Sixth Meditation on Democracy [written January 10, 2008] REPUBLISHED

https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elic­it inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have anoth­er round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-post­ing them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Most­ly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updat­ing.


14-03-18 BLOG SIXTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACYFor this Med­i­ta­tion on Democ­ra­cy, the sixth in the series, I will under­take a cri­tique of some cur­rent­ly dom­i­nant ideas about the role of democ­ra­cy in human his­to­ry, and attempt to pro­vide a con­cep­tu­al frame­work for look­ing at democ­ra­cy in a dif­fer­ent, more real­is­tic way. This will mean that some of the ground cov­ered in ear­li­er med­i­ta­tions will be revis­it­ed. It will also draw on the col­lab­o­ra­tive work between myself and Prof. Steven Muhlberg­er, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of World His­to­ry, and on the World His­to­ry of Democ­ra­cy Web­site. I am exclu­sive­ly respon­si­ble, how­ev­er, for the views expressed in this series. 

The cri­tique will rest on these asser­tions:

Democ­ra­cy is not a tem­po­rary or recent phe­nom­e­non, but a mode of human social behav­iour that has exist­ed since the ear­li­est com­mu­ni­ties of “mod­ern” humans appeared, some­where between six­ty and a hun­dred thou­sand years ago, and which is in turn based on our roots among pro­to-humans and our pri­mate ances­tors.

Democ­ra­cy is an expres­sion of fun­da­men­tal ele­ments in human social psy­chol­o­gy, and hence, not “cul­ture-spe­cif­ic” or “belong­ing” to any par­tic­u­lar human cul­ture, eth­nic group, or local­i­ty.

Democ­ra­cy is not an “ide­ol­o­gy” co-equal and alter­na­tive to oth­er “polit­i­cal sys­tems”, but is in fact sui gener­is, a mode of human behav­iour fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent from ide­olo­gies of pow­er and rule.

Democ­ra­cy is not the prod­uct of any sequence of “stages” in his­to­ry, nor is it more or less nec­es­sary or desir­able in any time or place. It is nei­ther the prod­uct of a pseudo-“evolution” of human soci­eties, nor the prod­uct of par­tic­u­lar modes of pro­duc­tion, eco­log­i­cal nich­es, or con­fig­u­ra­tions of pop­u­la­tion.

Democ­ra­cy is a mode of human social inter­ac­tion that can be prac­ticed by any human group, of any size, with any type of tech­nol­o­gy, and at any time or place.

Democ­ra­cy is a prod­uct of human intel­li­gence and cre­ative imag­i­na­tion, in the same way that tech­nol­o­gy, art, and music are. These fields of human cre­ativ­i­ty are the direct con­se­quences of human fac­ul­ties, not pas­sive­ly deter­mined by envi­ron­ment. In oth­er words, human sculp­ture in wood comes about because of a built-in need of humans, as con­scious, think­ing, and self-aware beings, to manip­u­late phys­i­cal objects for rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al and sym­bol­ic pur­pos­es. It is not mere­ly a side-effect of the avail­abil­i­ty of wood. If wood is not avail­able, then the impulse to carve will find anoth­er object, such as bone, stone, clay, or even the human body itself. Sim­i­lar­ly, democ­ra­cy is a prod­uct of the pro­found­est cre­ativ­i­ty in human nature, the abil­i­ty to grasp that oth­er human beings are not mere­ly exter­nal objects, but con­scious beings, sim­i­lar and equal to one­self. Con­se­quent­ly, democ­ra­cy can­not be explained as the result of tem­po­rary con­di­tions, such as pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty, cli­mate, resource lim­its, birthrates, or modes of pro­duc­tion, though these vari­ables may influ­ence its appli­ca­tion.

The pur­pose of democ­ra­cy is to pro­mote and pro­tect the well-being of humans, while its oppo­nent prin­ci­ple, crime (war­fare, caste sys­tems, hered­i­tary priv­i­lege, tyran­ny, aris­toc­ra­cy, dic­ta­tor­ship, theoc­ra­cy, and total­i­tar­i­an ide­ol­o­gy) is patho­log­i­cal. Thus the rela­tion­ship of democ­ra­cy to the “polit­i­cal” con­cepts sub­sumed in crime is sim­i­lar to that of the healthy organ­ism to infec­tious dis­ease. The rela­tion­ship is one of con­stant strat­e­gy and counter-strat­e­gy, inno­va­tion and adap­ta­tion, with the preda­tors on human­i­ty exploit­ing every nov­el con­di­tion as an “open­ing” to estab­lish their infec­tion. Thus, polit­i­cal crime, embod­ied in caste, aris­toc­ra­cy, or king­ship, is “nor­mal” and “nat­ur­al” to human soci­eties, in the same sense that infec­tious dis­ease is endem­ic to it. That “nor­mal­cy” does not mean that crime is either desir­able, or that we should pas­sive­ly tol­er­ate it. Demo­c­ra­t­ic thought and action con­sti­tute the prac­ti­cal strat­e­gy for sur­viv­ing the pathol­o­gy of tyran­ny, just as under­stand­ing biol­o­gy and prac­tic­ing clean­li­ness are the prac­ti­cal strat­e­gy for sur­viv­ing the ever-vari­ant assaults from dis­ease.

With­in a human com­mu­ni­ty, the pathol­o­gy of crime is man­i­fest in the ten­den­cy, desire, and abil­i­ty of some human beings to manip­u­late, dom­i­nate and con­trol oth­ers. This pathol­o­gy only occurs in dan­ger­ous lev­els among a minor­i­ty of human beings.

