In Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, the Feasting Theory is summarized this way:
Brian Hayden…proposes that through the lure of feasts, with their free meals, delicacies, dances, exciting entertainment, and ambitious organizers, “triple A” personalities draw others into contractual agreements that generate debts and thereby confer social leverage. In other words, through competitive feasts, surpluses are produced and converted into wealth and power by enterprising individuals, creating social inequalities. He takes a step back in time and proposes that during the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods in resource-rich environments, triple A individuals manipulated relationships through competitive feasting in such a way as to dodge the leveling hammer of egalitarian ethos. This leads him to the proposal, supported by compelling evidence, that the need for certain amounts of rare delicacies for competitive feasts may have been a significant factor in the domestication of certain plants and animals, and thus may have given impetus to early agriculture.
T. Douglas Price summarizes the ideas as:
…Brian Hayden has…suggested that it is specifically the feasting aspects of rivalries between leaders that are the driving force behind food production. Hayden argues that highly competitive individuals, or “accumulators,” emerge in resource-rich communities and that these individuals used the competitive feast as a means for developing and enhancing their power and leadership through a series of alliance and debt relationships.
…Hayden discusses the transition to social inequality in terms of different pathways or stages. In this context he defines specific types of accumulators or aggrandizers as Despots, Reciprocators, and Entrepreneurs. These individuals are the focus of change. These types of leaders respectively define a sequence of intensifying social inequality and institutionalized power.
Despot communities witness an increase in warfare along with evidence of feasting. Several strategies are used to increase the power of the leader. Feasting is used to build alliances; compensation payments for inquiry or death are made to allies. Equivalent exchange and egalitarian relations are the ideal in these societies and differences in residence and wealth are , archaeologically speaking, not pronounced. The Despot is operative only in one or two realms such as warfare and production and a number of different leaders may be present in the community. The position of Despot is ephemeral and most often achieved. (p. 145)
Reciprocator communities are overly nonegalitarian and leaders compete within the community. Reciprocators are describe as wealthier, with more wives and larger social networks. Several new strategies for creating debts, surplus, and power include bridewealth, more elaborate feasts, and perhaps child growth payments. Hayden suggests that agriculture may have originated as a means for more intensive food production among Reciprocator organizations. (p. 145)
Entrepreneur groups are characterized by intensive food production. Loans and investments are the primary strategies that aggrandizers use to obtain wealth and power. Surplus is now used in competitive feasts to create contractual debt involving interest payments. Warfare is less important in such societies as it interferes with the generation of surplus and the exchange of wealth. Marriage also becomes a major conduit of wealth through bride payments. Entrepreneurs also try to consolidate various roles of leadership, including ritual, military, and financial. Entrepreneur communities have distinct patterns of status inheritance and represent clear situations of institutionalized inequality. (pp. 145-146)
Hayden himself summarizes the theory this way:
1. Under conditions of scarce, unreliable resources vulnerable to overexploitation, sharing becomes mandatory. This limits the development of prestige technologies as well as economically based competition; aggrandizive behavior is curtailed and proscribed.
2. As resources become more abundant, more reliable, and less vulnerable to overexploitation, private ownership and the use of surpluses for competition and prestige is tolerated as long as these activities do not adversely affect the subsistence prospects of other community members. These developments differentiate generalized from transegalitarian hunter-gatherers;
3. Every sizeable community has at least a few individuals with aggrandizive and competitive tendencies; and
4. Under varying conditions of surplus production, aggrandizive individuals use combinations of strategies to persuade other members to produce surpluses and to surrender some degree of control over the surpluses. These strategies include fomenting disputes with other communities to be settled by wealth payments; obtaining marriage and war allies through feasting; making reciprocal or interest-bearing loans of wealth; establishing wealth payments as part of marriages, increasing the value of marriageable children by expending wealth at their maturation events; and the formation of secret societies to create special relationships of political, economic, and supernatural support. (p. 124)
The feasting model of domestication posits that a range of technological innovations made it possible to produce surpluses on a relatively dependable basis in certain favorable environments, especially riparian, coastal, and cereal-rich habitats. These innovations included new fishing technologies (nets, weirs, fishhooks, leisters), mass seed-gathering and processing technologies involving crushing and boiling, similar mass nut processing strategies, and long-term storage technologies. The resulting surpluses, in turn, underwrote aggrandizer strategies that transformed egalitarian bands into transegalitarian complex hunter-gatherers replete with socioeconomic inequalities, hierarchies, and economically based competition in which feasting played a key role. Because feasting was based on surplus production, and because success in feasting conferred survival and reproductive benefits (in terms of surviving food shortfalls and obtaining military allies and marriage partners), powerful pressures were created to increase food production, especially of the most desirable foods and luxury foods used to impress guests. Since individuals were vying with each other to acquire mates or allies using surplus production, there could never be enough food produced. Lower-ranked individuals could always be expected to try to produce more in order to improve their chances of obtaining better allies or partners, no matter what the absolute level of production was.
2. The Tyranny of the Gift
Gift economies have often been portrayed as ones where everyone just gives freely with no expectation of return. The chiefs in such societies have been perceived as coming by their leadership role by virtue of a bottomless, almost irrational generosity, with every measure of wealth passing through their hands immediately being given away. This has been depicted as attaining maximum prestige through maximum generosity. Sometimes leaders gave so much away that they were left destitute! This led to the supposition that tribal leaders were not self-interested at all, and unalloyed altruism was the only motivation behind human behavior in so-called primitive societies.
Hayden argues that this perception is specious. Leaders are not actually being irrationally generous, he argues, rather they are shrewdly and cunningly manipulating the social environment, pursuing “investments” that they expect will pay off at some future date, even if they have to deal with temporary hardships to accomplish it. These “investments” are ultimately in the service of generating social prestige. Gifts are not open-handed generosity, but always come with strings attached, even if is unstated. Some leaders may seem poor, but that is because all of their income is immediately poured back into more investments, with which they hope to gain more status. The fact that some aggrandizers wound up destitute due to their “generosity” is not because of irrational altruism, he argues. Rather, just as some naive or inexperienced investors sink all their money into the stock market and wind up ruined, some Entrepreneurs similarly lose all their “investments” through some combination of bad luck or incompetence:
…Ultimately the generosity of aggrandizers is a calculated economic strategy meant to centralize control in their own hands and increase production. They operate like contemporary businessmen with recruitment expense accounts or job benefits calculated to attract skilled, productive employees and administrators. In biology, animal behaviorists have also recently emphasized the importance of costly “advertising”displays such as antlers in reproductive success. In all transegalitarian societies, most people are guided by their own self-interest, and aggrandizers will only be successful to the extent they can appeal to the self-interest of others and manipulate it for their own benefit. (FOI: 69)
…other social anthropologists express the view that the altruistic cultural imperative to be generous (in exchange for esteem) is so overpowering that it leads people to contravene their own material self-interest and become destitute (the traditional foil for economic rationalism and cultural materialism in traditional societies). Such claims are simply untenable in terms of ethnographic reality. As Mauss clearly recognized: “In theory gifts are voluntary, but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation…Prestations which are in theory voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, but are in fact obligatory and interested.” For him, transegalitarian gift-giving constituted an archaic form of contract, and wealth was primarily a means of controlling others. It is evident from all the previous ethnographic accounts that giving and feasting are indirect techniques of control and generating more wealth. Contrary to the statements of some social anthropologists, the mere act of giving wealth away by itself does not result in increased power for the giver. To be effective, wealth must be given away in contexts that generate recognized and binding obligations or other expected practical benefits.
