent a bold and daring venture in global intellectual history. How could we not be thrilled by the claim that Indigenous people are the true architects of key Enlightenment concepts? On the other hand, when something seems too good to be true, it very often is. Or, at the very least, some provisos are in order.

In her contribution to this roundtable, Blanca Missé draws on her expertise in the Radical Enlightenment to present an appreciative but cautious evaluation of the book’s claims. Many eighteenth-century scholars are likely to share Missé’s sense that the picture of Enlightenment discourse painted by Graeber and Wengrow is frustratingly thin. An overemphasis on—not to mention oversimplification of—Rousseau and Hobbes results in the construction of a straw-man Enlightenment that inexplicably leaves out some of the very radical figures whose thinking most closely mirrors the authors’ own—most glaringly, “Spinoza and the materialist tradition.” In her essay, Stephanie DeGooyer adds John Locke to this list of left-out thinkers. Locke’s mainstream importance makes his absence all the more puzzling. As DeGooyer suggests, he might be missing because his inclusion would inevitably complicate Graeber and Wengrow’s oversimplistic account of State of Nature theories. A champion of all three of the authors’ primordial freedoms, Locke was also an architect of Indigenous dispossession, as well as an advocate of African enslavement and colonialism. Freedom, DeGooyer shows, was often entangled in the rise of domination.

Reading generously, we might attribute these various shortcomings in the authors’ presentation of Enlightenment discourse to the challenge of writing for a non-academic audience. In her sage reflections on the “the politics of historical imagination,” Christen Mucher reminds us that “few non-Indigenous people question the idea that North America before 1600 was a blank land sparsely populated” by the hunter and gatherers of Lockean fantasies. The authors’ tendency to oversimplify, construct straw men, and gloss over complexities might be forgiven to the extent that they aid in the urgent task of debunking this collective delusion.

Once Graeber and Wengrow have demolished the Enlightenment’s fairy-tale version of human history, they move on to their main purpose: constructing their own account of what really happened. This means leaving behind the Enlightenment and journeying to humanity’s far more distant past. Readers who came to the party for the eighteenth century might be tempted, at this point, to leave. But that would be a mistake. The 400 pages that come between the Introduction and Conclusion are well worth staying for, since it’s here that Graeber and Wengrow develop the book’s central argument. Drawing on dozens of examples that crisscross continents and millennia, they show that there was never one single path of human development. Humans experimented with every conceivable variety of social organization, and moved between them in all directions: forwards and backwards, laterally, even seasonally—the possibilities are endless.

Reading these chapters is like being invited to step off an amusement park dark ride you didn’t even know you were stuck on. Going off rail, readers are introduced to a new, free-range version of the human past that is dazzling in its sheer variety. If the old story of human progress is the milky way, then Graeber and Wengrow give us the multiverse. Sure, the former seems big when it’s all you know, but the latter is positively mind-blowing. This, I think, is the point: Graeber and Wengrow want to overwhelm us, to awe us, to restore our sense of wonder, to reenchant humanity. Why? I can’t speak for them any more than I can speak for Marx, but my sense is that they want something from us in return: they want us to change the world. They want their readers to see themselves as self-conscious, intelligent political actors capable of creating their own societies just like, according to them, their ancestors saw themselves.

How, methodologically speaking, does The Dawn of Everything enact this shift to a marvelous new technicolor version of humanity’s past? The credit is due in large part to the scores of anthropologists, archaeologists, and Indigenous studies scholars whose findings Graeber and Wengrow report. Still, our authors deserve kudos for picking through this vast secondary literature with a sharp eye. In particular, they are drawn to creative readings of the material record. Artifacts and archaeological sites provide some of the most important evidence we have for periods and societies without writing. Since these artifacts can’t speak for themselves, our interpretation comes down to the stories we choose to tell for and about them. The problem is, these stories all too often echo whatever ubiquitous grand narrative is passing for common sense at the time. “One of Graeber and Wengrow’s major interventions,” Mucher writes, “is articulating the limitations placed on the human historical imagination by the continued application and repackaging of Enlightenment-era evolutionary thinking,” with all its universalizing assumptions about human nature and progress.  

Take, for example, precious shells or other “items of adornment” that were, some 3,000 years ago, transported thousands of miles away from their origin (22). (Think shells from the Gulf of Mexico ending up in Ohio.) These objects are conventionally interpreted as evidence of trade and markets. To many of our ears, such an explanation makes implicit sense, not only because it’s the kind of thing we read in our school textbooks, but also because we are all immersed from the cradle to the grave in the ideology of liberalism. But the idea that shells traveling long distances must be evidence of trade and markets rests on a set of terribly drab assumptions about humanity: that human beings are naturally acquisitive and self-interested, and fundamentally motivated by an innate drive to accumulate.[8] What we have here is a portrait of homo economicus: the vision of human nature shared by all the liberal inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition, from the classical political economist antagonists of Marx to the progenitors of stadial theory and their descendants, who we’ve called the “classical” anthropologists and archaeologists. (The overlap between these two sets is considerable: Adam Smith, for example, belongs to both camps.)

