Before Organized Inequality

Updated: May 23

an Addendum to Section 6 of Democracy STRUGGLES!



Stratified inequality and the domination of vast populations by tiny elites is a very recent development for humans as we know ourselves to be. Our species, with its current capacity for creating culture, has existed for no more than three hundred thousand years, and quite likely much less. For about ninety percent of this time we all (like our most probable ancestral species: Homo Erectus) were nomadic foragers occasionally capable of organizing “great hunts”. Stratified domination is both a symptom and a driver of civilized development as it has been experienced so far. Neolithic settled agriculture does not seem to existed for more ten thousand years and is probably not much more than eight thousand years old. Civilizations, and the proto states they eventually supported, seem to have started somewhere between six and eight thousand years ago.

When considering the prospects for democracy in modern (or “postmodern”) societies as they develop in the face of crises that are more and more often self-generated, it might be important to consider at least two important aspects of our formative pre-agricultural existence. One of these potentially relevant aspects is egalitarianism. The other has to do with social and psychological mechanisms involving control of attention and effort.

Most of what we think we know about pre-Neolithic foraging communities is derived from speculation based on studies of contemporary Hunter/Gatherer societies. These scattered “remnants” are quite diverse as would be expected of human groups who successfully adapted to a wide variety of habitats, climates, and food sources. Of course, even the commonalities observed among these isolated examples cannot be categorically ascribed to any of our pre-agricultural predecessors. But speculation, firmly grounded in the best available empirical data, can provisionally be used to guide reasoned explorations and quests for understanding that may result in additional hypotheses, tests, and sources of data.

Christopher Boehm is an anthropologist who has amassed a comparative database of hundreds of existing foraging societies. He has interesting things to say about egalitarianism among male hunter/gatherers. First of all, he does not dismiss the powerful drive for domination in humans. He recognizes at least two major sources of this drive. One is based on our capacity for aggression and competition. The other is based on our capacity for nurturance. These two potential bases for dominance strategies among humans are probably related in very complex ways, but we all can recognize our own tendency to resent being dominated no matter the motive (or mixture of motives). If we are honest, we must also acknowledge our own propensity to dominate others (when we can) whether our motivation is more aggressive or nurturing.

Surely, we have all (adult or not) sometimes chafed at the nurturing dominance of caregivers even when we believe it to be legitimate - or at least well meaning. We might draw upon our own aggressive tendencies to rebuff this kind of interference. (Don’t “nanny state” me!) Or we might have other strategies - including more or less loving efforts to be reassuring about our capacity to care for ourselves. Despite various initiation rituals meant to clearly delineate certain stages of maturity, pre-agricultural societies still struggle with these issues though perhaps not as acutely as we.

Domination based on nurturance (sincere or counterfeit) can be employed by both males and females just as it can be directed towards members of either sex. Aggressive type dominance in adult homo sapiens is usually employed by males against females and other males. Adult male aggression against females can be more or less managed (but not eliminated) in various ways by forager cultures. One way is based on kinship including various approximations of what we might call the “nuclear family” in patrilineal societies, but of course this does not always protect women from their own kinsmen or monogamous partners. Another strategy involves segregating the genders, sometimes even comprehensively - except on occasions well governed by ritual for certain essential purposes.

Aggressive dominance of hunter gathering males over other males tends to be effectively countered by the communal aggression of males. Christopher Boehm estimates that 50% of intra-group homicide in forager societies (which are often quite violent in other ways too) is directed at “upstarts”. Though the male community can often regulate attempts at status seeking through shunning or ridicule (laughter frequently does the trick), there is always the ultimate sanction. This is mostly brought about by assassination by ambush, though in societies where murder is usually handled by kin revenge, dispatching troublesome bullies could be the prime motive for what we might recognize as “execution”. Boehm speculates this might be what’s depicted in a cave drawing depicting archers raising their bows in exaltation over the body of a man pierced by at least 10 arrows.

As we all should know, human societies able to generate an economic surplus invariably result in stratification which permits the rise of “strong men” and the ability of a small elite to “legitimately” dominate and exploit large populations. As far as we know there are no archaic or contemporary “civilizations” without this type of stratification and dominance. The term “civilized” usually refers to societies able (by means of a manageable food surplus) to support cities. There are also societies which might be called “civilized” (or even “states”) that do not have cities per se but are able to support a “court” of ruling elites led by some version of “king”. Then there are large communities (usually centered near prodigiously productive fisheries) which support both stratification and specialization even though they have much more in common with hunter gatherer cultures than what we call “civilizations”

All known archaic, agriculture based, civilized “states” had kings and priestly castes. These kings often had their “state” voluntarily bestowed upon them by the priestly caste alone (priest kings). But sometimes they earned (or seized) their predominance through their ability to command armed men and win victories (warrior kings). In either case the support of the priestly class was essential for their long-term legitimacy. Rule by fear alone is generally short lived and/or unlikely to be transferred to a new generation. But kings, even when firmly legitimated by a priestly caste, frequently feel the need to employ armed coercion (which can sometimes rise to the level of “terror tactics”) against elements of their subject population.

The human drive for dominance well predates our own species and even our own genus and family (all other hominids). It dates back to the origins of great apes and maybe deep into our order (primates which includes all apes, monkeys and some other species). Our ways of controlling attention (on the individual, group and cultural level) probably have even deeper roots. These “ways”, taken together, may be the primary defining factor of all hominids even though our species is the only one extant in both our evolutionary family and our genus “homo”.

The allure in enchantment can be delightful, inspiring, sinful, sinister, or dreadful. But to be disenchanted is to be alone, let down, exposed to some presumed reality with all its stark harshness or emptiness. To be disenchanted could mean being left open and vulnerable to the pallid or rageful insinuations of reason. An enchantment might be an individual’s only protection from the most primordial terrors the psyche, the most horrifying elaborations of the imagination, the most lethal contingencies of natural world, or the sternest sanctions of a shared culture.