These techniques do not work all the time any more than capitalist techniques of investment produce wealth in every business venture. Many modern businessmen experience repeated failures and bankruptcies. In both transegalitarian and capitalist societies, it is the promise, potential, and prospect of substantial increases in wealth that motivate people to spend and borrow. And transegalitarian aggrandizers and contemporary land or stock investors frequently live in reduced circumstances in order to reinvest all possible surpluses in wealth creation projects….However transegalitarian aggrandizers were no more assured of success than enterprising capitalists and many must have lost all their investments due to adverse circumstances or incompetence. Similarly, not everyone who invests in the stockmarket today can be said to understand the logic of the market;it would seem by some accounts…that not every individual who made investments in transegalitarian communities understood how aggrandizive strategies worked either. Thus, anecdotal examples of individuals who lost their wealth in giving potlatches hardly makes a convincing case for a cultural norm of generosity acting to override common sense and economical self-interest.(FSI pp. 69-70)
I began this series on feasting on American Thanksgiving, so it is fitting that I conclude it during the Christmas season, our very own modern version of competitive gift-giving and overproduction. Clearly, gift giving is meant to be both reciprocal and competitive. After all, who would continue to receive gifts while giving back nothing in return? It just “feels bad,” indicating that reciprocity is deeply hard-wired into our behavior.
Gifts are actually a way of demonstrating one’s superior social status over an inferior, especially a gift that cannot be easily repaid. Imagine if someone gave you a new sportscar for Christmas. You would certainly regard that person as “superior” and feel an obligation to that person, would you not?
Often times, the “gift” is a way of humiliating the opponent. The giver is elevated in status, and the receiver is lowered. Give enough gifts away, and everyone else is lowed in status before the efforts of the aggrandizing workaholic and his scheming accomplices. All of this is grounded in human primate social instincts. Producing surpluses as a marker of status, competition between individuals for prestige, and the use of debts and reciprocity to get people to work for you, are as much a part of primate social behavior as mating and grooming.
Howard Bloom particularly emphasizes the humiliation factor of gift exchange in The Lucifer Principle:
In many cultures…giving things to people is a way of humiliating them. It is a sneaky technique for drawing attention to the recipient’s lowliness on the hierarchical ladder. Take, for example, the “big men” of Melanesia and New Guinea. In the days before traditional practices were supplanted by Western ways, a young New Guinean would work like a maniac to raise himself in the eyes of his peers. He would strain feverishly to boost his yield of pigs, yams, and coconuts. He would recruit his wives, children, and relatives to join in the frantic race for agricultural productivity. If all went well, he would take the profits and plow them into building a men’s clubhouse. When the neighbors— pleased with the clubhouse food and entertainment—were sufficiently impressed, the struggling entrepreneur would ask them to join his growing army of pig, yam, and coconut growers.
The grand climax of the young man’s effort would come when he challenged a local “big man”—a high-placed figure revered for his powerful following. The contender would do it by inviting his older rival to attend a feast. At the grand dinner, the upstart would banquet the elder with a deluge of pork dishes, coconut pies, and sago almond puddings. The young man’s followers and those of the guest would count every dish of food that hit the table. If the mountain of delectables the rookie offered was large enough, the big man knew he was in serious trouble.
The elder would go home and spend the next year spurring his followers to new heights of productivity. Then he would invite the young challenger to a feast at his place. He, too, would heap the table with pies, roasts, and puddings. And, once again, the crowd would keep a breathless count, for if the older dignitary failed to lay on as rich a feast as the young man had the previous year, it would all be over. The venerable gentleman would be shamed. As he plunged down the ladder of prestige, his followers would desert him, and the callow whippersnapper who had mounted the challenge would leap dramatically upward in the pecking order. Now he would be the big man. In New Guinea, the man who could not give as much as he received earned only one reward—disgrace.
The New Guineans were not alone in regarding the giveaway as a technique for incurring humiliation. The Kwakiutl people of the Pacific Northwest were famed for their potlatches. In the potlatch, a Kwakiutl chief would invite a rival and his tribe over for a visit, then shower the guests with gifts. The greater the pile of presents, the more the guest would lose face, plummeting down the pecking order. Among the Kwakiutl, to give away goods is divine, but to accept them is less than human.
Even our recent ancestors were aware of generosity’s subversive power. medieval European aristocrats threw an annual feast and invited the peasants to stuff themselves. The ritual drove home the fact that the noble was on top and the peasants on the bottom. The Anglo-Saxon word for someone on the crest of a social heap—lord—was a testament to the put-down power of the handout. The word’s literal meaning: “loaf giver.
The role of the giveaway as a hierarchical weapon goes back to our cousins the chimpanzees. ..when one of these meat gourmets is lucky enough to kill a young gazelle or a baby baboon… females, children, and even his rivals crawl toward the hunter, lowering their eyes and stretching out their hands with palms upturned. They whimper, squirm, and cry.”Such is the power of generosity to elevate the giver and cast down those who receive. No wonder those on whom we lavish aid are not particularly fond of us.
The idea that giving stuff away is a way of humiliating and controlling another person is widely known among hunter-gatherers. Marvin Harris tells a story about the anthropologist Richard Lee. Lee wishes to repay the !Kung San Bushmen of the Kalahari he has been staying with for their generosity. He purchases an ox from local pastoralists for the Bushmen to slaughter and eat. Upon hearing of this, the Bushmen constantly disparage and denigrate his gift: “I know that ox, why, it is nothing but skin and bones!”; “You bought that worthless animal? Of course, we will eat it, but it won’t fill us up.” When the ox is finally slaughtered, it is full of meat and fat, and the Bushmen feast with gusto. Confused as to why they spent so much time crapping all over his gift when they clearly enjoyed it, he asks for an explanation. One Bushman tells him:
“Yes, of course we knew all along what the ox was really like,” one hunter admitted. “But when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We cannot accept this,” he went on. “We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” (CPWW: 125-126)
The strategies used by aggrandizers may seem diverse, but they all have one thing in common – they are all expressly designed to overwhelm equivalent exchange with debt/credit relationships. Once this was unleashed and the old restrictions on accumulating behavior fell before it, we began the process that led to big men, chiefs, kings, emperors, generals, presidents, and CEOs.
The Eskimo explained their fear of boastful and generous gift-givers with the proverb “Gifts make slaves just as whips make dogs.” And that is exactly what happened. In evolutionary perspective, the gift-givers first gave gifts that came from their own extra work; soon people found themselves working harder to reciprocate and to make it possible for the gift-givers to give them more gifts; eventually the gift-givers became very powerful, and they no longer needed to obey the rules of reciprocity. They could force people to pay taxes and to work for them without actually redistributing what was in their storehouses and palaces. Of course, as assorted modern big men and politicians occasionally recognize, it is still easier to get “slaves” to work for you if you give them an occasional big feast instead of whipping them all the time. (CPWW: 126)
If people like the Eskimo, Bushmen, and Semai understood the dangers of gift-giving, why did others permit the gift-givers to flourish? And why were big men permitted to get so puffed up that they could turn around and enslave the very people whose work made their glory possible…Competitive feasting and other forms of redistribution overwhelmed the primordial reliance on reciprocity when it became possible to increase the duration and intensity of work without inflicting irreversible damage upon the habitat’s carrying capacity. Typically this became possible when domesticated plants and animals were substituted for natural food resources. Within broad limits, the more work you put into planting and raising domesticated species, the more food you can produce. The only hitch is that people don’t usually work harder than they have to. Redistribution began to appear as people worked harder in order to maintain a reciprocal balance with prestige-hungry, overzealous producers. As the reciprocal exchanges became unbalanced, they became gifts; and as the gifts piled up, the gift-givers were rewarded with prestige and counter-gifts. Soon redistribution prevailed over reciprocity and highest prestige went to the most boastful, calculating gift-givers, who cajole, shamed, and ultimately forced everybody to work harder than the Bushman ever dreamed possible. (CPWW: 127-128)
Harris argues that this creates “prestige” and contrasts that with the old hunter gatherer regime where the landbase prevented the kinds of surpluses that would empower aggrandizers, and prestige went to the humble, self-effacing, generous leader:
Among the Bushmen, Stakhanovite personalities who would run about getting friends and relatives to work harder by promising them a big feast would constitute a definite menace to society. If he got his followers to work like the Kaoka [a South Pacific horticultural society] for a month, an aspiring Bushman big man would kill or scare off every game animal for miles around and starve his people to death before the end of the year. So reciprocity and not redistribution predominates among the Bushmen, and the highest prestige falls to the quietly dependable hunter who never boasts about his achievements and who avoids any hint that he is giving a gift when he divides up an animal he has killed. (CPWW: 127)
Just as bright, colorful plumage is a marker signalling evolutionary fitness in birds, it appears that producing surpluses of food and goods is a similar form of “signaling” one’s fitness in primates. We don’t display bright and colorful plumage like birds, or large antlers like deer; as big-brained social primates, displaying wealth is our form of “peacocking.” Even today conspicuous displays of wealth are commonly seen as a strategy to attract desirable mates, as the advertising industry knows and manipulates so well.
