Friday, April 02, 2010

the first exploitive hierarchies

RKMoore | In a hierarchal society there are a few at the top, who make the big decisions — and everyone else, who are obliged to abide by those decisions. If the interests of those at the top are aligned with the interests of the general population, hierarchy can be a somewhat reasonable mode of organization. The few are able to reach coherent decisions efficiently, and the many can get on with the business of society.

In our very first hierarchical societies — herding bands ruled by a warrior chief — we had such an alignment of interests. The chief and the band shared the goals of obtaining the best pastures for their herds, and protecting their territory from competing bands. A strong chief improved their combat prowess, and the system worked well for the chief and band alike.

The chief enjoyed many privileges, compared to the rest of the band, yet his role was essentially beneficial to the band, not exploitive. He got the biggest slice of the pie, and his lieutenants did well too, but overall the pie was divided reasonably equitably.

Our second generation of hierarchical societies emerged when herding bands conquered and enslaved early agricultural societies. The few at the top were now exploiting the majority of the population, and most of the pie was now being shared by the new upper class, the members of the conquering tribe. The slaves did all the hard work and grew the food, and subsisted on crumbs from the pie that their labor created.

From our modern perspective, this was a radically different kind of society than either of its ancestor societies, the herders and the agriculturalists. We can appreciate that this was the beginning of exploitive hierarchy, something that has cursed us ever since. This is a perspective that would have made sense to the slaves of that time as well. They had become slaves on the very lands they had once proudly called their own. For the first time, the interests of those at the top were no longer in alignment with the interests of the general population of the society.

From the perspective of the conquering tribe, however, the new societies were in many ways very similar to the original herding societies. The chief — now king — was still the undisputed ruler, and he still shared the pie more or less equitably with his fellows, the members of the conquering tribe. The difference was that the slaves had now taken the place of the herds.

Throughout history, slaves have always been looked on as subhuman by their masters. To the conquering tribe, this first generation of slaves was simply a better source of food than the herds had been. A greater supply of food could be obtained, and without the need to stay on the move looking for green pastures. Slaves were property, just like the herd animals had been, and they could perform many other kinds of labor as well, besides just food production. The slaves were not people: they were multi-purpose beasts of burden.

From the perspective of the conquerors, the internal structure of society had not changed radically — because the slaves were not part of society. Such was the nature of the early city-states that arose in Mesopotamia. Historians consider these slave-based societies to be the beginning of Western civilization.