Beyond The Layman’s Take on Civilisation And Progress

People throughout history, until perhaps today, have consciously refused systems that violate the dignity of man and nature, even when they promised unprecedented advancement

Beyond The Layman’s Take on Civilisation And Progress

A few weeks ago, I had the odd coincidence of reading two very different books, one after the other. The first was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, followed by David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. One of these is a work of speculative fiction, the other a retelling of humanity’s shared past, based on years of evidence that challenge conventional scholarship on the subject. It can be instructive to read these two books together.

At a time when multinational tech giants are leading the world forward at a pace humans may not be able to match, it helps to read authors – even if wildly different – who put all the ‘progress’ sold to us as the ultimate victory for mankind into perspective. Instead of continuing to think about the past and future as something we have certain knowledge of, it helps to shake things up a little, allow the brain to wander and indulge in the inconsistencies of the narratives built around equally fallible assumptions that have come to be accepted as the truth.

Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything is a monograph that contends that the present condition of humanity was neither inevitable nor is irreversible. The book calls for a radical rethink of the idea that in the thousands of years that humans have existed, they have progressed in a linear fashion from simple to complex, equal to unequal, and uncivilised to civilised. This, the authors argue, not only discredits our ancestors but gives us too much credit. For the layman, this sparks a critical realisation: perhaps what we call civilisation has come at a cost that early humans consciously chose not to pay – costs that only jeopardise the possibility of a dignified collective existence in harmony with the planet. It also moves one to question whether the commercial civilisation of our times really embodies the objective model of progress developed largely in the West that the rest of the world is rushing to emulate.

Huxley’s Brave New World, on the other hand, is a fictional account of a futuristic World State. A perfectly efficient society, where people are genetically ‘designed’ to grow up passive, content and consistently useful to a ruling class. His is a world where free will and genuine sentiment no longer exist. For something so grim, Brave New World can be an enlightening read for all the satire it packages in its dystopian projection of the future and its commentary on the instrumentalisation of consumerism for exercising control. The conditions described in the novel are arguably as extreme as those in Nineteen Eighty-Four, published almost two decades later by George Orwell who incidentally happens to have been Huxley’s student at one point. But the pattern of domination is eerily familiar. In the real world, there is no objectively evil corporate aiming to subdue humanity, but there is a profusion of technologies and services that render some of the most basic human faculties redundant – a possibility that is far more alarming.

But coming back to The Dawn of Everything. The authors, established academics in their respective fields – Graeber in anthropology and Wengrow in archaeology – obviously do not go anywhere near dystopian speculations. It does not after all befit academics to let speculation influence their standpoint, let alone inform their premise. But in their research and the research that the book draws on, is an appreciation of the human ability to imagine, create, and then recreate and adapt without having to bound oneself to a fixed system or social order. It is precisely this ability that humans in Huxley’s World State have lost in relentlessly pursuing the maximisation of efficiency – as if the entire range of human potential needs to be tamed and channelled into perfecting efficient manufacturing and ensuring greater consumption.

In the social and political context, this means coming to terms with living in a large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society that implies patterns of inequality by design. Graeber and Wengrow mould it down to very simple words. They say we are ‘stuck’, that we are trapped in “such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves”. This, they argue, is something that cannot be said of any of the pre-historic or aboriginal societies who had alternate arrangements for harnessing human potential to achieve the needs of society – arrangements that did not have to last longer than was necessary. The systems instituted by these societies were dynamic and flexible, unlike our systems where laws are codified and structures permanent. Hierarchies, to quote just one example, instead of being constant features of a society were developed in one part of the year only to be dismantled in the other. This is not to suggest, however, that this was always the case for all of pre-history. Only that a large number of civilisations in every part of the world have so lived and thrived for thousands of years, offering just as imitable a model for organising our collective existence as the most recent and rigid forms known to us from before and after the European Enlightenment.

The argument carries weight. It challenges the original scholarly and now popular wisdom that until certain people at a certain point in time (and in a certain part of the world) came up with few ‘enlightened’ ideas, humanity was mostly just muddling through a collective existence. It also puts into perspective the evidence we have found of civilisations large and complex functioning in the absence of centralised and exploitative authority as we know it today, holding that these cannot be brushed aside as mere exceptions to a prevailing state of primitiveness. But the singularly most important lesson one can take away from this book is that knowledge need not lead to the adoption of either technologies or forms of social organisation. There are for, example, a number of pre-historic societies that rejected agriculture though they were familiar with cereal domestication, could boast of organised labour, and had neighbouring societies practicing agriculture. The same is true of war and slavery, both of which have phased out several times in history only to phase back in again.

People throughout history, until perhaps today, have consciously refused systems that violate the dignity of man and nature, even when they promised the kind of unprecedented advancement that we see today. Sure, these systems had a stubborn tendency to keep surfacing as prepositions for greater competitive advantage and were ultimately adopted. But for the longest time, several (though not all) civilisations have refused to make this trade-off. Graeber and Wengrow are right when they say we are stuck because we have settled on an arrangement where we accept the oppression of entire populations, ethnic groups, and social classes as something inherent to large, complex – and now globalised – societies.

But perhaps because humans are still birthed rather than being ‘decanted’ as in Huxley’s world, they retain the ability to think, feel and act – though, admittedly, a lot serves to numb them from the need to do the same. We need to take a step back. We need a break from the comforts and promise of civilisation – from the urge to create and consume and eat the earth from the inside out. We need to pivot our ambitions so they correspond to the capacity of our planet and the conditions of humanity; to rethink if all we need out of this life is to have to do less – to have some technology or some service take over this or that aspect of our lives. Civilisation is not the perfection of technological efficiency. It is a state of dignified co-existence. And if centuries into being civilised, we have still not figured out how to co-exist with dignity, perhaps we need to look into the centuries before – deeper into the past rather than the future.