Big History for World Revolution?: Karatani’s and Graeber and Wengrow’s very different new perspectives

Perhaps it is related to the emergence of a new multipolar geopolitics and the returning possibility of war—whether hot or cold—between major powers. Or perhaps it can be traced to the slow but inexorable dissolution of neoliberal economics and its patina of empty promises and misplaced trust. Or perhaps it has something to do with the reality of human-created climate change and the colossal scale of destruction it compels us to contemplate. But for one reason or another, it seems clear that the way we think and write about history is in the process of transforming dramatically. Maybe the way we experience history, or experience ourselves as historical creatures, is as well.

I first became aware of this development about a decade ago, when I encountered the English translation of the Japanese scholar Kojin Karatani’s 2011 masterpiece The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange. While frequently complicated in its details, the overall thrust of Karatani’s argument was not particularly difficult to understand. Karatani presented himself as a Marxist, or a materialist in the Marxist tradition. But he was also a revisionist. Marx had proposed that human history consisted of a series of distinct ‘modes of production’, or different ways of organising human labour in order to create wealth, from primitive communism to slavery to feudalism to capitalism, and eventually to genuine or modern communism. These modes of production were said to form the material and economic ‘base’ on top of which sat a system of more ephemeral, ideal or ideological political and cultural ‘superstructures’. Karatani, in contrast, suggested that we conceive of human history in terms of various ‘modes of exchange’, or forms of interaction in the widest possible sense. Rather than constituting an economic base to which everything else might be reduced, these modes of exchange—which Karatani labelled Modes A, B, C and D and described roughly as gift-giving, conquest and tribute, market relations and a higher level of the gift—encompassed both base and superstructure, or economics, politics and culture. And they did not unfold over time in a neatly ordered sequence. Rather, all four were present in every society, even if one was always dominant, prevailing over the others and thus capable of shaping relations as a whole.

Within this deceptively simple framework, Karatani was able to advance an array of extremely surprising lines of thought, including an innovative theory of the origin and the function of the state. The established approach to this issue, associated with the great Australian Marxist anthropologist V. Gordon Childe, suggested that the Neolithic age witnessed an agricultural revolution in which previously wandering hunter-gatherer tribes settled in one location and began to domesticate animals and cultivate the land. In this account, the hierarchical order of the state emerged as a way of administrating and apportioning the surplus of wealth and resources generated by this new mode of production. For Karatani, on the other hand, the state appeared when one warring nomadic tribe conquered another such tribe, compelled its members to remain within a limited territory and designed an apparatus that could both collect tribute and redistribute a portion of the wealth among a class of local collaborators. Here the state was not an ideological superstructure resting on top of an economic base. It was instead one element of a particular mode of exchange. More accurately, the appearance of the state represented the moment when the gift-giving economy of what Karatani called Mode A gave way to the conquest and tribute of what he called Mode B. That in turn helped to explain the astonishing durability of the state form—and the fact that it had outlasted both the Marxist prediction that, following a proletarian revolution, it would somehow ‘wither away’ and the neoliberal fantasy that it would get absorbed into a digitally networked, economically frictionless global civil society.

If the diagnosis set out in The Structure of World History was often powerful and compelling, the prognosis was somewhat less impressive. In essence, by shifting from modes of production to modes of exchange, Karatani also deprived himself of the established Marxist explanation for social change, or the notion that revolutions in the way humans create wealth necessarily generate revolutions in political and cultural life as well. Instead, he held that economics, politics and culture were inextricably combined, resulting in what he dubbed the ‘Borromean knot’ of ‘Capital-Nation-State’. And this, he thought, was a knot wound so tight that only a ‘world revolution’—including a world-wide rejection of the state form and of any centralised monopoly on violence or public authority—could possibly cut through it, or herald the advent of a new social formation governed by the elusive Mode D. And indeed, Karatani frequently seemed to suggest that such a revolution was impending, and that it represented the horizon of our current experience. But owing to the nature of his argument, and the ontology that it presupposed, he could attribute this monumental change to neither historical necessity nor human initiative. The only thing anyone could really do, then, was wait. And the handful of strategic recommendations Karatani was willing to advance—which included things like consumer boycotts, small-scale alternative economic orders and support for the United Nations—seemed decidedly uninspired.