The strate­gies of this crim­i­nal minor­i­ty are vari­ants and com­bi­na­tions of vio­lence, min­ion recruit­ment, intim­i­da­tion, and decep­tion. What dis­tin­guish­es the behav­iour of crim­i­nals from nor­mal humans is their con­sis­tent use of these meth­ods to achieve ends exclu­sive­ly ben­e­fi­cial to them­selves. The crim­i­nal minor­i­ty dis­play what psy­chol­o­gists iden­ti­fy as a “socio­path­ic” per­son­al­i­ty. They con­ceive of oth­er human beings as objects, and take plea­sure in manip­u­lat­ing them and dis­pos­ing of them, but feel no empa­thy for them. They are aware that their vic­tims are con­strained by con­science, by empa­thy, and oth­er social and eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, but they are not under any such con­straints them­selves. As Mao-Zedong, the quin­tes­sen­tial exam­ple of the sociopath, once wrote: “Of course there are peo­ple and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me.” The crim­i­nal minor­i­ty thus regards the bulk of human beings as prey, and observes the weak­ness­es of that prey with cool detach­ment. They eas­i­ly antic­i­pate and pre­dict the behav­iour of their vic­tims, while the vic­tims have great dif­fi­cul­ty in inter­pret­ing or antic­i­pat­ing theirs.

Democ­ra­cy is depen­dent on the close­ly relat­ed val­ues of hon­esty and fair­ness. These val­ues are not eas­i­ly achieved. They require metic­u­lous and repeat­ed effort on the part of human beings to dis­cern truth, and judge what action is fair to a mul­ti­tude of indi­vid­u­als in a mul­ti­tude of sit­u­a­tions. It is not some­thing that can be done effec­tive­ly alone, but requires col­lab­o­ra­tive and co-oper­a­tive actions. Since it depends for its suc­cess on a close cor­re­spon­dence to real­i­ty, options for action are con­strained. Crim­i­nals have no such con­straints. They can employ any strat­e­gy they chose, from a wide selec­tion, none of them depen­dent on truth, con­sis­ten­cy, or fair­ness. Since real­i­ty is not the con­cern of the liar, any lie that serves the preda­to­ry goal can be employed, and there are infi­nite options in lying. Psy­cho­log­i­cal manip­u­la­tion and fraud are the most pow­er­ful tools employed. Phys­i­cal force only sup­ple­ments them, and is usu­al­ly sup­plied by hench­men or oth­er psy­cho­log­i­cal depen­dents.

Dom­i­nance and tyran­ni­cal pow­er are fun­da­men­tal­ly the same on all scales. A small-time con-artist bilk­ing elder­ly wid­ows of their sav­ings, and a Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States bilk­ing 300,000,000 Amer­i­cans out of their sav­ings are the same type of per­son­al­i­ty, employ­ing the same tech­niques, to the same ends. Jim Jones, manip­u­lat­ing a hand­ful of fol­low­ers into abject obe­di­ence and sui­cide, and Mao Zedong, manip­u­lat­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions into abject obe­di­ence and sui­cide, are the same per­son, doing the same thing, with the same tech­niques, for the same pur­pos­es. There is no dif­fer­ence except the num­bers of vic­tims. This is true of all tyran­ny, from a sin­gle abu­sive hus­band tor­ment­ing a wife and chil­dren, to a dic­ta­tor run­ning a vast empire of hun­dreds of mil­lions, the motives, means and ends are iden­ti­cal. They are one sin­gle phe­nom­e­non. Con­se­quent­ly, the demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ple that oppos­es tyran­ny is a sin­gle phe­nom­e­non, poten­tial­ly adjustable to any scale

Ide­olo­gies” or “beliefs” pro­claimed by crim­i­nals are mere emp­ty noise. They are the “sto­ry” man­u­fac­tured by the con-artist, strict­ly for the con­sump­tion of the cred­u­lous vic­tim. Attempts by the vic­tims to explain or pre­dict the behav­iour of crim­i­nals in terms of their “val­ues” or on the basis of the abstract ideas and procla­ma­tions in their ide­olo­gies, are fool­ish. The more one does this, the more crim­i­nals will exploit this creduli­ty strate­gi­cal­ly.

Crime, man­i­fest­ed in pur­port­ed “social sys­tems”, is eas­i­ly mod­i­fied in details, and trans­fered or inher­it­ed from one gen­er­a­tion of crim­i­nals to anoth­er. Each such trans­fer con­tributes to the “endem­ic” nature of the crime. For exam­ple, con­sid­er one of the most com­mon cas­es of manip­u­la­tive fraud: the asser­tion that some humans are either des­tined or espe­cial­ly fit to rule oth­ers, by rea­son of their birth in a par­tic­u­lar lin­eage or clan. It may take many gen­er­a­tions of rep­e­ti­tion and manip­u­la­tion to gain accep­tance for this lie. But once accept­ed, the lie acquires the tremen­dous pow­er of per­ceived nor­mal­cy. Sub­se­quent liars need only per­form to a min­i­mum lev­el of com­pe­tence to main­tain the fraud. Soci­eties that have expe­ri­enced gen­er­a­tions of aris­toc­ra­cy or king­ship, no mat­ter how debil­i­tat­ing or destruc­tive, come to see the dis­ease as inher­ent, inevitable, and pre­or­dained. They enter a psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion sim­i­lar to that of abused spous­es, who, trapped in mis­placed loy­al­ty, can­not see any alter­na­tive to sub­mis­sion to the abuser. Aris­toc­ra­cies that have gained accep­tance in this way are some­times dis­lodged by oth­er clans or lin­eages, who sim­ply usurp the same role. By this time, the con­cept of a “supe­ri­or” lin­eage does not even need to be based on real con­ti­nu­ity. A “super-lie” can ride pig­gy-back on the orig­i­nal lie, with­out strain­ing the creduli­ty of the vic­tims. Demo­c­ra­t­ic analy­sis seeks to iden­ti­fy and dis­cred­it the under­ly­ing lies, rather than just to com­bat par­tic­u­lar liars and par­tic­u­lar tyrants.

