economics history Politics

Only Young Societies Are Egalitarian

A quick glance at the USA tells me it takes about 3-400 years for a brand new society of frontiersmen and settlers to settle down into a civilization at equilibrium.

Every mass society that’s been around for any length of time has set traditions and customs, stratified social classes, and the vast majority living close to subsistence with a ruling class and its functionaries controlling most wealth.

This truth began to dawn on me when I first moved from the American West where “everyone is middle class” to the East Coast.
To my amazement I soon encountered a highly structured caste system.  Each stratum of society lived entirely separate from the others even if they existed in close proximity.  For each caste there were clear codes of dress, of speech, of behavior.
Working low status jobs that required uniforms or heavy duty work clothes, I quickly came to understand that white collar types, the perpetually harried and anxious middle classers, would refuse to acknowledge my existence, even trying to walk right through me as if I weren’t there.  Talking to them was out of the question.
Sure enough, when I went out in nicer clothing, I had no trouble getting their attention and talking to them.  I was amazed.

Lower proles often wore black shoes and gray baggy clothes that allowed them to blend into walls and not be seen as they hauled dollies loaded with goods in and out of shops or cleaned up the streets.   These people I saw were the local class of untouchables, ashamed even to be noticed.

There were aristocrats who walked about in elegant earth tones with a satisfied smug expression on their faces.  Just beneath them were their upper middle class followers, whose attempt to imitate their masters’ smile looked more like a petulant sneer.

In the West where I had been raised, athleticism, fitness, and outdoor activity had been counted as virtues.
In the East, the physical was clearly seen as a vice, fit only for proles.
Men prided themselves on being stick thin, emphasizing their gaunt figures with tight clothes.  For women, gentle Yoga in indoor studios, well away from the sun, was the most vigorous activity they permitted themselves.  They seemed to me very like Chinese mandarins who grew their nails long to show beyond all doubt that they never had to perform lowly physical labor.

It was not just the social systems of the East that made me think at once of China and India, but also the sheer density of people.
For the first time in my life, there were endless crowds everywhere I went.  Public restrooms were scarce, the few available, mobbed by hundreds of people and filthy.  Any public resource at all in such an environment was sure to be quickly exhausted in a true tragedy of the commons.  There were few places to sit, even fountains were designed to make it difficult for people to snatch up the coins dropped in them.    The spaces shown as “parks” on the maps were just islands in the middle of intersections, a ring of benches around a statue, most of them occupied by sleeping homeless people.

On reflection, I understood the East coast of the US, unlike the West, had existed for awhile under the rule of England and inherited its customs and institutions.  But mainly, it has simply been there longer.
All available resources and social positions are taken, everyone is caught in competition for an unchanging quantity of scarce resources.

I realized that the Western USA with its relatively informal egalitarian culture is an aberration.  It’s simply too new to have settled into a more normal system.  The West is still a frontier.
Once there’s no more frontier, people have to live together in the same society.
Within a few generations, people assort roughly into classes based on their ability to control wealth and exert power.  Then each class largely breeds with its own until each caste is practically a distinct genetic breed.
Once the process is complete, you have the classic mature social structure that’s indistinguishable from Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia.

It is important to make this observation because many of humanity’s best accomplishments come from exuberant new cultures over short periods of time, while ancient empires more often plod on for milennia in a senile daze, living on borrowed inertia, unable to adapt or change, with millions of striving laborers, not one of them producing a new idea.

By Giovanni Dannato

In 1547 I was burnt at the stake in Rome for my pernicious pamphlet proclaiming that the heavens were not filled with a profusion of aether, but rather an extensive vacuum.
Now, the phlogiston that composed my being has re-manifested centuries in the future so that I may continue the task that was inconveniently disrupted so long ago.
Now, I live in Rome on the very street where I (and others) were publicly burnt. To this day, the street is known as what I would translate as 'Heretic's Way'. My charming residence is number 6 on this old road. Please, do come inside and pay me a visit; I should be delighted to spew out endless pedagoguery to one and all...

9 replies on “Only Young Societies Are Egalitarian”

This is the reason why, over the next 50-100 years, space colonization is so important.

The other thing that collapses and “resets” rigid social hierarchy is pandemic, much like the black death in Europe in the 14th century.

A good insight, Abelard. I suppose without pandemics or frontiers, war is the one safety valve remaining when life becomes intolerable for too many. Rwanda is a good example, as are the final decades of Qing China.

I suppose India and East Asian societies though have been stable for centuries at a time. Overcrowding and high attrition rates have simply become a feature of their existence.
Which is why these people are the best in the world at specialized, repetitive, precision work. The guy who can learn a trade or memorize a text just a little bit faster than his competitors secures scarce resources while a man not quite his equal starves to death.

The trouble with such intense competition is that no one has the luxury to even to consider new ideas when 2nd best is never more than half a footstep behind. After awhile curiosity is simply bred out of them.
Which is why high IQ segments of rice civilizations are good at perfecting but poor at inventing.

Hahaha. The emperor’s space marines are awesome genetically engineered fanatical supersoldiers.

The imperium of man is inspiring because its caste system reflects reality and puts everyone where they really belong.
It’s fairly close to Plato’s ideal society, in part because like Greek city states, they don’t have the luxury of playing around. They have enemies that threaten their existence on every side which leaves them no choice but to adopt a Correct social structure that promotes their survival. As human beings, we naturally admire an effective group that achieves its goals even against strong opposition just as we despise societies that destroy themselves from within even without external threats.

We don’t admire doddering old empires because they gradually lose even the ability to maintain themselves with no real change possible, with many capable people relegated to a caste based on accident of birth regardless of talent.
We admire caste when we feel confident the system reflects the reality on the ground rather than ossified custom on autopilot.

Since you mention a sci-fi setting: Frank Herbert’s Dune with its stagnant old empire and planetary feudal system is the more accurate interpretation of long term human development while ‘futuristic’ sci fi just looks more ridiculous with every passing year.
We’ll sooner have feuding dukes and barons in space than a utopian federation of planets.

Well, 40k is commonly regarded as a rip-off of Dune with Space Nuns instead of Fish Speakers.
I read a few years ago on Nature that space colonies can be potential havens for tyrants but on the other side terrorism and sabotage will be a much serious threat than on Earth.
Afterall if your life depends on a generator or dome integrity people will mind who they piss off especially those with explosive/hacking skills.

Not to mention, a God Emperor.

Total Recall is a movie that addressed these problems.
The bad guy taxes Mars colonists into serfdom by making them pay for life support with the threat of cutting it off. The film also shows the landlord’s inherent vulnerability in ruling over a bubble. Nowhere for him to go except an unbreathable atmosphere when unrest gets out of control.

I loved that movie, yes it is a perfect example.
What concern me is the Middle Class / Upper Working Class mentality, they lived during one of the most prosperous period of History, where jobs were plentiful and even the most mediocre of them could have his nice house, car and 2 kids.
They lived well with the breadcrumbs of the elite thinking they earned everything they got while it was merely a change of economic system: from exploitation to consumerism (while exploiting third worlders instead of local consumers! )

Now with the economic collapse, they are forced to face reality: that means zero sum cut throat dealings, understanding the concept of power and force, most of all their delusional concepts of “equality” and “rights” work only in sheltered high income nations.

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