I’ve been rereading an interesting book on The History of Everything, whose authors, David Graber and David Wengrow rebut the accepted narrative of the evolution of human society: that hunters and gatherers lived in small egalitarian bands; that the move to herding and agriculture enabled surpluses which led to hierarchy and patriarchy; as that increased in complexity, kings, courts, priests and serfs arrived on the scene; finally merchants and trade allowed the accumulation of capital that funded the industrial revolution and the modern state.
The authors argue that recent archaeological research has revealed complex social and political patterns amongst hunters and gatherers, with gatherings of thousands for ritual and trading purposes and the building of some monumental structures and residential complexes resembling small cities. But their life was always flexible and autonomous, which prevented any social or political structure becoming embedded. There are three basic freedoms: the right to move around, the right to say no to authority and the right to create social and political structures. The foragers had all three rights. If someone started to get stroppy, they either ridiculed them or moved on. (The Chinese, at this moment, have none of these rights. Nor do most of us have these rights in the workplace).
The move to agriculture took millennia with much ‘play farming’ taking place on flood plains which were easy to work, simply to supplement the foraging diet. They discovered early on that farming is hard work. The authors also argue that the Western ‘enlightenment’ and the demand for liberty, egality and fraternity was actually greatly informed by dialogue with Native American foragers. So, if our ancestors were so savvy, how did inequality come about?
It is a puzzle, but the authors find a germ of an answer, surprisingly, in the working of charity. There were chiefs amongst some foraging tribes but their role was mainly theatrical or spiritual and as long as people could say no or move away, their power was nominal. Except that one of the chief’s obligations was to provide shelter to orphans, widows, the disabled, captured warriors… those without means of livelihood. In doing so they built up an entourage that was unequal, reliant on his or her charity and therefore obedient and hard working and they couldn’t run away. The theatrical role became more powerful economically and politically. We are still a long way away from the autocrat with an army and a bureaucracy to enforce his or her will, but the seed of inequality has formed.
So, be wary of the next grant application