Anthropology of Unequal Society

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Discussion

Historical treatment by Keith Hart:

1.

"Following Locke’s example, the 18thcentury Enlightenment was animated by a revolutionary desire to found democratic societies to replace the class system typical of agrarian civilisation.

How could the arbitrary social inequality of the Old Regime be abolished and a more equal society founded on the basis of what all people have in common, their human nature? The great Victorian synthesisers, such as Morgan, Engels, Tylor and Frazer, were standing on the shoulders of Enlightenment predecessors motivated by a pressing democratic project to make world society less unequal. Seen in this light, the first work of modern anthropology is not Kant’s, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1754).

Here Rousseau was concerned not with individual variations in natural endowments which we can do little about, but with the artificial inequalities of wealth, honour and the capacity to command obedience derived from social convention which can be changed. In order to construct a model of human equality, he imagined a pre-social state of nature, a sort of hominid phase of human evolution in which men were solitary, but healthy, happy and above all free.

This freedom was metaphysical, anarchic and personal: original human beings had free will, they were not subject to rules of any kind and they had no superiors. At some point humanity made the transition to what Rousseau calls ‘nascent society’, a prolonged period whose economic base can best be summarised as hunter-gathering with huts. This second phase represents his ideal of life in society close to nature. The rot set in with the invention of agriculture or, as Rousseau puts it, of wheat and iron. Cultivation of the land led to incipient property institutions whose culmination awaited the development of political society.

- The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.

The formation of a civil order (the state) was preceded by a Hobbesian condition, a war of all against all marked by the absence of law, which Rousseau insisted was the result of social development, not an original state of nature. He believed that this new social contract was probably arrived at by consensus, but it was a fraudulent one in that the rich thereby gained legal sanction for transmitting unequal property rights in perpetuity.


From this inauspicious beginning, political society then usually moved, via a series of revolutions, through three stages:

- The establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second, and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorized by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the stage to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether and bring it back to legitimacy.

One-man-rule closes the circle.

It is here that all individuals become equal again because they are nothing, here where subjects have no longer on the proliferating mass of young people out there. Kinship needs to be reinvented too." any law but the will of the master… For Rousseau, the growth of inequality was just one aspect of human alienation in civil society. We need to return from division of labour and dependence on the opinion of others to subjective self-sufficiency, Kant’s principal concern and mine. This subversive parable ends with a ringing indictment of economic inequality which could well serve as a warning to our world.

It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities.

Lewis H. Morgan drew on Rousseau’s model for his own fiercely democratic synthesis of human history, Ancient Society. If Rousseau laid out the first systematic anthropological theory and Kant then proposed anthropology as an academic discipline, what made Morgan’s work the launch proper of modern anthropology was his ability to enroll contemporary ethnographic observations made among the Iroquois into analysis of the historical structures underlying western civilisation’s origins in Greece and Rome. Marx and Engels enthusiastically took up Morgan’s work as confirmation of their own critique of the state and capitalism; and the latter, drawing on Marx’s extensive annotations of Ancient Society, made the argument more accessible as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels’s greater emphasis on gender inequality made this strand of ‘the anthropology of unequal society’ a fertile source for the feminist movement in the 1960s and after.

The traditional home of inequality is supposed to be India and Andre Beteille (eg, Inequality among men) has made the subject his special domain of late, merging social anthropology with comparative sociology. In the United States, Leslie White at Michigan and Julian Steward at Columbia led teams, including Wolf, Sahlins, Service, Harris and Mintz, who took the evolution of the state and class society as their chief focus. Probably the single most impressive work coming out of this American school was Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History. But one man tried to redo Morgan in a single book and that was Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship. We should recall that, in Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss acknowledged Rousseau as his master. The aim of Elementary Structures was to revisit Morgan’s three-stage theory of social evolution, drawing on a new and impressive canvas, ‘the Siberia- Assam axis’ and all points southeast as far as the Australian desert.

Lévi-Strauss took as his motor of development the forms of marriage exchange and the logic of exogamy.

