Escape 14: Promise me immortality and I’ll kiss your boots.
So how did we go from creating inequality just on the basis of personal qualities to what we have now? In present times, in lots of ways it isn’t even people who we bow down to it’s capital. That’s how abstracted from the original basis of inequality it’s become. Chapter 4 of EFE is called The Evolution of Inequality and that’s what it delivers. The next chapter brings us closer to the present, but for the moment we must stay with primitives for a while longer.
Once men consented to live by the redistribution of life’s goods through a god figure who represented life, they had sealed their fate. There was no stopping the process of the monopolization of life in the king’s hands.
Actually, this quote, although representative of part of the thesis of this chapter only reflects the trajectory in broad terms of the creation of ‘organized’ inequality and the development of classes. In early primitive societies there was a basic equality. Yes, some individuals were superior hunters and received prestige because of it but there was a mutual support system built into this arrangement. The gods provided life and the society provided prestige for the gods or their intermediaries, the priest-rulers who fancied themselves capable of harnessing the power of the sun to benefit the society in question. Early on there were people who commandeered the ritual techniques of manufacture and demanded that people followed them precisely or else death and destruction would follow. Most Indiana Jones movies are based on this kind of scenario. People weren’t necessarily happy about giving up some of their own power to the king or ruler, but they were willing to put up with a certain amount of tyranny if the harvests were good. If not, one consequence was often the violent deposition of the ruler. ‘You deliver, or else.’ Still things are never simple or straightforward everything considered: people like to be cajoled and seduced into following. They don’t want it to be simply a question of force.
…men will not give in to power unless it is accompanied by mystification, as in the service of something that has a grander aura of legitimacy, of symbolic compellingness. (p. 58)
So, eventually, after a period of thousands of years through the power of mystification and a good measure of coercion humankind moved from a simple system of sharing to one of redistribution by the ruler. Slowly, without noticing it, people bartered away social equality and some individual freedom for prosperity and order.
Once you went from an economy of simple sharing to one of redistribution, goods ceased to be your natural right. (p. 58)
Here Becker uses the potlatch as an example of a situation whereby economic activity and social morality began to be disconnected from each other. He calls the classic potlatch as practiced by the ‘Kwakiutl’ a redistribution ceremony pure and simple. Huge surpluses were gathered and concentrated in the hands of the chief without creating severe hardship for the people then redistributed. It created a situation where heroism and expiation could be exercised concurrently. The more goods one could give away or destroy the more heroic he would be and the more power could be accrued. Expiation came too because in giving away loads of goods, the chief atoned for the sin of accumulating the surplus in the first place. Now the invisible powers started to take a back seat to the more visible chief. Now we were witness to what Hocart calls the ‘growing conceit’ of man. Communal ritual now replaces the ritual importance of the family. The thing about the classic potlatch though was that it didn’t transcend the group. The modern ‘potlatch’ whereby Ted Turner gives the UN billions of dollars or public buildings are donated by the likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller or more tellingly, Telus, GM and Molson’s is good publicity but it’s giving but a tiny fraction of what was gotten by exploitation.