Audio Podcast (if you’re on a laptop/desktop this link will open up the YouTube channel)
rss feed (copy and paste into your podcast app to add it)
BIBLIOGRAPHY (TRANSCRIPT FOLLOWS):
“The causes and scope of political egalitarianism during the Last Glacial” by Doron Schulnitzer et al., 2010 in Biology and Philosophy N° 25
Hierarchy in the Forest, by Christopher Boehm, 1999
The Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, by Richard Lee 1984/2012
”Eating Christmas in the Kalahari”, by Richard Lee, 1969
The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull, 1961
Wayward Servants, by Colin Turnbull, 1965
“Taming Wild-Ass Colts” by Nancy Nienhuis, 2009 in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 25, No 1. pp. 43-64
Myths of Male Dominance, edited by Eleanor Leacock, 1981
Chimpanzee Politics, by Franz de Waal, 2007
The Hadza Hunter-Gatherers, by Frank Marlowe, 2010
The Foraging Spectrum, by Robert L. Kelly, 2013
”Farewell to the Childhood of Man”, by David Graeber & David Wengrow, 2015 (see episode 7 for why their thesis is wrong and their political project is misguided).
6. HIERARCHY, EQUALITY AND HUMAN SOCIETIES
Hello and welcome back to What is Politics,
For the past few episodes we’ve been talking about the political left and right, which refers to political equality vs political hierarchy – in other words class conflict, conflict between the different ranks of the various political, economic, cultural and international hierarchies that structure our social and political world.
Over the next couple of episodes, we’re going to do some political anthropology and look at where human hierarchy comes from. Why are there societies where some people have more resources, more rights and more decision-making power than others? Why are there societies where men dominate women? Have there ever been any societies where everyone was equal, and if so why?
Is the left wing dream of human political equality something that is possible, or is forever doomed to fail forever because hierarchy is so deep in our lobster chimpanzee monkey man DNA, or because conditions make it impossible?
As we’ll see, hierarchy and equality are all about bargaining power – who has it, who knows they have it, and who knows how to use it.
If we look around us today, we find a world full of hierarchies.
We have political hierarchies where some people give orders and others take orders – owners over employees, government over citizens, masters over slave. We have economic hierarchies where some people have extraordinary wealth, and others are destitute and starving. We have cultural hierarchies where some culturally determined categories of people have more rights or power than other categories of people: men over women, white over black, brahmins over untouchables, citizens over immigrants, catholics over protestants, atheists over religious people. And we have international or interpolity hierarchies where some countries or tribes dominate others.
And all of these hierarchies intertwine with eachother and reinforce eachother in different ways. Having more wealth gives you more power to boss more people around. Being part of a privileged cultural category or an imperial nation gives you more access to wealth, and being a member of a subjugated one prevents you from accessing as much wealth or sometimes even prevents you from having any wealth at all.
When we look at history, we see the same state of affairs – an endless variety of hierarchies – kings over lords over serfs, patricians over plebs, masters over slaves, tribal chiefs and shamans over ordinary tribespeople, pharoahs, aztec emperor gods and the Fuhr over everyone else.
Even when we look at societies which were supposed to be founded on the basis of equality, like the former USSR, China, Cuba, Vietnam and all of the defunct 20th century communist countries, we just see variations the same political, economic, cultural and international hierarchies. Communist party secretary general over the nomenklatura over lower ranking party members over non-party members, with corresponding, hierarchies of income and pay, atheists over religious people, urban people over peasants, bosses over workers, etc.
Looking at all this we would get the impression that human beings are naturally hierarchical animals – that hierarchy is deep in our genes, like the lobsters like Doctor Professor Jordan Peterson likes to talk about.
Now lobsters aren’t a very useful comparison because they’re so distantly related to us, but if we look at our closest relatives, our closest great ape cousins – gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, we see that they’re also all organized into to hierarchies. Among chimpanzees and gorillas, strong aggressive males dominate the rest of the group, along with coalition allies, including importantly their moms. And all the members of a community can be all ranked in some way, which determines who gets access to various resources, including coercive sex.
Among bonobos, it’s coalitions of females who dominate, and they use a combination of sex and violence to maintain their positions and to control access to resources. Given than all of our closest cousins are organized in this way, anthropologists assume that our earliest common ancestor must have also been organized into to some form of dominance hierarchy.
