Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Where Inequality Comes From

Reader Vera asks:

"So let's back up a bit and say, what led to stored surpluses getting OWNED? What led to the rich fishing hole to be owned by a family? There is plenty of evidence of surpluses being left in a hole or other simple hut among some tribes, and used in times of need, by anyone. Whence ownership of surplus? That's my current puzzle. How do you go from a tribe where anyone hoarding a fishing hole would be ridiculed or ostracized, to a tribe where they just shrug it off and put up?"

The question is, how did we go from a world where surpluses are available to all, to one where they are controlled by a small hereditary elite, forcing the rest of us to work for them to acquire the basic means of our subsistence? How did this become the norm for all human societies?

While we don’t have a time machine, I don’t think it’s any mystery because we can observe this phenomena in contemporary society. Inequality has exploded just in my lifetime. When I was born, my parents lived in a world where one person could support an entire family with a job – almost any job. Today, millions of people work a job that pays so little that they are on public assistance, and even families with two incomes and college educations struggle financially. Thirty years ago you could afford to pay for college by working a summer job. Now, debts are so onerous that graduates need  to pay a significant chunk of their income for over twenty years just to finance an education. I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how this differs in any substantial way from the institution of indentured servitude, one of the five historical forms of slavery (chattel slavery, debt bondage, corvee labor, serfdom and wage slavery). Yet this is somehow regarded as "normal!" One can easily see how these things become institutionalized over time. The same thing goes for prison labor. How much longer before we “rely” on people breaking laws so we can put them in prison to use for cheap labor? Even debtor’s prisons are making a backdoor comeback. Will those return as well?

Currently, voter suppression efforts are going full-throttle in Republican-controlled states, potentially undoing universal suffrage, yet such efforts are actually supported by a significant number of voters! We’ve gone from being a country with some of the most freedom and income mobility relative to the rest of the world at the birth of our nation to the most imprisoned and surveilled people in all of human history. We lock up one out of every hundred people, a quarter of the world’s prison population. We have the lowest income mobility of almost every developed nation, even greater than Europe with its vestigial titles and peerage. We fought a revolution against kingship and royalty, yet today our politicians and wealthy elites are a class apart, separated from the common man even more than the patricians of ancient Rome or the royalty of ancien regime France. Are they so different from the kings of old (who in fact, actually controlled less of the wealth of their societies in practical terms). And our nation is less than 250 years old!


What’s that got to do with the Neolithic? Well, I think the same things happened in the past -  gradually outrages just became normalized over time, things like hereditary kingship, slavery and so on. It’s creeping normalcy. It’s the proverbial frog in boiling water. Just turn up the heat slowly enough. We don’t have a time machine, but we see it happening in contemporary times just as surely as it must have happened back then. And, as in the examples above, it can happen in as little as one generation. By my count, the distance in time between the first Natufian agricultural settlements and the city-states of Mesopotamia equals the distance in time between those city-states and us today. That’s a lot of time! If we in the age of the internet just suck it up and live with these injustices, how could they resist back then? Understand the underlying dynamics of how this is happening today in our own time, and you understand how free hunter-gatherers ended up as chattel slaves working in the fields surviving on a daily ration of thin gruel. It certainly didn’t happen overnight.

The key of course, is to legitimize this state of affairs. How were they legitimized? Well, I’ve been tossing around the theory that it’s the intentional exploitation on the part of the ruling class of a whole host of cognitive biases and distortions, perceptual filters, emotions, social instincts, subconscious drives and group dynamics - the classic definition of magic (i.e. the manipulation of irrational drives for specific ends). The same thread runs through religion, politics and marketing – the manipulation of large groups of people by a small group to keep themselves on top. We see it happening today just as surely as it happened back then. Here’s just a short list of what’s used to manipulate us:

Optimism bias
The Bandwagon effect (groupthink, peer pressure, etc.)
Ingroup bias
The Just World fallacy
The Self-serving bias
Learned helplessness
The Fundamental Attribution Error
The Halo Effect
The Status Quo bias
Confirmation bias
Projection bias
Social inertia
Creeping normalcy (see above)
Operant conditioning (schools, etc.)
Divide and Rule
The Prisoner’s Dilemma (problems with cooperation)
Personality Cults and Charismatic leadership
Associative mating (concentrating wealth in families)


