For five-thousand years human civilization has been about a small privileged elite mostly directing the activity of the rest of us. The bankruptcy of this approach to human society, if not evident previously, became brutally so in the 20th Century when some of the most “advanced” countries on Earth sent millions of their young people to slaughter each other for national pride and systematically exterminated millions of other people simply attempting to live their lives in peace.
Better late than never, there is a more egalitarian approach to human civilization that we have to date only seen small glimpses of. In the vision of great thinkers like Isaiah, Laozi, Gautama Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Michael Servetus, Mikhail Bakunin, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Emma Goldman, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Aung San Suu Kyi. In the consensus governance practices of the Quakers and the Iroquois. In the egalitarian societies of Scandinavia and the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Some of the key principles of this revised approach to civilization beyond control and conformity include…
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For nearly 200,000 years our human species (homo sapiens) lived on this bountiful planet in what most anthropologists now believe were mostly small egalitarian bands or tribes of hunter-gatherers, less than a million people scattered about Earth’s various habitable environs living for the most part peacefully with each other and within the larger web of nature. Each autonomous group might be as few as 10 to as many as 100 people generally woven together by a web of kinship with a basic equality among members including between men and women. It is generally believed today that all told, these people lived good lives in harmony with nature and were anything but the conventional pejorative notion of “savages”.
Unlike the tribal “chiefs” we are familiar with in contemporary indigenous societies, most bands of hunter-gatherers are believed to have operated without permanent leaders, with various community members taking initiative based on their expertise in the particular task being performed. Think more the informal organization of a contemporary large extended family or a group of people on a field or camping trip rather than a highly stratified hierarchy of decision making. The fact that this organization of our species evolved naturally and continued for nearly 200,000 years mostly unchanged speaks to its efficacy and compatibility with innate human nature.
What I’m really wrestling with these days is the most recent 5000 to 10,000 years of our history, specifically our experiment with “civilization”, which seems to have been quite a mixed bag. In an effort to see what lies beyond and maybe even evolve beyond our nature, we created complex human societies where we all participate (some willingly but many coerced) as a sort of super-organism that has been able to explore and take control of virtually all of our planet’s territory and natural resources, compile an edifice of knowledge now almost universally available through the Internet, and take at least the first baby steps to explore beyond the friendly confines of our planet. A super-organism mimicking a purely biological organism which has a certain small portion of that organism dedicated to its control and executive function.
At its best this experiment with civilization has created a world that currently allows seven billion unique souls to inhabit it at the same time, share an incarnation on a beautiful planet, and share ever more connectedness with (through diminishing degrees of separation from) each other.
But the downside is that we have created complex societies and institutions within those societies which as designed require a controlling elite executing that executive function in a way that generally favors that subset of people at the expense of the rest of us participating in the super-organism. This privilege of a controlling elite may or may not have been an aspect of previous human hunter-gatherer societies, but it continues to be a foundational cog of our “civilization” approach to human society.
What’s a species to do?
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This is a follow-up on my previous piece, “From Civilization to a Circle of Equals”, where I put forward a view that human civilization, since its flowering 5000 years ago with the invention of literacy, appears to have been built around the control of the majority of people within its purview by a minority elite. This piece focuses on some of the specific mechanisms of control, some developed in ancient times but continuing today, and others that are more recent “innovations”.
I think it is critical that progressive people understand this history and these continuing mechanisms of control, so we have more of a chance to rise above these manipulations by controlling elites. It is equally critical that we avoid advocating for these manipulations ourselves, in our efforts to create a more egalitarian narrative for human society going forward into the future. Control, even by the forces of egalitarian ends, is still control, and diminishes the natural human spirit to control ones own destiny.
So here’s my list of such mechanisms, certainly not a comprehensive one, but some of the obvious bigees and a few others you might not have thought of.
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