But something interesting happened between when we branched off from the common ancestor of our great ape cousins and when we became anatomically modern humans.
Because, when we look at societies of human beings around the globe today or in recorded history who practice the same type of hunting and gathering that most of our ancestors practised for most of our existence as a species, we see that every single one of these societies shares a distinct lack of social dominance hierarchies. In fact, they seem to lack almost any kind of social hierarchy at all.
There are no fixed authority positions, no kings or chiefs or high priests that anyone is forced to obey. Men don’t even dominate women, and parents exert only light authority over their children. These societies show an astonishing level of political, economic and gender equality, alongside a very high level of personal liberty – a combination that’s supposed to be impossible according to 20th century political theorists steeped in cold war ideology.
In 1634 Father Paul Lejeune a jesuit missionary famously wrote about his encounters with the Montagnais people who who are now also known as the Innu, and who live in what is now Quebec and Labrador Canada.
On their political organization he noted
“…They have neither political organization, nor offices, nor dignities, nor any authority, for they only obey their Chief through good will toward him… All the authority of their chief is in his tongue’s end; for he is powerful in so far as he is eloquent; and, even if he kills himself talking and haranguing, he will not be obeyed unless he pleases the Savages. Also, as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the Devil to acquire wealth.” UNQUOTE
Note that the term chief is Lejeune’s, Montagnais and Naskapi had no such rank. 00
Meanwhile on personal liberty Lejeune remarked with great irritation
“They imagine that they ought by right of birth, to enjoy the liberty of Wild ass colts, rendering no homage to any one whomsoever, except when they like… Their life is passed in eating, laughing, and making sport of each other, and of all the people they know… if I questioned them about one thing, they told me about something else, only to get something to laugh and jest about; and consequently I could not know when they were speaking seriously, or when they were jesting.”
These descriptions, the lack of authority, the lack of interest in wealth accumulation, and the broad individual personal liberty, even the joking and teasing, taking the piss out of the stodgy missionary anthropologist can be found in ethnographies about hunter-gatherer societies of a particular type right up until today, who live in territories all across the world. And we also find other traits common to these societies, which LeJeune remarked on elsewhere in his account about the Montagnais and Naskapi, such as their creative intelligence and their restraint when it came to anger, which he very much admired, or else their sexual libertinism and lack of male domination which bothered him to no end.
300 + years later, and thousands of miles away, you can read ethnographies or articles about the Mbutiwho live in the Ituri rain forest in central africa, or the Ju Hoansi of the Kalahari desert in sourthern afraica, or the Hadza of the Tanzanian savannah, or the Batek who live in the Malaysian rainforest, or the Malapantāram and Paliyan who live in the forests of southern India and you’ll see the same sorts of stories reported over and over Extreme political and economic egalitarianism, lack of political authority, lots of humour, and lots of individual personal liberty.
Now what all of these cultures share in common on top these cultural traits is that they all practice the same kind of subsistence economy – a specific form of hunting and gathering that anthropologist James Woodburn called immediate return hunting and gathering, which means that people mostly consume what they hunt and gather within a couple of days without processing or storing it in some elaborate, like smoking or fermenting fish or drying fruits, and pickling vegetables to be eaten in the winter.
Immediate return foraging (and foraging is another word for hunting and gathering) is the simplest form of hunting and gathering – a more complicated variation of the foraging that our great ape cousins do – and as such it’s probably what most human beings practiced since before we were anatomically modern human being, up until the neolithic revolution which started about 12,000 years ago and totally changed humanity.
So why is it that people who practice this type of economy all seem to share so many cultural traits, across great distances from eachother, in wildly different environments from the Congolese rainforest to the kalahari desert, to the boreal forests of quebec and Labrador?
If you think about it, it shouldn’t be too surprising that people who do similar things for a living would have share similar traits – this is something that we see all around us in our daily lives:
Most fine sculptors and surgeons have a lot of patience, steady hands and an eye for detail. Successful waiters and waitresses tend to be really friendly and have good memories. A lot lawyers and CEO’s are psychopaths. All of these phenomena occur for obvious material and practical reasons which are inherent to the nature of those occupations.