The careers of spe­cif­ic crim­i­nals are facil­i­tat­ed by the exis­tence of a back­ground of gen­er­al­ly accept­ed lies. It is there­fore in the inter­est of all crim­i­nals to encour­age and per­pet­u­ate these gen­er­al lies, as well as the spe­cif­ic lies that they tell in their course of manip­u­lat­ing spe­cif­ic vic­tims. Among these gen­er­al lies is the notion that what crim­i­nals do, in defraud­ing, manip­u­lat­ing, bul­ly­ing, and exploit­ing their vic­tims, is ben­e­fi­cial to human beings in some neb­u­lous col­lec­tive fash­ion. Through­out his­to­ry, we have been bom­bard­ed by asser­tions that aris­toc­ra­cy, king­ship, tyran­ny, and caste hier­ar­chies exist for the pur­pose of pro­mot­ing the well-being of the peo­ple sub­ject­ed to them, or that they came into being because they pro­duced ben­e­fi­cial results for a major­i­ty, or because they are nec­es­sary for human “progress”. There is absolute­ly no truth to these asser­tions. One might as read­i­ly pro­claim that the Black Death came into being because the peo­ple of the Mid­dle Ages need­ed it to improve their soci­ety, or that plague bacili were need­ed by our bod­ies to bet­ter direct and secure our health. But these gen­er­al lies are wide­ly believed, and form the basis of much of our his­tor­i­cal lit­er­a­ture and polit­i­cal dis­course.

Now, let’s look at the first of these asser­tions in detail.

I — Democ­ra­cy is not a tem­po­rary or recent phe­nom­e­non, but a mode of human social behav­iour that has exist­ed since the ear­li­est com­mu­ni­ties of “mod­ern” humans appeared, some­where between six­ty and a hun­dred thou­sand years ago, and which is in turn based on our roots among pro­to-humans and our pri­mate ances­tors.

There is now a con­sid­er­able body of work on the social behav­iour of pri­mates and ear­ly humans. Behav­iours that were once con­sid­ered to be unique to mod­ern humans, or the prod­uct of recent human cul­tures, have been observed among our pri­mate rel­a­tives. Friend­ship, love, hate, jeal­ousy, rage, co-oper­a­tion, altru­ism, alliances, tac­ti­cal decep­tion, reci­procity, group sol­i­dar­i­ty, war­fare, mourn­ing, play — vir­tu­al­ly the entire panoply of feel­ings and behav­iour that we iden­ti­fy as “human” — have been unam­bigu­ous­ly observed among our clos­est bio­log­i­cal rel­a­tives. They have also been observed among some oth­er ani­mals, such as ceta­tians (orcas, dol­phins and whales). We have been made aware of this by a half cen­tu­ry of metic­u­lous sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion. The observers had to over­come con­ven­tion­al assump­tions that non-human ani­mals were mechan­i­cal automa­tons. It is now accept­ed that many ele­ments of human behav­iour and soci­ety came to us from our com­mon ances­tors. It is also clear that some ele­ments have tak­en a dis­tinc­tive course in our species.

Once they had absorbed the con­cept that our pri­mate rel­a­tives have gen­uine cul­tures, sci­en­tists became puz­zled by one sig­nif­i­cant con­trast between pri­mate soci­eties and the soci­eties of hunter-gath­er­ers that we know con­sti­tut­ed the human com­mu­ni­ty for a peri­od of tens of thou­sands of years before record­ed his­to­ry.

The range of behav­iour of indi­vid­u­als in a troop of chim­panzees is per­fect­ly rec­og­niz­able to us. How­ev­er, chim­panzee soci­ety is extreme­ly hier­ar­chi­cal, with alpha-males rul­ing over oth­ers through intim­i­da­tion. It is by no means a tran­quil hier­ar­chy. Rul­ing chimps climb to the top by schem­ing, bul­ly­ing, and vio­lence. Those at the acme of pow­er are often deposed by con­spir­a­cies among less­er-ranked rivals. Mur­der, rape, vio­lent beat­ings, exile, and ostracism are com­mon­place. Nor is there any evi­dence that the troop as a whole ben­e­fits from the extra priv­i­leges (large­ly sex­u­al) that the dom­i­nant claim. Much ener­gy that could have gone to effi­cient food gath­er­ing, or to com­mon defense against rival troops or preda­tors, is wast­ed in inter­nal strife. Chim­panzee soci­eties are often sapped, desta­bi­lized, and torn apart by the antics of dom­i­nance-seek­ers. As in human soci­eties, vio­lent dom­i­nance is sought by only a minor­i­ty of indi­vid­u­als. The same soci­eties abound in exam­ples of equal col­lab­o­ra­tion, friend­ship, and con­vivi­al­i­ty. Chim­panzee soci­eties attempt, as best they can, to lim­it the pow­er of dom­i­nant indi­vid­u­als, by com­bin­ing into tem­po­rary alliances to defy or depose them. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, such alliances depend on care­ful­ly co-ordi­nat­ed simul­ta­ne­ous dis­obe­di­ence, car­ried out at exact­ly the right moment. Such oppor­tu­ni­ties and co-ordi­na­tion are rarely pos­si­ble with­out advance plan­ning, which Chim­panzees don’t seem to be able to man­age. Con­se­quent­ly, most chim­panzees live under the shad­ow of tyran­ny. The psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal cost on the aver­age, low-sta­tus chim­panzee is no dif­fer­ent from the costs inflict­ed on humans sub­ject­ed to tyran­ny.