It’s likely that most primates would also produce large surpluses to attract females if they could, but they cannot. Only humans, with our big, social brains, can sufficiently manipulate our natural environment in order to produce these massive amounts of surpluses. This probably gave us a survival edge over the other species of humans who are now extinct. Thus, one could see surplus production as a sort of evolutionary behavior hard-wired into us. And that makes our subsequent history as a species make a lot more sense.
A great example of how this concept still underpins modern methods of acquiring social for power is illustrated by this anecdote featuring one of the greatest aggrandizers of modern times, President Lyndon B. Johnson:
In the 1940s, then Congressman Lyndon Johnson wanted to hire a promising young man named John Hicks to manage his successful radio station in Austin. Meeting late at night at a restaurant, Johnson gave the eager kid the kind of pitch that most of us dream of getting at some point in our lives.
“Johnny, I want you on my team,” Johnson said. There was more than that—he was prepared to be incredibly generous.
“I’m going to lend you ten thousand dollars. And I want you to take it and buy yourself a Cadillac car. And I want you to move to a better apartment. I want you to be somebody. Furnish the apartment. Get [your wife] a fur coat. I want you to to [join some local clubs] and be somebody here in Austin.”
This was an offer to someone making $75 a week, coming from one of the most powerful Congressman in the United States. This was said in a restaurant that should have been closed but not stayed open any time Johnson wanted to eat there. Here was a rich, powerful man making an offer that couldn’t, shouldn’t be refused.
But somehow, this kid, John Hicks, said no. Why? It had a lot to do with Johnson’s next words, according to Robert Caro.
Asked how he would ever expect to be paid back, Lyndon smiled and in his charming way said “Johnny, don’t worry about that. You let me worry about that.”
It’s interesting to see the levers of Johnson’s mind work. He wasn’t just selling a kid on a job, he wasn’t just trying to put him in debt either. He was trying to put him in debt while committing him to a number of very attractive lifestyle choices that are hard to ever walk away from. No ever moves to a crappier apartment by choice, no one ever wants to go back to not being someone.
Lyndon was a notoriously horrible boss—known for working employees almost like slaves, demanding complete and total subservience, utter and unquestioning loyalty. But he was also a brilliant, manipulative reader of people. To suck people in, he knew exactly what to do and say.
If You Don’t Take The Money, They Can’t Tell You What To Do (Thought Catalog)
And this was actually fairly innocuous signaling behavior for this particular silverback: Johnson was a dong-waving sex machine (Cracked.com)
3. How the Rich get Rich (and stay that way)
What really struck me reading this literature was how similar the methods of gaining and keeping power in transegalitarian societies are to those in our own transegalitarian culture.
I first had this realization when Hayden talked about how elites made “investments” in their offspring in order to “raise their value,” particularly as marriage partners. The identification of this behavior among America’s upper-class and aspiring upper-class parents is unmistakable. So-called “helicopter parents” spend outrageous sums to get their children into the “right” schools, sometimes putting them on waiting lists before they are even conceived! In Manhattan, even preschool can run tens of thousands of dollars per year if is “exclusive” enough. Then there are the “extracurriculars” that are now de rigeur for the children of the upper class – sports like swimming and tennis, horseback riding lessons, dance lessons, music lessons, summer camp, foreign languages and travel, volunteering, and getting private tutors for the all-important testocracy.
In New York City, it costs more to let a 3-year-old socialize with other 3-year-olds than it does to educate a college student. This is mind-blowing. And it’s not only about the cost. Let’s say that I was able to pay $1,100 a month to put my daughter in preschool. There’s a wait list to get her in. Certain nursery schools are as coveted as some of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges. For example, my 3-year-old daughter is currently on the wait list of at least three different preschools because there are no available slots for her. Should a place open up, these schools are more than happy to take my $1,100-$1,400 per month to teach my daughter how to share and build with blocks.
Elite children now have to be full-time applicants for the next round of exclusive schooling due to the unrelenting pressure placed on them in American “achievement culture.” These parents also spend outrageous sums on what Hayden called “maturation rituals” and “child growth payments” including birthdays, bar mitzvahs, high-school and college graduations, weddings, and baby showers. It follows that the more unequal the society, the more lavish and expensive these events become. In America, the sums of money spent on these things are staggering, and usually much higher than in more egalitarian Europe. Such expenditures serve no useful propose other than status differentiation. In India, with some of the worst wealth disparities on earth, one recent five-day wedding cost 5 billion rupees – an astonishing 74 million dollars!
…marriage became a primary sphere of exchange and for acquiring wealth. Not only were child growth payments elaborate, but children of elite families underwent prolonged and costly training for various roles…In some cases…[training]…could be very costly and last many years. The apparent motive behind this functionally unnecessary and costly elaboration of training was to increase the value of children …Thus, bridewealth increased considerably in Entrepreneur communities, and affinal relationships were sought for their economic value while establishing a biological family was often of only secondary importance…
Entrepreneurs could eventually maneuver themselves into positions where they could invest so much wealth in the growth payments for their children that only families of other…elites…could provide the requisite bridewealth. Even at the Entrepreneur level, the tendency for children of Entrepreneurs to marry the children of other Entrepreneurs is pronounced
Assortative Mating – It’s an unspoken rule that you can only marry within your class – bricklayers don’t marry doctors, and glamorous actresses don’t marry auto mechanics. When marriage happens, it creates an alliance between two families just as much now as back then, and if those families are not at least somewhat equal in wealth and status, a marriage will not happen, and even if it does, it is unlikely to succeed.
Assortative mating is the idea that people marry people like themselves, with similar education and earnings potential and the values and lifestyle that come with them. It was common in the early 20th century, dipped in the middle of the century and has sharply risen in recent years — a pattern that roughly mirrors income inequality in the United States, according to research by Robert Mare, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. People are now more likely to marry people with similar educational attainment — even after controlling for differences between men and women, like the fact that women were once less likely to attend college.
So-called “power couples” abound in modern day America. It’s difficult to find any member of the power elite whose spouse is not also a member. Bill and Hillary Clinton are one prominent example, but there are countless others, most of them unknown to the general public. Many elite marriages today are between graduates of Ivy league universities, which leads directly to the next point:
Functionally unnecessary and costly elaboration of training for highly specialized roles – can anyone think of a better description of American colleges and universities than that?? College is not about education – it doesn’t take four to six years of exclusively reading books and attending lectures to become a brain surgeon much less an architect, engineer, economist, or lawyer. No, college is all about maintaining exclusivity to the upper classes. Occasionally, you will get some people to admit that college is actually all about the “social experience”, meaning that from some reason we need to put 18-year-olds at least five figures into debt to socialize them properly, I guess. That’s a sad reflection on our society if that is truly the case.
The sponsorship of youths into secret societies or elite social institutions is another way in which the status of an individual can be reinforced. It is generally presumed that the possession of esoteric knowledge, which can be acquired through such organizations, is an important element in supporting and increasing social status in all societies. However, secret societies also played important roles in the creation of personal links involving wealth exchanges and political support. They were therefore another key strategy in attempts by ambitious individuals to restrict others’ access to power and to acquire power for themselves of their corporate group.
Prehistoric Rites of Passage, in JOURNAL OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARCHAEOLOGY ARTICLE NO. 16, 121 – 161 (1997)
Secret societies and elite social institutions. That includes everything from the Skull and Bones Society to the Bilderberg Group to the Rotarians. Clearly, “initiation” is a tool used by the elites to enhance their status relative to the rest of us, and as a way to grant only highly “selected” individuals access to the inner sanctums of power.