And in the same way that there’s something inherent to these professions that selects for certain traits and that incentivizes people who want to succeed in those professions to adopt those winning traits, there’s something inherent about different types of subsistence economies that select for and incentivize certain cultural and even physical traits.
After all, different subsistence economies are very much like different professions – anyone who engages in immediate return foraging for a living is engaging in the same general type of activity as someone else who’s doing it, even if certain details differ.
Think of office culture for example. There are kajillions of office jobs, with several zillion office workplaces, and each workplace has its own culture – but there are some general features that are found in the cultures of most office workplaces.
Whether it’s a hip and cool horizontal wanna be tech place with swings and pogos and meditation pods, or whether it’s a dystopian fluorescent light call center office purgatory, most people who work in offices, outside of high executive positions, tend to be very conflict averse and reticent to speak their minds, or to act out on their emotions – at least at work.
And that’s because if you’re the type of person who doesn’t watch what you say, then you have a tendency to get fired in these sorts of environments. You have a group of people trapped together like sardines all day, and tensions are often bubbling, but actual direct conflict will disrupt production and profit making which is the reason why everyone is there. Managers don’t want the headache of having to deal with everyones’ disruptive feelings or with conflicts, so if you can’t keep your feelings to yourself, it’s easier just to fire you unless you’re really important to the company. So if you’re an ebullient speak your mind type of person in an environment like that you’ll soon either get fired or learn how to shut up. As a result, offices are notorious for being cesspools of passive aggression, and we have many funny takes on this aspect of office culture in TV sitcoms and movies and newspaper comics strips.
Similarly, in societies where social harmony and cooperation are essential to survival, like in hunter gatherer bands where the wrong kind of conflict at the wrong time of year can potentially lead to the collapse of a band and starvation for everyone, you will usually see a huge emphasis on restraining anger, and on avoiding conflict.
Father Lejeune characterized the Montagnais-Naskapi attitude towards anger, by recounting how the local shaman once told him “nothing can disturb me; let hunger oppress me, let my nearest relation pass to the other life, let the Hiroquois, our enemies, massacre our people, I never get angry.” And LeJeune further noted that in all his time with the Montagnais-Naskapi he only ever once heard someone say the word for “i am angry” and after that the rest of the group kept their eyes on that person for some time for fear of a potential outburst.
And you can read similar accounts about restraint of anger in ethnographies of most immediate return foragers, and also in ethnographies about other types of societies where conflict is an existential threat. Jean Briggs’ book Never in Anger about an her time with the Inuit, who practice a different type of hunting and gathering, is a classic ethnography that deals with this theme.
So lesson one from all of this is that the practical material and social conditions that we find ourselves in, affect our behaviour and our values, in that they push us toward certain kinds of behaviours and away from others. And they also select for certain types of behaviours and values and against others – selection meaning people who have those values or behaviour do better than people who don’t. They survive longer, they have more kids, or they keep their jobs if we’re talking about a work environment – while those who don’t die off or get fired. Our environment doesn’t determine every choice that every person makes, but it pushes us in certain directions, making certain choices more likely than others, particularly over the the long term. If it’s -20 outside and you need to leave the house, you’re totally free to choose to wear anything that you own or nothing at all, but I can bet that you’re going to choose to put on your warmest coat and boots and not your bikini. Cannibalism is quite rare in europe but in times of famine, it predictably goes up.
So back to immediate return hunter-gatherers. We saw what incentivizes them to restrain their anger, but what is it about their economy that incentivizes people towards extreme egalitarianism, and towards a high degree of personal liberty?
If we take a quick look at the logistics of immediate return foraging the answers are pretty straightforward.
IMMEDIATE RETURN FORAGING REALITIES
An Immediate return foraging economy involves small bands of about 10-100 people who make temporary camps for a few weeks, during which they build shelters, socialize, go off and pick berries and fruits and nuts and other wild edibles and small animals or fish that they either eat on the spot or bring back to share with their families. Hunting large animals is a major part of nomadic foraging life and the band’s nomadic migration patterns are usually based on following the migration patterns of favoured game animals.
