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The problem of social inequality

Has man ever really lived with nature in freedom and equality, and then ended up in the links of modernity? This essay attempts nothing less than to add the first building blocks to a whole new understanding of history. 


The essay is written by David Graeber together with David Wengrow / Eurozine

Regarding the endless repetitions of Rousseau's innocent "state of nature" and the subsequent fallout: Has man really lived with nature in freedom and equality – and then with the emergence of the mother in links? The story we and the researchers have told about where we come from is, according to David Graeber and David Wengrow, erroneous and continues the idea that social inequality is inevitable. From the beginning, humans have experimented with different social alternatives. This essay attempts nothing less than to add the first building blocks to a whole new understanding of history.

1. In the beginning was the word

For hundreds of years we have told ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality: In most of human history, we lived in small, egalitarian groups of hunters and sankers. Then came agriculture, and with private property, and then cities and civilization grew as we know it today. Civilization brought about a lot of negative (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery ...), but also enabled people to develop literature, science, philosophy and make most of our greatest discoveries.

Almost everyone knows this story roughly. Since at least Jean-Jacques Rousseau's time, it has guided how we imagine the form and direction of human history. This is important, since the narrative also defines our view of what is politically possible. Most people consider civilization and thus social inequality a tragic necessity. Some dream of going back to a prehistoric utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent of "primitive communism," or even (in extreme cases) of dismantling the entire society and going back to living as hunters and sankers. But no one challenges the very structure of the story we hold.

This story has a fundamental problem. It does not match reality.

The last 40 years

An overwhelming body of evidence from archeology, anthropology and similar disciplines has begun to give us a fairly clear idea of ​​what the last 40 years in human history have really looked like. In almost no way does it resemble the aforementioned conventional narrative. The human species has not spent most of its history in small groups; agriculture did not mark an irreversible transition in social evolution; and the first cities were often highly egalitarian. But even when researchers have gradually agreed on these issues, they are still strangely reluctant to share their findings with the public – not to mention reflecting on what political implications they may have. The consequence is that the writers who actually reflect on the "big questions" in human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris and others – still use Rousseau's questions ("what is the origin of social inequality?") As a starting point. They assume that the overall story begins with a kind of fall from the ancient times' innocent paradise. By formulating Rousseau's questions, they take for granted a number of assumptions such as 1: that "social inequality" exists, 2: that there is a problem, and 3: that there was a time when inequality did not exist. 

Egalitarian cities are historically quite common. Egalitarian families and households are not.

Since the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing turmoil, the "social inequality" problem has naturally been at the center of political debate. There is apparent consensus among intellectuals and politicians that social inequality has grown completely out of proportion, and that most of the problems in the world stem from this in some way. Just pointing this out is seen as a challenge to global power structures. But we can compare this to how similar issues were discussed a generation earlier. Unlike terms such as "capital" or "class", the word "inequality" is practically tailored to lead to half-way solutions and compromises. Crushing capitalism or shedding state power is something you can imagine. But to end "inequality" is more difficult. Surely none of us wants to be completely identical?

Living in paradise?

In line with the wishes of technocratic reformist politicians, "inequality" is a way of framing social problems. It lets us puzzle with statistics, levels of social dysfunction, tax models and social welfare mechanisms. They shock the public with figures showing how bad things have become ("who would have thought that 0,1 percent of the world's population is richer than 50 percent of the world!") – without looking at any of the factors criticized by a "dissimilar" distribution: that some succeed in using their wealth to exercise power over others, and others are told that their needs are not important and that their lives are devoid of intrinsic value. The latter is referred to only as the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality is an inevitable result of living in a large, complex, urban, technologically advanced society. 

This political message is spread along with the retelling of an imagined time when we should have lived in paradise – before the inequality arose. So  If we were to really get rid of these problems, we would have to almost 99,9 percent of the world's population go back to living in tiny little groups of hunters and sanctuaries. If not, we can only hope to downsize the shoe size that hits us in the face, or maybe to push us some more space so that some of us can slip away from the shoe.

The established attitude within sociology is now to reinforce this hopelessness. Almost monthly, we are confronted with publications that invite us on a failed search for "egalitarian societies" – defined in such a way that they could possibly not have existed other than in small groups of hunters and sankers (and maybe not even then). 

