So ... How the hell did we get so far up the creek? Always seeking to go to the roots (ain't that what a radical does?), and being a life-long amateur student of anthropology, I am drawn back to somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, during the time when full-blown agriculture was becoming firmly established in the so-called "centers of civilization." Before some clever Mesopotamians invented literacy, pretty much the only evidence we have to go on is archeological, and that kind of evidence, notoriously, severely limits what we can know, or even reasonably guess, about the minds of those who left it. Nevertheless, we may still draw many illuminating conclusions and insights about the lifeways of pre-literate people from the artifactual clues they left. This kind of evidence has been steadily accumulating for many decades now, if not longer, to the point that we can now confidently say that the time-frame I'm focusing on marks a decisive watershed in the evolution of human social, economic, and religious practices (among others).
Before the time when we humans started living in year-round settlements, somewhere around 12,000 years or so ago, we were all hunter-gatherers (probably just scavengers for a long time), and it's that way of life that we are - today still - equipped for in body and in mind. It's very clear, both from the admittedly sparse archeological record and from the millennia-long, increasingly abundant ethnological evidence, that, in terms of social and economic arrangements, hunter-gatherers, even that tiny remnant still surviving today, are by nature strictly egalitarian, and have survived by cooperating, not competing. To be blunt, this means nobody runs the show, except ad-hoc, by agreement, and temporarily; and nobody owns anything, beyond small personal items, which, in any case, are easily replaceable by nearly everyone. And this egalitarianism is both explicit and enforced - every so often, some yo-yo gets it into (nearly always) his head to steal from or lord it over the others, but such are sooner or later brought back into line, if need be by being escorted into the jungle (or desert, or whatever's handy) and "lost."
But be the third millennium BCE, we have not only "written" documentation but abundant archeological evidence of elaborated hierarchy (to include several leisure classes), institutionalized warfare, and marked social and economic inequality in a number of the "centers of civilization" -eventually, all of them. This "breakthrough" has since spread over the entire globe, like bacteria in a Petri dish, until now scarcely a living being has not been engulfed in its seeming inexorability. (As with those bacteria, inevitably, we are now within sight of the edges of the dish; but, unlike the bacteria, our own Waterloo offers hope of a reset - to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.)
How did all this happen so quickly and so thoroughly? It's a question that's baffled me, and therefore fascinated me, all my adult life. Why have 99% of humanity allowed the other 1% to climb on their backs and ride them so mercilessly for so long? Even more perplexingly, why have they failed to recognize that it is well within their power to make an end of it? I've never been able to come up with an answer that satisfies me; it may well be that there is no ultimate reason, but rather a congeries of factors that, together, is enough to do the trick.
For now, though, I fear that this post has already exceeded many attention spans; besides, I have pressing business to attend to. I'll post again, hopefully, this weekend, to offer some possibilities for discussion. In the meantime, as maybe a kind of teaser, I offer two quotes that seem pertinent:
The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754
I should like to see, and this will be the last and most ardent of my desires, I should like to see the last king strangled with the guts of the last priest.
— J. Messelier (clause in a will, Paris, 1733)