The type of hunting that each culture engages in depends on their environment, so for example, among the hadza who hunt around the serengeti plains in east africa, or the kalihari desert bush people you have small groups of men under the age of 40 who hunt with bows and poisoned arrows and spears.
Among the Mbuti in the Ituri rainforest you have communal net hunting where men, women and sometimes even children participate all together.
Cooperation is key to survival in all sorts of ways, as people depend on eachother to help build their shelters, to watch their kids, and to hunt large game among other things.
And in all of these groups, the meat from large game animals is always shared among the entire band community no matter who does the hunting.
After a time, once most of the good food in the area has been eaten or game has moved out of hunting range, the group will decide to move on to a different location.
The decision of where to go is made more or less by consensus. People discuss it and make their case and argue, and then eventually the group makes a choice and goes. If there’s anyone who really refuses to go along, they can form a splinter band and go somewhere else if they have enough joiners to form a viable band, or else they can go join another existing group where they have friends or relatives. Splitting up is relatively easy in certain parts of the year when bands are bigger and closer together, but it can be much more dangerous during the time of year when bands are smaller and further apart, as you’re more likely to be a burden to a new band, and too many people leaving a band can end up make it too small to be viable.
The composition of each band may or may not have a core nucleus of people but in general it’s always in flux as people leave to join or visit bands with friends and family or to avoid conflicts with people they might dislike with, or else they come join for the same reasons. And these patterns of flux, and splitting and merging with other bands depending on the season or proclivities of individual members are called fission-fusion social grouping.
People will also engage in trade and exchange with neighbouring non-hunter gatherer cultures for things like agricultural foods and metal tools that they don’t produce themselves.
And although they may exchange for agricultural foods, and know how to produce agricultural foods, what defines them as hunter-gatherers is that they don’t engage in any agriculture themselves.
SO WHY EGALITARIANISM?
So based on this:
Why is there so much political equality and liberty in societies that practice this sort of economy? And note that like I mentioned in episode 4 and 5, contrary to cold war propaganda, liberty is not the opposite of equality – liberty and equality usually go hand in hand – because if everyone has an equal say no one is bossing anyone around, so there is more freedom – and if you don’t have liberty it means that someone is controlling what you are doing from above, which means you have some kind of hierarchy and not equality. That’s why democratic countries are more free than dictatorships are. That’s why the famous slogan of the French Revolution was Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.
Well, the reason that there’s so much political equality and so much liberty in these societies is that given the practical realities of the conditions that they live in, there’s simply no way for any person or coalition of people to really dominate anyone else even if they wanted to.
If one of your bandmates are getting annoying or domineering you can just leave and join another band most of the time. And since the band is always moving around, there’s no way to hoard or defend resources. And even if there were some way to hoard things, there’s really nothing much to store or to hoard in the first place as anything that people need can be found or made or acquired in exchange by more or less anyone, or with cooperation of some friends, with the exception of large game which usually only certain people are physically strong enough or skilled enough to acquire.
In other words there’s just no way to make anyone dependant on anyone else, which is what you need to have a proper hierarchy. Your boss tells you what to do at work all day and not the other way around because you depend on him for your salary. When you’re a kid your parents tell you what to do because you depend on them for food and shelter and love.
So then why don’t good hunters or coalitions of good hunters leverage the meat that they bring in to dominate other people into doing things for them? Why do hunters divide up their kills among the whole community according to careful culturally determined rules instead of exchanging it for favours and services and special treatment?
Well first of all people love big game meat but they aren’t totally dependent on it for survival most of the time, so people don’t have to tolerate that kind of behaviour. Plus, since even the best hunter requires the cooperation of others for all sorts of things like building shelter or helping with childcare or help with hunting and other things, his bandmates could retaliate by refusing to cooperate with him in all sorts of ways that would undermine his ability to function.
And then on top of these material reasons, there are social and cultural pressures that fill in the gaps and keep things on track. In order to avoid a situation where good hunters are constantly testing out the limits of how much they can dominate people which would result in having people constantly retaliating against them, which would disrupt group cooperation with potentially disastrous consequences, there are various cultural mechanisms to encourage sharing and cooperation and to discourage dominance behaviour.