The final social mechanism through which the social position of a child or youth could be elevated in status and economic potential was through specialized training and education…one strategy for increasing the social value of a child was to expand on this general instruction, either by extending its length and severity or through training in specialized occupations…..We view this frequently extensive and esoteric training as one strategy used by aggrandizers to claim privileged control over resources and activities that were held in common among generalized hunter-gatherers…Among groups with ascribed status, high-ranking male children often received additional specialized administrative and esoteric instruction and were subjected to longer training periods than the general populous [sic]…The analysis of the training data suggest two different types of training in addition to the general education requirements received by community members: (1) male occupational specializations and (2) administrative and esoteric training of elites.
Occupational specializations and administrative training. M.D.’s. J.D.’s and M.B.A.s anyone? Clearly, undergoing extensive occupational specialization, such as that of an attorney, scientist, engineer, university professor or medical doctor are ways to achieve status and differentiate yourself in our society. These professionals are well compensated and gain high status by virtue of having exclusive knowledge of, for example, critical engineering or medical techniques. Attaining such intensive education is frequently the path to high status for many individuals. It’s notable that access to these professions in strictly rationed by various professional organizations. For example, the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association strictly limit the number of lawyers and doctors through extensive examinations and onerous licensing requirements. These professions set their own educational requirements and typically make them costly and onerous to limit access to people from wealthy and prominent families.
Displaying costly and difficult to obtain goods. – “Critical to displaying wealth and success was the ability of the host or hosts to procure, display, and give away difficult to obtain or specialized labor-intensive items.” If you went to someone’s house and they had a genuine Picasso hanging on the wall, what would you think? The reason rare artwork is so valuable is because they are our society’s “prestige items.” Rich people bid against each other to acquire them, and in era of extreme inequality the prices of such things escalate not due to any “market forces,” but simply because having them is desirable for status reasons. There are many such objects too numerous to list here – expensive watches, sportcars, jewelry, even comic books!
Image-building activities – Have you ever wondered why there is a “donor wall” on everything? Or why the rich people spend money donating to the symphony when it seems like they don’t even like art or music all that much? Elites know the importance of image-building, which is why they underwrite artists, just like the chiefs who retained specialized craftsmen. Our elites may not build temples like the kings of old, but they do fund our secular substitutes – “cultural” activities such as symphony orchestras and the theater, and the art museums which function as our secular “temples” where we display the quasi-mystical artifacts that define our culture, replacing religious relics in our “rational” post-Enlightenment society. Consider that ever-more lavish art museums are being built all over the world, funded primarily by the wealthy and corporations, yet these buildings serve no economic purpose! They have nothing to do with a profit-orientated society, so why, then, do we build them? For the same reasons the Egyptians built the Pyramids, the Mesopotamians built ziggurats and medieval people built Gothic cathedrals – as forms of cultural expression and identity. And, often times, just like a cathedral, these art museums become the critical building that defines a place in the modern world, such as the Louvre in Paris, the Guggenheim Bilbao, or even the art museum here in Milwaukee.
Segregation from the commoners in clubhouses and exclusive events – I’ve already talked about this, but there are million different ways the elites use “exclusive access” and “velvet ropes” to seclude themselves away from the “commoners,” from golf clubs to executive washrooms to gated communities.
Cultivating exclusive social networks
Elite members of transegalitarian societies created unusually long-distance networks based on kinship, ritual ties, and exchange relationships. Maintaining such networks entailed great expenditures and considerable time. In contrast, normal community members maintained, on average, much smaller and more local networks. Thus, elites would have had greater flexibility to cope with resource fluctuations.
The rich are rich thanks to their access to exclusive social networks of other rich people. The wealthy preach “rugged individualism” to the masses, but are always doing favors for each other and helping each other out. It’s all about social affiliation; for example, wealthy businessmen cultivate social ties with other people of the same “class” as they are in order to get special business deal and contracts, often negotiated on the golf course or in luxury sports boxes (see above).
Debt and interest payments
Getting something for nothing and getting other people to do ones’ producing for oneself have always been effective lures for getting people to enter into contractual agreements. For many people they are still irresistible, as modern-day advertisers and con artists who offer free gifts to their targets are well aware. These same lures operate in traditional societies, as is…apparent in [the] description of the moka system in New Guinea, and [the] descriptions of the potlatch among the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. All of these authors use modern economic terms such as “credit”, “investment”, and “interest” to describe these systems. They make explicit comparisons between these traditional “gift-giving” systems and modern economic practices of “high finance.” (p. 133)
Typically, the supplement or interest, expected on a loan is quite high, ranging from 50 percent to 100 percent, or even higher for risky loans. Given the inherently inflationary nature of these systems, families are frequently pushed to their maximum willingness to produce surpluses in order to avoid defaulting on debts. Defaulting can result in the rupture of relationships between families, clans, and communities, which carry important economic, political, martial, and defence consequences. These can be the form of outright retaliation or simply lack of support for important undertakings; few people would risk involvement with families that were obvious failures. (p. 133)
The use of surpluses to generate debt and interest repayments by the wealthy to control and manipulate the rest of society need not be elaborated further. One is referred to David Graebers Debt, the First 5000 Years.
Control over the means of production
It seems evident that the main goal of aggrandizers was to attract, control, and manipulate labor. To do this, aggrandizers had to provide tangible benefits…the generosity of aggrandizers is a calculated economic strategy meant to centralize control in their own hands and increase production. They operate like contemporary businessmen with recruitment expense accounts or job benefits calculated to attract skilled, productive employees and administrators…
Of course the rich are rich not through their own efforts, but because they control the labor of numerous others, from the handful of employees of a small business, to the the tens of thousands of employees all over the world working for a major corporation. Highly specialized experts such as engineers and scientists are retained by wealthy entrepreneurs, yet it is the entrepreneurs who ultimately profit from their labor. For example, the Koch Brothers’ wealth is predicated on ownership of their global corporation and the knowledge and technical expertise of thousands of individuals who work for it. Yet the fruits of this labor disproportionately accrue to the Koch Bothers themselves, who use it to further aggradnize themselves at the expense of society, all while claiming that they are wealthy exclusively through their own efforts.
4. Where Capitalism comes From
What’s all this stuff about feasting and gift-giving have to do with the modern world, anyway?
It’s no coincidence that Hayden calls his aggrandizing personalities “Entrepreneurs.” I’m sure you’ve noticed by now the similarities between the Triple-A personalities of the Stone Age tribes and the businessmen, bankers and CEOs who control our modern political/economic system. This is not lost on Brian Hayden:
…The same process is followed throughout the world even today. Elites are constantly developing desirable, labor-intensive or rare materials, including foods, to distinguish themselves from others and to provide motivation for participating in competitive organizations. Elites know that many people will compete to obtain the “best” that is available. Because these items are widely desired, other entrepreneurs are constantly seeking ways to make them available to more and more people, eventually developing technologies that substantially reduce costs. Thus aluminum, plastics, and complex industrial goods like automobiles all began as labor-intensive elite consumable items and became commonplace items as the technologies were refined. Similar developments can be seen with elite exotic food fads in contemporary society, and this undoubtedly occurred in prehistoric times, although at a much slower pace. (p. 143)
Competitive feasts are thus primarily mechanisms for converting surpluses in subsistence economies into wealth and power…Even in contemporary industrial society, promotion may depend in part on the display of competence and achievement through the holding of business or political dinner feasts with appropriate displays of prestige items and socially accepted self-aggrandizement. To the extent that such dinners or parties are used as criteria for promotion to desirable or powerful positions, they constitute competitive battlegrounds for Triple A personalities, and they can be considered as a special industrial type of competitive feast. (p. 144)
Neither was this lost on Marvin Harris:
…with the rise of capitalism in Western Europe, competitive acquisition of wealth once more became the fundamental criterion for big man status. Only in this case, the big men tried to take away each others’ wealth, and highest prestige and power went to the individual who managed to accumulate and hold onto the greatest fortune. During the early years of capitalism, highest prestige went to those who were richest but lived the most frugally. After their fortunes had become more secure, the capitalist upper-class resorted to grand-scale conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste in order to impress their rivals. They built grand mansions, dressed in exclusive finery, adorned themselves with huge jewels, and spoke contemptuously of the impoverished masses. Meanwhile, the middle and lower classes continued to award highest prestige to those who worked hardest, spent least, and soberly resisted all forms of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste. But as the growth of industrial capacity began to saturate the consumer market, the middle and lower classes had to be weaned away from their frugal habits. Advertising and mass media joined forces to induce the middle and lower classes to stop saving and to buy, consume, waste, destroy, or otherwise get rid of ever-larger quantities of goods and services. and so among middle-class status seekers, highest prestige now goes to the biggest and most conspicuous consumer. (CPWW: 128-129)
Here’s how I see the history. For thousands of years, since the birth of inequality in the distant past, kings and potentates have appealed to religious authority to justify their differential access to wealth and power. With the Enlightenment, all that was swept away. This was most likely due to the migrations to the New World, and the exploitation of its seemingly limitless resources.
