The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Romanticizing the Egalitarians

As a graduate student, I worked as a teaching assistant as well as a lab instructor, and taught many a student the rudimentaries of anthropology and archaeology. A necessary part of the instruction is explaining the different types of social organization one is likely to encounter in the ethnographic and archaeological records. 

And when you are dealing with alot of idealistic young college students, they tend to become quite enamored with "egalitarian" cultures...pretty much always without having a real understanding of what the term means.

And egalitarian culture is one where everybody is at about the same social level most of the time - someone may become a leader for a short time when their particular expertise or confidence is useful in a situation, only to give way to another leader under different circumstances.  People follow not because someone is a chief or king or any other fixed hierarchical leader, but because that person is able to persuade others to follow them.

There are, of course, many different variations on egalitarian societies.  In some, there may be some degree of formalized leadership, but it tends to be fluid and open to anyone who meets certain requirements (all men past the age of puberty, for example), in others there really are no recognition of leaders, just people who can persuade you to do things.

Naturally, my students would romanticize people who live(d) in these societies.  There was a pervasive notion amongst the undergrads that people who lived in egalitarian societies were inherently more peaceful and led idyllic lives.  One student even informed me that she felt moved to write a paper for another class that compared the (as she saw them) egalitarian and peaceful !Kung San of Africa with our current status-obsessed violent culture, and found us to be quite lacking.

I pointed out to this student that, according to the ethnography on which she was basing her views of the !Kung San, domestic violence was fairly common, and abject poverty the norm.  In other words, there ain't no such thing as Utopia.

What my students never seemed to pick up on is that social organization tends to evolve in place (with the exception of those relatively unusual instances where it is successfully imposed from the outside...even in which cases it tends to e warped to fit local conditions and traditions).  Egalitarian societies are not the product of gentle, enlightened souls who see a better way of organizing, they are the product of a system of resource procurement and use coupled with a low population density that allows such societies to exist without descending into chaos.  Importantly, they only seem to work when you have a society in which there are a small enough number of people that everyone can both keep tabs on each other (to ensure that you are engaged in no wrong doing, and to make sure that you are not aggrandizing yourself) and equally share in the available resources.  As soon as you have a large enough number of people packed into a small enough area, and accompanying resource stress, there is a need for organization in order to distribute what is needed to where it is needed.  In other words, hierarchies, if they haven't formed already, will begin to form.

Now, with our ancestors, it's not clear which came first: did the population density/resource stress require hierarchies to develop, or did hierarchies develop and allow larger population densities to grow?  It's an interesting question, but one that is rather beside the point as far as making judgements go.  Once you have the number of people in the volume of space that occur in modern industrial and post-industrial nations, hierarchies are necessary. 

That's not to say that the hierarchies always work well (they can be inefficient and ineffective) or that they are always nice to live in (ask a 19th century factory work about how much they enjoy life), but they are necessary to allow life to continue past a certain point in human cultural development.  And we're not going to go back without killing off a huge portion of the global population.

If my students had recognized this, then they may have been able to start working towards what they really seemed to want: a society in which there is some degree of social equality even if organizational inequality is necessary - indeed, during the 19th and 20th centuries, progress was even made on this front.  But as long as they romanticized these other cultures without recognizing both what allowed them to work, and the shortcomings of these societies, they were going to be dreamers without a viable cause.

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