If the extreme self-interest personality types are given free rein, they usually ruin the lives of others, erode society and culture, and degrade the environment. They have always been a force to be dealt with by community action, and they are so today.
– Brian Hayden

Canadian archeologist Brian Hayden pioneered the use of the term “aggrandizer strategies.” These patterns, deduced from Hayden’s excavations at Keatley Creek and observed during his stays with simpler societies, are utilized by aggrandizers to weave webs of economic and political control over other people. The original paper came out in 1995 as part of the Foundations of Social Inequality anthology. In 2001, it was restated in another anthology, Archaeology at the Millennium, as part of an essay on the origins of agriculture. And in 2010 another anthology has come out, this time titled Pathways to Power in honor of the original monograph which has profoundly shifted anthropological thought, not only about ag origins, but also about the roots of social stratification, privilege, and poverty.

My summation is based on Hayden’s article called The Dynamics of Social Inequality (2001). Hayden argues that wealth accumulation by itself is not sufficient to account for social inequalities; misers are universally despised in tribal and village societies. Nevertheless, control of wealth is the universal component of pathways to power. He stresses that while these strategies were undoubtedly used many times in the last two millions years, they by themselves will not be sustainable in establishing a hierarchy of power without a surplus-oriented economy. He says:

These surplus conditions, as well as the technologies that produced them, clearly occur before food production and domestication emerge. One other important element is the notion that aggrandizing personalities occur at least to some extent in all populations, even among generalized [egalitarian] hunter-gatherers, whether due to genetic or individual developmental factors. Darwinian selection for individuals pursuing their own self-interest would seem by itself to ensure that some such individuals remained in every gene pool. Aggrandizers and their strategies for obtaining economic and political control are probably the single most powerful factor in understanding the sweeping changes that occur in the transition from egalitarian to transegalitarian [big man] societies.

What are these old and well worn strategies that have been used by aggrandizers the world over up to our time (having, of course, added many new ones along the way)? They are rooted in attempts to monopolize access to desirable resources or roles (food, mates, leadership, political contacts, trade etc.), and to exclude as many other people from these areas as possible. Here is his list:

  • Ownership – aggrandizers work hard to establish ownership of desirable resources (land, fishing spots, water, and useful animals).
  • Contractual debts – the other strategies listed require that inducing people into debt be part of at least some of the social transactions.
  • Feasting – political power is universally acquired by organizing feasts, underwriting large projects, and forging alliances; feasts etc. can easily be coopted and subverted by the enterprising into mechanisms for extracting surpluses and establishing debt hierarchies.
  • Bride prices – using surpluses to get the most desirable wives, and to exercise control over young people.
  • Investment in children – special training, costly and ostentatious maturation ceremonies, and elite body deformations (e.g. elaborate tattoos or foot binding) raise the value of children as a means to make advantageous alliances.
  • Prestige items – surpluses are converted into prestige items that serve as status symbols, and these then are used to make transactions, or to create obligations by gifting. (Hayden argues that many of the early domesticates were prestige “items:” draft animals, chili peppers, avocados, chocolate, vanilla, dogs, pigs, et al).
  • Trade and profit – controlling access to exotic or labor-intensive prestige items becomes important, as is the use of interest in economies rich enough to support it; interest becomes a way of seducing people into producing more and more surplus.
  • Taboos, fines and control in dispute resolution – noted as the excessive proliferation of taboos on behaviors that incur fines and penalties; the people hit the hardest are folks with weaker social connections and standing; poor people are sometimes disenfranchised or enslaved by these techniques.
  • Warfare and other calamities – aggrandizers manipulate conflicts to their advantage, and use natural disasters to consolidate their control over power and resources.
  • Access to the supernatural – a very common strategy to consolidate and justify political power is “to claim and orchestrate privileged access to supernatural messages and powers.” This typically involves claims of descent from mythical ancestors, esoteric ritual knowledge, and the ability offer costly sacrifices to obtain the cooperation of the spirit world.
  • Manipulation of cultural values – aggrandizers promote cultural values that serve their interests, and exclude those that do not. It is in their interest, for example, to push the notions that certain ancestors can bless or curse the village, or that injuries or deaths can be paid for in wealth, and many many others; they bend, promote, negotiate, and reformulate the rules to suit their own self-interest.
  • Separation from others – cultivating special ways of speaking, dressing, manners, and other distinctions serve to separate themselves from other people and limit access to “the club” and its perks.
  • Payoffs – grudging toleration is secured by minor gifts to lesser members of the community: free food at certain feasts, charity, increased community defense and others.

Once a community accepts the gambits of the aggrandizers as legitimate, refusal to participate in the new game leads to loss of power and marginalization. Families that cleave to the old sharing, laid-back ways are scorned and kept out of important social networks and consumption events. This is the moment when true poverty is born.

One of the most important consequences of all these strategies is that very strong pressure develops to increase production by any means possible. A classic positive feedback situation is created in which power is predicated largely on the production and control of surpluses, and is therefore used to create and control ever more surpluses, which creates even more power and wealth. Thus prestige technologies, domestication, irrigation, terracing, slavery, soil enhancement, industrialization, fossil fuels, electricity, nuclear energy, genetic manipulation, and many other means of increasing surpluses have been underwritten, promoted and perfected under the direction of aggrandizers. Aggrandizers are in control of this process today just as much as they were in the past.

To avert a calamity due to the intense competition of our leading aggrandizers along with their rapidly decreasing marginal utility, how about we learn to readily recognize and foil the strategies that lead us to bondage and powerlessness? The ancient path of vigilant cooperation enhanced by canny latter-day awareness beckons those who see past the spiderweb.