Friday, October 01, 2004

"A Theory of Power", Chapter 6

Chapter 6: Economics: The Anthropology of Freedom

(CLICK HERE to purchase)

Until now we have considered the two distinct nexuses of power-relationships within our lives: the gene and the meme. While genetic evolution takes place over a time span of millions of years, the pace of cultural evolution has quickened exponentially with intensification. Development of new memes that may have taken a full generation in the Pleistocene can now transpire in a year, a day or less. The increased scope and interconnectivity of our culture has resulted in amazing developments in memetic structures. In particular, memetic advancement has made possible two remarkable cultural constructs: the marketplace and the state. Through these institutions human society transitioned from simple tribes to global empires.

The market acts as a memetic entity that processes information, connecting capability and desire. It has the ability to organize other meme-driven collections of human activity by connecting the possible outputs and desired inputs of each with a complementary match. The marketplace has evolved from inter-group feasts exchanging surpluses and specialties through an elaborate series of gifts[1] to computer-mediated exchanges using price to regulate the global production, transportation and consumption of countless commodities.

The state emerges as a closely related development, often inseparable from the market. The gradual intensification of inter-personal power-relationships and the growth of cultural institutions directing human action stemmed from an increasing scarcity of environmental resources. As populations grew and environmental constraints exerted selection pressures on competing groups, those with the greater ability to harness resources and direct populations survived and prospered. More advanced markets—critical to success in economic competition—flourished in the stable, ordered environment of the increasingly hierarchal state. The state created an environment capable of supporting memetic structures such as a code of laws and a representative currency that greatly improved the efficiency of the market. The market and the state quickly grew into a tightly co-dependent pair.

The market-state complex developed from a fairly stable base: the hunter-gatherer tribe. Economically, the Domestic Mode of Production and Share-Out redistribution characterize the tribal form of organization.[2] In the Domestic Mode of Production, the household unit pools all production of staple goods for household use as needed. Items such as meat, tubers, tools, shelter and clothing exist as products of the household, freely distributed to its members. This creates little pressure towards intensification of political or economic structures as the aggregate demand remains carefully balanced with the supply capacity of each household, and institutionalized exchange does not occur. Similarly, Share-Out served as the predominant method of redistribution—equally distributing the product of cooperation among the participants. In the example of the cooperative hunt, while only one individual may have killed an animal, the meat was shared among the participants in the hunt, affecting redistribution throughout the tribe. Such egalitarian economies incorporated equally egalitarian political structures. Tribes (not the same as chiefdoms[3]) utilized voluntary participation and group discussion to maintain order. Remnant tribes today continue to exhibit strong cultural aversion towards status or rank of any type.[4]

Egalitarian structure provided continuity in the evolution to Homo Sapiens Sapiens,[5] with remarkably stable, tribal organization spanning thousands of generations of human evolution. What catalyzed the development of more complex state and market structures from the tribal form of organization? The answer to this puzzle may lie in the observation that, in most ecosystems, the hunter-gatherer mode of production only functions at low population densities (anywhere from 1/10th to 1/100th that of primitive agricultural civilizations[6]). Gradually, memetic mutation led scattered groups to experiment with agricultural techniques such as encouraging the growth of favored foraging foods (often by burning older growth to clear the way for certain fauna), small scale planting, etc. Differing evidence suggests that the adoption of the related phenomenon of pastoralism may have resulted, not from purely random mutation, but from conscious transition in the face of specific climate change events. One such example appears in the Dahkleh Oasis, in the Western Desert of Egypt. Here, semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer populations flourished for several hundred thousand years.[7] Then, 10,000 years ago, the Pleistocene savannah of North Africa transitioned to the Holocene Sahara Desert that exists today. The Dahkleh Oasis shifted from the fertile center of a vast, habitable region to a virtual island in a sea of nearly lifeless sand. Archaeological evidence[8] suggests that as the Dahkleh population retreated into an increasingly constrained oasis, they experimented with taming and domesticating a wide variety of animals—probably even giraffe. Eventually, it seems likely that cattle-based pastoralism dominated their economy, as cattle represented a mobile and long-lived food bank well suited to the Dahkleh’s unique environmental challenges. Here, climate change acts as a catalyst for this transition, overcoming the attraction of the superior efficiency and suitability to the human genome of the hunting and gathering mode of production. This link may provide some hint as to why agriculture and pastoralism appeared independently, and nearly simultaneously, at many locations around the world: the climate change that appears to have affected the Dahkleh Oasis 10,000 years ago also affected the entire planet, representing the end of the last Ice Age.