The ‘restricted reciprocity’ of egalitarian bands gave way to the unstable hierarchies of ‘generalised reciprocity’ typical of the Highland Burma tribes. The stratified states of the region turned inwards to endogamy, to the reproduction of class differences and the negation of social reciprocity. Evidently, the author was not encouraged to universalise the model, since he subsequently abandoned it, preferring to analyse the structures of the human mind as revealed in myths.

My teacher, Jack Goody has tried to lift our profession out of a myopic ethnography into a concern with the movement of world history that went out of fashion with the passing of the Victorian founders. Starting with Production and Reproduction, he has produced a score of books over the last three decades investigating why Sub- Saharan Africa differs so strikingly from the pre-industrial societies of Europe and Asia; and latterly refuting the West’s claim to being exceptional, especially when compared with Asia. Goody found that kin groups in the major societies of Eurasia frequently pass on property through both sexes, a process of ‘diverging devolution’ that is virtually unknown in Sub-Saharan Africa, where inheritance follows the line of one sex only. Particularly when women’s property includes the means of production – land in agricultural societies – attempts will be made to control these heiresses, banning premarital sex and making arranged marriages for them, often within the same group and with a strong preference for monogamy. Direct inheritance by women is also associated with the isolation of the nuclear family in kinship terminology, where a distinction is drawn between one’s own parents and siblings and other relatives of the same generation, unlike in lineage systems. All of this reflects a class basis for society that was broadly absent in Africa.

The major Eurasian civilizations were organized through large states run by literate elites whose lifestyle embraced both the city and the countryside. In other words, what we have here is Gordon Childe’s ‘urban revolution’ in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, where …an elaborate bureaucracy, a complex division of labour, a stratified society based on ecclesiastical landlordism…[were] made possible by intensive agriculture where title to landed property was of supreme importance.

The analytical focus that lends unity to Goody’s compendious work is consistent with an intellectual genealogy linking him through Childe to Morgan-Engels and ultimately Rousseau. The key to understanding social forms lies in production, which for us means machine production. Civilization or human culture is largely shaped by the means of communication – once writing, now an array of mechanized forms. The site of social struggles is property, now principally conflicts over intellectual property.

...

Kant’s achievement was soon overthrown by a counter-revolution that identified society with the state.

This was launched by Hegel in The Philosophy of Right and it was only truly consummated after the First World War. As a result, the personal was separated from the impersonal, the subject from the object, humanism from science. Twentieth-century society was conceived of as an impersonal mechanism defined by international division of labour, national bureaucracy and scientific laws understood only by experts. Not surprisingly, most people felt ignorant and impotent in the face of such a society. Yet, we have never been more conscious of ourselves as unique personalities who make a difference. That is why questions of identity are so central to politics today." (http://www.radicalanthropologygroup.org/new/Journal_files/journal_02.pdf)


2. Shorter version from a review of David Graeber's book: The First Five Thousand Years of Debt:

"Modern anthropology was born to serve the coming democratic revolution against the Old Regime. A government by the people for the people should be based on what they have in common, their “human nature” or “natural rights”. Writers from John Locke (1690) to Karl Marx (1867) identified the contemporary roots of inequality with money’s social dominance, a feature that we now routinely call “capitalism”. For Locke money was a store of wealth that allowed some individuals to accumulate property far beyond their own immediate needs. For Marx “capital” had become the driving force subordinating the work of the many to machines controlled by a few. In both cases, accumulation dissolved the old forms of society, but it also generated the conditions for its own replacement by a more just society, a “commonwealth” or “communism”. It was, however, the philosophers of the eighteenth-century liberal enlightenment who developed a systematic approach to anthropology as an intellectual source for remaking the modern world.

