The Myths of Capital: David Wengrow on The Dawn of Everything


#history, #mythology, #capitalism,
, #controlsocieties

Not convinced about the role of mythology today? David Wengrow, one of the authors of “The Dawn Of Everything” alongside David Graeber, spent a decade assessing and bringing attention to the mythology that exists at the foot of Mount Capital - we tend to think that in our object-orient, objectivist-positivist-scientific, post-enlightenment reality, we have done away with needing “creation myths” to justify the formation of society and nature. Yet, as Wengrow makes clear from the offset, there are many important myths that underpin our capitalist society which are simply not true. They’re fabrications massaged and embroidered retrospectively to extinguish tensions.

Wengrow identifies that the whole history of humanity, leading up to now, is a big misunderstanding, and the process of setting that story straight deeply undermines Capitalism as we know it. He begins by identifying the key myth of Capitalism that is explored by many of the period’s preferred philosophers, Rousseau, Hobbes. The story from Rousseau goes that at one point humanity was part of the primordial soup, a part of nature, innocent, living in small egalitarian bands. At some point our innocence was lost, and as our communities grew, we moved into cities and away from nature, and since then everything has been corrupt and perverse. Hobbes is even more cynical, he fundamentally agrees with the core of the myth, only replacing the idea of a state of nature as not defined by innocence, but defined by violence.
           We are left with a story that has been shaped to support and justify capitalism:

(1) Humans Evolved in Small Scale Egalitarian Societies
(2) The Agricultural Revolution created social inequality
(3) Bureaucracy was invented when societies grew in scale
(4) Living in cities meant putting elites were put in charge

These 4 myths account for the majority of the complacency that you experience when you talk to people about capitalism: “it has to be like this, because of how history has been up to this point, its orthodox, its just cause and effect. Hierarchy and the State are held as absolutely essential, and it is postured that a society without such institutions is not possible. In this sense we simply accept poverty and inequality as inevitable, as a natural consequence of the mistakes of the human. It justifies this neo-Christian idea that we were once in the garden of eden, stupid but innocent and pious, but our own selfish curiosity lead us out of the garden and into the cities, so we deserve to live as though we are being governed by Lucifer in some layer of hell. We can now declare that this mythology was only fantasy, an invented history to justify power structures by nurturing complacency. It cannot be understated that an unlearning of this false history, or at least to recognise the prevalence of mythology in todays so-called scientific world, sets in motion an unravelling of the mind - maybe some will forever defend the State, but at least we can remove their ability to hide behind false narratives and let them stand naked in the rain, exposed. It is better than reactionaries appear to be mindlessly reactionary than duly concerned.
           (1) We were never collectively or unanimously in some harmonic state of nature, we were never simply living in predictable, categorisable tribes or bands. The evidence suggests a large array of different formulations of society including seasonal/temporal reconfiguration. There is evidence that some civilisations would disperse in the summer to different locations, into egalitarian micro communities oriented around cultural spaces or food sources, but then in the winter many of these would come together and form a city-like State, with various protectorates and power structures - there would be guards, soldiers, some kind of civil police presence, but such a thing would disband when the winter was over and the community dispersed. If you need an alternative to Capitalism, the first move might be to address the absolute horror that is the “every day identical”, “never stop” mentality of Capitalism.
           (2) There was no agricultural revolution. This is of importance because people typically believe that social inequality is the direct result of humanity deciding to keep animals and farm crops, but this is also an invention. Humanity never had an “agricultural revolution”, all humanity slowly adopted different practices at different times, over thousands of years, globally. To imagine a turning point, a revolution, a burst of change, is simply not realistic by any standard. To say this shift came with set consequences is immensely reductive and does not make sense in the context of modern/current anthropology and archaeology. If evidence is important to the object-oriented Capitalists, then why isn’t archaeological evidence enough to disprove such a thing.
           (3) Even with very low population density, there is evidence that humans migrated a lot, and had huge exposure to different people and different cultures. To say that these people were in total ignorant isolation is simply wrong, there is evidence in the brain and in the ground that human societies, as early as 20,000BC, were diverse and complex, and we required complex brain structures to handle knowing all the other people and places.
           (4) There is plenty of evidence that long before agriculture there was social inequality - there are burials of children or individuals completely saturated in wealth. There is evidence of large permanent public buildings long before agriculture. It implies stratification of power, resources and wealth. What does it mean that there was an aristocracy in the last Ice Age? What does it change about how we justify social inequality when we can no longer blame it as a necessary side-effect of the agricultural revolution which never happened.
           Wengrow and Graeber manage to touch on so many topics that you don’t even realise are mythologies, we have myths for how cities formed, myths for why governments are necessary. We carry on assuming that everything is as it had to be, as it is meant to be, but when you actually turn “science” towards the evidence, there is no substance to the justification of social inequality based on some historical events. To believe that the aristocracy was an inevitable result of farming is no different to the belief that metaphysically, the universe is an elephant standing on the back of a turtle (Vishnu). There is no cynicism or derogativity towards Vedic mythology, only the request to treat all myths equally, as attempts to make sense of chaos and engineered for specific social outcomes. There may be some benefit to using mythology to make sense of the self but to hierarchise different mythologies seems more like ranking Marvel movies than making any meaningful ontological claim.
           There are many lectures from Wengrow that go into various depths, and the text is available to read for free via our Memory of the World library, and it is essential reading. To redefine the history of humankind is about as radical as it can get, to convince another that their assumptions about why Capitalism or social inequality is justified is vital praxis, and vital education. It is a tragedy that Graeber did not get to see the impact of his greatest work, but it is fitting that the story went this way - his final contribution feels like his Magnum Opus, and it would have been even more tragic if he was never able to share his findings in this area.

RIP David Graeber