Is Inequality Necessary?

511BEhcZ-cL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In 1492, two cultures collided. In my school we were taught to call this Columbus’s discovery of America. Of course, there were already people living here, and they equally discovered the Spanish. There are no written records of how the locals perceived of these strange new arrivals. Columbus, on the other hand, left a diary, which made it quite clear that he did not understand the local customs at all nor did he believe he had any reason to.

Reading Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America, I was often reminded of Undiscovery Day in Ocean Shores, Washington. Each year on the last Saturday in April the residents of Ocean Shores commemorate the time George Vancouver sailed right by their town without discovering it. They go to the shore and shout “Hey George!” (And then presumably head to the bar for drinks.)

Todorov’s thesis is that Columbus managed to encounter the people of America without ever really discovering them.

When Columbus first met the people he called Indians he found them to be generous and a bit foolish. He could not understand why they would trade gold for worthless things like bits of glass.

“No more than in the case of languages does Columbus understand that values are conventional, that gold is not more precious than glass in itself, but only in the European system of exchange,” Todorov wrote, “…a different system of exchange is for him equivalent to the absence of a system from which he infers the bestial character of the Indians.”

The people he encountered did not possess private property. They had an egalitarian society.  “I seemed to discern that all owned a share of what one of them owned and particularly with regard to victuals.”

Another member of the crew confirmed that they owned everything as common property and would “make use of whatever they pleased; the owners gave no sign of displeasure.” The Spaniards seemed to admire this– until their neighbors extended it to their property, at which point they went from generous to thieving in their eyes even though their behavior had not actually changed.

Before we get too smug about Columbus’s blind spots, we should admit that we are really no better. Can you imagine a society without private property? Our system of organizing society is so ingrained that we are largely unaware that there could be any other way to do it. A few years ago I wrote about what Economic anthropologist David Graeber calls this “the founding myth” of economics, the idea that money evolved out of a system of barter. In fact, the opposite is true. The idea that objects and services have a comparable value that can be quantified and exchanged developed with money. In an interview posted on the blog Naked Capitalism, Graber explained:

Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.

So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?

Buchan’s book, Frozen Desire, says that in ancient times there was “a contest between the moneyless and moneyed forms of social organizations…Money is normative. So pervasive is its influence on our lives that it makes less moneyed ages incomprehensible, consigning them to barbarism or folklore. Yet history is not inevitable: antiquity did not aspire to our present condition and might have generated a quite different present.”

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Buchan says, Britain for a time shifted to a non-monetary economy.  That means that in the time of Jesus and his contemporaries, the money model was not yet set in stone. We read accounts of Jesus telling his followers to take nothing with them, not to use money, and to rely on the kindness of others.  This is the old relationship model of commerce. Money was of Caesar. The Kingdom of God was to operate on an egalitarian system.

Yesterday I read an article on Big Think reporting on a study published in the journal Nature which argued that human sacrifice was not merely a religious ritual, but a means of social control.

Two-thirds of highly stratified societies once took part in the grisly act, while only a quarter of egalitarian cultures did. The groups who at one time practiced human sacrifice, had more rigid castes, titles that were inherited, and less social mobility. Researchers concluded that “ritual killings helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors and the large, stratified societies we live in today.” Though sociologists have posited such a hypothesis before, this is the first time it’s been scientifically studied.

Among many today, religion is thought to be the standard bearer of morality. Yet, this study, as Watts said, “…shows how religion can be exploited by social elites to their own benefit.” Since these societies prospered, it proved an effective method of social control. “The terror and spectacle [of the act] was maximized,” in order to achieve the desired effect, Watts told Science. Moreover, ritualized killings would’ve given pause to rivals considering a power play for the throne, foreign ministers mulling over war, and bands among the populace grumbling for rebellion.

Yet, Watts and colleagues posit that social cohesion and stratification was necessary to give humans the ability to develop large-scale agriculture, build cities, erect monumental architecture and public works projects, and to allow for greater capacities for science, art, and learning. Though these findings are thought provoking and significant, some experts wonder if the phylogenetic analysis proves a causal relationship, or merely hints at one.

One of the things that interested me was the researchers’ conclusion that stratification was necessary to have modern culture. There is a double assumption here. Not only that we need a division of labor to achieve large tasks, but that some of the people must receive a smaller share of the rewards for a division of labor to work. In other words, Watts cannot imagine a division of labor without a corresponding class system.

As with gold and glass beads, values are conventional. There is no objective reason that the manual laborer must receive a smaller compensation than the manager. One could imagine rather that a job like working overnight to clean the machines at the slaugherhouse, a job that is both unpleasant and dangerous, might be compensated more than a job like management which has non-monetary rewards like status and a clean working environment. Just because we cannot imagine a large-scale system with a division of labor that operates on an egalitarian system doesn’t mean that such a thing could not exist. (See also my article on the Western notion of History as a Straight Line.)

Yet the human sacrifice theory makes sense to me. In the shift from the “I owe you one” economy to the monetary economy, imagine how radical this idea must have been: that I am entitled to a smaller share of the pie because my job is different from yours. Creating a stratified society required more than just differentiating jobs. It meant convincing people that not only should they take the unpleasant slaughterhouse job, but that the work is not worthy of as much reward as the job of the manager. To get people to agree to that, you need force and maybe the voice of a god.



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