Following Locke’s example, they wanted to found democratic societies in place of the class system typical of agrarian civilizations. How could arbitrary social inequality be abolished and a more equal society founded on their common human nature? Anthropology was the means of answering that question. The great Victorian synthesizers, such as Morgan, Tylor and Frazer, stood on the shoulders of predecessors motivated by an urgent desire to make world society less unequal. Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, a best-seller when published in 1798, was the culmination of that Enlightenment project; but it played almost no part in the subsequent history of the discipline. The main source for nineteenth-century anthropology was rather Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He revolutionized our understanding of politics, education, sexuality and the self in four books published in the 1760s: The Social Contract, Emile, Julie and The Confessions. He was forced to flee for his life from hit squads encouraged by the church. But he made his reputation earlier through two discourses of which the second, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1754), deserves to be seen as the source for an anthropology that combines the critique of unequal society with a revolutionary politics of democratic emancipation.

Rousseau was concerned here not with individual variations in natural endowments which we can do little about, but with the conventional inequalities of wealth, honour and the capacity to command obedience which can be changed. In order to construct a model of human equality, he imagined a pre-social state of nature, a sort of hominid phase of human evolution in which men were solitary, but healthy, happy and above all free. This freedom was metaphysical, anarchic and personal: original human beings had free will, they were not subject to rules of any kind and they had no superiors. At some point humanity made the transition to what Rousseau calls “nascent society”, a prolonged period whose economic base can best be summarized as hunter-gathering with huts. This second phase represents his ideal of life in society close to nature.

The rot set in with the invention of agriculture or, as Rousseau puts it, wheat and iron. Here he contradicted both Hobbes and Locke. The formation of a civil order (the state) was preceded by a war of all against all marked by the absence of law, which Rousseau insisted was the result of social development, not an original state of nature. Cultivation of the land led to incipient property institutions which, far from being natural, contained the seeds of entrenched inequality. Their culmination awaited the development of political society. He believed that this new social contract was probably arrived at by consensus, but it was a fraudulent one in that the rich thereby gained legal sanction for transmitting unequal property rights in perpetuity. From this inauspicious beginning, political society then usually moved, via a series of revolutions, through three stages:

The establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorized by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the stage to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether and bring it back to legitimacy (Rousseau 1984:131).

One-man-rule closes the circle. “It is here that all individuals become equal again because they are nothing, here where subjects have no longer any law but the will of the master”(Ibid: 134). For Rousseau, the growth of inequality was just one aspect of human alienation in civil society. We need to return from division of labour and dependence on the opinion of others to subjective self-sufficiency. His subversive parable ends with a ringing indictment of economic inequality which could well serve as a warning to our world. “It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities” (Ibid: 137).

Lewis H. Morgan (1877) drew on Rousseau’s model for his own fiercely democratic synthesis of human history, Ancient Society, which likewise used an evolutionary classification that we now call bands, tribes and states, each stage more unequal than the one before. Morgan’s work is normally seen as the launch of modern anthropology proper because of his ability to enrol contemporary ethnographic observations of the Iroquois in an analysis of the historical structures underlying western civilization’s origins in Greece and Rome. Marx and Engels enthusiastically took up Morgan’s work as confirmation of their own critique of the state and capitalism; and the latter, drawing on Marx’s extensive annotations of Ancient Society, made the argument more accessible as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Engels’s greater emphasis on gender inequality made this a fertile source for the feminist movement in the 1960s and after.

The traditional home of inequality is supposed to be India and Andre Beteille, in Inequality among Men (1977) and other books, has made the subject his special domain, merging social anthropology with comparative sociology. In the United States, Leslie White at Michigan and Julian Steward at Columbia led teams, including Wolf, Sahlins, Service, Harris and Mintz, who took the evolution of the state and class society as their chief focus. Probably the single most impressive work coming out of this American school was Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History (1982). But one man tried to redo Morgan in a single book and that was Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). In Tristes Tropiques (1955), Lévi-Strauss acknowledged Rousseau as his master. The aim of Elementary Structures was to revisit Morgan’s three-stage theory of social evolution, drawing on a new and impressive canvas, “the Siberia-Assam axis” and all points southeast as far as the Australian desert. Lévi-Strauss took as his motor of development the forms of marriage exchange and the logic of exogamy. The “restricted reciprocity” of egalitarian bands gave way to the unstable hierarchies of “generalized reciprocity” typical of the Highland Burma tribes. The stratified states of the region turned inwards to endogamy, to the reproduction of class differences and the negation of social reciprocity.