KALIHARI MEAT MESS
Anthropologist Richard Lee famously discovered one of these mechanisms when he tried to impress the band of kalihari ju hoansi that he had been living with by buying them what he thought would be an amazing present: a seemingly enormous giant meat ox to be shared and eaten at an upcoming christmas feast.
But to his shock when he showed off the ox to his hosts, instead of them thanking him for it, everyone in the band took turns insulting it, making jokes about it and laughing at him and his failure of a gift. One woman exclaimed “do you expect us to eat that bag of bones? What did you expect us to eat off it, the horns?”.
Later on, a young man sat him down one on one and asked him “are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck?”. And another time an old man came up to him and asked him angrily “do you honestly think you can serve meat like that to people and avoid a fight? With such a small quantity of meat to distribute, how can you give everybody a fair share?”
Lee realized this could be a big problem as he’d seen very tense moments and occasional arguments break out over meat distribution before, especially when there wasn’t enough to go around to everyone’s satisfaction.
Over the course of the next few days Lee dealt with incessant interventions like this, people telling him he got ripped off, people complaining out loud that the feast was ruined because of him, that people will be fighting for the scraps, that no one will have enough energy to dance, and that everyone will go to bed hungry.
But Lee was confused – this was a really huge ass meat ox, how could everyone be so dissatisfied with it? One of his informants, an excellent hunter Tomazo explained to him that although the ox was big, what Bushmen really love is fat, and that most of the size of that ox was just giant bones, and that he should have bought a smaller fatter ox, but that now it was too late and they would just have to make due with ox soup.
All of this made Lee feel like he had screwed up so badly that it might be a good idea for him to just leave the camp permanently and start over somewhere else.
But then, when they finally slaughtered and started cutting the animal, Lee saw that contrary to what everyone had been telling him, the ox was actually full of layers and layers of fat.
When he frantically tried to point this out to one of the band, the man yelled back at him “you call that fat? This wreck is thin, sick, dead!” after which he busted out laughing, as did everyone else, like literal rolling around on the ground laughing.
Lee stood there totally confused as the hunters whose faces seemed totally delighted and who were packing up huge pieces of meat with big satisfied smiles on their faces, were all the while were commenting about how scrawny and useless the meat was and how bad Lee’s judgment was.
A few days later he finally worked up the guts to ask some of his more trusted informants what the hell was going on, and he was told that the way that he had proudly announced his gift to everyone was considered to be an extremely arrogant faux pas, and they were responding in the appropriate manner by taking him down a few notches and putting him in his place.
He was then educated on the socially appropriate way that a good hunter is supposed to announce a big kill – basically by apologizing for having done a really bad job – and on how the ju hoansi constantly tease eachother and take eachother down in this way to keep everyone level headed.
As Tomazo the skilled young hunter put it to him “when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”
And when Lee irately asked him why he hadn’t told him this before, Tomazo man replied
“you never asked me!”
wah wah wah wah
The fact that these sorts of mechanisms exist in the first place suggests that dominance behaviour is a potential problem, that there is a human tendency to dominate which must be countered with culture. And that’s what much of culture is – finding ways to counter disruptive impulses, and to encourage ones that maintain the smooth continuity of the existing social order.
But – there’s one more important piece of the puzzle as to why big aggressive bully hunters don’t dominate, and why they don’t join in coalition with others like themselves to tyrannize their bandmates. After all, big chad silverback gorillas and alpha chimpanzees dominate their bandmates just by attacking them and terrorizing them until they accept their alpha status, and high ranking bonobo females rule by coalition – and if an annoyed chimpanzee or bonobo goes off to join another band, they’ll just find a different bully dominating them over there, and they’ll also find themselves at the bottom rung of a new hierarchy.
So why doesn’t this happen with human hunter-gatherer bands?
Part of the answer is the cultural levelling mechanisms that we looked at and other cultural practices and values, another part is that human forager groups have a greater need for smooth cooperation than most ape groups do where hierarchies are regularly tested and challenged – but another key part of the answer is just good old fashioned murder!
If someone really gets out of hand and starts doing things that disrupts the harmony of band life or just pisses anyone off beyond a certain point, the disruptive person can be relatively easily murdered thanks to the existence and ubiquity of lethal weapons and poisons available to men and women alike. Even the skinniest scrawniest person can kill the biggest most belligerent maniac from a safe distance with a spear, or an arrow or a poisoned dart.
