Balance of Egalitarianism and Hierarchy

David Graeber, an anthropologist, and David Wengrow, an archaeologist, have a theory about hunter-gatherer societies having cycled between egalitarianism and hierarchy. That is to say hierarchies were temporary and often seasonal. There was no permanent leadership or ruling caste, as seen in the fluid social order of still surviving hunter. This carried over into the early settlements that were initially transitory meeting places, likely for feasts and festivals.

There are two questions that need to be answered. First, why did humans permanently settle down? Second, why did civilization get stuck in hierarchy? These questions have to be answered separately. For millennia into civilization, the egalitarian impulse persisted within many permanent settlements. There was no linear development from egalitarianism to hierarchy, no fall from the Garden of Eden.

Julian Jaynes, in his theorizing about the bicameral mind, offered a possible explanation. A contributing factor for permanent settlements would be because the speaking idols had to be kept in a single location with agriculture developing as a later result. Then as societies became more populous, complex and expansive, hierarchies (as with moralizing gods) became more important to compensate for the communal limits of a voice-hearing social order.

That kind of hierarchy, though, was a much later development, especially in its extreme forms not seen until the Axial Age empires. The earlier bicameral societies had a more communal identity. That would’ve been true on the level of experience, as even the voices people heard were shared. There wasn’t an internal self separate from the communal identity and so no conflict between the individual member and larger society. One either fully belonged to and was immersed in that culture or not.

Large, complex hierarchies weren’t needed. Bicameralism began in small settlements that lacked police, court systems, standing armies, etc — all the traits of an oppressively authoritarian hierarchy that would later be seen, such as the simultaneous appearance of sexual moralizing and pornographic art. It wasn’t the threat of violent force by centralized authority and concentrated power that created and maintained the bicameral order but, as still seen with isolated indigenous tribes, shared identity and experience.

An example of this is that of early Egyptians. They were capable of impressive technological feats and yet they didn’t even have basic infrastructure like bridges. It appears they initially were a loose association of farmers organized around the bicameral culture of archaic authorization and, in the off-season, they built pyramids without coercion. Slavery was not required for this, as there is no evidence of forced labor.

In so many ways, this is alien to the conventional understanding of civilization. It is so radically strange that to many it seems impossible, especially when it gets described as ‘egalitarian’ in placing it in a framework of modern ideas. Mention primitive ‘communism’ or ‘anarchism’ and you’ll really lose most people. Nonetheless, however one wants to describe and label it, this is what the evidence points toward.

Here is another related thought. How societies went from bicameral mind to consciousness is well-trodden territory. But what about how bicameralism emerged from animism? They share enough similarities that I’ve referred to them as the animistic-bicameral complex. The bicameral mind seems like a variant or extension of the voice-hearing in animism.

Among hunter-gatherers, it was often costume and masks through which gods, spirits, and ancestors spoke. Any individual potentially could become the vessel of possession because, in the animistic view, all the world is alive with voices. So, how did this animistic voice-hearing become narrowed down to idol worship of corpses and statues?

I ask this because this is central to the question of why humans created permanent settlements. A god-king’s voice of authorization was so powerful that it persisted beyond his death. The corpse was turned into a mummy, as his voice was a living memory that kept speaking, and so god-houses were built. But how did the fluid practice of voice-hearing in animism become centralized in a god-king?

Did this begin with the rise of shamanism? Some hunter-gatherers don’t have shamans. But once the role of shaman becomes a permanent authority figure mediating with other realms, it’s not a large leap from a shaman-king to a god-king who could be fully deified in death. In that case, how did shamanism act as a transitional proto-bicameralism? In this, we might begin to discern the hitch upon which permanent hierarchy eventually got stuck.

I might point out that there is much disagreement in this area of scholarship, as expected. The position of Graeber and Wengrow is highly contested, even among those offering alternative interpretations of the evidence see Peter Turchin (An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution & A Feminist Perspective on Human Social Evolution) and Camilla Power (Gender egalitarianism made us human: patriarchy was too little, too late & Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’).

