Material Basis of Inequality

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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." (