All you need to do is convince enough people of the legitimacy of the system and make them scared enough of any alternatives and they will keep everyone else in line without you lifting a finger. That’s how the few control the many. What works in contemporary America certainly worked in the temples of Egypt of Mesopotamia or China 6,000 years ago; humans haven’t changed much. Is it any wonder that there has always been an air of magic associated with civilization, and that the ancient Egyptians, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, were regarded by the Greeks as having “secret” esoteric knowledge possessed by their priesthood? Maybe that “magic” was simply the art of manipulating people on the part of the rulers to create a society of people willing to be slaves, or fight and die for an idea. And maybe that “magic,” not seeds of grain, is what spreads civilization. Once humans live in large enough groups, they can be herded like sheep – the birth of domesticated sheeple.

There are two absolute prerequisites for all this:

1.) A large enough population that the individual no longer matters.
2.) Nowhere to flee.

Which has been noted previously, the first by Esther Boserup, the second by Rafael Carneiro in his circumscription theory.

Both of which are brought about by agriculture after a certain point. Thus you can see why agriculture is a prerequisite to these oppressive cultures. This is why we don’t see this in hunter-gatherer cultures. Not all agricultural cultures have this, of course. New world cultures often practiced agriculture, but population densities were low and there were plenty of places to flee if you didn't like being a slave. It’s no coincidence, however, that the Mesoamerican empires had the largest populations and were surrounded by mountains and deserts. So while you need settled agriculture for this sort of systematic oppression, it does not guarantee it unless the above prerequisites are also fulfilled. To some extent, even hunter-gatherer cultures can be oppressive when the above conditions exist for long enough. I remember hearing a description of how Hitler always gave his speeches in large groups, to avoid any individuals from questioning his words. This shows the powerful influence groups have. This would never happen in cultures without high population density. “Traditional” church operated in much the same capacity – group confessions of faith, repetition, suspicion of outsiders, blind acceptance of the leader’s worlds, etc.

And I think religion played a major role here. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see organized religions run by a temple-based priesthood redistributing surpluses at the same time as civilization. These religions defined “us” versus “them,” and motivated people to work together, often in the task of killing other people. Religion is by its very nature irrational. But organized religion is all about legitimizing hierarchy, submitting to your betters, hating outgroups, and suppressing anyone who challenges these notions. What a wonderful tool for the rulers! Is it any wonder that authoritarianism and religion are so tightly wound? People who believe strongly in the dominant religion of a society are nearly always the defenders of that society, no matter how oppressive it is. And this religious impulse often translates to “secular” religions – as I’ve noted, economics today is another form of religion uses to justify modern society, with its own priesthood, orthodoxy, sacred texts, heresies and divine will (The “Invisible Hand”). As I've noted before, right-wingers, despite all their rhetoric about “freedom” are the most hive-minded and conventional people you will ever meet. Just take a look at the suburbs they live in if you doubt it.

Is it any coincidence that the most religious places in the U.S. are the most socially conservative, and have the lowest social mobility and highest levels of poverty, inequality and xenophobia? And around the world, counties with the most religion have the most extractive elites and the most oppressive institutions, while countries without religion are much more fair and egalitarian (e.g. Japan, France, Denmark). It even works on a municipal level – drive through America’s decaying and blighted inner cities and half the abandoned buildings are being used as places of worship. It is thought that the first kings were priest-kings, and before that priests. These priests may have begun as shamans, and their role  may have been to manipulate people’s belief systems in order to convince people that they could summon the herds or bring rain, or perhaps engage in faith healing or curses (via the placebo and nocebo effects). Because they were supposed to have a special conduit to the divine, they probably were able to command people’s loyalty and fear, thus manipulating them into putting them in charge. There’s good evidence that the first Chinese rulers were priest-kings with a connection to ancestral spirits. Even today this is evident – in cults like the Branch Davidians, for example, a leader like David Koresh had preferential access to basically all the females of reproductive age, no questions asked. You can see this in Mormon areas as well. Certainly being a priest-king had its advantages in terms of Darwinian survival. And people in these cults accept the leader’s authority unquestioningly, being even willing to die for him. Note that all kings and pharaohs in the ancient Near East were associated with the divine in some way – they were either gods themselves, or had ceremonial religious duties.

