How and why did inequality arise in history?

Whether a political system is benign or appalling, to use John McCreery’s terminology, is dependent on how that system benefits you and yours.  My work is not so much about how to prevent official misdeeds, but an historical look at why it is that for most of human existence there was no officialdom and no opportunity for exploitation by one individual, cohort or class of persons with regard to the general population.  And, furthermore, I identify the key causal variable in the emergence of such exploitative possibilities by officials e.g., in evolutionary sequence, more or less, headmen of kin groups and sodalities, little chiefs, chiefs, kings and emperors.  Almost from the beginning, these political officials acted in cahoots with religious authorities or claimed for themselves religious knowledge and expertise unavailable to the general public.  The key causal variable that set the exploitative ball rolling was the development of a storable-stealable-surplus as humans either (1) lived in an environment that provided them with a natural product that could be accumulated and stored for a long period of time, thereby becoming a commodity e.g., among the Amerindians of the Northwest Coast of America – salmon meat and the oil of the candlefish; or (2) people who learned how to domesticate plants and animals.  In both cases, this presence of a storable-stealable-surplus induced aggrandizers to fabricate ideas and rules, the reglementary package of officialdom, that enabled them and theirs to amass greater power, prestige and property than others in society and to pass those valuables on from generation to generation in a privileged line of succession.  This was not possible in most non-storing hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic because aggrandizers in those societies were limited to gaining generation-limited prestige by being prime living example of communalism, sharing and reciprocity since they had no storable-stealable-surplus for which to compete, hoard and pass on to their offspring.  How to prevent this in the modern world of nation-states and globalized institutions is much harder than analyzing how it all came to be in history.



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Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on July 25, 2011 at 4:54pm

Thank you for your comment and question Alexander Lee.  Here is a section from my book that may answer your question.  Presumably there were alpha males in all groups in the Paleolithic”

“There are aggrandizers in all human groups as well as more passive persons.  Self-seekers tend to want more prestige, power and property than average people.  Aggrandizers can be referred to as:


u Super-achievers


u Reputation-builders


u Aggressive men


u Self-seeking men


u Acquisitive men


u Go-getters


u Ambitious men


u Self-starters


u Success-oriented men


u Power-seekers 


u Alpha males 


u Doers


Additionally, men with triple-A personality types (aggrandizers) tend to aspire to the following roles in society:


u Managers


u Leaders


u Organizers


u Caretakers


u Commanders


u Guardians


u Big men, chiefs, kings, emperors, presidents/prime ministers


u Priests and other courtiers near political power


u Provincial governors


u Any role that gives them privileged access to more prestige, power and property


Perhaps the best term of all for an aggrandizer is “opportunist.”  I'm going to guess that about ten percent of all men are born opportunists.  The famed anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1944) saw man as appetitive, as potentially aggressive – perhaps thinking of the Latin aphorism, lupus est homo homini, which can be interpreted to mean that man preys upon man.  While “man as wolf” might be too strong, Kant (1999 [1781]) did point out that man has a strong tendency to individualize himself.  S. F. Nadel (1969:52-55) also noted the manipulative nature of humans, even when playing social roles.  And, of course, Freud’s perspective was that, at the base, the human being is animalistically driven by libidinous impulses, tending toward aggression without the socialized constraints of the superego (1938).”


Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on July 18, 2011 at 5:08pm
John McCreary says that the explanation of the rise of inequality "the basics are pretty straightforward and inherent in behavioral patterns that go way deeper in human evolution than hominid, let alone, homo sapiens, societies."  Such reductionism is not helpful.  If we assume that Homo sapiens share aggressive behavior with primates and that, somehow cryptically, that explains, even partially, why and how inequality arose in history is beyond simplistic and unhelpful. If we assume such aggressive tendencies exist I would ask: Why is it that during the Paleolithic, from the rise of Australopithecines to Homo, unequal institutions did not exist.  This for most of human existence.  Furthermore, rather quickly and dramatically about ten to twelve thousand years ago, we see the emergence of institutions that gave some privileged access to power, prestige and property.  This cannot be explained by saying that it is in the nature of primates to aggress.


Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on July 18, 2011 at 3:29pm

I would agree with Professor Hart that the answers to why severe inequality (stratification) arose out of minimally hierarchical societies based on age and gender differences are complex and difficult to discern in a simplistic manner.  But we have many historical examples of the processes involved.  I have compiled many such cases in my forthcoming book.  Once we have many examples of the rise of unequal access to power, prestige and property, we need to extract the processes by which it happened.  I have tried to do that.  In thinking about this it is important not to ask the question: why did the masses allow the transition from an egalitarian society to one in which they were disenfranchised.  That is a red herring.  It was a gradual process or series of processes.  Inequality did not happen overnight; nor were people aware of the end game.  Freedom was lost in millimeters not miles, if you will forgive the mixed metaphor for the sake of making alliteration.  Aggrandizers used many means by which they could slowly gain privileged access to superior power, prestige and property.  If I had to choose one, it would be mystification.  That is, aggrandizers consistently invented some form of otherworldly power (deity for short) and created linkages between themselves and that assumed power.  If they had to start from scratch and create new mystical institutions, they did; but more often than not they tapped into existing institutions that were more or less benign with regard to accessing significant power, prestige and property and altered them to gain such access.  For example, if divination existed in the society, chiefs simply made their oracles the supreme method of sourcing supernatural power.  Once authoritative offices were fabricated e.g., chiefship, then all sorts of ongoing elaboration to office could ensue – and did in every example of societies that developed hierarchy and eventually stratification.  Agency was at work.  Aggrandizing agents were actively fabricating means by which they could create and solidify power positions in society.  It was an accumulative process that spanned generations.  Authority grew by additive bits and pieces.  As I finish editing chapters of my book I will post them on Open Anthropology for you to read as I am old and my not finish the book before I pass on to that other realm, whatever that might be.  Such editing also has to compete with my vegetable garden and my passion for fly-fishing.  In fact, I am off to the mountains for a few weeks.  More later.


