Americans, in particular, embrace a conceit that the United States is special because it has, if you will, “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and they tend to believe that the United States is unusual and almost unique in that regard as being the first modern nation to embrace that ideal without transitioning from a monarchy.

And I have to admit that I semi-consciously bought into that general feeling, that is, until I began to read The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a massive and quite scholarly tome that in the first 400 pages [which is how far I’ve read to date] effectively disassembles factually so many myths about human history. As the authors document, there have been quite a few societies, some of them powers in their own time, that were not ruled by kings, monarchs, oligarchs, emperors, or other authoritarian systems of governance. The book also shows examples of cultures run by sophisticated and intelligent people who chose societal structures based on a need to maximize individual freedom. From what I can determine, none of those cultures survived contact with more aggressive cultures, possibly because maximizing personal freedom minimizes the cooperative sacrifice of freedom necessary to fight off aggression.

There are several points implied by these analyses (and I’m making the implications, because I haven’t finished the book). The first one that struck me was that egalitarian societies tend to be more vulnerable because they reject or minimize physical coercion for societal ends, while authoritarian societies can more easily and readily mobilize and employ force on a massive scale. The second is that, effectively, money in a culture with a banking system is a means of storing and wielding power. Without a banking system, the value of tokens, i.e., money, rests on either the value of the token itself or voluntary acceptance of the value of those tokens, which allows a would-be recipient to refuse the tokens. Some earlier societies consciously rejected the use of money because they believe it concentrated power in too few individuals.

One of the basic points hammered into me in economic history was the fact that a society cannot develop much in the way of tools and technology without an agricultural surplus, that is, that those growing or hunting the food have to produce considerably more than they consume. There are effectively only two ways to get that result: either pay the growers more or compel them to do so.

From these basics, it seems to me, certain results are almost inevitable. Because the creation and maintenance of higher technology requires concentration of wealth/power, and of individuals with specific skills, higher tech societies must either bribe or force workers. If bribery (the free market way) is employed, those with skills deemed less valuable or useful are going to be less and less satisfied.

If the examples cited in The Dawn of Everything are accurate, and they seem to be, authoritarian societies persist in some form or another until they’re destroyed by a more successful authoritarian regime, or very seldom, by a successful and popular egalitarian movement, while more egalitarian societies are destroyed by greed and dissatisfaction or by conquest because the culture cannot or will not sacrifice enough to be able to defend itself.

5 thoughts on “Egalitarian/Authoritarian?”

  1. Lourain says:

    What you are suggesting is that human societies alternate (or cycle) between the two extremes?

    1. Not necessarily. In some areas, authoritarian society seems to follow authoritarian society. In others, there’s an alternation of sorts, not necessarily regular, and in still others, both occur, but egalitarian societies tend to be in the minority.

      1. K. Lorenz says:

        This is all a bit sobering. Not a great reflection on the species. I wouldn’t trust H. Sapiens with nuclear weapons if I were ‘in charge’.

  2. Postagoras says:

    This is the Prisoner’s Dilemma writ large. Cooperation leads to the best outcome for all people- but taking advantage of another’s cooperative attitude is a selfishly seductive tactic.
    I’d put it this way: human society requires some amount of passing up momentary benefits for a longer-term benefit. Like, I can’t go 100 mph on the road, but the speed limit means that I get everywhere faster than if people could go any speed they wanted. But any system of laws is vulnerable to the outlaw.
    In the case of speeding, we accept the coercion of the police to stop the person who decides they’re going to run every red light at 100mph. But decision makers and rich folks who act against norms are insulated from punishment.
    To quote The Godfather: A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.

  3. Darcherd says:

    An interesting discussion. Any society must strike some sort of a balance between the needs and rights of the individual members and the needs and rights of the society at large. Swinging that pendulum too far in either direction produces instability, to wit: A completely authoritarian society risks collapse due to internal revolt as the contradiction between the wealth and privilege of those at the top and those at the bottom become more than those at the bottom are willing to bear. Conversely, a society where all power resides with individuals is anarchy, a situation even less stable because it is completely unable to respond in any collective manner to any sort of stress, whether internal or external.

    But what I think human history does tell us is that stable societies are possible along a surprisingly wide range between those two extremes. And there are a whole lot of factors that contribute to where on that continuum the society ends up, ranging from the size of the population, the strength of religious cohesion, the climate and environment, the degree of outside hostile threats, etc.

    The point is that almost any societal structure can be made to work as long as authority and responsibility are commensurate. It is when those get out of whack that societies break down.

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