An interesting polemic on the growth of social inequality has developed in the past couple of weeks between Davids Graeber and Wengrow on the one hand, and Peter Turchin on the other. Graeber and Wengrow critique what they claim is the standard Rousseauian account of the evolution of inequality, from a state of primeval communism to the present world of civilization. They object that inequality and power have always been features of human society, “that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale”, but was nonetheless very real. Only by confronting this history head on and understanding it at a much deeper level than simple progressivist models allow, can we eventually do “the most difficult work of creating a free society…”.

“Hold on a minute”, says Turchin. Graeber and Wengrow set up a straw man model. They present an appeal to an anarcho-populism that can never work. It is by understanding how political organization on a large scale benefits us, but also how to mitigate the “terrible temptation for [leaders] to subvert their social power to their selfish purposes”, that we will find “a way forward to a peaceful, affluent, and just society”.

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

The rise and fall of equality

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

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

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

Holocene systems of dominance

On the other hand, even as an anarchist, I agree with Turchin that hierarchy is not inherently bad and that it is in fact necessary for the construction of the larger communities that produced penicillin, Bills and Charters of Human Rights, and the ability to see and chat every weekend with grand-parents hundreds and thousands of kilometers away.

Anarchy and hierarchy are not fundamentally incompatible, as long as hierarchy is voluntary and participatory. Hierarchy must result from the delegation of power, rather than from its assumption. That delegation must serve a particular, well constrained purpose, and it must be reversible at any time.

The element that turns voluntary and participatory hierarchies into systems of subjugation and exploitation, is power exercised through violent repression. The Holocene attachment to spatially bounded resources, whether by agriculturalists or sedentary hunter-gatherers, multiplied the role of power in our societies, and greatly increased our tolerance for violent recourse in dispute resolution. Specific groups, or networks within networks, learn to use violence to centralize power.

Still, just as I believe Graeber and Wengrow overestimate the role of power in Pleistocene communities, I believe Turchin overestimates the importance of centralized power in modern ones. In even the most centralized Holocene social network, most people, most of the time, live in very Pleistocene-like webs of influence. Central power shapes some of our decisions and actions, but it is rarely felt in a direct way on a daily basis. When it is felt, it is overwhelmingly by the most vulnerable, no doubt as a gruesome warning to the less-vulnerable-yet-not-quite-powerful.

Central power cannot intervene everywhere at once. This is why the Return of the King motif is so dominant in so many large-scale Holocene communities. It is why, for example, Roman power eventually evolved into a heavily armed roving court, temporarily settling local issues as it traveled through the Empire. Eventually, the city of Rome became irrelevant. Some Emperors, Julian among them, never even visited it. Rome was where the Emperor was. Local webs of power and influence grow wild. What keeps local elites and local conflicts in check is the prospect of the Return of the King.

While these systems in themselves are stable, patterns of dominance within them are fluid. Like the Eye of Sauron, central power can only focus on one or a few problems at a time. It is easily distracted by the most obvious threat, rather than the most dangerous. The threat is not to the system of dominance itself, but to the position of specific dominant groups within it.

I converge with Graeber and Wengrow in acknowledging the role of power throughout human history, and I converge with Turchin in wondering how (whether?) we can ever have hierarchies of delegation rather than of subjugation.


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