Comment by John McCreery on June 30, 2011 at 7:18pm
Keith, I'm not sure I agree that the fundamental argument is all that difficult. The one thing that the storable-stealable-surplus that Eugene talks about does for sure is make it harder to walk away from bullies. This tips the table in the direction of the latter of the two basic vertebrate responses, submissive behavior instead of slinking away. The elaborations, in chiefdoms, kingdoms, empires, nation-states, neo-liberal global plutocracies, etc., require specific, and sometimes complex, explanations. But the basics are pretty straightforward and inherent in behavioral patterns that go way deeper in human evolution than hominid, let alone, homo sapiens, societies.
Comment by Keith Hart on June 30, 2011 at 5:26pm

Traditionally, in the writings of Morgan, Engels, Levi-Strauss and Goody, the origins of inequality have been sought through the conceptual opposition of societies based on kinship and those based on class divisions and the state. The issue is less one of inequality or hierarchy as such, but rather how massive differences in the lifestyle of classes emerge and are maintained. This whole tradition, which I prefer to identify as "the anthropology of unequal society", stems from Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men (1754). It is worth recalling that he was concerned not with individual variations in natural endowments which we can do little about, but with the artificial inequalities of wealth, honour and the capacity to command obedience derived from social convention which can be changed. In other words, his argument is not content with describing the world, but aims at changing it.

This approach pushes to the fore the question of how unequal societies based on kinship are (or for that matter primate societies). Gender and generation are sources of inequality everywhere and there is no more unequal relationship than that between parent and child. Hence the burden of analysis lies in distinguishing between forms of inequality and their social consequences.

In these classical sources, the normal procedure is to list the attributes of the opposed types of society, described as being equal and unequal, but it is quite rare to explain how historical or even imagined societies got from A to B. Engels, for obvious reasons given that he was working from Marx's notes on Morgan, made a more explicit shot at this than the others, with his sketches of the divergent routes from tribe to state of the Greeks, Romans, Germans and Celts. Usually the theorist is content with saying it was the invention of "money" permitting storable-stealable surplus (Locke), "private property" or "wheat and iron" (Rousseau), "territorial states" (Morgan), "cities" (Childe), "endogamy" (Levi-Strauss), "diverging devolution" of property (Goody) and so on.

One key question is why people would choose a form of society or be forced into it, when the shift usually involves a deterioration of living conditions for the majority. Intensification of the sort associated with domesticated production always involved reductions in the productivity of labour. Rousseau at least posed the question and answered it by assuming environmental collapse or a similar argument from induced scarcity. The liberals always assumed that agricultural societies were in real terms better off than hunter-gatherers whose lives were nasty, brutish and short. But modern anthropology has shown that this isn't true. Some interests were better off, but most of the rest were worse off. So the question becomes how was this trick pulled off and why?

I don't think answers to these questions of transition are easy or obvious.

Comment by John McCreery on June 30, 2011 at 3:19pm

Nice comment, Alexander. Pecking orders are a common way for vertebrates to organize social relations. Ritualized combat to mark turf and restrict access to fertile females are standard wherever animals have backbones. But, at least when I last studied ethology/animal behavior several decades ago, the consensus was that the ritualized combat in question was normally playful and rarely resulted in serious injury or death. The usual results of confrontation were the loser slinking off or, if they hung around, adopting stylized submissive postures. 


When Eugene talks about inequality, his argument is restricted to societies with storable-stealable-surplus (to which I would add the means to produce such surplus), or, in other words, property/capital. With the appearance of assets that people cannot walk away from, quarrels escalate, warfare is increasingly fatal. Institutions that authorize the extraction of surplus for "public" (sanctified by general consent) purposes and defense of property by torture and execution emerge. At the end of the process, as Mao Tse-tung so pointedly put it, "power grows out of the barrels of guns." That is the sort of inequality that, I believe, Eugene is talking about.

Comment by Alexander Lee on June 30, 2011 at 6:17am
I would have assumed that inequality has always been a part of social hierarchies including ones we might find in the animal kingdom.  Are you suggesting that there weren't alpha- personalities in paleolithic societies?  Perhaps I don't understand your use of the term 'inequality'.
Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on June 29, 2011 at 3:45pm

Right, John.  In non-storing Paleolithic societies, as well as in forging societies studied by ethnologists, a bullied or simply disgruntled person can vote with their feet.  No officialdom existed to try to keep them within the labor pool of a corporate kin group, chiefdom, kingdom or empire.  But beyond that, in non-storing foraging societies there existed a strong ethos of communalism that emphasized the need for sharing, reciprocity and peaceful behavior within the group.  Was there deviance in such Paleolithic societies?  Of course, we only have modern-day ethnographic examples upon which to draw, but given that caveat, such non-storing foragers give us a clue.  For example, Richard Lee reports a case where a Ju/’hoansi forager committed murder and was himself shot by several men, his lifeless body lying in the middle of the camp riddled with arrows.  Then each member of the band, including women, passed by and took turns firing more arrows into the body until each member of the social group had symbolically participated in the execution of the deviant.  The imagery is clear: the entire band killed the deviant; no one individual killed him.

Comment by John McCreery on June 28, 2011 at 10:28pm
Seems like a solid argument to me. One small tweak might be, I think I got it from Colin Turnbull's The Forest People, the observation that foragers can walk away from fights. If someone tries to be a bully, the bullied disappear.


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