The egalitarian past (and future?) of politics

Let’s say that politics is the formation and use of coalitions for determining matters of social concern within a group.

I was listening to a talk today about human evolution as a process of finding a cognitive niche by Andrew Whiten when he made two critically important points which, while I was aware of them abstractly, I’d never considered as points about the inherent character of politics.

  1. Among early hunter gatherers, we have strong evidence to believe that political coalitions were far more likely to be used to oppose the ascension of a person to a position of social dominance than support it. This is well known- there’s a tonne of research on counter-dominance strategies among hunter gatherers, and the point that most early hunter gatherer groups were politically egalitarian in addition to economic egalitarianism is well understood.
  2. Even among chimpanzees, some of the primary uses of coalitions include supporting the interest of groups of weaker individuals against a single stronger individual, and acting as king-makers, preventing a single male exercising absolute dominance.

It occurred to me that these days we generally view politics as a tool of the powerful, and yes, they are. In the very beginning though, we have reason to believe that politics was an innovation of those individually less powerful- the formation of coalitions to control charismatic or physically powerful individuals.

In other words, pervasive use of politics, was once a feature that separated us from certain other types of animals, making us far more egalitarian than, for example, chimps. Almost unimaginably, the very feature of our behaviour which made early societies so much more egalitarian than many other primates would one day enable certain individuals to possess billions of times more wealth than others.

Our challenge then is not just to explain why human societies have moved from the egalitarian to the inegalitarian (and in some cases, part of the way back again), but to explain why and how the primary use of politics was transformed from counter-power to power. How did the orientation of politics become inverted from its original use?

Reevaluating our conception of the origins of politics might enable us, as people concerned with a more egalitarian world, to relate to politics differently, and with less revulsion, viewing it most naturally as ‘our’ tool not theirs.

The alternative conception of politics has, after all, never quite gone away. Even today, leaders of human groups are required to at least pretend to rule in the common interest, a throwback inherent in the way political power is structured, as an exercise in the perceived interests of the many who form a coalition.

Trying to envisage a road to equity is a fearful task, but we shouldn’t be too afraid of that most maligned of tools, politics- ancient friend of the many, foe of the few.

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