In his closing remarks to our informal seminar on David Graeber's HAU paper on divine kingship among the Shilluk, Lee Drummond writes,

    I think it’s fair to say that seminar participants have found “sovereignty” a rather slippery concept.  David has noted that his subject is not the origin of the state.  Rather, it seems to be about the conditions under which a social arrangement forms with one individual (the reth) being able to conduct arbitrary violence against a populace, that power then serving as a catalyst to transform the populace into “a people.” 

    My lingering question is: In undertaking an archeology of sovereignty aren’t we by implication beginning to develop an archeology of inequality?  Here I don’t refer to the emergence of political institutions or of what has been called “social stratification.”  I mean, quite directly, the origin of inequality.  Huon posed essentially the same question early in the seminar, but it remains unexamined now that we’re at the end of the seminar.  I would suggest that, at least since Rousseau’s Discourse, the origin of inequality is a preeminent question for social thought.  Somehow human societies transformed from fairly egalitarian bands of hunters-gatherers into hierarchical forms which feature Pharaohs, Sun Kings, Russian oligarchs, software billionaires.  How? 

This is a good question, but one whose premises need examination. Arguably, both "fairly egalitarian bands of hunter-gathers" and Scandinavian social democracies are historical aberrations in a world where hierarchy is pervasive in nature as well as in human affairs.

The origin of inequality is no great mystery. Pecking orders are common among all sorts of vertebrates. To be unequal is the fate of every human child from birth until maturity. Our parents are the first rulers empowered to employ what is felt as arbitrary violence upon us. Random graph models suggest that without specific constraints all networks will tend to form power law (Pareto curve) distributions in which the Matthew effect, those who have get more, prevails. 

Thus, the question shifts. We understand the origins of inequality. But what about its opposite, that always unfinished utopian project we call equality? Where does that come from?

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Another passing thought. The conversation between Master Eastwall and Zhuangzi is an example of a trope found elsewhere, in which representatives of hierarchical order and authority are baffled in their conversation with the Daoist sage. Another favorite is the tale of two officials sent by a king to ask Zhuangzi to become his prime minister. My language is not so elegant as Arthur Walley's translation but the story goes like this.

Zhangzi asks if the officials are familiar with the tortise encased in gold that sits on the altar of the temple to the king's ancestors. They are.
He asks them, "Would that turtle rather be sitting on that altar or wagging its tale in the mud?"
They agree that the turtle would rather be in the mud.
"Go away," says Zhuangzi,"I, too, will wag my tale in the mud."

But recalling this tale raises another issue. We know that Daoist origin myths were constructed in debates between Daoists, Confucianists and other schools. Overing's account of the Piaroa and Graber's account of the Shilluk proceed as ethnographies usually do, to describe myths attributed to a people [folk, volk], with no discussion of internal debate or discussion with people from neighboring peoples with different views.

Quite so; it was one of the king of Prussia's roles personally to thrash those civil servants who had failed to live up to the ideal of bureaucratic duty. I don't think anyone would dispute that Kant and the fictional Mrs Grundy lived in hierarchical societies, for sure.

Here you can correct me again, John; a contrast I would see is that Kant, no doubt influenced by the organisational success of Prussian bureaucracy, thought that the essence of a good society was the application of rational ideals. For my part, I think we can separate the notion of rational ideals from the violent hierarchy of the Prussian state, but that is a matter of debate. However, the Taoist sage is a different matter -- there doesn't seem to be any need there to appeal to a principle of rationality to support hierarchy, or not the same kind of rationality anyway. Perhaps because hierarchy is so historically self evident?

(I should mention that in other work, Overing has engaged in trans-regional comparison of various kinds e.g.)

Mrs. Grundy, an archetypally priggish person. See

Kant was a faithful subject of the King of Prussia, renowned for habits so regular that clocks could be set by them, and his transcendental morality is, in principle, absolute and would appear to demand suppression of violent, incestuous, or similar impulses.



    Regarding your question:

Lee writes, "Since the Piaroa find themselves caught up in the absurdities and ambivalence of life as a consequence of their cosmogenesis, their social life is strongly egalitarian." Why not vice-versa?


I don’t follow.  Overing’s account of the Piaroa, which I apply in my own analysis, is that people / groups who see human life as shot through with ambiguity and contradiction do not have the conceptual and emotional perspective required to draw the hard-and-fast distinctions essential to hierarchical relations.  If one believes that “there is no God but God,” then one can insist on an inseparable gulf between believer and non-believer.  But if one believes things have been all scrambled up from cosmogenesis to the present, then absolute distinctions can’t be sustained.  So “vice-versa” just doesn’t apply. 