Over the last two mil­lion years, a num­ber of hominid species appear in the fos­sil record. They are clear­ly descend­ed from the same group of pri­mates that is ances­tral to chim­panzees, bono­bos, and goril­las, to whom we have a very close genet­ic and phys­i­o­log­i­cal resem­blance. Their behav­iour, how­ev­er showed pro­gres­sive diver­gence from their rel­a­tives. Chim­panzees occa­sion­al­ly use tools, for exam­ple, and occa­sion­al­ly fab­ri­cat­ed them, but the ancient hominids start­ed to use them much more often and much more delib­er­ate­ly. Chimps, bono­bos and goril­las remained con­fined to a nar­row range of envi­ron­ments in the trop­i­cal forests of Africa, while hominids moved into a vari­ety of new envi­ron­ments. In fact, they spread out of Africa to cov­er a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the globe, albeit in very small num­bers and den­si­ty. Some­how, hominids lost the nor­mal ani­mal ter­ror of fire, and at some point began to use it to their own ends.

At some time, rough­ly esti­mat­ed at about 100,000 years ago, hominids appeared on the scene who can be described as mod­ern humans. Phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly, they were our species. Oth­er vari­eties of hominids seem to have been rapid­ly replaced by them. As far as we can tell, our species has had the same basic capac­i­ties and pro­cliv­i­ties from then until now. There is no rea­son to believe that a child plucked from a tribe of mam­moth hunters of thir­ty thou­sand years ago could not suc­cess­ful­ly go through grade school, high school and uni­ver­si­ty, and earn a degree in social anthro­pol­o­gy. Our ear­li­est evi­dence of this kind of “mod­ern human” is accom­pa­nied by signs of sym­bol­ic and artis­tic activ­i­ties. Some ear­ly human camp­sites, for exam­ple, con­tain large quan­ti­ties of care­ful­ly worked neck­lace beads, very fine­ly craft­ed and requir­ing a huge invest­ment in labour and time, but with­out any dis­cernible “sur­vival” val­ue. Caves and rock-faces in many loca­tions are cov­ered with paint­ed art, dat­ing from many thou­sands of years ago. Many, such as those at Alta Mira, in the Pyre­nees, are breath­tak­ing­ly beau­ti­ful. We know, from hunt­ing-and-gath­er­ing peo­ples who have sur­vived into his­tor­i­cal times, that these paint­ings are replete with mean­ing­ful sym­bol­ism, and rep­re­sent com­plex ideas. We also know, from the exam­ple of many such soci­eties, that rock art must have been accom­pa­nied by oth­er forms of aes­thet­ic expres­sion, in wood, bark, and ani­mal bi-prod­ucts, in dress, in body dec­o­ra­tion, in music, in dance. It is a plau­si­ble infer­ence that lan­guage, in rough­ly the way we know and use it, appeared some­time around the same time as these artis­tic cre­ations, or at least it acquired a greater degree of refine­ment. It is hard to see how all this sym­bol­ic and artis­tic activ­i­ty could exist with­out lan­guage, and the skele­tal remains of mod­ern humans have phys­i­o­log­i­cal fea­tures that look like they specif­i­cal­ly facil­i­tate lan­guage in var­i­ous ways.

After mod­ern humans appeared, and scat­tered across the Earth, it appears that we lived in small bands engaged in hunt­ing ani­mals and gath­er­ing wild foods. This lifestyle occu­pied about nine­ty per­cent of our his­to­ry. Now, we have many exam­ples of peo­ple who have main­tained this lifestyle into recent times, or even into the present. Most of these soci­eties have been stud­ied in great detail, so we have some idea how they func­tion polit­i­cal­ly. These soci­eties dif­fer from our ape rel­a­tives in one very dra­mat­ic way. They are not dom­i­nat­ed by vio­lent alpha males, they do not have rigid hier­ar­chies, and they are not near­ly as inter­nal­ly vio­lent. They are not with­out vio­lence. In fact, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, they have more cas­es of assault and mur­der, per capi­ta, than we find in mod­ern, urban soci­eties. How­ev­er, vio­lence remains excep­tion­al behav­iour among them, while it is dai­ly and com­mon­place among oth­er pri­mates. If the sur­viv­ing hunter-gath­er­er soci­eties that we are famil­iar with are any­thing like the soci­eties that exist­ed among humans since we became rec­og­niz­able as a species, then it appears that, in becom­ing mod­ern humans, some­thing hap­pened that made us con­sid­er­ably less vio­lent, and some­thing hap­pened that made us less hier­ar­chi­cal.

