Origin of Social Inequality: Wandering God (Part 2)

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.”

Importance of Storage in Rise of Social Inequality

All of which provides us with a clue as to when.

Berman writes:

“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 spread of social inequality is kept in check

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.

Existential Awareness and How We Deal With It: A Wandering God Review (Part 1)

Existential awareness — that mundane experience we all take for granted — had dramatic historical effects. Morris Berman explores some of these effects in his book Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality.

Who are nomads? What is their spirituality and consciousness like?  How does it differ from more sedentary cultures?  What role did it play (and what role might it continue to play) in the evolution of human consciousness? 

Berman hints at an answer for the role of nomadic spirituality when he writes of his personal motivations:

“Years of body work and meditation led me to believe that paradigm zeal is rooted in a denial of our somatic experience. Emotions, often painful, live in the body; paradigm-shift addiction (like substance addiction) enables us to escape these emotions and live in our heads. Carl Jung and the transpersonalist’s (…) call for a renewed spirituality only went so far, in my view; clearly, we needed a renewed corporeality if we were not going to repress the body and fall into the trap of a new mythology, make a fetish out of our supposedly new spirituality.”

A lot of painful emotions that live in our body can be traced back to the dawn of existential awareness. It’s here that we’ll start off.

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Human History in Three Revolutions

Cognitive Revolution

 

The pace of biological evolution makes paint drying on a wall seem like NASCAR, so not a lot of noteworthy stuff occurs  until we arrive at anatomically modern humans in East Africa 200,000 years ago.

Although slowness still reigns, it picks up a bit 70,000 years ago when the Cognitive Revolution begins. This is one of three major revolutions that Yuval Noah Harari details in his comprehensive book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.  (…) From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens. To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes, hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well.”

Long before Christianity or the French Revolution came, the development of language itself and the radical expansion in our ability to think and communicate came. All of subsequent history is indebted to the gifts imparted by the Cognitive Revolution.  Continue reading

Separation Worldview to Interbeing World Presence

Transition from Old Story Self to New Story Self
The Sense of Self in the Old Story, the Space Between Stories, and the New Story

The human story undergoes a dramatic plot twist a few thousand years ago. A nomadic lifestyle of Interbeing World Presence morphs into a sedentary lifestyle of a Separation Worldview.

The “agriculturalization” phase shift that William Irwin Thompson outlines in his model of cultural transformation eventually grows into Civilization, Industrialization, and where we are now.

Where we are now is inside the narrative depths of what Charles Eisenstein calls the Old Story.

He writes:

“The world as we know it is built on a story. To be a change agent is, first, to disrupt the existing Story of the World, and second, to tell a new Story of the World so that those entering the space between stories have a place to go.”

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To WIT: Cultural Transformation

In keeping with the recent theme of long-term thinking and deep-time narratives, the cultural historian William Irwin Thompson (W.I.T.) sketches out a compelling mind-jazz mosaic in his article Natural Drift and the Evolution of Culture.

It provides a model for the Evolution of Consciousness over the past few million years. This is a notoriously tricky endeavor because, as Thompson writes:

“It is one thing to talk of the evolution of the small Ice Age horse shown on the walls of Lascaux to the modern long-legged race horse, but quite another to talk of the evolution of Renaissance perspectival painting into the abstract landscapes of Kandinksy and Pollack.”

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Progress Traps and Blind Spots

headsinsandblog

Ronald Wright in his book A Short History of Progress explores how the progress that allows civilizations to grow often leads them into addictive traps that end in their collapse.

His definition of progress comes from Sidney Pollard who, back in 1968, described it as “the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind … that it consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and that this direction is toward improvement.”

This default assumption, so deeply ingrained in people’s thinking and ability to visualize futures, is an idea that’s only about 300 years old. Despite that,  it holds us tight.

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