   Regarding the “lost space” of prehistoric hand stencils:

In one way or another the 'outside' is the cosmological shell. In that respect, and I don't think anyone has remarked on this to my knowledge, these hand 'prints' are quite revealing. They are created by spraying pigment across the surface of the hand, -- the hand creates a lost space around which the pigment falls on the cave surface. Suppose that what is at work here is a reflection on the subjective inside versus the cosmological outside.
    This is an important idea that leads into the depths of an inquiry into the nature of symbolization.  The image of a human hand, its representational form, is not a concrete thing but, as you say, a “lost space,” an absence.  For me this thought evokes the foundational argument of Eco’s semiotics: communication – meaning – is an absent structure.  Recall that the first version of Eco’s (ponderous and canonical) A Theory of Semiotics was a much less formal essay in Italian, La struttura assente.  Essentially the same idea surfaces in Leach’s classic essay on animal categories, in which he argues that the continuum of animal life is broken up by conceptual gaps – absences – that demarcate traditional categories of animal (pets, livestock, game, “wild” animals).  Mary Douglas on taboo also employs that kernel argument.  I pirated the idea in framing a theory of culture in Dreamtime:   

In the spirit of Galileo, if not with his rigor, I would suggest that the anthropocentric Cartesian cogito holds only if, invoking the principle of cultural generativity, we conceive of humanity as an absence at the center of things, a cipher to be filled with meaning through the operations of an artifactual intelligence.  The fact that people think at all, that they are cultural beings who do things and effect changes in their surroundings, is due to the pronounced uncertainty, the relentless unclarity of their lives. 


    I’ve often wondered about those hand stencils in the caves.  They are among the earliest extant form of human symbolization, but how can we begin to reconstruct the meaning they held for their creators?  As well as their intriguing “lost space” composition, I wonder about: Why hands?  Why not say, feet, or even a stenciled head (produced by another artist as the subject pressed his head against the cave wall)?  A thought I had is that the human hand is an excellent sign of both human distinctiveness and – what folks now like to go on about – agency.  In a world populated by humans, animals, and totemic spirits, the human talent to make things, our artifactual intelligence, and thereby create a whole new class of beings (tools) was hugely important. 

    The only way to go beyond speculation about the hand stencils and other cave paintings and petroglyphs is to continue in the vein of Lewis-Williams and look closely at the subject matter, context (which drawings occur together), and location (which part of the cave) of images.  Even so, there remains a thick veil between the Upper Paleolithic mind and our own (and run the clock ahead twenty or thirty thousand years, and guess what?).  So, your thought that The Sorcerer may be a monkey god, a source of hilarity is as plausible as other interpretations (I like the idea because it’s so different from my own first impression: I found the image chilling – thinking, I guess, what if I’d seen that thing coming at me in my dreams?)  

Hi, Lee. Surprised you didn't get the vice-versa. Statement that begin with "people/groups who SEE" (emphasis added) to me signal an analysis that is trapped in head trips, where only ideas matter. I am not saying that it's right, but there is an alternative.

Premise 1: Hierarchy is visible throughout nature. Nothing specially human about it.
Premise 2: Immature humans are naturally given to fantasies involving sex, violence, theft and murder.
Premise 3: Hierarchies of all sorts damp down the impulses behind these fantasies. Consider bees, for example, where the workers are neutered drones. Or for human cases, ask why Maoist China was as puritanical as Puritan or 1950s America?

Thus, an hypothesis antithetical to your own: egalitarian socities will be more likely than hierarchical ones to let it all out in their myths.

Personally, I don't think that this is the whole truth of the matter. I am tempted to suggest that the theory sketched above might explain something else you are interested in, the rise of horror and ultra-violent movies andn video games as traditional hierarchies have broken down in market fundamentalist America. But how to maintain an analytical separation between egalitarian v hierarchy as a matter of social fact and egalitarian v hierarchical images as cultural phenomena remains a good question.

To answer it we may need to get out of our Southwest Asia monotheist assumptions about religion and consider the fact that Greek, Roman, Hindu, Chinese and other mythologies all contain sex, violence, incest, etc., in the context of strongly hierarchical societies.

Suppose, for example, we replaced the continuum you suggest with Mary Douglas' four-cell table, a space in which societies are ranked high or low on two factors she calls group and grid, where group concerns group boundaries and grid concerns rank within and across groups. Now we find societies like Turnbull's Ituri pygmies who score low on both dimensions. They are laid back and sing to the Forest but otherwise seem free of myth and ritual. Ancient Israelites were hung up on the boundaries dividing themselves from others, so you've got Jehovah and the rules in Deuteronomy. Melanesian big men compete for rank in a context where group boundaries are porous and evil is thought to be sorcery—learned, self-interested use of magic—instead of witchcraft, an evil-eye like power inherent in the individual. And in the high-group, high-grid quadrant, you have societies like late imperial China, where myth and ritual both become byzantine or baroque in their complexity.