Hunter-gath­er­er soci­eties have con­sis­tent­ly been described by anthro­pol­o­gists as “egal­i­tar­i­an”, and while this descrip­tion can be mis­lead­ing unless it is qual­i­fied in pre­cise ways, it seems like­ly that tens of thou­sands of years of human his­to­ry were char­ac­ter­ized by small com­mu­ni­ties of human beings who man­aged their affairs by mutu­al con­sent, arbi­tra­tion, con­sen­sus, or major­i­ty vote in delib­er­a­tive coun­cils. These tech­niques have been observed in hun­dreds of small soci­eties, in every region of the world [see exam­ples cit­ed in Muhlberg­er & Paine, Democracy’s Place in World His­to­ry]. They are all com­po­nents of demo­c­ra­t­ic orga­ni­za­tion, and many observers have noticed that the details of coun­cil-based pol­i­tics in “prim­i­tive” soci­eties are as sophis­ti­cat­ed — and as prac­ti­cal­ly effec­tive — as the activ­i­ties in the par­lia­ments of advanced indus­tri­al nations. The same com­pro­mis­es, coali­tions, quid-pro-quos and con­flict-avoid­ance strate­gies are employed, whether in a hunt­ing band decid­ing whether to move camp up the riv­er to anoth­er bluff, or among Toron­to­ni­ans decid­ing whether or not to expand a sub­way sys­tem. The inter­nal affairs of such pre­his­toric com­mu­ni­ties can be described as “pro­to-demo­c­ra­t­ic”, because deci­sions were made by con­sen­sus or con­cil­iar debate among peo­ple who treat­ed each oth­er, at least in some sense, as equals. If the sur­viv­ing hunter-gath­er­er soci­eties that we are famil­iar with are any­thing like the soci­eties that exist­ed among humans since we became rec­og­niz­able as a species, then we have a his­to­ry of tens of thou­sands of years of pro­to-demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment as a com­mon her­itage.

The equal­i­ty may have been more than in for­mal deci­sion-mak­ing. Observers of a vari­ety of such cul­tures have not­ed that an “egal­i­tar­i­an ethos” per­vades such soci­eties, far beyond the scope of polit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing. Social cus­toms are in place that firm­ly dis­cour­age the psy­cho­log­i­cal dom­i­nance of one per­son over oth­ers. Boast­ing is dis­cour­aged, and habit­u­al­ly pugna­cious or vio­lent peo­ple are shunned. Claims to spe­cial priv­i­lege or pres­tige are rou­tine­ly deflat­ed by ridicule. This kind of “lev­el­ing” pres­sure is a notable ele­ment of groups that must sur­vive extreme con­di­tions, such as the high arc­tic or dri­est deserts, where the bossi­ness or tyran­ny of a dom­i­nant indi­vid­ual will quick­ly endan­ger the sur­vival of the group.

Christo­pher Boehm is an anthro­pol­o­gist who has stud­ied many aspects of egal­i­tar­i­an behav­iour from an evo­lu­tion­ary stand­point. He notes that:

All nomadic for­agers are egal­i­tar­i­an, a pat­tern that makes the adult males, and some­times also the females, into equals as house­hold heads. They are polit­i­cal­ly egal­i­tar­i­an to the degree that named lead­er­ship roles are lack­ing or devoid of author­i­ty, sta­tus dif­fer­ences among polit­i­cal­ly autonomous house­hold heads are mut­ed, and indi­vid­u­als who try to influ­ence group deci­sions must do so very cir­cum­spect­ly. The guid­ance mech­a­nism for this delib­er­ate behav­ior is an egal­i­tar­i­an ethos that involves a set of indige­nous atti­tudes that make for strong val­u­a­tion of per­son­al auton­o­my of adults.These val­ues help gen­er­ate group hos­til­i­ty toward any indi­vid­ual who even attempts to assume a seri­ous role of author­i­ty in the band, let alone bald­ly tries to coerce oth­er adults. Alpha-male types are not allowed to flour­ish, even though the ten­den­cy to engage in sta­tus rival­ry and seek dom­i­nance per­sists and can still be expressed with­in care­ful­ly cir­cum­scribed lim­its. [1]

Since the pio­neer­ing stud­ies of the Dobe !Kung of south­ern Africa, a con­sid­er­able amount of effort has been made to study the dynam­ics of such egal­i­tar­i­an behav­iour. In the begin­ning, the inter­pre­ta­tions of these anthro­po­log­i­cal obser­va­tions where undu­ly influ­enced by dis­tort­ing “noise fac­tors”. One such mis­lead­ing idea was the Rousseau-an day­dream of a utopi­an “nat­ur­al man”, which need­ed lit­tle encour­age­ment to get out of hand. Anoth­er was the influ­ence of the pseu­do-egal­i­tar­i­an pre­ten­sions of var­i­ous total­i­tar­i­an polit­i­cal philoso­phies. More than one anthro­pol­o­gist was inclined to twist the pro­found­ly indi­vid­u­al­ist soci­eties of hunter-gath­er­ers into the mould of the com­munes and col­lec­tives which total­i­tar­i­an philoso­phers envi­sioned, in their pur­suit of the exact oppo­site. The prop­er place and func­tion of “shar­ing” was not under­stood by peo­ple to whom the word has always been a polit­i­cal or reli­gious slo­gan, rather than a prac­ti­cal con­cept. There was also con­sid­er­able con­fu­sion of “egal­i­tar­i­an­ism” with “uni­for­mi­ty”.

A sub­tler and more clear-head­ed exam­i­na­tion of hunter-gath­er­er soci­eties shows that they are not some kind of undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed col­lec­tive mush. Hunter-gath­er­er soci­eties prac­tice shar­ing of some things, for spe­cif­ic rea­sons, and indi­vid­ual own­er­ship of oth­er things, with both cat­e­gories clear­ly dis­tin­guished. Shar­ing is invari­ably tied to risk-reduc­tion in obtain­ing high­ly vari­able resources. It makes more sense to cus­tom­ar­i­ly share the meat of a hunt­ed moose, since such a wind­fall may not pre­dictably come your way, and you will soon enough be glad when anoth­er hunter shares with you. Cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gists now have a clear­er grasp of these cus­toms, and no longer attribute a state of mys­ti­cal col­lec­tivism to such soci­eties, but a ghost of this mis­un­der­stand­ing still haunts his­to­ri­ans, econ­o­mists, and soci­ol­o­gists. Less well under­stood, even by anthro­pol­o­gists, is that almost all human groups fall back on this pat­tern on an infor­mal basis, among friends, rel­a­tives, or in small com­mu­ni­ties, what­ev­er the struc­ture of their larg­er polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions.

