Egalitarianism and Elitism

Story time! Imagine there is a group of people that have lived in area for generations. As clanless hunter-gatherers, they experience anarchic freedom but are dependent upon group cooperation for resources. They are occupying land abundant in wild foods; a river where salmon spawn and productive hunting grounds. In times of low resources, their equally egalitarian neighbours come to them to exchange gifts of food. With abundant wild foods and fish preservation technology, the group is less interested in reciprocal gift-exchanges. They will give to the other groups but they seem more like beggars than equally helpful people. They have nothing to give that they do not already have.

They begin to identify with their land. They are people of the land, of the fish and of the wild plants and animals they hunt. Once considering themselves equal in their cosmologies underneath greater spirits of nature, they begin to take ownership. They name themselves and their land, holding ground to encroaching groups to say “we were here first”.

Unable to reciprocate the gifts of the other group’s land, neighbouring foragers go in other directions. Some go on the war-path. Some lead their people to find equally productive land. Some fall into debt servitude and become submissive to reap some of the benefits of the other group.

Our ancestors roamed a sparsely populated earth. While slowly developing the technology to improve hunting and foraging, they had little ability to secure future resources. There was little concept of ownership. As social animals, our survival was based upon group cooperation.

The face of the egalitarian is smiling. He may be a better hunter than his peers but lets the younger and less experienced take his credit. He uses humour to poke fun at men that create ego out of achievements. There is no rank or status. Everything is shared. Sexual competition is absent, anarchic freedom rules and children are raised by the group.

Egalitarianism is not progressive but can be highly creative. Technological advancements are slow and ideas cannot benefit the creator as egalitarianism is fiercely protected. For example, Acheulean hand axes were used by our ancestors for over a million years- unmodified with little cultural variation or new innovation.

As the land became more populated some people said, “We were here first”. Ownership had merit. Some climbed on top of others, claiming to be special, to have a connection to the spiritual and new societies were born. The ones that could not reciprocate a gift were clearly not as good as them or as protected by their ancestors or the spirits.

Eventually achievements were allowed to gain an individual distinction. You can be a better hunter and be rewarded for it. This is a progressive society. Those who play their strengths will be rewarded. The next step towards elitism is allowing rewards or accomplishments to give the owner status as in rank societies. The final step is to be able to pass your wealth and title to your own lineage- creating in-heritability of rank and deep-rooted social hierarchies.

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As resource security increases in human societies, so does the importance of ownership and individual ability to get “a piece of the pie”. There are probably egalitarians in predominately hierarchical societies but no elitists in fiercely egalitarian ones. As resources increase it expands social arrangements- increasing individuality with decreasing need for group cooperation.

While the egalitarians are smiling, most of the people in an elitist society are eyeing up the person on the next rung.

To gain rank you must be better than others. Elites need a slave or servitude class to exist. Anti-social behaviour can be helpful—ownership and territory are more important than group cooperation as it is no longer the major means of future security. Competition both increases technological advancements and efficiency and leads to more social conflicts.

Human sexual behaviour changes in these conditions. Rank and status become important in mate selection and individuals become more judgemental of each other. In these societies, signs of high-status are important and often externally worn and expressed as both expensive goods and indications of a lack of physical labour in one’s day-to-day life. For women this may mean fashion styles that would be dysfunctional for work- high heel shoes, fake nails, restrictive clothing, etc. while men are judged on their employment, clothing, gadgets, cars, etc.

Think of a male celebrity and a female one and where they gain their social power. Women generally become more hypergamous in elitist societies. While it increases a male’s status to be aggressive in pursuing resources and sexual partners the opposite is true of females. Being a passive resource attractor has greater value for a woman’s status. She wants to marry up. While anti-social behaviour in men tends to be on the far spectrum of egomania and violence, dysfunctional female behaviour tends to be manipulative and controlling.

As resource security increases so does the illusion of self-reliance. Paradoxically, elitists are more dependent upon the group than egalitarians are. Not only are those on the tops of social hierarchies dependent upon the labouring work-force but also for others to give them merit. As societies become more elite more people will opt out and stop giving the egos of the famous and rich validation, “We no long recognize your title.”

Today, unable to compete many will not attempt to achieve status or a higher ranking. They are pulled by anarchic freedom which is mostly inaccessible in lower rankings and come together in non-judgemental, cooperation-oriented groups, especially on internet communities.

I have written this post as if there is a real progression from egalitarian to elite. In fact, I think societies are mostly in the middle of a spectrum and different social environments encourage different behaviours. Individuals may be more elitist in one part of their life to be more egalitarian in another. In general, I think societies tend to take to the strengths of both: competition and cooperation, and separate them based upon conditions. Whenever there is a pull one way, there will be a pull the other way.

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