Enchantments can safeguard an individual whether alone or in the very thick of human bustle. But enchantments, for good or ill, can also take an individual outside of herself into the collective - and even into the cosmos or beyond. And some enchantments may captivate a wan lone soul to be set forever apart, walking only ghostlike among his kin.

The word “enchantment” has its root in song. Prosody and melody may be carried alone within a single soul, but (aside from specially cultivated throat singing, and the yodeling echoes of stony spaces) harmony requires more than one voice. The etymology of the word “chorus” holds additional intrigue. The English conflation with “choir” goes back only to the 1600s. In Latin, a chorus was a circle dance. The Greek word refers to an enclosed area for dancing, but also to the dancers within. And in Greek drama the dancers intermittently gave voice to the communal values enacted in performance. But speculative roots for “chorus” hint at deeper origins in verbs that once meant either “to grasp” or “to rejoice”. Of course, a combination of both meanings could be valid for describing ecstatic immersions.

There are few species able to combine controlled singing and dance in the way of humans. Raucous communal circle and line dancing among apes has been noted by anthropologists, but whether or not this mimics observed human behavior, other primates demonstrate nothing like our ability to coordinate movements in groups or pairs. Only a few bird species exhibit anything like our control over pitch, volume, and rhythm when vocalizing. But when observing apes engaged in what seems to be somewhat patterned dance and shout, it is at least forgivable for us to infer some degree of communal bonding (and perhaps even some basic form of collective “meaning”) in their celebrational antics.

Again, everything is speculative, but the case has been made that human religion and language have some basis in the syntax and symbolism of communal song and dance. And the musical ceremonies drummed up in known hunter gatherer societies and pre-modern agricultural communities have a relatively clear positive effect on social bonding. Ethnographic studies and even primary source accounts from individuals native to the Americas, Australia, Hawaii, as well as the Arctic and tundra also support claims that such ceremonies, often lasting from several days to several months, are experienced as ways to contact, conjure, enact, or give rise to powerful spiritual beings (or states of being).

These aspects of human culture are powerful ways of sharing and coordinating attention and effort. Their “spell” retains its potency well beyond immediate social contact in space or time. It’s compelling to consider how pallid is the “rational” linear exposition of prosaic language when compared to the more visceral urgencies evoked by strenuous participation in music and drama. It’s also beyond question that body language and voice inflection are often much more communicative than text or even spoken language. The intended content of our words and sentences, even when well supported by “facts” and “logic”, can be easily defeated by non-verbal cues we exhibit unconsciously.

The communicative aspects of language, physical coordination, mimicry, memory, and symbolism form one large assemblage of our capacity for cultural coordination which seems quite unique to our evolutionary phylum. But our capacity for technology also sets us apart. No doubt mimicry and memory as they are encoded, enhanced, and extended by language-based systems play an important role in transferring and developing technology, but there is also another component of attention control that should be considered.

The notion of “hyper-focus” has been explored (originally?) in the context of studying autism and also in what is somewhat paradoxically referred to as “attention ‘deficit’ syndrome”. But aren’t both of these examples of human behavior which sometimes frustrate the social (or authoritarian) direction of attention? The ability to autonomously control sustained attention and effort on a prolonged task may well have been essential for elaborate forms of technology - even those that seem primitive to us. Anthropologists confirm the time and difficulty involved in mastering the skills involved to craft Acheulean hand-axes, a technology that was dominant for the vast majority of human history. Regardless of how communal it may have been, it’s difficult to imagine persisting in the learning or execution processing without a great deal of self-control.

Hyper-focus, largely external to social constraint, has been described as an “ADHD superpower” found among certain very successful scientists, artists and writers. It has also been identified with what are described a “flow” states in which individuals seem to lose themselves, happily captivated, in some absorbing mental or physical activity. Such states are reasonably well documented and are apparently actively cultivated in certain religious or mystical disciplines.

The self-abnegating transcendences and captivations of “enchantment” can be frightful or even destructive. In both their communal and autistic forms, they also seem to provide exhilarating benefits often experienced as life enhancing and primal sources of “meaning”. Their power with regard to attention and effort may be critical to the maintenance and enhancement of human culture. Reason’s persuasiveness and the efficacy of language can be easily dwarfed by their visceral and vigorous allure of their potency and vigor. They are beckoning captivations whose perils often seem inconsequential compared to their promised delights.

None of the powerful ancestral mechanisms for enforcing equality and for controlling attention are determinative to understanding the prospects for modern democracy. The brutal forms of aggressive dominance displayed by great apes is not a viable strategy for long term survival in any human society. Communal male counter aggression may now be potently supplanted by collective pressures from females (who may well have always played an important, if not “dominant” role in how our species began the process of domesticating itself long before we commenced the domestication of other species.) The reach and intrusiveness of contemporary organs of culture are replete with potentials to enhance elite domination, to support collectively controlled institutions coordinated by democratic processes, and to promote individual autonomy, freedom, and alienation. The history of liberal republics demonstrates these are not necessarily mutually exclusive because they can, at least, coexist for generations.

Formal democracy is a recent and elaborate overlay onto very complex institutional frameworks essential for modern and archaic states. Democracy, to survive and continue to fulfill its potential, will require much more extensive cultivation of commonly held rational, critical, and empirical capacities. There is no guarantee any society will ever be able to successfully accomplish this even if the necessary potentials were sufficiently distributed throughout enough of its population. These are open questions. But if democracy is ever to live long and prosper, its proponents must be as cognizant as possible of the primal motivational wellsprings so demonstrably available to plutocrats, autocrats - and maniacs.

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