Egal­i­tar­i­an­ism is unre­lat­ed to “col­lec­tivism”. In fact, it is its oppo­site. Peo­ple in hunt­ing bands remain pro­found­ly indi­vid­ual. They main­tain the clear under­stand­ing, lost on many mod­ern intel­lec­tu­als, that egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and indi­vid­u­al­ism are cor­rel­a­tive, com­pli­men­ta­ry, and tight­ly-linked con­cepts. The essence of the polit­i­cal arrange­ments of such an egal­i­tar­i­an group is that each per­son, or at least each adult, or each head of a house­hold, is sov­er­eign. Boast­ful­ness and high-hand­ed man­ners are derid­ed and dis­cour­aged, because they are seen as inevitably lead­ing to one per­son vio­lat­ing the sov­er­eign­ty of anoth­er. This is why so many Euro­peans, encoun­ter­ing rel­a­tive­ly egal­i­tar­i­an com­mu­ni­ties for the first time, were con­fused by what struck them as inor­di­nate pride among indi­vid­u­als, and report­ed with aston­ish­ment that “they each seemed to think him­self a king”, or sim­i­lar obser­va­tions. They were equal­ly aston­ished by delib­er­a­tive coun­cils in which any tribesman spoke their mind with con­fi­dence, with coun­cils in which women par­tic­i­pat­ed, or coun­cils in which women alone exer­cised pow­er. Such things were lost in the shad­ows of their own his­to­ry, but they did not know this.

Close exam­i­na­tion of egal­i­tar­i­an soci­eties also reveals that they do not involve a uni­for­mi­ty of pow­er, of pres­tige, of wealth, or of influ­ence. Indi­vid­ual vari­a­tions of char­ac­ter and cir­cum­stance gen­er­ate many inequal­i­ties. An observ­er accus­tomed to think­ing of wealth in terms of bank accounts and lux­u­ry cars may not imme­di­ate­ly per­ceive an extra-nice gourd or a chick­en as con­spic­u­ous wealth, but they may be so. Only some­one who has grown up with them can see that one dog-sled team may be as dif­fer­ent from anoth­er as a Lotus Elise 340R is dif­fer­ent from a Hyundai Accent. Small com­mu­ni­ties, no mat­ter how egal­i­tar­i­an, exhib­it a maze of pres­tige con­flicts based on fam­i­ly, rep­u­ta­tion, access to cer­e­mo­ni­al objects, expe­ri­ence, phys­i­cal prowess, skills, or imag­ined access to mag­ic. Pow­er and dom­i­nance can be exer­cis­es just as effec­tive­ly through super­nat­ur­al beliefs as through vis­i­ble wealth or phys­i­cal strength. Even when deci­sions are strict­ly depen­dent on a coun­cil of equals, those who are clever or elo­quent clear­ly have the advan­tage over those who are not, and may effec­tive­ly pro­pel deci­sions in the direc­tion of their own inter­ests.

I noticed this very dis­tinct­ly, when I once attend­ed a meet­ing of the local Green Par­ty. The orga­niz­ers of the meet­ing made a big deal about how their “con­sen­sus-based” orga­ni­za­tion was supe­ri­or to “tra­di­tion­al con­fronta­tion­al democ­ra­cy”. In place of Robert’s Rules of Order, it fea­tured a capri­cious man­age­ment of the meet­ing by an obvi­ous alpha-dom­i­nant “facil­i­ta­tor” who was high­ly skilled at manip­u­lat­ing the dis­cus­sion in such a way that con­trary opin­ions were sup­pressed or ignored, and that his own agen­da would be served. Instead of a secret bal­lot, or even vot­ing by a show of hands, this “facil­i­ta­tor” got to arbi­trar­i­ly decide what the “con­sen­sus” was. It just hap­pened to be the same as his own view­point, and just hap­pened to be the only view­point allowed much expres­sion. I soon came to the con­clu­sion that this par­tic­u­lar orga­niz­er was hos­tile to “tra­di­tion­al con­fronta­tion­al democ­ra­cy” because it pos­sessed safe­guards that pro­tect­ed the rights of indi­vid­u­als, and ham­pered the schemes of “lead­ers” and oli­garchs.

Even when there is no such decep­tion prac­ticed, the quick-wit­ted and glib are like­ly to get their way in an infor­mal delib­er­a­tive coun­cil, so every cus­tom­ary safe­guard that lev­els the play­ing field can be cru­cial. It is these safe­guards, both for­mal and infor­mal, that give us the key to under­stand­ing the “egal­i­tar­i­an ethos” that prob­a­bly char­ac­ter­ized our long his­to­ry as hunters and gath­er­ers. It had noth­ing to do with cos­mic har­mo­ny. The egal­i­tar­i­an ethos did not exist because peo­ple were undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed, or equal in pow­er. It exist­ed because peo­ple were unequal in poten­tial pow­er. The pur­pose of the egal­i­tar­i­an ethos was to pro­tect the auton­o­my of indi­vid­u­als from the poten­tial threat from unavoid­able advan­tages and inequal­i­ties.

