Large Societies Are No Barrier To Egalitarianism

Since Professor Peter Turchin’s stance on hierarchical organization actually approximates anarchism’s, I didn’t address his critique of anarchism but will do so now as I feel it to be a fruitful exercise. So here’s why he believes that the anarchist goal “that our societies should dispense with the state and the ruling elites, and then everything will be right in the world”  amounts to no more than “a pipe dream”:

“The most productive way to think about hierarchy is that, first, it’s a general social law (sometimes known as the Iron Law of Oligarchy). Complex societies inevitably acquire hierarchies and elites (remember, the elites are the small proportion of population who concentrate the social power in their hands). But second, although we are stuck with hierarchies, they come in all kinds of flavors. There are good hierarchies, and there are bad hierarchies. The elites can behave either in a pro-social way, which benefits broad segments of the population. Or they can act in ways that only advance their own selfish interests. We, the 99 percent, collectively have a say in what kinds of elites we are going to have. At least, in principle. In practice, it may be difficult to generate concerted political action that could restrain elites to behave in pro-social ways. New developments in information and communication technologies may give us better tools for organizing and getting things done.” [Good Hierarchy, Bad Hierarchy]

“There are no known large-scale (say, a million or more members) society today or in history, which was not organized hierarchically. Think about it this way. There is no large-scale society that doesn’t have full-time administrators devoted to make it run smoothly. We all hate bureaucrats, but the truth is that we cannot live without a bureaucracy. The same is true for the elites. So, is it possible to dispense with the hierarchy (and bureaucracy) by going back to small-societies? In theory, yes. But, as I pointed out in my BBC interview, think of the consequences. Let’s say that we somehow manage to get a society of a few thousand to work on a purely egalitarian basis. Theoretically this is possible. But there are more than 7 billion people on this Earth. So dividing them into small-scale societies of a few thousand will produce at least a million of such societies! What’s going to happen next? One of them will decide to use violence to achieve its goals. Warfare will spread and eventually all societies will become warlike, because pacifist societies will be selected out (in other words, destroyed in competition with warlike neighbors). So, in the absence of an overarching political authority capable of restraining and punishing aggressors, we will inevitably end up with a war of all small-scale societies against all others.” [The Pipe Dream of Anarcho-Populism]

There can be no complex society without bureaucracy or elites? History doesn’t bear out this contention, as Peter Gelderloos’ writes in Worshiping Power:

Before colonization, the [Iroqouis] confederation was “characterized by a complicated and efficient system of organization of the society which functioned, however, without any bureaucratic government institutions, retaining its egalitarian traditions and having no pronounced hierarchies” … At its height (between 2600 and 1900 BCE), the civilization had a population of some five million people living in half a dozen cities—such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro—and over a thousand towns and villages. It made up a world system together with its trading partner, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Of these, the Indus Valley civilization was the largest. And in contrast to the other two, it was probably stateless. No solid evidence has been found of kings, priests, armies, temples, or palaces…If this is indeed a case of an anarchic society with a high population density, it might be possible that collectively (and violently) enforced social norms were in place, leading to a decentralized practice of killing authoritarian would-be leaders as well as people engaging in behaviors perceived as anti-social such as murder, rape, or theft…Constituting another achievement for statelessness, the Indus Valley civilization was in many ways the most technologically advanced of the ancient world, they distributed their wealth in a relatively equal manner, and evidently they did not resort to slavery, religion, or aggressive warfare.”

As for Turchin pointing out that decentralization would create scads of societies, well, aren’t there already millions of cities and towns? Don’t these already constitute small-scale societies? They are currently joined together artificially to make a colossal social network by states but such a union could and would remain under anarchism—just reconstructed from the bottom-up. Communities would freely federate with one another because the whole point of political decentralization is autonomy, not isolation. Also, who said anarchist societies would be pacifist or tolerate any resurgence of archism? Errico Malatesta found it risible for opponents of anarchist to think “that anarchists, in the name of their principles, would wish to see that strange freedom respected which violates and destroys the freedom and life of others. They seem almost to believe that after having brought down government and private property we would allow both to be quietly built up again, because of respect for the freedom of those who might feel the need to be rulers and property owners. A truly curious way of interpreting our ideas.” You wouldn’t need coercive political authority to suppress any aspiring authoritarians within a society or defeat external, archist aggressors but rather a culture of anarchist egalitarianism—i.e. an even stronger version of the hunter-gatherer’s culture of egalitarianism. In all, I’d say it’s completely feasible for societies to have both complex, large-scale societies and egalitarianism if there is a culture of what anthropologist Christopher Boehm labeled “reverse dominance.”

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