The Anthropology of Unequal Society

Excerpted from a review by Keith Hart of David Graeber’s book: The First Five Thousand Years of Debt:

“Modern anthropology was born to serve the coming democratic revolution against the Old Regime. A government by the people for the people should be based on what they have in common, their “human nature” or “natural rights”. Writers from John Locke (1690) to Karl Marx (1867) identified the contemporary roots of inequality with money’s social dominance, a feature that we now routinely call “capitalism”. For Locke money was a store of wealth that allowed some individuals to accumulate property far beyond their own immediate needs. For Marx “capital” had become the driving force subordinating the work of the many to machines controlled by a few. In both cases, accumulation dissolved the old forms of society, but it also generated the conditions for its own replacement by a more just society, a “commonwealth” or “communism”. It was, however, the philosophers of the eighteenth-century liberal enlightenment who developed a systematic approach to anthropology as an intellectual source for remaking the modern world.

Following Locke’s example, they wanted to found democratic societies in place of the class system typical of agrarian civilizations. How could arbitrary social inequality be abolished and a more equal society founded on their common human nature? Anthropology was the means of answering that question. The great Victorian synthesizers, such as Morgan, Tylor and Frazer, stood on the shoulders of predecessors motivated by an urgent desire to make world society less unequal. Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, a best-seller when published in 1798, was the culmination of that Enlightenment project; but it played almost no part in the subsequent history of the discipline. The main source for nineteenth-century anthropology was rather Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He revolutionized our understanding of politics, education, sexuality and the self in four books published in the 1760s: The Social Contract, Emile, Julie and The Confessions. He was forced to flee for his life from hit squads encouraged by the church. But he made his reputation earlier through two discourses of which the second, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1754), deserves to be seen as the source for an anthropology that combines the critique of unequal society with a revolutionary politics of democratic emancipation.

Rousseau was concerned here not with individual variations in natural endowments which we can do little about, but with the conventional inequalities of wealth, honour and the capacity to command obedience which can be changed. In order to construct a model of human equality, he imagined a pre-social state of nature, a sort of hominid phase of human evolution in which men were solitary, but healthy, happy and above all free. This freedom was metaphysical, anarchic and personal: original human beings had free will, they were not subject to rules of any kind and they had no superiors. At some point humanity made the transition to what Rousseau calls “nascent society”, a prolonged period whose economic base can best be summarized as hunter-gathering with huts. This second phase represents his ideal of life in society close to nature.

The rot set in with the invention of agriculture or, as Rousseau puts it, wheat and iron. Here he contradicted both Hobbes and Locke. The formation of a civil order (the state) was preceded by a war of all against all marked by the absence of law, which Rousseau insisted was the result of social development, not an original state of nature. Cultivation of the land led to incipient property institutions which, far from being natural, contained the seeds of entrenched inequality. Their culmination awaited the development of political society. He believed that this new social contract was probably arrived at by consensus, but it was a fraudulent one in that the rich thereby gained legal sanction for transmitting unequal property rights in perpetuity. From this inauspicious beginning, political society then usually moved, via a series of revolutions, through three stages:

The establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorized by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the stage to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether and bring it back to legitimacy (Rousseau 1984:131).

One-man-rule closes the circle. “It is here that all individuals become equal again because they are nothing, here where subjects have no longer any law but the will of the master”(Ibid: 134). For Rousseau, the growth of inequality was just one aspect of human alienation in civil society. We need to return from division of labour and dependence on the opinion of others to subjective self-sufficiency. His subversive parable ends with a ringing indictment of economic inequality which could well serve as a warning to our world. “It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities” (Ibid: 137).

Lewis H. Morgan (1877) drew on Rousseau’s model for his own fiercely democratic synthesis of human history, Ancient Society, which likewise used an evolutionary classification that we now call bands, tribes and states, each stage more unequal than the one before. Morgan’s work is normally seen as the launch of modern anthropology proper because of his ability to enrol contemporary ethnographic observations of the Iroquois in an analysis of the historical structures underlying western civilization’s origins in Greece and Rome. Marx and Engels enthusiastically took up Morgan’s work as confirmation of their own critique of the state and capitalism; and the latter, drawing on Marx’s extensive annotations of Ancient Society, made the argument more accessible as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Engels’s greater emphasis on gender inequality made this a fertile source for the feminist movement in the 1960s and after.

The traditional home of inequality is supposed to be India and Andre Beteille, in Inequality among Men (1977) and other books, has made the subject his special domain, merging social anthropology with comparative sociology. In the United States, Leslie White at Michigan and Julian Steward at Columbia led teams, including Wolf, Sahlins, Service, Harris and Mintz, who took the evolution of the state and class society as their chief focus. Probably the single most impressive work coming out of this American school was Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History (1982). But one man tried to redo Morgan in a single book and that was Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). In Tristes Tropiques (1955), Lévi-Strauss acknowledged Rousseau as his master. The aim of Elementary Structures was to revisit Morgan’s three-stage theory of social evolution, drawing on a new and impressive canvas, “the Siberia-Assam axis” and all points southeast as far as the Australian desert. Lévi-Strauss took as his motor of development the forms of marriage exchange and the logic of exogamy. The “restricted reciprocity” of egalitarian bands gave way to the unstable hierarchies of “generalized reciprocity” typical of the Highland Burma tribes. The stratified states of the region turned inwards to endogamy, to the reproduction of class differences and the negation of social reciprocity.

Jack Goody has tried to lift our profession out of a myopic ethnography into an engagement with world history that went out of fashion with the passing of the Victorian founders. Starting with Production and Reproduction (1976), he has produced a score of books over the last three decades investigating why Sub-Saharan Africa differs so strikingly from the pre-industrial societies of Europe and Asia, with a later focus on refuting the West’s claim to being exceptional, especially when compared with Asia (Hart 2006, 2011). The common thread of Goody’s compendious work links him through the Marxist pre-historian Gordon Childe (1954) to Morgan-Engels and ultimately Rousseau.

The key to understanding social forms lies in production, which for us means machine production.

Civilization or human culture is largely shaped by the means of communication — once writing, now an array of mechanized forms. The site of social struggles is property, now principally conflicts over intellectual property. And his central issue of reproduction has never been more salient than at a time when the aging citizens of rich countries depend on the proliferating mass of young people out there. Kinship needs to be reinvented too.”