Most groups, when not forced by environmental influences, quickly abandoned their experimentation with agriculture. But in some cases—especially, it appears, in the face of environmental catalysts—experimentation led to population growth, or at least stability. When coupled with similar experimentation and population growth by neighboring groups, competition for agricultural land and resources provided pressure to select for the continuation and intensification of agriculture. Agriculture, including incipient agriculture, did not convert hunter-gatherers with the promise of a better quality of life—in fact, agriculture provided just the opposite. Statistically, agriculturalists work longer hours and have poorer nutrition than hunter-gatherers.[9] Why, then, did much of humanity adopt agricultural practices? Population pressure among hunter-gatherers does not appear to answer the question, as “populations didn’t significantly increase until agriculture was instituted.”[10] Instead, it appears that some groups who experimented with the powerful technology of agriculture got swept away in a vicious cycle of intensification. As neighbors began to compete for limited resources, scarcity provided the evolutionary pressure to select for intensified economic and political processes.[11]

This vicious cycle of incipient agriculture appears to have occurred independently, and roughly simultaneously, at several locations around the globe. All of these locations combined higher-density hunter-gatherer populations, fauna suitable to agricultural development along with the catalyst of climate change. Tribes had understood the principles of agriculture for at least 6,000 years before the first agricultural civilization[12], but chose to continue the hunter-gatherer mode of production because it represented a more efficient means of meeting subsistence needs.[13] While tribes that experimented with agriculture experienced a net loss of productivity, they gained the ability to support far denser populations on a given area of land. Population growth, however, continued even after the population reached the local carrying capacity for incipient agriculture, resulting in expansionary pressures. As neighboring agriculturalists began to compete for arable land, those tribes that further intensified through methods such as irrigation gained a greater advantage in the form of a larger population of warriors. The ability to harness the power of greater production, coordinating the action of larger populations in a manner that provided a competitive advantage, also required increased centralized decision-making. Tribal organization could not process the information needed to direct a large group. As tribes proved inadequate to handle such problems as mobilizing populations for large irrigation projects or coordinating larger-scale warfare, those groups that chanced upon more centralized control reaped the evolutionary advantage.

The transition seems to have led tribes to organize around “Big Men”, sparking the formation of a centralized political control structure.[14] Stemming from the Share-Out concept of redistribution, those individuals who consistently provided greater harvests or catches would gain prestige by sharing with more needy group members in difficult times. The process of sharing surpluses eventually led individuals to join the production efforts of a single Big Man to both gain from their prestige and share in their success (superior management skill) in harvest. The centralized direction of the Big Man allowed for organized wars of conquest, the construction of large-scale irrigation projects, etc. Scarcity and selection pressures favored those Big Men that created the most intensified, centralized structure. This process resulted not entirely from random events and evolutionary pressures. Big Men often rose to their position as the result of exceptional organizational skills, so to some degree one can view this intensification, the “attempt to mobilize resources to finance institutions, as a conscious strategy.”[15] The intensification of the relationship between centralized director and contributor, along with the resulting stratification of individuals within a group, prompted the transition from tribe to state.

