How did humans go from savanna-dwelling primates to moon-bouncing Tide Pod™ eaters? This is the big question that Big History has been trying to answer for millennia. Sure, other ages may have framed the question differently.
Pre-Internet historian Herodotus may have asked, How did humans get from Promethean clay to Babylon? Mass death enthusiast Christopher Columbus may have asked (he didn’t), How did humans get from biblical clay to Indian gold? But for the past few hundred years, the Big Thinkers, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Jared Diamond, have generally agreed on the basic contours of our history:
Humans set out on our baffling journey in a pristine Garden of Eden, living benignly in small bands of hunting and gathering primitives. They would dance, copulate, and paint in caves in an egalitarian state of nature, or a nasty, brutish one depending on your temperament and desire for couch cushions, cotton cuffs, and monarchy. Our fall from Eden came with the slithering of agrarian city-states into our lives. As soon as we began cultivating beans and beer, the story goes, we had to build a large bureaucratic apparatus to manage all the products and people populating these nascent city-states. Given the complexity of this task, dictators, kings, and emperors – keen administrators, that is – were unfortunately necessary to organize this dense population into productive workers. Most of the people living in this new thing called “civilization” would have to toil as slaves, alas. Sorry, this is just the Faustian bargain one must make to enjoy cities and storable food: wage/chattel slavery and all-powerful despots in exchange for literature, indoor plumbing, and memes.
But anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber, is having none of it. In a recent piece published in Eurozine, he and UCL archaeology professor David Wengrow argue that this story is all wrong. Instead, the Davids suggest, the story is a lot messier and a lot more open to alternative forms of civilization and economy:
In the beginning, there was no Eden. Pre-agrarian people were not all living in tiny, isolated bands of foragers. Some practiced pastoralism, herding goats and sheep, while others practiced horticultural, proto-agrarian techniques for cultivating semi-domesticated crops, while others would shift between modes of production depending on resource availability and season. Some roved in small, isolated kin bands; others would meet up at Stonehenge for a big months-long bender; or both.
Nor was egalitarianism baked into these early communities. Some were more patriarchal, others matriarchal, some were despotic, others democratic. Some were both: circumpolar Inuit people have a tradition of seasonal variations in social structure, their summers marked by rigid hierarchies during which patriarchal bands of hunters hoard food fish and reindeer meat, their winters egalitarian utopias in which “virtues of equality, altruism, and collective life prevailed.”
Furthermore, the transition to agriculture was not a revolution, they argue, but a long, gradual process of experimentation with diverse modes of production taking place over thousands of years and across thousands of miles. And just as there was political diversity among pre- or proto-agrarian groups, the agriculturalists were just as diverse in how they ordered society. Not all of these new agrarian populations were ruled by tyrants. Contrary to the idea long embedded in the imagination of Big Historians that all cities of antiquity were dynastic monarchies, “The first cities,” they suggest, “were often robustly egalitarian.”
Of course, as the authors point out, this new story is not really that new, and is not really that different from what mainstream anthropology has been purporting for a while. Instead, it’s a repudiation of popular historians – Francis Fukuyama, Jared Diamond, and Ian Morris are the three they focus their critique on – who try to build grand theories, oversimplifying, in their estimation, the complexity of humanity’s story. Their stated point of breaking the monopoly this story enjoys on our collective imagination is to liberate today’s political possibilities. Their point is to say that we could escape this cycle of creeping dictatorship and build more egalitarian polities even in our most dense, complex cities and economies. If we can imagine something better and desire it sufficiently, then we can fight for it and win it.
This is a rigorous throwing down of the gauntlet to some popular historians who have perpetuated a simplistic story of civilization, to politicians who lay their claim for power on the foundation of these civilizational cosmogonies, and to all of us who would sit satisfied to know our place in the hierarchy, placid but for a story that could free our aspirations, set our passion for freedom and fairness ablaze. Graeber and Wengrow have written an important rejoinder in the debate between those materialists who believe geography, resources, and physical modes of production are the most important factors in determining social structure, and those who believe ideas, culture, philosophy, social connections and movements, and institutions are more important forces shaping the world.
In this time of dwindling hope and meaning, this kind of opening of possibility is vital. Because this challenge is so important, because with climate disruption, collapse of the biosphere, burgeoning resource conflicts, and the inexorable consolidation of wealth and power rampant through the world, it’s worth trying to falsify the idea, or at least offer a caveat.