But these qualifications notwithstanding, what struck me most when I initially read Karatani’s book in 2014—what appeared most unfamiliar, most iconoclastic, and in a sense most liberating to me—was not so much any aspect of the argument itself as it was Karatani’s willingness to speak about ‘world history’ at all, and the unapologetic confidence with which he did so. For having attended graduate school in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had been trained in what turned out to be the twilight years of so-called postmodernism. And the central tenet of that school of thought—or at least the one principle to which everyone who used the word would have been willing to ascribe—was what Jean-François Lyotard famously dubbed ‘an incredulity towards metanarratives’. Blamed for the countless political disasters of the twentieth century, and especially the disasters of totalitarianism, universal accounts of humanity and its history were universally renounced. Instead of totalising grand narratives, which were presented to us as authoritarian by definition, we were to turn our attention to the local, the situated, the particular, the discrete, the contingent, the marginal and everything that Lyotard sought to capture with the phrase ‘little stories’ or ‘petit recits’. For his part, Karatani not only failed to fall in line with these postmodern marching orders, he wrote as if the orders had never been issued in the first place. Thus the object of his study was nothing less than the entirety of human history. And he openly characterised that history as both emancipatory and teleological, or directed towards the goal of human freedom.

What I did not quite understand at the time, and what has become increasingly obvious to me in the years since, is the extent to which Karatani’s expansive approach to history was itself part of an historical development—a turn or a return among scholars to what the early-twentieth-century French historian Fernand Braudel described as ‘la longue durée’, and the subordination of historical individuals and historical events to protracted periods or epochs. No doubt some of this is merely the effect of the inevitable ebb and flow of academic fashion, and the obligation that every new generation has to rebel against the work of its predecessors. Anyone pursuing a research career in the contemporary university—which, like almost every other contemporary institution, has been thoroughly captured by the spirit of entrepreneurialism—knows how pointless it would be to set out to confirm what is already established. But something more fundamental seems to be at stake as well: not only an intellectual trend, but a shift in our awareness of what history involves, and of our place within it.

The earliest, most explicit and most ostentatious example of the development I am describing here is undoubtedly the phenomenon known as ‘Big History’. The person typically credited with having initiated this movement is the Australian historian David Christian, who began teaching a subject on the topic at Macquarie University as early as 1989. The idea here—which has since developed into a major field of academic research and even something of an educational movement, supported by the Bill Gates Foundation and taught in high schools throughout the world—is to jettison traditional distinctions, not only between history and prehistory but also, and much more importantly, between nature and culture, or the history of the universe on the one side and the history of human beings on the other. Thus the Big Historians enlist the tools of the physical sciences and speculative cosmology to tell a story that extends from the Big Bang to Artificial Intelligence—a narrative that is typically broken down into a series of stages punctuated by what Christian calls ‘threshold moments’, or crucial periods of innovation and change that result in ever greater levels of complexity.

The virtue of this approach is that it acknowledges that human existence cannot be separated from the natural and physical environments in which it emerges and thrives, extending all the way back to the formation of the universe, of stars, of compound chemicals, and of the earth and its atmosphere. The vice is its tendency to reinstate the very humanism it was designed to challenge, or to suggest that the entire universe has somehow been directed from the beginning to arrive at us, and that in its march towards complexity we humans are the most complex thing that it has managed to cough up. This is the kind of absurd anthropocentric hubris that the young Friedrich Nietzsche correctly lampooned in his blistering attack on the universal historians of the nineteenth century, ‘On The Use and Abuse of History for Life’. It is, as Nietzsche proposed, the folly of a species that has acquired just enough knowledge to become aware of its own insignificance and that rebels impotently against the disturbing consequences of its own deepest insight.