New understanding

Now let's first look at what is presented as accepted knowledge of the topic. We will reveal how even the seemingly most sophisticated academics today reproduce theories that were presented in France or Scotland in the 1700th century. then we try to add the first building blocks to a whole new understanding of history. But first and foremost, the work consists of clearing away the old ones. The questions we address will require several years of research and debate in order for us to begin to understand at all the implications of this new view of history. 

But to shrink the story of man's fall from ancient times paradise is not the same as to shrink the dream of human liberation – that is, the dream of a society where no one uses their property rights to make others slaves, and no one is told that their lives and needs are insignificant. Rather the opposite. The human understanding of history contains more hope when we can free ourselves from the conceptual links of history.

2. The origins of social inequality, and the perpetual recycling of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Let's start by summarizing the conventional version of human history. It looks something like this:

Then the scene opens to human history about two hundred thousand years ago with the anatomically modern homo sapiens, our species occurs in small, mobile groups of about 20–40 individuals. They try to find the best areas for hunting and retrieval, where they can follow animal herds and pick nuts and berries. If resources become scarce or social tensions arise, they move on and find new territory. The life of these early humans – the childhood of mankind, if you will – contains certain dangers, but is also full of possibilities. Although they have few material possessions, the world is an unblemished and inviting place. Most work only a few hours a day, and the small size of the social groups allows them to cultivate a kind of uncomplicated camaraderie, without formal power structures. When Rousseau wrote about this in the 1700th century, he referred to this life as the "state of nature" – but today this period is believed to have contained most of human history. This is believed to be the only era when people were able to live in genuinely equal societies without classes, casts, inherited leadership or centralized governance.

But paradise can not last forever. This our conventional version of world history marks the moment when paradise ended, until about 10 years ago, towards the end of the last ice age. At this time, our imagined ancestors are spread across the continents of the world, and have begun to cultivate their own crops and run livestock. The effects are enormous and virtually the same everywhere. Territorial conquests and private property become important in a way that was previously unknown, and with them come occasional feuds and wars. Agriculture brings with it a surplus of food, which allows some to earn a living and gain influence over others. Some people use the freedom to look for food to acquire new skills, for example by inventing more sophisticated weapons, tools, vehicles and walls – or by forming political and religious groups. These "Neolithic farmers" quickly gain the upper hand over their hunter-gatherer neighbors, exterminating them or incorporating them into a new social inequality.

According to this understanding of history, agriculture leads to a global population increase. Our ignorant ancestors take yet another irreversible step into social inequality: Da the cities arising about 6000 years ago, human destiny is a fact. With cities comes centralized governance, and new classes of bureaucrats, priests, and defense politicians in permanent positions to keep order and ensure an undisturbed flow of goods and public services. Women – who have had prominent social roles in the past – are ignored or imprisoned in harems. Prisoners of war reduced to slaves. Social inequality has come to be in its full form. But such storytellers assure us that something is positive about the rise of urban civilization: Writing is invented – initially to keep track of accounting and other public affairs – and also enables incredible advancement in science, technology and art. The story is that we sacrificed our innocence and were made the slaves we are today. Today, therefore, we can only look with pity or jealousy on the few "traditional" or "primitive" societies that still exist.

This is claimed as the foundation of all modern debate on social inequality. It goes without saying that most of human history took place in small, egalitarian groups, or that the rise of the cities also led to the rise of the state. For example, look at Francis Fukuyamas The Origins of Political Order: From the Prehuman Times to the French Revolution:

“In the first stages of human political organization, it resembles the group-based society we can observe with more advanced primates, such as chimpanzees. This is a kind of basic form of social organization. [...] Rousseau pointed out that the origins of political inequality exist in the development of agriculture, and this is by far the right one. Since group-based communities existed before agriculture, they had no private property in the modern sense. ”

Like Rousseau

And annet eksempel: I The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Jared Diamond suggests that such groups (which he believes humans lived in "as recently as 11 years ago") consisted of "only a few dozen individuals," most of whom were related. Life was simple: they "hunted for wild animals and harvested plants that existed within a certain forest area." Decisions were made with "face-to-face discussions", they had "few personal assets" and lived without any "formal political leadership or strong economic specialization". Diamond concludes that it is unfortunately only in these prehistoric groupings that humans have ever managed to achieve a significant degree of social equality.