According to anthropologists, once our homo ancestors developed some of these kinds of weapons starting with either homo erectus or homo habilis as far back as 2 million years ago, obnoxious alpha bullies would slowly get killed off on a regular basis, thereby weeding out aggressive physical and behavioural dominance traits that previously made alpha male chads the cock of the walk and which made social dominance hierarchy the order of the day.
So instead of getting you more sex, more food and more fun, being an aggressive bully just got you a spear in the head or a poison dart in your fool ass.
EVOLUTION OF WIMP-ASS GAYLORDS
And we can see the results of this in clearly in the archaeological record in the evolution of male bodies. You can think of evolution as an ongoing sculpture session with the grim reaper as the sculptor and his scythe of death as the chisel, and successive generations as his material.
Around the time that projectile weapons develop, all of the traits that make macho man chad alpha bullies successful in great apes and other animals – like giant canines to scare off or attack competitors, thick brow ridges to protect your face from blows from your competitors fists, large male body size vs the size of females to help you fight off male sex competitors – these traits start phasing out continually until we get to our modern form with our tiny weak girly canines, and wimpy pee wee-herman brow ridges and pathetic 15% larger males than females on average compared to over 50% larger male to female size of our real man chad gorilla and orangutan cousin kings.
Basically the alpha bullies repeatedly got killed off by their peers and those traits got progressively weeded out until we reached our current form 300,000 years ago or so.
CONTEMPORARY FORAGER CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
And, when we look at immediate return hunter gatherers today, we still see this exact same dynamic at work. Men who are aggressive, domineering, and who repeatedly cause too many fights and too much disruption will sometimes get murdered by an enemy, or their relatives will passively fail to defend them when they’re ambushed by their enemies, or else in extreme cases they will suffer capital punishment at the hands of the entire community.
Richard Lee describes a rare occurrence where the entire community ambushed and killed a disruptive three-time murderer in broad daylight.
“As he lay dying, all the men fired at him with poisoned arrows until … he looked like a porcupine.” Then, after he was dead, all the women as well as the men approached his body and stabbed him with spears, symbolically sharing the responsibility for his death. (Lee 1979:00)
Anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls these cultural levelling mechanisms plus the threat of retaliation or even capital punishment for dominance behaviour a reverse dominance hierarchy – meaning the community collectively dominates potential alpha men, preventing them from establishing any kind of hierarchy. So if you don’t like the idea of egalitarianism, you can call it reverse dominance hierarchy to feel more comfortable – same difference!
And that’s great news for communists and anarchists – not only are human beings capable of a high degree of egalitarianism, this egalitarianism was most likely the norm for much of the past 300,000 years of our existence as anatomically modern humans, and probably a lot longer than that, and it shaped our very nature a species.
And the reason for that egalitarianism, had everything to do with a relative equality of bargaining power inherent to the logistical realities of immediate return hunting.
*But* hold your horses anarchists and communists – we might be capable of equality, but we currently live in a world of endless hierarchy with only a few hundred thousand people left in egalitarian hunting and gathering societies, and zero egalitarian industrial civilizations. He did we get from there to here and is there any way to go back?
COMPLEX FORAGERS: PACIFIC NORTHWEST COAST
To answer these questions, it’s useful to look at other subsistence societies. And we can start with delayed return hunter-gatherers, also called complex hunter-gatherers. Unlike immediate return foraging which is basically one type of economy, the term “complex foragers” includes a variety of different types of economies. What they share in common is that they don’t engage in agriculture, and that they do process and store food for later use.
The various native american tribes of Pacific North West Coast such as the Haida, the Kwakwakyawakw, the Tlingit others were traditionally complex hunter-gatherers whose type of economic activity differed greatly from the immediate return foraging that we described earlier.
So Instead of following big game animals around all year, the traditional Pacific North West Coast foraging economy was centred on control over salmon and other fixed fishing territories and the surrounding areas. As a result, the various the Pacific Northwest Coast tribes were largely sedentary, living in fixed villages with long term housing and other permanent structures, though they would go on long hunting and raiding expeditions for much of the year.