Where do the Paiaroa fit into this scheme? What might be learned by considering these possibilities? That is what I mean by vice-versa.

Huon, first a shout out for the link to Joanna Overing's comparative analysis. Lots to think about there. Two points popped out at me. First was the importance of naming in the reproduction of social order. My first encounter with this idea was Clifford Geertz's "Person, Time and Conduct in Bali," which was reprinted as Chapter 14 of The Interpretation of Cultures. A comparative analysis of the South American and Balinese cases would be very interesting. Second was her pointing out Christine Hugh-Jones' analysis of a  "series of analogous 'space/time' systems in From the Milk River. These sorts of microcosm/macrocosm relations between bodies, houses, and the cosmos as a whole are common throughout South, Southeast, and East Asia, where the most famous examples are the complex of Ayurvedic medicine, temple and city layout in societies influenced by Hinduism, where the circle is the base form, on the one hand, and the complex that includes traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts, house and city layouts in which rectangles are the base form. Again, a bit of systematic comparison could be very interesting, indeed. 

Re the relationship of rational ideals to violent hierarchies, I see no problem with analytical separation of one from the other. Empirically, however, this seems to me a wicked problem with no simple solution. When I think of the French Revolution, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, the association of utopian projects with extreme violence is striking. Post-colonial history in Africa and Indonesia provides numerous other examples. I am much taken with David Kilcullen's fish-trap model, which seems to apply across the board from mafias to nation states, all being variations on protection rackets—follow the rules and pay up and we will keep you safe; don't follow the rules and we will torch your place and send in the leg breakers. I suspect it is no accident that utopias are always situated on isolated islands or in other inaccessible places, obviating the need for violence to defend rational ideals from others with different ideas. 

Suppose we think of it this way. The Amish flourish in Cold War and Post-9/11 America, an island of simplicity and sanity protected by the world's largest military. How else could they survive?

Erratum: The Amish, not America, are the island in the last remark.



    I doubt that your three premises:


Premise 1: Hierarchy is visible throughout nature. Nothing specially human about it.

Premise 2: Immature humans are naturally given to fantasies involving sex, violence, theft and murder.

Premise 3: Hierarchies of all sorts damp down the impulses behind these fantasies. Consider bees, for example, where the workers are neutered drones. Or for human cases, ask why Maoist China was as puritanical as Puritan or 1950s America?

. . . are all that premise-ful. 


    Premise 1: I’m leery of the easy transition from the natural to the human.  I’m not sure if ethologists actually describe some animal behavior as “hierarchical” – they seem to prefer “dominance” – but regardless, human social arrangements are far more complicated and hence “special.”  I would, indeed, claim that they must be understood as “head trips” – culture being a head trip par excellence.  “Nature” in fact may be much less hierarchical than you assume.  We don’t have to be tree-huggers to recognize that species live in self-regulating wholes (ecosystems) – or don’t and perish.  The “hierarchy” of Nature is actually a cultural artifact.  Expressions such as “the lion is the king of the beasts,” “sly as a fox,” etc are mappings of human behavior onto animal species.  Granted, some are less metaphorical than others: calling people “sheep” hits on a tendency to be a blind follower in both species.  I think Fritz may have emphasized that. 


    Premise 2:  This idea is disturbing on a couple of levels.  First, I have trouble wrapping my head around the notion of a “natural fantasy.”  Aren’t fantasies pretty much by definition “unnatural,” that is, not (or not yet) a feature of actual experience?  Second, I don’t know that kids generally are given to “fantasies involving sex, violence, theft, and murder.”  I think kids, like adults, definitely have impulses involving sex and violence (not at all sure about theft, and murder is just an extreme form of violence).  Every social group, egalitarian or hierarchical, regulates those impulses.    


    Premise 3.  Hierarchical, totalitarian societies never seem to be very good at “damping down” those impulses.  As with other pleasures, however, those in power have greater access to them.  Mao’s China may have been puritanical, but Mao’s sex romps were legendary.  And his successors in the “People’s Republic” have their ernai 

Meanwhile, in supposedly egalitarian America, poor old Bill couldn’t even get a blow job without setting off a politically correct shit storm that nearly finished him.  And that was only oral sex (at least now we know why his friends called him “slick Willy”!). 