For Diamond and Fukuyama, like Rousseau a few centuries before them, it was the invention of agriculture and the subsequent population growth that – all over the world and forever – put an end to egalitarian society. Agriculture made small hunter and sanker groups “tribal,” and food surplus led to population growth, with hierarchical chief-controlled communities. Fukuyama paints a picture reminiscent of the Bible's fall: "As the small groups of people migrated and adapted to new environments, they moved away from the state of nature and developed new social institutions." They war over resources.

There has never been any garden of Eden.

Like young people, these communities were at full speed for trouble. It was time to grow up, time to appoint proper leadership. In a short time, the chieftains had changed to calling themselves kings and emperors. It was useless to fight against new complex forms of organization. The leaders began to behave badly – and made use of the surplus in agriculture to strengthen the positions of relatives and subordinates,  made their status eternal and hereditary, gathered on trophies and formed harem of slave girls, or tore out rivals' hearts with primitive knives. Still, it was too late to turn around, according to the storytellers mentioned. 

"Large population groups," claims Diamond, "cannot function without chiefs who make decisions, subordinates who implement them, and bureaucrats who administer decisions and laws. To you anarchists who dream of living without any form of government, Unfortunately, this is why the dream is unattainable: You will then have to find a small group or tribe that is willing to include you, where everyone knows everyone, and where you do not need kings, presidents and bureaucrats. "

A bleak conclusion not only for anarchists, but for anyone who asks if there is an alternative to the status quo. But the most remarkable thing is that despite Diamond's good-natured tone, there is insufficient scientific evidence for such statements. We cannot take for granted that small groups are more egalitarian and that larger population groups must necessarily have kings, presidents or bureaucrats. These are presumptive assumptions presented as facts.

In the case of Fukuyama and Diamond, one can at least take into account that they do not have a background in the relevant disciplines (the former are state scientists, and the latter have a doctorate in gallbladder physiology). But even when anthropologists and archaeologists come up with stories about the "big picture" of history, they also have a peculiar tendency to end up with a slightly revised version of Rousseau's theories. 

Göbekli Tepe

3. But did we really want to run into our links?

One of the strangest things about these endless repetitions of Rousseau's innocent "state of nature," and the subsequent fallout, is that Rousseau himself never claimed that the state of nature actually existed. It was all a thought experiment. In his About the inequality between people, their origin and basis (1754), which is the source of most of the story we have told (and retold), he wrote: "... the research, which we can use for this purpose, should not be regarded as historical truth, but merely as hypothetical and conditional reflections, better suitable to illustrate the nature of things rather than to show their true origin. "

Rousseau's "state of nature" was never intended to be a stage of development. It should not correspond to the "wild" phase, which opens the evolutionary systems of philosophers such as Adam Smith, Ferguson, Millar, or later Lewis Henry Morgan. These were interested in defining levels of social and moral development, consistent with historical production changes such as hunting and retreat, agriculture and industry. What Rousseau presented is more like a biblical parable. 

The famous Harvard social scientist Judith Shklar emphasizes that Rousseau was really trying to explore what he saw as the fundamental paradox of politics: that our inherent quest for freedom continually leads us on a "spontaneous march toward inequality." To quote Rousseau himself: “Everyone ran straight into their links in the belief that they secured their freedom; because although they had reason enough to see the benefits of political institutions, they did not have sufficient experience to predict the dangers of them. " 

Rousseau was no fatalist

What people have created, he thought, can change them. We are able to free ourselves from our links, it's just not that easy. Shklar therefore argues that the tension between the possibility of human liberation and the likelihood that everyone will submit to voluntary submission again inspired Rousseau's texts on inequality. This may seem a bit ironic since many conservative critics after the French Revolution held Rousseau personally responsible for the guillotine. What caused the terror, they insisted, was precisely his naïve belief in man's inherent goodness, and his conviction that a more equal social order could simply be imagined by intellectuals and then realized by the will of the majority. 

