Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Igualdade vs. desigualdade

The Eternal Dynamic of Inequality, por Razib Khan:

Inequality is a big deal today. (...)

But what about a more anthropological perspective? The May 23rd issue of Science focused on the topic (there was even a contribution by Piketty). Two articles sum up two contrasting views, The ancient roots of the 1% and Our egalitarian Eden. The latter is probably closer to the received wisdom, while the former piece reports on revisionist work which highlights findings from hunter-gatherer societies in situations of natural surplus where inequality seems to have been tolerated or accepted. Finally, I want to point to a Peter Turchin preprint, Religion and Empire in the Axial Age, which touches upon many of the same issues. Reading the first two pieces it does seem that to a first approximation the idea that hunter-gatherers tended toward egalitarianism is still valid. The exceptions from what I can gather are cases where there were temporary surfeits of natural resources which could be hoarded and corralled in some fashion. This is in contrast to post-Neolithic agricultural societies where gross inequality coexisted for long periods with Malthusian conditions. The implication from the pieces in Science is that in the Paleolithic inequality could persist when there was plenty to go around. But we know from the historical record that in mass agricultural societies gross poverty and inequality could go hand in hand. Why? Because in Paleolithic societies the lower ranks could collude and redistribute resources in situations of scarcity, and they could not in post-Neolithic societies.

But the flip side of this is that we are not a purely egalitarian species, and hierarchy is also part of our heritage. If this was not the case I don’t think it would have been so easy to develop the concentrations of social power which arose after the Neolithic. What Turchin’s essay highlights is that egalitarianism and hierarchy are both tendencies which are at dynamic tension, and different social structures and historical epochs have obtained quasi-equilibrium states which balance and synthesize the two forces.

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