While it’s vital that we see all the myriad potentialities before us, we must also be clear eyed about those physical forces that stand in the way of progress, making reform, if not impossible, that much more difficult to sustain. The fact is, history is replete with brutal dictators and wildly successful emperors who practiced mundane genocide for sport, and enslaved multitudes for generations. The monuments to their successful savagery sneer in our faces to this day perched on pedestals we pay to visit. The fact is, while some early cities were egalitarian, they generally did eventually coalesce into tyrannical forced labor camps propping up playgrounds for the privileged and the violent.
People who lived in settled civilization, whether in Mesopotamia, China, India, Europe, Africa, or the Americas, usually, on the whole – not exclusively, but generally – for a bulk of preindustrial agrarian history did tend to live in states of relative inequality, privation, squalor, and servitude. At its most egalitarian, Classical Athens, held up as one of the few examples of democracy in antiquity, was still half made up of slaves. Only a small fraction of the population – male and landowning – were considered citizens with rights and enfranchisement. Was Antebellum South Carolina a democracy? Not even the highest egalitarian ideals of the ancient world to that point could free Athenian slaves.
Across the world, across cultures, ideologies, throughout all the myriad social forms and philosophical trends in the world, over and over again, brutal despotism has generally won. The so-called Axial Age thinkers like Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tse, Zarathustra, and others from Greek, Jain, and Judaic traditions advocated ideas of liberty and egalitarianism. Jesus was a successor to those ideals. Far from ushering in lasting cultural revolutions, their ideas were instead, nearly without exception, co-opted by rulers and exploited to justify the continued enslavement of the masses. They were doled out as opiates, one might say. Civilization has bloomed from a soil soaked in blood, tilled by the hands of slaves. Much of it still is, and no philosophies have succeeded in changing that fact for long.
Plenty of materialist theories have been put forth to explain this perpetual bend toward dictatorship and incessant rise of forced labor economies. Historian Karl Wittfogel developed his controversial “hydraulic civilization” idea – which eminent anthropologist Marvin Harris expanded on in Cannibals and Kings – purporting that populations in arid regions dependent on river systems for irrigation water were particularly vulnerable to the rule of hierarchical administrative states and mass wealth hoarding. Because an administrator could withhold the source of food and economic production so severely with the control of water flow, they could maintain strict control over the population. In less arid places, like Europe, where water could be less easily controlled, social structures were less likely to coalesce into strict hierarchies. The clash between more egalitarian, less patriarchal cultures in wetter Europe – like those inhabiting modern UK, France, and Germany – against the more rigid hierarchies of the semiarid Mediterranean in antiquity illustrates that division. (The more organized and hierarchal Romans won, spreading their dominion and totalitarian culture.)
Ian Morris, in Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, explains this tendency toward hierarchy and inequality in agrarian societies as occurring due to the nature of energy capture: that is, the energy on which societies depended could be most efficiently captured through organized, hierarchical, patriarchal social structures. The authors include Morris in their critique in perhaps the weakest point of their piece, responding to one of Morris’s New York Times op-eds instead of the arguments in his book, which feels more like a straw-man beating than a comprehensive rebuttal. It’s not clear from their piece that Morris’s framework is fundamentally incompatible with the point the authors are making.
Being a geographer rather than an archaeologist, I won’t speak further to these old debates about antiquity. To better understand this tension between materialist forces and social forces impacting economic and political structures and find evidence supporting one side or another, we don’t really need to look that far back. Instead, for a little insight into this debate, let’s look at the industrial age in which we live and the one resource that has made it possible: oil.
Industrial economies have mostly tended toward oligarchy. Not the brutal dictatorships of the agrarian world, but nevertheless toward the consolidation of wealth and power into few hands. The emancipatory politics of Marx were a response to this industrial consolidation. But they could not forestall the near constant and inevitable swing of communist regimes to violent, expansionist dictatorships. The rhetoric of mass individual liberty animating liberal economies could not stop capitalism from coalescing into the insidious, kleptocratic oligarchies of extreme wealth that sow privation and misery throughout the world today. Emancipatory ideals, and the activism and solidarity that have blossomed from them, have been important in jostling the politics of the 18th to the 21st centuries. But alone they cannot save us from perpetual consolidation of power. We have to recognize what is at the heart of this constant return to hierarchy and one answer, though it’s not the whole answer, lies in the nature of oil.