But I don’t see the disagreements as being significant for the purposes here. Here is a basic point that Turchin explains: “The reason we say that foragers were fiercely egalitarian is because they practiced reverse dominance hierarchy” (from first link directly above). That seems to go straight to the original argument. Many other primates have social hierarchy, although not all. Some of the difference appears to be cultural, in that humans early in evolution appear to have developed cultural methods of enforcing egalitarianism. This cultural pattern has existed long enough to have fundamentally altered human nature.

According to Graeber and Wengrow, these egalitarian habits weren’t lost easily, even as society became larger and more complex. Modern authoritarian hierarchies represent a late development, a fraction of a percentage of human existence. They are far outside the human norm. In social science experiments, we see how the egalitarian impulse persists. Consider two examples. Children will naturally help those in need, until someone pays them money to do so, shifting from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic. The other study showed how most people, both children an adults, will choose to punish wrongdoers even at personal cost.

This in-built egalitarianism is an old habit that doesn’t die easily no matter how it is suppressed or perverted by systems of authoritarian power. It is the psychological basis of a culture of trust that permanent hierarchies take advantage of through manipulation of human nature. The egalitarian impulse gets redirected in undermining egalitarianism. This is why modern societies are so unstable, as compared to the ancient societies that lasted for millennia.

That said, there is nothing wrong with genuine authority, expertise, and leadership — as seen even in the most radically egalitarian societies like the Piraha. Hierarchies are also part of our natural repertoire and only problematic when they fall out of balance with egalitarianism and so become entrenched. One way or another, human societies cycle between hierarchy and egalitarianism, whether it cycles on a regular basis or necessitates collapse. That is the point Walter Scheidel makes in his book, The Great Leveler. High inequality destabilizes society and always brings its own downfall.

We need to relearn that balance, if we hope to avoid mass disaster. Egalitarianism is not a utopian ideal. It’s simply the other side of human nature that gets forgotten.

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Archaeology, anarchy, hierarchy, and the growth of inequality
by Andre Costopoulos

In some ways, I agree with both Graeber and Wengrow, and with Turchin. Models of the growth of social inequality have indeed emphasized a one dimensional march, sometimes inevitable, from virtual equality and autonomy to strong inequality and centralization. I agree with Graeber and Wengrow that this is a mistaken view. Except I think humans have moved from strong inequality, to somewhat managed inequality, to strong inequality again.

The rise and fall of equality

Hierarchy, dominance, power, influence, politics, and violence are hallmarks not only of human social organization, but of that of our primate cousins. They are widespread among mammals. Inequality runs deep in our lineage, and our earliest identifiable human ancestors must have inherited it. But an amazing thing happened among Pleistocene humans. They developed strong social leveling mechanisms, which actively reduced inequality. Some of those mechanisms are still at work in our societies today: Ridicule at the expense of self-aggrandizers, carnival inversion as a reminder of the vulnerability of the powerful, ostracism of the controlling, or just walking away from conflict, for example.

Understanding the growth of equality in Pleistocene human communities is the big untackled project of Paleolithic archaeology, mostly because we assume they started from a state of egalitarianism and either degenerated or progressed from there, depending on your lens. Our broader evolutionary context argues they didn’t.

During the Holocene, under increasing sedentism and dependence on spatially bounded resources such as agricultural fields that represent significant energy investments, these mechanisms gradually failed to dampen the pressures for increasing centralization of power. However, even at the height of the Pleistocene egalitarian adaptation, there were elites if, using Turchin’s figure of the top one or two percent, we consider that the one or two most influential members in a network of a hundred are its elite. All the social leveling in the world could not contain influence. Influence, in the end, if wielded effectively, is power.

Ancient ‘megasites’ may reshape the history of the first cities
by Bruce Bower

No signs of a centralized government, a ruling dynasty, or wealth or social class disparities appear in the ancient settlement, the researchers say. Houses were largely alike in size and design. Excavations yielded few prestige goods, such as copper items and shell ornaments. Many examples of painted pottery and clay figurines typical of Trypillia culture turned up, and more than 6,300 animal bones unearthed at the site suggest residents ate a lot of beef and lamb. Those clues suggest daily life was much the same across Nebelivka’s various neighborhoods and quarters. […]

Though some of these sprawling sites had social inequality, egalitarian cities like Nebelivka were probably more widespread several thousand years ago than has typically been assumed, says archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London. Ancient ceremonial centers in China and Peru, for instance, were cities with sophisticated infrastructures that existed before any hints of bureaucratic control, he argues. Wengrow and anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics and Political Science also made that argument in a 2018 essay in Eurozine, an online cultural magazine.