In the process of intensification the individual steadily lost power and control. In contrast to the freely available resources of the hunter-gatherer world, scarcity and agriculture demanded that an individual remain a member of the group in order to maintain access to arable land and hunting grounds. Resources that the incipient state defended, the state also owned. Gaining access to them meant accepting the demands of the state, accepting the power relationship of the state over the individual. Forced acceptance of hierarchy formed a positive feedback loop, paving the way towards ever more complex and controlling forms of political and economic systems.

Hierarchy—the stratification of individuals to provide efficient command and control of specialized individual and group functions—became the key trait linking the Market and the State. An example of an evolutionarily successful pattern, hierarchy met the demands of intensification across a diverse set of cultural considerations. This does not simply demonstrate a case of hierarchal political organization succeeding. Rather it serves as a case of hierarchy as a successful, self-replicating pattern applied across economic, political and social structures. The Marketplace and the State evolved together through intensification and the application of the pattern of hierarchy, continuing the trend toward increasing intensification and organization of human activity. Cultural memetic complexes enabled the process. Not only did they pave the way for the acceptance of hierarchy, they also evolved to serve the critical function of buffering the increasing demands placed on individuals with the tolerances of the human genome. What many think of as distinct political, economic and cultural processes in today’s world continue to progress towards ever more interconnected meta-networks of power-relationships. Market and State combined, buffered by cultural mechanisms, began to form unified memetic superstructures. This powerful combination continued to intensify, gradually joined by the intensification of another family of memes: technology.


[1] For an excellent examination of the process of competitive inter-group feasting, or potlaching, as a catalyst to social organization, see “Economic Man”, by Harold Schneider, 1974.
[2] “Stone Age Economics”, Marshall Sahlins, 1972
[3] Timothy Earle, in “Bronze Age Economics” provides labels for the progressively more centralized and hierarchal forms of human society: Tribe, Big-Man Group, Chiefdom, Proto-State and State.
[4] Hunters in the Dobe Ju/’hoansi tribe will insult the quality or size of their catch, so that they are seen as modest, and not superior to the hunters who have failed to return with a kill. See “The Dobe Ju/’hoansi” by Richard B. Lee, 1993.
[5] Homo Sapiens Sapiens is the name of the current human subspecies. Dating from at least 130,000 B.C.E. (the date of the earliest reconstructed skull of our subspecies). Often called “The Symbol User”, the name translates literally to “wise, wise”—something that may prove ironic if we are not able to overcome the issues addressed later in this book.
[6] “Guns, Germs and Steel”, Jared Diamond, 1997.
[7] “Mixed Memoirs”, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, 1983.
[8] “Secrets of the Sand: Revelations of Egypt’s Everlasting Oasis”, Harry Thurston, pgs 72-119, 2003.
[9] “The Original Affluent Society”, Marshal Sahlins, in “Stone Age Economics”.
[10] John Zerzan, personal correspondence, 29 April, 2004.
[11] “On the Road of the Winds”, Patrick V. Kirch, 2000.
[12] “Traces of an Omnivore”, Paul Shepard, pg 181.
[13] See the essay “The Original Affluent Society” in Marshal Sahlins’ “Stone Age Economics”.
[14] Bronze Age Economics, Timothy Earle.
[15] Timothy Earle, personal correspondence, 17 September, 2003.


Anonymous said...

It has always been wrong to derive the concept of memes from from of genes. Genes operate in an anarchic universe; memes in a highly controlled one. Genes are really the survival ofg the fittest (tho I think that should be fit enough)> Memes surviver arrording to the poeer wealth etc of people; so the kingship mem e is totally contyrolled by the king family; as with rul;esd recgarding inheritance; female role

Anonymous said...

So a Pomeranian's traits are the result of selection for fitness?

Brother Billy said...

There's some inconsistency between saying that population pressure doesn't appear to answer the question of why agriculture was generally adopted and saying that it occurred in areas of high hunter-gather population densities that were subjected to pressures arising from climate change.

General population pressure doesn't really matter. Population pressures in specific places, all around the same time, are sufficient to promote the general spread of agriculture and its associated social organizational patterns.