The “oil curse” refers to a long-studied phenomenon in which states that adopt petroleum as a significant foundation of their economy tend toward dictatorship. Of the top ten oil producing countries in the world, nine are oligarchies. Regardless of whether they formally consider themselves liberal democracies, communist states, constitutional emirates, or presidential federations, they all share the distinction of being ruled by a small, embedded elite under which their people suffer staggering levels of precarity, coercion, and incarceration, easily meeting the classical definition of oligarchy. When “developing” economies discover oil and become petrostates, the rule is: democracy suffers, inequality abounds, and civil war frequently ensues. The reason for this mostly comes down to the nature of oil: it is that rare resource that can be easily concentrated, it almost immediately turns into liquid cash money, and every industry and market in an advanced economy depends on it. This basic fact of the resources makes it more likely that it will be hoarded or withheld, and in doing so, will give a tiny minority immense wealth and power.
Of course there are a handful of exceptions to the oil curse. Norway has established a sovereign wealth fund meant to distribute its North Sea oil wealth broadly through the country. Norway has not succumbed to a tiny oligarchy to the extent of its counterparts, “Yet even the virtuous Norwegians have been raiding it for politically popular causes,” as the Economistputs it. Canada, sixth largest oil producer, is relatively egalitarian, but even liberal politicians like Trudeau ultimately work in service to the oil industry, as his recent deference to industry demands attests.
The US became a virtual petrostate in the mid-19th century with John D. Rockefeller monopolizing oil production and becoming the richest man in history (his assets have been calculatedat the equivalent of $340 billion in today’s economy). Since then, the country has suffered an oil curse of its own. The late-19th century was wracked with crippling inequality. “The richest 1 percent of Americans had the combined income of the bottom 50 percent and owned more property than the other 99 percent,” writes Colin Woodard in American Character. A popular movement ushered in the Progressive Era, which put in place the foundations for the New Deal era to bring broader individual liberty and equality to the country. But that midcentury dip in inequality has vanished. Levels of wealth and income inequality have returned to Gilded Age extremes, along with all their concomitant misery, despoliation, and despotism. That New Deal golden age appears now a mere brief aberration in the history of an oil-soaked United States.
There’s no reason to believe that current or future attempts to bring inequality to heel as the Keynesians did will succeed for longer than a generation or two, if at all, regardless of the left’s intellectual victories or the strength of its movements. That is, unless the US abandons its complete dependence on oil.
Today, we have an opportunity to forge a point of convergence between the idea that fundamental resources drive political change versus institutions and cultural ideas sparking progressive change. Why not try both? To dislodge our oligarchs, we must use every tool at our disposal. If we accept the idea that oil has largely cast a pall over our politics, that it is fundamentally more difficult to build an egalitarian economy with oil as its base, then to build a better world we must forsake oil. Simultaneously, we must build the solidarity movements necessary to ushering in more free and democratic polities. The tools with which to achieve both of these tasks exist now; in fact, there may be just one tool that can address both.
As I’ve written elsewhere, a grassroots, community energy movement can facilitate both goals. Decoupling the economy from oil by expanding renewables, particularly those that can be owned in a distributed manner by municipalities, neighborhoods, and individuals, could break the oil curse now helping to secure the immense inequality haunting the US. Owning the means of energy production is just as important to egalitarianism as broad ownership of economic production; they are the same. But, materiality aside, pursuing an energy movement could also build greater interdependence between people, could help break down the alienation that our economy’s masters have wrought, and could provide tangible community projects that bring people together into newly forged networks of solidarity. It is within these new energy networks, by their nature and by ours, that “virtues of equality, altruism, and collective life” could again take root.
From Valerie Tarico
Many conservative priorities flow from an ancient narrative built around one planet-busting idea—and progressives sometimes fuel it.
Human beings are story tellers. We make sense of our lives and the world around us by weaving tales—typically with ourselves and people like us as protagonists and heroes or—when things don’t go our way—victims. Narrative organizes our thinking so that a single concept or sentence can evoke a bigger set of ideas and related emotions. That is why the title of this article invokes an epic story.
Political movements, like other groups, organize themselves around stories—grand narratives scripted to answer questions such as these: What is the plot of history? Who matters? Who are the heroes and villains, and who do they protect or hurt? What is our quest, our promised land, and how do we get there? Sometimes this might be better phrased in more selfish terms—Who is in our tribe, and how do we come out on top? Often though, idealism and self-interest get mixed together, and because we humans are so centered in our own experience and so good at self-deception, it can be difficult to tell the difference. Within the stories that organize our thinking, we all see ourselves as good guys, even if history will later disagree.