The salmon territories were in and of themselves great wealth, and great wealth means there’s something to steal which means defence, and something to store which means resource management. And sedentary living and permanent housing means that you can store and defend your wealth – preserved fish, copper, blankets, and incredible art.
And fixed settlements, with wealth to protect and own, also means that it’s more complicated to just up and leave if someone is dominating you. You can’t just start your own band, and if you leave your family, you’re leaving important property behind. Marriage and divorce become more complicated because marriage starts to involve the spouses family and their access to resources and territories, so arranged marriage is incentivized to keep precious territories in the right hands and maintain one’s family’s wealth and prestige.
And stored wealth and prized territories means war and raiding and defence which incentivizes the cooperation and tight coordination of larger groups of people to defend those resources or attack others and raid them for their resources.
And the result of all this is … hierarchy. Pacific North West Coast cultures had authoritative chiefs and delineated social ranks and social classes, chiefly nobility and commoners – with social power based on wealth inequality and slaves which were people captured in raids and brought far away from where they came from, to where they had no allies and were surrounded by enemy warriors and thus had to do what they were told if they wanted access to food.
As we talked about in episode 3, hierarchy is an effective way of efficiently coordinating group activities in tasks where discipline is required, like war, and it’s also a good way to prevent conflicts over resources. When there are resources to be divided, you basically have three options: you can have equal distribution, which is really difficult if not impossible to enforce when there isn’t relatively equal bargaining power plus a need to cooperate – you can have hierarchical distribution, which will tend towards matching existing bargaining power, or else you can have constant disputes and violence as people are constantly making justifications for why they deserve a bigger share than they’re getting – you’re a poo poo face and i’m an adonis, God loves me and got hates you, i have a college degree and you can’t read, etc.
Think of the fall of the roman empire – when you no longer had a big hierarchical structure dominating and unifying all of these territories, they broke up into smaller polities of relatively equal standing who fought eachother endlessly through the middle ages until they were amalgamated into bigger polities – and those bigger states also fought eachother, until capitalism ended up binding the elites of the different capitalist states into a web of hierarchy and cooperation.
Hierarchy avoids disputes by determining in advance who wins in a would-be battle, and who gets what, and a stable hierarchy will match the actual existing bargaining power of the various parties as people normally won’t bother getting into a battle that they know that they likely won’t win l unless they’re seriously provoked.
There are different ways to establish and maintain hierarchies, but if you want to manage intergenerational wealth that’s controlled by a family or a lineage – like a prized fishing territory – one common method is by appointing the the eldest person from that lineage as the top authority, who after all represents the earliest common link between everyone in the lineage. And then you have those lineages out of the group of relatwd lineages which control the most resources and which have the most bargaining power, to be recognized as noble lineages, and appoint the chief of the most powerful one of those as chief of the entire community.
And so, to avoid constant war within their own societies over fishing spots and other important fixed location resources, Pacific North West Coast cultures developed hierarchical social structures based on lineage and age and wealth where different families and clans and lineages got access to different territories. And they had great chiefs in charge of war planning and wealth distribution, which was done according to status and rank. And they had and still have great potlatches where the chief redistributes great wealth, according to social status, the higher your status the more you get, which maintains the chief’s legitimacy and keeps the system stable.
And of course I’m just giving the materialist perspective on culture – there is a whole complex system of ritual, belief and art that holds all of this together – a spirit hierarchy of secret ritual knowledge which bolsters and further shapes and conceptualizes the hierarchy of the material world, and gives these societies not only more stability, like the levelling mechanisms and egalitarian values do for immediate return hunters – but it also gives meaning and beauty to life. And the Pacific North West Coast people are famous for their incredible totem poles, paintings, masks, costumes, dances and songs which shape their spiritual and material worlds.
In short, the Pacific Northwest Coast hunter gatherers, developed a hierarchical social order because it was possible to do so and it was also beneficial to do so. By monopolizing and defending access to prime fishing spots, some groups of people had the means to dominate other people – and they also had political hierarchy because it made sense and creates stability – political and economic hierarchy stabilizes competition over fixed resources both within families and lineages and clans, and between them, and reduces conflict and chaos that harms everyone, particularly the people at the top of the various hierarchies, who will fight to maintain the existing system even when it’s harming other people as we’ll see in future episodes.