But very few of the romantic and utopian thinkers were so naive. Karl Marx, for example, claimed that what makes us human is our power over abstract notions. Even as hard-hearted realists begin to talk about human history in broad terms, they fall back on an edition of the Garden of Eden: the fall of sin (often caused, as in the creation story, by human desire for knowledge) and the possibility of a future liberation. Marxist political parties developed their own version of history – a kind of fusion of Rousseau's state of nature and the Scottish Enlightenment idea of ​​stages of development. The result was a formula for world history that began with the original "primitive communism," which was abolished with the introduction of private property – but which will one day resurrect. We must hereby conclude that revolutionaries, despite their idealistic visions of the future, have not been very imaginative – especially when it comes to linking past, present and future. Everyone tells the same story. 

Now it's time for the rest of us begins to imagine what a non-biblical version of human history might look like.

The most active and creative revolutionary movements at the start of this millennium – the Zapatists in Chiapas and the Kurds in Rojava as the most obvious examples – draw on a more mixed and complex understanding of history than a prehistoric utopia.

4. Equality and inequality based on past history

What can we really learn from recent archaeological and anthropological research since Rousseau's time? Asking the question "what is the origin of social inequality?" is probably the wrong place to start.

We find lavish funerals dating back to the ice age. In the permafrost during the Paleolithic settlement in Sungir, a middle-aged man was found, whom Fernández-Armesto observes was buried with "impressive symbols of honor: bracelets made of fine-tuned mammoth ivory, headdresses of tufts, and nearly 3000 carefully carved and polished ivory pearls." And in an identical grave beside him, "two children, aged about 10 and 13, lay honored with similar funeral gifts. In addition to the older child there were about 5000 pearls which were as fine as the adult ones (only slightly smaller in size) and a huge lance of ivory ”.

Such findings are not given much attention in any of the books we have mentioned so far. One could more easily forgive that this is toned down or reduced to footnotes if the Sungir find had been an isolated find. But it's not. Similar lavish burial sites have now been found in stone caves from the Paleolithic period and in open settlements over large parts of Western Eurasia, from the Don to the Dordogne. Among them we find, for example, the 16-year-old "lady of Saint-Germain-la-Rivière", adorned with ornaments made from the teeth of young deer 000 kilometers away, in the Spanish Basque Country. And in the tombs on the Ligurian coast – as old as Sungir – with, among others, the "prince", a young man buried with regalia in the form of a scepter of exotic flint, rods of elk antlers and an ornate headdress with a pierced skull and deer teeth. Such findings suggest a different interpretation of history. For is Fernández-Armesto right when he claims that this proves a form of "inherited power" and inequality even at this time? What kind of status did these individuals have while they were alive?

Monumental architecture

At least as fascinating are the sporadic but compelling finds of monumental architecture that date as far back as the last glacial maximum. The idea that one can measure the "monumental" in absolute terms is of course as foolish as the idea that one can quantify consumption during the ice age in dollars and cents. This is a relative concept that only makes sense within a certain ranking of values ​​and previous experiences. The Pleistocene has no parallels to the Pyramids of Giza or the Colosseum of Rome. But the era had buildings that by the standards of the time must have been considered public works, suggesting sophisticated drawing skills and coordination of work at an impressive level. Among them are the incredible "mammoth houses" made of leather that was stretched over a frame of large mammoth teeth. Examples of this, dating to around 15 years ago, can be found along the ice edge from present-day Kraków all the way to Kiev.

The majority of sociology treats these bleak prospects as self-evident truths.

And even more inconceivable are the stone temples in Göbekli Tepe, which were excavated over twenty years ago on the border between Turkey and Syria, and are still being discussed in detail by researchers. The temple dates to about 11 years ago, at the very end of the last ice age, and contains at least twenty megalithic buildings high above the now deserted edge of the Harran Plain. Each of them consisted of over five meters high limestone columns weighing up to a ton (at the same level as Stonehenge, and about 000 years earlier). Virtually every pillar in Göbekli Tepe is a striking work of art, with animal depictions in which the male genitalia are menacingly depicted. Statues of birds of prey appear together with images of severed human heads. The carvings show advanced sculptural skills, most likely designed in a more malleable material such as wood before being transferred to the bedrock of Harran. The fascinating thing is that despite the size, each of these massive structures had a relatively short lifespan, which ended with a large feast and the filling of the walls: hierarchies raised to heaven were then torn down again. And the protagonists in this prehistoric play of fortification, construction and demolition were, as far as we know, hunters and gatherers who lived off wild food resources.