Conservatives—including otherwise fair-minded and decent people–often have priorities that defy my sense of reality and morality. As conditions evolve and these priorities don’t, I believe they put at risk not only the future of American democracy but also the future of our planetary life support system. When I try to wrap my brain around what’s going on, I find myself bumping up against an ancient story, one that imbeds an idea so bad and yet so appealing that it may ultimately prove to be a planet buster.
The word conservative doesn’t mean the same thing to all who describe themselves that way. For example, libertarian conservatism has different roots from cultural conservatism. But deep in the minds of many self-described conservatives lies an ancient, archetypal narrative that has shaped human societies for millennia. The basic story can be told in religious or secular language, but these two have been woven together for most of history, so I will tell the Western theistic version believed by my parents and our conservative Evangelical community:
The Ancestral Story
With God in his heaven and his appointed authorities in their appointed positions, all is well with the world. Hierarchy provides order and stability, and each of us has his or her place in the proper order of things. From the beginning, this has meant men over women over children, bosses or masters over workers, “chosen” bloodlines over others, powerful tribes and civilizations over weak, and humans over other animals. Creation is man’s for the taking because it was made for us, who were made in the image of God, though some more so than others. Heaven on earth is when everyone recognizes and lives properly in accordance with divinely-appointed roles and rules. Wealth and military victories accrue to the righteous.
I call this narrative the Ancestral Story because it is the story believed by our ancestors and because it is the ancestor of most modern political theories, which split off as either reactions against it or reactions against reactions. In one form or another, with one god or many or none, it has been the dominant paradigm for millennia. It can be traced as far back as the Iron Age, where it underlies the familiar stories and laws of the Hebrew Bible and Quran; and in some parts of the world today, roles it defined then have changed little in the intervening centuries. What liberals may think of as a genetic lottery, much of humanity has been seen as part of a divine plan that properly confers power on chosen men, bloodlines, or tribes.
Since the Ancestral Story stretches back in time, which makes it the story of the past and the present, people who believe this story are fundamentally change-averse—in a word, conservative. Many harken back to golden ages, real or imagined, when this model was ascendant and provided social order, stability, and prosperity to those who most mattered.
Because this script for how society should work is hierarchical and male-centric, cognitive linguist George Lakoff called it the strict father theory of politics. It should be noted, though, that the organizing principle of the story is more primal than the words “strict father” might imply. Human relationships—and our relationships to other species—in this narrative, largely trace back to one simple concept: might makes right. At its biological root, the strict father model of the family derives from the same underlying principle. Men ruled and protected women and children because they were physically stronger; masters ruled slaves because they could.
Since winners write history, we see historical events through a lens that further binds together might and right. We tend to think that good guys win and, conversely, that guys who win are good—because that’s how winners tell the story. Strength and virtue end up closely paired, and hierarchies that evolved eons ago from might makes right end up seeming intuitive and natural.
Modeling an individual life or a political system on the Ancestral Story doesn’t necessarily lead to a dog-eat-dog way of life. It can. But within the overarching structure, exceptions and nuance abound, and through the ages, humanity has developed words for these exceptions like grace, mercy, charity, pardons, or noblesse oblige. Religions that sanctify the traditional power hierarchy also encourage people to temper their use of power, and people who are religiously or culturally conservative often care deeply about those they perceive as weak—women, children, the poor and ill— those that Jesus in the Gospel According to Matthew calls “the least of these.”
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. –Matthew 25:40 NIV
But aspiring to a benevolent hierarchy, one that treats the weak with kindness, is different from thinking the weak have a right to band together and insist on equality. And voluntary self-restraint on the use of power feels very different from external restraints imposed by law and regulation.
One Theme to Bind Them
Today, defenders of traditional hierarchy and derivative priorities often deploy reasoning that doesn’t invoke theology and most wouldn’t explicitly endorse the idea that might makes right. Even so, the lineage of their thinking can be traced back through cultural institutions and sacred texts to the Ancestral Story and the human tendency to confound power with virtue. Some, of course, make no bones about the fact that their priorities derive from Iron Age texts.
Once you superimpose the Ancestral Story, seemingly unrelated or contradictory conservative priorities cohere: strong military, gun rights, nationalism, the sanctity of the patriarchal family (including opposition to child protections and female-controlled contraception), racial favoritism, the ambivalent courtship of church and state, oligarchic government, low taxes for the wealthy, unfettered capitalism, resistance to worker rights, minimal safety net programs, freedom to pollute or use up natural resources, and a deep wariness of outside tribes that might compete for power.
