Social inequality plays a central role in the shift from “what might be called ‘horizontal’ egalitarian relations to ‘vertical’ hierarchical ones” as Morris Berman writes in his book Wandering God.
We see in the last post that the birth of existential awareness a few thousand years ago leads to a painful alienation. The Self becomes split from the World. Sapiens grapple with this split through paradox, the sacred authority complex, and dullardism.
Paradox accepts and lives with the Self/World split, leading to a type of mature ambiguity. We mostly find it in hunter-gatherer (HG) societies who tend to have horizontal-egalitarian relations.
The Sacred Authority Complex transcends (or tries to) the Self/World split, leading to a focus on certainty. We mostly find it in agricultural civilizations who tend to have vertical- hierarchical relations.
Dullardism isn’t so important to our narrative, so we’ll put it aside for now.
In this post we’ll look at social inequality.
Social Inequality: What, When, and How
According to trusty online google searches, social inequality is “the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society.”
Well, clearly, in most parts of the modern world, we have that.
Was it always here? If not, when did it arise? How did it arise?
Berman cites the work of the social anthropologist Alain Testart who “locates the rise of social inequality in the phenomenon of storage among certain groups of HGs.”
As Testart writes in this paper these “storing hunter-gatherer societies exhibit three characteristics- sedentarism, a high population density, and the development of socioeconomic inequalities.”
All of which provides us with a clue as to when.
“At the very least, it is by now abundantly clear that social inequality antedated the deliberate cultivation of the first sheaf of wheat.”
If storage itself arises before the Agricultural Revolution, then social inequality does as well. Although its origins might lie there, its rapid expansion and domination coincides with the growth of agricultural civilizations.
The Other Factors
Although the phenomenon of storage is essential for the rise of social inequality, it’s by no means the only factor. Berman outlines a few others, including:
1. Population pressures
2. The influence of “aggressive subgroups”
3. Alteration in child-rearing practices
4. Breakdown of ‘levelling mechanisms’
5. Deliberate human intention
So we know what it is (“unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses”).
We know when it was (in HG societies before “the deliberate cultivation of the first sheaf of wheat”).
We know how it arose (phenomenon of storage plus the 5 factors above).
If social inequality arose prior to the Agricultural Revolution, why didn’t it dominate in those societies nearly as much as it has in agricultural societies?
The Right Timing
Although it isn’t rosy utopia’s back in the HG day, it also isn’t the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence that Thommy Hobbes was writing about.
Berman avoids the ‘noble-savage’ romanticism by reminding us that “the potential for stratification is present within egalitarian societies, just waiting for the right context to spring in.”
That context, for the most part, is not the hunter-gatherer context.
Intense stratification is certainly possible, like a gene waiting for activation, but that possibility is kept in check. One way of doing this is by relying upon the freedom of movement to resolve conflicts.
“The point is that in HG societies such as these, people are not coerced (i.e., do not coerce themselves) into ‘community’; the system is much more laissez-faire. When a conflict arises, people simply pull up stakes and move on.”
When The Stresses Pile Up
However, in times of stress (like major climactic changes), the freedom to get up, move, and form new communities was curtailed. During these stressful times, a new dynamic arose as “aggressive subgroups” of people began to dominate for brief periods.
As the stresses withered away so did the aggressive subgroups. This cycle, most likely, repeats over-and-over. At some point though, the new dynamic begins taking hold for longer and longer periods of time.
The dormant gene activates for the long term and social stratification begins molding the religion and politics that will come. As Berman writes:
“The potential for verticality of both a political and a religious sort may possibly be inherent in human makeup, but apparently it gets (or got) triggered in HG societies for the most part only under certain stressful conditions. When that happens, a certain aggressive subgroup comes forward to take power, and this pushes the rest of the group into a prisoner’s dilemma situation: get on the bandwagon or get left behind.”
History, in large part, chose the bandwagon.
The next post will focus on the political and religious aspects of the bandwagon most of us are traveling in.