Thursday, June 17, 2021


 I find this Aeon article by Kim Sterelny, on the origin of social inequality, to be utterly baffling. The 'egalitarian' society is represented by mobile foragers who (as the article explicitly notes) consist of tiny groups. This equality is slowly disrupted by the development of clans (i.e., extensive families acting as such) and skill specialization. These are, Sterelny says, "scaffolds of inequality", which begins to accelerate once people start settling down into villages and begin storing food.

One would expect from this the obvious conclusion: it is not really possible for us to have an egalitarian society anymore, because the only known cases require tiny mobile populations who don't specialize heavily, don't store food, and don't closely cooperate on a large scale. And that indeed seems to be the conclusion, with a bit of a crude tone-down thrown out at the very end: maybe, maybe, new "social technologies" can mitigate inequality, a hope that seems rather tenuous given that the article also explicitly notes that they are currently being used by people in power to surveil and control everyone else.

Sterelny's article, which is much more speculative in character than the author sometimes makes it sound, makes a common error by assuming 'equality' to be univocal, in this case across no less than three hundred thousand years. Mobile foragers are not 'equal' in any political or social sense that we would normally recognize, although one can identify things in which they would themselves recognize that they make no differences between people or groups. Stable farm-village life changes entirely what kind of 'equality' is even on the table. Market cities change it yet again. Nation-states change it again. The point is not that you can't identify ways in which one form has equality that you don't find in other forms; it's that you can do this for every form and all the kinds of equality are different. You have to have measurable wealth even to have a notion of relative equality in wealth; you have to have a society with a conception of juridical rights to have one in which everyone has equality in right before the law; equality and inequality in a feudal society simply do not mean the same thing as equality and inequality in a consumerist society. Equality and inequality are a matter of how people are related to each other; make a significant change in how people can be related to each other and you change what is relevant to discussion of equality and inequality. Sterelny is not describing changes in how egalitarian a society is; he's just describing changes in the form the society takes.

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