For exam­ple, It is a good thing that some­one is a skill­ful hunter, because it brings meat to the table for all, but every­one under­stands how easy it is for the skill­ful hunter to start lord­ing it over oth­ers, erod­ing their effec­tive polit­i­cal sov­er­eign­ty. In the tight per­son­al inter­ac­tions and social prox­im­i­ty of a hunt­ing band, the best way to deal with this poten­tial dan­ger is to nip boast­ing and swag­ger­ing behav­iour in the bud, with ridicule. If it per­sists, more pow­er­ful social sanc­tions are employed. Egal­i­tar­i­an soci­eties always face the pos­si­bil­i­ty of suc­cumb­ing to tyran­ny, but counter that pos­si­bil­i­ty with pro­phy­lac­tic cus­toms, which act to head off poten­tial tyrants. If we char­ac­ter­ize the polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion of the first eighty or nine­ty thou­sand years of our species’ exis­tence as “pro­to-demo­c­ra­t­ic”, then it is in recog­ni­tion of the fact that tyran­ny and aris­toc­ra­cy were always pos­si­ble in this peri­od. We can deduce the pres­ence of dis­ease organ­isms from the pres­ence of the appro­pri­ate anti­bod­ies. We can nev­er know with what fre­quen­cy those pro­to-demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions broke down, or were sim­ply cir­cum­vent­ed by par­tic­u­lar­ly clever crim­i­nals. My knowl­edge of some par­tic­u­lar hunt­ing cul­tures sug­gests to me that none were absolute­ly immune to the machi­na­tions of lit­tle Hitlers and lit­tle Lenins, and that they occa­sion­al­ly broke down into small tyran­ni­cal “states” serv­ing the inter­ests of a few. But I sus­pect that those pro­to-demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions worked rea­son­ably well, much of the time, until the trans­for­ma­tion of human soci­eties in the Bronze Age opened up oppor­tu­ni­ties for new crim­i­nal strate­gies.

When the egal­i­tar­i­an ethos of mod­ern hunter-gath­er­ers came to their atten­tion, paleo-anthro­pol­o­gists began to won­der how it was that human beings came to behave this way, when their pri­mate ances­tors appar­ent­ly did not. Pri­mate soci­eties exhib­it many human char­ac­ter­is­tics, but they all appear to be firm­ly in the grip of dom­i­nance hier­ar­chies, inter­rupt­ed by rebel­lions and coup-d’etats that mere­ly bring dif­fer­ent dom­i­nant alphas into power.[2] If human soci­eties with an egal­i­tar­i­an ethos were the lin­eal descen­dants of pri­mate soci­eties with dom­i­nant hier­ar­chies, how did this dra­mat­ic change come about?

A num­ber of ethol­o­gists, anthro­pol­o­gists, and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gists are lean­ing toward the the­o­ry that Lan­guage is the key. Lan­guage, as we have seen, appears to be inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed with the suite of behav­iours that par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­tin­guish human com­mu­ni­ties from oth­er pri­mates. It would not be sur­pris­ing if it was also instru­men­tal in devel­op­ing the fea­ture of social orga­ni­za­tion that dis­tin­guish­es humans from oth­er pri­mates. The argu­ment goes as fol­lows.

Pri­mate com­mu­ni­ties are always vul­ner­a­ble to being con­trolled by dom­i­nant indi­vid­u­als, who climb their way to pow­er by con­spir­ing togeth­er with oth­er indi­vid­u­als to over­throw the exist­ing tyrant, then either assume the top posi­tion and pay off their co-con­spir­a­tors with priv­i­leges, or enter a strug­gle with them for the top posi­tion. When in pow­er, they may con­sol­i­date it by tak­ing on the role of “peace-mak­er”, dif­fus­ing quar­rels among under­lings, and dis­ci­plin­ing whomev­er they choose, They back up their author­i­ty either with their own bru­tal vio­lence, or proxy vio­lence by hench­men. They take full advan­tage of their posi­tion to monop­o­lize mat­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties, or assign them to reward loy­al fol­low­ers. The major­i­ty of chim­panzees do not ben­e­fit from this arrange­ment in any dis­cernible way, except that the rel­a­tive calm when a tyrant is secure in his throne is bet­ter than the dan­ger­ous insta­bil­i­ty when he is acquir­ing or los­ing it. The tyrant does not pro­duce any­thing. He is a posi­tion to expro­pri­ate what he wants from oth­ers, and his genet­ic her­itage is favoured by enhanced breed­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties.

Pri­mate com­mu­ni­ties can and do revolt against this kind of author­i­ty, but revolts are like­ly to be led by ambi­tious indi­vid­u­als who will sim­ply replace the cur­rent tyran­ny with their own. This is a process very famil­iar to those of us humans who study his­to­ry. More­over, rebel­lions must be both spon­ta­neous and well-timed, or they are eas­i­ly foiled.

Lan­guage may have become a tool that allowed non-dom­i­nant hominids to col­lab­o­rate much more affec­tive­ly against vio­lent alpha-male tyrants. The abil­i­ty to talk about sit­u­a­tions and plan actions meant that non-dom­i­nant indi­vid­u­als could set up con­fronta­tions, ambush­es, and revolts at times when the dom­i­nant “king” did not expect it. In addi­tion, hand-held weapons, appear­ing rough­ly at the same time as lan­guage, may have altered the bal­ance of pow­er. The effec­tive­ness of such weapons was more deter­mined by plan­ning and clev­er­ness than by brute strength. Dom­i­nant chim­panzees are usu­al­ly phys­i­cal­ly big­ger and stronger than the sub­jects they bul­ly. Their dom­i­nance is enforced by phys­i­cal beat­ings, or the threat of them. Even a group attack on a big dom­i­nant chimp, rely­ing on fangs and pow­er­ful hands and feet, is a pret­ty dan­ger­ous gam­ble. But no mat­ter how much big­ger or stronger a mod­ern human is, he is com­plete­ly vul­ner­a­ble to being dis­patched by alliance of men wield­ing spears and clubs in a planned, co-ordi­nat­ed attack. Even a child can dis­patch a full-grown adult with a well-thrown rock. There is con­sid­er­able archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence that rock-throw­ing was a dis­tinc­tive skill for which hominids were phys­i­cal­ly adapt­ed, and for which oth­er pri­mates are not.