"Ice Age princes"

How should we interpret this? An academic response has been to reject the idea of ​​an egalitarian golden age, and to conclude that rational self-interest and the acquisition of power are perpetual forces in human social development. But this is also not quite right. The evidence base for institutional inequality in ice age societies, whether in the form of grand burials or monumental buildings, is very sporadic. The tombs are literally hundreds of years apart, and often hundreds of miles apart. Although we could explain this by the fact that the evidence is deficient, we still have to ask why it is so deficient. For if any of these "ice age princes" had behaved like bronze age princes, we would also have found walls, warehouses, palaces with them – the signs of an early state.We see monuments and wonderful burial sites from over tens of thousands of years – but little else that suggests hierarchical societies. The "Prince Tombs" contain individuals with large physical deviations; people who today would be considered fighters, humpbacked or dwarves.

The seasons and micro cities

A broader perspective on the archaeological finds gives us a key to solving the dilemma. The key lies in the importance of the seasons in the social life of prehistory. Most of the paleolithic sites we have discussed so far are linked to evidence of annual or biennial periods of farming, in line with the movement of animal flocks – such as mammoth, steppe bison, reindeer or (as in Göbekli Tepe) gazelles. Besides, cyclical patterns of fishing walks and harvesting of nuts. In this year's more demanding or cold times, our ice age relatives lived unbelievably in small groups. But there is overwhelming evidence that, at other times of the year, they have accumulated from over large geographical distances in "Micro cities," as it was discovered in Dolní Věstonice, south of Brno, where they had large eating grounds. They participated in complex rituals, ambitious art projects and exchanged minerals, shells and animal furs. 

Western European examples of these seasonal gatherings are the large stone caves of the French Périgord and the Cantabria coast, with their famous paintings and carvings, which were also included in an annual round of public gatherings and spreads.

Such seasonal patterns in social life persisted long after the "discovery" of agriculture supposedly changed everything – as historians write. Recent findings show that such exchanges may be the key to understanding the famous Neolithic monuments of Salisbury Plain, and not just as examples of seasonal symbolism. It turns out that Stonehenge was just the latest in a long series of ritual structures – erected in both timber and stone as people from all over the British Isles flock to this particular area at important times of the year. Careful excavations have shown that many of these structures, now interpreted as monuments to the ancestors of the mighty Neolithic dynasties, were dismantled only a few generations after they were erected. 

Why are these seasonal variations important? Because they reveal that humans from the beginning experimented with different social alternatives. Anthropologists describe such societies as societies with a "dual morphology". 

The Inuit and the political upheaval

Marcel Mauss, who wrote at the beginning of the 1900th century, observed that the Inuit «and many other societies […] have two social structures, one in summer and one in winter, and that they operate with two parallel systems of law and religion ”. During the summer months, the Inuit spread into small patriarchal groups hunting for freshwater fish and reindeer, subordinate to one senior male authoritarian leader. Properties were strictly marked, and the patriarchs at times exercised tyrannical power over their lineage. But during long winter months, when seals and walruses flocked to the Arctic coast, another social structure took over. The Inuit came together to build large assembly houses of wood, whale ribs and stone. Inside these houses were equality, altruism and collective life; wealth was distributed, and spouses swapped partners under the protection of the goddess Sedna.

Another example was the native hunter and sanker group on the northwest coast of Canada. For them, winter – not summer – was the season when society crystallized in its most non-egalitarian form. Plank-built palaces were erected along the coast of British Columbia, with nepotistic monarchs holding large feasts called Potlach. But the aristocrats' court dissolved when the summer and fishing season came. All went back to smaller clan formations, which were still hierarchical, but with a completely different and more informal structure. People even had different names in summer and in winter; They literally became a different one depending on what time of year it was.