Councils of social equals governed many of the world’s earliest cities, including Trypillia megasites, Wengrow contends. Egalitarian rule may even have characterized Mesopotamian cities for their first few hundred years, a period that lacks archaeological evidence of royal burials, armies or large bureaucracies typical of early states, he suggests.

How to change the course of human history
by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Simply framing the question this way means making a series of assumptions, that 1. there is a thing called ‘inequality,’ 2. that it is a problem, and 3. that there was a time it did not exist. Since the financial crash of 2008, of course, and the upheavals that followed, the ‘problem of social inequality’ has been at the centre of political debate. There seems to be a consensus, among the intellectual and political classes, that levels of social inequality have spiralled out of control, and that most of the world’s problems result from this, in one way or another. Pointing this out is seen as a challenge to global power structures, but compare this to the way similar issues might have been discussed a generation earlier. Unlike terms such as ‘capital’ or ‘class power’, the word ‘equality’ is practically designed to lead to half-measures and compromise. One can imagine overthrowing capitalism or breaking the power of the state, but it’s very difficult to imagine eliminating ‘inequality’. In fact, it’s not obvious what doing so would even mean, since people are not all the same and nobody would particularly want them to be.

‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society. That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.

Mainstream social science now seems mobilized to reinforce this sense of hopelessness.

Rethinking cities, from the ground up
by David Wengrow

Settlements inhabited by tens of thousands of people make their first appearance in human history around 6,000 years ago. In the earliest examples on each continent, we find the seedbed of our modern cities; but as those examples multiply, and our understanding grows, the possibility of fitting them all into some neat evolutionary scheme diminishes. It is not just that some early cities lack the expected features of class divisions, wealth monopolies, and hierarchies of administration. The emerging picture suggests not just variability, but conscious experimentation in urban form, from the very point of inception. Intriguingly, much of this evidence runs counter to the idea that cities marked a ‘great divide’ between rich and poor, shaped by the interests of governing elites.

In fact, surprisingly few early cities show signs of authoritarian rule. There is no evidence for the existence of monarchy in the first urban centres of the Middle East or South Asia, which date back to the fourth and early third millennia BCE; and even after the inception of kingship in Mesopotamia, written sources tell us that power in cities remained in the hands of self-governing councils and popular assemblies. In other parts of Eurasia we find persuasive evidence for collective strategies, which promoted egalitarian relations in key aspects of urban life, right from the beginning. At Mohenjo-daro, a city of perhaps 40,000 residents, founded on the banks of the Indus around 2600 BCE, material wealth was decoupled from religious and political authority, and much of the population lived in high quality housing. In Ukraine, a thousand years earlier, prehistoric settlements already existed on a similar scale, but with no associated evidence of monumental buildings, central administration, or marked differences of wealth. Instead we find circular arrangements of houses, each with its attached garden, forming neighbourhoods around assembly halls; an urban pattern of life, built and maintained from the bottom-up, which lasted in this form for over eight centuries.⁶

A similar picture of experimentation is emerging from the archaeology of the Americas. In the Valley of Mexico, despite decades of active searching, no evidence for monarchy has been found among the remains of Teotihuacan, which had its magnificent heyday around 400 CE. After an early phase of monumental construction, which raised up the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, most of the city’s resources were channelled into a prodigious programme of public housing, providing multi-family apartments for its residents. Laid out on a uniform grid, these stone-built villas — with their finely plastered floors and walls, integral drainage facilities, and central courtyards — were available to citizens regardless of wealth, status, or ethnicity. Archaeologists at first considered them to be palaces, until they realised virtually the entire population of the city (all 100,000 of them) were living in such ‘palatial’ conditions.⁷