Or, more generally, the kings were probably once tribal or religious elders or “Big Men” who ruled by merit and equitably distributed the surplus, and over time decided to keep the surplus for themselves to gain power (e.g. the Anglo-Saxon word “Lord” originally meant “giver of loaves”). Why did people agree to this? Well, why do they agree to it today? Try this – go to any right-wing Web site and say anything about inequality. You’ll see a full-throated defense of the right of the wealthy to take whatever they want and amass as much as they can without limit by people who can be fired at any time for any reason.. Try and explain to them the inherent problem with wage labor or suggest universal health care and be labeled as a “communist” by people who are just one paycheck away from homelessness or one illness away from bankruptcy. How often do you hear people making minimum wage justify the outrageous fortunes of the investor class because the “work hard” or “create jobs”? These same people defended kingship and slavery back in the day (or rather their ancestors did). It’s easy to control the masses. They do it themselves. And to reiterate – the most religious places in the country are the most accepting of the status quo and most accepting of sociopathic and corrupt leadership (Texas, Dixie, etc.).

The people who didn’t like this state of affairs certainly could flee early on, and they probably did so, but eventually they ran out of places to flee. And their descendants eventually ran up against the civilizations they left, and were eliminated by superior numbers, effectively culling their genes from the gene pool. The authoritarians reproduced at a higher rate- even today religious people have more children than free spirits who feel less of a desire to reproduce at all costs and in any circumstances. The people who submitted to institutionalized authority continued to have children. The ones who didn’t were pushed to marginal lands and were less successful at reproduction. Like lactose tolerance, eventually unquestioning obedience spread through certain civilizations because those civilizations were more successful at organized violence, displacing everyone else and subsuming them. Those biases named above became more and more common. Even today, hunter-gathers have different perceptions about the world than people in WEIRD cultures.


Social manipulation is built into humans. In fact, according to some theories, it has been the primary driver behind brain growth and complexity. Even non-human animals take “slaves” and fight wars. We are also hard-wired to accept a place in the hierarchy, to submit to our “betters” and not rock the boat. We are also hard-wired for cooperation and reciprocity. These primate tendencies are hijacked by the alphas and used to control us – through debt, governmental authority, or what have you.


Side note: This blog is going on indefinite hiatus. My home internet access has been interrupted, so now seems like a good time.


  1. Thanks for the great blog - I've been reading your blog since Ran Prieur linked it and the perspective has been excellent. I hope your hiatus is recharging and satisfying.

  2. Good luck with your internet. I'll miss reading. Hurry back. :)

  3. This is one of my favorite blogs.. Enjoy your hiatus, you will be missed!

  4. Hey, Escape, I see with a pleasant surprise that your fingers couldn't resist typing some more. So I want to say, thank you for your post entirely devoted to my inquiry. I am again struck how much we think alike. And I agree with your analysis of that fateful time, and how it might have been accomplished. (Of course, that fateful time has repeated itself throughout the last several thousand years with tedious and increasing regularity; by now, the commons are either expropriated or exploited to the hilt by irresponsible private interests.)

    I hope you keep on keeping on. This strengthens my intuitive understanding. Best to you!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. It's the blogger's dilemna. You know, I have a full-time job and other commitments aside from writing this, so I don't always have time to respond to comments. Plus I make no income from this, so there is a bit of questioning here. I write it for fun (yes, I'm sick, I know), but when I feel a sense of "obligation" or that I "have to" do it, that's when I shut down and think of giving it up.

      I feel like, in the back of my mind I should be spending time doing something more conventionally "productive," like going to grad school, even though I know it's just a scam. Or I should spend more time doing professional activities. I need to recertify for LEED (even though I believe THAT's a scam). At minimum I should be working on my portfolio. I feel like I should be doing something that should get me somewhere, you know. The comments are nice to receive; they help me feel like it's worthwhile.


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