Interested to hear reponses to this article by David Graeber and David Wengrow:
For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilisation properly speaking. Civilisation meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy and most other great human achievements.
Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilisation, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to “primitive communism”, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.
There is a fundamental problem with this narrative: it isn’t true. Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the “big questions” of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris and others – still take Rousseau’s question (“what is the origin of social inequality?”) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.
Noble savage dismissals aside (a strawman for genuine rewilders), I found it interesting albeit speculative especially when they start talking about ‘inequality’ in the meso/paleolithic based on examples of elaborate grave goods and the raising of monuments like Gobleki Tepe. They at least don’t present it as an open-and-shut case, noting that ‘most of the “princely” burials consist of individuals with striking physical anomalies, who today would be considered giants, hunchbacks or dwarfs’.
At one point they describe Inuit summer hunting parties as ‘patriarchal’ which is … problematic to say the least, inviting the reader to consider them in the same category as the worst civilised sexual inequalities because of a claim that ‘each [band was] under the authority of a single male elder. Property was possessively marked and patriarchs exercised coercive, sometimes even tyrannical power over their kin.’ Frustratingly there aren’t any sources provided for this or many other of the contentious claims made in the article. The long history of misinterpretation of indigenous social dynamics by anthropologists involving inappropriate projections of western concepts of hierarchies and (in this case) ‘property’, ‘coercion’, ‘tyranny’ and ‘patriarchy’ makes me doubt that this is an accurate description. An example that springs to mind is Martin Prechtel’s account (in ‘Secrets of the Talking Jaguar’, I think) of how Maya shamans were described by outsiders as an ‘elite priesthood’, kept in their position of power by onerous taxation of the people they healed. This totally missed the Maya concept of universal indebtedness (‘kas-limaal’) whereby extravagant gifts and large payments were a means of keeping healers in debt to the wider society so they would always remain in a position of service to the community, as well as it being considered as a way to ensure the efficacy of the medicine.
On the other hand I found the broader idea of societies going back and forth between egalitarian and more authoritarian organisations persuasive and a worthwhile point to make. I liked this question too: 'having lived so much of our history moving back and forth between different political systems, “how did we get so stuck?” ’ though I don’t think they’re right that modern civilisation can be made more ‘egalitarian’, even by revolutionary means. They use the example of Teotihuacan to disprove the notion that ‘there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organisation [and] it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe’ but this ignores the droughts and subsequent famines that played a central part in the upheavals there, which does support the narrative of collapse-led change:
The decline of Teotihuacan has been correlated to lengthy droughts related to the climate changes of 535–536. This theory of ecological decline is supported by archaeological remains that show a rise in the percentage of juvenile skeletons with evidence of malnutrition during the 6th century. Which is why there is different evidence that helps indicate that famine is most likely one of the more possible reasons for the decline of Teotihuacan. The majority of their food came from agriculture, they grew things such as maize, bean, amaranth, green tomatoes(tomatillos?), and pumpkin. But their harvest was not nearly sufficient to feed a population as big as it is believed lived in Teotihuacan. - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teotihuacan#Collapse
I think the same will be true of the global civilisation - revolutionary uprisings might play a part and eventually pave the way for more egalitarian social systems, but it will be the failures of the oil economy, finance, medicine, agriculture etc that fatally undermine the current system and make that shift possible (or inevitable even).