Pre-class societies

Issue: 140

Martin Empson

Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire (Harvard University Press, 2012), £29.95

This important new book is a thorough examination of the earliest human societies and how they transformed themselves into the unequal societies that have characterised recent human history. The authors have marshalled a large amount of material to back up their arguments. For socialists arguing that it is possible to end capitalism, the book provides an impressive amount of information to understand both our own egalitarian past and the processes of historic change.

Because hunter-gatherer communities that have survived into modern times are often “hopelessly altered by colonialism or globalisation” the authors have tried, where possible, to base their arguments on studies by the first social anthropologists to contact each society, or accounts of those groups by traders and explorers. They do not dismiss studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Many of these communities retain important links to their past social organisation and where appropriate the authors utilise this data. The authors also try to find archaeological evidence for claims made about more contemporary pre-class societies.

Despite the difficulties of obtaining and interpreting archaeological evidence, we have a surprisingly detailed understanding of how our ancient ancestors lived their lives. For tens of thousands of years they lived by gathering food and hunting animals. Hunter-gatherers are primarily nomadic people who return at different times of the year to places that provide particular sources of food. But even the earliest human societies manipulated the natural world in order to improve their food supply.

Archaeological remains dating from 75,000 to 55,000 years ago at a site in modern day South Africa show how people deliberately burnt off vegetation to encourage the growth of an edible plant called watsonia. This burning increased the density of next year’s watsonia growth by five to ten times. This “delayed return strategy” demonstrates that the earliest humans had learnt “not merely how to take food out of the environment but to engineer the environment itself” (p7). The authors conclude that ancient hunter-gatherer communities from the last ice age onwards were “keen observers of nature, with a rapidly improving technology and the foresight to modify their environment”.

But what about their social relationships? Hunter-gatherer communities were ones which valued “generosity, sharing and altruism”. Importantly, according to Flannery and Marcus, they worked actively to prevent inequality emerging. For instance, between 1921 and 1924 the anthropologist Kaj Birket Smith visited the Caribou Eskimos, a society where:

men built igloos in winter, hunted, fished and drove sled dogs; women built tents in summer, tended fires, and tailored clothing from skins. As with so many foragers, no one amassed a surplus. No one claimed exclusive rights to the land. Traps and weirs were communal property. During famines, all food was shared with neighbours. After a successful hunt, the actual slayer of each caribou was identified by the markings on his arrow. The meat was then divided by rule, with the slayer receiving the frontal portion and his hunting companions the rest (p23).

The Eskimos had several ways of protecting this egalitarian life. They used ridicule to make hoarding and greed socially unacceptable, singing songs or “dancing in masks to ridicule stingy neighbours”. Those who continually broke social norms might be given the silent treatment or even left behind when the camp moved. On the other hand, those who provided well for the whole group might be respected, but they were expected to be generous and not boastful.

This behaviour characterises other present day hunter-gatherer communities. The !Kung people in southern Africa also have a system “to prevent a meritocracy of good hunters arising”. Their arrows are also marked, but before a hunt they mix them together. As a result “each hunter would eventually have one of his distinctive arrows credited with a kill, whether he himself had fired it or not.” The !Kung also use humour. A hunter bringing back a large kill to camp would be told, when asking for help, “You think this skinny bag of bones is worth carrying” (p23).

Despite these internal checks on the development of inequality, or individuals gaining prestige over other members of the group, inequality did arise. Indeed by 2,500 BC, the authors claim that “virtually every form of inequality known to mankind had been created somewhere in the world, and truly egalitarian societies were gradually being relegated to places no one else wanted”. How and why did this inequality begin? Across the globe hunter-gatherers have much in common, but they tend to fall into two different types. This difference centres on whether or not a society has permanent social groups larger than the extended family. Those that do, such as the Aborigines of Australia, are often characterised by large groups of people who claim to be related. These are known as clans or “ancestor-based descent groups”. Societies that have clans have advantages over those that do not. In particular they have large groups of people who can be relied on for mutual assistance, protection or to provide resources to pay for an individual’s marriage. The authors also suggest that clans create an “us versus them” mentality which “changes the logic of human society” (p18).

With the development of clans or ancestor based descent the potential for inequality also arises. One example of inequality might be that between old and young, because younger people have less knowledge than their more experienced elders and defer to them. Other individuals might be considered “leaders”. But we should be wary of thinking that the existence of inequality in a society means the same as in later class societies. For instance, some Aborigine headmen inherited their position, but the role had limited authority, serving “mainly to preserve the clan’s ritual secrets” (p53). These individuals might develop into “Big Men”—individuals who use their position to benefit others. To do this required society to be able to produce a surplus of food.