What a sad and limited understanding of what it means to be a human being! Especially since what real human beings were really up to, Graeber and Wengrow show, was so much more interesting. Shells, it turns out, weren’t transported thousands of miles for the purpose of trade. They were acquired on vision quests or sought out to literally “realize” the contents of dreams (23). Sometimes they were carried long distances by troupes of traveling entertainers and healers (24). Or they crossed these distances gradually, as they were “endlessly wagered, and lost, in inter-village games” played by women gamblers over untold centuries (24). Liberalism’s impoverished view of human nature has put blinders on the Western view of the past. By taking these blinders off, Graeber and Wengrow attempt not only to “restore” ancient humans “to their full humanity,” but also to restore us to ours (24). Their book gives readers a vastly richer sense of what it means to be human beings. We don’t just buy and sell and accumulate: we also play and seek and heal and dream.

And yet, Graeber and Wengrow’s break with the Enlightenment conception of the human is arguably incomplete. Their foundational claim to recover authentic Indigenous voices from Enlightenment texts is predicated on their rejection of a whole train of scholarship wherein “Indigenous people are assumed to have lived in a completely different universe, inhabited a different reality, even,” such that “anything Europeans said about them was simply a shadow-play projection, fantasies of the ‘noble savage’ culled from the European tradition itself” (30). By restoring Indigenous people to the same “reality” as Europeans, Graeber and Wengrow claim to restore Indigenous voices to Enlightenment texts. Yet, as Tony C. Brown points out, this whole argument takes for granted an essentialized and “unique humanness” shared by all humans in all places and all times—and by nobody else. These notions were rooted, Brown explains, in “the insistent separation of human and animal, a separation which shored up, over and against the animal, the human’s essential nature,” a hierarchical separation that operated as a license for the human to dominate and exploit the animal (along with what we usually call “nature” and those humans deemed a bit too animal to be counted as humans) for his own benefit.

Robbie Richardson likewise rejects the authors’ foundational gesture of restoring Europeans and Indigenous people to the same shared “universe.” He argues that “Indigenous people in many ways did live in an entirely different reality”: they inhabited a “relational world” held together by bonds of kinship between humans and nonhumans alike. “This relational ontology,” Richardson explains, “is not compatible with European notions of individual freedom,” wherein freedom is understood to be the possession of atomized individual subjects who are free to dominate and exploit non-humanity to their hearts’ content. “Freedom without kinship and collective responsibility,” Richardson insists, “would have been inexpressible in Indigenous languages.” This notion of freedom might be more consonant with the Radical Enlightenment’s conception of “materialist equality” discussed by Missé, but, as she notes, this “neo-Spinozist materialist current of the Enlightenment” is absent in the book’s “very schematic portrait of eighteenth-century European political philosophy.” Missé, Richardson, and Brown all argue, each in their own way, that Graeber and Wengrow miss the true radicalness of “the Indigenous critique,” which, in Brown’s words, “went further than our authors allow: it went so far as to question European claims to know what a human being is or should be.”

Today we stand on the precipice of a future that threatens to repeat the apocalyptic history of Indigenous peoples, whose genocide at the hands of American settlers involved, as Nick Estes tells us, the destruction of not only individual atomized human beings, but also an entire relational ecological world.[9] In order to avert the next apocalypse, the collapse of our planetary life systems, we need to find new ways of being on this planet. The Dawn of Everything will hopefully inspire readers to get cracking, to begin self-consciously and playfully experimenting with alternative forms of familial and social and political organization. In the midst of these experiments, let’s also experiment with what it means to be human. For those of us who aren’t doing so already, let’s try out a different kind of human being, one that puts us in a state of self-conscious, caring, relational being with the whole of our human and non-human world.

Ashley L. Cohen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California, CA

[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 873-74.

[2] Marx, Capital, 873.

[3] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation,” in Lenin and Philosophy: and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 85-126.

[4] Marx, Capital, 875.

[5] Marx, Capital, 905.

[6] For an especially lucid and insightful discussion of how this critique operates in relation to the concepts of primitive accumulation and capitalist exploitation, see Robert Nichols, Theft is Property!: Dispossession and Critical Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 56-60.

[7] Sir Walter Scott, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, 1825-1832: From the Original Manuscript at Abbotsford (Edinburgh: Douglas & Foulis, 1927), 155.

[8] See Thomas Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), xxii; Ashley L. Cohen, The Global Indies: British Imperial Culture and the Reshaping of the World, 1756-1815 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 183.

[9] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso Books, 2019), 43.

Cite this note as: Ashley L. Cohen, “The Reenchantment of HumanityJournal18 (July 2023),

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