Of course, Nietzsche’s goal was not to renounce the study of history as such. It was instead to suggest that we should evaluate histories less on the basis of their comprehensiveness or accuracy than on the basis of what they contribute to the advancement of life, and to the human capacity for creativity and growth. If this is the proper measure, the most interesting large-scale history to appear in recent years is probably David Graeber and David Wengrow’s celebrated and controversial 2021 book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. For Graeber and Wengrow’s chief purpose there is to provide a kind of history without historicism, as it were—or without any sense that human society advances through historically determined stages that lead from our simple primitive origins to our higher and more sophisticated present. Thus, and like Karatani, Graeber and Wengrow also reject the Marxist notion of modes of production and any sense that any given society’s political and cultural forms are given by its economic base. But unlike Karatani, they do not replace modes of production with another, equally deterministic narrative framework such as modes of exchange. Rather, by gathering together an enormous amount of new research on the last 30,000 years of human existence (and especially the last 12,000, or the period since the most recent Ice Age), they show that human societies have been organised—or rather, have organised themselves—in an incredibly wide array of fashions. As they see it, in other words, what is striking about the history of human communities is not how well they conform to a recognisable pattern, but how frequently they break with established patterns, veer off in entirely unpredictable directions and invent new ways of being together.

Graeber and Wengrow’s central commitment in this respect is to the human imagination, and especially the human capacity for public deliberation and collective decision-making, which they take to be alive throughout all human history and across all human cultures (with the possible exception of our own). ‘Social science’, they maintain, ‘has largely been the study of the ways in which human beings are not free: the way that our actions and understandings might be said to be determined by forces outside of our control’. This has been particularly true when it comes to Europeans speculating on the lives of non-European peoples. But ‘why’, they wonder at another moment, ‘does it seem so odd, even counter-intuitive, to imagine people of the remote past as making their own history (even if not under conditions of their own choosing)?’ As a corrective to this deterministic bias, they propose ‘to set the dial a bit further to the left than usual and to explore the possibility that human beings have more collective say over their destiny than we ordinarily assume’. But the point here is not to suggest that historical peoples lived in some kind of bucolic state of nature, any more than it is to suggest that they endured a brutal war of all against all. Explicitly repudiating both Rousseau and Hobbes, Graeber and Wengrow propose that a society’s political form is the product not of some fixed human nature, but of free decisions. In other words, as they put it, ‘People have always been hierarchical. People have always been egalitarian’. The difference is a question of ‘choice’.

One of Karatani’s more intriguing claims is that new modes of exchange first become dominant not in the centres of civilisation but on the periphery, or what he calls the ‘margins’ and ‘submargins’. His example is the development of Mode C, or market relations, which he maintains initially took hold in Europe not because Europe was the most economically or technologically advanced place on earth, but precisely because of its distance from the great empires of the east, where Mode B reigned over all the others. Graeber and Wengrow make a similar, if more radical, deflationary argument about the European Enlightenment, which they suggest was in many ways a response to the self-conscious political rationality that Jesuit missionaries encountered among the Indigenous peoples of North America, and the critique of European civilisation developed by Indigenous visitors to the continent. By this account, Rousseau’s invention of the figure of the ‘noble savage’ was a convoluted effort to protect the myth of European civilisational superiority by ascribing uncivilised virtues to the people of North America, as if they had not experienced civilisation in the European sense and decided against it.

The obvious question at this point is: if, for almost all of our history, humans have creatively and continuously improvised new ways of living in common and wilfully abandoned experiments that failed, why has that process stagnated so completely in the modern world? Why, in other words, have human political arrangements become so uniform and intractable? While Graeber and Wengrow conclude The Dawn of Everything with an effort to address this question, it is not entirely clear that they can provide an answer without reverting to the determinism they want to reject. That is to say, unless modern humans decided to live in repressive modern states, with mounting inequality, fundamental power imbalances and generalised political dissatisfaction, some historical force beyond our conscious control must have compelled us to do so. So, boring as it may appear, the real answer is probably some combination of the determinism represented by Karatani and the voluntarism promulgated by Graeber and Wengrow. Or, to reiterate Graeber and Wengrow’s paraphrase of Marx, we humans make our own history, just not under the conditions of our own choosing.