Marxists argue that before human society could be divided into classes, society needed to be able to produce enough surplus food to support a group of individuals who did not directly produce food. Thus the precursor for unequal class societies was the rise of agriculture. But agriculture did not necessarily mean the automatic development of class inequality. Indeed most early agricultural societies retained many of the social mores that characterised hunter-gatherer communities. As the authors point out: “Most horticultural tribes still valued the generosity and reciprocal gift-giving we saw in hunting-and-gathering societies. Indeed, these behaviours escalated in societies with lineages, clans, and moieties [a group of clans], because now each of these larger units had reciprocal relations with others” (p98).

Initially, Big Men tended to use their position to improve collective interests, but this also had the effect of improving their own prestige. As the authors suggest when discussing the Chimbu people of New Guinea: “Amassing an unrivalled quantity of food allowed a Big Man to humiliate his rivals by giving them more than they could repay. To achieve this, Big Men not only led pig-stealing raids against neighbours but also put pressure on their entire clan to contribute.” The authors explain that by the start of the 20th century:

Village societies with achievement-based leadership were among the most common in the world. They were remarkably stable societies, made up of descent groups that exchanged brides and gifts, honoured their ancestors, considered everyone equal at birth, yet threw their support behind gifted kinsmen who sought to achieve renown… Such societies were also widespread in prehistory…you can identify them in the archaeological records of the Near East, Egypt, Central and South America, North America and Africa. Achievement-based societies became common as soon as each of those regions had adopted agriculture and village life (p121).

But at some point a further transformation takes place. Some of these societies “altered their social logic to allow for hereditary privilege”. The authors argue that “hereditary inequality does not occur without active manipulation of social logic by human agents.” One example of this that the authors provide is a study of the Kachin people of Burma. The Kachin had a complex set of religious beliefs centred on supernatural spirits known as nats. Some nats were spirits of the sky or earth, others might represent the local territory; or were ancestors of a particular lineage.

One scenario for the transition of Kachin society from achievement based to hereditary inequality takes place when one Kachin lineage convinces the others that “the village nat is its ancestor. That move converts one Kachin social unit into a chiefly lineage, descended from the nat who rules the whole territory.” This then allows one lineage to portray itself as more important than the others. Exactly how such changes take place varies enormously from place to place and group to group. One of the enormous strengths of this book is the great variety of examples given to illustrate such social change. Big Men might become hereditary leaders, or whole lineages become a new class. But whichever change happens, it reflects a wider transformation in society.

In his article “Engels and the Origins of Human Society” (International Socialism 65) Chris Harman explains that to understand why a group which had not previously exploited others in society should begin doing so requires a return to Marx’s understanding of the “interaction between the development of relations of production and the forces of production”. Harman explains:

Classes arise out of the divisions which occur in society as a new way of advancing production emerges. A group discovers it can increase the total social wealth if it concentrates resources in its own hands, organising others to work under its direction. It comes to see the interests of society as a whole as lying in its own control over resources. It defends that control even when that means making others suffer. It comes to see social advance as embodied in itself and in the protection of its own livelihood against sudden outbreaks of scarcity (due to harvest failure, pests, war, etc) that cause enormous hardship to everybody else (p127).

Thus the transition from egalitarian, classless societies to an unequal class ridden society is not automatic. Nor is it rooted in a human nature that means that there will always be rulers and the ruled. Instead inequality has economic and social roots.

The authors of this book have provided powerful evidence from anthropology and the archaeological record to back up this Marxist view of how class arose. Their detailed and sweeping study should be read by everyone trying to understand how human society has changed through history. It has some weaknesses. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more on the rise of women’s oppression and sexual inequality, though the authors do touch on this. In their final pages Flannery and Marcus argue that it is possible to end inequality, but they reject revolution. Inequality, they argue, “is the result of incremental changes in social logic” and we should be “able to return society to equality just as incrementally” (p558).

Unfortunately those at the top of society today, like the monarchs and ruling classes of the past, have a vested interest in maintaining their position. Flannery and Marcus show how ruling classes have often been prepared to use force to protect their interests and position. This has not changed. And creating a classless society in the 21st century will require confronting that power through revolutionary change.