    All this, however, doesn’t address the other two issues I discussed as bound up with the hierarchy vs. egalitarianism problem: primordial violence and the entheogenic origin of culture.  Why do myths of human origin feature the most ghastly events?  Why didn’t their narrators, now lost in the mists of time, come up with warm and fuzzy tales of, say, humans emerging from the chrysalis of a world-creator butterfly?  Why all the gore?  And where did those images in the caves come from?  I don’t know what or if those guys were smoking, but they were without a doubt really whacked out.  Entheogens, anyone?

    We should recall that the word “hierarchy” comes from a Greek root, “leader of sacred rites.”  Graeber and others have suggested that the source of political sovereignty (authority) is “outside” everyday life, that it emanates from the realm of the divine.  The priest, intermediary of the divine, preceded the chief as the first authority figure in human groups.  We only have to amend that by noting that the shaman preceded the priest, and by thousands of years.  And we have a gnawing suspicion about where the shaman got his authority: visions of mushrooms dance in our heads. 

    About Taoism, I’d still like to know what account of human origin the religion advances.  I sort of, kind of, vaguely get the Allness, Oneness, Nothingness of it all – but where did folks come from?  I used to wonder about that in the Esalen sensory deprivation tanks of old. 




    On this fateful eve, any thoughts from the Kingdom of Fife about sovereignty, hierarchy, inequality . . . caves? 

So, what happened in the peninsular Kingdom of Fife? Part of it is/was a coalfield and once solid socialist Labour territory (also originally the birthplace of Adam Smith as it happens), and the other end was one of those strange little corners of Britain where the (now decimated) Liberals held sway -- a realm of happy wishful thinking. Now both have fallen to the Scottish National Party who have, indeed, swept the board across this part of the island, based on a platform mixing a bit of redistributive social justice with a lot of anti-Conservative venom and a big dose of 'Scottish people are more enlightened, more empathetic and generally endowed with more common sense than those "down South"'.

Meanwhile, back at the buildings, the Conservatives managed to pull off the stunt of simultaneously trumpeting their personal connection to corporate power as something all their countrymen should be proud of (the 'protection racket' politics that John mentioned), while assuring nervy Southerners that a Con government will protect them from wild blue-painted Scotswomen staring greedily over the border toward Berwick on Tweed; the success of which strategy seems to prove the SNP right. This at least is the only sense I can make of the result if indeed there is any sense to be made. 

Lee, I agree on your three point list (pace John)-- you don't have to be Margaret Mead to see that there is no easy root to knowing what is 'natural' for humans. The same goes for other animals as we increasingly recognise that not only primates, but also corvids and probably many others show pretty familiar 'cultural' traits. The concept of the 'superorganic', set up as a counter-stance to the phrenologists and eugenicists, was always flawed. Hierarchy is a variable human thought not a Platonic principle 'in' nature itself.

We have thrown out several models of power and incipient sovereignty; the mushroom eating shaman showing 'a community' its outside perhaps by a mixture of horror and laughter, the tao-ist whose profound vagueness seems to involve radical acceptance of an embedded hierarchy, the king of the Shilluk whose ambivalent power is constituted crucially by acts of arbitrary violence, contrastingly the king of Prussia who periodically flogs failing civil servants but is nonetheless caught up in the machine of rational bureaucracy himself, lastly, the ancient women leaving their handprints on the surface of the cave, the Piaroa whose myths of orgiastic violence and insanity seem to help them make their way in a tricky world.


    We’ve delved pretty deeply into the questions, What is the origin of inequality?  How is it that certain individuals and groups come to exert power over others?  Why do those others generally stand for it?   

    Huon has just found himself up close and personal with these issues:


Meanwhile, back at the buildings, the Conservatives managed to pull off the stunt of simultaneously trumpeting their personal connection to corporate power as something all their countrymen should be proud of (the 'protection racket' politics that John mentioned), while assuring nervy Southerners that a Con government will protect them from wild blue-painted Scotswomen staring greedily over the border toward Berwick on Tweed; the success of which strategy seems to prove the SNP right. This at least is the only sense I can make of the result if indeed there is any sense to be made. 

    And there it is, the fundamental question underlying our various takes on equality vis-à-vis inequality, egalitarianism vis-à-vis hierarchy: Is there any sense to be made of human social existence

    Anthropology, as one strain of social thought, proceeds on the basis that things do make sense, or rather, that sense can be made of them, provided only that we approach them with sufficient acumen.  This is the core idea behind the emergence of social science disciplines and the mountains of books and articles produced by them.  But what if they’ve got it horribly wrong?  What if rational analysis – rationality itself – is a chimera, a delusion?  (Remember those visions in the caves.)