So, humans societies can be structured hierarchically where some people dominate others, or they can be structured according to the principle of equality where everyone has relatively the same political power and wealth. When bargaining power between people is relatively equal, and when cooperation is required for survival – which is the situation with immediate return foraging – you get political equality. And when circumstances give some people advantages over others as is the case for those clans among the various foragers of the Pacific North West Coast who control better and worse territories, you get various types of hierarchy.
Cultures can shift from hierarchy to equality or the other way around over time as circumstances change. The shift can be gradual – for example, archaeological evidence shows that pacific northwest coast hierarchy, seems to have emerged over a period of centuries after they had begun practicing a salmon storing economy, or the shift can be quick, happening in a generation or less as we’ll see next episode.
But sometimes the same culture will go from more hierarchy to more equality seasonally like every year, as they switch between different types of seasonal economic activity in ways that result in changes to relative bargaining power.
For example, the hierarchical structure of the Pacific North West Coast peoples is most rigid in their winter world when they gather together in large numbers in fixed settlements, and it relaxes into more relative egalitarianism during the part of the year when they break up into smaller bands to practice hunting and gathering and roam around their territories semi nomadically as various hierarchies become less relevant and harder to enforce. And this duality is reflected in their religious practices where people even have different names in the winter season vs the summer season.
Another example of this is the Nambikwara indigenous people of Brazil. When Claude Levi-Strauss went to live with them in the late 1930’s had authoritative chiefs in the rainy season when they practiced garden agriculture in fixed villages, and then during the rest of the year, when people would break off into nomadic hunting and gathering bands, those chiefs lost their authority and had to re-earn their following by being good leaders and gaining the respect of the band, because people who didn’t like a chief could just take just off and ditch them to join another groups where they had friends or family.
In other words, when they shifted to economic activity that resembled immediate return hunting and gathering, the logistical conditions and the balance of powers shifted as well, and their social structures reflected that shift.
WORLD OF SIMPLE OR COMPLEX FORAGERS?
If we look at the archaeological record and apply insights from the ethnographic record of the cultures that we know about in order interpret it, we get a narrative of a hierarchical pre-human common ancestor to gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos 10 millions years ago, and then as we branch off into our respective lines, about two million years ago a homo ancestor, maybe homo erectus or homo habilis develops lethal projectile weapons whch triggers a shift away from dominance hierarchies as alpha males and belligerent male get progressively weeded out, until we get anatomically modern humans coming on the scene about 300,000 years ago as egalitarian immediate return hunter gatherers.
And then as the climate and geography start changing, starting at about 30-40,000 years ago we get some evidence of possible complex hunter-gatherers emerging in certain areas where population pressure and environmental conditions made that type of economy possible or advantageous. And the emergence of complex foragers with their semi sedentary lives and large concentrations of people relative to immediate return foragers, and their complex ritual and religious life coincides with the upper palaeolithic revolution where we start to find evidence of more complex symbolic life among humans.
And then, about 12,000 years ago something big happens, so that after millions of years of hunting and gathering, and 300,000 years of modern human beings likely living in relative equality, hierarchical societies start spreading like wildfire, along with male domination, organized violence, and chronic malnutrition, so that by about 5,000 years ago, the majority of humans were living in hierarchical societies of one sort or another, and by today more than 99.9% of human beings are organized hierarchically, with less than 150,000 people living in egalitarian hunter gatherer bands.
And we’ll discuss that world changing event, and a bunch of other fascinating things like male domination, matrilineal societies, the peasants revolt of 1381, the women’s suffrage movement, the anarchist revolution spain in the 1930s and whether egalitarian societies make any sense in the industrialized world in the next episode.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in what we talked about today, and I hope you are because I find it mind blowing and fundamental to understanding politics – then there are mountains and mountains of books and academic articles you might want read, and I’ll put a few of my favourites and maybe do a mini bonus episode on them, including some articles that dispute my main thesis – but before that: please tell your friends and your social media friends and your parasocial friends about this podcast – like if you know someone with a popular podcast or a youtube show who has some reach who might give the show a signal boost, that seems to be the main way that people find out about podcasts and youtube shows nowadays, so please do that if you can!
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