A millennium later, when Europeans first came to Mesoamerica, they found an urban civilisation of striking diversity. Kingship was ubiquitous in cities, but moderated by the power of urban wards known as calpolli, which took turns to fulfil the obligations of municipal government, distributing the highest offices among a broad sector of the altepetl (or city-state). Some cities veered towards absolutism, but others experimented with collective governance. Tlaxcalan, in the Valley of Puebla, went impressively far in the latter direction. On arrival, Cortés described a commercial arcadia, where the ‘order of government so far observed among the people resembles very much the republics of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa for there is no supreme overlord.’ Archaeology confirms the existence here of an indigenous republic, where the most imposing structures were not palaces or pyramid-temples, but the residences of ordinary citizens, constructed around district plazas to uniformly high standards, and raised up on grand earthen terraces.⁸

Contemporary archaeology shows that the ecology of early cities was also far more diverse, and less centralised than once believed. Small-scale gardening and animal keeping were often central to their economies, as were the resources of rivers and seas, and indeed the ongoing hunting and collecting of wild seasonal foods in forests or in marshes, depending on where in the world we happen to be.⁹ What we are gradually learning about history’s first city-dwellers is that they did not always leave a harsh footprint on the environment, or on each other; and there is a contemporary message here too. When today’s urbanites take to the streets, calling for the establishment of citizens’ assemblies to tackle issues of climate change, they are not going against the grain of history or social evolution, but with its flow. They are asking us to reclaim something of the spark of political creativity that first gave life to cities, in the hope of discerning a sustainable future for the planet we all share.

Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’
by Gyrus

[Robert] Lowie made similar arguments to [Pierre] Clastres, about conscious knowledge of hierarchies among hunter-gatherers. However, for reasons related to his concentration on Amazonian Indians, Clastres missed a crucial point in Lowie’s work. Lowie highlighted the fact that among many foragers, such as the Eskimos in the Arctic, egalitarianism and hierarchy exist within the same society at once, cycling from one to another through seasonal social gatherings and dispersals. Based on social responses to seasonal variations in the weather, and patterns in the migration of hunted animals, not to mention the very human urge to sometimes hang out with a lot of people and sometimes to get the hell away from them, foraging societies often create and then dismantle hierarchical arrangements on a year-by-year basis.

There seems to have been some confusion about exactly what the pattern was. Does hierarchy arise during gatherings? This would tally with sociologist Émile Durkheim’s famous idea that ‘the gods’ were a kind of primitive hypothesis personifying the emergent forces that social complexity brought about. People sensed the dynamics changing as they lived more closely in greater numbers, and attributed these new ‘transcendent’ dynamics to organised supernatural forces that bound society together. Religion and cosmology thus function as naive mystifications of social forces. Graeber detailed ethnographic examples where some kind of ‘police force’ arises during tribal gatherings, enforcing the etiquette and social expectations of the event, but returning to being everyday people when it’s all over.

But sometimes, the gatherings are occasions for the subversion of social order — as is well known in civilised festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia. Thus, the evidence seemed to be confusing, and the idea of seasonal variations in social order was neglected. After the ’60s, the dominant view became that ‘simple’ egalitarian hunter-gatherers were superseded by ‘complex’ hierarchical hunter-gatherers as a prelude to farming and civilisation.

Graeber and Wengrow argue that the evidence isn’t confusing: it’s simply that hunter-gatherers are far more politically sophisticated and experimental than we’ve realised. Many different variations, and variations on variations, have been tried over the vast spans of time that hunter-gatherers have existed (over 200,000 years, compared to the 12,000 or so years we know agriculture has been around). Clastres was right: people were never naive, and resistance to the formation of hierarchies is a significant part of our heritage. However, seasonal variations in social structures mean that hierarchies may never have been a ghostly object of resistance. They have probably been at least a temporary factor throughout our long history.1 Sometimes they functioned, in this temporary guise, to facilitate socially positive events — though experience of their oppressive possibilities usually encouraged societies to keep them in check, and prevent them from becoming fixed.

How does this analysis change our sense of the human story? In its simplest form, it moves the debate from ‘how and when did hierarchy arise?’ to ‘how and when did we get stuck in the hierarchical mode?’. But this is merely the first stage in what Graeber and Wengrow promise is a larger project, which will include analysis of the persistence of egalitarianism among early civilisations, usually considered to be ‘after the fall’ into hierarchy.