Perhaps the most striking example of political upheaval are the seasonal practices of 1800th-century tribal groupings in the Great Plains of America – occasional farmers who had adopted a nomadic hunting life. In late summer, the small and highly mobile Cheyenne and Lakota groups gathered in large settlements to make logistical preparations for the buffalo hunt. At this important time of the season, they appointed an orderly power that had the right to imprison, whip or fine any person who was a threat to the hunt. However, as anthropologist Robert Lowie observed, this "divergent authoritarian power" operated only temporarily on the season. It was replaced by more "anarchist" organizational forms when the hunting season, and the collective rituals that followed, were completed.


Akademia does not always follow a progressive line. Sometimes it goes back a few notches. A hundred years ago, most anthropologists realized that people who largely lived off wild resources were usually not confined to small groups. This idea actually dates from the 1960s, when Kalahari tribes and Mbuti pygmies became a popular image of the indigenous people for TV viewers and scientists. The consequence is that we have seen a return to the idea of ​​developmental stages. This is, for example, Fukuyama alternates when he writes that society evolves steadily from "small groups" to "tribes" to "governed societies", and finally to the complex and hierarchical "state" – with a monopoly on " legitimate use of forced power ”. However, according to this logic, the Cheyenne and Lakota groups would have "evolved" from small groups directly to their own states about every November, and then developed in the "negative" direction again in the spring. Most anthropologists now realize that these categories are useless, but so far no one has come up with an alternative to the great patterns of world history.

 The "state of nature" is believed to be the only era when people were able to live in genuinely equal societies without classes, caste, inherited leadership or centralized governance.

Regardless of this, archaeological finds indicate that in the very seasonally flexible environments from the last ice age, our distant relatives behaved largely the same way. They alternated between alternative forms of social organization, and allowed authoritarian structures to take shape in certain seasons – provided that they were temporary and that no social organization should be permanent or rigid. The same group of people sometimes lived in what from a distance looks like a small group, other times as a tribe, and other times as a society with many of the features we now identify by a state. With institutional flexibility comes the ability to step outside given social structures and reflect on them – to both shape and reshape the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the "princes" and "princesses" from the last ice age who seem to appear in a marvelous isolation – like characters in a fairy tale or costume drama. Maybe that was exactly what they looked like. If they had any power at all, then perhaps, as for the kings and queens of Stonehenge, it was only for one season.

5. Time to rethink the story

Is the prehistory used for philosophical questions about whether humans are fundamentally good or evil, cooperative or competing, egalitarian or hierarchical? 

It seems very likely, and it also supports the research that the same past humans who colonized much of the planet also experimented with a huge variety of social organization. As Claude Lévi-Strauss often pointed out, were not the early ones Homo sapiens just like modern humans physically, but also intellectually. Probably most of them were sea aware of societal forms than people generally are today – since they alternated between different forms of organization each year. Our distant relatives limited social inequality to ritual costume dramas, and constructed gods and kingdoms as they built monuments, so happy to dismantle them again.

The big question, therefore, is not "what is the origin of social inequality?". Rather, according to the changing political systems of history, it is: "Why did we get stuck?" Either far from the race blindly into the institutional links, or the depressing prospects of Fukuyama, Diamond, Morris and Scheidel – where any "complex" form of social organization necessarily means that small elites take power over key resources and begin to suppress everyone else. The majority of sociology treats these bleak prospects as self-evident truths. Truth without coating. What other established truths should we throw at history's scrap heap? 

In the 1970s, the outstanding archaeologist David Clarke predicted that "the explanations of modern man's development, metallurgy, urbanization and civilization will be revealed as semantic traps and metaphysical illusions". It turns out he was right. New knowledge is now flowing from all corners of the world, based on carefully conducted empirical fieldwork, advanced climatic reconstruction techniques, chronometric dating and scientific analysis of organic remains. Scientists are now seeing ethnographic and historical material in a new light. Almost all new research disputes the well-known story of world history.

A New World History

So let's end with a handful of our own headlines to give an indication of what a new world story is starting to look like.