Jack Goody has tried to lift our profession out of a myopic ethnography into an engagement with world history that went out of fashion with the passing of the Victorian founders. Starting with Production and Reproduction (1976), he has produced a score of books over the last three decades investigating why Sub-Saharan Africa differs so strikingly from the pre-industrial societies of Europe and Asia, with a later focus on refuting the West’s claim to being exceptional, especially when compared with Asia (Hart 2006, 2011). The common thread of Goody’s compendious work links him through the Marxist pre-historian Gordon Childe (1954) to Morgan-Engels and ultimately Rousseau.

The key to understanding social forms lies in production, which for us means machine production.

Civilization or human culture is largely shaped by the means of communication — once writing, now an array of mechanized forms. The site of social struggles is property, now principally conflicts over intellectual property. And his central issue of reproduction has never been more salient than at a time when the aging citizens of rich countries depend on the proliferating mass of young people out there. Kinship needs to be reinvented too." (http://thememorybank.co.uk/2012/07/04/in-rousseaus-footsteps-david-graeber-and-the-anthropology-of-unequal-society-2/)

The Material Basis of Inequality

Lionel Sims:

"Rough equality among men in patrilineages sits upon systematic inequality between men and women.This is the first inequality out of which all later inequalities spring – this is Engels’ basic argument. The imbalances that can occur within this relation of inequality are like a proto-class out which all later classes evolve.


The main imbalances suggested in the scholarly literature are:

  • Cattle herders also hunt and garden, therefore there are three

dimensions for ‘chance’ inequalities to arise.

  • Political authority (chiefs, kings, etc) can grow as the reversedominance

structures of matrilineal/matrilocal organisation weaken (see, for example, Hierarchy in the Forest:The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour by Christopher Boehm).This can have economic consequences, eg, monument building.

  • Agricultural labour services, except plough agriculture which

uses oxen, are the province of women, and variable opportunities for wealth inequalities exist with multiple wives (see, for example, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond).

  • Before cattle-herders there were the complex hunter-gatherers

of the Mesolithic, something like the NW coast American Indians. Most of these were slave-owning misogynist warriors who vigorously defended territory. As there were at least 4,000 years of the Mesolithic which preceeded NW European Neolithic monument building, we would expect some degree of gender inequality and ranking among men before cattle-herding.

  • Brian Hayden of Columbia University has suggested an

‘accumulator-feasting’ complex to explain ‘potlatch’ type rituals. These involve the conspicuous display and destruction of wealth, and the profligate consumption of luxury foods.They are run competitively by ‘big men’ ‘financed’ by calling in debts.This increases ranking differences among men in the midst of plenty.

  • ‘Trade’ in, for example, stone axes, flint cores and artefacts, and

in the early bronze age in copper and bronze, had a restricted circulation linked to rank.Variable trading opportunities are therefore a source of inequality.

  • Exotic luxury goods, such as types of stone, silver, gold, confer

unequal power on those who control their circulation. For example, a Zulu bride can be purchased with a brass ring: see Eileen Krige, The Social System of the Zulus.

  • Napoleon Chagnon’s social circumscription theory suggests

that, when there are fewer opportunities to flee from intra-group problems, this intensifies the emergence of rank inequalities.

  • The spoils of raiding and war – from revenge to cattle raiding to

territorial defence– create inequalities.

  • Resource stress.
  • Migration.
  • Colonialism.

There is evidence for the first nine of these factors operating in the prehistory of the British Isles and north Europe." (http://www.radicalanthropologygroup.org/new/Journal_files/journal_02.pdf)


More Information

Goody, J. 2004.

  • Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate . Cambridge: Polity.Goody, J. 2004.
  • Islam in Europe. Cambridge: Polity.Goody, J. 2012 [2006].
  • The Theft of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Goody, J. 2009.
  • The Eurasian Miracle. Cambridge: Polity.Goody, J. 2010.
  • Renaissances: The One or the Many? Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.Goody, J. 2012.
  • Metals, Culture and Capitalism: An Essay on the Origins of the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.