The aristocrats whose ancestors may have worked the hardest and kept the least in the remote past now worked the least and kept the most, and people started to take notice. The decline of universal religious belief thanks to the Reformation and the rise of Enlightenment “rationalism” (which also contributed to the birth of science), caused people to increasingly question the social order. Nullius in verba–“take no ones word for it” was the motto of the Royal Society. No longer could the aristocrats appeal to religion and were swept away or became increasingly irrelevant.
At the same time, the new world envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers would be devoid of classes assigned at birth—no more hereditary princes and serfs; everyone would be equal. That is, ascribed status would vanish, only achieved status would matter. With the settlement of the Americas and the French Revolution in Europe, this seemed like a realistic possibility. One’s status would be determined by what one could accomplish with one’s own two hands and intelligence, rather than an accident of birth.
I would argue that in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, we once again entered another transegalitarian phase, strikingly similar to the Stone/Bronze Age world, except with steam engines and the resources of much of the “undeveloped” world at our disposal. Once again, overproduction and debt engineering would become the primary means to acquire status, wealth, and power, and the best minds of an age began to scheme once more.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what gave birth to what we now call capitalism. Except this time debts and investments were done in the interest of selling in “free” markets with the end goal of converting money into more money, and converting that money into social status, wealth, and power. The aggrandizers of the Stone Age are the precursors of today’s corporate titans, investors, entrepreneurs, CEO’s, executives, bankers, and so on. Just like their Stone Age counterparts, they are constantly scheming to profit, only this time in the markets rather than through feasting. Rather than piling up roast pork, coconuts, sago-almond puddings and racks full of yams, they piled up sugar, cotton, tobacco, spices, and eventually cars, refrigerators, computers, and cell phones.
They began by importing exotic and addictive foodstuffs into Europe—sugar, tobacco, cloves, pepper, tea, coffee, even opium! These substances were both useful and addictive, and could only be obtained through adventurous, buccaneering trade. This is very similar to the use of psychoactive substances by the aggrandizers back in the Stone Age—manipulating human appetites to gain wealth and prestige, except these aggrandizers were able to convert the entire Caribbean into sugar plantations staffed by slaves, for example. Introducing these substances into urban areas and getting people hooked on them once again became a method of attaining wealth and prestige and moving up the social hierarchy.
Then came industrial mass production. It began with the British Agricultural Revolution— ways to dramatically increase agricultural output. Then, Triple-A personalities reorganized labor in the factories spinning New World cotton into cloth for the global marketplace. First powered by water, and later by coal, the factories unleashed unparalleled material abundance, and the mechanization of production caused a radical reorganization of society. This vast overproduction was noted even by capitalism’s critics, including Karl Marx, who coined the tern capitalism to describe the system of investment and profit of what he termed capital. In Britain, numerous highly-skilled “tinkerers” constantly searched for new ways and means to increase output. Today we call this the Industrial Revolution. These processes fed on each other—more production gave rise to the means to increase production still further. The drive to understand the forces that lay behind this abundance helped further the rise of science–the steam engine gave birth to science rather than science giving birth to the steam engine.
Mass production took a major step up with the assembly line pioneered by stereotypical Triple-A personality Henry Ford, who once again reorganized labor, and now even high-tech goods such as automobiles and refrigerators could be put in the hands of ordinary people. Institutionalized science became enlisted in the unrelenting drive to increase production still further, and entrepreneurs constantly pursued new innovations in order to come up with new products to put in the marketplace in the service of their own profit and aggrandizement.
This behavior is fundamentally the same as that of the Big Man Entrepreneurs described by Hayden, perhaps not in specifics, but in kind. Investments are pursued that lead to profit. Some entrepreneurs succeed, while others fail. The entrepreneurs work ceaselessly night and day to increase production. They promote a stringent ethic of hard work and sacrifice (The Protestant Work Ethic). They strive to attract and retain the best labor–competent, hardworking, highly skilled individuals, and to lure such workers away from their rivals. They compete to outproduce their opponents, whom they hope to defeat and humiliate. They invest in image-building activities to promote themselves and advertise success (luxurious buildings, advertising, sponsorships, etc.). The “winners” of such competitions eventually drive all other players from the field.
It’s easier to understand the emergence of capitalism when you realize it is grounded in human social instincts and the drive for prestige. Capitalist greed and overproduction may seem irrational, but it not once you realize that it’s about production at all! Overproduction is just a means to an end – and the end is always social status. Nobody really “needs” all these goods and services. Rather, it is all about overwhelming reciprocity and getting everyone else into debt, requiring more growth to pay back the interest to the aggrandizers, like I said in my introduction. Just as there can never be enough food for feasts, there can never be enough production of goods. There must always be more, because all that matters is relative status, and relative status is not an absolute number; rather it comes from having more than the other guy. The impetus to generate growth to repay the aggrandizers is fundamentally the same now as it was then, and inevitably leads to the same results–overproduction, overwork and intensification.
Just as wealth was produced and then destroyed in the potlatch ceremonies of the Kwakiutl chiefs—conspicuous waste—our landfills pile up with garbage that we use and then throw away. Is the potlatch destruction of goods any more irrational than our throwaway culture and mountains of waste? Is capitalist greed any more illogical than producing goods to throw a big feast in order to climb the social ladder?
Have you wondered why people with billions of dollars keep trying to earn even more even though it is more than they can spend in a thousand lifetimes? That’s why–there is no absolute level of wealth that is “enough;” they simply need to have more than their opponents. You and I may see that as irrational, but the aggrandizers who claw their way to the top are the descendants of those who constantly sought to outproduce their rivals in the distant past and disproportionately passed along their genes, particularly in agricultural societies. Capitalist overproduction can therefore be seen as a fundamental primate instinct related to maximizing one’s social status and therefore their reproductive fitness.
Marvin Harris has a chapter on the origins of capitalism in his book, but this is one case where I strongly depart from his views. He argues that capitalism was caused by the freeing up of the productive classes from the being under the thumb of the greedy useless-eater political establishment, the “internal bureaus of plunder” who persistently stripped them of every morsel of their surplus in order to fund their lavish lifestyles. He writes:
I believe the secret of the “great leap forward” in productive effort was the release of ambitious individuals from political, social, and moral restraints on self-serving attempts to accumulate wealth. European entrepreneurs were the first people in the history of the world who could go about their business without worrying if some “internal bureau of plunder” was about to cut them down to size. Equally important, they could accumulate wealth without sharing it with friends and relatives who helped them get rich. Like “big men,” entrepreneurs accumulated wealth by making their followers–now called employees–work harder. But unlike Solomon Island mumis, entrepreneurs did not have to beg, cajole, and entice. Possessing capital, the entrepreneur could buy “help” and hire “hands” (plus backs, shoulders, feet, and brains). And the entrepreneur did not have to promise to give everything away at the next company picnic. Since his followers were not the “big man’s relatives or fellow villagers, it was easy for him to disregard their requests for a larger share of the product. Moreover, the helping hands-backs-shoulders-feet-brains had little choice in the matter. Deprived of access to lands and machines, the “help” could not work at all unless they accepted the legitimacy of the entrepreneur’s claim to “the meat and the fat.” The “help” assisted the entrepreneur not so they could all have a feast, but simply to keep from starving. In sum, the “big man” entrepreneur was free at last to regard the accumulation of capital as an obligation higher than the redistribution of wealth or the welfare of his followers. (C&K: 265-256)
But this is simply wrong. We now know that all of the institutions for capitalist growth were present as far back as the Middle Ages, and even earlier in many places and in many periods all over the world. And the idea that the rich had to give everything away is contradicted by history. Massive fortunes were accumulated by wealthy and powerful individuals in all ancient societies that we know of–Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, India, China, the Ottoman Empire, the Mongol Empire, and elsewhere, without worrying what anyone else thought. Hired labor goes back to ancient Babylonia. We’ve also seen that feasting was actually a means of acquiring power, and that the “gifts” were really investments, not open-handed generosity.