From the stand­point of what evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gists call “selec­tion pres­sure”, cer­tain spe­cif­ic recon­fig­u­ra­tions would have come about in response to the pres­ence of spo­ken lan­guage and hand-held weapons. The most vio­lent bul­lies that dom­i­nat­ed ear­ly hominids would have been weed­ed out of the gene pool. The more extreme their behav­iour, the less like­ly it would be for them to live long enough to pass on their genes. Females would become less like­ly to sub­mit to rape and beat­ings from alpha-males. Hominids would begin to exhib­it less dra­mat­ic dif­fer­ences in size between dom­i­nant and sub-dom­i­nant indi­vid­u­als, and between males and females. Among non-human pri­mates, the size dif­fer­ence between males and females is dra­mat­ic. Among humans, it is fair­ly triv­ial. Hun­dreds of gen­er­a­tions of “ambush­es”, enabled by the detailed infor­ma­tion exchanges, plan­ning, and pro­tract­ed alliances that lan­guage made easy, would effec­tive­ly put an end to the tyran­ni­cal rule of the large, vio­lent, alpha male, set­ting the stage for the egal­i­tar­i­an ethos.

The gen­er­al abil­i­ty to be vio­lent would not be bred out, because any group that did so would eas­i­ly fall pray to more vig­or­ous trib­al rivals, or fail to main­tain hunt­ing skills. But lan­guage would per­mit the devel­op­ment of social con­trols, which would act as pro­phy­lac­tic against in-group bul­ly­ing, while main­tain­ing the poten­tial for vio­lent action. The poten­tial for vio­lence is, in fact, nec­es­sary for the ulti­mate enforce­ment of the egal­i­tar­i­an ethos. It con­sti­tutes the fun­da­men­tal cir­cu­lar puz­zle that ethi­cists have long iden­ti­fied: we need laws to restrain the arbi­trary use of force, and force to make law mean what it says, and who shall guard the guardians? We have com­mit­ted our­selves to a pro­tract­ed exper­i­ment to solve this puz­zle, ever since we first came on the scene as a species.

This recon­struc­tion of events in human evo­lu­tion has come to be wide­ly accept­ed among paleo-anthro­pol­o­gists, most­ly because of its plau­si­bil­i­ty, and because nobody has come up with any sub­stan­tial counter-argu­ments. It is not nec­es­sar­i­ly or indis­putably what hap­pened, and it is dif­fi­cult to guess how it might be con­firmed or dis­proved. It does cre­ate, for the his­to­ri­an of democ­ra­cy, a viable the­o­ret­i­cal basis for the ori­gin of pro­to-demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions, and evi­dence for the asser­tion that democ­ra­cy is a uni­ver­sal human her­itage.

The nar­ra­tive implied by this spec­u­la­tion runs like this: All social ani­mals have some­thing describ­able as “pol­i­tics”. The pol­i­tics of our remote pri­mate ances­tors resem­bled the most destruc­tive of our own mod­ern pol­i­tics: An ear­ly hominid Mao Zedong or Adolph Hitler, by the sim­ple expe­di­ent of fly­ing into rages, bit­ing, kick­ing, rap­ing, and weigh­ing twen­ty kilos more than his rivals, was rou­tine­ly able to rule over any pri­mate soci­ety, to the detri­ment of its var­i­ous mem­bers, but to his own repro­duc­tive suc­cess. Along comes lan­guage, great stuff for plan­ning and con­spir­ing rebel­lion, and weapons, which neu­tral­ize the advan­tage of fangs and mus­cles. Mao Ape is top­pled from his throne, but he does not go away entire­ly. He is con­stant­ly being reborn among us. We our­selves always main­tain the poten­tial for vio­lence and, to vary­ing degrees, the temp­ta­tion to rule over oth­ers.

For most of us, dom­i­nance is a mut­ed desire. Nor­mal human beings want to be admired and respect­ed, and they want autonomous con­trol over their own lives, but they don’t crave to have oth­ers crawl­ing at their feet, nor do they get a big thrill from see­ing oth­ers suf­fer­ing or quak­ing in ter­ror. Nev­er­the­less, the genet­ic pack­age that keeps us alive also allows for the recur­rent reap­pear­ance of a psy­cho­log­i­cal type sim­i­lar to Mao Ape, who def­i­nite­ly does crave these things. In any group of humans, you will find a few, scat­tered among the vari­a­tions in human char­ac­ter. Their influ­ence can only be coun­ter­act­ed by the cul­tur­al pack­age: social con­trols that nip arro­gance in the bud, and demand strong and weak, big and small, rich and poor be respect­ed alike.

Mao Ape, when­ev­er he reap­pears, is not con­sis­tent­ly con­tained by these social con­trols. His restraint requires con­stant effort and vig­i­lance on the part of nor­mal humans, whose defen­sive strate­gies have to be com­plex and in tune. But he, too, can play the cul­ture game. He too, is equipped with lan­guage and sym­bols, can col­lab­o­rate with fel­low Mao-Apes, and devise counter-strate­gies to over­come social con­trols.

Thus came into being a per­pet­u­al arms race between us and Mao Ape, between demo­c­ra­t­ic and aris­to­crat­ic ideas.

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