An elite, believing itself in mortal danger or seized with celestial ambitions, would have little compunction in adopting survival strategies that risked killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
— James C. Scott

One of the key themes explored in this blog is the question of “what the heck happened” to get us into the mire we wallow in today. I have explained that I do not accept Quinn’s and Diamond’s hypothesis that agriculture is the culprit — although I agree with Scott that cultivated grains were political crops that made centralization and states possible. Those wishing to avail of my writings on that subject may click on the category of “origin of agriculture” to see all seven other posts on that theme, dealing with deep history, surplus, and the intensification of agriculture (and other aspects of the ancient food economies). In other series, I have explored the origin of equality and inequality (viz “roots of domination”).

Since the Small Farm Future blog and Chad over at Hipcrime Vocab are exploring the topic again, and so is James C. Scott in his (highly recommended) new book Against the Grain, I have finally made up my mind to finish the series so that I can move to other things. The pause in blogging has allowed me to settle into a mind pattern that I think works well. I don’t have access at present to all my notes, so some bits may need to be filled in later. Here is the outline.

Cultivation began in our deep past, in the Paleolithic, among hunter-gatherers. So did the rise of inequality. We have significant archeological remains testifying to the latter fact. During the Ice Age, in some sheltered places, rich in game, elites arose. Then the Ice Age grew colder, and they faded. They rose again before Younger Dryas, and faded once more during that inclement period. Then, with the massive moist warming of the Holocene, some areas on the face of our planet provided prodigious quantities of food for our forager ancestors — not only game and fish, but grass seeds, legumes, nuts and fruits, roots, tubers and berries. As Scott points out, these areas were often marshy at least part of the year (that explains why the Catal Huyukers built the first town ever so inexplicably amidst wetlands!). Ancient marshes not only abounded in ready-made human food, but also made possible early intensification of cultivation via periodic flooding. As he details so clearly, when foraging peoples spread wild seed on the soft moist ground fertilized by silt, cultivation was a child’s game, easy peasy.

With vast natural surpluses available, all human societies so blessed were faced with a dilemma. Do we share, or do we allow hoarding? The timeless tradition of “vigilant sharing” pointed in one direction… and I imagine most tribes kept on with it. But at the same time, in times of plenty vigilance tends to relax, people worry less about some individuals grabbing more, and certain types of personalities — the triple-As or aggrandizers (aggressive, ambitious, acquisitive people) begin to rise as they find ways to use the surplus for self-promotion and status games. Such individuals exist in all societies, and always have. Under egalitarian social structures, they are carefully watched, and if they get out of hand, they are knocked down a peg, or, if nothing else works, eliminated.

There is anthropological documentation that even among the Eskimos who have traditionally greatly feared such personalities, a sudden caribou windfall relaxes those worries, the sharing networks are suspended, and all can get as much food as they want. And so it happened in the Holocene. Many societies, like the Coastal Yurok, kept sharing (the Yurok would store surplus acorns in caches to which anyone had access, even travelers passing by). But a few relaxed their vigilance too far, and aggrandizers saw their opportunity to push the envelope. They were careful, in the beginning, to couch their hoarding schemes in the language of the good of the community, of course. The lavish feasts they organized meant a lot of work for them and their followers, and they were often left the poorest afterwards, having given all their wealth away. But they knew there was more coming their way, via debts and obligations, increasing competitiveness, and other strategies designed to keep people working more than they would ideally like to. I think of the aggrandizers as specialists in cranking out more work from otherwise work-averse humans who would rather live by the law of least effort, especially when Gaia provides so bounteously.

Step by tiny step, with much backsliding, the aggrandizers worked and schemed their way to more influence, more wealth, and eventually, more power. And since it was natural surplus that gave them the freedom to rise above their fellows, they put all their efforts into creating greater and greater surpluses. The New Guinea tribe of Enga is a perfect illustration of this very gradual slippery slope that leads to greater and greater elitism despite the tribe’s fairly egalitarian recent past. And so we end up with a system where “those who worked hardest and kept the least became those who worked the least and kept the most.”

Something of a big puzzle among anthropologists has been summed up by Chris Smaje thus: “How you make those inequalities stick in societies that generally are elaborately organised to build solidarity…?” My answer is by way of analogy. How do you begin with two modern human beings, a young couple who fall in love and marry, who have been raised as relative equals, both educated, with independent spirits, and end up some years down the line with a situation of profound domination and abuse by one partner of the other? The abuse does not come overnight, but begins via virtually imperceptible steps that eventually manipulate and intimidate the other into a position of cowering subservience and fear. And so it was with our ancestors. Small family obligations grew into heavy debts. Poverty appeared as some could not or would not keep up. Some nobler-than-thou families sprouted lineages linking them to guardian spirits or heroic ancestors. Religious societies were invented that promoted privilege for some. because, you know, their members were in special touch with the gods. The list of these “aggrandizer strategies” is practically endless.

Once the balance of power shifts in a profound way, whether in marriage or a band, it is very difficult to right it. And when the dominator has — in the former case — customs, cops, relatives and friends on his side, or in the latter case acquires the strongest hunters and warriors as his followers and well-rewarded goons, there is a moment that — however difficult to pinpoint precisely — transforms everything. A point of no return. A friend of mine gave it a name. Takeover.

Where does agriculture fit into this? As the now aggrandizer-run society keeps cranking out more and more work and more and more surpluses, its people get trapped in a hamster wheel, always trying to invent themselves out of their swelling overhead by getting more out of the environment. It does not matter what mix of hunting, fishing, gathering, and cultivation they follow — as long as they are driven to ratcheting intensification, their food-producing strategy will lead to ruin, sooner or later. Regardless of the official religion of the tribe, their real religion is the Cult of MORE. And here is where it gets even more pernicious.

Imagine thousands of societies living, as Daniel Quinn puts it, “in the hands of the gods” and sharing the bounty. But a few societies emerge that are run by aggrandizers and begin to crank out more work than their neighbors. More work, more food. More food, more people. More people, more tools, weapons, warriors, wombs. More raids won, slaves added to the workforce. Rinse and repeat. What we suddenly have is a short-term evolutionary advantage.

I say ‘short-term,’ because this runaway social system always ends with a crash; nevertheless, it’s lasted several thousand years now in some places, and has parlayed its evolutionary advantage into worldwide conquest. Escape routes have become few and far between. It has become known from recent anthropological accounts that some tribes have not been, as Quinn had thought, Leavers reaching back to the dawn of humankind, but rather Takers who escaped and became Leavers by choice. Rebels against takerism, apostates from the Cult of MORE.

I was once chastised that tracing the deep history of “what went wrong” cannot get us out of our predicament. And yet… awareness of what happened can turn into a butterfly effect. As Quinn’s B says: “vision is a river.” This river is carrying us to a waterfall. But rivers have been known to change their course in response to changes in the environment. Societies in decay reach a point when the aggrandizers begin inventing what David Graeber calls bullshit work. Building roads to nowhere, like the Chaco Canyoneers. Or canals running uphill, like the Peruvian Wari. Or pyramids and pyramid schemes, as our civilization has done. After all, the Cult of MORE must crank out more work, more food, more people lest the wheels fly off the chariot bearing its altar. Can we once again gather our wits, put the kibosh on the aggrandizers, stop the infernal treadmill, and let the living world live?