For example, recent data has suggested almost modern rates of growth in ancient Greece, where the economy was highly decentralized and private ownership was the norm. And Peter Vries has made the case that the “weak” state was far more true of China than of the Western European nations where capitalism was born. The notion that the productive classes were always and everywhere kept in a state of perpetual deference to an all-powerful bureaucracy in order to support a feckless rentier elite uninterested in economic growth and improvement in technique is an outdated one that has been thoroughly debunked by recent scholarship, as Gregory Clark points out:
The popular misconception of the preindustrial world is of a cowering mass of peasants ruled by a small, violent, and stupid upper class that extracted from them all surplus beyond what was needed for subsistence and so gave no incentives for trade, investment, or improvement in technology. These exclusive and moronic ruing classes were aided in their suppression of all enterprise and innovation by organized religions of stultifying orthodoxy, which punished all deviation from established practices as heretical….There may have been societies before 1800 that fit this popular stereotype. There were frequent attempts by religious authorities to impose fallacious dogmas about the natural world. But…as an explanation of the slow nontechnical advance of the world as a whole before 1800, the prevailing view makes no sense. It is maintained only by a contemporary variety of dogmatism–that of modern economics and its priestly cast [sic].
The central vision of modern economics, the key massage of Adam Smith and much of his followers, is that people are the same everywhere in their material preferences and aspirations. They behave differently only because of differences in incentives. Given the right incentives–low tax rates on earnings, security of property and of the person, free markets in goods and labor–growth is guaranteed. The long Malthusian night persisted because of the inability of all societies before 1800 to create such institutions. This vision permeates contemporary economics, from the practical councils of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to the theorists of university economics departments…In economic history…the Smithian vision is the dominant intellectual tradition. Indeed much of modern quantitative economic history has been a search for empirical confirmation of his vision of growth. These empirical studies of past societies, however, rather than confirming Smith’s hypothesis, systematically find that many early societies had all the prerequisites for economic growth, but no technological advance and hence no growth…(pp. 146-147)
…By 1200 societies such as England already had all of the institutional prerequisites for economic growth emphasized today by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These were indeed societies more highly incentivized than modern high-income economies: medieval citizens had more to gain from work and investment than their modern counterparts. Approached from the Smithian perspective, the puzzle is not why medieval England had no growth, but why today’s northern European countries, with their high tax rates and heavy social spending, do not suffer economic collapse. The institutions necessary for economic growth existed long before growth itself began.(FTA p. 10)
Rather, I would argue that capitalism was impossible before technological advances made it possible to drastically increase production in a short time frame. Wealth is not a means in itself, but always a means to an end – and that end is always social status. But in pre-market societies, social status was achieved not through possessing lots of money (since preindustrial societies were not market-based, as Karl Polanyi documents at length in The Great Transformation), but by ownership of land. A recurring theme in Moses Finley is that of the successful merchant making a pile of money and then using it to buy a villa and a title and retiring to the countryside to live the life of a gentleman. This causes no end of consternation among modern-day economists—”Stupid merchants, why didn’t you keep working harder and break through to capitalism!!!”
But this is a classic Flintstonization of history. Limited by the constraints of thermodynamics, and without the technological or material means to rapidly increase production, land ownership was controlling the means of production, since all wealth ultimately derived from what could be grown on the land via photosynthesis. In preindustrial societies, merchants did not increase production, they just moved goods around in space (as the Physiocrats argued). As Paul Colinvaux would point out, one way to deal with a stagnant society is through the creation of a caste system – people are rationed to their niches. In agricultural societies, land ownership was the highest niche, not buying and selling. Therefore, it is extremely logical in such a world to convert wealth into status by purchasing land, because land was what conveyed status. Landowners were the only people who cold vote, for example, and they filled all the important political offices, not the merchants. Thus, becoming a wealthy landowner was the main way of achieving prestige, and commercial activities were simply a means to that end. The economists’ mistake follows from their assumptions that economic behavior is is something wholly divorced from society, and that the “natural” human drive is to maximize wealth rather than to maximize social status.
By contrast, in market societies where literally everything can be bought and sold – including land and labor, it is access to capital–wealth which can be reinvested–which conveys status. This is typically in the form of money, so today’s status seekers strive to turn money into more money through investments and the sales of commodities (Marx’s M-C-M’), in order to maximize the amount of money the have, and therefore maximize their social status. In a world of rapid technological advance thanks to institutionalized science and the voyages of discovery and colonization, rapid growth was once again possible for the first time since the emergence of settled agriculture.
“Societies before the Industrial Revolution were dependent on the annual cycle of plant photosynthesis for both heat and mechanical energy. The quantity of energy available each year was therefore limited, and economic growth was necessarily constrained. In the Industrial Revolution, energy usage increased massively and output rose accordingly…What can, however, be asserted with confidence is that a necessary condition for the move from a world where growth was at best asymptotic to one in that it could be, at least for a period, exponential was dependent upon the discovery and exploitation of a vast reservoir of energy that had remained untapped in organic economies. Only by adding the products of plant photosynthesis accumulated over a geological age to the annual cycle of photosynthesis, which had previously been the source of almost all the energy available for human use, could the energy barrier that had constrained growth so severely in the past be overcome…”
Harris’s mistake is not understanding that Western Europe was the first “market society,” where markets became the chief organizing principle of society, rather than religious or kinship ties. Furthermore, it is the first one where Triple-A personalities could significantly increase production for sustained periods of time, because of the vast resources of the New World, and later fossil fuels. Centuries of technological advance during the medieval period could now be utilized for this purpose. In Robert Allen’s view, high wages in England led to the drive to substitute capital for labor.
Once again, debt, interest, and investments come to the fore. Constraints against usury which made sense in the thermodynamically-constrained agricultural world were relaxed, and then eliminated. The prime tactic of the status quest once again became hard work, overproduction, savings, investment, and debt engineering, just as in the previous transegalitarian phase. People once again mimicked the behavior of their Epipaleolithic ancestors. The wealth pouring into Europe from the New World led to the what economists call the Industrious Revolution in Northern Europe after 1600, and the advent of coal and the steam engine led to the Industrial Revolution. Triple-A personalities once again invested their time and effort into overproduction and invention in order to gain status. We know their names—Fugger, Arkwright, Owen, Boulton, Darby, Smeaton, Ford, etc. These are the people Adam Smith wrote about.
The Protestant Work Ethic lionized hard work and self denial, and Calvinism preached that the wealthy were favored by God. A new generation of Triple-A personalities took advantage of this new order to topple the land-owning aristocrats from their perch and replace them on the ladder of the social hierarchy. This long, protracted battle is what we call “Economic Liberalism” today. The aggrandizing producers eventually decisively won this battle, and used their newfound power to reshape society. They enclosed the common lands and removed the self-sufficiency of the peasants, allowing them to gain control over their labor and use it to build their fortunes. Market relations would now permeate all of society, sweeping away all that had come before, as Marx noted (“all that is sold melts into air…”). Social relations became replaced by monetary ones. They spread Markets all over the globe, often by force, using machine-based overproduction to destroy local economies and undermine self-sufficiency. They imposed taxes on people to put them into debt and thereby forced them to work in their fields and factories in order to acquire the money they needed to pay their taxes. They forced people to work harder than ever before. In this new world, they–the entrepreneurs–would be the ruling class. Wealth was power, and the wealthy would be the rulers. The world once again separated into classes, the workers and the owners, rather than aristocrats and commoners.
Fast-forward to today where, in many places, the rich rule either directly or indirectly. America, for example, is now a plutocracy–rule by the rich. The politicians must go hat-in-hand to the “job creators” and seek their support. The bankers now control the money supply and lure everyone else into debt. Or, sometimes, the rich simply seek office and rule directly as in our last presidential election.