Liberal social policies benefit many conservative voters, especially those who are struggling to get by, but they almost all, to some degree, threaten the conservative cultural narrative. To people who have internalized that narrative and played by its rules, expecting specific perks from society in return, that threat can feel personal and visceral.
As we all have read or heard many times, the Tea Party and the Trump voting base include people whose lives haven’t played out as they hoped or whose wellbeing feels fragile. That alone is a hard burden to bear, but on top of that stress, many feel their social contract has been violated. The give and get promised by the Ancestral Story relies on assumptions of stability and continuity. But that is not what we’ve got. Familiar extraction and manufacturing jobs have become obsolete; many main streets are boarded up; young people move away and abandon the church; a young man often can’t afford to support a wife and children on a single income like his father did; some families are downwardly mobile; and change is accelerating with no end in sight.
These cultural and economic trends have many causes—globalization, consolidation, automation, resource depletion, and—not the least—policy decisions. But rather than finding explanations in some objective set of data (which is really hard for any of us), we humans tend to interpret our experiences through the lens of the script we have trusted all along. And for believers, the Ancestral Story points to a set of culprits. Women are claiming their own bodies, poor blacks are challenging authority, marriage is being reshaped, atheists are scorning the sacred, and immigrants who sneak across the border are receiving scholarships to colleges that working class white kids can’t afford. By the conservative book, it’s all very wrong. And from any point of view, the consequences for both individuals and our culture at large are enormous. Small wonder these violations of the old order generate anxiety, alienation, and, sometimes, rage. Small wonder conservatives deploy the power they have in an effort to set things right.
The Lure for Progressives
Conservative efforts to live and legislate the Ancestral Story seem obvious to many progressives. What may be less obvious is this: When progressives don’t notice that might makes right is the reactor at the heart of the conservative death star, we sometimes fuel it—usually by sending double messages—even though it is fundamentally at odds with liberal or progressive aspirations.
It’s easiest to see this, perhaps, in some of the fantasy stories that we love. Consider two recent movies that have shattered barriers by upending the traditional power hierarchy, Wonder Woman and Black Panther. Both movies broke through iconic blockages; they were literally block-busters, and I hope Black Panther wins Oscars next year. But both, in a way that is deeply satisfying to conservatives and progressives alike, also underscore the linkage between physical strength and moral strength and so send mixed signals.
In Black Panther, the scene where the two prospective kings wrestle at the side of a cliff takes might makes right back to its most primal roots in human history: May the best man win, where strongest fighter and best suited to rule are synonymous. At an archetypal level, the epic battles in both movies—or Star Wars or Lord of the Rings—fit the NRA playbook: the only way to stop a bad guy with a big bad weapon is a good guy, or now woman, with an even bigger, badder weapon. (These well-loved epics also reinforce a second dimension of the Ancestral Story—that some bloodlines are special and should rule others—but that is a different article.)
I point this out not because I think that these two movies could or should have been different, given what they set out to do and the genre. Nobody can tackle everything at once, and the satisfaction we get from stories that fuse right with might help draw crowds to the theaters to experience the novel ideas on offer. (It helped draw you to this article, too.) Also, Black Panther pivots the heroes from winning power to sharing it. It repudiates the human pattern of power-hoarding, while in Wonder Woman, metaphorically, truth and peace defeat war. I have no desire to challenge the movie writers; but I do want to challenge fellow progressives to be self-aware.
Sometimes, perhaps, the only effective challenge to brute force is brute force. Sometimes, perhaps, only the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. But we must never forget that is what we are using, because what those tools can’t do is build something radically different. Beating force with greater force can flip a dominance hierarchy, but unless something truly novel happens afterwards, that is just a new variation on an old storyline.
Worse still, reality being what it is, might-makes-right storylines inevitably in the long run advantage those who traditionally have held power: the men with the biggest weapons. Men will always, on average, be physically stronger and more aggressive than women. Wealth will always be stronger than poverty. Humanity is unlikely, any time soon, to abandon a global arms race that traces all the way back to sticks and stones.
Ultimately, then, the only way to create real and durable change is not to flip who is on top—the future is female, brown is the new white—but to flip our gut reaction to the fundamental premise underlying most of human history, to restructure our thinking and emotions to the point that we no longer find might-makes-right stories intuitive and satisfying.