Egalitarian societies didn’t just happen, they had a culture and ‘techniques’ that maintained it

All too often we re-create systems of dominance, control and extraction, so worth keeping in mind as we collaborate and build a movement to turn around and walk in another direction (metanoia) regarding our systemic use and dependence on fossil fuels, so we keep 1.5 C as the “no higher” bar for global warming.

By Michel Bauwens

Egalitarian societies didn’t just happen, they had a culture and ‘techniques’ that maintained it and Peter Gray calls it “reverse dominance”. In Christopher Bohm’s analysis of tribal governance in hunter-gathering societies, he argues it is based on an alliance between women and beta men, to avoid the power accumulation sought for by alpha males.

Excerpt from Peter Gray in Psychology Today, introducing the subject.  In a follow-up article, we will share the insights of David Graeber, based on the archaeological evidence of the last few decades, and what it says about hierarchy in past societies:

Peter Gray: The writings of anthropologists make it clear that hunter-gatherers were not passively egalitarian; they were actively so. Indeed, in the words of anthropologist Richard Lee, they were fiercely egalitarian. They would not tolerate anyone’s boasting, or putting on airs, or trying to lord it over others. Their first line of defense was ridicule. If anyone–especially if some young man–attempted to act better than others or failed to show proper humility in daily life, the rest of the group, especially the elders, would make fun of that person until proper humility was shown.

One regular practice of the group that Lee studied was that of “insulting the meat.” Whenever a hunter brought back a fat antelope or other prized game item to be shared with the band, the hunter had to express proper humility by talking about how skinny and worthless it was. If he failed to do that (which happened rarely), others would do it for him and make fun of him in the process. When Lee asked one of the elders of the group about this practice, the response he received was the following: “When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

On the basis of such observations, Christopher Boehm proposed the theory that hunter-gatherers maintained equality through a practice that he labeled reverse dominance. In a standard dominance hierarchy–as can be seen in all of our ape relatives (yes, even in bonobos)–a few individuals dominate the many. In a system of reverse dominance, however, the many act in unison to deflate the ego of anyone who tries, even in an incipient way, to dominate them.

According to Boehm, hunter-gatherers are continuously vigilant to transgressions against the egalitarian ethos. Someone who boasts, or fails to share, or in any way seems to think that he (or she, but usually it’s a he) is better than others is put in his place through teasing, which stops once the person stops the offensive behavior. If teasing doesn’t work, the next step is shunning. The band acts as if the offending person doesn’t exist. That almost always works. Imagine what it is like to be completely ignored by the very people on whom your life depends. No human being can live for long alone. The person either comes around, or he moves away and joins another band, where he’d better shape up or the same thing will happen again. In his 1999 book, Hierarchy in the Forest, Boehm presents very compelling evidence for his reverse dominance theory.

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