Just as back then, this was accompanied by changes in the underlying social logic:
5. The Social Logic
Just like back then, the increasing power of entrepreneurs would have been justified by a number of alterations to the social logic. And just like then, religion would become pressed into service to justify the wealth and power of the elites. Except, in the post-Enlightenment era of rationalism and science, this new religion would have to use scientific principles and rationalism in order to justify the new social arrangements and inequality. We call this new religion economics, and its high priests economists. Note how the importance and prominence of economists and their arguments has risen exactly in tandem with rising inequality and the disappearance of social mobility.
The changes in the social logic are now commonly deployed to justify the grotesque and increasing inequality in our own transegalitarian society are probably the exact same ones as were deployed back in the Stone Age, viz:
We are all made better off through the aggrandizers’ efforts. The aggrandizers are portrayed as increasing production beyond what it otherwise would be. The increased production makes us all better off, goes the logic. Reining in the activities of the aggrandizers, or putting any brakes or limits whatsoever on their behavior will only make us all worse off in the long run, they argue. Their bottomless desire for wealth and power leads to a better world for all through the “trickle-down” effect. The investor class claims to have a unique ability to organize labor and “allocate capital” “We alone can do this,” they claim, and even argue that it is doing “God’s work.” It’s the doctrine of the “Invisible Hand” a concept whose religious origins should be obvious.
No doubt this was the logic of the Stone Age as well. The people who stumbled out of the clubhouse with full bellies after a night of feasting and fornicating no doubt would argue that the aggrandizers’ efforts made them quite well off indeed. What they didn’t realize is that they would now have to work harder then ever before thanks to the aggrandizers’ behavior. They were forging the very chains that would bind them.
How often do you hear this argument: “Corporations don’t rich through exploitation– You can’t get rich except by selling stuff that people want!!!” That is, the system constrains the behavior of corporations and makes them act in pro-social ways via the “invisible hand.” In my opinion, this is THE motive for allowing the aggrandizers to retain unlimited power. Not a day goes by when you don’t hear this rationalization somewhere. Here’s one randomly plucked from Reddit: “Free-market capitalism makes new wealthy people. Bill Gates was not born a billionaire. Mark Cuban was not born a billionaire.”
The reason this justification is so seductive is because there is a grain of truth in it. The aggrandizers’ efforts do raise the level of production above what it would normally be, and this can provide for temporarily better living standards in the short run, as Marvin Harris pointed out. Having a “safety net” thanks to overproduction no doubt helped early humans to survive – it may be one of the the reasons why we’re the only species of Homo sapiens left on the planet.
The problem with this is that even without the aggandizers efforts, the tribe could still produce everything it needed to survive, but it would get it without having to repay the aggrandizers by constantly working harder and producing more. Instead of letting the aggrandizers take control, people could theoretically produce what they needed cooperatively for themselves (as they did initially), rather than allow the aggrandizers to put everyone else in hock and convert this into despotic power. For example, we’ve seen a combination of corporations and banks essentially trap almost the entire nation in debt slavery. Entire nation-states are now controlled by a small group of wealthy bankers via debt payments. As Thomas Jefferson noted, banks are more dangerous than standing armies.
The wealthy work harder than everyone else–they deserve what they get!!!
This is another very popular one today. Our modern media is constantly touting the heroic work ethic of today’s business elites that would put Alexei Stakhanov to shame. Our executive/entrepreneurial class are portrayed as literally superhuman—working hundreds of hours per week, sleeping only a few hours a night, falling asleep at their desks or popping pills to stay awake, going for days without eating or subsisting on fast food and meal replacement powders, living at the office for weeks at a time, missing life events like weddings and funerals, even skipping the birth of their children—all in order to work more. Wall Street promotes a culture of superhuman overwork where employees have literally died at their desks and uses this as a way to justify their multi-million-dollar bonuses–bonuses which far dwarf the collective wages of every single minimum wage worker in America.
One of the most-read articles on the Wall Street Journal’s web site last week was a piece about how 4 a.m. — a time so ungodly there’s even a TED Talk about how surreal it is — has become the most productive hour for go-getters. Donald Trump has been endlessly knocking Hillary Clinton for sleeping (gasp!), calling out her lack of stamina as he brags about not needing much sleep and his former staffers say that vacations would “bore and perhaps scare” the GOP presidential nominee.
And then there is Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who said in a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek interview that she regularly pulled all nighters when she worked at Google and can judge a startup’s chances for success by whether people are working on the weekends. “Could you work 130 hours in a week?” Mayer said, referring to the value hard work played in Google’s success. “The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”
Stop touting the crazy hours you work-it helps no one (Washington Post)
This is no doubt a reaction to the extreme inequality of our present age. By constantly promoting the superhuman work ethic of Triple-A personalities in the media, it justifies their mind-boggling wealth and makes the commoners believe the rich “earned” every cent by dint of working longer and harder than the “lazy” commoners who are concerned with just getting by and wasting their valuable time on things like on sleeping and recreation.
Consider the words of this classic aggrandizer:
“I’m a strange man, an odd man,” [Shigenobu] Nagamori, 71, says in an interview from Nidec’s headquarters in Japan’s ancient capital, with his old prefabricated shed preserved in the building’s lobby 19 floors below. “I push against the grain.”…More than four decades into the job, he still works every day and vows to stay on in some capacity until 2030, his target for increasing annual revenue to 10 trillion yen from 1.2 trillion yen in the year ended March…
…Even in a nation renowned for devoted workers, the company stands out for its demands on employees. Meetings, Nagamori says, are held on weekends or after regular tasks are done. New staff are sometimes told to clean toilets, and taking days off is seen as lazy. Nagamori makes no apologies. “These days, if you tell people to put everything into their work, you’re soon dubbed a black company,” he says, referring to the Japanese term for firms that flout labor standards. “I have no problem saying that. If you don’t work, you lose. The only ones I can’t stand are layabouts.”
Nagamori decries what he sees as a lack of ambition in Japan. Too many young people are content with only “small happiness,” like going home to their children in the evening rather than working late to become their company’s next president, he says.
The Eccentric Billionaire Who Ignores Investors to Get Them Rich (Straits Times)
Compare that to a Siuai Big Man named Soni recounted by Harris:
That night, exhausted from weeks of feverish preparations, [Soni’s followers] talked about the rest they had earned now that the feast was over. But early the next morning they were awakened by the booming sound of wooden gongs being beaten in Soni’s clubhouse. A handful of sleepy people straggled over to see who was making all the noise. It was Soni, and this is what he told them:
“Hiding in your houses again; copulating day and night while there’s work to be done! why, if it were left up to you, you would spend the rest of your lives smelling yesterday’s pig. But I tell you yesterday’s feast was nothing. The next one will be really big.”
Clearly Soni (or rather his forefathers) is the literal and figurative ancestor of today’s capitalist entrepreneur and CEO. And we all dance to their tune.
Conversely, the poor are seen as lazy rather than unfortunate. Anybody undergoing hardship has only themselves to blame for not pursuing profitable investments, or not repaying their loans. The poor deserve their misfortune as surely as the rich do their wealth.
While no doubt there are some “ten times” workers who are far more productive than average, it simply beggars belief that anyone can “earn” thousands of times more than anyone else through “hard work” alone. For example, the three Wal-Mart heirs have more wealth than a city the size of Phoenix, Arizona. And twenty people have as much wealth as the lower half the entire American workforce! As Oxfam discovered, 83 people have as much wealth as the world poorest three and a half billion people. Can anyone believe this is simply he result of “working harder?” The answer for many people, apparently, is “yes.”
They are favored by the gods/God!
It may seem ridiculous to include this in our modern “rational” society, yet its clear that the rich are perceived by the average person as having some sort of supernatural power or ability, just as they were in stone age times. The rich are commonly portrayed in the media as preternaturally competent and intelligent, and not, for example, lucky or fortunate, even if their wealth is mostly inherited. For every successful business person there are hundreds of failures who were presumably less “gifted” entrepreneurs. This is seen as divine favor and not for what it is—survivorship bias.
