To the radical egalitarian, the civilization that we live in is horribly unjust. The power laws that manifest themselves in the distribution of wealth lead to the very few owning the vast majority. Worse than that inequality of ownership is the inequality of opportunity that accompanies it, with the vast majority chained to menial labor lest they fall into grinding poverty. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau lamented in The Social Contract: “Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains.” A powerful, stirring accusation no doubt, and one that cuts to the heart of the radical egalitarian uneasiness with, really, all political order.
In the book that followed, Rousseau argued that the only way for human beings to live freely, or even as proper human beings since man was free by definition for Rousseau, was for each person to freely give themselves to the general will: “each, by giving himself to all, gives himself to no one, and since there is no associate over whom one does not acquire the same right as one grants over oneself, one gains the equivalent of all one loses, and more force to preserve what one has” (Rousseau 1997: 50). Rousseau’s condemnation of the hierarchies of 18th century Europe helped to motivate a trend of political thinking that fought against such institutions in the centuries to follow, beyond the feudal ancien régime to the liberal commercial society.
One of the essential features of the radical egalitarian outlook that Rousseau helped to promote is that each person in a society should relate and sympathize with the fellow members of her society as an equal. In such a society, everybody is united with each other in cooperation encompassing the entire community. Rousseau wrote of such a society in The Social Contract, “As soon as this multitude is united in one body, one cannot injure on of the members without attacking the body, and still less can one injure the body without the members being affected” (Ibid: 52). The egalitarian society is, therefore, one in which everybody within it pulls together for the common good.
Only through that act of encompassing cooperation could people interact with each other as equals. Much like hoplites in formation, their total dedication to the community ensured that no one person could stake out a position above his fellow citizens. However, once people began to look after their own interests, the solidarity of primordial society decayed, which Rousseau recognizes in his Second Discourse: “This is how natural inequality imperceptibly unfolds together with unequal associations, and the differences between men, developed by their different circumstances, become more perceptible, more permanent in their effects, and begin to exercise a corresponding influence on the fate of individuals” (Rousseau 1997: 170).
It’s a tempting vision that appeals to the innate human yearning for encompassing cooperation and meaning through such cooperation. But it’s one that’s irreconcilable with the hierarchical nature of a complex society. The reason is that egalitarianism stems from our innate yearning for an egalitarian society that was selected for over the hundreds of thousands of years that our distant ancestors once lived in.
Radical egalitarianism has become apart of social democracy’s civil religion. To speak against it is an act of heresy, yet radical egalitarianism is a very dangerous doctrine that stands juxtaposed to the demands of the civilization whose fruits we enjoy. When a radical egalitarian sees a world in chains, a more sober perspective recognizes the necessary hierarchy to sustain that has sustained civilization across the millennia. Put into practice, in its indiscriminate leveling of hierarchy, radical egalitarianism seeks to destroy the social complexity that has made social existence possible in complex societies.
It isn’t an accident that radical egalitarianism is an advocate for a type of society resembling the ancestral bands that Homo sapiens evolved within. At its heart, radical egalitarianism is an expression of humanity’s yearning for such a society. Human beings aren’t simply souls in machines; rather, they are animals whose social aptitudes have evolved over a vast natural history that should be the subject of greater appreciation in the study of human society. To understand man as a political animal, one has to understand man as a band animal; in the words of Daniel Klein, one has to understand band-man and his legacy around us. Apart of the legacy of the band is a desire for an egalitarian community and cooperation that encompasses across that entire community.
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, one of Jared Diamond’s general argument is that civilization put to an end the egalitarian status that people had once enjoyed in their ancestors’ bands. The sympathy that motivates people’s desire for a fair society and the moral sentiments that lead us to approve of the leveling of hierarchy evolved in the unique context of the ancestral bands our Paleolithic ancestors resided in. In those bands, people generally relate and sympathize with each others as equals. However, as complex society emerged, people could no longer relate to each others as equals as hierarchies dissolved the primordial solidarity of the ancestral band.
With the mutation of the first chiefdoms, human societies across the world began an unstoppable evolution towards ever more unequal and ever more kleptocratic societies:
By now, it should be obvious that chiefdoms introduced the dilemma fundamental to all centrally governed, nonegalitarian societies. At best, they do good by providing expensive services impossible to contract for on an individual basis. At worst, they function unabashedly as kleptocracies, transferring net wealth from commoners to upper classes. These noble and selfish functions are inextricably linked, although some governments emphasize much more of than function that of the other. (Diamond 2005: 276)
With civilization, wealth and political power was now inequality distributed across the population, often with a very high correlation between the two. Moreover, that unequal distribution was a feature, not a bug.
After all, any complex system is going to be hierarchical to some degree. As Herbert Simon argued in “The Architecture of Complexity,” hierarchy is to some degree a measurement of complexity. Although Diamond is woefully ignorant about the role that commerce has played in the rise of civilization—a quick perusal through the index of Guns, Germs, and Steel reveals that neither ‘commerce,’ ‘property’ nor ‘trade’ make an appearance there—his broad strokes demonstrate how civilization has become progressively ever less egalitarian. Whatever one may think about Diamond’s larger argument about civilization, his diagnosis of all complex societies as kleptocracies to one degree or another should be heeded. Whether its Babylon, the Egypt of the Middle Kingdom, Antonine Rome, Plantagenet England, or Imperial Germany, few will hold mastery over others. In complex systems, power laws are everywhere and they manifest themselves in civilization.
So the civilization that we live in is deeply kleptocratic, yet it has to be to function. The fact that power laws manifest themselves in civilization isn’t a challenge to reformers; rather, it’s a fact that has to be accepted to live in it. Medieval clerics may have preached that God authorized the kleptocracies around them—and right enough they may have been on that count—but we needn’t have recourse to such rhetoric today, not with our understanding of social evolution. Our civilization, after all, is neither the product of divine command nor a social contract; rather, it has taken the form it has thanks to generations of cultural selection, dependent on a whole menagerie of causes that are historical contingent. Those historical contingencies become crystalized into civilization. To describe the manner in which contingent chance events become integral parts of a functional whole, Stuart A. Kauffman likens the products of evolution to a Rube-Goldberg machine in The Origins of Order:
Beyond the charm of his style, Goldberg’s ad hoc machinery demonstrates a basic principle. Once the components are assembled and once the system works, the system is an integrated whole. Removing or sharply changing any component will probably lead to failure. That is, solutions, once found, are more or less locked in. (Kauffman 1993: 13)
The hierarchies and institutions we have are very much a product of frozen randomness, yet they have become integral to the greater whole of the civilization they are embedded within. To level those hierarchies and institutions in a desire to create a more equal society would be strike at the functional whole that is civilization.
The response to the kleptocracy around us isn’t to return to a simpler society, it’s to reduce the impact of coercion in society and to allow people to carve out their own private spheres of their own making. Abstract rules of conduct, rather than solidarity and encompassing cooperation, are what enable human beings to flourish in a complex society, despite its strongly kleptocratic elements. Commutative justice is foremost among those abstract rules of conduct. Commutative justice enables us to protect ourselves from that kleptocratic world and to follow the path that we desire for ourselves. We have to recognize that virtue begins at home and that our desire to find fulfillment through our wider society is ultimately an impulse that has little role in social existence in a civilization.
Diamond, Jared. 2005. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: WW. Norton & Company.
Kauffman, Stuart. 1993. The Origins of Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1997. The Discourses and other early political writings. Trans. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1997. The Social Contract and other later political writings. Trans. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.