First, how agriculture began and spread: There is no longer any support that agriculture marked a sudden upheaval for human society. In fact, in those parts of the world where land and livestock farming was first established, there was not a noticeable "switch" from the paleolithic hunter / sanker to the neolithic farmer. The "transition" from living largely on wild resources to a life based on food production usually took about three thousand years to complete. While agriculture opened for opportunity to more unequal distribution of wealth, this happened in most cases millennia after agriculture originated. Meanwhile, ethnic groups in areas as far away as the Amazon and the fertile crescent in the Middle East tried their hand at agriculture, switching from year to year between modes of production – as often as they switched between social structures. It also turns out that the spread of agriculture to secondary areas, such as Europe – which is often triumphantly described as "the beginning of the inevitable end of hunter-gatherer life" – was actually a very fragile process. Sometimes it failed and led to demographic collapses of agricultural communities rather than of hunter-gatherer communities.

There has never been any garden of Eden-like natural state where the first farmers took the first steps towards the non-egalitarian society. It makes little sense to talk about agriculture as the source of differences and private property. If nothing else, it is among the "Mesolithic" peoples – who refused to take up agriculture in the thawing centuries of the younger Holocene – that we see signs that difference-based societies are becoming more common, at least if we are to judge by magnificent burials , warfare and monumental buildings. In some cases, such as in the Middle East, the first farmers seem to have deliberately developed alternative forms of society that fit their more labor-intensive lifestyles. These Neolithic communities look strikingly egalitarian compared to its hunter and sank neighbors, with a dramatic increase in women's economic and social importance. This is reflected in art and rituals  - just look at the contrast between the women figures in Jericho or Çatalhöyük and the hypermasculine sculptures in Göbekli Tepe.


"Civilization" did not come as a package either

The world's first cities did not emerge in a handful of places along with centralized governance and bureaucratic control. In China, for example, we now know that within 2500 BC, settlements existed that were concentrated over 1000 acres in the lower reaches of the Yellow River, over 1000 years before the first Shang Dynasty was founded. On the other side of the Pacific, ceremonial centers of magnificent scale have been found in the valley of Río Supe in Peru from the same period. The most notable site from here is Caral's enigmatic ruins and monumental platforms – four millennia older than the Inca kingdom. 

Such new discoveries indicate how little we actually know about the spread and origin of the first cities. Nor how much older these cities can be than assumed necessary systems of authoritarian management and written administration for such to be formed. And in the more established centers of urbanization – Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, Mexico Valley – there is increasing evidence that the first cities were deliberately organized with egalitarian lines and municipal councils with considerable autonomy over central governing power. In the former cases, cities with sophisticated social infrastructure flourished for over half a millennium without any trace of royal burials or monuments. Neither is there any use of military force or armies or widespread use of force. There was also no evidence of direct bureaucratic control over citizens' lives.

To overthrow the rulers with violence?

Contrary to Jared Diamond's theories, there is absolutely no evidence that top-down management was a necessary consequence of large-scale organization. Contrary to Walter Scheidel's theories, it is simply not true that the ruling classes, once created, could not be dissolved other than with a major disaster.

Let us take one well-documented example: About 200 in our time, the city of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, with a population of 120 (one of the largest in the world at the time), seems to have undergone a significant upheaval. There they turned their backs on pyramid temples and human sacrifices and reconstructed themselves as a large collection of comfortable villas, all of about the same size. This lasted for maybe 000 years. Even in Cortés' time, central Mexico still had cities such as Tlaxala, which was run by a popularly elected city council, with members on a regular basis. whipped by their constituents as a reminder of who ultimately sat in power.

The pieces for a completely different world history

Most of us are too blinded by prejudice to see the implications. For example, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can possibly work in small communities or activist groups, but it is impossible to "scale up" to something as large as a city, region or nation state. But the evidence in front of our eyes, if we just choose to see them, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regions, are historically quite common. Egalitarian families and households are not. History shows that the worst abuses against human freedom are in the immediate spheres,  within gender relations, age groups and within the family – social relationships with the greatest intimacy also have deep forms of structural violence. Here one can understand how it is accepted that some exploit the power to suppress others. Or how to tell that someone's needs or life no longer matters. This is where the most demanding work of creating a free society exists.

Copyright © David Graeber.
The essay (abbreviated here) was first published this year
by Eurozine, where Ny Tid is a partner. 

See To reduce the world history of Gini coefficients

David Graeber
David Graeber
Graeber was Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. (died Sept 2020)

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