It’s telling that the expression “rainmaker” is often used to denote someone who can make business deals happen through social connections, ascribing almost magical abilities to such people. Without the “rainmakers,” the thinking goes, any business would go under, as though the “rain” they make is somehow down to their very existence, and not through manipulating social connections (just like a tribal chief!). It’s telling that charisma, roughly means “touched by the gods.” I can tell you from conversations I’ve had with people that they see the rich as just having a certain magical “something” about them that they can’t describe that leads to their success. This, along with ideals of “hard work,” leads people to accept the extreme inequality of modern-day capitalism. It’s also notable that highly religious people seem to be much more accepting of extreme inequality, and the prevalence of religious beliefs are strongly correlated with levels of inequality both between nations and within them (as the U.S. demonstrates).
6. The Modern Religion
The modern “religion” used to justify the aggrandizing behavior of our elites is called economics. Just as the kings and chieftains of old supported a full-time priestly caste to rationalize their hold on power, today’s rich spend fortunes supporting economic institutions and paying generous salaries to a professional economist caste that disseminates pro-wealth propaganda to the masses. Thousands of economics classes in schools all over the world every single day repeat free-market dogma the way theology schools once taught the Bible.
Economic “science” is mainly simplistic libertarian propaganda clad in scientific drag in the service of justifying extreme wealth inequality and never-ending growth. It is non-falsifiable, and denies human nature insofar as it requires all people to be rationally-motivated calculating machines constantly seeking to increase pleasure and avoid pain (homo economicus). Work is seen as a disutility, and all players in the market are said to have perfect knowledge (i.e. omniscience). “Welfare economics” argues that money taken from the wealthy and given to the poor is wrong, since each derives the same amount of “utility” from such wealth. Consistent with the Enlightenment era, it obscures its shaky foundations and implicit assumptions not in the opaque, colorful language of theology but with fiendishly advanced mathematics. Just as the illiterate commoners were once kept in deference by the rituals of the Catholic Church, the average person today is prevented from criticizing economics by its use of the inscrutable mathematics that economists use to construct specious models that justify their foregone conclusions, all based on a foundation just as hypothetical as the existence of remote gods and ancestors.
One is not required to understand the Market, only to have “faith” in it, and to believe its ministrations will work out for the best in the long run. The Market is said to be “all-knowing”, and its workings are said to be beyond human comprehension, much like the unknowable “will” of the gods in past societies. The rich are entitled to rule, because toppling them from their perch would lead to “chaos,” similar to concepts of “unrule” in ancient Egypt and China. The nevereneding cycle of booms, busts, manias, and crashes are just part of the system, just like the floods, droughts and famines in times past, and nothing can be done about them, claim the economists, despite the fact that the Market is theoretically a human construct. Like the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific (another Marvin Harris chapter), the economic priesthood fiddles with interest rates and money creation to spur “growth” despite the fact that economists admit they have no real understanding as to its actual cause (hint: energy capture). The Market religion even has it’s own version of human sacrifice in the form of the unemployed, whom we are told are necessary victims in order to prevent the dreaded “inflation.”
A full critique of economic “science” is beyond the scope of this post, but this article is one of the best I’ve seen recently in describing the profession of economics vis a vis society:
The birth of domesticated agriculture and the birth of industrial capitalism are both based on the same fundamental primate social instincts–the quest for social prestige through competitive overproduction.
Initial inequalities become institutionalized over time when wealth becomes passed down through generations—dynastic wealth. The endgame is when people start falling into debt to the aggrandizers, and the debt becomes trans-generational too. The resulting inequality is then justified by subtle transformations in the social logic (either religious or otherwise) that take place over time. Creeping normalcy allows small changes to accumulate generation after generation—consider, for example, that levels of debt that would have been seen as outrageous just one generation ago are now seen as “normal,” and an Orwellian police state is just taken as a given even in Western democracies. The Law of Cumulative advantage magnifies this process over time. The transegalitarian arrangement of achieved status falls in the face of ascribed status when contestant growth can no longer be maintained, such as when the land became filled and intensification reached its upper limit. Or as when the environment gives way or fossil fuel extraction reaches it peak output.
I believe we’re in another transegalitarian phase now, and we’re about to enter an era of permanent lords and serfs (aka Neofeudalism). Hierarchy will once again be ascribed at birth. The world is full, and “innovation” is increasingly just intensification as more and more resources are brought to bear just to maintain the status quo. Thomas Piketty has shown that wealth is increasingly being derived from inheritance, not earnings. He points out that if the growth of stocks and investments is faster than the growth of the economy as a whole, earned wealth will be unable to compete with inherited wealth, leading to an ossified social order. He points out that the wealth of heiress Lilliane Bettancourt, who did nothing but inherit a fortune, grew as fast as that of software developer Bill Gates who started a company. Gates’ wealth increased just as much after he left Microsoft that when he worked as its founder and chairman. In other words, Bill Gates “earned” even more by being a professional billionaire as he did being a “hard-working” entrepreneur.
It’s often argued that people are constantly moving up and moving down the social ladder, but this is deceptive. In fact, the vast majority of people stay in the same class they are born into their whole lives. Social mobility is not as high as commonly believed. Even in the sclerotic caste systems of the ancient world, people still moved up and down the social ladder, contrary to popular belief. It’s just that it was very hard to do, and required extraordinary skills and luck, which few possessed. That’s once again where we’re headed. Gregory Clark has demonstrated that social mobility even over multiple generations is surprisingly static, even taking into account the past few centuries of economic growth.
The problem today is the same as it was back during the birth of agriculture–intensification always makes the average person worse off in the long run. This social logic is the reason we work longer hours than medieval peasants did in today’s fossil-fuel powered, highly automated world. We have so much abundance that we are constantly subjected to thousand of advertisements per day preying on our insecurities and our desire for status to get us to buy all the stuff we are producing. And yet we must live in this world to pay back the entrepreneurs who can never, even have enough, since it is a classic arms race with no endgame.
And the end of this game might be mutually assured destruction considering that our environment cannot take relentless overproduction and intensification forever and ever, even with the tools modern science at our disposal, any more than it could thousands of years ago. Eventually, it will hit a limit (which it almost certainly already has). We are destroying the very life-support systems of this planet in order to allow the aggrandizers to play their competitive status games. It’s time to rein them in, or like the elk whose antlers grew so big they could no longer escape their predators, we may go extinct due to success rather than failure.
Capitalism, then, is a system that is committed to an unbounded increase in production in the name of an unbounded increase in profits. Production, however, cannot be increased in an unbounded way. Freed from the restraints of despots and paupers, capitalist entrepreneurs still have to confront the restraints of nature. The profitability of production cannot expand indefinitely. Any increase in the quantity of soil, minerals, or plants put into a particular production process per unit of time constitutes intensification. It has been the burden of this book to show that intensification inevitably leads to declining efficiencies. That declining efficiencies have adverse effects upon the average standard of living cannot be doubted.
What must be made clear is that environmental depletions also lead to declining profits. This relationship is not easily understood because, according to the laws of supply and demand, scarcities lead to higher prices. Higher prices, however, tend to lower consumption per capita (the market symptom of declining living standards). Profits can be sustained temporarily if the drop in per capita consumption is compensated for by an expansion in total sales based on population growth or the conquest of international markets. But sooner or later the curve of rising prices caused by environmental depletions will begin to rise faster than the curve of rising consumption and the rate of profit must begin to fall.
The classic entrepreneurial response to a fall in the rate of profit is exactly the same as under any mode of production that has been overintensied. To compensate for environmental depletions and declining efficiencies (which manifest themselves as falling rates of profit), the entrepreneur seeks to lower the costs of production by introducing labor-saving machines. Although these machines require more capital and hence usually have higher start-up costs, they result in lowering the unit cost of the product.
Thus a system that is committed to perpetual intensification can survive only if it is equally committed to perpetual technological change. Its ability to maintain living standards depends on the outcome of a race between technological advance and the relentless deterioration of the conditions of production. Under the present circumstances, technology is about to lose that race. (C&K 266-267)
C&K: Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings.
CPWW: Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.
FTA: Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms.