New research suggests that the familiar story of early human society is wrong – and the consequences are profound.
1. In the beginning was the word
For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilisation properly speaking. Civilisation meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy and most other great human achievements.
Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilisation, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to “primitive communism”, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.
There is a fundamental problem with this narrative: it isn’t true. Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the “big questions” of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris and others – still take Rousseau’s question (“what is the origin of social inequality?”) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.
Simply framing the question this way means making a series of assumptions. First, that there is a thing called “inequality”; second, that it is a problem; and third, that there was a time it did not exist. Since the financial crash of 2008 and the upheavals that followed, the “problem of social inequality” has been at the centre of political debate. There seems to be a consensus, among the intellectual and political classes, that levels of social inequality have spiralled out of control, and that most of the world’s problems result from this, in one way or another. Pointing this out is seen as a challenge to global power structures, but compare this to the way similar issues might have been discussed a generation earlier. Unlike terms such as “capital” or “class power”, the word “equality” is practically designed to lead to half-measures and compromise. One can imagine overthrowing capitalism or breaking the power of the state, but it’s very difficult to imagine eliminating “inequality”. In fact, it’s not obvious what doing so would even mean, since people are not all the same and nobody would particularly want them to be.
“Inequality” is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (“can you imagine? 0.1 per cent of the world’s population controls over 50 per cent of the wealth!”), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such “unequal” social arrangements. For instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society. That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9 per cent of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, for ever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.
Mainstream social science now seems mobilised to reinforce this sense of hopelessness. Almost on a monthly basis we are confronted with publications trying to project the current obsession with property distribution back into the Stone Age, setting us on a false quest for “egalitarian societies” defined in such a way that they could not possibly exist outside some tiny band of foragers (and possibly not even then).
What we’re going to do in this essay, then, is two things. First, we will spend a bit of time picking through what passes for informed opinion on such matters, to reveal how the game is played, how even the most apparently sophisticated contemporary scholars end up reproducing conventional wisdom as it stood in France or Scotland in, say, 1760. Then we will attempt to lay down the initial foundations of an entirely different narrative. This is mostly ground-clearing work. The questions we are dealing with are so enormous, and the issues so important, that it will take years of research and debate to even begin to understand the full implications. But on one thing we insist. Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. On the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there.