    While one doesn’t see those questions taken up in departments of anthropology, there are three profound thinkers – as different as can be from one another – who have pursued them to some disturbing conclusions:  Camus, Freud, William Burroughs.  For Camus (as to a great extent for his predecessor, Nietzsche), the individual’s quest for freedom is all-important; social life should be predicated on that basis.  Of course, it never is, so the only viable choice for the individual is metaphysical rebellion.  [The sixties gem: Would you die for your country?  Actually, I’d rather that my country died for me.]  If Camus’ philosophy has an inspiring theme – the desire to be free – Freud’s message is alarming, even nightmarish: civilization itself is a collective delusion neurosis; humans have shackled their lives and minds to a lie. 

    Which brings me to William Burroughs.  The Rebel and Civilization and Its Discontents are, I would argue, two of the most important works in social thought of the past century.  Nevertheless, they receive virtually no attention from the thousands of anthropologists writing today.   To some extent, however, they are honored in name.  In contrast, Burroughs’ work is invisible – it is as though it didn’t exist.  Yet his analysis of the irrational basis of society goes deeper than those of Camus and Freud.  It extends, in fact, to an indictment of language itself – whose deployment he argues is a deceit at the root of civilization.  The installation of language and symbolization generally as the source of meaning is a ruse, literally a crime against humanity, that supports exploitation and repression.  Earlier John, as Huon mentions, described government as a “protection racket” like those run by the mob.  Burroughs extends that thought: Civilization itself is a con game buttressed by our belief in language as reason and run by the mob, for him the Nova Mob.  But the Mob, probably realizing that Camus and his kind were onto something, that metaphysical rebellion simmers just below the surface of an indoctrinated population, has to be ready to go on the run. 


    “So pack your ermines, Mary – we are getting out of here – i’ve seen this happen before – Three thousand years in show business – the public is gonna take the place apart” –

    “i tell you, boss, the marks are out there pawing the ground -- . . . – What’s this ‘Reality Con’? . . . – They’ll take the place apart – Any minute now – I’ve seen it happen before . . . – And the law is moving in fast – Nova Heat – Not locals, boss – This is Nova Heat – Well boss?” –   

The Ticket that Exploded, page 140



    Civilization: three thousand years of show business, three thousand years of running the language con, of telling the marks (us, humanity) that words hold meaning, meaning that permeates our lives as social beings, as victims of the con, and gives them purpose. 

    And so David Cameron, fresh from running another successful con, takes his rightful place alongside Izzy the Push, Sammy the Butcher, Green Tony, The Brown Artist, Hamburger Mary, and the other Nova criminals. 

    The origin of inequality.       



  1. When did I ever suggest that transitions from animal to human were easy? Given the unfinished animal that we humans are at birth and the immense variety of genetic and social/cultural circumstances in which we achieve what we like to pretend is maturity, any argument that moves directly from attributes shared with other species to how particular humans behave is, without question, insufficient. That does not change the fact that we are, like other species, a part of nature and subject to natural laws that define boundary conditions on what we become. The only intellectual positions upset by realizing this fact are those which assume a tabula rasa on which culture writes as it will or an original state of innocence corrupted by society and culture. I don't see you in either of these camps.
  2. That said, both you and Huon seem to me to exemplify, albeit in clever, intelligent ways, a tendency too common in anthropology since the writing culture and self-excoriation movements of the eighties — by which I mean turning anthropology into a series of head trips, in which what people think and feel exhausts what humans are. Thus, for example, you see hierarchy as the product of ideas instead of ideas as what are, again in fact,  never, ever totally successful rationalizations for dominance that is rooted in material conditions as well as ideas.
  3. And you are, indeed, a man full of contradictions, turning from poo-pooing the idea that immature humans are inherently nasty little beasts whose vile tendencies must be socialized, then citing Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, a book that advocates this very thesis. 

For all of which I forgive you, since our conversations have been and continue to be fascinating. 

Returning then to the Pairoa. Here is an interesting case, indeed. But if all it is is an illustration of generic human tendencies, we can simply note the salience of grotesque humor in Pairoa life to which Overing has pointed us and move on. I would prefer to take the lead from Overing's comparative piece to which Huon has pointed us, where we learn that the Pairoa are an example of endogamous as well as egalitarian communities found in the Guianas, whose ways of handling basic human contradictions differ in striking ways from those of both the Bororo-Gé peoples with their moiety systems further up the Amazon and the peoples of Northeast Amazonia where intermarriage among those with different languages and cultures is common. Sorting out and trying to explain these differences would be a very interesting project. 


    Thanks very much for hosting an interesting discussion on a most important topic. 

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