But what about the second issue that I mentioned at the outset—not only the changing ways we write and think about history, but the changing ways in which we experience history and our place within it? And how might the two be related? While any serious effort to address these issues would require a much longer investigation, I would like to conclude this piece with a brief consideration of one recent book that, I think, opens them up in insightful ways: Robert Macfarlane’s 2019 Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Underland consists primarily of Macfarlane’s first-person accounts of travelling to sites where humans, both prehistoric and modern, have buried or built or left or discovered something just beneath the surface of the earth—not buried deep, that is to say, but covered over like a secret on the verge of being exposed. For our purposes here, two of Macfarlane’s journeys—recounted in the chapters titled ‘Red Dancers (Lofoten, Norway)’ and ‘The Hiding Place (Olkiluoto, Finland)’ respectively—are particularly salient, for they are both concerned with the human relationship with historical time.

In ‘Red Dancers’, Macfarlane makes a treacherous journey to a cave in Norway’s Lofoten archipelago called Kollhellaren (literally ‘hell hole’) in the hopes of seeing paintings of dancing red figures left there by the inhabitants of Lofoten somewhere between 2500 and 4000 years ago. He compares the Red Dancers to the much more famous and elaborate Lascaux cave paintings in southern France, and quotes John Berger’s beautiful words: ‘Art, it would seem, is born like a foal, that can walk straight away’. But the Red Dancers are in an impossibly remote location in an impossibly inhospitable environment, where mere survival would have required enormous resources. And yet, 3000 years ago, the inhabitants made the same journey that almost kills Macfarlane. And for what purpose? It seems to exceed all order of reason, function, or utility—including all economic calculation, or any contribution to a mode of production. At any rate, when Macfarlane eventually encounters the Red Dancers, what he recognises in them—what gets communicated across history—is less any specific content, message or meaning than it is a kind of fundamental aesthetic drive or a desire to create. And that drive or desire opens up the possibility of historical experience.

In ‘The Hiding Place’, Macfarlane’s destination is also underground—a nuclear waste storage facility on Olkiluoto Island in Finland. Here the issue is also a trace of human activity that will last through history—specifically the waste contained in the facility, which will remain deadly for not hundreds, not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of years, or long after the human species either disappears or evolves into something entirely distinct. The engineers commissioned with the task of designing the structures that will contain the material are thus involved in what Macfarlane describes as ‘post-human architecture’. But beyond that engineering problem, there is an arguably more difficult moral and semiotic problem. For surely we have an ethical obligation to warn any future generations about the danger of the site—but how do we communicate across hundreds of thousands of years? How do we imagine a future audience that will not only not speak our language, or any language currently being spoken today, but that may not speak any language at all, may not be human, and may even be alien or interterrestrial? In other words, how does one build a posthuman archive?

As I suggested at the outset, our renewed credulity towards metanarratives, or renewed interest in something like ‘la longue durée’, is almost certainly bound up with our awareness of human impact on the planet and its environment, the existential crisis it represents and the paucity of postmodern ‘little stories’ in the face of it. But what Macfarlane seems to be gesturing towards here is a human-created time-scale to which no established concept of history is adequate. Both Karatani’s The Structure of World History and Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything are exclusively concerned with human history and human time, and even the Big Historians are only interested in the vast expanses of the past insofar as they shed light on an eminently human present. But what kind of history could possibly take account of a posthuman future? Are we still historical creatures under those conditions? Do we become subject to an historical vertigo of our own invention? Or conversely, is at least some reflection on that outside boundary of the historical—some reflection on that which eludes the historian’s gaze—a necessary aspect of any contemporary approach to history? What are the uses, and what are the abuses, of history for life today?

About the author

Charles Barbour

Charles Barbour is Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and a School-Based Member of the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. He works primarily on intellectual history, contemporary political theory, and the philosophy of technology.

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